The Nazis Begin Their Empire
After taking power in Germany and rebuilding the nation's military, Hitler announced plans to expand his German empire into neighboring countries. He aligned himself with fellow dictator, Benito Mussolini of Italy, making his large army even more impressive. First, his Nazi troops moved into Austria and peacefully annexed (added to a country) that nation. The government of Austria knew it couldn't fight back against the much larger German military, and most Austrian citizens welcomed Nazi troops. The Austrians saw how quickly the Nazi government had rebuilt Germany and its economy after World War I, and hoped they would do the same for their country. Following Austria, the Nazis did the same to Czechoslovakia.
The Munich Conference
After Hitler took those two countries, the leaders of Britain and France demanded to meet with him in Munich, Germany. The three men met at what became known as the Munich Conference. The British and French leaders reminded Hitler that according to the Treaty of Versailles, he was not allowed to have a military, and was certainly not allowed to use it to invade other countries. Hitler secretly guessed that Britain and France were so afraid of war with him that they would let him off the hook. So, instead of returning the countries, he simply promised he would not take any more land if they would allow him to keep Austria and Czechoslovakia. He was right, Britain and France were afraid, and they agreed to his deal, hoping to appease him. This deal became known as the Munich Pact.
The leaders of Britain and France returned to their countries from Munich with the promise of peace for their people. That promise was based on Hitler's word, however, and he would soon prove his word was worth nothing. Shortly after Munich, Hitler made plans to attack Poland. First, he signed a non-aggression pact with Poland's powerful neighbor, the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union's leader, dictator Joseph Stalin, also feared war with Hitler, and the pact stated that as long as Germany did not try to invade the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union would not defend other countries.
Invasion of Poland
One week after securing his pact with Stalin, Hitler and his Nazi military invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Since Hitler violated the Munich Pact, Britain and France declared war on Germany, marking the official start of World War II. Britain and France, now called The Allies, tried to avoid war with Hitler, and certainly did not want war. But after the invasion of Poland, they had little choice left.
War in Poland
Britain, France, and Poland together made an impressive alliance, at least on paper. They had more soldiers than Germany. Germany, however, had superior firepower-more machine guns, artillery, and powerful tanks and planes. In addition, the Germans practiced a new form of attack called blitzkrieg (which translates to "lightning war"). This new military tactic included a fast, concentrated air and land attack that took the enemy's army by surprise and overwhelmed them. The German dive-bombing warplanes began the blitzkrieg by shattering defenses and terrorizing civilians. Then the tanks and mobile cannons punched through enemy lines, encircling and capturing opposing troops. Finally, the ground troops moved in to defeat the enemy and occupy the country. Using the blitzkrieg tactic, German troops overran Poland in less than a month. They imposed German laws and imprisoned and murdered Polish citizens.
Plans to Move West
After Poland, which is east of Germany, fell, Hitler and Germany turned west, to France. France not only defeated Germany in World War I, they forced Germany to sign the Treaty of Versailles afterward. Hitler desperately wanted to make France pay by taking it over, but France had built the Maginot Line after World War I. This was a massive line of armed forts and concrete walls along France's border with Germany. In order to get to France, Hitler would have to avoid it. He could do this by entering France through Belgium.
War in the West
To take France, first German troops launched a blitzkrieg on the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Although British and French troops rushed to Belgium to defend their neighbor, they were too late. The German army overran Luxembourg in a day, the Netherlands in five days, and Belgium in two weeks. From there, the Nazi army poured into France simply by moving around the Maginot Line, which proved to be worthless. In the face of Germany's advance, French and British forces in the north retreated to the French coastal city of Dunkirk, which is across the English Channel from Britain. There, one of the greatest rescues in the history of warfare took place. While some troops fought to slow the advancing Germans, others hastily assembled a makeshift fleet consisting mainly of tugboats, yachts, and other small private ships. Braving merciless attacks by the Luftwaffe (the German air force), about 900 vessels carried some 340,000 soldiers across the English Channel to Great Britain.
The Fall of France
As the Allies retreated, Hitler's army swept through France. The French government abandoned Paris, the capital. With France's defeat only a matter of time, Italy declared war on France and Britain on the same day. German troops entered Paris, and France and its more than 1 million soldiers officially surrendered. Adolf Hitler himself traveled to France to make a brief victory tour of Paris. Britain was stunned by the speed of Germany's conquest of France. So far, Hitler had experienced nothing but success. German armies had conquered most of Europe without suffering a single defeat. He seemed to be on the verge of destroying the Allies. Eventually, the United States and the Soviet Union would join the Allies, but at that time Great Britain stood alone in Europe.
