WORLD WAR II: The “Good War”

“There never was a good war or a bad peace”—Franklin


The 20th Century was the bloodiest century in the history of the world. During that 100-year span governments waged wars that slaughtered at least 150 million of our fellow human beings.  During that century America became a formidable adversary on the battlefield, and contributed heavily to the toll of those killed.  When the United States entered World War I, the nation moved to the center of the world stage and has remained there ever since. True, American isolationism in the 1930s took the U.S. out of the action, so to speak, as troubling events unfolded both in Europe and in Asia. Indeed, America has at times been accused of having its head in the sand when it comes to the rest of the world.  We have also at times been accused of being incorrigible meddlers in the affairs of others, always trying to act as “the world's policeman.” In 1939 when war broke out in Europe, many Americans were convinced that it was none of their affair. An “America First” movement aimed at preventing the United States from becoming involved began and gained many supporters until the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

As America still struggled to work its way out of the Great Depression, Europe and Asia began to feel the forces of fascist, militaristic and aggressive powers—the Axis of Germany, Italy and Japan.  Despite the growing dangers, many Americans, disillusioned by the outcome of World War I, convinced that wars in other parts of the world were none of their business, and fearful of losing what economic progress they were making, adhered to a strong isolationist position.  “Let them stew in their own juice,” was a common saying. Thus, when war broke out in Asia in 1937 and in Europe in 1939, America stayed on the sidelines. A widespread movement known as "America First" insisted that the nation stay there. Groups like “America First” resisted every attempt by President Roosevelt to prepare the nation for war and assist our allies, even after Hitler’s Germany had conquered much of western Europe.

When war broke out in Europe in September 1939, Roosevelt began to walk a fine line between aiding Great Britain, which by the summer of 1940 stood virtually alone against the Nazis, and keeping his political adversaries at bay.  His position was complicated by his willingness to run for an unprecedented third term in 1940.  By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl harbor in December 1941, America was already virtually at war with Germany in the Atlantic.  The evils of Nazi Germany were beginning to show, and “fortress America” seemed vulnerable to growing German power.  Even as the Japanese fleet was crossing the Pacific to attack Pearl Harbor, American sailors were being killed while fighting German U-boats in the Atlantic.  Thus Pearl Harbor was seen by some as a release from tension, an earth-shaking event which clarified the picture and removed most doubts about America’s necessary course.  By the time the war was over, about 15 million Americans had served in the armed forces, including around 800,000 women.  Some 400,000 were killed, and tens of thousands more became prisoners or were wounded.

World War II transformed the United States from a strong industrial nation into the world’s first superpower. In 1945 America was the only major nation undamaged by the ravages of aerial bombardment and ground combat. For every American who died in the war, 50 Russians died. American industry, undamaged, quickly retooled from wartime production to become the world's greatest producer of manufactured goods and agricultural produce. America stood “astride the world like a colossus.” The Cold War, which had already begun to take shape, soon changed all that, but for a time, America stood alone. The “American century” was at its high point.

America Enters the War

Although Japan was geographically and diplomatically farther from the United States then Europe, given America's long history of interaction between Great Britain and France, the Japanese nevertheless provoked the United States. In nineteen thirty-seven the Japanese deliberately sank an American gunboat the Panay in Chinese waters. The United States protested the action, and the Japanese apologized and offered to pay indemnities to the families of those who were killed. Meanwhile the Japanese war against China intensified. The year 1937 was also the year of the rape of Nanking, although the atrocities that took place did not become widely known elsewhere in the world until later.

Once the war began, the threat to United States safety and security, while remote, grew as events unfolded in Europe. In August 1939 German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop engineered a Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin, clearing the way for German invasion of Poland. Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels mounted a virulent, lengthy anti-Polish propaganda campaign, full of degrading anti-Polish ethnic rhetoric, and the SS concocted a phony incident along the German-Polish border. On September 1, 1939, the German Wehrmacht rolled across the Polish border and demonstrated to the world for the first time the tactics that would become known as Blitzkrieg. World War II in Europe had begun.

On September 3 France and Great Britain declared war on Germany, but the campaign in Poland was over in a matter of weeks, long before France or Great Britain were capable of any kind of military action. While the Russians were taking advantage of their pact with Hitler to invade Finland, which held out until March 1940, the rest of the war came to a halt. During the winter of 1939–40 the war was called a phony war or “Sitzkrieg,” as nothing of any significance happened aside from the SS beginning its ethnic cleansing of Warsaw and the rest of Poland.

