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Chapter 35: America in World War II

america's task was far more complex and back breaking

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America in World War II

Prior to the bombing at Pearl Harbor, the U.S. had agreed to the ABC-1 agreement with the British. It stated that if the U.S. entered the war, then it would focus its efforts first on Germany. After Germany was defeated, the Allies would focus on Japan.

The Allies Trade Space for Time

For the U.S., WWII was far more complex than WWI. It had to feed, clothe, and transport its forces all over the world.

The Shock of War

National unity during World War II sped up the assimilation of immigrants into American society.

Unlike in WWI, there was almost no government witch-hunting of minority groups in WWII. The exception to this was when 110,000 Japanese-Americans on the Pacific Coast forced into concentration camps . This was authorized by Executive Order No. 9066 . Washington feared that they might act as saboteurs for Japan in case of invasion.

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the concentration camps in Korematsu v. U.S . ( 1944 ).

The conservative Congress cancelled many of the New Deal programs. President Roosevelt declared in 1943 that the New Deal reform era was over.

Building the War Machine

The Great Depression was completely ended with the inrush of military orders. Under the War Production Board (WPB) , which oversaw U.S. war production, American factories produced an enormous amount of weaponry, such as guns and planes. The WPB stopped the manufacture of nonessential items, such as passenger cars.

The government imposed a national speed limit and gasoline rationing after America's supply of natural rubber from British Malaysia and the Dutch East Indies was broken.

A scarcity of consumer goods led to sharp inflation in 1942 . The Office of Price Administration ( OPA ) eventually brought the down prices and curbed inflation.

The War Labor Board ( WLB ) imposed ceilings on wage increases.  Unhappy with the wage ceilings, some labor unions called their members to go on strike. In June 1943, Congress passed the Smith-Connally Anti-Strike Act .  It authorized the federal government to operate industries that were under strike, like coal mines and railroads.

Manpower and Womanpower

Even with some industrial and agricultural workers being exempt from the draft, the draft left the nation's farms and factories short of personnel. In 1942 , thousands of Mexican agricultural workers, called braceros , were brought to America to harvest the farms of the West.

The armed services enlisted nearly 216,000 women in WWII. Best known were the WAACs (army), WAVES (navy), and SPARs (Coast Guard).  Although millions of women took jobs in factories, most women continued in their traditional household roles.

Wartime Migrations

The war caused Americans to move about the country. Many blacks left the South to work in the North, and this led to racial tensions in the North. In response to demands for equal opportunities for blacks, Roosevelt created the Fair Employment Practices Commission ( FEPC ) to monitor compliance with his executive order that forbade discrimination in defense industries.

During WWII, FDR gave the South a disproportionate share of defense contracts to help it become more economically developed.

In 1944 , the invention of the mechanical cotton picker made the Cotton South's need for cheap labor disappear. As a result of this, millions of blacks moved north.

Thousands of Native Americans served in the armed forces.  Comanches in Europe and Navajos in the Pacific made valuable contributions as " code talkers ," in which they transmitted radio messages in their native languages (incomprehensible to the Axis powers).

Holding the Home Front

America was not as ill-affected by the war as the rest of the world. The war substantially helped the American economy, and by the end of the war, the nation's GNP and citizens' disposable incomes had significantly risen.

The Federal government became much more involved in individual citizens' lives during WWII, and this set the stage for the future role of government.

The national debt rose from $49 billion to $259 billion from 1941-1945.  Most of the war costs were borrowed.

The Rising Sun in the Pacific

Simultaneously with the assault on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese launched attacks on various Far Eastern strongholds, including the American outposts of Guam , Wake , and the Philippines.

In the Philippines , American forces, led by General MacArthur , held out against the invading Japanese force for 5 months. The America troops eventually surrendered on April 9, 1942 .  They were treated with vicious cruelty in the 80-mile Bataan Death March to prisoner-of-war camps. 

The island fortress of Corregidor held out until it surrendered on May 6, 1942 , giving the Japanese complete control of the Philippines.

Japan's High Tide at Midway

In May 1942 , a crucial naval battle was fought in the Coral Sea between an American carrier task force, with Australian support, and a Japanese carrier task force. Although it suffered losses, the U.S. stopped the Japanese advancement. This was the first battle in which all the fighting was done by carrier-based aircraft.

On June 3-6 , 1942 , a naval battle was fought near Midway . If the Japanese took Midway, they would be able to directly launch attacks against Pearl Harbor. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz directed a smaller carrier force, under Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, against the powerful invading Japanese fleet. The Japanese retreated after losing 4 carriers.  Midway was a turning point in the Pacific war.  Combined with the Battle of Coral Sea, the U.S. success at Midway halted the Japanese.

American Leapfrogging Toward Tokyo

From August 1942 to February 1943, Americans fought for control of Guadalcanal Island in an attempt to protect the shipping lanes from America to Australia through the Southwest Pacific. The Japanese troops evacuated Guadalcanal in February 1943 . The casualty ratio was more than 10:1 (Japanese:American).

The U.S. Navy " leapfrogged " several Japanese-held islands in the Pacific. Japanese soldiers were known to fight until every last man was dead. So, rather than fighting for every island, the strategy was to take nearby islands and then lay siege to the surrounded islands. Admiral Chester Nimitz successfully coordinated naval, air, and ground assaults in the Pacific.

Saipan Island , Tinian Island , and the major islands of the Marianas fell to U.S. attackers in July and August 1944.  From the Marianas, the United States' new B-29 superbombers were able to carryout round-trip bombing raids on Japan's home islands.

The Allied Halting of Hitler

The Battle of the Atlantic was fought between the German's modern fleet of submarine U-Boats and Allied shipping , which was protected by Allied navies. The introduction of air patrols and radar eventually helped the Allies win the Battle of the Atlantic.

The turning point in the land-air war against Hitler came in late 1942.  At the Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, British general Bernard Montgomery defeated the Germans, who were led by Marshal Erwin Rommel .

In September 1942, the Soviets repelled Hitler's attack on Stalingrad , capturing thousands of German soldiers.  (This was the turning point in the war in the Soviet Union.)

A Second Front from North Africa to Rome

Many Americans, including President Roosevelt, wanted to begin a diversionary invasion of France in 1942 or 1943.  They feared that the Soviets, who were unable to hold out forever against Germany, might make a separate peace deal as they had in 1918 and leave the Western Allies to face Germany alone.

British military planners preferred to attack Hitler through the "soft underbelly" of the Mediterranean.  The Americans eventually agreed.

American general, Dwight D. Eisenhower led an assault on French-held North Africa in November 1942.  The invasion was the mightiest waterborne effort up to that time in history.  The German-Italy army surrendered in Tunisia in May 1943.

At Casablanca , President Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill in January 1943 .  The two agreed to step up the war in the Pacific, invade Sicily, increase pressure on Italy, and insist upon " unconditional surrender " of the enemy.

Allied forces captured Sicily in August 1943, and in September 1943 , Italy surrendered unconditionally and Mussolini was overthrown. Although Italy surrendered, the Germans continued to fight for control of Italy. Rome was taken on June 4, 1944.  On May 2, 1945 (five days before Germany surrendered), thousands of Axis troops in Italy surrendered and became prisoners of war. 

The Allies' battles in Italy diverted some German troops away from the Soviet and French fronts, but it delayed the Allied invasion of Normandy by several months. This gave the Soviets more time to take territory in Eastern Europe.

D-Day:  June 6, 1944

President Roosevelt , Winston Churchill , and Stalin met in Tehran , Iran from November 28 th to December 1 st to coordinate a second front.  One of the most important achievements of the meeting was the agreement on broad plans, especially those for launching Soviet attacks on Germany from the east simultaneously with the Allied assault from the west.

Because the United States provided the most Allied troops for the invasion of Europe, American General Eisenhower was given command.

