Background to War
The Second World War was fought from 1939 to 1945. In those six years, more soldiers were killed than in any war that had ever been fought. More civilians died because of the war than ever before in history. In no other war did so many people lose their homes, their possessions, their whole way of life. The total number of deaths from World War II has been estimated at 50 million, which is about 1 out of every 5 people in the United States today.
The most terrible war
World War II was the first time a war was fought all over the world. By the time it ended, there had been fighting on every continent except South America and Antarctica, and in almost all the oceans. Armies had battled one another on jungle islands in the Pacific Ocean, and in the deserts of North Africa. Planes had bombed Australia and Hawaii, London and Moscow, Norway and Egypt. Large parts of Europe and eastern Asia were in ruins. Two cities in Japan, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had been utterly destroyed by atomic bombs. Almost 6 million Jews, including 1.5 million children, had been murdered in Europe simply because they were Jews.
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The Beginning of the War in Europe
Soon after Germany took over Czechoslovakia in March 1939 (see Chapter 1), it began to make demands on Poland. Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler demanded that the city of Danzig, a port on the Baltic Sea, be returned to Germany. Danzig (now the Polish city of Gdansk) had been made a "free city" after World War I, which meant it was not part of Germany or Poland. Poland, which then had no other ports, had the right to use Danzig for its exports and imports, which made the city very important to the Polish economy. But the people of the city were almost all German, and the local Nazis ran the city and followed Hitler's orders.
In addition, Hitler wanted the right to build a road across the "Polish Corridor," the slice of Polish territory that separated the German province of East Prussia from the rest of Germany. The proposed road would be German territory.
Even if the Polish government had been willing to surrender these lands, it believed that they were only excuses and that Germany would only demand more. The governments of Britain and France felt the same way. In fact, Hitler did not want Poland to agree to the demands: from the beginning
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The War Expands
From the time that France surrendered in June 1940 until Germany invaded the Soviet Union (Russia) almost exactly a year later, Great Britain was the only major country fighting Nazi Germany and its main ally, Italy. Yet this period saw the war expand into new areas and draw in more countries.
Help for Britain
Even in the summer of 1940, Britain was not completely alone. Four distant countries that had once been British colonies and still had close ties to Britain also declared war on Germany: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. They sent tens of thousands of soldiers, who fought in their own units throughout the war, as well as money, food, and industrial products. In addition, troops from British colonies, especially India, played a major role in several areas of fighting. "British" troops often included large numbers of units from these other countries.
Some of Britain's most important help, however, came from a country that was still neutral in the war—the United
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Japan Attacks and America Goes to War
The war in Europe soon affected Asia. Although it was not part of the European war, Japan was an ally of Nazi Germany and Italy. The three countries had signed an agreement in 1936, called the Anti-Comintern Treaty. (The "Comintern" was the "Communist International," the organization of world Communist parties run by the Soviet Union. Germany, Japan, and Italy used this name to make their alliance sound like a defensive agreement against communism.) The governments of the three countries were similar in many ways. Each was antidemocratic, each glorified military strength, and each wanted to conquer new territory.
By 1940, the Japanese government was largely dominated by militarists, extremists in the army and navy and their supporters who wanted the armed forces to control Japan and organize Japanese society along military principles. They believed Japan had a sacred mission to conquer new territory to provide the natural resources that Japan lacked.
Japan had been expanding its empire in Asia throughout the 1930s. It had been brutally fighting a war against China since 1937. The Japanese had conquered the great cities
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The Home Front
When the war began in Europe in September 1939, the United States had still not fully recovered from the Great Depression that began in the fall of 1929. This was a severe economic crisis marked by falling industrial production and increasing unemployment. (The effects of the depression in Germany are described in Chapter 1.) Although the economy had greatly improved from its low point in 1932, eight million people were still unemployed in 1940, and American industry was still not producing as much as it had been ten years earlier. As many as 40 percent of American families still lived in poverty, on farms as well as in big cities.
In many ways, the 1930s were a decade of turmoil and division in the United States. Workers trying to organize unions clashed with armed company guards and police in many cities. In 1937, there was a wave of "sit-down strikes" involving more than 400,000 workers who took over their workplaces and refused to leave. That spring, Chicago police fired on a crowd of strikers outside a steel mill, killing ten and injuring eighty, in what became known as the "Memorial Day Massacre."
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Europe Under Occupation
Because World War II was a total war, its effects on ordinary people, not just the soldiers and sailors, were deeper and more widespread than in previous wars. This was especially true when a foreign army defeated and then occupied a country. A military occupation, when one country stations troops on another's territory to control it, is often a time of hardship. But occupation by Nazi Germany in World War II was much harder and more murderous than anything that had come before. While Germany occupied or controlled much of Europe from 1940 to the middle of 1944, it carried out policies, especially in eastern Europe, that involved the intentional killing of millions of people.