1940. In the spring of 1940 Hitler invaded Denmark, Norway, and Netherlands. Then his army rolled through Belgium and flanked the French Maginot Line, a defensive wall built at the cost of millions of francs per mile, and France capitulated in six weeks. Hitler accepted the French surrender in the very same spot on which Germany had surrendered in 1918, after which he did a gleeful little jig, reveling in his moment of revenge. While Germany was attacking France, Italy declared war on France, causing President Roosevelt to claim, “On this tenth day of June, 1940, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.”

By nineteen forty the United States population was over one hundred and thirty million. In April of that year Germany overran Denmark in one day, and conquered Norway within only a month. Elsewhere on the European continent the Netherlands, Belgium and France fell quickly as well. Thousands of British and French soldiers were saved by the miracle of Dunkirk and evacuated back to England. By June 22 the French had capitulated and Great Britain stood alone. Prime Minister Winston Churchill face the future with them resolution as he looked to the United States for help.

In nineteen forty United States Institute of the first ever peacetime draft and began intensively rearming the armed forces. President Roosevelt called for increased military expenditures and sent outdated military equipment including World War I destroyers to Great Britain. In the month of June alone forty-three million dollars worth of military equipment was sent to England.

In June 1940 President Roosevelt named Republicans Henry Stimson and Frank Knox as secretary of war and secretary of the Navy, showing a bipartisan spirit of cooperation in the face of the growing crisis. Nevertheless the internationalist isolationist debate continued, and many clubs and organizations urged American noninvolvement despite what was going on in Europe. As the war grew more intense, however, and radio reports from England during the blitz of London reached the people, public opinion tended to move ahead faster than the president, perhaps because he was overly concerned with isolationist like Charles Lindbergh.

President Roosevelt ran for a third term in nineteen forty, and in bidding to become the first third term president, he became an issue himself. Considerable isolationist sentiment existed among Republican, but there were no Democratic challengers to the president, who was known as the man above the fray. He made yet another speech during the campaign: "I have said it before, and I will say it I gained and again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent to fight and any foreign wars." Needless to say, Pearl Harbor changed that position instantly.

Although President Roosevelt's margin of victory was not the landslide of nineteen thirty-six, he still carried the electoral college by a margin of 499-82, winning 55% of the popular vote. The winning epithet seem to be, "don't switch horses in the middle of the stream." Also favoring his positions was the fact that new deal programs were very popular. Republican candidate Wendell Wilkie, himself a former Democrat, was too close to FDR on most issues to draw much distinction with the incumbent president.

During the summer and autumn of nineteen forty, the battle of Britain was fought, and the courageous pilots of the RAF maintain control of the skies over England and the English Channel, preventing the potential German invasion from taking place.

Hitler’s Plan for Great Britain: Operation Seelöwe (Sea Lion). With France occupied and the French Vichy government more or less in collaboration with Germany, Hitler now stood “astride the European continent like a colossus.” Neutral Spain was friendly to Germany, and neutral Sweden was no threat. Soviet Russia was engaged with the Finns, and Hitler now turned his attention to Great Britain, which battle of britainhad not been successfully invaded since the Norman conquest of 1066. To accomplish the feat Germany would have to achieve air control over the English Channel, and Hitler ordered Göring to use the Luftwaffe to prepare the way. The resulting air war became known as the Battle of Britain, which was won by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and about which Winston Churchill later said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

(Left: British Spitfire aircraft, heroes of the great air war over England.)

Infuriated by the failure of his invasion plan and determined to break the British will, Hitler ordered a bombing campaign that was known as the “Blitz of London,” and German bombers rained destruction on British cities night after night during the winter of 1940–41.

Operation Barbarossa: Hitler Invades Russia. In June 1941 Hitler, still frustrated by his failure to conquer Great Britain, turned his wrath against his former partner, the Soviet Union, his fatal mistake. (Napoleon had made the same miscalculation in 1812.) Hitler felt that the Soviet Union was hampered by internal weaknesses of the communist system. He was aided by the fact that even when intelligence reports reached Premier Stalin that an invasion was imminent, Stalin apparently did not believe them and failed to mobilize the Soviet army.

