Woodrow Wilson’s dream of making the world safe for democracy through a war to end all wars did not come true in his time. From our vantage point in the 21st century we might look back at the end of the Cold War in 1990 and think that perhaps we were moving in that direction, and that Wilson’s dream might have become a reality. Now in the early years of the 21st century we know that wars can take on a different character and are fought in many different ways.

As we have said above, World War II, the “Good War,” was in many ways an extension of World War I, the “Great War.” Although it may not have been the last war, it did apparently bring an end to the kind of war that had plagued humanity for centuries: territorial wars fought among the major powers of the world for land and empire. The chance of a major nation declaring war on its neighbor in our century seems remote at this writing.

Perhaps the reason for that goes back to something General Robert E. Lee said during the Battle of Fredericksburg: “It is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it.” General Douglas MacArthur, who certainly saw his share of warfare, gave voice to a similar sentiment when contemplating the significance of the arrival of atomic warfare, which he claimed would end war as we knew it at the time. Perhaps it was the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that finally brought the world to the realization that all-out war now had the capacity to destroy the world as we know it.

After the First World War, the United States was able to retreat into a position of quasi-isolationism. Following World War II such a retreat was never an option. As the U.S. was the world’s first superpower and only atomic power, soon to be joined by the Soviet Union, the post-World War II world evolved into a condition described as the “balance of terror.” I can recall sitting in a history lecture in the late 1950s where the professor assumed that there would be a world war three, but warned us to watch out for the Germans in world war four. A more cynical commentary on the situation went, “I don’t know what they’ll use for weapons in world war three, but in world war four they’ll be using spears.”

The United States, the only major nation virtually untouched by the Second World War on its own territory, quickly converted its war-making industries to civilian uses. This situation generated an economic boom that was unprecedented in any nation’s history. Having seen itself as a rescuer of the free world in the two great wars, however, the United States, perhaps too easily, assumed the role of the world’s protector. Whether the adoption of that role was driven by true compassion for our fellow citizens, or by what has been described as the “arrogance of power,” is still being debated. What is clear is that World War II was once and for all the end of innocence. The casualties of World War II are literally incalculable. The number of deaths is estimated at 50 to 60 million from all causes, and the number of homeless, displaced persons also numbered in the millions. The economic costs can only be guessed at. It took years for the world to recover, and in some ways, the recovery is still not complete.

The Impact of the War

World War II changed life on earth more than any other man-made event in history. The horror is almost incalculable: Total military and civilian deaths are estimated at 70 to 85 million, about 3% of the world's population at the time. It is impossible to estimate with any accuracy the total value of all property damaged or resources consumed to produce the articles of war. In the United States production of many important products, from sewing machines to automobiles, was suspended in order to build machine guns, tanks, and warplanes.

Besides those killed in combat, millions more fell victim to starvation and other ills; tens of millions were displaced, their homes and the cities and villages in which they lived having been totally demolished. Refugees wandered for years, and the term "displaced persons" came into regular usage. In the town where I grew up, refugees from Poland and other European countries arrived, and it was clear from the behavior of the young people who joined us in our schools that they had suffered in ways that to us were unimaginable. Those I remember seem to have been hard, joyless, mature far beyond their age—they had been forced to grow up too soon.

There was talk in some quarters of reducing Germany to an agricultural nation that would never againbe able to manufacture war materials. General Douglas MacArthur, sometimes referred to as “an American Caesar,” oversaw the creation of a new form of government in Japan, including a Constitution that outlawed war except for strictly defensive purposes. The struggle in China between the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist followers of Mao Tse Tung continued for years beyond the war. In both Europe and Asia governing officials of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany had to be used to administer the normal daily needs of millions of people. In countries such as Korea, that created problems that took years to resolve.

World War II saw the dawn of the nuclear age. Thanks to working for the Soviet Union in Great Britain and the United States, Russian scientists soon developed a bomb in the nuclear arms race was born. The United States and the nations of Western Europe formed the NATO as a means of enhancing collective defense. The United Nations began to function as a body, one of whose goals was the prevention of further war. And although a total war of the magnitude of the first and second world wars has been avoided, United Nations cannot be said to have prevented warfare anything nearly completely.

