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World War II
The War in Europe
World War II began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, followed shortly after by the Soviet
Union’s invasion from the east of Poland and the Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia). During
the first two years of the war, the United States stayed officially neutral, as Germany overran both France
and most of Europe and pounded Great Britain from the air. This German air attack on Britain was called
the Battle of Britain. In mid-1941, Hitler turned on his former partner and invaded the Soviet Union.
Despite strong isolationist sentiment at home, the United States gradually abandoned neutrality
and increasingly helped Great Britain. In 1941 Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed the
President to sell, lease, or lend defense equipment to nations whose defense the President deemed
(considered) vital to American security. Under this law, the United States gave Britain war supplies and
old naval warships in return for military bases in Bermuda and the Caribbean Sea. President Franklin
Roosevelt compared Lend-Lease to “lending a garden hose to a next-door neighbor whose house is on fire.”
The War in Asia
During the 1930s a militaristic Japan invaded and brutalized Manchuria and China as it sought
military and economic domination over Asia. The United States refused to recognize Japanese conquests
in Asia and placed an embargo (ban) on exports of oil and steel to Japan. Tensions rose but both countries
negotiated to avoid war.
While negotiating with the United States and without warning, Japan carried out an air attack on
the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941. This attack destroyed much of the
American Pacific fleet and killed several thousand Americans. President Roosevelt called December 7th “a
date that will live in infamy” as he asked Congress to declare war on Japan.
After Pearl Harbor, Hitler honored the Axis pact (agreement) with Japan and declared war on the
United States. The debates over isolationism in the United States were over. World War II was now a true
world war and the United States was fully involved. The United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet
Union were the three most important countries that made up the Allies. Winston Churchill was the British
prime minister (leader of the government) during World War II. The Soviet Union had come into existence
in 1917, when communist revolutionaries had overthrown the czar (king) of Russia. Josef Stalin was the
communist dictator of the Soviet Union during World War II. In theory communism is an economic
system in which all property and means of production are owned by society as a whole. As practiced in the
Soviet Union, communism was a form of government in which both political and economic decisions were
made by a small group of government leaders.
Allied Strategy
The United States and its allies, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, followed a “Defeat Hitler
First” strategy. Therefore, most American military resources were targeted for Europe. In the Pacific,
American military strategy called for an “island hopping” campaign. This meant the United States would
seize Pacific islands closer and closer to Japan and use them as bases for air attacks on Japan. In addition,
the United States would cut off Japanese supplies through submarine warfare against Japanese shipping.
Axis Strategy
The Axis Powers were the World War II alliance of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Germany hoped
to defeat the Soviet Union quickly, gain control of Soviet oil fields, and force Britain out of the war through
a bombing campaign and submarine warfare, before America’s industrial and military strength could turn
the tide.
Following Pearl Harbor, Japan invaded the Philippines and Indonesia and planned to invade both
Australia and Hawaii. Its leaders hoped that America would then accept Japanese predominance (control)
in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, rather than conduct a bloody and costly war to reverse Japanese gains.
Major Battles and Military Turning Points
North Africa:
El Alamein – The British defeated German forces, who were threatening to seize Egypt and the
Suez Canal. This defeat denied Hitler control over Middle Eastern oil supplies and prevented him from
potentially attacking the Soviet Union from the south.
Stalingrad – The Soviet army killed or captured hundreds of thousands of German soldiers in a
months-long siege of the Russian city of Stalingrad. This defeat prevented Germany from seizing the
Soviet oil fields and turned the tide against Germany in the east.
Normandy landings (D-Day) – American and Allied troops under General Dwight D.
Eisenhower landed in German-occupied France on 6 June 1944. Despite intense German opposition and
heavy American casualties, the landings succeeded and the liberation (freeing) of Western Europe from
Hitler had begun.
Midway – In the “Miracle of Midway,” American naval forces defeated a much larger Japanese
force as it prepared to seize Midway Island. Coming only a few months after Pearl Harbor, a Japanese
victory at Midway would have enabled Japan to invade Hawaii. The American victory ended the Japanese
threat to Hawaii and began a series of American victories in the “island hopping” campaign that carried the
war closer and closer to Japan.