Over four million German troops with thousands of tanks and guns crossed the line of departure of June 22. German Panzer units with air support initially drove deep into the heart of Russia, reaching the outskirts of Moscow. The Soviets launched a counteroffensive in December in what was the largest battle with the greatest number of combatants ever fought anywhere. Hitler’s hopes for a quick victory were smashed, and the Russian winter and the huge Soviet Army ultimately proved be too much for Hitler’s Wehrmacht. With the loss of an army of 600,000 men at Stalingrad in late 1942 through early 1943, the tide in Europe turned, and the huge Russian army, supplied heavily by American industry, began to drive the Germans off Russian soil and back toward Berlin. Stalingrad was the great turning point of the war in Europe.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor, the “day of infamy,” the United States immediately declared war on Japan.  The question then became, what about Germany?  Germany, Italy, and Japan had concluded an agreement, the Tripartite Pact, in 1940, which was called the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis.  The pact did not require Germany to enter a war started by Japan, which, of course ,happened with Pearl Harbor.  Nevertheless, it was clear that Germany and Japan saw themselves having a common enemy, and thus Hitler declared war on the United States.  As a result, the United States found itself confronted with a two-front war—facing two powerful enemies, both of whom had been honing their war-making skills for several years.  Because the Japanese also attacked British possessions in Asia, America and Great Britain shared two common enemies.

A 2001 book, The New Dealers’ War by Thomas Fleming, goes into reasons for the German war declaration in detail.  Fleming claims that President Roosevelt manipulated Germany into declaring war on the United States, which Germany did on December 11, 1941, three days after the United States declared war on Japan.  Fleming lays out the scenario on pages 30–36 of his book.  The situation was that Hitler had his hands full with Russia and did not want to force the Unites States into the war.  But Japan urged Germany to join in, and Winston Churchill also wanted the United States in to take pressure off Great Britain, who by then stood all alone on the western front after France surrendered in 1940.  Fleming writes:

“On December 9, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt made a radio address to the nation that is seldom mentioned in the history books.  It accused Hitler of urging Japan to attack the United States. 'We know that Germany and Japan are conducting their military and naval operations with a joint plan,' Roosevelt declared.  'Germany and Italy consider themselves at war with the United States without even bothering about a formal declaration.'  This was anything but the case, and Roosevelt knew it.  He was trying to bait Hitler into declaring war, or, failing that, persuade the American people to support an American declaration of war on the two European fascist powers.”  (Fleming, The New Dealers’ War, Basic Books, 2001, p. 34)

In any case, Germany did declare war.  Now the United States was in all the way.  As a continuation of the Great War, perhaps WWII really was, as President Woodrow Wilson had hoped in 1917, a “war to end all wars.”  Although for a time after 1945 many in the world contemplated the possibility of World War III, that has not occurred, at least not yet.

The Lion and the Eagle.  Cooperation between the United States and her British allies was intensive and very effective throughout World War II.  Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had met in August 1941 in Newfoundland and agreed upon what became known as the “Atlantic Charter.”  Although it was merely a policy statement, the two leaders understood that they had common interests in continuing what Woodrow Wilson had called a war to save democracy.  With Japan in control of much of the Far East and Germany in control of most of Europe, the United States and Great Britain were indeed the only two great democracies left fighting against the Axis.

hitler mussolini tojoFaced with a two-front war against Germany and Italy in Europe and Japan in the Pacific, the United States and Great Britain quickly concluded that Germany was the greater threat to the survival of humanity. Thus the two nations adopted a “Germany first” policy.  In general that strategy was followed, although the Japanese forced the United States to change its priorities when they occupied the island of Guadalcanal in 1942, a location from which they could harass all U.S. shipping being used to build up American forces in Australia, the allied base of operations for the war against Japan.

Thus in August 1942 U.S. Marines went ashore at Guadalcanal and fought a long, bloody six-month campaign to gain control of the island.  General MacArthur was in command of army troops in Australia, and Admiral Chester Nimitz commanded navy, marine, and army units in the Central Pacific.  Soon MacArthur and Nimitz began a two-pronged assault upon Japan that consisted of a series of amphibious operations along the coastline of Indonesia and through the island chains of the Pacific.  Marines and soldiers paid a high price in their battles against the Japanese, who had been digging defensive positions in those islands for almost twenty years.

