24. World War II

A photograph of American soldiers on Omaha Beach after D-Day.
American soldiers recover the dead on Omaha Beach in 1944. Library of Congress.

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 2 *The American Yawp is an evolving, collaborative text. Please click here to improve this chapter.*

I. Introduction

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 3 The 1930s and 1940s were trying times. A global economic crisis gave way to a global war that became the deadliest and most destructive in human history. Perhaps eighty million individuals lost their lives during World War II. The war saw industrialized genocide and nearly threatened the eradication of an entire people. It also unleashed the most fearsome technology ever used in war. And when it ended, the United States found itself alone as the world’s greatest superpower. Armed with the world’s greatest economy, it looked forward to the fruits of a prosperous consumers’ economy. But the war raised as many questions as it would settle and unleashed new social forces at home and abroad that confronted generations of Americans to come.

II. The Origins of the Pacific War

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Although the United States joined the war in 1941, two years after Europe exploded into conflict in 1939, the path to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the surprise attack that threw the United States headlong into war, began much earlier. For the Empire of Japan, the war had begun a decade before Pearl Harbor.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 On September 18, 1931, a small explosion tore up railroad tracks controlled by the Japanese-owned South Manchuria Railway near the city of Shenyang (Mukden) in the Chinese province of Manchuria. The railway company condemned the bombing as the work of anti-Japanese Chinese dissidents. Evidence, though, suggests that the initial explosion was neither an act of Chinese anti-Japanese sentiment nor an accident but an elaborate ruse planned by the Japanese to provide a basis for invasion. In response, the privately operated Japanese Guandong (Kwangtung) army began shelling the Shenyang garrison the next day, and the garrison fell before nightfall. Hungry for Chinese territory and witnessing the weakness and disorganization of Chinese forces, but under the pretense of protecting Japanese citizens and investments, the Japanese Imperial Army ordered a full-scale invasion of Manchuria. The invasion was swift. Without a centralized Chinese army, the Japanese quickly defeated isolated Chinese warlords and by the end of February 1932, all of Manchuria was firmly under Japanese control. Japan established the nation of Manchukuo out of the former province of Manchuria. ((For the second Sino-Japanese War, see, for instance, Michael A. Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search for Economic Security, 1919–1941 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987); Dick Wilson, When Tigers Fight: The Story of the Sino-Japanese War, 1937–1945 (New York: Viking, 1982); and Mark Peattie, Edward Drea, and Hans van de Ven, eds., The Battle for China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–1945 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011).))

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 This seemingly small skirmish—known by the Chinese as the September 18 Incident and the Japanese as the Manchurian Incident—sparked a war that would last thirteen years and claim the lives of over thirty-five million people. Comprehending Japanese motivations for attacking China and the grueling stalemate of the ensuing war are crucial for understanding Japan’s seemingly unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, and, therefore, for understanding the involvement of the United States in World War II as well.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Despite their rapid advance into Manchuria, the Japanese put off the invasion of China for nearly three years. Japan occupied a precarious domestic and international position after the September 18 Incident. At home, Japan was riven by political factionalism due to its stagnating economy. Leaders were torn as to whether to address modernization and lack of natural resources through unilateral expansion (the conquest of resource-rich areas such as Manchuria to export raw materials to domestic Japanese industrial bases such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki) or international cooperation (a philosophy of pan-Asianism in an anti-Western coalition that would push the colonial powers out of Asia). Ultimately, after a series of political crises and assassinations inflamed tensions, pro-war elements within the Japanese military triumphed over the more moderate civilian government. Japan committed itself to aggressive military expansion.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Chinese leaders Chiang Kai-shek and Zhang Xueliang appealed to the League of Nations for assistance against Japan. The United States supported the Chinese protest, proclaiming the Stimson Doctrine in January 1932, which refused to recognize any state established as a result of Japanese aggression. Meanwhile, the League of Nations sent Englishman Victor Bulwer-Lytton to investigate the September 18 Incident. After a six-month investigation, Bulwer-Lytton found the Japanese guilty of inciting the September 18 incident and demanded the return of Manchuria to China. The Japanese withdrew from the League of Nations in March 1933.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Japan isolated itself from the world. Its diplomatic isolation empowered radical military leaders who could point to Japanese military success in Manchuria and compare it to the diplomatic failures of the civilian government. The military took over Japanese policy. And in the military’s eyes, the conquest of China would not only provide for Japan’s industrial needs, it would secure Japanese supremacy in East Asia.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The Japanese launched a full-scale invasion of China. It assaulted the Marco Polo Bridge on July 7, 1937, and routed the forces of the Chinese National Revolutionary Army led by Chiang Kai-shek. The broken Chinese army gave up Beiping (Beijing) to the Japanese on August 8, Shanghai on November 26, and the capital, Nanjing (Nanking), on December 13. Between 250,000 and 300,000 people were killed, and tens of thousands of women were raped, when the Japanese besieged and then sacked Nanjing. The Western press labeled it the Rape of Nanjing. To halt the invading enemy, Chiang Kai-shek adopted a scorched-earth strategy of “trading space for time.” His Nationalist government retreated inland, burning villages and destroying dams, and established a new capital at the Yangtze River port of Chongqing (Chungking). Although the Nationalists’ scorched-earth policy hurt the Japanese military effort, it alienated scores of dislocated Chinese civilians and became a potent propaganda tool of the emerging Chinese Communist Party (CCP). ((See Joshua A. Fogel, The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).))

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 2 Americans read about the brutal fighting in China, but the United States lacked both the will and the military power to oppose the Japanese invasion. After the gut-wrenching carnage of World War I, many Americans retreated toward isolationism by opposing any involvement in the conflagrations burning in Europe and Asia. And even if Americans wished to intervene, their military was lacking. The Japanese army was a technologically advanced force consisting of 4,100,000 men and 900,000 Chinese collaborators—and that was in China alone. The Japanese military was armed with modern rifles, artillery, armor, and aircraft. By 1940, the Japanese navy was the third-largest and among the most technologically advanced in the world.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Still, Chinese Nationalists lobbied Washington for aid. Chiang Kai-shek’s wife, Soong May-ling—known to the American public as Madame Chiang—led the effort. Born into a wealthy Chinese merchant family in 1898, Madame Chiang spent much of her childhood in the United States and graduated from Wellesley College in 1917 with a major in English literature. In contrast to her gruff husband, Madame Chiang was charming and able to use her knowledge of American culture and values to garner support for her husband and his government. But while the United States denounced Japanese aggression, it took no action during the 1930s.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 As Chinese Nationalists fought for survival, the Communist Party was busy collecting people and supplies in the northwestern Shaanxi Province. China had been at war with itself when the Japanese came. Nationalists battled a stubborn communist insurgency. In 1935 the Nationalists threw the communists out of the fertile Chinese coast, but an ambitious young commander named Mao Zedong recognized the power of the Chinese peasant population. In Shaanxi, Mao recruited from the local peasantry, building his force from a meager seven thousand survivors at the end of the Long March in 1935 to a robust 1.2 million members by the end of the war.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Although Japan had conquered much of the country, the Nationalists regrouped and the communists rearmed. An uneasy truce paused the country’s civil war and refocused efforts on the invaders. The Chinese could not dislodge the Japanese, but they could stall their advance. The war mired in stalemate.