Iwo Jima and Okinawa – The American invasions of the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa
brought American forces closer than ever to Japan. Both invasions cost thousands of American lives and
even more Japanese lives. Japanese soldiers fought fiercely over every square inch of the islands, and
Japanese soldiers and civilians committed suicide rather than surrender.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the atomic bomb) – Harry S. Truman, who became president when
FDR died in April, 1945, faced the prospect of very heavy casualties among both Americans and Japanese,
if American forces had to invade Japan itself. Therefore, President Truman ordered the use of atomic
bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force the Japanese to surrender. Tens of
thousands of people died in both cities. Shortly after the United States dropped the atomic bombs, the
Japanese leaders surrendered. President Truman, thereby, avoided the need for American forces to invade
Minority Participation in the American War Effort
World War II solidified the United States’ role as a global power. It also ushered in (started)
social changes and established reform agendas that would preoccupy public discourse (discussion) in the
United States for the remainder of the 20th century. When men left the factories to serve in the armed forces
during World War II, women entered into previously male job roles. African-Americans struggled to obtain
desegregation of the armed forces and end racial discriminatory hiring practices.
Throughout World War II, the United States armed forces generally required African-Americans
to serve in segregated military units and often assigned them to non-combat roles. African-Americans
demanded the right to serve in combat rather than support roles. For example, the Tuskegee Airmen, a
group of African-American flyers, served with distinction in Europe. Other minority units also contributed
to the American war effort. First, Nisei regiments of Japanese-Americans earned a high number of
decorations. Second, the U.S. military used communication codes of the Navajo Indians. Because these
codes consisted of oral rather than written language, it was impossible for the Japanese to break them.
Mexican-Americans, who also fought in the American armed forces, were not segregated in separate units.
Minority units suffered high casualties and won numerous unit citations and individual medals for bravery
in action.
The Geneva Convention and Treatment of Prisoners of War during World War II
The manner in which a nation conducts war often depends upon its social and moral codes. The
treatment of prisoners of war often reflects the savage nature of military conflict and the cultural norms of
the nation.
The Geneva Convention was one of a series of international agreements, first made in Geneva,
Switzerland, in 1864, which established rules for the humane treatment of prisoners of war and of the sick,
the wounded, and the dead in battle. The Geneva Convention tried to ensure the humane treatment of
prisoners of war by establishing rules to be followed by all nations.
During World War II, the treatment of prisoners of war varied greatly. The treatment of prisoners
in the Pacific Theater often reflected the savagery of the fighting there. For example, in the Bataan Death
March, American POWs suffered brutal treatment by the Japanese after the Americans surrendered the
Philippines. As the United States followed its island hopping strategy in the Pacific, Japanese soldiers
often committed suicide rather than surrender. In contrast, the treatment of prisoners in Europe more
closely followed the ideas of the Geneva Convention.
The Holocaust and its Impact on Jews and other Groups
Specific groups, often the object of hatred and prejudice, face increased risk of discrimination
during wartime. This was particularly true for Jews who lived in areas under German control during World
War II. The Holocaust was Nazi Germany’s systematic murder of millions of European Jews. Hitler’s
final solution was Germany’s decision to exterminate (kill) all Jews. In short, Nazi Germany attempted
genocide of European Jews. Genocide is the systematic and purposeful destruction of a racial, political,
religious, or cultural group. In the Holocaust the Nazis targeted not only Jews, but also Slavs, Gypsies,
Poles, and “undesirables.” The Nazis defined “undesirables” to include homosexuals, the mentally ill, and
political dissidents (those who opposed Hitler’s government).