French Normandy was chosen for the point for invasion because it was less heavily defended than other parts of the European coast.  On D-Day , June 6, 1944 , the invasion operation took place. The Allies broke through German beach defenses and General George S. Patton led armored divisions across France. Paris was liberated in August 1944 .

The first important German city to fall to the Allies was Aachen in October 1944.

FDR:  The Fourth-Termite of 1944

For the election of 1944 , the Republicans nominated Thomas E. Dewey for the presidency and isolationist Senator, John W. Bricker for the vice presidency.

The Democrats nominated Roosevelt for the presidency and Senator Harry S Truman for the vice presidency.

Roosevelt Defeats Dewey

Roosevelt won a sweeping majority of the votes in the Electoral College and was reelected .  He won primarily because the war was going well.  Foreign policy was a decisive factor with many voters, who concluded that Roosevelt's experience was needed for making a future organization for world peace.

The Last Days of Hitler

On December 16, 1944 , Hitler threw all of his forces against the thinly held American lines in the Ardennes Forest .  His objective was take the Belgian port of Antwerp, which was key to the Allied supply operation. In the Battle of the Bulge , the Allies were driven back, creating a deep "bulge" in the Allied front. The 10-day German push was stopped by the 101 st Airborne Division, which was led by Brigadier General A. C. McAuliffe.

In April 1945 , General Eisenhower's troops continued into Germany and discovered the concentration camps where the Nazis had murdered over 6 million Jews. All of the atrocities of the Holocaust were not discovered until the war ended.

The Soviets captured Berlin in April 1945 . 

Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945 .

On April 12, 1945 , President Roosevelt died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage.  Harry S Truman took over the presidency.

On May 7, 1945 , the German government surrendered unconditionally. May 8 was proclaimed V-E (Victory in Europe) Day .

Japan Dies Hard

Submarines and bombers inflicted severe damage on Japan.

Allied firebombings of Tokyo killed over 83,000 people, comparable to number of people killed by each atomic bomb.

General MacArthur returned to the Philippines with 600 ships and 250,000 troops. In Leyte Gulf , Japan lost a series of 3 battles took place from October 23-26, 1944 ; this marked the end of Japan's sea power. MacArthur then landed on the main Philippine island of Luzon in January 1945, capturing Manila in March 1945. 

Iwo Jima , needed as an airport for damaged American bombers returning from Japan, was captured in March 1945. The Americans captured the island of Okinawa after fighting from April to June of 1945.  The American navy sustained heavy losses from the " kamikaze " (suicide) Japanese pilots.

The Atomic Bombs

By the middle of 1945, Japan was still unwilling to surrender unconditionally .

At the Potsdam conference in July 1945, President Truman met with Stalin and the British leader. They issued an ultimatum to Japan:  surrender or be destroyed.

America's Manhattan Project developed the atomic bomb. Germany was the initial intended target for the atomic bomb while it was being developed.

On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated as a test. With the Japanese still refusing to surrender, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 , killing 180,000 people.  On August 8, Stalin invaded the Japanese defenses of Manchuria and Korea.  After the Japanese still refused to surrender, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9 , killing 80,000 people.

The U.S. would have had a third atomic bomb ready by August 19 and a fourth bomb ready by September 1945.

On August 10, 1945, Tokyo surrendered under the condition that emperor Hirohito be allowed to keep his title as emperor.  The Allies accepted this condition on August 14, 1945 .  The formal end to the war came on September 2, 1945 , which was proclaimed as V-J (Victory in Japan) Day .

The Allies Triumphant

American forces suffered 1 million casualties in WWII, while the Soviet Union suffered nearly 25 million .

After the war, much of the world was destroyed while America was left virtually untouched. 

The nation was better prepared for the war than any other nation because it had begun to prepare about a year and a half before the war officially began (for America).

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24. world war ii.

A photograph of American soldiers on Omaha Beach after D-Day.

American soldiers recover the dead on Omaha Beach in 1944. Library of Congress .

*The American Yawp is an evolving, collaborative text. Please click  here  to improve this chapter.*

I. Introduction

Ii. the origins of the pacific war, iii. the origins of the european war, iv. the united states and the european war, v. the united states and the japanese war, vi. soldiers’ experiences, vii. the wartime economy, viii. women and world war ii, ix. race and world war ii, x. toward a postwar world, xi. conclusion, xii. primary sources, xiii. reference material.

The 1930s and 1940s were trying times. A global economic crisis gave way to a global war that became the deadliest and most destructive in human history. Perhaps eighty million individuals lost their lives during World War II. The war saw industrialized genocide and nearly threatened the eradication of an entire people. It also unleashed the most fearsome technology ever used in war. And when it ended, the United States found itself alone as the world’s greatest superpower. Armed with the world’s greatest economy, it looked forward to the fruits of a prosperous consumers’ economy. But the war raised as many questions as it would settle and unleashed new social forces at home and abroad that confronted generations of Americans to come.

Although the United States joined the war in 1941, two years after Europe exploded into conflict in 1939, the path to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the surprise attack that threw the United States headlong into war, began much earlier. For the Empire of Japan, the war had begun a decade before Pearl Harbor.

On September 18, 1931, a small explosion tore up railroad tracks controlled by the Japanese-owned South Manchuria Railway near the city of Shenyang (Mukden) in the Chinese province of Manchuria. The railway company condemned the bombing as the work of anti-Japanese Chinese dissidents. Evidence, though, suggests that the initial explosion was neither an act of Chinese anti-Japanese sentiment nor an accident but an elaborate ruse planned by the Japanese to provide a basis for invasion. In response, the privately operated Japanese Guandong (Kwangtung) army began shelling the Shenyang garrison the next day, and the garrison fell before nightfall. Hungry for Chinese territory and witnessing the weakness and disorganization of Chinese forces, but under the pretense of protecting Japanese citizens and investments, the Japanese Imperial Army ordered a full-scale invasion of Manchuria. The invasion was swift. Without a centralized Chinese army, the Japanese quickly defeated isolated Chinese warlords and by the end of February 1932, all of Manchuria was firmly under Japanese control. Japan established the nation of Manchukuo out of the former province of Manchuria. 1

This seemingly small skirmish—known by the Chinese as the September 18 Incident and the Japanese as the Manchurian Incident—sparked a war that would last thirteen years and claim the lives of over thirty-five million people. Comprehending Japanese motivations for attacking China and the grueling stalemate of the ensuing war are crucial for understanding Japan’s seemingly unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, and, therefore, for understanding the involvement of the United States in World War II as well.

Despite their rapid advance into Manchuria, the Japanese put off the invasion of China for nearly three years. Japan occupied a precarious domestic and international position after the September 18 Incident. At home, Japan was riven by political factionalism due to its stagnating economy. Leaders were torn as to whether to address modernization and lack of natural resources through unilateral expansion (the conquest of resource-rich areas such as Manchuria to export raw materials to domestic Japanese industrial bases such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki) or international cooperation (a philosophy of pan-Asianism in an anti-Western coalition that would push the colonial powers out of Asia). Ultimately, after a series of political crises and assassinations inflamed tensions, pro-war elements within the Japanese military triumphed over the more moderate civilian government. Japan committed itself to aggressive military expansion.

Chinese leaders Chiang Kai-shek and Zhang Xueliang appealed to the League of Nations for assistance against Japan. The United States supported the Chinese protest, proclaiming the Stimson Doctrine in January 1932, which refused to recognize any state established as a result of Japanese aggression. Meanwhile, the League of Nations sent Englishman Victor Bulwer-Lytton to investigate the September 18 Incident. After a six-month investigation, Bulwer-Lytton found the Japanese guilty of inciting the September 18 incident and demanded the return of Manchuria to China. The Japanese withdrew from the League of Nations in March 1933.