III. The Origins of the European War

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Across the globe in Europe, the continent’s major powers were still struggling with the aftereffects of World War I when the global economic crisis spiraled much of the continent into chaos. Germany’s Weimar Republic collapsed with the economy, and out of the ashes emerged Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists—the Nazis. Championing German racial supremacy, fascist government, and military expansionism, Hitler rose to power and, after aborted attempts to take power in Germany, became chancellor in 1933 and the Nazis conquered German institutions. Democratic traditions were smashed. Leftist groups were purged. Hitler repudiated the punitive damages and strict military limitations of the Treaty of Versailles. He rebuilt the German military and navy. He reoccupied regions lost during the war and remilitarized the Rhineland, along the border with France. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Hitler and Benito Mussolini—the fascist Italian leader who had risen to power in the 1920s—intervened for the Spanish fascists, toppling the communist Spanish Republican Party. Britain and France stood by warily and began to rebuild their militaries, anxious in the face of a renewed Germany but still unwilling to draw Europe into another bloody war. ((On the origins of World War II in Europe, see, for instance, P. M. H. Bell, The Origins of the Second World War in Europe (New York: Routledge, 1986).))

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 In his autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf, Hitler advocated for the unification of Europe’s German peoples under one nation and that nation’s need for Lebensraum, or living space, particularly in Eastern Europe, to supply Germans with the land and resources needed for future prosperity. The Untermenschen (lesser humans) would have to go. Once in power, Hitler worked toward the twin goals of unification and expansion.

Photograph of thousands of German soldiers in uniform at a Nuremberg rally.
The massive Nuremberg rallies, such as this one in 1935, instilled a fierce loyalty to (or fearful silence about) Hitler and the National Socialist Party in Germany. Wikimedia.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 1 In 1938, Germany annexed Austria and set its sights on the Sudetenland, a large, ethnically German area of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France, alarmed but still anxious to avoid war, agreed—without Czechoslovakia’s input—that Germany could annex the region in return for a promise to stop all future German aggression. They thought that Hitler could be appeased, but it became clear that his ambitions would continue pushing German expansion. In March 1939, Hitler took the rest of Czechoslovakia and began to make demands on Poland. Britain and France promised war. And war came.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Hitler signed a secret agreement—the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact—with the Soviet Union that coordinated the splitting of Poland between the two powers and promised nonaggression thereafter. The European war began when the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Britain and France declared war two days later and mobilized their armies. Britain and France hoped that the Poles could hold out for three to four months, enough time for the Allies to intervene. Poland fell in three weeks. The German army, anxious to avoid the rigid, grinding war of attrition that took so many millions in the stalemate of World War I, built their new modern army for speed and maneuverability. German doctrine emphasized the use of tanks, planes, and motorized infantry (infantry that used trucks for transportation instead of marching) to concentrate forces, smash front lines, and wreak havoc behind the enemy’s defenses. It was called Blitzkrieg, or lightning war.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 After the fall of Poland, France and its British allies braced for an inevitable German attack. Throughout the winter of 1939–1940, however, fighting was mostly confined to smaller fronts in Norway. Belligerents called it the Sitzkrieg (sitting war). But in May 1940, Hitler launched his attack into Western Europe. Mirroring the German’s Schlieffen Plan of 1914 in the previous war, Germany attacked through the Netherlands and Belgium to avoid the prepared French defenses along the French-German border. Poland had fallen in three weeks; France lasted only a few weeks more. By June, Hitler was posing for photographs in front of the Eiffel Tower. Germany split France in half. Germany occupied and governed the north, and the south would be ruled under a puppet government in Vichy.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 With France under heel, Hitler turned to Britain. Operation Sea Lion—the planned German invasion of the British Isles—required air superiority over the English Channel. From June until October the German Luftwaffe fought the Royal Air Force (RAF) for control of the skies. Despite having fewer planes, British pilots won the so-called Battle of Britain, saving the islands from immediate invasion and prompting the new prime minister, Winston Churchill, to declare, “Never before in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

Photograph of a child in London holding a stuffed toy amid the rubble of a German bombing.
The German bombing of London left thousands homeless, hurt, or dead. This child, holding a stuffed toy, sits in the rubble as adults ponder their fate in the background. 1945. Library of Congress.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 If Britain was safe from invasion, it was not immune from additional air attacks. Stymied in the Battle of Britain, Hitler began the Blitz—a bombing campaign against cities and civilians. Hoping to crush the British will to fight, the Luftwaffe bombed the cities of London, Liverpool, and Manchester every night from September to the following May. Children were sent far into the countryside to live with strangers to shield them from the bombings. Remaining residents took refuge in shelters and subway tunnels, emerging each morning to put out fires and bury the dead. The Blitz ended in June 1941, when Hitler, confident that Britain was temporarily out of the fight, launched Operation Barbarossa—the invasion of the Soviet Union.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Hoping to capture agricultural lands, seize oil fields, and break the military threat of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler broke the two powers’ 1939 nonaggression pact and, on June 22, invaded the Soviet Union. It was the largest land invasion in history. France and Poland had fallen in weeks, and German officials hoped to break Russia before the winter. And initially, the Blitzkrieg worked. The German military quickly conquered enormous swaths of land and netted hundreds of thousands of prisoners. But Russia was too big and the Soviets were willing to sacrifice millions to stop the fascist advance. After recovering from the initial shock of the German invasion, Stalin moved his factories east of the Urals, out of range of the Luftwaffe. He ordered his retreating army to adopt a “scorched earth” policy, to move east and destroy food, rails, and shelters to stymie the advancing German army. The German army slogged forward. It split into three pieces and stood at the gates of Moscow, Stalingrad, and Leningrad, but supply lines now stretched thousands of miles, Soviet infrastructure had been destroyed, partisans harried German lines, and the brutal Russian winter arrived. Germany had won massive gains but the winter found Germany exhausted and overextended. In the north, the German army starved Leningrad to death during an interminable siege; in the south, at Stalingrad, the two armies bled themselves to death in the destroyed city; and, in the center, on the outskirts of Moscow, in sight of the capital city, the German army faltered and fell back. It was the Soviet Union that broke Hitler’s army. Twenty-five million Soviet soldiers and civilians died during the Great Patriotic War, and roughly 80 percent of all German casualties during the war came on the Eastern Front. The German army and its various conscripts suffered 850,000 casualties at the Battle of Stalingrad alone. ((Antony Beevor, Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942–1943 (New York: Penguin, 1999); Omer Bartov, The Eastern Front, 1941–45: German Troops and the Barbarization of Warfare (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1986); Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939–1945 (New York: Picador, 2006).))

