World War II

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Date: 2009
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 2,585 words
Lexile Measure: 1150L

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World War II, a nearly worldwide conflict during the late 1930s and early 1940s, pitted the armed forces of Germany, Italy, and Japan (known as the Axis powers) against the Allies—primarily the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain and its dominions (Australia, Canada, and New Zealand). The war profoundly affected the course of U.S. history. It permanently brought the nation out of its isolationist stance toward foreign conflicts and established America as one of the world's economic and military superpowers.

Unrest Stirs the World

The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of several powerful militaristic governments. In 1931 Japan invaded the Chinese region of Manchuria and set up a puppet government. During the following years Japan greatly increased its military might until, in 1937, it began a full-scale war against China that spread throughout Southeast Asia and the islands of the South Pacific. Meanwhile in Europe the armies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were launching their own wars of conquest. In 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia. Three years later Germany seized control of Austria and the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia. In May 1939 Germany and Italy signed an agreement to support each other militarily—they called it "the pact of steel." When German forces invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, France and Britain declared war on Germany. The Soviet Union did not react, because it had recently signed a nonaggression pact with Germany. The United States officially remained neutral.

In 1940 Italy declared war against Germany's foes. Japan, Germany, and Italy then signed a pact, sealing their alignment as the Axis powers. By that time Germany's relationship with the Soviet Union had soured. In June 1941 German forces surged across the Soviet border, opening a second front in what was rapidly becoming a worldwide war. German forces had already seized France and parts of North Africa and were planning an invasion of Britain.

America Clings to Isolationism

The United States was preoccupied with the Great Depression during the 1930s, but watched uneasily as war spread in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Many Americans had developed an isolationist attitude following the horrors of World War I. In 1935 the first of several neutrality acts was passed by Congress to ensure that the United States would not be dragged into international conflicts. The next year a Senate committee, led by Gerald Nye (1892-1971), a Republican from North Dakota, investigated U.S. involvement in World War I. The committee's report suggested that the nation's munitions industry had wielded considerable influence over the political decision to enter the war and had profited handsomely from it. A peace movement swept across college campuses and was embraced by many other parts of society. As he campaigned for reelection in the fall of 1940 President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) repeatedly promised that the United States would not enter the war. He won the election easily and began his third term in office.

Despite his assurances to the contrary, Roosevelt had already begun preparing the nation's military and industries for war and was using every political tool at his disposal to render aid to Britain. In 1939 he asked Congress to repeal the Neutrality Act; while it refused, it did amend the law to allow the United States to sell military assets to Britain. Knowing that Britain was nearly bankrupt, in 1940 Roosevelt worked around the Neutrality Act to trade fifty older American destroyers to Britain in exchange for some of its naval bases. He also got Congress to enact the Selective Training and Service Act, creating the nation's first peacetime draft.

In December 1940, Roosevelt gave a radio address in which he reiterated his goal to keep the United States out of the war; nevertheless, he also warned the public that the very survival of the United States would be jeopardized if Britain were defeated. He pledged to provide the country's allies with war implements, saying "we must be the great arsenal of democracy." In July 1941, after months of private correspondence, Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) met for the first time on a ship off the coast of eastern Canada. They created a document, the Atlantic Charter, in which they pledged "the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny" and laid out plans for a postwar world based on diplomacy, rather than aggression. A few months later Roosevelt attained passage of the Lend-Lease Act, which granted him permission to "lend" goods to other countries in the interests of U.S. defense. He authorized the first shipments to Britain even before the act was passed.

America Enters the War

On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. naval station in Hawaii. Within days the United States was at war with Japan, Germany, and Italy. In an address to the nation Roosevelt said, "We don't like it—we didn't want to get in it—but we are in it and we're going to fight it with everything we've got." The nation's military, relatively small and ill-equipped for war at the time, was expanded quickly through recruitment and the draft. Eventually a fighting force of some eight million soldiers would be trained and equipped.

