The United States and World War II (Continued)
Copyright © Henry J. Sage, 2010

The World at War

1939 In August 1939 German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop engineered a Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin, clearing the way for German invasion of Poland. Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels mounted a virulent, lengthy anti-Polish propaganda campaign, full of degrading anti-Polish ethnic rhetoric, and the SS concocted a phony incident along the German-Polish border. On September 1, 1939, the German Wehrmacht rolled across the Polish border and demonstrated to the world for the first time the tactics that would become known as Blitzkrieg. World War II in Europe had begun.

On September 3 France and Great Britain declared war on Germany, but the campaign in Poland was over in a matter of weeks, long before France or Great Britain were capable of any kind of military action. While the Russians were taking advantage of their pact with Hitler to invade Finland, which held out until March 1940, the rest of the war came to a halt. During the winter of 1939–40 the war was called a phony war or “Sitzkrieg,” as nothing of any significance happened aside from the SS beginning its ethnic cleansing of Warsaw and the rest of Poland.

1940. In the spring of 1940 Hitler invaded Denmark, Norway, and Netherlands. Then his army rolled through Belgium and flanked the French Maginot Line, a defensive wall built at the cost of millions of francs per mile, and France capitulated in six weeks. Hitler accepted the French surrender in the very same spot on which Germany had surrendered in 1918, after which he did a gleeful little jig, reveling in his moment of revenge. While Germany was attacking France, Italy declared war on France, causing President Roosevelt to claim, “On this tenth day of June, 1940, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.”

Hitler’s Plan for Great Britain: Operation Seelöwe (Sea Lion). With France occupied and the French Vichy government more or less in collaboration with Germany, Hitler now stood “astride the European continent like a colossus.” Neutral Spain was friendly to Germany, and neutral Sweden was no threat. Soviet Russia was engaged with the Finns, and Hitler now turned his attention to Great Britain, which battle of britainhad not been successfully invaded since the Norman conquest of 1066. To accomplish the feat Germany would have to achieve air control over the English Channel, and Hitler ordered Göring to use the Luftwaffe to prepare the way. The resulting air war became known as the Battle of Britain, which was won by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and about which Winston Churchill later said, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

(Left: British Spitfire aircraft, heroes of the great air war over England.)

Infuriated by the failure of his invasion plan and determined to break the British will, Hitler ordered a bombing campaign that was known as the “Blitz of London,” and German bombers rained destruction on British cities night after night during the winter of 1940–41.

Operation Barbarossa: Hitler Invades Russia. In June 1941 Hitler, still frustrated by his failure to conquer Great Britain, turned his wrath against his former partner, the Soviet Union, his fatal mistake. (Napoleon had made the same miscalculation in 1812.) Hitler felt that the Soviet Union was hampered by internal weaknesses of the communist system. He was aided by the fact that even when intelligence reports reached Premier Stalin that an invasion was imminent, Stalin apparently did not believe them and failed to mobilize the Soviet army.

Over four million German troops with thousands of tanks and guns crossed the line of departure of June 22. German Panzer units with air support initially drove deep into the heart of Russia, reaching the outskirts of Moscow. The Soviets launched a counteroffensive in December in what was the largest battle with the greatest number of combatants ever fought anywhere. Hitler’s hopes for a quick victory were smashed, and the Russian winter and the huge Soviet Army ultimately proved be too much for Hitler’s Wehrmacht. With the loss of an army of 600,000 men at Stalingrad in late 1942 through early 1943, the tide in Europe turned, and the huge Russian army, supplied heavily by American industry, began to drive the Germans off Russian soil and back toward Berlin. Stalingrad was the great turning point of the war in Europe.

December 11, 1941. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on the United States, which, along with the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, sealed Germany’s fate. Although formally allied, Germany and Japan fought in separate spheres; World War II was really two wars going on at the same time, one in Europe and one in Asia.

Chronology of Events Leading to World War II

1936. The 1935 Neutrality Act is extended to May 1, 1937, and forbids loans or credits to belligerents. Loopholes allow sales of vital material to Spain.

August 14: FDR makes his “I hate war” speech at Chautauqua in western New York, a very strong speech in which he holds out for discretionary power on neutrality law, but his words still please the isolationists. The American people feel (correctly) that Europe is going to go up in flames and that we should stay out. The United States is criticized for aloofness, but France and Great Britain don’t do much either. (See Appendix.)

1937. New Neutrality Laws stop arms trade with Spain. U.S. ships may not carry goods nor passengers to belligerent nations, nor may merchantmen be armed. To mollify Roosevelt, a cash and carry provision is included. The President can permit sale of non-contraband items to nations that provide their own transport and pay cash. FDR believes the cash and carry policy will aid France and Great Britain, since they control the seas. Allowing limited trade on items other than munitions allows profit-making without involvement. Much discretion granted to the president to list other items.

Paradox: This “neutrality” act was actually favorable to Great Britain because they were not at war and put us at odds with the Nazis. It was never invoked against Japan because Japan had never declared war on China. By not invoking the Neutrality Act, FDR in effect aided China by allowing British ships to carry arms to China.