IV. The United States and the European War

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 While Hitler marched across Europe, the Japanese continued their war in the Pacific. In 1939 the United States dissolved its trade treaties with Japan and the following year cut off supplies of war materials by embargoing oil, steel, rubber, and other vital goods. It was hoped that economic pressure would shut down the Japanese war machine. Instead, Japan’s resource-starved military launched invasions across the Pacific to sustain its war effort. The Japanese called their new empire the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and, with the cry of “Asia for the Asians,” made war against European powers and independent nations throughout the region. Diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States collapsed. The United States demanded that Japan withdraw from China; Japan considered the oil embargo a de facto declaration of war. ((Herbert Feis, The Road to Pearl Harbor: The Coming of the War Between the United States and Japan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950).))

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Japanese military planners, believing that American intervention was inevitable, planned a coordinated Pacific offensive to neutralize the United States and other European powers and provide time for Japan to complete its conquests and fortify its positions. On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Japanese military planners hoped to destroy enough battleships and aircraft carriers to cripple American naval power for years. Twenty-four hundred Americans were killed in the attack.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 American isolationism fell at Pearl Harbor. Japan also assaulted Hong Kong, the Philippines, and American holdings throughout the Pacific, but it was the attack on Hawaii that threw the United States into a global conflict. Franklin Roosevelt called December 7 “a date which will live in infamy” and called for a declaration of war, which Congress answered within hours. Within a week of Pearl Harbor the United States had declared war on the entire Axis, turning two previously separate conflicts into a true world war.

This pair of US Military recruiting posters demonstrates the way that two branches of the military—the Marines and the Women’s Army Corps—borrowed techniques from advertising professionals to “sell” a romantic vision of war to Americans. These two images take different strategies: one shows Marines at war in a lush jungle, reminding viewers that the war was taking place in exotic lands, the other depicted women taking on new jobs as a patriotic duty. Bradshaw Crandall, “Are you a girl with a star-spangled heart?” Recruiting Publicity Bureau, US Women’s Army Corps Recruiting Poster (1943); Unknown, “Let’s Go Get ‘Em.” Beck Engraving Co. (1942). Bradshaw Crandall, “Are you a girl with a star-spangled heart?” Recruiting Publicity Bureau, US Women’s Army Corps Recruiting Poster (1943); Unknown, “Let’s Go Get ‘Em.” Beck Engraving Co. (1942). Library of Congress.
This pair of U.S. military recruiting posters demonstrates the way that two branches of the military—the Marines and the Women’s Army Corps—borrowed techniques from professional advertisers to “sell” a romantic vision of war to Americans. One shows Marines at war in a lush jungle, reminding viewers that the war was taking place in exotic lands; the other depicted women taking on new jobs as a patriotic duty. Bradshaw Crandall, Are You a Girl with a Star-Spangled Heart? Recruiting Publicity Bureau, U.S. Women’s Army Corps Recruiting Poster (1943); Unknown, Let’s Go Get ’Em. Beck Engraving Co. (1942). Library of Congress.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 The American war began slowly. Britain had stood alone militarily in Europe, but American supplies had bolstered their resistance. Hitler unleashed his U-boat “wolf packs” into the Atlantic Ocean with orders to sink anything carrying aid to Britain, but Britain’s and the United States’ superior tactics and technology won them the Battle of the Atlantic. British code breakers cracked Germany’s radio codes and the surge of intelligence, dubbed Ultra, coupled with massive naval convoys escorted by destroyers armed with sonar and depth charges, gave the advantage to the Allies and by 1942, Hitler’s Kriegsmarine was losing ships faster than they could be built. ((For the United States on the European front, see, for instance, John Keegan, The Second World War (New York: Viking, 1990); and Gerhard L. Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).))

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 In North Africa in 1942, British victory at El Alamein began pushing the Germans back. In November, the first American combat troops entered the European war, landing in French Morocco and pushing the Germans east while the British pushed west. ((Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942–1943 (New York: Holt, 2002.)) By 1943, the Allies had pushed Axis forces out of Africa. In January President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill met at Casablanca to discuss the next step of the European war. Churchill convinced Roosevelt to chase the Axis up Italy, into the “soft underbelly” of Europe. Afterward, Roosevelt announced to the press that the Allies would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Meanwhile, the Army Air Force (AAF) sent hundreds (and eventually thousands) of bombers to England in preparation for a massive strategic bombing campaign against Germany. The plan was to bomb Germany around the clock. American bombers hit German ball-bearing factories, rail yards, oil fields, and manufacturing centers during the day, while the British RAF carpet-bombed German cities at night. Flying in formation, they initially flew unescorted, since many believed that bombers equipped with defensive firepower flew too high and too fast to be attacked. However, advanced German technology allowed fighters to easily shoot down the lumbering bombers. On some disastrous missions, the Germans shot down almost 50 percent of American aircraft. However, the advent and implementation of a long-range escort fighter let the bombers hit their targets more accurately while fighters confronted opposing German aircraft.

Photograph of several Allied bombers in flight. Dark smoke rises from the ground below.
In 1943, Allied forces began a bombing campaign of railroad and oil targets in Bucharest, part of the wider policy of bombing expeditions meant to incapacitate German transportation. Bucharest was considered the number one oil target in Europe. Photograph, August 1, 1943. Wikimedia.
Photograph of a thoroughly bombed and destroyed Cologne, Germany.
Bombings throughout Europe caused complete devastation in some areas, leveling beautiful ancient cities like Cologne, Germany. Cologne experienced an astonishing 262 separate air raids by Allied forces, leaving the city in ruins as in the photograph above. Amazingly, the Cologne Cathedral stood nearly undamaged even after being hit numerous times, while the area around it crumbled. Photograph, April 24, 1945. Wikimedia.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 In the wake of the Soviets’ victory at Stalingrad, the Big Three (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin) met in Tehran in November 1943. Dismissing Africa and Italy as a sideshow, Stalin demanded that Britain and the United States invade France to relieve pressure on the Eastern Front. Churchill was hesitant, but Roosevelt was eager. The invasion was tentatively scheduled for 1944.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Back in Italy, the “soft underbelly” turned out to be much tougher than Churchill had imagined. Italy’s narrow, mountainous terrain gave the defending Axis the advantage. Movement up the peninsula was slow, and in some places conditions returned to the trenchlike warfare of World War I. Americans attempted to land troops behind them at Anzio on the western coast of Italy, but, surrounded, they suffered heavy casualties. Still, the Allies pushed up the peninsula, Mussolini’s government revolted, and a new Italian government quickly made peace.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 On the day the American army entered Rome, American, British and Canadian forces launched Operation Overlord, the long-awaited invasion of France. D-Day, as it became popularly known, was the largest amphibious assault in history. American general Dwight Eisenhower was uncertain enough of the attack’s chances that the night before the invasion he wrote two speeches: one for success and one for failure. The Allied landings at Normandy were successful, and although progress across France was much slower than hoped for, Paris was liberated roughly two months later. Allied bombing expeditions meanwhile continued to level German cities and industrial capacity. Perhaps four hundred thousand German civilians were killed by allied bombing. ((Max Hastings, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.))

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 The Nazis were crumbling on both fronts. Hitler tried but failed to turn the war in his favor in the west. The Battle of the Bulge failed to drive the Allies back to the English Channel, but the delay cost the Allies the winter. The invasion of Germany would have to wait, while the Soviet Union continued its relentless push westward, ravaging German populations in retribution for German war crimes. ((Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won (New York: Norton, 1997).))