Japan isolated itself from the world. Its diplomatic isolation empowered radical military leaders who could point to Japanese military success in Manchuria and compare it to the diplomatic failures of the civilian government. The military took over Japanese policy. And in the military’s eyes, the conquest of China would not only provide for Japan’s industrial needs, it would secure Japanese supremacy in East Asia.

The Japanese launched a full-scale invasion of China. It assaulted the Marco Polo Bridge on July 7, 1937, and routed the forces of the Chinese National Revolutionary Army led by Chiang Kai-shek. The broken Chinese army gave up Beiping (Beijing) to the Japanese on August 8, Shanghai on November 26, and the capital, Nanjing (Nanking), on December 13. Between 250,000 and 300,000 people were killed, and tens of thousands of women were raped, when the Japanese besieged and then sacked Nanjing. The Western press labeled it the Rape of Nanjing. To halt the invading enemy, Chiang Kai-shek adopted a scorched-earth strategy of “trading space for time.” His Nationalist government retreated inland, burning villages and destroying dams, and established a new capital at the Yangtze River port of Chongqing (Chungking). Although the Nationalists’ scorched-earth policy hurt the Japanese military effort, it alienated scores of dislocated Chinese civilians and became a potent propaganda tool of the emerging Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 2

Americans read about the brutal fighting in China, but the United States lacked both the will and the military power to oppose the Japanese invasion. After the gut-wrenching carnage of World War I, many Americans retreated toward isolationism by opposing any involvement in the conflagrations burning in Europe and Asia. And even if Americans wished to intervene, their military was lacking. The Japanese army was a technologically advanced force consisting of 4,100,000 men and 900,000 Chinese collaborators—and that was in China alone. The Japanese military was armed with modern rifles, artillery, armor, and aircraft. By 1940, the Japanese navy was the third-largest and among the most technologically advanced in the world.

Still, Chinese Nationalists lobbied Washington for aid. Chiang Kai-shek’s wife, Soong May-ling—known to the American public as Madame Chiang—led the effort. Born into a wealthy Chinese merchant family in 1898, Madame Chiang spent much of her childhood in the United States and graduated from Wellesley College in 1917 with a major in English literature. In contrast to her gruff husband, Madame Chiang was charming and able to use her knowledge of American culture and values to garner support for her husband and his government. But while the United States denounced Japanese aggression, it took no action during the 1930s.

As Chinese Nationalists fought for survival, the Communist Party was busy collecting people and supplies in the northwestern Shaanxi Province. China had been at war with itself when the Japanese came. Nationalists battled a stubborn communist insurgency. In 1935 the Nationalists threw the communists out of the fertile Chinese coast, but an ambitious young commander named Mao Zedong recognized the power of the Chinese peasant population. In Shaanxi, Mao recruited from the local peasantry, building his force from a meager seven thousand survivors at the end of the Long March in 1935 to a robust 1.2 million members by the end of the war.

Although Japan had conquered much of the country, the Nationalists regrouped and the communists rearmed. An uneasy truce paused the country’s civil war and refocused efforts on the invaders. The Chinese could not dislodge the Japanese, but they could stall their advance. The war mired in stalemate.

Across the globe in Europe, the continent’s major powers were still struggling with the aftereffects of World War I when the global economic crisis spiraled much of the continent into chaos. Germany’s Weimar Republic collapsed with the economy, and out of the ashes emerged Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists—the Nazis. Championing German racial supremacy, fascist government, and military expansionism, Hitler rose to power and, after aborted attempts to take power in Germany, became chancellor in 1933 and the Nazis conquered German institutions. Democratic traditions were smashed. Leftist groups were purged. Hitler repudiated the punitive damages and strict military limitations of the Treaty of Versailles. He rebuilt the German military and navy. He reoccupied regions lost during the war and remilitarized the Rhineland, along the border with France. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Hitler and Benito Mussolini—the fascist Italian leader who had risen to power in the 1920s—intervened for the Spanish fascists, toppling the communist Spanish Republican Party. Britain and France stood by warily and began to rebuild their militaries, anxious in the face of a renewed Germany but still unwilling to draw Europe into another bloody war. 3

In his autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf , Hitler advocated for the unification of Europe’s German peoples under one nation and that nation’s need for Lebensraum , or living space, particularly in Eastern Europe, to supply Germans with the land and resources needed for future prosperity. The Untermenschen (lesser humans) would have to go. Once in power, Hitler worked toward the twin goals of unification and expansion.

Photograph of thousands of German soldiers in uniform at a Nuremberg rally.

The massive Nuremberg rallies, such as this one in 1935, instilled a fierce loyalty to (or fearful silence about) Hitler and the National Socialist Party in Germany. Wikimedia .

In 1938, Germany annexed Austria and set its sights on the Sudetenland, a large, ethnically German area of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France, alarmed but still anxious to avoid war, agreed—without Czechoslovakia’s input—that Germany could annex the region in return for a promise to stop all future German aggression. They thought that Hitler could be appeased, but it became clear that his ambitions would continue pushing German expansion. In March 1939, Hitler took the rest of Czechoslovakia and began to make demands on Poland. Britain and France promised war. And war came.

Hitler signed a secret agreement—the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact—with the Soviet Union that coordinated the splitting of Poland between the two powers and promised nonaggression thereafter. The European war began when the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Britain and France declared war two days later and mobilized their armies. Britain and France hoped that the Poles could hold out for three to four months, enough time for the Allies to intervene. Poland fell in three weeks. The German army, anxious to avoid the rigid, grinding war of attrition that took so many millions in the stalemate of World War I, built their new modern army for speed and maneuverability. German doctrine emphasized the use of tanks, planes, and motorized infantry (infantry that used trucks for transportation instead of marching) to concentrate forces, smash front lines, and wreak havoc behind the enemy’s defenses. It was called Blitzkrieg , or lightning war.

After the fall of Poland, France and its British allies braced for an inevitable German attack. Throughout the winter of 1939–1940, however, fighting was mostly confined to smaller fronts in Norway. Belligerents called it the Sitzkrieg (sitting war). But in May 1940, Hitler launched his attack into Western Europe. Mirroring the German’s Schlieffen Plan of 1914 in the previous war, Germany attacked through the Netherlands and Belgium to avoid the prepared French defenses along the French-German border. Poland had fallen in three weeks; France lasted only a few weeks more. By June, Hitler was posing for photographs in front of the Eiffel Tower. Germany split France in half. Germany occupied and governed the north, and the south would be ruled under a puppet government in Vichy.

With France under heel, Hitler turned to Britain. Operation Sea Lion—the planned German invasion of the British Isles—required air superiority over the English Channel. From June until October the German Luftwaffe fought the Royal Air Force (RAF) for control of the skies. Despite having fewer planes, British pilots won the so-called Battle of Britain, saving the islands from immediate invasion and prompting the new prime minister, Winston Churchill, to declare, “Never before in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

Photograph of a child in London holding a stuffed toy amid the rubble of a German bombing.

The German bombing of London left thousands homeless, hurt, or dead. This child, holding a stuffed toy, sits in the rubble as adults ponder their fate in the background. 1945. Library of Congress .