Even in western and northern Europe, where occupied countries were treated relatively mildly at the beginning, the Germans used the economic resources of the conquered country for the benefit of Germany. The impact on the local population was lower wages, less food, poorer health, and sometimes forced labor in Germany. In other places, especially in eastern and southeastern Europe, German economic policy amounted to stealing everything they could and leaving as little as possible for the locals, who were essentially treated as slaves.
Economic gains were not the only reason Germany occupied countries. Indeed, German treatment of the occupied Soviet Union, which amounted to looting and...
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One of the things that made World War II different from other wars was that Nazi Germany was committed to goals that would lead to mass murder. The Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had always had three goals. One was to destroy his opponents in Germany. A second was to make Germany the strongest country in Europe and to conquer Lebensraum, which means "room to live." This word implied that without this land, Germany could not survive: it was supposedly too small for its population. The third goal was to "purify" Germany—and then Europe—of "racial enemies" and to establish Germans as the "master race." These three goals were closely connected in Hitler's mind, and all three were mixed up with his hatred of Jews, which is known as anti-Semitism.
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The Impact of Total War
World War II was larger than previous wars and was fought in more parts of the world. But it was different in another way, too. It came closer than any prior conflict to being a total war. It was not fought just by soldiers and sailors. Instead, each country tried to use all its resources to support the war. Victory in World War II depended, more than anything else, on supplying armies with huge quantities of industrial products. A country needed modern weapons, including planes, bombs, tanks, submarines, aircraft carriers, and machine guns. It needed the ships, railroads, and trucks to transport them; the fuel to run them; and the grease to lubricate them. It needed enough boots, uniforms, and helmets for its soldiers. The people who built these products, as well as the scientists and engineers who developed new weapons (see Chapter 15) and the writers and filmmakers who waged psychological warfare (see Chapter 16), were as important to the war effort as the soldiers in the armies.
If all the people of a country were involved in the war, then the country could ask the civilian population to make major sacrifices to win the war. And if the civilian population
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The Allies and the Axis
Two sets of countries fought World War II. The alliance of Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan was known as the Axis. Several other countries were members of the Axis or cooperated with it at different times. The countries fighting them were called the Allies. Originally, the major Allies were Great Britain and France, but France surrendered to Germany in June 1940. In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, which then allied with Britain. In December 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and attacked British and American possessions in the Pacific. The United States declared war on Japan. A few days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. The United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union were now fighting Germany. The United States and Britain were at war with Japan.
The lineup of countries fighting the war was complicated, as were their relationships with one another. Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States were not allies before they went to war, as Britain and France were. Each went to war against Germany at different times and for different reasons. Each had different goals. And although all
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Turning Points: The Allies Begin to Win the War
Between the fall of 1942 and the summer of 1943, the Allies (the countries fighting Germany) won a series of military victories that changed the course of World War II. One of these victories was in the Atlantic Ocean, which finally forced the German submarines, in May 1943, to abandon their attempt to prevent North American supply ships from reaching Britain. (The Battle of the Atlantic is described in Chapter 3.) The other victories occurred on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and at the eastern end of Europe, in Russia. At the beginning of this period, the possibility of a German victory was still very real. By the end, however, most people knew that Germany, although far from being defeated, could not win the war.
The British Eighth Army had been fighting in the desert of Egypt and Libya in North Africa since September 1940. The Axis forces (the name used for Germany and its allies) it opposed were mostly Italian, but they were reinforced by the Afrika Korps, German armored and mechanized troops. The Axis commander was a German general, Erwin Rommel, known as "the Desert Fox." Rommel was a daring leader who had embarrassed the British with his lightning attacks and had become a national hero in Germany. (These events are described in Chapter 3.)...
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The Great Invasion: Operation Overlord
By the end of 1943, the Allies (the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) had won a series of victories that had changed the course of World War II. Yet the final defeat of Germany still seemed far away.
In the Soviet Union (Russia), the Red Army had fought and won a great tank battle around Kursk in July and continued to drive the Germans westward. But powerful German armies remained on Soviet territory. Millions of Soviet soldiers had already died in battle, and the Germans had captured millions more in the early part of the war. (See Chapter 3.) No one could be certain that the Russians could continue to bear the major part of the fighting against Germany.
The Americans and British had successfully invaded French North Africa in November 1942 and Sicily in July 1943, but this had not taken much pressure off the Soviet armies. The invasion of Italy, which began soon afterward, was going much more slowly than expected. Italy had changed its government, ended its alliance with Germany, and even declared war on its former ally. But the American and British armies were bogged down by strong German defensive positions along the mountainous Italian peninsula. (The events in Russia, North Africa, and Italy are described in Chapter 10.)
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The Defeat of Germany
The two-front war
In the last year of the war in Europe, two powerful forces closed in on Germany from the east and west. One was the Red Army, the army of the Soviet Union (present-day Russia, one of the eastern Allies). The other was the combined army of the western Allies, the United States and Britain. (The Allies were the countries fighting against Germany, the leading Axis power.) Germany had to defend first one and then the other of these fronts.