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 German counterattacks in the east failed to dislodge the Soviet advance, destroying any last chance Germany might have had to regain the initiative. 1945 dawned with the end of European war in sight. The Big Three met again at Yalta in the Soviet Union, where they reaffirmed the demand for Hitler’s unconditional surrender and began to plan for postwar Europe.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 The Soviet Union reached Germany in January, and the Americans crossed the Rhine in March. In late April American and Soviet troops met at the Elbe while the Soviets pushed relentlessly by Stalin to reach Berlin first and took the capital city in May, days after Hitler and his high command had died by suicide in a city bunker. Germany was conquered. The European war was over. Allied leaders met again, this time at Potsdam, Germany, where it was decided that Germany would be divided into pieces according to current Allied occupation, with Berlin likewise divided, pending future elections. Stalin also agreed to join the fight against Japan in approximately three months. ((Christopher Duffy, Red Storm on the Reich: The Soviet March on Germany, 1945 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1993.))

V. The United States and the Japanese War

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 As Americans celebrated V-E (Victory in Europe) Day, they redirected their full attention to the still-raging Pacific War. As in Europe, the war in the Pacific started slowly. After Pearl Harbor, the American-controlled Philippine archipelago fell to Japan. After running out of ammunition and supplies, the garrison of American and Filipino soldiers surrendered. The prisoners were marched eighty miles to their prisoner-of-war camp without food, water, or rest. Ten thousand died on the Bataan Death March. ((For the Pacific War, see, for instance, Ronald Spector, Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (New York: Vintage Books, 1985); Keegan, Second World War; John Costello, The Pacific War: 1941–1945 (New York: Harper, 2009); and John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986).))

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 But as Americans mobilized their armed forces, the tide turned. In the summer of 1942, American naval victories at the Battle of the Coral Sea and the aircraft carrier duel at the Battle of Midway crippled Japan’s Pacific naval operations. To dislodge Japan’s hold over the Pacific, the U.S. military began island hopping: attacking island after island, bypassing the strongest but seizing those capable of holding airfields to continue pushing Japan out of the region. Combat was vicious. At Guadalcanal American soldiers saw Japanese soldiers launch suicidal charges rather than surrender. Many Japanese soldiers refused to be taken prisoner or to take prisoners themselves. Such tactics, coupled with American racial prejudice, turned the Pacific Theater into a more brutal and barbarous conflict than the European Theater. ((Dower, War Without Mercy.))

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Japanese defenders fought tenaciously. Few battles were as one-sided as the Battle of the Philippine Sea, or what the Americans called the Japanese counterattack, the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. Japanese soldiers bled the Americans in their advance across the Pacific. At Iwo Jima, an eight-square-mile island of volcanic rock, seventeen thousand Japanese soldiers held the island against seventy thousand Marines for over a month. At the cost of nearly their entire force, they inflicted almost thirty thousand casualties before the island was lost.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 By February 1945, American bombers were in range of the mainland. Bombers hit Japan’s industrial facilities but suffered high casualties. To spare bomber crews from dangerous daylight raids, and to achieve maximum effect against Japan’s wooden cities, many American bombers dropped incendiary weapons that created massive firestorms and wreaked havoc on Japanese cities. Over sixty Japanese cities were fire-bombed. American fire bombs killed one hundred thousand civilians in Tokyo in March 1945.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 In June 1945, after eighty days of fighting and tens of thousands of casualties, the Americans captured the island of Okinawa. The mainland of Japan was open before them. It was a viable base from which to launch a full invasion of the Japanese homeland and end the war.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Estimates varied, but given the tenacity of Japanese soldiers fighting on islands far from their home, some officials estimated that an invasion of the Japanese mainland could cost half a million American casualties and perhaps millions of Japanese civilians. Historians debate the many motivations that ultimately drove the Americans to use atomic weapons against Japan, and many American officials criticized the decision, but these would be the numbers later cited by government leaders and military officials to justify their use. ((Michael J. Hogan, Hiroshima in History and Memory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (New York: Vintage Books, 1996).))

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Early in the war, fearing that the Germans might develop an atomic bomb, the U.S. government launched the Manhattan Project, a hugely expensive, ambitious program to harness atomic energy and create a single weapon capable of leveling entire cities. The Americans successfully exploded the world’s first nuclear device, Trinity, in New Mexico in July 1945. (Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, where the bomb was designed, later recalled that the event reminded him of Hindu scripture: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”) Two more bombs—Fat Man and Little Boy—were built and detonated over two Japanese cities in August. Hiroshima was hit on August 6. Over one hundred thousand civilians were killed. Nagasaki followed on August 9. Perhaps eighty thousand civilians were killed.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan on August 15. On September 2, aboard the battleship USS Missouri, delegates from the Japanese government formally signed their surrender. World War II was finally over.

VI. Soldiers’ Experiences

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Almost eighteen million men served in World War II. Volunteers rushed to join the military after Pearl Harbor, but the majority—over ten million—were drafted into service. Volunteers could express their preference for assignment, and many preempted the draft by volunteering. Regardless, recruits judged I-A, “fit for service,” were moved into basic training, where soldiers were developed physically and trained in the basic use of weapons and military equipment. Soldiers were indoctrinated into the chain of command and introduced to military life. After basic, soldiers moved on to more specialized training. For example, combat infantrymen received additional weapons and tactical training, and radio operators learned transmission codes and the operation of field radios. Afterward, an individual’s experience varied depending on what service he entered and to what theater he was assigned. ((Works on the experiences of World War II soldiers are seemingly endless and include popular histories such as Stephen E. Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997) and memoirs such as Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (New York: Presidio Press, 1981).))

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Soldiers and Marines bore the brunt of on-the-ground combat. After transportation to the front by trains, ships, and trucks, they could expect to march carrying packs weighing anywhere from twenty to fifty pounds containing rations, ammunition, bandages, tools, clothing, and miscellaneous personal items in addition to their weapons. Sailors, once deployed, spent months at sea operating their assigned vessels. Larger ships, particularly aircraft carriers, were veritable floating cities. In most, sailors lived and worked in cramped conditions, often sleeping in bunks stacked in rooms housing dozens of sailors. Senior officers received small rooms of their own. Sixty thousand American sailors lost their lives in the war.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 During World War II, the Air Force was still a branch of the U.S. Army and soldiers served in ground and air crews. World War II saw the institutionalization of massive bombing campaigns against cities and industrial production. Large bombers like the B-17 Flying Fortress required pilots, navigators, bombardiers, radio operators, and four dedicated machine gunners. Airmen on bombing raids left from bases in England or Italy or from Pacific islands and endured hours of flight before approaching enemy territory. At high altitude, and without pressurized cabins, crews used oxygen tanks to breathe and on-board temperatures plummeted. Once in enemy airspace, crews confronted enemy fighters and anti-aircraft flak from the ground. While fighter pilots flew as escorts, the Air Corps suffered heavy casualties. Tens of thousands of airmen lost their lives.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 1 On the ground, conditions varied. Soldiers in Europe endured freezing winters, impenetrable French hedgerows, Italian mountain ranges, and dense forests. Germans fought with a Western mentality familiar to Americans. Soldiers in the Pacific endured heat and humidity, monsoons, jungles, and tropical diseases. And they confronted an unfamiliar foe. Americans, for instance, could understand surrender as prudent; many Japanese soldiers saw it as cowardice. What Americans saw as a fanatical waste of life, the Japanese saw as brave and honorable. Moreover, American soldiers and American military leadership brought their historical anti-Asian prejudices to bear against the Japanese. Atrocities flourished in the Pacific at a level unmatched in Europe.