Below are the words uttered by General Douglas MacArthur at the ceremony in Tokyo Bay that brought World War II to a final conclusion.

The “Greatest Generation”

When Americans talk about the greatest generation, they are referring to men and women born in the last decades of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th. This is the generation that fought the Second World War. Whether they were made of better stuff than the patriots who took on the most powerful empire in the world in 1775, or the boys in blue and gray who fought in America’s bloodiest conflict from 1861 to 1865, can well be argued. But their accomplishments are unquestioned.

When news of Pearl Harbor spread across the country, thousands of young men walked off their jobs and headed for the nearest recruiting office. They came from all walks and conditions of life, and they were in it for the duration. Unlike other wars fought since the Second World War, the notion of rotation in and out of combat with periods of leave at home was unknown. When they shipped out in 1942 and 1943, they had no idea when or if they would see American soil again.

Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall adopted a very straightforward policy. Once units were constituted for combat, they would continue to exist, as replacements were sent to the front lines to take the place of those who had been killed and wounded. The value of having experienced men in virtually every front-line unit by the time Europe was invaded in 1944 certainly paid off, but the price was terribly high. The casualty rate in front-line infantry units was 100%; that did not mean, of course, that everyone in a unit might be killed. What it meant was that over their duration of the war, the number of casualties in any given unit would at least equal the number of men in that unit at full strength. A soldier who fought from North Africa to Italy, thence to Normandy and across the Rhine was a lucky man indeed. (See Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Organizer of Victory 1943-1945, New York: Viking, 1973.)

When the fighting was over in Europe, soldiers who had conquered the Germans and Italians were scheduled to be shipped straight to the Pacific to wrap up the war against the Japanese. The planned invasion of the Japanese homelands, which was made unnecessary by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, meant that few soldiers who fought in Europe ever saw action against Japan. But they were prepared to go.

One personal story may illustrate the dedication of that “greatest generation.” Staff Sergeant Donald H. Sage, Jr., was a bombardier in the Army Air Corps flying in B-25 bombers over “the hump” to support American troops fighting alongside the Chinese against Japan. Staff Sergeant Sage had been accepted for officer training and flight school. Having completed his 25 required combat missions, he was eligible to return to the states for training. As he was preparing to depart, however, an urgent request for air support came in from front-line troops serving under General Stillwell in China. Although not obligated to fly any further combat sorties, Staff Sergeant Sage volunteered for the mission. He did not return from the mission. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal posthumously by President Truman in 1945.

Thousands of Americans made comparable sacrifices during the period of America’s fighting during World War II.

ww2Not long ago during a conversation with a friend about some historical event, my friend said, “How come we name every period of history as ‘before this war’ or ‘after that war’?  We judge our whole history by the wars we have fought.”

He was right—we do that. When we try to place an event in time we often say, “That was right after World War I,” or “In the post-World War Two Era” or “during the Vietnam War.”  That is because wars change so much.  Following any great war—the Seven Years War, the American Revolution, the American Civil War, World Wars One and Two, Vietnam—the world is a very different place from what it was before, at least for the people who were involved in it, and often for much of the rest of the nation of in some cases, the world.

Consider the United States in 1939 when World War II broke out: The country was still struggling with the latter stages of the Depression and the New Deal—now something of an old deal—was struggling to stay alive.  Millions of Americans were still trying to get back on their feet, and the country, while no longer in the depths of the psychological depression that accompanied the economic disaster of the early 1930s, was hardly in an upbeat mood.  American industrial production was still sluggish, and the agricultural economy uncertain.  Millions of Americans were still poorly educated and not very well off.

Before the depression years, most Americans were rarely affected by government. With the new deal programs in effect, however, millions of Americans were now regularly affected by government. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Social Security system, government work projects such as the WPA and the PWA, the National Labor Relations Board and other new government agencies touch the lives of millions of Americans. The relationship between the government and its citizens had changed dramatically since Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933.