For a while, Germany could shift troops and resources from one front (or combat zone, the area where two opposing armies are in contact) to the other, depending on where the greatest danger lay. But the Allied bombing of the railroad system in Germany and German-controlled Europe made maneuvering like this difficult. More significantly, too many German soldiers died or were captured, and too many tanks, planes, and cannons were destroyed: Germany couldn't replace all of them. In the long run, Germany was not strong enough to defend itself against all its enemies, and eventually it was crushed between them.
The western front
On June 6, 1944, American and British troops landed in Normandy, on the northwest...
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The War Against Japan
By the spring of 1942, Japan had conquered a vast territory. It stretched thousands of miles from the border between Burma (present-day Myanmar) and India east to the Gilbert Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese controlled most of the immense island of New Guinea, situated south of the equator near Australia, and small Arctic islands in the Aleutians, off the coast of Alaska. In all these places, battles raged from the time of the Battle of Midway in June 1942 (discussed in Chapter 4) and the final defeat of Japan in August 1945.
The largest Japanese force, by far, was in China, which was the scene of large battles and great human suffering. But for the most part, the Japanese army in China avoided major offensive actions. The Chinese armies—almost all poorly equipped, poorly trained, and poorly led—did the same. Despite pressure from the United States, which provided arms, supplies, and training to the best Chinese troops, the Chinese leaders never seriously threatened the Japanese. The battles fought in China did not decide the outcome of World War II in Asia. Neither did the attempts to retake Burma that cost the lives of many British and Indian troops, as well as their Japanese enemies.
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The Defeat of Japan
The war in the Pacific, which saw the United States face off against Japan, began on December 7, 1941, when Japan bombed the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Events in the Pacific until mid-1944 and the American strategy for the war are discussed in Chapter 13.
The return to the Philippines
By the summer of 1944, the United States had bases in the Mariana Islands and in northwest New Guinea, both within range of the Philippines. Control of the Philippines was now the great prize of the Pacific war. If Japan lost those islands, it would be almost impossible for resource-poor Japan to import oil, tin, and other valuable products from the Dutch East Indies and Southeast Asia.
But the Philippines had great symbolic importance for the United States as well. America had controlled the islands since 1898 and had promised to make the Philippines an independent country in 1946. Many Filipinos admired and were
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Spies and Scientists
Acountry at war wants to find out how strong the enemy is, what its weaknesses are, and what its plans are. And each country does everything possible to keep this information secret. Gathering information, in all its forms, is called intelligence; preventing the enemy from learning information is called counterintelligence. Countries at war also try to develop technology and weapons that are better than those of the enemy. Scientists play a major role in developing new technology or enhancing existing equipment that will help win the war, creating anything from drugs to heal wounded soldiers to stronger or more accurate bombs to drop on the enemy.
One of the most important secrets in any war setting is where and when an attack is coming. Countries in World War II used every way they could to protect this information. When the Japanese fleet sailed to attack Pearl Harbor in December 1941, its orders were hand-delivered by courier. (The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is described in Chapter 4.) At sea, the ships did not use their radios to communicate with one another or with Japan. This radio silence prevented the Americans from knowing where the Japanese ships were—or even that they had sailed. The fleet also used natural conditions to conceal its...
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Art, Entertainment, and Propaganda
For a long time it has been thought that soldiers fight better when they believe they are fighting for a good reason. So every government in World War II wanted to convince its soldiers that they were risking their lives to protect their country—and their own families—from being conquered by a cruel enemy, that they had been forced to go to war to defend themselves, and that the world would be a much better place after the war than it had been before.
The nature of World War II also made it important for each government to rally its civilian population at home around these same causes. This was because World War II was a total war, in which victory depended on devoting all the resources of a country to the war effort. (Other aspects of total war are described in Chapter 8.)
The most obvious example of devoting resources concerned jobs. Millions of women in the United States and Britain worked outside the home for the first time during World War II. Both women and men were doing jobs, such as working in factories, that were harder, dirtier, noisier, and often more dangerous than anything they had experienced before. If people believed that their work helped preserve their country's freedom, they would work harder, with fewer complaints, and do a better job. The same was true for all the other hardships and inconveniences that the war brought, such as crowded...
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The World After the War
The world in 1945 was very different from the one before World War II. The terror and mass murder of Nazi Germany had been eliminated, and Japan's attempt to conquer much of Asia had been defeated. If these two things had not happened, the history of the rest of the twentieth century would have been very different. The end of the war brought many changes in the way people lived and the way they looked at their world. Some of those changes were a result of what the war had cost the world. The most obvious cost was the loss of life.
Millions die in Europe
The exact number of people killed during the war is not known, but the losses were staggering. Fifty or perhaps sixty million people died throughout the world, more than in any other war—more than for any reason in such a short time in human history. In Europe, only about half these deaths were soldiers, sailors, and airmen. The rest were civilians. By comparison, in World War I only 5 percent of war casualties were civilians.
These men, women, and children died in many ways. They were crushed by the roofs and walls of their houses when air raids shattered their cities. They were blown up by mines on the roads as they tried to escape advancing armies, or died...
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