World War II: The Good War (Continued)

world war 2 memorial

The World War II Memorial

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 Ja-pan—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 totali-tarian 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 uncer-tainty, 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:

  • World War II was in many ways a continuation of World War I. There can be no doubt that the peace settlement arrived at during the Versailles Conference of 1919 contained within it the seeds of World War II, in that it almost certainly guaranteed that Germany would seek retribution.
  • WWII was in a real sense two separate wars going on at the same time. The European conflict saw the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, the United States, and some of the smaller countries fighting against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Pacific war saw the United States and Great Britain (and her Indian and Australian allies) fighting against the Japanese and Chinese. The Soviet Union was never involved in the Pacific war, and Japan was not at all involved in European war. The two wars started separately and ended separately.
  • The technological advances that had begun in the First World War were carried even further in World War II, culminating in the use of the atomic bomb against Hi-roshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
  • The United States was much more heavily involved in World War II than World War I, although the war had been raging for years before the United States became directly involved. Before the United States was formally involved, America was di-rectly and indirectly assisting the British in the Atlantic. In the end some 13–14 million Americans served in uniform during the war period, and American factories and plants produced almost 30 percent of all the materiel used by the Allies.

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 philippinesthe 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 be-came 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 ma-terials, 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 con-front 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: America at War, Overview

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, such as the one begun by the attack on 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 U.S. 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.

In any case, Germany did declare war. Now the United States was in all the way. Perhaps WWII really was actually, as President Woodrow Wilson had hoped in 1917, the “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 yet occurred.

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 Chur-chill had met in August 1941 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 Ger-many 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 United States was forced to change its priorities when the Japanese occupied the island of Guadalcanal in 1942. From there 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. 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, (the U.S. military strategy in the South Pacific was dubbed “island hopping”), 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 Ei-senhower in command, the first American offensive action in the European Theater was Op-eration 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 fight-ing spirit. With the help of the British under Field Marshal Montgomery, they 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. After Sicily, an Allied 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 realized early in the war that Italy was as much of a drain on his resources as an asset to his plans. For example, he recog-nized the need 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 occupied 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. A certain amount of German hesitation, and the disruptions caused by massive parachute drops of three American and British airborne divisions behind the beaches eventually allowed the allies to gain a foothold; 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 ap-proaching 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, for Victory in Europe, was May 8, 1945. It was president Harry Truman’s 61st birthday.


World War II Home | Updated April 29, 2017