Peak of isolationism. Gallup poll: 94 percent of Americans say “keep out” over “prevent.” In his Quarantine Speech FDR urges isolation of aggressors. Widespread boycott of Japanese goods follows. Constitutional amendment proposed that except in case of invasion, declarations of war would be conducted by referendum. Does not pass.

The Japanese deliberately sink an American gunboat, the Panay, in Chinese waters, but they apologize and offer to pay indemnities. The Japanese war against China intensifies.

1939. Germany attacks Poland, September 1. World War II in Europe begins.

Neutrality Act of 1939. (“Cash and Carry”) Act repeals Neutrality Act of 1937. Declaring of war zone gives Hitler justification for using U-boats. No doubt which side the U.S. is on this time.

As war progresses, the United States becomes appalled at Hitler’s tyranny; measures short of war are seen as OK—whatever we could get away with. FDR pushed it as far as he could.

August 2, 1939. Albert Einstein sends a letter to President Roosevelt about the possible development of an atomic bomb by Germany, which eventually leads to the Manhattan Project. (Einstein later regrets sending the letter.) (See Appendix.)

1940. By 1940 the U.S. population is 131.7 million. In April Germany overruns Denmark in one day, and Norway takes only one month. Belgium, Netherlands, and France fall quickly as well. Thousands of British and French soldiers are saved by the “miracle” of Dunkirk and evacuated back to England. By June 22 the French have capitulated. The British now stand alone, and Churchill faces the future with “grim resolution,” looking toward the United States for help.

The United States institutes first-ever peacetime draft, begins rearming.

May–June: FDR calls for increased military expenditures, releases outdated military equipment to Great Britain; $43 million worth sent in June alone.
June 20: FDR names Republicans Henry Stimson and Frank Knox to secretary of war and navy posts—showing a bipartisan spirit of cooperation in the face of crisis. Still the internationalist-isolationist debate goes on. Many clubs and organizations urge noninvolvement. As war grows closer, FDR falls behind public opinion, perhaps from over-concern with isolationists like Lindbergh.

Presidential Election. A third term for FDR a major issue. Much isolationist sentiment among Republicans. No Democratic challengers to FDR, the “man above the fray.” Republican candidate Wendell Willkie, a former Democrat, too close to FDR on most issues to draw much distinction. FDR’s promise: “I have said it before, and I will say it again and again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent to fight in any foreign wars.”

Election Result: FDR wins 55-45 percent, smaller percentage than in 1932 or 1936. Still, he carries Electoral College 449-82. “Don't switch horses in the middle of the stream.” New Deal programs were very popular. Hard for opposition to take advantage of political issues because of war clouds on the horizon.

Summer and Autumn. Battle of Britain. The R.A.F. maintains control of the skies over England and the Channel, preventing German invasion.

1941. January–March. Secret military talks in Washington between U.S., British staffs decide “Germany first” policy. February–May: Battle of the Atlantic. Germans sink U.S. ships within sight of shore and do great damage. Japan signs non aggression pact with Russia’s Stalin, who does not declare war on Japan until August 1945.

reuben jamesMarch: Lend-Lease Act comes about as result of correspondence between Churchill and FDR. $7 billion—largest appropriation in U.S. history. Total spent during war on Lend Lease is $50 billion.

April: FDR extends convoy patrols across Atlantic to Iceland. U.S. destroyers fire at U-boats with modest success. Office of Price Administration (OPA) established to control inflation. The destroyer U.S.S. Kearny attacked by U-boat on October 17; 11 sailors are killed. The USS Reuben James becomes the first American warship sunk by enemy action during World War II.

German and Italian forces overrun the Balkan states of Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Greece, Crete. Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria fall into Axis camp. Germany comes to the aid of Italy in Africa.

May 20: United States suspends diplomatic relations with Germany and Italy. By now it is clear that the United States will have difficulty staying out of the war. Still, the isolationists are adamant.

June 22: Hitler invades Russia: Operation Barbarossa. No ultimatum, no declaration. Secreat preparations had been ongoing for months. Huge front 1,800 miles on three axes. First counterattack by Russia in November–December 1941.

The Atlantic Charter. President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill meet from August 11–12 in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. After talks they issue a joint statement of war aims against the Axis, as follows:

The United States and Great Britain renounce territorial aggrandizement.

The United States and Great Britain oppose territorial changes against the will of the people.

roosevelt and churchillThird, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them;

Fourth, they will endeavor, with due respect for their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity;

Fifth, they desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security;

Sixth, after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want;

Seventh, such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance;

Eighth, they believe that all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measures which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.

Behind FDR and Churchill in the photograph (above left) are Admiral Ernest J. King; General George C. Marshall; Field Marshal Sir John Dill (British Army); Admiral Harold R. Stark; Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound (RN). In response to the Newfoundland conference, conservative newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune published angry editorials denouncing the agreement and asking what business the president of a neutral nation has discussing war aims with the prime minister of a nation at war.

Winter 1941–42: Memories of Napoleon in 1812 are revisited as Hitler’s armies drive deep into Russia.
FDR agrees to aid the Soviet Union; Russia receives $1 billion in Lend Lease aid.