Civilian industries quickly converted to produce military goods, with new federal agencies to oversee wartime production, labor relations, and prices. Businesses hired workers, so unemployment dropped dramatically, effectively ending the Great Depression. The growth in employment spurred workers to join labor unions in record numbers, consolidating their power to seek better working conditions.

Although Roosevelt gave the war in Europe first priority and wanted to liberate France as soon as possible, the British suggested—and he eventually agreed—that U.S. forces should fight the Germans in the air over Europe and launch their first ground attacks in North Africa. Soon thereafter the German war effort began to falter: the influx of U.S. troops and equipment and the military supremacy of the Soviet army took their toll. By late 1943 the Axis powers had been driven from North Africa and parts of Italy. On June 6, 1944—which became known as D-day—U.S. and British forces began an offensive to take back France. By the end of the summer they had liberated Paris. At the end of the year they fought back a fierce German offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, in which the United States suffered more than nineteen thousand causalities. By the spring of 1945 the Allies occupied Germany—Soviet troops had swept in from the east and U.S. and British forces from the west. On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered.

The War in the Pacific

The first months of the war in the Pacific did not go well for U.S. forces. During early 1942 Japanese troops captured a number of islands in the South Pacific, forcing thousands of American soldiers to surrender. The turning point came in May 1942 when the United States achieved a decisive victory on Midway Island. From then on U.S. forces, suffering heavy casualties, fought their way island by island, wresting Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands, Wake Island, Guam, Iwo Jima, the Philippines, and Okinawa from Japanese control. Meanwhile British forces liberated Burma.

In the spring of 1945 the U.S. military began preparing for Operation Downfall, an invasion of Japan. Nevertheless, the possibility of a huge American death toll from an invasion, as well as other political considerations, led to another tactic: on August 6, 1945, a U.S.-made atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, killing thousands of people immediately. When the Japanese did not surrender, a similar bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. On August 14, 1945, Japan surrendered. World War II had ended.

The human toll of the war was staggering. An estimated 40 million to 60 million people were killed worldwide. U.S. military casualties included more than 400,000 dead and more than 670,000 wounded.

Changes in the Economy

On the home front life changed dramatically during World War II. The federal government imposed widespread controls over the economy to ensure that the military received the goods it needed. Sales of many products, such as gasoline and sugar, to the civilian population were rationed. The wartime production boom put many unemployed Americans to work and put more money into their pockets. Shortages and rationing, however, dampened consumer spending. Americans were encouraged to buy war bonds to help the government raise money.

Roosevelt abandoned his Depression-era attempts to balance the federal budget: he believed the war had to be won at any cost. Wartime government spending far outpaced federal revenues. By 1945 the government was spending around $90 billion per year and taking in about half of that amount. The national debt skyrocketed from about $40 billion in 1940 to $258 billion in 1945.

Labor Issues

In 1942 Roosevelt obtained commitments from the large labor unions that they would not organize strikes during the war and that labor disputes would be settled peacefully. He also issued Executive Order 9017, creating the National War Labor Board (NWLB), which was to mediate any labor disputes that could not be settled by unions and employers themselves. Despite these measures, a number of strikes erupted during the war, most notably in 1943 by the mine-workers union. The government responded by taking control of the coal mines.

The War Labor Disputes Act (1943) gave the government the power to seize businesses in which labor disputes were believed detrimental to the war effort. In 1944 Roosevelt used that power to take control of Montgomery Ward—a large company that manufactured consumer goods. The company's chairman, Sewell Avery (1873-1960), was carried out of his office and into the street by two soldiers after he refused to cooperate with labor directives from the NWLB.

The NWLB was notable in that it insisted on equal pay for equal work by minorities. Women and African-Americans entered the workforce in large numbers during the war, particularly in factory jobs that had previously been closed to them. The NWLB abolished the separate classifications of "colored laborer" and "white laborer," which were commonly used by industries at the time. The agency pointed out that "discrimination on account of race or creed is in line with the Nazi program." Such measures met with various success in practice. Many of the strikes during the war were "hate strikes" waged by white workers protesting the employment or promotion of African-Americans.