Britain Prepares for Attack
As France fell, Hitler amassed troops on the French coast. His next invasion target, Great Britain, lay just 20 miles away, across the English Channel. The British people prepared for the impending Nazi invasion. Winston Churchill, Britain's new prime minister, pledged that the British would defend their island at all costs: "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the ground, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."
The Battle of Britain
Britain's large and well-equipped navy stood between Hitler and England. To neutralize the British navy, Germany would have to control the air. Hitler turned to the Luftwaffe to destroy Britain's air defenses. Hitler launched the greatest air assault the world had yet seen. This intense attack, called the Battle of Britain, would continue for months. Day after day, as many as 1,000 planes rained bombs on Britain and its capital of London. Germany targeted both military and civilian targets, trying to break the British people's will to fight back.
Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF), although greatly outnumbered, bravely defended its homeland. In a typical raid, slow-moving German bombers, accompanied by speedy fighter planes, would cross the English Channel. RAF pilots dodged the German fighter planes while trying to shoot down the bombers. They inflicted heavy damage on the attackers, sometimes flying six or seven missions a day. Hundreds of RAF pilots died defending Britain, but German losses were higher. "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few," said Churchill, praising the courageous pilots of the RAF. The British people showed equal bravery. Despite massive losses, the British people kept their will to fight. Eventually, Hitler called for an end to air raids. 20,000 Londoners had been killed, and whole sections of the city had been destroyed, but Britain remained standing. While the Nazi military was still strong and on the move elsewhere in Europe, the world rejoiced as Britain bravely proved that Germany wasn't invincible.
Section 3: America: From Isolation to War
After World War I, the United States turned away from international affairs. Instead, the country focused its energies on solving the domestic problems brought about by the Great Depression. Even as Italy, Germany, and Japan threatened to shatter world peace, the United States clung to its policy of isolationism. The horrors of World War I still haunted many Americans who refused to be dragged into another foreign conflict. President Franklin Roosevelt assured Americans that he felt the same way:
"I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen men coughing out their gassed lungs. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war."
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
Few people in the United States agreed with the actions or the ideas of the Fascists and the Nazis. Most Americans sympathized with the victims of aggression. Still, nothing short of a direct attack on the United States would propel Americans into another war.
The United States Chooses Neutrality
To ensure the U.S. remained neutral
, (refusing to choose sides in a conflict), Congress passed a series of laws called the Neutrality Acts.
These laws banned the U.S. from providing weapons or money to nations at war. Later, when the world situation became more desperate, Congress permitted trade with fighting nations in only non-military goods and only as long as those nations paid cash and transported the cargo themselves. This policy became known as cash and carry.
The Neutrality Acts prevented the United States from selling arms even to nations that were trying to defend themselves from aggression. By doing this, as FDR pointed out later, the Neutrality Acts encouraged aggression. Soon, Italy had conquered Ethiopia, Japan had invaded China, and Germany had taken Austria and Czechoslovakia. The United States watched from a distance, protected by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
American Involvement Grows
As the 1930s wore on, the American economy slowly recovered. Unemployment and business failures no longer required the nation's full attention. At the same time, Germany and Japan stepped up their aggression against neighboring countries. This combination of events softened Americans' isolationist views and strengthened the views of interventionists
. American opinion shifted even further against the Axis Powers in September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Still, at that time, very few Americans believed that America should enter the war against Germany. So President Roosevelt began to look for ways to send more aid to the Allies without getting the U.S. directly involved.
Debating America's Role
Three weeks after the invasion of Poland, Roosevelt asked Congress to revise the Neutrality Acts to make them more flexible. Congress did so by allowing the U.S. to sell weapons to Britain and France. When France fell to the Nazis the following year, most Americans supported "all aid short of war" for Britain. They believed helping Britain fight the Nazis would decrease the chance that the U.S. would get involved. Roosevelt also convinced Congress to send 50 destroyers (warships) to Britain. Some Americans saw this increased involvement as a dangerous step toward direct American military involvement. But Roosevelt assured American parents as he was running for President again in 1940, "Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars."