VII. The Wartime Economy

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 Economies win wars no less than militaries. The war converted American factories to wartime production, reawakened Americans’ economic might, armed Allied belligerents and the American armed forces, effectively pulled America out of the Great Depression, and ushered in an era of unparalleled economic prosperity. ((See, for instance, Michael Adams, The Best War Ever: America and World War II (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994); Mark Harrison, ed., The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998); and Kennedy, Freedom from Fear).))

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Roosevelt’s New Deal had ameliorated the worst of the Depression, but the economy still limped its way forward into the 1930s. But then Europe fell into war, and, despite its isolationism, Americans were glad to sell the Allies arms and supplies. And then Pearl Harbor changed everything. The United States drafted the economy into war service. The “sleeping giant” mobilized its unrivaled economic capacity to wage worldwide war. Governmental entities such as the War Production Board and the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion managed economic production for the war effort and economic output exploded. An economy that was unable to provide work for a quarter of the workforce less than a decade earlier now struggled to fill vacant positions.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Government spending during the four years of war doubled all federal spending in all of American history up to that point. The budget deficit soared, but, just as Depression-era economists had counseled, the government’s massive intervention annihilated unemployment and propelled growth. The economy that came out of the war looked nothing like the one that had begun it.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Military production came at the expense of the civilian consumer economy. Appliance and automobile manufacturers converted their plants to produce weapons and vehicles. Consumer choice was foreclosed. Every American received rationing cards and, legally, goods such as gasoline, coffee, meat, cheese, butter, processed food, firewood, and sugar could not be purchased without them. The housing industry was shut down, and the cities became overcrowded.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 But the wartime economy boomed. The Roosevelt administration urged citizens to save their earnings or buy war bonds to prevent inflation. Bond drives were held nationally and headlined by Hollywood celebrities. Such drives were hugely successful. They not only funded much of the war effort, they helped tame inflation as well. So too did tax rates. The federal government raised income taxes and boosted the top marginal tax rate to 94 percent.

Photograph of a fundraising event selling war bonds. Soldiers salute as a flag is raised.
As in World War I, citizens were urged to buy war bonds to support the effort overseas. Rallies, such as this 1943 event, appealed to Americans’ sense of patriotism. Wikimedia.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 With the economy booming and twenty million American workers placed into military service, unemployment virtually disappeared. More and more African Americans continued to leave the agrarian South for the industrial North. And as more and more men joined the military, and more and more positions went unfilled, women joined the workforce en masse. Other American producers looked outside the United States, southward, to Mexico, to fill its labor force. Between 1942 and 1964, the United States contracted thousands of Mexican nationals to work in American agriculture and railroads in the Bracero Program. Jointly administered by the State Department, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Justice, the binational agreement secured five million contracts across twenty-four states. ((Deborah Cohen, Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subjects in the Postwar United States and Mexico (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).))

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 With factory work proliferating across the country and agricultural labor experiencing severe labor shortages, the presidents of Mexico and the United States signed an agreement in July 1942 to bring the first group of legally contracted workers to California. Discriminatory policies toward people of Mexican descent prevented bracero contracts in Texas until 1947. The Bracero Program survived the war, enshrined in law until the 1960s, when the United States liberalized its immigration laws. Though braceros suffered exploitative labor conditions, for the men who participated the program was a mixed blessing. Interviews with ex-braceros captured the complexity. “They would call us pigs . . . they didn’t have to treat us that way,” one said of his employers, while another said, “For me it was a blessing, the United States was a blessing . . . it is a nation I fell in love with because of the excess work and good pay.” ((Interview with Rogelio Valdez Robles by Valerie Martinez and Lydia Valdez, transcribed by Nancy Valerio, September 21, 2008; interview with Alvaro Hernández by Myrna Parra-Mantilla, February 5, 2003, Interview No. 33, Institute of Oral History, University of Texas at El Paso.)) After the exodus of Mexican migrants during the Depression, the program helped reestablish Mexican migration, institutionalized migrant farm work across much of the country, and further planted a Mexican presence in the southern and western United States.

VIII. Women and World War II

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 1 President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration had encouraged all able-bodied American women to help the war effort. He considered the role of women in the war critical for American victory, and the public expected women to assume various functions to free men for active military service. While most women opted to remain at home or volunteer with charitable organizations, many went to work or donned a military uniform.

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 World War II brought unprecedented labor opportunities for American women. Industrial labor, an occupational sphere dominated by men, shifted in part to women for the duration of wartime mobilization. Women applied for jobs in converted munitions factories. The iconic illustrated image of Rosie the Riveter, a muscular woman dressed in coveralls with her hair in a kerchief and inscribed with the phrase We Can Do It!, came to stand for female factory labor during the war. But women also worked in various auxiliary positions for the government. Although such jobs were often traditionally gendered female, over a million administrative jobs at the local, state, and national levels were transferred from men to women for the duration of the war. ((Alecea Standlee, “Shifting Spheres: Gender, Labor, and the Construction of National Identity in U.S. Propaganda During the Second World War,” Minerva Journal of Women and War 4 (Spring 2010): 43–62.))

Women came into the workforces in greater numbers than ever before during WWII. With vacancies left by deployed men and new positions created by war production, posters like this iconic “We Can Do It!” urged women to support the war effort by going to work in America’s factories. Poster for Westinghouse, 1942. Wikimedia, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:We_Can_Do_It!.jpg.
With so many American workers deployed overseas and so many new positions created by war production, women entered the work force in massive numbers. Wikimedia Commons.

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 For women who elected not to work, many volunteer opportunities presented themselves. The American Red Cross, the largest charitable organization in the nation, encouraged women to volunteer with local city chapters. Millions of women organized community social events for families, packed and shipped almost half a million tons of medical supplies overseas, and prepared twenty-seven million care packages of nonperishable items for American and other Allied prisoners of war. The American Red Cross further required all female volunteers to certify as nurse’s aides, providing an extra benefit and work opportunity for hospital staffs that suffered severe personnel losses. Other charity organizations, such as church and synagogue affiliates, benevolent associations, and social club auxiliaries, gave women further outlets for volunteer work.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 Military service was another option for women who wanted to join the war effort. Over 350,000 women served in several all-female units of the military branches. The Army and Navy Nurse Corps Reserves, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, the Coast Guard’s SPARs (named for the Coast Guard motto, Semper Paratus, “Always Ready”), and Marine Corps units gave women the opportunity to serve as either commissioned officers or enlisted members at military bases at home and abroad. The Nurse Corps Reserves alone commissioned 105,000 army and navy nurses recruited by the American Red Cross. Military nurses worked at base hospitals, mobile medical units, and onboard hospital “mercy” ships. ((Major Jeanne Holm, USAF (Ret.), Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1982), 21–109; Portia Kernodle, The Red Cross Nurse in Action, 1882–1948 (New York: Harper), 406–453.))