At the urging of his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), and civil rights leaders, Roosevelt issued several executive orders during the war intended to eliminate employment discrimination by government contractors and in the war industries. In 1943 he created the Fair Employment Practices Committee, which had limited success at integrating the nation's workplaces.

Civil Rights Issues

The prospect of good-paying factory jobs during the war lured many African-Americans from the South to northern industrial cities. Many white factory workers resented this influx and staged slowdowns and protests. Away from the factories a severe housing shortage increased racial tensions until street violence erupted. In the summer of 1943 race riots in Detroit killed dozens of people. Cars were overturned and set afire and people beaten at random based on the color of their skin. The police arrested more than eighteen hundred people, most of them African-Americans. Leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, including Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), who would later become a U.S. Supreme Court justice, complained bitterly about the police response. The president sent federal troops to the city to maintain order; he avoided, however, making the riots a political issue for fear of alienating his southern supporters. Racial problems continued to simmer around the country during the war and intensified as returning African-American veterans ran into segregation and discriminatory labor practices.

Elsewhere another civil rights issue festered: the forced internment, or relocation to camps, of thousands of Japanese Americans during the war. In February 1942 Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 granting authority to the military to exclude people for national security reasons from designated "military areas." The Pacific Coast region was declared a military area, and all people of Japanese descent were ordered to relocate to internment camps away from the coast. The order applied even to U.S. citizens. The government's actions were challenged in the courts, but in Korematsu v. United States (1944) the Supreme Court ruled the internment constitutional. In January 1945 Roosevelt disbanded the camps and freed their inhabitants. Decades later the surviving internees received an official apology and reparations from the government.

A New Role for the United States

World War II catapulted the United States into a position of world leadership. U.S. agriculture and industry were not damaged during the war, as they were in every other major country, so the nation's economy flourished. It decided to extend economic aid to rebuild Japan and Western Europe, creating valuable allies and trading partners in the process. It also abandoned its prewar isolationist stance and took a leading role in the new United Nations, a body designed to use diplomacy to settle international differences. The United States also, however, began to build and maintain its military might and nuclear arsenal: it had become a superpower and saw a need to provide a deterrent against future aggressors.

The Decision to Use Atomic Bombs

The government's decision to use atomic bombs in World War II started with a 1939 letter from physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) to President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945). Einstein told the president about ongoing work in nuclear physics that could possibly lead to the construction of "extremely powerful bombs of a new type" and suggested the U.S. government become involved in the research. Just as important, he warned that Nazi Germany was likely engaged in a similar program. The result in the United States was the Manhattan Project, a top-secret partnership that combined the efforts of academics, military strategists, and industrial planners.

The goal at first was to develop an atomic bomb before the Germans did. By early 1945 it was obvious that Germany was not going to win the war and had made little progress in atomic-bomb research. The U.S. government turned its focus toward Japan. An invasion of Japan was expected to lead to many U.S. casualties, so government officials hoped to use the atomic bomb to persuade the Japanese to surrender unconditionally—and quickly: U.S. leaders wanted the surrender before the Soviet Union entered the war in the Pacific and gained any control over the future of the region.

Shortly after Roosevelt died in April 1945, some of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project petitioned his successor, Harry Truman (1884-1972), hoping to persuade him to demonstrate the atomic bomb on uninhabited territory before dropping it on Japan. They had begun to realize the terrible destruction their invention could cause, and they thought a demonstration would be enough to bring about Japan's surrender. The president's advisers did not believe such a demonstration would deter a fanatical enemy. Truman, reminded of the many casualties the United States suffered throughout the South Pacific and fearing an even larger death toll if the United States invaded Japan, decided to go ahead with the bombing.

On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Approximately seventy thousand people died in the blast or soon afterward. America warned the Japanese that more bombs of that type would be used against them if they did not surrender. Stubborn elements within the Japanese military refused to agree. On August 9, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. Approximately forty thousand people were killed immediately. Japan's emperor intervened and forced the Japanese government to surrender, ending World War II.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ3048400165