The turning point in the Pacific war occurred early at the two naval battles of Coral Sea and Midway.  As mentioned earlier, U.S. aircraft carriers had been lucky enough to escape the attack at Pearl Harbor, and when the Pacific Fleet discovered the Japanese moving toward Wake Island, they set out to meet them, and those two epic battles took place.  These were historic encounters in that the two fleets were never within sight of each other but fought only with the aircraft from their carriers.  By the end of the Battle of Midway, the Japanese had lost four aircraft carriers, and her dominance of Pacific waters was severely threatened.

From 1943 through most of 1945, the Americans and Japanese slugged it out on island after island and along the coast of Indonesia until General MacArthur was eventually able to recapture the Philippine Islands.  In early 1945 marines and soldiers took Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the last stepping-off spot before a planned invasion of Japan was to take place.

Meanwhile the American army, trained but untested in combat, was not prepared to launch an attack directly on the European mainland in 1942.  With Lieutenant General Dwight Eisenhower in command, the first American offensive action in the Europe Theater was Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa.  Initially facing the armored divisions of Field Marshal Rommel, the Americans were beaten up pretty badly.  But under the leadership of generals such as George Patton and Omar Bradley, American soldiers soon found their fighting spirit, and with the help of the British under Field Marshal Montgomery, began to roll back the Germans in North Africa.

The next logical step was for Americans to cross the Mediterranean along with the British and capture the Island of Sicily, which was done with all dispatch.  From there the next assault took place on the boot of Italy and the beaches of Anzio and Salerno.  The Italian campaign proved to be extremely difficult for two reasons.  First, the mountainous terrain of Italy made advancing very difficult; and, second, the German troops in Italy were commanded by Field Marshal Kesselring, one of Germany’s most competent commanders.

The Americans finally reached Rome in 1944, about the same time as D-Day occurred.  At the same time the Italians got fed up with Mussolini, overthrew his government, and hanged him.  At that point Italy was officially out of the war, but the German army was still in Italy, and the fighting continued between the Americans and Germans in northern Italy until the war ended in 1945.

Italy remained a partner of Germany through 1944.  Hitler had realized early in the war that Italy was as much of a drain on his resources as an asset to his plans.  That is one reason why he had to send Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps into North Africa to support Italian operations there.  He also sent one of his best generals to defend Italy, Field Marshal Kesselring.  As noted above, Hitler turned on Russia in the summer of 1941, and that huge campaign occupied the bulk of German forces.  So the need to defend Italy with German troops further weakened Hitler’s western front.

By early 1944 the Americans and British, with help from Canadians and the French soldiers who had survived the German invasion in 1940, planned the final assault on the fortress of Europe.  While the Russians were occupying much of Germany’s military might on the Eastern front, American and British troops crossed the English Channel on D-Day, June 6, 1944, with the largest amphibious invasion in history.  The fighting on the main beach, Omaha Beach, was bloody, and for the first several hours victory was by no means assured.  But a certain amount of German hesitation, and the disruptions caused by massive parachute drops of three airborne divisions, two American and one British, behind the beaches eventually allowed the allies to gain a foothold, and the rollback of Germany on the western front was begun.

Paris was liberated in August 1944, and by the end of that year the Americans were approaching the Rhine.  Following the bloody Battle of the Bulge, which temporarily set the allied forces reeling, Americans crossed the Rhine in March 1945, along with their British allies, and as the German armies crumbled under massive air assaults, and as their cities were reduced to rubble, German resistance gradually fell.

With the end in sight, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin, and the Germans finally capitulated to the Russians and Americans.  The war in Europe was over.  V-E Day was May 8, 1945.

Chronology of Events Leading to World War II

The Japanese deliberately sink an American gunboat, the Panay, in Chinese waters, but they apologize and offer to pay indemnities. The Japanese war against China intensifies.

1939. Germany attacks Poland, September 1. World War II in Europe begins.

Neutrality Act of 1939. (“Cash and Carry”) Act repeals Neutrality Act of 1937. Declaring of war zone gives Hitler justification for using U-boats. No doubt which side the U.S. is on this time.

As war progresses, the United States becomes appalled at Hitler’s tyranny; measures short of war are seen as OK—whatever we could get away with. FDR pushed it as far as he could.

August 2, 1939. Albert Einstein sends a letter to President Roosevelt about the possible development of an atomic bomb by Germany, which eventually leads to the Manhattan Project. (Einstein later regrets sending the letter.) (See Appendix.)