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 3 Jim Crow segregation in both the civilian and military sectors remained a problem for Black women who wanted to join the war effort. Even after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 in 1941, supervisors who hired Black women still often relegated them to the most menial tasks on factory floors. Segregation was further upheld in factory lunchrooms, and many Black women were forced to work at night to keep them separate from whites. In the military, only the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the Nurse Corps Reserves accepted Black women for active service, and the army set a limited quota of 10 percent of total end strength for Black female officers and enlisted women and segregated Black units on active duty. The American Red Cross, meanwhile, recruited only four hundred Black nurses for the Army and Navy Nurse Corps Reserves, and Black Army and Navy nurses worked in segregated military hospitals on bases stateside and overseas.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 1 And for all of the postwar celebration of Rosie the Riveter, after the war ended the men returned and most women voluntarily left the workforce or lost their jobs. Meanwhile, former military women faced a litany of obstacles in obtaining veteran’s benefits during their transition to civilian life. The nation that beckoned the call for assistance to millions of women during the four-year crisis hardly stood ready to accommodate their postwar needs and demands.

IX. Race and World War II

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 World War II affected nearly every aspect of life in the United States, and America’s racial relationships were not immune. African Americans, Mexicans and Mexican Americans, Jews, and Japanese Americans were profoundly impacted.

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 In early 1941, months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the largest Black trade union in the nation, made headlines by threatening President Roosevelt with a march on Washington, D.C. In this “crisis of democracy,” Randolph said, many defense contractors still refused to hire Black workers and the armed forces remained segregated. In exchange for Randolph calling off the march, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, the Fair Employment Practice in Defense Industries Act, banning racial and religious discrimination in defense industries and establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to monitor defense industry hiring practices. While the armed forces remained segregated throughout the war, and the FEPC had limited influence, the order showed that the federal government could stand against discrimination. The Black workforce in defense industries rose from 3 percent in 1942 to 9 percent in 1945. ((William P. Jones, The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (New York: Norton, 2013).))

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 More than one million African Americans fought in the war. Most Black servicemen served in segregated, noncombat units led by white officers. Some gains were made, however. The number of Black officers increased from five in 1940 to over seven thousand in 1945. The all-Black pilot squadrons, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, completed more than 1,500 missions, escorted heavy bombers into Germany, and earned several hundred merits and medals. Many bomber crews specifically requested the Red Tail Angels as escorts. And near the end of the war, the army and navy began integrating some of their units and facilities, before the U.S. government finally ordered the full integration of its armed forces in 1948. ((Stephen Tuck, Fog of War: The Second World War and the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Daniel Kryder, Divided Arsenal: Race and the American State During World War II (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).))

Photograph of several Tuskegee Airmen standing at attention. Their commanding officer salutes. A fighter plane is in the background.
The Tuskegee Airmen stand at attention in 1941 as Major James A. Ellison returns the salute of Mac Ross, one of the first graduates of the Tuskegee cadets. The photographscaptures the pride and poise of the Tuskegee Airmen, who continued the tradition of African Americans’ military service despite widespread racial discrimination and inequality at home. Wikimedia.

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 While Black Americans served in the armed forces (though they were segregated), on the home front they became riveters and welders, rationed food and gasoline, and bought victory bonds. But many Black Americans saw the war as an opportunity not only to serve their country but to improve it. The Pittsburgh Courier, a leading Black newspaper, spearheaded the Double V campaign. It called on African Americans to fight two wars: the war against Nazism and fascism abroad and the war against racial inequality at home. To achieve victory, to achieve “real democracy,” the Courier encouraged its readers to enlist in the armed forces, volunteer on the home front, and fight against racial segregation and discrimination. ((Andrew Buni, Robert L. Vann of the Pittsburgh Courier: Politics and Black Journalism (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974).))

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 During the war, membership in the NAACP jumped tenfold, from fifty thousand to five hundred thousand. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was formed in 1942 and spearheaded the method of nonviolent direct action to achieve desegregation. Between 1940 and 1950, some 1.5 million Black southerners, the largest number of any decade since the beginning of the Great Migration, also indirectly demonstrated their opposition to racism and violence by migrating out of the Jim Crow South to the North. But transitions were not easy. Racial tensions erupted in 1943 in a series of riots in cities such as Mobile, Beaumont, and Harlem. The bloodiest race riot occurred in Detroit and resulted in the death of twenty-five Black and nine White Americans. Still, the war ignited in African Americans an urgency for equality that they would carry with them into the subsequent years. ((Dominic J. Capeci Jr. and Martha Wilkerson, Layered Violence: The Detroit Rioters of 1943 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991).))

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 Many Americans had to navigate American prejudice, and America’s entry into the war left foreign nationals from the belligerent nations in a precarious position. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) targeted many on suspicions of disloyalty for detainment, hearings, and possible internment under the Alien Enemy Act. Those who received an order for internment were sent to government camps secured by barbed wire and armed guards. Such internments were supposed to be for cause. Then, on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal of any persons from designated “exclusion zones”—which ultimately covered nearly a third of the country—at the discretion of military commanders. Thirty thousand Japanese Americans fought for the United States in World War II, but wartime anti-Japanese sentiment built on historical prejudices, and under the order, people of Japanese descent, both immigrants and American citizens, were detained and placed under the custody of the War Relocation Authority, the civil agency that supervised their relocation to internment camps. They lost their homes and jobs. Over ten thousand German nationals and a smaller number of Italian nationals were interned at various times in the United States during World War II, but American policies disproportionately targeted Japanese-descended populations, and individuals did not receive personalized reviews prior to their internment. This policy of mass exclusion and detention affected over 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-descended individuals. Seventy thousand were American citizens. ((Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).))

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 In its 1982 report, Personal Justice Denied, the congressionally appointed Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians concluded that “the broad historical causes” shaping the relocation program were “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” ((Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982), 18).)) Although the exclusion orders were found to have been constitutionally permissible under the vagaries of national security, they were later judged, even by the military and judicial leaders of the time, to have been a grave injustice against people of Japanese descent. In 1988, President Reagan signed a law that formally apologized for internment and provided reparations to surviving internees.

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 But if actions taken during war would later prove repugnant, so too could inaction. As the Allies pushed into Germany and Poland, they uncovered the full extent of Hitler’s genocidal atrocities. The Allies liberated massive camp systems set up for the imprisonment, forced labor, and extermination of all those deemed racially, ideologically, or biologically “unfit” by Nazi Germany. But the Holocaust—the systematic murder of eleven million civilians, including six million Jews—had been under way for years. How did America respond?

This photograph shows a number of Jewish women and children, including a small boy in the foreground, with their hands raised in surrender while German soldiers keep their weapons trained on the civilians.
This photograph, originally from Jürgen Stroop’s May 1943 report to Heinrich Himmler, circulated throughout Europe and America as an image of the Nazi Party’s brutality. The original German caption read: “Forcibly pulled out of dug-outs”. Wikimedia Commons.