After winning re-election, Roosevelt was pressed by Prime Minister Churchill to again increase support for Britain. In a letter to FDR, he confessed that his country was nearly bankrupt. "The moment approaches," he wrote, "when we shall no longer be able to pay cash for supplies." Roosevelt introduced a bold new plan to keep supplies flowing to Britain. He proposed providing war supplies to Britain without any payment in return. Roosevelt explained his policy to the American people by the use of a simple comparison: “If your neighbor's house is on fire, you don't sell him a hose. You lend it to him and take it back after the fire is out.”
Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act
, authorizing the President to aid any nation whose defense he believed was vital to American security. FDR immediately began sending aid to Britain. After Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the United States extended lend-lease aid to the Soviets as well. By the end of the war, the United States had loaned or given away more than $50 billion worth of aid to some 40 nations.
Japan Attacks Asia
As Hitler took Europe
, and Mussolini took North Africa, Japan officially joined them as the Axis Powers.
Although Roosevelt focused his attention on Europe, he was aware of Japan's aggressive moves in the Pacific. Japan had invaded China, and colonized a region there called Manchuria. Japan then moved to the Chinese capital of Nanking. There, Japanese soldiers destroyed the city and massacred hundreds of thousands of civilians. Roosevelt began limiting what Japan could buy from the United States. He hoped to use the threat of further trade restrictions to stop Japan's expansion. A year later, however, Japanese forces took complete control of Indochina, a peninsula in Asia made up of four countries. In response, Roosevelt placed an oil embargo
(refusing to sell a product) on Japan.
Final Weeks of Peace
As Japanese politicians tried to peacefully convince the U.S. to remove the embargo, an aggressive army general took power in Japan. Hideki Tojo, who supported war against the United States, became prime minister in October 1941. Yet Roosevelt still hoped for peace, and he continued negotiations. A year earlier, American technicians had cracked a top-secret Japanese code. By November 27, based on decoded messages, American military leaders knew that Japanese aircraft carriers were on the move in the Pacific. They expected an attack, but they did not know where.
The Attack on Pearl Harbor
Indeed, a Japanese fleet of six aircraft carriers and more than 20 other ships was already on the move. Its target was Pearl Harbor, a naval base on the Hawaiian island of Oahu that served as the home of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Japan's leaders had gambled that they could cripple the American fleet and then achieve their goals in Asia before the United States could rebuild its navy and challenge Japan.
Around 8:00 on a Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, more than 180 Japanese warplanes streaked overhead. Most of the Pacific Fleet lay at anchor in Pearl Harbor, crowded into an area less than three square miles. Japanese planes bombed and strafed (attacked with machine-gun fire) the fleet and the airfields nearby. By 9:45, the attack was over. In less than two hours, some 2,400 Americans had been killed and nearly 1,200 wounded. Nearly 200 American warplanes had been damaged or destroyed; 18 warships had been sunk or heavily damaged, including 8 of the fleet's 9 battleships. Only the aircraft carriers, which were out at sea, escaped Japan's wrath.
The United States Declares War
The attack on Pearl Harbor stunned the American people. Calling December 7, 1941, "a date which will live in infamy," Roosevelt the next day asked Congress to declare war on Japan:
"There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces - with the determination of our people - we will gain the inevitable triumph - so help us God." -Franklin D. Roosevelt, December 8, 1941
Within hours after Roosevelt finished speaking, Congress passed a war resolution. In response, the other Axis Powers, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States. For the second time in the last 25 years, Americans had been drawn into a world war. And again, their contributions would make the difference between victory and defeat for the Allies.
Section 4: Mobilization
Preparing for War
Once America joined the war after the Pearl Harbor attack, the government, military, and American people all realized America would have to change if it were to win the war. From the depressed economy, its industry would have to roar to life to produce war goods; and its military was nowhere near large enough. Before America could even worry about fighting on the battlefields, it would undergo mobilization, a process where a country prepares itself for war.
Populating the Armed Forces
In the weeks that followed Pearl Harbor, feelings of patriotism swept over the United States. Millions of men volunteered to serve in the military. But it wasn't enough to defeat three large militaries. FDR realized that the most crucial step he had to take to help the U.S. win the war was to strengthen the armed forces. The Selective Training and Service Act, or "the draft" required all males age 21 to 36 to register for military service. Millions of men were selected from this pool to serve a year in the army. Between the draft and volunteers, more than 16 million Americans served in the armed forces during the war. American troops slogged through swamps, crossed hot deserts and turbulent seas, and flew through skies pounded by enemy guns. For many, life was a daily struggle just to stay alive. Between battles, the typical soldier dreamed of home. When asked what he was fighting for, a young marine replied, "What I'd give for a piece of blueberry pie."