1940. By 1940 the U.S. population is 131.7 million. In April Germany overruns Denmark in one day, and Norway takes only one month. Belgium, Netherlands, and France fall quickly as well. Thousands of British and French soldiers are saved by the “miracle” of Dunkirk and evacuated back to England. By June 22 the French have capitulated. The British now stand alone, and Churchill faces the future with “grim resolution,” looking toward the United States for help.

The United States institutes first-ever peacetime draft, begins rearming.

May–June: FDR calls for increased military expenditures, releases outdated military equipment to Great Britain; $43 million worth sent in June alone.
June 20: FDR names Republicans Henry Stimson and Frank Knox to secretary of war and navy posts—showing a bipartisan spirit of cooperation in the face of crisis. Still the internationalist-isolationist debate goes on. Many clubs and organizations urge noninvolvement. As war grows closer, FDR falls behind public opinion, perhaps from over-concern with isolationists like Lindbergh.

Presidential Election. A third term for FDR a major issue. Much isolationist sentiment among Republicans. No Democratic challengers to FDR, the “man above the fray.” Republican candidate Wendell Willkie, a former Democrat, too close to FDR on most issues to draw much distinction. FDR’s promise: “I have said it before, and I will say it again and again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent to fight in any foreign wars.”

Election Result: FDR wins 55-45 percent, smaller percentage than in 1932 or 1936. Still, he carries Electoral College 449-82. “Don't switch horses in the middle of the stream.” New Deal programs were very popular. Hard for opposition to take advantage of political issues because of war clouds on the horizon.

Summer and Autumn. Battle of Britain. The R.A.F. maintains control of the skies over England and the Channel, preventing German invasion.

1941. January–March. Secret military talks in Washington between U.S., British staffs decide “Germany first” policy. February–May: Battle of the Atlantic. Germans sink U.S. ships within sight of shore and do great damage. Japan signs non aggression pact with Russia’s Stalin, who does not declare war on Japan until August 1945.

reuben jamesMarch: Lend-Lease Act comes about as result of correspondence between Churchill and FDR. $7 billion—largest appropriation in U.S. history. Total spent during war on Lend Lease is $50 billion.

April: FDR extends convoy patrols across Atlantic to Iceland. U.S. destroyers fire at U-boats with modest success. Office of Price Administration (OPA) established to control inflation. The destroyer U.S.S. Kearny attacked by U-boat on October 17; 11 sailors are killed. The USS Reuben James becomes the first American warship sunk by enemy action during World War II.

German and Italian forces overrun the Balkan states of Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Greece, Crete. Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria fall into Axis camp. Germany comes to the aid of Italy in Africa.

May 20: United States suspends diplomatic relations with Germany and Italy. By now it is clear that the United States will have difficulty staying out of the war. Still, the isolationists are adamant.

June 22: Hitler invades Russia: Operation Barbarossa. No ultimatum, no declaration. Secreat preparations had been ongoing for months. Huge front 1,800 miles on three axes. First counterattack by Russia in November–December 1941.

The Atlantic Charter. President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill meet from August 11–12 in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. After talks they issue a joint statement of war aims against the Axis, as follows:

The United States and Great Britain renounce territorial aggrandizement.

The United States and Great Britain oppose territorial changes against the will of the people.

roosevelt and churchillThird, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them;

Fourth, they will endeavor, with due respect for their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity;

Fifth, they desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security;

Sixth, after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want;

Seventh, such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance;

Eighth, they believe that all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measures which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.

Behind FDR and Churchill in the photograph (above left) are Admiral Ernest J. King; General George C. Marshall; Field Marshal Sir John Dill (British Army); Admiral Harold R. Stark; Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound (RN). In response to the Newfoundland conference, conservative newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune published angry editorials denouncing the agreement and asking what business the president of a neutral nation has discussing war aims with the prime minister of a nation at war.

Winter 1941–42: Memories of Napoleon in 1812 are revisited as Hitler’s armies drive deep into Russia.
FDR agrees to aid the Soviet Union; Russia receives $1 billion in Lend Lease aid.

November 17: Arming of merchantmen is now authorized. Step by step, the country moves closer and closer to war.

November: U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew warns FDR that Japan may attack the United States. Pacific commanders are warned that the Japanese fleet has left home waters, destination unknown.

December 7: Pearl Harbor.