If Britain was safe from invasion, it was not immune from additional air attacks. Stymied in the Battle of Britain, Hitler began the Blitz—a bombing campaign against cities and civilians. Hoping to crush the British will to fight, the Luftwaffe bombed the cities of London, Liverpool, and Manchester every night from September to the following May. Children were sent far into the countryside to live with strangers to shield them from the bombings. Remaining residents took refuge in shelters and subway tunnels, emerging each morning to put out fires and bury the dead. The Blitz ended in June 1941, when Hitler, confident that Britain was temporarily out of the fight, launched Operation Barbarossa—the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Hoping to capture agricultural lands, seize oil fields, and break the military threat of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler broke the two powers’ 1939 nonaggression pact and, on June 22, invaded the Soviet Union. It was the largest land invasion in history. France and Poland had fallen in weeks, and German officials hoped to break Russia before the winter. And initially, the Blitzkrieg worked. The German military quickly conquered enormous swaths of land and netted hundreds of thousands of prisoners. But Russia was too big and the Soviets were willing to sacrifice millions to stop the fascist advance. After recovering from the initial shock of the German invasion, Stalin moved his factories east of the Urals, out of range of the Luftwaffe. He ordered his retreating army to adopt a “scorched earth” policy, to move east and destroy food, rails, and shelters to stymie the advancing German army. The German army slogged forward. It split into three pieces and stood at the gates of Moscow, Stalingrad, and Leningrad, but supply lines now stretched thousands of miles, Soviet infrastructure had been destroyed, partisans harried German lines, and the brutal Russian winter arrived. Germany had won massive gains but the winter found Germany exhausted and overextended. In the north, the German army starved Leningrad to death during an interminable siege; in the south, at Stalingrad, the two armies bled themselves to death in the destroyed city; and, in the center, on the outskirts of Moscow, in sight of the capital city, the German army faltered and fell back. It was the Soviet Union that broke Hitler’s army. Twenty-five million Soviet soldiers and civilians died during the Great Patriotic War, and roughly 80 percent of all German casualties during the war came on the Eastern Front. The German army and its various conscripts suffered 850,000 casualties at the Battle of Stalingrad alone. 4

While Hitler marched across Europe, the Japanese continued their war in the Pacific. In 1939 the United States dissolved its trade treaties with Japan and the following year cut off supplies of war materials by embargoing oil, steel, rubber, and other vital goods. It was hoped that economic pressure would shut down the Japanese war machine. Instead, Japan’s resource-starved military launched invasions across the Pacific to sustain its war effort. The Japanese called their new empire the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and, with the cry of “Asia for the Asians,” made war against European powers and independent nations throughout the region. Diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States collapsed. The United States demanded that Japan withdraw from China; Japan considered the oil embargo a de facto declaration of war. 5

Japanese military planners, believing that American intervention was inevitable, planned a coordinated Pacific offensive to neutralize the United States and other European powers and provide time for Japan to complete its conquests and fortify its positions. On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Japanese military planners hoped to destroy enough battleships and aircraft carriers to cripple American naval power for years. Twenty-four hundred Americans were killed in the attack.

American isolationism fell at Pearl Harbor. Japan also assaulted Hong Kong, the Philippines, and American holdings throughout the Pacific, but it was the attack on Hawaii that threw the United States into a global conflict. Franklin Roosevelt called December 7 “a date which will live in infamy” and called for a declaration of war, which Congress answered within hours. Within a week of Pearl Harbor the United States had declared war on the entire Axis, turning two previously separate conflicts into a true world war.

This pair of US Military recruiting posters demonstrates the way that two branches of the military—the Marines and the Women’s Army Corps—borrowed techniques from advertising professionals to “sell” a romantic vision of war to Americans. These two images take different strategies: one shows Marines at war in a lush jungle, reminding viewers that the war was taking place in exotic lands, the other depicted women taking on new jobs as a patriotic duty. Bradshaw Crandall, “Are you a girl with a star-spangled heart?” Recruiting Publicity Bureau, US Women’s Army Corps Recruiting Poster (1943); Unknown, “Let’s Go Get ‘Em.” Beck Engraving Co. (1942). Bradshaw Crandall, “Are you a girl with a star-spangled heart?” Recruiting Publicity Bureau, US Women’s Army Corps Recruiting Poster (1943); Unknown, “Let’s Go Get ‘Em.” Beck Engraving Co. (1942). Library of Congress.

This pair of U.S. military recruiting posters demonstrates the way that two branches of the military—the Marines and the Women’s Army Corps—borrowed techniques from professional advertisers to “sell” a romantic vision of war to Americans. One shows Marines at war in a lush jungle, reminding viewers that the war was taking place in exotic lands; the other depicted women taking on new jobs as a patriotic duty. Bradshaw Crandall, Are You a Girl with a Star-Spangled Heart? Recruiting Publicity Bureau, U.S. Women’s Army Corps Recruiting Poster (1943); Unknown, Let’s Go Get ’Em. Beck Engraving Co. (1942). Library of Congress.

The American war began slowly. Britain had stood alone militarily in Europe, but American supplies had bolstered their resistance. Hitler unleashed his U-boat “wolf packs” into the Atlantic Ocean with orders to sink anything carrying aid to Britain, but Britain’s and the United States’ superior tactics and technology won them the Battle of the Atlantic. British code breakers cracked Germany’s radio codes and the surge of intelligence, dubbed Ultra, coupled with massive naval convoys escorted by destroyers armed with sonar and depth charges, gave the advantage to the Allies and by 1942, Hitler’s Kriegsmarine was losing ships faster than they could be built. 6

In North Africa in 1942, British victory at El Alamein began pushing the Germans back. In November, the first American combat troops entered the European war, landing in French Morocco and pushing the Germans east while the British pushed west. 7 By 1943, the Allies had pushed Axis forces out of Africa. In January President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill met at Casablanca to discuss the next step of the European war. Churchill convinced Roosevelt to chase the Axis up Italy, into the “soft underbelly” of Europe. Afterward, Roosevelt announced to the press that the Allies would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender.

Meanwhile, the Army Air Force (AAF) sent hundreds (and eventually thousands) of bombers to England in preparation for a massive strategic bombing campaign against Germany. The plan was to bomb Germany around the clock. American bombers hit German ball-bearing factories, rail yards, oil fields, and manufacturing centers during the day, while the British RAF carpet-bombed German cities at night. Flying in formation, they initially flew unescorted, since many believed that bombers equipped with defensive firepower flew too high and too fast to be attacked. However, advanced German technology allowed fighters to easily shoot down the lumbering bombers. On some disastrous missions, the Germans shot down almost 50 percent of American aircraft. However, the advent and implementation of a long-range escort fighter let the bombers hit their targets more accurately while fighters confronted opposing German aircraft.

Photograph of several Allied bombers in flight. Dark smoke rises from the ground below.

In 1943, Allied forces began a bombing campaign of railroad and oil targets in Bucharest, part of the wider policy of bombing expeditions meant to incapacitate German transportation. Bucharest was considered the number one oil target in Europe. Photograph, August 1, 1943. Wikimedia .

Photograph of a thoroughly bombed and destroyed Cologne, Germany.

Bombings throughout Europe caused complete devastation in some areas, leveling beautiful ancient cities like Cologne, Germany. Cologne experienced an astonishing 262 separate air raids by Allied forces, leaving the city in ruins as in the photograph above. Amazingly, the Cologne Cathedral stood nearly undamaged even after being hit numerous times, while the area around it crumbled. Photograph, April 24, 1945. Wikimedia .

In the wake of the Soviets’ victory at Stalingrad, the Big Three (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin) met in Tehran in November 1943. Dismissing Africa and Italy as a sideshow, Stalin demanded that Britain and the United States invade France to relieve pressure on the Eastern Front. Churchill was hesitant, but Roosevelt was eager. The invasion was tentatively scheduled for 1944.

Back in Italy, the “soft underbelly” turned out to be much tougher than Churchill had imagined. Italy’s narrow, mountainous terrain gave the defending Axis the advantage. Movement up the peninsula was slow, and in some places conditions returned to the trenchlike warfare of World War I. Americans attempted to land troops behind them at Anzio on the western coast of Italy, but, surrounded, they suffered heavy casualties. Still, the Allies pushed up the peninsula, Mussolini’s government revolted, and a new Italian government quickly made peace.

