WORLD WAR II: The “Good War”
Copyright © 2012, Henry J. Sage

Benjamin Franklin said, “There never was a good war or a bad peace,” and anyone who has ever been in combat or lived in a war-torn country will surely agree.

This has been the bloodiest century in the history of the world.  We have slaughtered at least 150 million of our fellow human beings since 1900.  America has become a formidable adversary on the battlefield, and has contributed heavily to the toll of those killed.  When the United States entered World War I, the nation moved to the center of the world stage and has stayed there ever since. True, American isolationism in the 1930s took the U.S. out of the action, so to speak, as troubling events unfolded both in Europe and in Asia. Indeed, America has at times been accused of having its head in the sand when it comes to the rest of the world.  We have also at times been accused of being incorrigible meddlers in the affairs of others—trying to act as “the world's policeman.” In 1939 when war broke out in Europe, many Americans were convinced that it was none of our affair.

As America still struggled to work its way out of the Great Depression, Europe and Asia began to feel the forces of fascist, militaristic and aggressive powers—the Axis of Germany, Italy and Japan.  Despite the growing dangers, many Americans, disillusioned by the outcome of World War I, convinced that wars in other parts of the world were none of their business, and fearful of losing what economic progress they were making, adhered to a strong isolationist position.  Groups like “America First” resisted every attempt by President Roosevelt to prepare the nation for war and assist our allies, even after Hitler’s Germany had conquered much of western Europe.

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

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

What conclusions can you draw from the World War II era?  We went from neutrality to involvement, back to a more aggressive neutrality, then became the first superpower and since have been called by some the “world’s policeman.”   What do you make of that?  How did we get there we are?

As you study that great conflict, consider some of the following and then use the sources below in preparing to discuss World War II issues:

  • What foreign policy challenges did the U.S. face in the 1920s and 1930s?  How well did the United States respond?
  • How well did FDR respond to the outbreak of war in Europe?
  • Why might people claim that FDR secretly welcomed Pearl Harbor?
  • Why were anti-FDR commentators outraged by the Atlantic Charter agreement?  Were they correct?
  • World War II has been called the “good war.”  (Remember Franklin's comment, above.) What do you think?  In this context you might think of the Holocaust and the S.S.

America at War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Atomic Age

In 1939 Albert Einstein had sent a letter to Franklin Roosevelt in which he described the possibilities that might result from the unleashing of atomic energy.  Roosevelt took the letter to heart and immediately launched the Manhattan Project, a massive scientific program carried out by a group of international scientists.  Led by scientist J. Robert Oppenhwimer, their labors produced the world’s first atomic weapon, which was tested in Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July 1945, just weeks after Germany had capitulated.

President Harry Truman, who had become president upon FDR’s death in April 1945, was attending a meeting at Potsdam, Germany, with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill when he received word that the A-bomb test had been successful.  (Stalin, who already knew of the project thanks to Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs, was not surprised when Truman gave him the news.)  Truman then sent a message to the Japanese demanding that they surrender or face untold death and destruction.  The Japanese never responded to the message, so Truman ordered the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Truman’s decision has been criticized in hindsight, but the decision never seemed to trouble him, even years after.  The president had been advised that an invasion of the Japanese homeland, which was scheduled to begin in November 1945 and be followed up in February 1946, would cost thousands of American and Japanese casualties.  The atomic bomb promised to bring a swift end to the fighting, as indeed it did.  After debate among his advisers and objections from some of the scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project, President Truman decided to go ahead with the attack, and the first atomic weapon was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, by the B-29 bomber named Enola Gay.  The Japanese, in shock, were unable to respond, and a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki a few days later.  Japanese Emperor Hirohito, refusing to accept any further destruction of his homeland and his people, ordered the military to end the war, and thus the long and bloody conflict finally ended in August 1945.

An excellent film about the last days of the war, viewed from both the American and Japanese side, is Hiroshima, directed by Roger Spottiswoode and Koreyoshi Kurahara, a joint production of Canada and Japan.)

The casualties of World War II are literally incalculable.  The number of deaths is estimated at 50 to 60 million from all causes, and the number of homeless, displaced persons also numbered in the millions.  The economic costs can only be guessed at.  It took years for the world to recover, and in some ways, the recovery has never ended.



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World War II Home | Updated December 12, 2013