In September 1941 a Japanese armada set out across the northern Pacific in rarely used sea lanes to avoid detection. The Japanese pilots aboard the aircraft carriers had conducted extensive training on bombing and in luss arizonaaunching torpedoes from their aircraft in shallow waters, knowing that that would be necessary to strike the ships and piers or anchored in Pearl Harbor itself. A number of books have been written detailing the events leading directly up to the attack at 8 o'clock in the morning, Hawaiian time, on December 7. A number of clues were discovered that might have revealed the Japanese attentions, but coordination was poor, and the information was not collected in a here at manner.

A new radar station on Oahu detected aircraft coming in that were in fact the Japanese air armada that had already left its carriers, but coincidentally a flight of B-29s was coming in from the United States, and it was assumed that the American aircraft were what the radar had detected. A Japanese midget submarine was detected just off the entrance to Pearl Harbor, but that too failed to alert the authorities. In Washington diplomatic activity provided further clues, and when a telegram was sent from the war department to the military commander in the Hawaiian Islands, it was not delivered with any sense of urgency. One of the chief books detailing the events of that day is entitled, "at Dawn we slept," and the title is certainly apropos concerning the attack that took place.

The Japanes attack createed a strong sense of national purpose—the right and wrong of the "dastardly" event was clearly seen. Men lined up at recruiting stations eager to enlist. There was no question about the mission: defeat the Axis as quickly and decisively as pearlpossible. Over 3,000 Americans were killed in less than two hours by the Japanese attack. Eight battleships, three cruisers, several other vessels and over 100 aircraft were damaged or detroyed. The United States Pacific Fleet was all but wiped out, except for the aircraft carriers that happened to be at sea on that fateful morning. The Navy's repair facilities were almost untouched, a fact that turned out to be a blessing as the war progressed.The Arizona burned for several days.

Following the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese forces captured the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, and Hong Kong in short order, followed by the assaul in Singapore.

The Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, placed over the battleship that still leaks oil, is one of the most visited spots in the United States. Visitors come from all over, inclusing Japan. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean is the Hiroshima Memorial, also heavily visited by people of many nations. What began at Pearl Harbor ended at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Summary of American Policy 1920–1939 and Beyond:

  • The Red Scare of 1919 follows World War I. Americans want to let Europe stew in its own juice. Americans show an incredible indifference to the fate of Europe during the 1920s.
  • Attitude of “100 percent Americanism” is widespread. The United States follows a foreign policy that is narrow, cautious, and self-centered and refuses to be bound by any agreement to preserve international peace. (“No entangling alliances” theme harkens back to Washington, Jefferson.)
  • Ethnic groups had become angry with President Wilson over Versailles—they felt he had let them down by refusing to insist on self-determination for all nations. In the 1930s those chickens came home to roost.
  • Americans naively believed that the Kellogg-Briand Pact and such attitudes as “the Spirit of Locarno” could actually deter war.
  • America’s Anti-Japanese immigration policies and tight immigration laws of the 1920s were paradoxical, considering the number of immigrants who were already in the United States.
  • The U.S. military establishment was reduced to 118,000 by 1927 and remained small throughout the 1930s, even as Germany and Japan were building up their forces.
  • Washington wants World War I debts paid, quarrels with almost everybody over various issues. America had loaned Allies during and after war a total of $11 billion. Great Britain proposes canceling reparations debts if United States will cancel Great Britain’s $4 billion debt. United States refuses.
  • Protective American tariffs hurt international trade, but Americans are preoccupied with domestic economic concerns.
  • Domestic issues dominate U.S. foreign policy in the 1930s. The boom-to-bust phenomenon that led to the Great Depression pushes other issues into the background
  • As WWII nears, the United States becomes increasingly involved in world affairs and takes a leading role in maintaining world order.
  • During World War II, the United States becomes the dominant world power.
  • As the Soviet Union rises in the years following World War II and the Cold War builds, Americans realize they can no longer live in isolation.

Part II:  World War II:  The “Good War”

In a letter to Josiah Quincy on September 11, 1773, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “There never was a good war or a bad peace.”  Interesting thought.  Interesting date.  Author Studs Terkel wrote a book about World War II, which he called “The Good War,” a sentiment often felt, most probably because America’s enemies of World War II—Nazi Germany and militarist Japan—were of such evil character that anything done to defeat their imperial dreams was deemed good.  In the aftermath, most Americans accepted that view of a “good” war, at least for a decade or two.  All the same, although World War I, the Great War, was probably the worst war ever fought for the soldiers on the front lines, World War II was nevertheless unprecedented in the amount of destruction caused and the number of lives lost.