On the day the American army entered Rome, American, British and Canadian forces launched Operation Overlord, the long-awaited invasion of France. D-Day, as it became popularly known, was the largest amphibious assault in history. American general Dwight Eisenhower was uncertain enough of the attack’s chances that the night before the invasion he wrote two speeches: one for success and one for failure. The Allied landings at Normandy were successful, and although progress across France was much slower than hoped for, Paris was liberated roughly two months later. Allied bombing expeditions meanwhile continued to level German cities and industrial capacity. Perhaps four hundred thousand German civilians were killed by allied bombing. 8

The Nazis were crumbling on both fronts. Hitler tried but failed to turn the war in his favor in the west. The Battle of the Bulge failed to drive the Allies back to the English Channel, but the delay cost the Allies the winter. The invasion of Germany would have to wait, while the Soviet Union continued its relentless push westward, ravaging German populations in retribution for German war crimes. 9

German counterattacks in the east failed to dislodge the Soviet advance, destroying any last chance Germany might have had to regain the initiative. 1945 dawned with the end of European war in sight. The Big Three met again at Yalta in the Soviet Union, where they reaffirmed the demand for Hitler’s unconditional surrender and began to plan for postwar Europe.

The Soviet Union reached Germany in January, and the Americans crossed the Rhine in March. In late April American and Soviet troops met at the Elbe while the Soviets pushed relentlessly by Stalin to reach Berlin first and took the capital city in May, days after Hitler and his high command had died by suicide in a city bunker. Germany was conquered. The European war was over. Allied leaders met again, this time at Potsdam, Germany, where it was decided that Germany would be divided into pieces according to current Allied occupation, with Berlin likewise divided, pending future elections. Stalin also agreed to join the fight against Japan in approximately three months. 10

As Americans celebrated V-E (Victory in Europe) Day, they redirected their full attention to the still-raging Pacific War. As in Europe, the war in the Pacific started slowly. After Pearl Harbor, the American-controlled Philippine archipelago fell to Japan. After running out of ammunition and supplies, the garrison of American and Filipino soldiers surrendered. The prisoners were marched eighty miles to their prisoner-of-war camp without food, water, or rest. Ten thousand died on the Bataan Death March. 11

But as Americans mobilized their armed forces, the tide turned. In the summer of 1942, American naval victories at the Battle of the Coral Sea and the aircraft carrier duel at the Battle of Midway crippled Japan’s Pacific naval operations. To dislodge Japan’s hold over the Pacific, the U.S. military began island hopping: attacking island after island, bypassing the strongest but seizing those capable of holding airfields to continue pushing Japan out of the region. Combat was vicious. At Guadalcanal American soldiers saw Japanese soldiers launch suicidal charges rather than surrender. Many Japanese soldiers refused to be taken prisoner or to take prisoners themselves. Such tactics, coupled with American racial prejudice, turned the Pacific Theater into a more brutal and barbarous conflict than the European Theater. 12

Japanese defenders fought tenaciously. Few battles were as one-sided as the Battle of the Philippine Sea, or what the Americans called the Japanese counterattack, the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. Japanese soldiers bled the Americans in their advance across the Pacific. At Iwo Jima, an eight-square-mile island of volcanic rock, seventeen thousand Japanese soldiers held the island against seventy thousand Marines for over a month. At the cost of nearly their entire force, they inflicted almost thirty thousand casualties before the island was lost.

By February 1945, American bombers were in range of the mainland. Bombers hit Japan’s industrial facilities but suffered high casualties. To spare bomber crews from dangerous daylight raids, and to achieve maximum effect against Japan’s wooden cities, many American bombers dropped incendiary weapons that created massive firestorms and wreaked havoc on Japanese cities. Over sixty Japanese cities were fire-bombed. American fire bombs killed one hundred thousand civilians in Tokyo in March 1945.

In June 1945, after eighty days of fighting and tens of thousands of casualties, the Americans captured the island of Okinawa. The mainland of Japan was open before them. It was a viable base from which to launch a full invasion of the Japanese homeland and end the war.

Estimates varied, but given the tenacity of Japanese soldiers fighting on islands far from their home, some officials estimated that an invasion of the Japanese mainland could cost half a million American casualties and perhaps millions of Japanese civilians. Historians debate the many motivations that ultimately drove the Americans to use atomic weapons against Japan, and many American officials criticized the decision, but these would be the numbers later cited by government leaders and military officials to justify their use. 13

Early in the war, fearing that the Germans might develop an atomic bomb, the U.S. government launched the Manhattan Project, a hugely expensive, ambitious program to harness atomic energy and create a single weapon capable of leveling entire cities. The Americans successfully exploded the world’s first nuclear device, Trinity, in New Mexico in July 1945. (Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, where the bomb was designed, later recalled that the event reminded him of Hindu scripture: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”) Two more bombs—Fat Man and Little Boy—were built and detonated over two Japanese cities in August. Hiroshima was hit on August 6. Over one hundred thousand civilians were killed. Nagasaki followed on August 9. Perhaps eighty thousand civilians were killed.

Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan on August 15. On September 2, aboard the battleship USS Missouri , delegates from the Japanese government formally signed their surrender. World War II was finally over.

Almost eighteen million men served in World War II. Volunteers rushed to join the military after Pearl Harbor, but the majority—over ten million—were drafted into service. Volunteers could express their preference for assignment, and many preempted the draft by volunteering. Regardless, recruits judged I-A, “fit for service,” were moved into basic training, where soldiers were developed physically and trained in the basic use of weapons and military equipment. Soldiers were indoctrinated into the chain of command and introduced to military life. After basic, soldiers moved on to more specialized training. For example, combat infantrymen received additional weapons and tactical training, and radio operators learned transmission codes and the operation of field radios. Afterward, an individual’s experience varied depending on what service he entered and to what theater he was assigned. 14

Soldiers and Marines bore the brunt of on-the-ground combat. After transportation to the front by trains, ships, and trucks, they could expect to march carrying packs weighing anywhere from twenty to fifty pounds containing rations, ammunition, bandages, tools, clothing, and miscellaneous personal items in addition to their weapons. Sailors, once deployed, spent months at sea operating their assigned vessels. Larger ships, particularly aircraft carriers, were veritable floating cities. In most, sailors lived and worked in cramped conditions, often sleeping in bunks stacked in rooms housing dozens of sailors. Senior officers received small rooms of their own. Sixty thousand American sailors lost their lives in the war.

During World War II, the Air Force was still a branch of the U.S. Army and soldiers served in ground and air crews. World War II saw the institutionalization of massive bombing campaigns against cities and industrial production. Large bombers like the B-17 Flying Fortress required pilots, navigators, bombardiers, radio operators, and four dedicated machine gunners. Airmen on bombing raids left from bases in England or Italy or from Pacific islands and endured hours of flight before approaching enemy territory. At high altitude, and without pressurized cabins, crews used oxygen tanks to breathe and on-board temperatures plummeted. Once in enemy airspace, crews confronted enemy fighters and anti-aircraft flak from the ground. While fighter pilots flew as escorts, the Air Corps suffered heavy casualties. Tens of thousands of airmen lost their lives.

On the ground, conditions varied. Soldiers in Europe endured freezing winters, impenetrable French hedgerows, Italian mountain ranges, and dense forests. Germans fought with a Western mentality familiar to Americans. Soldiers in the Pacific endured heat and humidity, monsoons, jungles, and tropical diseases. And they confronted an unfamiliar foe. Americans, for instance, could understand surrender as prudent; many Japanese soldiers saw it as cowardice. What Americans saw as a fanatical waste of life, the Japanese saw as brave and honorable. Moreover, American soldiers and American military leadership brought their historical anti-Asian prejudices to bear against the Japanese. Atrocities flourished in the Pacific at a level unmatched in Europe.