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 Initially, American officials expressed little official concern for Nazi persecutions. At the first signs of trouble in the 1930s, the State Department and most U.S. embassies did relatively little to aid European Jews. Roosevelt publicly spoke out against the persecution and even withdrew the U.S. ambassador to Germany after Kristallnacht. He pushed for the 1938 Evian Conference in France, in which international leaders discussed the Jewish refugee problem and worked to expand Jewish immigration quotas by tens of thousands of people per year. But the conference came to nothing, and the United States turned away countless Jewish refugees who requested asylum in the United States.

68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 In 1939, the German ship St. Louis carried over nine hundred Jewish refugees. They could not find a country that would take them. The passengers could not receive visas under the U.S. quota system. A State Department wire to one passenger read that all must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” The ship cabled the president for special privilege, but the president said nothing. The ship was forced to return to Europe. Hundreds of the St. Louis’s passengers would perish in the Holocaust.

69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 Anti-Semitism still permeated the United States. Even if Roosevelt wanted to do more—it’s difficult to trace his own thoughts and personal views—he judged the political price for increasing immigration quotas as too high. In 1938 and 1939, the U.S. Congress debated the Wagner-Rogers Bill, an act to allow twenty thousand German-Jewish children into the United States. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt endorsed the measure, but the president remained publicly silent. The bill was opposed by roughly two thirds of the American public and was defeated. Historians speculate that Roosevelt, anxious to protect the New Deal and his rearmament programs, was unwilling to expend political capital to protect foreign groups that the American public had little interest in protecting. ((Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, FDR and the Jews (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2013), 149.))

70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 1 Knowledge of the full extent of the Holocaust was slow in coming. When the war began, American officials, including Roosevelt, doubted initial reports of industrial death camps. But even when they conceded their existence, officials pointed to their genuinely limited options. The most plausible response for the U.S. military was to bomb either the camps or the railroads leading to them, but those options were rejected by military and civilian officials who argued that it would do little to stop the deportations, would distract from the war effort, and could cause casualties among concentration camp prisoners. Whether bombing would have saved lives remains a hotly debated question. ((Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).))

71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 Late in the war, secretary of the treasury Henry Morgenthau, himself born into a wealthy New York Jewish family, pushed through major changes in American policy. In 1944, he formed the War Refugees Board (WRB) and became a passionate advocate for Jewish refugees. The WRB saved perhaps two hundred thousand Jews and twenty thousand others. Morgenthau also convinced Roosevelt to issue a public statement condemning the Nazi’s persecution. But it was already 1944, and such policies were far too little, far too late. ((David Mayers, Dissenting Voices in America’s Rise to Power (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 274.))

X. Toward a Postwar World

72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 Americans celebrated the end of the war. At home and abroad, the United States looked to create a postwar order that would guarantee global peace and domestic prosperity. Although the alliance of convenience with Stalin’s Soviet Union would collapse, Americans nevertheless looked for the means to ensure postwar stability and economic security for returning veterans.

73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 The inability of the League of Nations to stop German, Italian, and Japanese aggressions caused many to question whether any global organization or agreements could ever ensure world peace. This included Franklin Roosevelt, who, as Woodrow Wilson’s undersecretary of the navy, witnessed the rejection of this idea by both the American people and the Senate. In 1941, Roosevelt believed that postwar security could be maintained by an informal agreement between what he termed the Four Policemen—the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China—instead of a rejuvenated League of Nations. But others, including secretary of state Cordell Hull and British prime minister Winston Churchill, disagreed and convinced Roosevelt to push for a new global organization. As the war ran its course, Roosevelt came around to the idea. And so did the American public. Pollster George Gallup noted a “profound change” in American attitudes. The United States had rejected membership in the League of Nations after World War I, and in 1937 only a third of Americans polled supported such an idea. But as war broke out in Europe, half of Americans did. America’s entry into the war bolstered support, and, by 1945, with the war closing, 81 percent of Americans favored the idea. ((Fraser J. Harbutt, Yalta 1945: Europe and America at the Crossroads of Peace (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 258; Mark Mazower, Governing the World: The History of a Modern Idea (New York: Penguin, 2012, 208.))

74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 0 Whatever his support, Roosevelt had long shown enthusiasm for the ideas later enshrined in the United Nations (UN) charter. In January 1941, he announced his Four Freedoms—freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear—that all of the world’s citizens should enjoy. That same year he signed the Atlantic Charter with Churchill, which reinforced those ideas and added the right of self-determination and promised some sort of postwar economic and political cooperation. Roosevelt first used the term united nations to describe the Allied powers, not the subsequent postwar organization. But the name stuck. At Tehran in 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill convinced Stalin to send a Soviet delegation to a conference at Dumbarton Oaks, in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., in August 1944, where they agreed on the basic structure of the new organization. It would have a Security Council—the original Four Policemen, plus France—which would consult on how best to keep the peace and when to deploy the military power of the assembled nations. According to one historian, the organization demonstrated an understanding that “only the Great Powers, working together, could provide real security.” But the plan was a kind of hybrid between Roosevelt’s policemen idea and a global organization of equal representation. There would also be a General Assembly, made up of all nations; an International Court of Justice; and a council for economic and social matters. Dumbarton Oaks was a mixed success—the Soviets especially expressed concern over how the Security Council would work—but the powers agreed to meet again in San Francisco between April and June 1945 for further negotiations. There, on June 26, 1945, fifty nations signed the UN charter. ((Paul Kennedy, The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations (New York: Random House, 2006).))

75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 2 Anticipating victory in World War II, leaders not only looked to the postwar global order, they looked to the fate of returning American servicemen. American politicians and interest groups sought to avoid another economic depression—the economy had tanked after World War I—by gradually easing returning veterans back into the civilian economy. The brainchild of Henry Colmery, the former head of the American Legion, the G.I. Bill won support from progressives and conservatives alike. Passed in 1944, the G.I. Bill was a multifaceted, multibillion-dollar entitlement program that rewarded honorably discharged veterans with numerous benefits. ((Kathleen Frydl, The G.I. Bill (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Suzanne Mettler, Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).))

76 Leave a comment on paragraph 76 0 Faced with the prospect of over fifteen million members of the armed services (including approximately 350,000 women) suddenly returning to civilian life, the G.I. Bill offered a bevy of inducements to slow their influx into the civilian workforce as well as reward their service with public benefits. The legislation offered a year’s worth of unemployment benefits for veterans unable to secure work. About half of American veterans (eight million) received $4 billion in unemployment benefits over the life of the bill. The G.I. Bill also made postsecondary education a reality for many. The Veterans Administration (VA) paid the lion’s share of educational expenses, including tuition, fees, supplies, and even stipends for living expenses. The G.I. Bill sparked a boom in higher education. Enrollments at accredited colleges, universities, and technical and professional schools spiked, rising from 1.5 million in 1940 to 3.6 million in 1960. The VA disbursed over $14 billon in educational aid in just over a decade. Furthermore, the bill encouraged home ownership. Roughly 40 percent of Americans owned homes in 1945, but that figure climbed to 60 percent a decade after the close of the war. Because the bill did away with down payment requirements, veterans could obtain home loans for as little as $1 down. Close to four million veterans purchased homes through the G.I. Bill, sparking a construction bonanza that fueled postwar growth. In addition, the VA also helped nearly two hundred thousand veterans secure farms and offered thousands more guaranteed financing for small businesses. ((Kathleen Frydl, G.I. Bill; Mettler, Soldiers to Citizens.))