No one could ever claim, however, that the war itself was anything but a horror; at its end at least fifty million human beings had perished—a level of destruction scarcely imaginable, even after the carnage of World War I.  In 1939 when the war began in Europe, one had a sense that it was nothing but the latest round in an endless cycle of violence going back through the centuries—to the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, the War of the Roses, the imperial wars, and wars of revolution—and only a fool could hope this would be the last war.  Woodrow Wilson had dreamed of making the world safe for democracy, but now it seemed as if what happened at Versailles had merely made the world safe for totalitarian dictators or appeasers.

So once again the world was plunged into darkness, into the hideous abyss of destruction and despair until the nations emerged on the other side to yet another world, full of uncertainty, shrouded by the clouds of radiation that floated across the heavens from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  People wondered, “What will the next one be like?”

Following are some important factors about World War II in general:

  • World War II was in many ways a continuation of World War I.  There can be no doubt that the peace settlement arrived at during the Versailles Conference of 1919 contained within it the seeds of World War II, in that it almost certainly guaranteed that Germany would seek retribution.
  • WWII was in a real sense two separate wars going on at the same time.  The European conflict saw the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, the United States, and some of the smaller countries fighting against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.  The Pacific war saw the United States and Great Britain (and her Indian and Australian allies) fighting against the Japanese and Chinese.  The Soviet Union was never involved in the Pacific war, and Japan was not at all involved in European war.  The two wars started separately and ended separately.
  • The technological advances that had begun in the First World War were carried even further in World War II, culminating in the use of the atomic bomb against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
  • The United States was much more heavily involved in World War II than World War I, although the war had been raging for years before the United States became directly involved.  Before the United States was formally involved, America was directly and indirectly assisting the British in the Atlantic.  In the end some 13–14 million Americans served in uniform during the war period, and American factories and plants produced almost 30 percent of all the materiel used by the Allies.

Japanese aggression began in the early 1930s as Japan sought to extend her influence throughout the Far East.  Troubles between the United States and Japan had been brewing for some time, largely over the treatment of Japanese immigrants in America and the generally distant policy toward Japan pursued in Washington.  The Japanese were determined to become a major sea power and renounced the Washington Naval Conference agreements in the early 1930s.  By 1937 Japan was conducting an aggressive war against China and was trading with the United States for steel and other raw materials she needed to fuel her war machine.  An American ship was attacked by Japanese aircraft in 1937, but the Japanese apologized and paid reparations.  Nevertheless, tensions continued to build throughout 1940 and 1941.

As militarists took control of the Japanese government, Japanese policies in the Far East became even more aggressive.  Japan sought to create what it called the Greater South East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, in which Japanese influence would extend throughout South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific region.  The fancy name meant nothing more than the idea of a Japanese economic empire.  Japan needed iron, oil, rubber, tin, and other raw materials, and thus needed to control the economic resources of all of Asia in order to feed her appetite for war.  As America became increasingly hostile toward Japanese ambitions and began to tighten trade restrictions, the Japanese warlords began to plot a strategy to confront America.  Because the Philippine Islands had become U.S. territory as a result of the Spanish-American War, that American possession due south of Japan lay smack in the middle of Japan’s area of interest.  Japanese leaders believed it inevitable that conflict would eventually erupt between the Empire and the United States.

In order to get the upper hand quickly, Japan planned and executed a lightning strike against the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  The plan was agreed upon in late summer 1945, and soon the Japanese fleet was sailing across a remote area of the North Pacific, preparing to attack Pearl Harbor from the northwest.  The story of the attack on Pearl Harbor has been told in detail, and assertions that President Roosevelt knew the attack was coming and did nothing about it have been laid to rest.  No evidence supports such a claim, although there is substantial evidence that the United States should have been better prepared.  In any case the attack came, and while it was a tactical victory, it was one of the worst strategic blunders in military history.  Although American battleships and cruisers were badly damaged or destroyed, as luck would have it the aircraft carriers were at sea that day and thus were untouched.  Because the aircraft carrier became the dominant naval weapon in the Pacific theater during the Second World War, the fact that the aircraft carriers were saved was a crucial factor in the future conduct of the war.


World War II Home | Updated April 2, 2020