Economies win wars no less than militaries. The war converted American factories to wartime production, reawakened Americans’ economic might, armed Allied belligerents and the American armed forces, effectively pulled America out of the Great Depression, and ushered in an era of unparalleled economic prosperity. 15

Roosevelt’s New Deal had ameliorated the worst of the Depression, but the economy still limped its way forward into the 1930s. But then Europe fell into war, and, despite its isolationism, Americans were glad to sell the Allies arms and supplies. And then Pearl Harbor changed everything. The United States drafted the economy into war service. The “sleeping giant” mobilized its unrivaled economic capacity to wage worldwide war. Governmental entities such as the War Production Board and the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion managed economic production for the war effort and economic output exploded. An economy that was unable to provide work for a quarter of the workforce less than a decade earlier now struggled to fill vacant positions.

Government spending during the four years of war doubled all federal spending in all of American history up to that point. The budget deficit soared, but, just as Depression-era economists had counseled, the government’s massive intervention annihilated unemployment and propelled growth. The economy that came out of the war looked nothing like the one that had begun it.

Military production came at the expense of the civilian consumer economy. Appliance and automobile manufacturers converted their plants to produce weapons and vehicles. Consumer choice was foreclosed. Every American received rationing cards and, legally, goods such as gasoline, coffee, meat, cheese, butter, processed food, firewood, and sugar could not be purchased without them. The housing industry was shut down, and the cities became overcrowded.

But the wartime economy boomed. The Roosevelt administration urged citizens to save their earnings or buy war bonds to prevent inflation. Bond drives were held nationally and headlined by Hollywood celebrities. Such drives were hugely successful. They not only funded much of the war effort, they helped tame inflation as well. So too did tax rates. The federal government raised income taxes and boosted the top marginal tax rate to 94 percent.

Photograph of a fundraising event selling war bonds. Soldiers salute as a flag is raised.

As in World War I, citizens were urged to buy war bonds to support the effort overseas. Rallies, such as this 1943 event, appealed to Americans’ sense of patriotism. Wikimedia .

With the economy booming and twenty million American workers placed into military service, unemployment virtually disappeared. More and more African Americans continued to leave the agrarian South for the industrial North. And as more and more men joined the military, and more and more positions went unfilled, women joined the workforce en masse. Other American producers looked outside the United States, southward, to Mexico, to fill its labor force. Between 1942 and 1964, the United States contracted thousands of Mexican nationals to work in American agriculture and railroads in the Bracero Program. Jointly administered by the State Department, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Justice, the binational agreement secured five million contracts across twenty-four states. 16

With factory work proliferating across the country and agricultural labor experiencing severe labor shortages, the presidents of Mexico and the United States signed an agreement in July 1942 to bring the first group of legally contracted workers to California. Discriminatory policies toward people of Mexican descent prevented bracero contracts in Texas until 1947. The Bracero Program survived the war, enshrined in law until the 1960s, when the United States liberalized its immigration laws. Though braceros suffered exploitative labor conditions, for the men who participated the program was a mixed blessing. Interviews with ex-braceros captured the complexity. “They would call us pigs . . . they didn’t have to treat us that way,” one said of his employers, while another said, “For me it was a blessing, the United States was a blessing . . . it is a nation I fell in love with because of the excess work and good pay.” 17 After the exodus of Mexican migrants during the Depression, the program helped reestablish Mexican migration, institutionalized migrant farm work across much of the country, and further planted a Mexican presence in the southern and western United States.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration had encouraged all able-bodied American women to help the war effort. He considered the role of women in the war critical for American victory, and the public expected women to assume various functions to free men for active military service. While most women opted to remain at home or volunteer with charitable organizations, many went to work or donned a military uniform.

World War II brought unprecedented labor opportunities for American women. Industrial labor, an occupational sphere dominated by men, shifted in part to women for the duration of wartime mobilization. Women applied for jobs in converted munitions factories. The iconic illustrated image of Rosie the Riveter, a muscular woman dressed in coveralls with her hair in a kerchief and inscribed with the phrase We Can Do It! , came to stand for female factory labor during the war. But women also worked in various auxiliary positions for the government. Although such jobs were often traditionally gendered female, over a million administrative jobs at the local, state, and national levels were transferred from men to women for the duration of the war. 18

Women came into the workforces in greater numbers than ever before during WWII. With vacancies left by deployed men and new positions created by war production, posters like this iconic “We Can Do It!” urged women to support the war effort by going to work in America’s factories. Poster for Westinghouse, 1942. Wikimedia,!.jpg.

With so many American workers deployed overseas and so many new positions created by war production, women entered the work force in massive numbers.  Wikimedia Commons .

For women who elected not to work, many volunteer opportunities presented themselves. The American Red Cross, the largest charitable organization in the nation, encouraged women to volunteer with local city chapters. Millions of women organized community social events for families, packed and shipped almost half a million tons of medical supplies overseas, and prepared twenty-seven million care packages of nonperishable items for American and other Allied prisoners of war. The American Red Cross further required all female volunteers to certify as nurse’s aides, providing an extra benefit and work opportunity for hospital staffs that suffered severe personnel losses. Other charity organizations, such as church and synagogue affiliates, benevolent associations, and social club auxiliaries, gave women further outlets for volunteer work.

Military service was another option for women who wanted to join the war effort. Over 350,000 women served in several all-female units of the military branches. The Army and Navy Nurse Corps Reserves, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, the Coast Guard’s SPARs (named for the Coast Guard motto, Semper Paratus , “Always Ready”), and Marine Corps units gave women the opportunity to serve as either commissioned officers or enlisted members at military bases at home and abroad. The Nurse Corps Reserves alone commissioned 105,000 army and navy nurses recruited by the American Red Cross. Military nurses worked at base hospitals, mobile medical units, and onboard hospital “mercy” ships. 19

Jim Crow segregation in both the civilian and military sectors remained a problem for Black women who wanted to join the war effort. Even after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 in 1941, supervisors who hired Black women still often relegated them to the most menial tasks on factory floors. Segregation was further upheld in factory lunchrooms, and many Black women were forced to work at night to keep them separate from whites. In the military, only the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the Nurse Corps Reserves accepted Black women for active service, and the army set a limited quota of 10 percent of total end strength for Black female officers and enlisted women and segregated Black units on active duty. The American Red Cross, meanwhile, recruited only four hundred Black nurses for the Army and Navy Nurse Corps Reserves, and Black Army and Navy nurses worked in segregated military hospitals on bases stateside and overseas.

And for all of the postwar celebration of Rosie the Riveter, after the war ended the men returned and most women voluntarily left the workforce or lost their jobs. Meanwhile, former military women faced a litany of obstacles in obtaining veteran’s benefits during their transition to civilian life. The nation that beckoned the call for assistance to millions of women during the four-year crisis hardly stood ready to accommodate their postwar needs and demands.

World War II affected nearly every aspect of life in the United States, and America’s racial relationships were not immune. African Americans, Mexicans and Mexican Americans, Jews, and Japanese Americans were profoundly impacted.

In early 1941, months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the largest Black trade union in the nation, made headlines by threatening President Roosevelt with a march on Washington, D.C. In this “crisis of democracy,” Randolph said, many defense contractors still refused to hire Black workers and the armed forces remained segregated. In exchange for Randolph calling off the march, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, the Fair Employment Practice in Defense Industries Act, banning racial and religious discrimination in defense industries and establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to monitor defense industry hiring practices. While the armed forces remained segregated throughout the war, and the FEPC had limited influence, the order showed that the federal government could stand against discrimination. The Black workforce in defense industries rose from 3 percent in 1942 to 9 percent in 1945. 20

More than one million African Americans fought in the war. Most Black servicemen served in segregated, noncombat units led by white officers. Some gains were made, however. The number of Black officers increased from five in 1940 to over seven thousand in 1945. The all-Black pilot squadrons, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, completed more than 1,500 missions, escorted heavy bombers into Germany, and earned several hundred merits and medals. Many bomber crews specifically requested the Red Tail Angels as escorts. And near the end of the war, the army and navy began integrating some of their units and facilities, before the U.S. government finally ordered the full integration of its armed forces in 1948. 21

Photograph of several Tuskegee Airmen standing at attention. Their commanding officer salutes. A fighter plane is in the background.