November 17: Arming of merchantmen is now authorized. Step by step, the country moves closer and closer to war.

November: U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew warns FDR that Japan may attack the United States. Pacific commanders are warned that the Japanese fleet has left home waters, destination unknown.

December 7: Pearl Harbor. Attack creates a strong sense of national purpose—right and wrong clearly seen. Men line up at recruiting stations eager to enlist. No question about the mission: defeat the Axis as quickly and decisively as possible. Japanese forces take the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, and Hong Kong in short order.


Over 3,000 Americans were killed in less than two hours by the Japanese attack. Eight battleships, three cruisers, several other vessels and over 100 aircraft were damaged or detroyed. The United States Pacific Fleet was all but wiped out, except for the aircraft carriers that happened to be at sea on that fateful morning. The Navy's repair facilities were almost untouched, a fact that turned out to be a blessing as the war progressed.

uss arizona

The Arizona burned for several days. The Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, placed over the battleship that still leaks oil, is one of the most visited spots in the United States. Visitors come from all over, inclusing Japan. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean is the Hiroshima Memorial, also heavily visited by people of many nations. What began at Pearl Harbor ended at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

<-- Pearl Harbor Film

Images of Pearl Harbor

Summary of American Policy 1920–1939 and Beyond:

Part II:  World War II:  The “Good War”

In a letter to Josiah Quincy on September 11, 1773, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “There never was a good war or a bad peace.”  Interesting thought.  Interesting date.  Author Studs Terkel wrote a book about World War II, which he called “The Good War,” a sentiment often felt, most probably because America’s enemies of World War II—Nazi Germany and militarist Japan—were of such evil character that anything done to defeat their imperial dreams was deemed good.  In the aftermath, most Americans accepted that view of a “good” war, at least for a decade or two.  All the same, although World War I, the Great War, was probably the worst war ever fought for the soldiers on the front lines, World War II was nevertheless unprecedented in the amount of destruction caused and the number of lives lost.

No one could ever claim, however, that the war itself was anything but a horror; at its end at least fifty million human beings had perished—a level of destruction scarcely imaginable, even after the carnage of World War I.  In 1939 when the war began in Europe, one had a sense that it was nothing but the latest round in an endless cycle of violence going back through the centuries—to the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, the War of the Roses, the imperial wars, and wars of revolution—and only a fool could hope this would be the last war.  Woodrow Wilson had dreamed of making the world safe for democracy, but now it seemed as if what happened at Versailles had merely made the world safe for totalitarian dictators or appeasers.

So once again the world was plunged into darkness, into the hideous abyss of destruction and despair until the nations emerged on the other side to yet another world, full of uncertainty, shrouded by the clouds of radiation that floated across the heavens from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  People wondered, “What will the next one be like?”

Following are some important factors about World War II in general:

Japanese aggression began in the early 1930s as Japan sought to extend her influence throughout the Far East.  Troubles between the United States and Japan had been brewing for some time, largely over the treatment of Japanese immigrants in America and the generally distant policy toward Japan pursued in Washington.  The Japanese were determined to become a major sea power and renounced the Washington Naval Conference agreements in the early 1930s.  By 1937 Japan was conducting an aggressive war against China and was trading with the United States for steel and other raw materials she needed to fuel her war machine.  An American ship was attacked by Japanese aircraft in 1937, but the Japanese apologized and paid reparations.  Nevertheless, tensions continued to build throughout 1940 and 1941.

As militarists took control of the Japanese government, Japanese policies in the Far East became even more aggressive.  Japan sought to create what it called the Greater South East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, in which Japanese influence would extend throughout South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific region.  The fancy name meant nothing more than the idea of a Japanese economic empire.  Japan needed iron, oil, rubber, tin, and other raw materials, and thus needed to control the economic resources of all of Asia in order to feed her appetite for war.  As America became increasingly hostile toward Japanese ambitions and began to tighten trade restrictions, the Japanese warlords began to plot a strategy to confront America.  Because the Philippine Islands had become U.S. territory as a result of the Spanish-American War, that American possession due south of Japan lay smack in the middle of Japan’s area of interest.  Japanese leaders believed it inevitable that conflict would eventually erupt between the Empire and the United States.

In order to get the upper hand quickly, Japan planned and executed a lightning strike against the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  The plan was agreed upon in late summer 1945, and soon the Japanese fleet was sailing across a remote area of the North Pacific, preparing to attack Pearl Harbor from the northwest.  The story of the attack on Pearl Harbor has been told in detail, and assertions that President Roosevelt knew the attack was coming and did nothing about it have been laid to rest.  No evidence supports such a claim, although there is substantial evidence that the United States should have been better prepared.  In any case the attack came, and while it was a tactical victory, it was one of the worst strategic blunders in military history.  Although American battleships and cruisers were badly damaged or destroyed, as luck would have it the aircraft carriers were at sea that day and thus were untouched.  Because the aircraft carrier became the dominant naval weapon in the Pacific theater during the Second World War, the fact that the aircraft carriers were saved was a crucial factor in the future conduct of the war.

World War II Home | Updated August 8, 2013