Diversity in the Military
Americans from all ethnic and racial backgrounds fought during World War II. More than 300,000 Hispanic Americans served their country. Some 25,000 Native Americans also served in the military. A group of Navajos developed a secret code, based on their language, that the enemy could not break. Nearly a million African Americans joined the military. At first, officials limited most black troops to supporting roles. But as the war waged on, faced with mounting casualties, military authorities reluctantly gave African Americans the opportunity to fight. African Americans fought in separate, or segregated units from white soldiers. One such group, called the Tuskegee Airmen, became the first African American flying unit in the United States military.
Women in the Armed Forces
Not all who served in the military were men. By the war's end, roughly 350,000 American women had volunteered for military service. Faced with a personnel shortage, officials agreed to use women in almost all areas except combat. Many worked as clerks, typists, airfield control tower operators, mechanics, photographers, and drivers.
Preparing the Economy for War
FDR believed that the federal government would have to coordinate the production of war materials to meet the military's demand. After Pearl Harbor, the government set up the War Production Board (WPB) to direct the conversion of peacetime industries to industries that produced war goods. It quickly halted the production of hundreds of civilian consumer goods, from cars to lawn mowers to bird cages, and encouraged companies to make goods for the war. For example, the Ford Motor Company built a huge new factory to make B-24 Liberator bombers using the same assembly-line techniques used to manufacture its cars.
The Wartime Work Force
Each year of the war, the United States raised its production goals for military materials, and each year it met these goals. Amazingly, in 1944, American production levels doubled those of all the Axis nations put together. War production benefited workers by ending the massive unemployment of the 1930s. Unemployment virtually vanished during the war. Not only did people find jobs, they also earned more money for their work. Average weekly wages in manufacturing, rose by more than 50 percent between 1940 and 1945.
Daily Life on the Home Front
The war affected the daily lives of most Americans. Nearly everyone had a relative or a friend in the military, and people closely followed war news on the radio. The end of the Depression helped lift Americans' spirits. One measure of people's optimism was an increase in the birthrate. The population grew by 7.5 million between1940 and 1945, nearly double the rate of growth for the 1930s.
Shortages and Rationing
Wartime jobs gave many people their first extra cash since the Depression. Still, shortages and rationing limited the goods that people could buy. Familiar consumer items were simply unavailable during the war. Metal to make zippers or typewriters went instead into guns, and rubber went to make tires for army trucks instead of tires for bicycles. Nylon stockings vanished from shops because the nylon was needed for parachutes. The supply of food also fell short of demand. The government needed great amounts of food and fuel for the military, so families had to ration the little meat, fruit, coffee and gasoline they were allowed to buy.
Life at Home
With so many goods unavailable, Americans looked for other ways to spend their money. Civilians bought and read more books and magazines. They purchased recordings of popular songs, such as "White Christmas" by Irving Berlin, a sentimental favorite of both soldiers and civilians. They flocked to baseball games, even though most of their favorite players, like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, had gone off to war. Millions of Americans-about 60 percent of the population-also went to the movies every week. One other popular idea was the victory garden, a home vegetable garden planted to add to the home food supply and replace farm produce sent to feed the soldiers. Soon people in cities and suburbs were planting tomatoes, peas, and radishes in backyards, empty parking lots, and playgrounds. The war became a part of everyday life in many ways. Men too old for the army joined the Civilian Defense effort, wearing their CD armbands as they tested air raid sirens, and kept their eyes on the skies. Women knit scarves and socks or rolled bandages for the Red Cross. The government encouraged efforts to recycle scrap metal, paper, and other materials for war production. The collection drives kept adults and children actively involved in the war effort, as their sons, brothers, and fathers were off at war.
Section 5: The War in Europe
Americans Join the Struggle
The United States entered the war in December 1941, at a critical time for the Allies. London and other major British cities had suffered heavy damage during the Battle of Britain. The Germans' blitzkrieg had extended Nazi control across most of Europe. In North Africa, a mixed German and Italian army was bearing down on British forces. Many people feared that Germany could not be stopped.