The Tuskegee Airmen stand at attention in 1941 as Major James A. Ellison returns the salute of Mac Ross, one of the first graduates of the Tuskegee cadets. The photographscaptures the pride and poise of the Tuskegee Airmen, who continued the tradition of African Americans’ military service despite widespread racial discrimination and inequality at home. Wikimedia .

While Black Americans served in the armed forces (though they were segregated), on the home front they became riveters and welders, rationed food and gasoline, and bought victory bonds. But many Black Americans saw the war as an opportunity not only to serve their country but to improve it. The Pittsburgh Courier , a leading Black newspaper, spearheaded the Double V campaign. It called on African Americans to fight two wars: the war against Nazism and fascism abroad and the war against racial inequality at home. To achieve victory, to achieve “real democracy,” the Courier encouraged its readers to enlist in the armed forces, volunteer on the home front, and fight against racial segregation and discrimination. 22

During the war, membership in the NAACP jumped tenfold, from fifty thousand to five hundred thousand. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was formed in 1942 and spearheaded the method of nonviolent direct action to achieve desegregation. Between 1940 and 1950, some 1.5 million Black southerners, the largest number of any decade since the beginning of the Great Migration, also indirectly demonstrated their opposition to racism and violence by migrating out of the Jim Crow South to the North. But transitions were not easy. Racial tensions erupted in 1943 in a series of riots in cities such as Mobile, Beaumont, and Harlem. The bloodiest race riot occurred in Detroit and resulted in the death of twenty-five Black and nine White Americans. Still, the war ignited in African Americans an urgency for equality that they would carry with them into the subsequent years. 23

Many Americans had to navigate American prejudice, and America’s entry into the war left foreign nationals from the belligerent nations in a precarious position. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) targeted many on suspicions of disloyalty for detainment, hearings, and possible internment under the Alien Enemy Act. Those who received an order for internment were sent to government camps secured by barbed wire and armed guards. Such internments were supposed to be for cause. Then, on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal of any persons from designated “exclusion zones”—which ultimately covered nearly a third of the country—at the discretion of military commanders. Thirty thousand Japanese Americans fought for the United States in World War II, but wartime anti-Japanese sentiment built on historical prejudices, and under the order, people of Japanese descent, both immigrants and American citizens, were detained and placed under the custody of the War Relocation Authority, the civil agency that supervised their relocation to internment camps. They lost their homes and jobs. Over ten thousand German nationals and a smaller number of Italian nationals were interned at various times in the United States during World War II, but American policies disproportionately targeted Japanese-descended populations, and individuals did not receive personalized reviews prior to their internment. This policy of mass exclusion and detention affected over 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-descended individuals. Seventy thousand were American citizens. 24

In its 1982 report, Personal Justice Denied , the congressionally appointed Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians concluded that “the broad historical causes” shaping the relocation program were “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” 25 Although the exclusion orders were found to have been constitutionally permissible under the vagaries of national security, they were later judged, even by the military and judicial leaders of the time, to have been a grave injustice against people of Japanese descent. In 1988, President Reagan signed a law that formally apologized for internment and provided reparations to surviving internees.

But if actions taken during war would later prove repugnant, so too could inaction. As the Allies pushed into Germany and Poland, they uncovered the full extent of Hitler’s genocidal atrocities. The Allies liberated massive camp systems set up for the imprisonment, forced labor, and extermination of all those deemed racially, ideologically, or biologically “unfit” by Nazi Germany. But the Holocaust—the systematic murder of eleven million civilians, including six million Jews—had been under way for years. How did America respond?

This photograph shows a number of Jewish women and children, including a small boy in the foreground, with their hands raised in surrender while German soldiers keep their weapons trained on the civilians.

This photograph, originally from Jürgen Stroop’s May 1943 report to Heinrich Himmler, circulated throughout Europe and America as an image of the Nazi Party’s brutality. The original German caption read: “Forcibly pulled out of dug-outs”. Wikimedia Commons .

Initially, American officials expressed little official concern for Nazi persecutions. At the first signs of trouble in the 1930s, the State Department and most U.S. embassies did relatively little to aid European Jews. Roosevelt publicly spoke out against the persecution and even withdrew the U.S. ambassador to Germany after Kristallnacht. He pushed for the 1938 Evian Conference in France, in which international leaders discussed the Jewish refugee problem and worked to expand Jewish immigration quotas by tens of thousands of people per year. But the conference came to nothing, and the United States turned away countless Jewish refugees who requested asylum in the United States.

In 1939, the German ship St. Louis carried over nine hundred Jewish refugees. They could not find a country that would take them. The passengers could not receive visas under the U.S. quota system. A State Department wire to one passenger read that all must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” The ship cabled the president for special privilege, but the president said nothing. The ship was forced to return to Europe. Hundreds of the St. Louis ’s passengers would perish in the Holocaust.

Anti-Semitism still permeated the United States. Even if Roosevelt wanted to do more—it’s difficult to trace his own thoughts and personal views—he judged the political price for increasing immigration quotas as too high. In 1938 and 1939, the U.S. Congress debated the Wagner-Rogers Bill, an act to allow twenty thousand German-Jewish children into the United States. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt endorsed the measure, but the president remained publicly silent. The bill was opposed by roughly two thirds of the American public and was defeated. Historians speculate that Roosevelt, anxious to protect the New Deal and his rearmament programs, was unwilling to expend political capital to protect foreign groups that the American public had little interest in protecting. 26

Knowledge of the full extent of the Holocaust was slow in coming. When the war began, American officials, including Roosevelt, doubted initial reports of industrial death camps. But even when they conceded their existence, officials pointed to their genuinely limited options. The most plausible response for the U.S. military was to bomb either the camps or the railroads leading to them, but those options were rejected by military and civilian officials who argued that it would do little to stop the deportations, would distract from the war effort, and could cause casualties among concentration camp prisoners. Whether bombing would have saved lives remains a hotly debated question. 27

Late in the war, secretary of the treasury Henry Morgenthau, himself born into a wealthy New York Jewish family, pushed through major changes in American policy. In 1944, he formed the War Refugees Board (WRB) and became a passionate advocate for Jewish refugees. The WRB saved perhaps two hundred thousand Jews and twenty thousand others. Morgenthau also convinced Roosevelt to issue a public statement condemning the Nazi’s persecution. But it was already 1944, and such policies were far too little, far too late. 28

Americans celebrated the end of the war. At home and abroad, the United States looked to create a postwar order that would guarantee global peace and domestic prosperity. Although the alliance of convenience with Stalin’s Soviet Union would collapse, Americans nevertheless looked for the means to ensure postwar stability and economic security for returning veterans.

