The album was released in May 1941, at a time when World War II was raging but the United States remained neutral. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were still at peace, as provided by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. American Communists and "fellow travelers", including the Almanacs, followed the anti-interventionist stance dictated by the Soviet Union through the Comintern, which accounts for the appearance of anti-war songs on the album. However, on June 22, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Almanacs changed direction and began agitating for U.S. intervention in Europe. Songs for John Doe was quickly pulled from distribution, and those who had already purchased copies were asked to return them. After the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, in February 1942 the Almanacs went into the studio to record a set of songs supporting the American war effort. The new political line was evident on the group's 1942 album, Dear Mr. President.
For the album, six masters were recorded in a two- or three-hour session. "'C' For Conscription" and "Washington Breakdown" were recorded as a single take.