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NEUTRALITY & PEARL HARBOR
BIG IDEA: America tried to maintain its isolation from a growing war in Europe and Asia in the late 1930s. At first, the United States tried to use economic pressure to limit Japanese expansion and provided material support to Great Britain’s fight against Nazi Germany, but Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into the conflict as a full combatant.
During the two decades that followed World War I, the United States maintained an attitude of isolationism. The nation had refused to join the League of Nations. As Europe was collapsing into turmoil with communism arising in the Soviet Union and Fascism in Spain, Italy and Germany, most Americans were happy to be far away and uninvolved.
The United States was not entirely isolationist. We cultivated better relationships with the nations of Latin America through Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy and tried to limit the size of the world’s navies by participating in the Washington Naval Conference. However, organizations like the America First Committee had widespread public support and isolationism was popular.
Fascism, a system of government in which the leader and the nation become synonymous, was established by Mussolini in Italy and then by Hitler in more populous and economically powerful Germany. Hitler used anti-Semitism as a tool manipulate public opinion, gain support, win elections, and eventually take total control.
European leaders tried to appease Hitler by offering him control over some territories in exchange for promises of peace, but it did not work. After signing a secret peace deal with Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, and then France. By 1940, only the United Kingdom was still holding out against Hitler.
Most Americans did not like the Nazis but wanted to remain neutral. To support the United Kingdom, President Roosevelt implemented Cash and Carry and Lend Lease programs to supply war materials to the British without declaring war. During this time, Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom to conclude the Atlantic Charter, which described how their two nations promised to offer a democratic alternative to Fascism. Roosevelt expressed his goals as Four Freedoms.
In Asia, Japan had been expanding into China. The United States opposed this expansion, especially after Japanese troops committed war crimes against Chinese civilians. In response, the United States instituted an embargo on war material to Japan. Under pressure to find an alternative source for oil, rubber, and other raw materials, the Japanese military command decided to attack the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), British and French Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore), and the Philippines, which was an American territory.
In order to prevent the United States from entering the war, Japanese commanders decided to destroy the entire American fleet in one surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Although the strike on December 7, 1941 was a tactical success, it was a strategic failure. The United States entered the war rather than suing for peace.
WINNING THE WAR
BIG IDEA: Good leadership, economic power, and the use of total war eventually helped the Allies defeat both Germany and Japan. In the end, President Truman’s use of the atomic bomb prevented the need for a full invasion of Japan.
As the war began, Hitler broke his nonaggression pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. This resulted in an unusual alliance between the communist Soviets and the democracies of the United States, United Kingdom, as well as the Chinese, who had briefly ended their civil war to fight the Japanese.
The Allies concentrated their efforts first in Northern Africa, and after winning there, invaded Italy. The turning points of the war in Europe came on June 4, 1944 (when the British, Americans, free French, and Canadians landed at Normandy on D-Day) and at the Battle of Stalingrad when the Soviets turned back Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union.
Intensive bombing campaigns over Germany slowly weakened the enemy as Allied forces pushed inward from both East and West. Eventually Germany collapsed, Hitler committed suicide, and the war in Europe ended.
In the Pacific, the United States suffered humiliating defeats in the early months of the war. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans were forced to surrender the Philippines to the invading Japanese. The turning point came at the Battle of Midway when the United States was able to sink critical aircraft carriers from the Japanese fleet. Without the resources to rebuild or resupply, the war in the Pacific was a long, slow struggle to recapture tiny islands held by the Japanese. This process resulted in some of the most deadly, but celebrated battles of the Marine Corps’ history.
After retaking the Philippines, the Americans launched an invasion of Okinawa, the last island stronghold before a full invasion of the Japanese mainland would begin. It was one of the most deadly of the entire war. The Japanese used suicide airplane attacks and the Americans devastating the islands with an enormous bombardment.
Meanwhile, Albert Einstein had warned President Roosevelt that Hitler’s scientists might be trying to develop a nuclear bomb and encourage the Americans to create such a weapon first. This top-secret Manhattan Project was a success, and the first atomic bomb was tested in New Mexico.
President Truman took office when Roosevelt died in 1944 and decided to use the atomic bomb to force Japan to surrender. The Americans bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is still debate about the morality of using atomic weapons on cities with large civilian populations. Japan’s surrender in 1945 brought the war to an end. It was the most deadly conflict in human history.
THE WORLD WAR II HOMEFRONT
BIG IDEA: The war affected the daily lives of almost all Americans and had lasting effects for many people. Women and African Americans had new opportunities and made advancements toward equality, but Japanese Americans were interned, marking one of the nation’s darkest moments of racial injustice.
World War II had an enormous impact on the United States. The government spent previously unheard of amounts of money on the war and the size and scope of the federal government grew tremendously. Government offices produced propaganda to encourage support for rationing, scrap drives, war bond sales, and participation in efforts such as victory gardens.
Populations shifted, especially to California, which became a center for war production and troop deployments.
American industry transformed itself and produced supplies for the war in record numbers. Government officials and industrial tycoons collaborated and led the celebrated Arsenal of Democracy.
When men left to fight, women stepped up to fill in. The famous Rosie the Riveter symbolized all the women who worked in factories and on farms. For many American women, it was the first time they took jobs outside the home or earned a paycheck. Some women joined the fight as delivery pilots, nurses, or support personnel in government offices. Although most went back to being housewives after the war, it was an important psychological step toward gender equality.
Although African Americans still were relegated to segregated units, they served in an effort to both defeat discrimination and the Axis. A. Philip Randolph convinced President Roosevelt to order an end to discrimination in industries that contracted with the government, and groups like the Tuskegee Airmen won praise for their skill and bravery.
Native Americans served as code talkers, using their native language as an unbreakable code in the Pacific.
Mexican immigrants were welcomed into the country to work in fields left empty by Americans who had joined the military. In Los Angeles, the Zoot Suit Riots showed the level of racial animosity that existed between White servicemen on leave and the city’s Hispanic community.
The minority who suffered the most were Japanese Americans. Roosevelt signed an executive order that led to the internment of the entire Japanese American population of the West Coast. The Supreme Court upheld this clear violation of their civil rights. In the face of such mistreatment, young Japanese American men formed the 442nd and fought with incredible bravery in Italy against the Nazis. Eventually in 1988, the government apologized for the internment and paid reparations to those who had suffered.