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World War II and the United States

When the United States finally entered the war as a result of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Axis Powers (Germany, Japan, and Italy) were winning. The winter and spring of 1941-42 saw the Japanese had taking Malaya, the US island of Guam, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies(1), Burma, and the Western Aleutian Islands in the United States. On May 6, 1942, US forces surrendered at Corregidor, Philippines. German armies had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and only stopped at the outskirts of Moscow. In June, 1942, the Germans had reached deep into the Caucasus Mountains where they laid siege to Stalingrad on the Volga River. The principal source of British military power, the Royal Navy, was being sunk. Much of the US Pacific fleet had been destroyed by the Japanese navy at Pearl Harbor.

Faced with a two-front war but with Hitler's armies a greater immediate danger, the US and the United Kingdom decided to put the major effort into defeating the Germans while fighting a holding action against the Japanese. It was not just that the US had so much in common with the UK but also because the Japanese war could be fight largely by the US Navy, freeing up the army and its air corps to fight the Germans. The US Navy checked Japanese expansion by winning the Battle of Coral Sea in May, 1942; ended the Japanese threat to the US with the Battle of Midway in June, and began a counter offensive in August at the Solomon Islands. In October, the British beat the Germans at El Alamein in North Africa and, in November, US forces invaded North Africa. The Soviets lifted the Siege of Stalingrad. By 1943, the Allies were on the offensive; observers could see that the Allies would probably win. They cleared North Africa of German troops and in the summer and fall invaded Sicily and Italy. Mussolini was overthrown and then executed by Italian partisans. The Germans sent troops into Italy to resist the Allies. On June 6, 1944 (D-Day), the US invaded Normandy and, after bloody battles,pushed towards Germany. The Soviet troops were advancing into Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and East Prussia.

World War II dramatically changed the US. It pulled the country out of an economic depression and greatly expanded production.(2) By 1944, the US was doubling the combined total of Axis production. Put another way, the US was overwhelming the Axis with materiel. If it blew up a tank, for example, the US put two in its place. Farmers benefitted because they could sell all the food, fiber, and animal products they raised at high prices; labor was imported from Mexico to meet the demand for farm labor. In factories, women and African Americans were hired in substantial numbers to increase the production of goods. Before the war ended most airplanes were built by women, who also flew them almost to the battlefields of Europe. The armed forces peaked at 12 million persons, mostly male and 80% draftees, and 16 million people passed through the armed forces. Workers enjoyed full employment with plenty of overtime. The federal government used centralized planning to fight the war. Taxes sky rocketed; the top rate reached 90%. Incentives were given to factories to manufacture needed war goods. Rationing regulated the amount of such commodities as sugar that consumers could have. It was not possible to buy a new car because they were not being produced. To get a telephone, one had to be in a critical occupation for the war. People were forced to save money because there was not enough to buy. Whereas the federal government had normally spent $3 billion a year in the 1920s and $8 billion on 1936, the biggest New Deal spending year, it spent $98 billion dollars in 1945. Similarly, the national debt ballooned. People moved to the west coast, to Los Angeles, Seattle, and that region of the country gained wealth and power. Although the US was fighting a war against racially-bigoted nations, it engaged in its own bigotry by putting 117,000 Americans of Japanese descent and Japanese into concentration camps but did not treat Germans and German-Americans and Italians and Italian-Americans the same way.

The Allies and the Grand Alliance

Unlike in World War I, when the US demanded that it only be an "associated" power, in WWII it was fully part of a grand alliance. In fact, the US and the USSR dominated the alliance. Stalin wanted the western allies to open a second front against the Germans to relieve some of the pressure on Soviet troops but the US and UK stalled. FDR wanted to make China a great power, in part hoping that this would bolster the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek against the Communists there. The US did aid the Soviets with $11 billion dollars, a sensible move since they did most of the fighting against the Germans.

At the Tehran, Iran conference in 1943, the Allies agreed to eliminate Hitler, his Nazi Party, and German military power. Tentatively, they agreed to partition Germany after the war. They agreed to aid Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia who was effectively resisting the Germans. They also agreed to shift Poland's borders at the expense of the Germans to the the benefit of the USSR. But they argued about what post-war central and eastern Europe would look like.

At Yalta in February, 1945, the allies agreed to divide Germany into four zones--British, French, US, and Soviet. The germans were to pay $20 billion in reparations. the Communist government in Poland which the Soviet Army had installed, would be broadened to include non-Communists. The Soviets promised to follow a similar pattern elsewhere in eastern Europe. They agreed to the creation of the United Nations with each major power having the right to veto items which came to the Security Council. Since the US could not predict how long the war with Japan would continue and whether it would have to invade Japan, it got the USSR to promise to enter the war against Japan within two to three months after the Germans were defeated. In return, they would get Outer Mongolia, the Kurile Islands, and southern Sakhalin Island as well as concessions in Manchuria.

The End of the War

Franklin Roosevelt died in April 12, 1945, leaving Harry S. Truman, his Vice-President, the tasks involved in finishing the war and starting the peace. In March, 1945, the Allied armies crossed the Rhine River into Germany. In April, they had reached the Elbe River. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied commander, decided to clean out the southern Alps to prevent the Germans from pincering the Allied armies. Similarly, he followed the same pattern in regards to Prague. On May 1, Soviet troops marched into Berlin; they had the honor because they had done most of the fighting. On May 4, the Germans surrendered.

The Allies met in Potsdam, Germany, a suburb of Berlin, on July 26 to plot their next steps. Truman and Churchill demanded the unconditional surrender of Japan. While at Potsdam, Truman secretly learned that the US had successfully devastated a nuclear device. He gave the order to use the atomic bomb against Japan. He believed that using it would save US lives because it would not have to invade Japan. After warning the Japanese to surrender or face destruction previously unknown in human history and having Japan ignore this warning, the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. When it was dropped, no one had ever dropped a nuclear bomb from an airplane before. They did not know how much destruction it would do. The Soviets understood it and joined the war on the 7th. The Japanese still did not surrender so the US dropped one of its two remaining bombs on Nagasaki on August 8. Ten days later, the Japanese surrendered. They signed an armistice on September 2, 1945.


1. See Bantjeuj for a Japanese concentrations camp diary written by a Dutch prisoner.

2. Robert Higgs, , "Wartime Prosperity? A Reassessment of the U.S. Economy in the 1940s", Journal of Economic HistoryMarch 1, 1992, argues that the standard of living fell doing WWII.

by Donald J. Mabry