The Nuremberg Trials were post-World War II trials of Nazi leaders for war crimes. These trials,
held in Nuremberg, Germany, convicted many Nazi leaders of committing “crimes against humanity”
during World War II. The Nuremberg trials emphasized (stressed) individual responsibility for actions
during a war, regardless of the military orders the accused may have received. Since these trials publicized
the horrors of the Holocaust’s Nazi death camps, they led to increased demand for a Jewish homeland. In
1948 Jewish settlers living in the former British mandate of Palestine founded the nation of Israel as a
homeland for Jews. Both Great Britain and the United States quickly recognized the state of Israel.
The American Home Front during World War II
Success in World War II required the total commitment of America’s resources. The federal
government forced most Japanese-Americans to live in internment camps throughout the war. Both
American public schools and the American mass media promoted (encouraged) nationalism or a strong
feeling of patriotism during World
War II.
Economic resources – The United States government and American industry forged (put
together) a close working relationship to use resources effectively. First, the federal government used
rationing to maintain an adequate supply of products essential to the war effort. Under rationing, each
American family received a monthly allowance of such essential items as sugar, meat, and gasoline.
Second, the Roosevelt administration used war bonds and the federal income tax to finance the war. Bonds
are government I.O.U.s that are repaid with interest. In short, when the federal government sold war bonds,
it was borrowing money from the people to finance the war effort. Third, American corporations retooled
from peacetime to wartime production. For example, General Motors converted their automobile assembly
plants to factories that manufactured tanks.
Human resources – Citizens volunteered in support of the war effort. In addition, more women
and minorities entered the labor force as men entered the armed forces. Women entered into previously
male job roles. They increasingly participated in the workforce to replace men, who were serving in the
armed forces. “Rosie the Riveter” became a symbol of the American woman who traded housework for
factory work during World War II. Many women also joined the armed forces and participated in noncombat military roles.
African-Americans struggled to obtain desegregation of the armed forces and end discriminatory
hiring practices. A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and an AfricanAmerican, fought against job discrimination. Randolph planned a giant march on Washington for July
1941 to demand equal hiring in defense jobs and the “right to fight” in the military. President Franklin D.
Roosevelt met with Randolph and made a deal. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which prohibited
racial discrimination in war industries, although not in the armed forces. In return, Randolph agreed to
cancel the march. During World War II, African-Americans migrated to cities in search of jobs in war
plants. Throughout the war, African-American leaders campaigned for victory abroad and equality at
Military Resources – Fighting a war on two fronts (Europe and the Pacific) required the United
States to add tens of thousands of servicemen to the American Armed Forces. In 1940, at President
Roosevelt’s request, Congress passed the Selective Training and Service Act. This law established the first
peacetime draft in American history. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the selective service or draft law
required all men between ages eighteen and forty-five to sign up for military service. This gave the United
States government a large pool of men from which to draw in order to meet the personnel needs of the
American military during World War II.
Internment of Japanese-Americans – During World War II, the United States government
relocated most Japanese-Americans to internment camps, where the government required them to stay until
the end of the war. Japanese-Americans could not leave these camps without government permission.
Internment especially affected Japanese-American populations living along the West Coast, where most
Americans of Japanese descent resided. During the war, the United States Supreme Court upheld the
federal government’s right to place Japanese-Americans in internment camps. The United States
government later issued a public apology to these Japanese-Americans and made financial payment to their
The experience of Japanese-Americans during World War II is a clear example of how racial
prejudice, coupled with wartime fears, can affect the civil liberties of minorities in a democracy like the
United States. Two basic reasons existed for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
First, strong anti-Japanese prejudice existed on the West Coast. Second, many Americans falsely believed
that Japanese-Americans were aiding the enemy.
Role of the American Media in the War Effort – During World War II, the American media and
entertainment industries saw their role as supporting the American war effort by promoting nationalism.
Nationalism is a strong feeling of patriotism or devotion to one’s country. The United States government
maintained strict censorship of the reporting of the war by the American media. Public morale and ad
campaigns kept Americans focused on the war effort. The American entertainment industry produced
movies, plays, and shows that boosted morale and patriotic support for the war effort, as well as portrayed
the enemy in stereotypical ways.