77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 1 Not all Americans, however, benefited equally from the G.I. Bill. Indirectly, since the military limited the number of female personnel, men qualified for the bill’s benefits in far higher numbers. Colleges also limited the number of female applicants to guarantee space for male veterans. African Americans, too, faced discrimination. Segregation forced Black veterans into overcrowded “historically Black colleges” that had to turn away close to twenty thousand applicants. Meanwhile, residential segregation limited Black home ownership in various neighborhoods, denying Black homeowners the equity and investment that would come with home ownership. There were other limits and other disadvantaged groups. Veterans accused of homosexuality, for instance, were similarly unable to claim GI benefits. ((Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Knopf, 2003).))

78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 1 The effects of the G.I. Bill were significant and long-lasting. It helped sustain the great postwar economic boom and, even if many could not attain it, it nevertheless established the hallmarks of American middle class life.

XI. Conclusion

79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0 The United States entered the war in a crippling economic depression and exited at the beginning of an unparalleled economic boom. The war had been won, the United States was stronger than ever, and Americans looked forward to a prosperous future. And yet new problems loomed. Stalin’s Soviet Union and the proliferation of nuclear weapons would disrupt postwar dreams of global harmony. Meanwhile, Americans who had fought a war for global democracy would find that very democracy eradicated around the world in reestablished colonial regimes and at home in segregation and injustice. The war had unleashed powerful forces that would reshape the United States at home and abroad.

XII. Primary Sources

80 Leave a comment on paragraph 80 1 1. Charles A. Lindbergh, “America First” (1941)

81 Leave a comment on paragraph 81 0 Charles Lindbergh won international fame in 1927 after completing the first non-stop, solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. As Hitler’s armies marched across the European continent, many Americans began to imagine American participation in the war. Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee, advocating “America First,” championed American isolationism.

82 Leave a comment on paragraph 82 0 2. A. Phillip Randolph and Franklin Roosevelt on Racial Discrimination in the Defense Industry (1941)

83 Leave a comment on paragraph 83 0 As the United States prepared for war, Black labor leader A. Philip Randolph recoiled at rampant employment discrimination in the defense industry. Together with NAACP head Walter White and other leaders, Randolph planned “a mass March on Washington” to push for fair employment practices. President Franklin Roosevelt met with Randolph and White on June 18, and, faced with mobilized discontent and a possible disruption of wartime industries, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 on June 25. The order prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industry. Randolph and other leaders declared victory and called off the march.

84 Leave a comment on paragraph 84 0 3. The Atlantic Charter (1941)

85 Leave a comment on paragraph 85 0 The leaders of the United States and United Kingdom signed the Atlantic Charter in August 1941. The short document neatly outlined an idealized vision for political and economic order of the postwar world.

86 Leave a comment on paragraph 86 0 4. FDR, Executive Order No. 9066 (1942)

87 Leave a comment on paragraph 87 0 During World War II, the federal government removed over 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent (both foreign-born “issei” and native-born “nisei”) from the West Coast and interned in camps. President Roosevelt authorized the internments with his Executive Order No. 9066, issued on February 19, 1942.

88 Leave a comment on paragraph 88 0 5. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga on Japanese Internment (1942/1994)

89 Leave a comment on paragraph 89 0 Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga was born in 1924 in Los Angeles, California. A second-generation (“Nisei”) Japanese American, she was incarcerated at the Manzanar internment camp in California and later at other internment camps in Arkansas. Her she describes learning about Pearl Harbor, her family’s forced evacuation, and her impressions of her internment camp.

90 Leave a comment on paragraph 90 0 6. Harry Truman Announcing the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima (1945)

91 Leave a comment on paragraph 91 0 On August 6, 1945, Harry Truman disclosed to the American public that the United States had detonated an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan.

92 Leave a comment on paragraph 92 0 7. Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (1945)

93 Leave a comment on paragraph 93 0 Vietnam, which had been colonized by the French and then by the Japanese, declared their independence from colonial rule—particularly the re-imposition of a French colonial regime—in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in World War II. Proclaimed by Ho Chi Minh in September 1945, Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence reflected back the early promises of the Allies in World War II and even borrowed directly from the American Declaration of Independence.

94 Leave a comment on paragraph 94 0 8. Tuskegee Airmen (1941)

95 Leave a comment on paragraph 95 0 The Tuskegee Airmen stand at attention as Major James A. Ellison returns the salute of Mac Ross, one of the first graduates of the Tuskegee cadets. The Tuskegee Airmen who continued a tradition of African American military service while honorably serving a country that still considered them second-class citizens.

96 Leave a comment on paragraph 96 0 9. World War II Recruitment Posters (1942 & 1943)

97 Leave a comment on paragraph 97 1 This pair of US Military recruiting posters demonstrates the way that two branches of the military—the Marines and the Women’s Army Corps—borrowed techniques from advertising professionals to “sell” a romantic vision of war to Americans. These two images take different strategies: one shows Marines at war in a lush jungle, reminding viewers that the war was taking place in exotic lands, the other depicted women taking on new jobs as a patriotic duty.

XIII. Reference Material

98 Leave a comment on paragraph 98 0 This chapter was edited by Joseph Locke, with content contributions by Mary Beth Chopas, Andrew David, Ashton Ellett, Paula Fortier, Joseph Locke, Jennifer Mandel, Valerie Martinez, Ryan Menath, Chris Thomas.

99 Leave a comment on paragraph 99 0 Recommended citation: Mary Beth Chopas et al., “World War II,” Joseph Locke, ed., in The American Yawp, eds. Joseph Locke and Ben Wright (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).

100 Leave a comment on paragraph 100 0 Recommended Reading

  • Adams, Michael. The Best War Ever: America and World War II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
  • Anderson, Karen. Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women During WWII. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1981.
  • Black, Gregory D. Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profit and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies. New York: Free Press, 1987.
  • Blum, John Morton. V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture During World War II. New York: Marine Books, 1976.
  • Borgwardt, Elizabeth. A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.
  • Daniels, Roger. Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.
  • Dower, John. War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon, 1993.
  • Honey, Maureen. Creating Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender, and Propaganda During World War II. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.
  • Hooks, Gregory Michael. Forging the Military-Industrial Complex: World War II’s Battle of the Potomac. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
  • Kaminski, Theresa. Angels of the Underground: The American Women Who Resisted the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York: Viking, 1990.
  • Kennedy, David. Freedom from Fear: America in Depression and War, 1929–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Leonard, Kevin Allen. The Battle for Los Angeles: Racial Ideology and World War II. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.
  • Lichtenstein, Nelson. Labor’s War at Home: The CIO in World War II. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
  • Malloy, Sean L. Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008.
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