Beginning in 1940 when a new draft law went into effect, everything began to change. By 1945 over 400,000 Americans had died in combat out of the 13 to 14 million who had served during the war years, and thousands more had been wounded. Eight hundred thousand women had been in uniform, doing jobs which would have been unheard of for women in the 1800s, such as flying bomber aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean.  Millions of women at home went to work building trucks, ships and airplanes and other weapons, showing that they could wield a wrench or welding torch as well as most men.  Women helped American industry produce almost one third of all the materiél used by the Allies during the war. (Nikita Khrushchev later said that the Soviet army marched to Berlin on American boots.  Much of its equipment also traveled in American trucks and American trains That rode on American steel rails.)

From living on the edge of poverty much of the American working class had become  reasonably prosperous. Thousands of soldiers had many dollars in back pay stored up, and the women who had remained at home working at productive jobs had had little on which to spend their money.  American automobile and appliance manufacturers had produced practically no cars nor washing machines nor other appliances between 1942 and 1945, as virtually every facet of American industry was turned to war production. Buick and Cadillac made tanks; the Ford Motor Company made trucks and aircraft; the Singer Sewing Machine Company made machine guns; and so it went.

Realizing that the millions of soldiers who served during the war were going to need assistance to reclaim their civilian lives, Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights, or the “GI Bill.” The act provided direct aid for college tuition, books and living expenses, as well as other training for veterans, low-cost housing loans, hospitalization, pensions, and government-guaranteed loans for the purchase of farms and businesses.

The government had planned a gradual reduction in the size of the American Armed Forces, but with the surrender of Japan and the total collapse of the Axis powers, servicemen demanded to be let out right away, and they were discharged by the tens of thousands in short order.  Hungry for female companionship, they wasted no time marrying their sweethearts, starting families—kicking off the “baby boom”—, buying homes, going to college, and doing all sorts of things they had missed during the war. Mature well beyond their years because of what they had seen, the ex-G.I.s were serious and hard-working.  That “greatest generation,” about which much has been written, not only won the war, they helped to drive the American economy in the late 1940s and 50s to new heights. Sales of automobiles, homes, televisions and other appliances—which had been in short supply during the war—soared as the country quickly got back down to business.

America was the world's only atomic power.  The end of the British Empire was in sight as India was close to independence and other parts of the Empire were growing increasingly distant.  France spent at least a decade recovering from the divisions resulting from the occupation of France by the Nazi regime and the collaboration of the official French government with the Germans.  Much of Europe was physically devastated, and rebuilding infrastructure, industry and decent living spaces consumed much of their energy. Shortages of food and other consumables persisted throughout the 1940s.

Nobody knows how many human beings died as a result of World War II, but the figure is in the tens of millions. Recent estimates place the total between 56 and 72 million. The Soviet Union lost over 20 million, China over 10 million, Germany 6 to 8 million, Japan 2.7 million, the United States and Great Britain something less than half a million each. Most of the combatant nations incurred significant numbers of deaths, and even neutral countries were not immune to the human destruction.

The Soviet Union which had suffered 20 million casualties during the war licked its wounds and built a defensive perimeter around what became known as its satellite nations—Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, and Poland.  Winston Churchill was to call it the "Iron Curtain" in the speech that he gave at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. In the Far east, Japan was virtually governed by General Douglas MacArthur, who oversaw the creation of a genuine democracy in Japan. China, meanwhile, was moving toward the culmination of the Communist revolution under Mao Tse-tung.

Only the United States seemed to be in a position to challenge what was seen as the rapidly growing threat of international Communism.  There was a free world, and America was its leader by acclamation.  Between 1945 and 1949 the United States was probably the most powerful nation relative to the rest of the world of any nation in history.  That's what World War II did for America.

The next section on the site is laid out in two parts: the first part discusses the changes that the war brought about two domestic life, and how Americo evolved at home in the postwar world. The second part discusses the Cold War years, while the United States and its allies face the Soviet Union and its satellite states and what was sometimes called the "balance of terror." Sometimes the two sides touched each other, often in frightening ways. Schoolchildren were put through atomic bomb drills, as if hiding under a desk could dole the impact of an atomic weapon. The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 had many Americans on their knees praying that the first nuclear shot would not be fired. The Cold War era lasted 45 years, and the contest was played out in Korea and Vietnam. When it ended, there was a common belief that a new era of peace was born. A decade later, the event now called 9/11 smash those dreams

World War II Home | Post-World War II America | An American Hero | Updated April 3, 2020