World War II

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World War II

World War II began in 1939 as a conflict between Germany and the combined forces of France and Great Britain and eventually included most of the nations of the world before it ended in August 1945. It caused the greatest loss of life and material destruction of any war in history, killing 25 million military personnel and 30 million civilians. By the end of the war, the United States had become the most powerful nation in the world, the possessor and user of atomic weapons. The war also increased the power of the Soviet Union, which gained control of Eastern Europe and part of Germany.

World War II was caused in large part by the rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany and Italy and by the domination of the military in Japan. In Germany, Adolf Hitler, head of the National Socialist or Nazi party, became chancellor in 1933. Within a short time, he had assumed dictatorial rule. Hitler broke the Versailles Treaty, which had ended World War I and disarmed Germany, and proceeded with a massive buildup of the German armed forces. Hitler believed that the German people were a master race that needed more territory. His first aim was to reunite all Germans living under foreign governments. In 1936 he reclaimed the Rhineland from French control and in 1938 annexed Austria to Germany. That same year he took over the German areas of Czechoslovakia and in 1939 annexed all of that country.

Though France and Great Britain had acquiesced to Germany's actions, they soon realized that Hitler had greater ambitions. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. With the invasion of Poland, World War II began. Poland was quickly defeated, and for a period of time a "phony war" ensued, with neither side making any military moves. This situation changed in the spring of 1940, when Germany invaded Holland, Belgium, and France. Again, German military forces overwhelmed their opponents, leaving Great Britain the only outpost against Germany.

During the 1930s the United States government had avoided involvement in European affairs. This traditional policy of "isolationism" became more problematic after the war began in 1939. President franklin d. roosevelt moved away from an isolationist foreign policy and sought to assist Great Britain and France, while keeping the United States a neutral party to the conflict. This strategy led to the repeal of the arms embargo in the Neutrality Act of 1939 (22 U.S.C.A. § 441), allowing the sale of military equipment to Great Britain and France.

After the fall of France to Germany in 1940, Roosevelt became even more determined to assist Great Britain. He persuaded Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 (55 Stat. 31). Lend-Lease provided munitions, food, machinery, and services to Great Britain and other Allies without immediate cost.

U.S. interests in the Pacific were threatened by the rise of Japanese militarism in the 1930s. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 signaled a new direction for Japan. Its military leaders, who dominated the government, sought to conquer large parts of Asia. In 1936 and 1937 Japan signed treaties with Germany and Italy (headed by dictator Benito Mussolini), creating what was called the Axis powers. In 1937 Japan began an undeclared war against China. When Japan occupied Indochina in 1940, the United States stopped exporting gasoline, iron, steel, and rubber to Japan and froze all Japanese assets in the United States. In the fall of 1941, the extremist Japanese general Hideki Tōjō became leader of the cabinet. His cabinet began planning a war with the United States, as Japan realized it could not attain its imperial goals without defeating the United States.

The devastating Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, resulted in a U.S. declaration of war on Japan the following day. Germany and Italy, as part of the Axis powers alliance, then declared war on the United States.

The attack on the United States led to severe consequences for Japanese Americans. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 9,066, directing the forced relocation of all 112,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast (70,000 of them U.S. citizens) to detention camps in such places as Jerome, Arkansas, and Heart Lake, Wyoming. Roosevelt issued the order after military leaders, worried about a Japanese invasion, argued that national security required such drastic action.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the forced relocation in Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214, 65 S. Ct. 193, 89 L. Ed. 194 (1944). Justice hugo l. black noted that curtailing the rights of a single racial group is constitutionally suspect but that in this case military necessity justified the exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. In retrospect, historians have characterized the removal and detention as the most drastic invasion of individual Civil Rights by the government in U.S. history.

The United States joined Great Britain and the Soviet Union in an alliance against Germany, Italy, and Japan. The Allies determined that priority would be given to defeating Germany and Italy. The Soviet Union, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, had signed a nonaggression pact with Germany in 1939, just days before Germany's invasion of Poland. In June 1941 Hitler renounced the agreement and invaded the Soviet Union. The Russian front proved to be the bloodiest of the war, killing millions of civilians and millions of soldiers.

The Allies stemmed Axis advances in 1942. On the Russian front, the Soviet troops won a decisive victory at the Battle of Stalingrad. Following this battle, Soviet forces began the slow process of pushing the German army back toward its border. The U.S. Army achieved success in routing German forces from North Africa in 1942, paving the way for the invasion of Sicily and Italy in 1943.

On June 6, 1944 ("D-Day"), the Allies mounted an amphibious landing on France's Normandy coast. The D-Day invasion surprised the German military commanders, who did not expect an invasion at this location. In a short time, U.S. and British forces were able to break out of the coastal areas and move into France. U.S. forces liberated Paris on August 25.

Germany could not succeed in fighting a two-front war. By early 1945 it was clear that an Allied victory was inevitable. On April 30, 1945, with the Russian army entering Berlin, Hitler committed suicide. On May 7 Germany unconditionally surrendered.

The war in the Pacific was primarily a conflict between Japanese and U.S. forces. The U.S. Navy inflicted substantial damage to the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. Following Midway, the U.S. forces began invading Japanese-held islands in the South Pacific. This endeavor was a slow and costly process because Japanese soldiers were taught to fight to the death. However, the process proved successful. From 1942 to 1945, U.S. forces invaded numerous islands, the last being Okinawa, which is close to the Japanese mainland. Despite fierce resistance, the U.S. forces prevailed.In 1945 the U.S. military prepared for the invasion of Japan. Though a Japanese defeat appeared inevitable, an invasion would result in heavy U.S. casualties. President Harry S. Truman, who had become president in April 1945 after the death of President Roosevelt, approved the dropping of atomic bombs on two Japanese cities. On August 6 the United States dropped the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, destroying it and killing about 100,000 civilians in the first ten seconds; three days later the United States dropped a second atomic bomb, this time on the city of Nagasaki. Japan opened peace negotiations on August 10 and surrendered on September 2.

Wartime conferences among Roosevelt, Stalin, and British prime minister Winston Churchill led to the creation of the United Nations in 1945. At the Yalta Conference in 1945, the leaders agreed to divide Germany, as well as the city of Berlin, into four zones of occupation, controlled by forces from the three countries and France. Germany was to have its industrial base rebuilt, but its armaments industries were to be abolished or confiscated. The leaders also approved the creation of an international court to try German leaders as war criminals, setting the stage for the Nuremberg Trials. The Soviet army's occupation of Eastern Europe soon gave way to the creation of Communist governments under the influence of the Soviet Union.

Further readings

Ernst, Daniel R., and Victor Jew, eds. 2002. Total War and the Law: The American Home Front in World War II. West-port, Conn.: Praeger.

Hershey, John. 1966. Hiroshima. New York: Bantam.

Joseph, Jennifer. 2001. "POWs Left in the Cold: Compensation Eludes American WWII Slave Laborers for Private Japanese Companies." Pepperdine Law Review 29 (December).

Lord, Walter. 2001. Day of Infamy: The Classic Account of the Bombing of Pearl Harbor. New York: Holt.

Lyons, Michael J. 2003. World War II: A Short History. Paramus, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Park, Byoungwook. 2002. "Comfort Women During WWII: Are U.S. Courts a Final Resort for Justice?" American University International Law Review 17 (March-April).

Vandiver, Frank E. 2003. 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About World War II. New York: Broadway Books.


Communism; Hirohito; Hitler, Adolf; Japanese American Evacuation Cases; Nuremberg Trials; Tokyo Trial; United Nations; War Crimes; Yalta Agreement.

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