The inability of the League of Nations to stop German, Italian, and Japanese aggressions caused many to question whether any global organization or agreements could ever ensure world peace. This included Franklin Roosevelt, who, as Woodrow Wilson’s undersecretary of the navy, witnessed the rejection of this idea by both the American people and the Senate. In 1941, Roosevelt believed that postwar security could be maintained by an informal agreement between what he termed the Four Policemen—the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China—instead of a rejuvenated League of Nations. But others, including secretary of state Cordell Hull and British prime minister Winston Churchill, disagreed and convinced Roosevelt to push for a new global organization. As the war ran its course, Roosevelt came around to the idea. And so did the American public. Pollster George Gallup noted a “profound change” in American attitudes. The United States had rejected membership in the League of Nations after World War I, and in 1937 only a third of Americans polled supported such an idea. But as war broke out in Europe, half of Americans did. America’s entry into the war bolstered support, and, by 1945, with the war closing, 81 percent of Americans favored the idea. 29

Whatever his support, Roosevelt had long shown enthusiasm for the ideas later enshrined in the United Nations (UN) charter. In January 1941, he announced his Four Freedoms—freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear—that all of the world’s citizens should enjoy. That same year he signed the Atlantic Charter with Churchill, which reinforced those ideas and added the right of self-determination and promised some sort of postwar economic and political cooperation. Roosevelt first used the term united nations to describe the Allied powers, not the subsequent postwar organization. But the name stuck. At Tehran in 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill convinced Stalin to send a Soviet delegation to a conference at Dumbarton Oaks, in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., in August 1944, where they agreed on the basic structure of the new organization. It would have a Security Council—the original Four Policemen, plus France—which would consult on how best to keep the peace and when to deploy the military power of the assembled nations. According to one historian, the organization demonstrated an understanding that “only the Great Powers, working together, could provide real security.” But the plan was a kind of hybrid between Roosevelt’s policemen idea and a global organization of equal representation. There would also be a General Assembly, made up of all nations; an International Court of Justice; and a council for economic and social matters. Dumbarton Oaks was a mixed success—the Soviets especially expressed concern over how the Security Council would work—but the powers agreed to meet again in San Francisco between April and June 1945 for further negotiations. There, on June 26, 1945, fifty nations signed the UN charter. 30

Anticipating victory in World War II, leaders not only looked to the postwar global order, they looked to the fate of returning American servicemen. American politicians and interest groups sought to avoid another economic depression—the economy had tanked after World War I—by gradually easing returning veterans back into the civilian economy. The brainchild of Henry Colmery, the former head of the American Legion, the G.I. Bill won support from progressives and conservatives alike. Passed in 1944, the G.I. Bill was a multifaceted, multibillion-dollar entitlement program that rewarded honorably discharged veterans with numerous benefits. 31

Faced with the prospect of over fifteen million members of the armed services (including approximately 350,000 women) suddenly returning to civilian life, the G.I. Bill offered a bevy of inducements to slow their influx into the civilian workforce as well as reward their service with public benefits. The legislation offered a year’s worth of unemployment benefits for veterans unable to secure work. About half of American veterans (eight million) received $4 billion in unemployment benefits over the life of the bill. The G.I. Bill also made postsecondary education a reality for many. The Veterans Administration (VA) paid the lion’s share of educational expenses, including tuition, fees, supplies, and even stipends for living expenses. The G.I. Bill sparked a boom in higher education. Enrollments at accredited colleges, universities, and technical and professional schools spiked, rising from 1.5 million in 1940 to 3.6 million in 1960. The VA disbursed over $14 billon in educational aid in just over a decade. Furthermore, the bill encouraged home ownership. Roughly 40 percent of Americans owned homes in 1945, but that figure climbed to 60 percent a decade after the close of the war. Because the bill did away with down payment requirements, veterans could obtain home loans for as little as $1 down. Close to four million veterans purchased homes through the G.I. Bill, sparking a construction bonanza that fueled postwar growth. In addition, the VA also helped nearly two hundred thousand veterans secure farms and offered thousands more guaranteed financing for small businesses. 32

Not all Americans, however, benefited equally from the G.I. Bill. Indirectly, since the military limited the number of female personnel, men qualified for the bill’s benefits in far higher numbers. Colleges also limited the number of female applicants to guarantee space for male veterans. African Americans, too, faced discrimination. Segregation forced Black veterans into overcrowded “historically Black colleges” that had to turn away close to twenty thousand applicants. Meanwhile, residential segregation limited Black home ownership in various neighborhoods, denying Black homeowners the equity and investment that would come with home ownership. There were other limits and other disadvantaged groups. Veterans accused of homosexuality, for instance, were similarly unable to claim GI benefits. 33

The effects of the G.I. Bill were significant and long-lasting. It helped sustain the great postwar economic boom and, even if many could not attain it, it nevertheless established the hallmarks of American middle class life.

The United States entered the war in a crippling economic depression and exited at the beginning of an unparalleled economic boom. The war had been won, the United States was stronger than ever, and Americans looked forward to a prosperous future. And yet new problems loomed. Stalin’s Soviet Union and the proliferation of nuclear weapons would disrupt postwar dreams of global harmony. Meanwhile, Americans who had fought a war for global democracy would find that very democracy eradicated around the world in reestablished colonial regimes and at home in segregation and injustice. The war had unleashed powerful forces that would reshape the United States at home and abroad.

1. Charles A. Lindbergh, “America First” (1941)

Charles Lindbergh won international fame in 1927 after completing the first non-stop, solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. As Hitler’s armies marched across the European continent, many Americans began to imagine American participation in the war. Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee, advocating “America First,” championed American isolationism.

2. A. Phillip Randolph and Franklin Roosevelt on Racial Discrimination in the Defense Industry (1941)

As the United States prepared for war, Black labor leader A. Philip Randolph recoiled at rampant employment discrimination in the defense industry. Together with NAACP head Walter White and other leaders, Randolph planned “a mass March on Washington” to push for fair employment practices. President Franklin Roosevelt met with Randolph and White on June 18, and, faced with mobilized discontent and a possible disruption of wartime industries, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 on June 25. The order prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industry. Randolph and other leaders declared victory and called off the march.

3. The Atlantic Charter (1941)

The leaders of the United States and United Kingdom signed the Atlantic Charter in August 1941. The short document neatly outlined an idealized vision for political and economic order of the postwar world.

4. FDR, Executive Order No. 9066 (1942)

During World War II, the federal government removed over 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent (both foreign-born “issei” and native-born “nisei”) from the West Coast and interned in camps. President Roosevelt authorized the internments with his Executive Order No. 9066, issued on February 19, 1942.

5. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga on Japanese Internment (1942/1994)

Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga was born in 1924 in Los Angeles, California. A second-generation (“Nisei”) Japanese American, she was incarcerated at the Manzanar internment camp in California and later at other internment camps in Arkansas. Her she describes learning about Pearl Harbor, her family’s forced evacuation, and her impressions of her internment camp.

6. Harry Truman Announcing the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima (1945)

On August 6, 1945, Harry Truman disclosed to the American public that the United States had detonated an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan.

7. Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (1945)

Vietnam, which had been colonized by the French and then by the Japanese, declared their independence from colonial rule—particularly the re-imposition of a French colonial regime—in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in World War II. Proclaimed by Ho Chi Minh in September 1945, Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence reflected back the early promises of the Allies in World War II and even borrowed directly from the American Declaration of Independence.

8. Tuskegee Airmen (1941)

The Tuskegee Airmen stand at attention as Major James A. Ellison returns the salute of Mac Ross, one of the first graduates of the Tuskegee cadets. The Tuskegee Airmen who continued a tradition of African American military service while honorably serving a country that still considered them second-class citizens.

9. World War II Recruitment Posters (1942 & 1943)

This pair of US Military recruiting posters demonstrates the way that two branches of the military—the Marines and the Women’s Army Corps—borrowed techniques from advertising professionals to “sell” a romantic vision of war to Americans. These two images take different strategies: one shows Marines at war in a lush jungle, reminding viewers that the war was taking place in exotic lands, the other depicted women taking on new jobs as a patriotic duty.

This chapter was edited by Joseph Locke, with content contributions by Mary Beth Chopas, Andrew David, Ashton Ellett, Paula Fortier, Joseph Locke, Jennifer Mandel, Valerie Martinez, Ryan Menath, Chris Thomas.

Recommended citation: Mary Beth Chopas et al., “World War II,” Joseph Locke, ed., in The American Yawp , eds. Joseph Locke and Ben Wright (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).

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  4. Chapter 35: Identifications and Guided Reading Questions

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  8. Chapter 35 Guided Reading

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