Throughout most of its history, the United States followed George Washington's advice to "avoid permanent alliances." During the First World War, America fought as an "Associate Power," not as a formal ally of Britain and France. The Neutrality Acts were designed by Congress to keep the United States safely insulated from the armed conflicts breaking out in Asia and Europe during the 1930s. The ironic effect of this isolationist policy, however, was that it sent a message to aggressor nations that the United States would not come to the aid of their victims.
While America isolated itself, a threat was brewing in Europe. The Spanish Republic, a liberal democratic government, was established in 1931. Five years later, General Francisco Franco led the Spanish forces in Morocco across the strait, and began an uprising against the Republicans, or Loyalists. In October 1936, Hitler and Mussolini established the Berlin-Rome Axis, and agreed to aid Franco. A month later, Germany and Japan joined in the Anti-Comintern Pact, directed against the Soviet Union and global communism. Italy formally signed the pact a year later, and the alliance of the Axis Powers was complete. In the meantime, Hitler and Mussolini sent military aircraft, artillery, tanks, and tens of thousands of troops to bolster the fascist rebel forces under Franco. To a lesser degree, the Soviet Union supported the Republic. Britain and France also favored the Loyalists, but did not intervene militarily in the Spanish Civil War.
President Roosevelt worked with Congress to keep the United States scrupulously neutral. This generally pleased American Roman Catholics, who tended to support Franco against the leftist Republic and its communist ally. Many other Americans, however, viewed the war as an epic struggle between democracy and fascism. Senator Gerald Nye, a staunch supporter of the Neutrality Acts, introduced a resolution to repeal the arms embargo against the Loyalists. Several thousand Americans joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and fought for the Republic. Those that survived discovered that the State Department had revoked their passports. Franco's forces ultimately prevailed in the spring of 1939, after providing Hitler and Mussolini a training ground for the larger war that soon broke out in Europe.
In Asia, the Japanese broadened the military offensive against China that had commenced in 1931 with the invasion of Manchuria. In July 1937, Japanese and Chinese forces clashed at the Marco Polo Bridge outside Peking (Beijing), in what was dubbed "the China incident." The Japanese also served notice that they would no longer abide by the Washington and London naval limitations treaties. Ambassador Joseph Grew reported from Tokyo that the Japanese were the aggressors in China, but he warned that economic embargoes or military action by the United States would strengthen the hands of the extremists within the Japanese army.
President Roosevelt chose not to invoke the Neutrality Act in this case, and arms and munitions reached the beleaguered Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi). The Japanese continued to purchase war material in even greater quantities, and the onslaught continued. Peking fell within weeks, and the Chinese were forced to abandon Shanghai in early November. After heavy fighting that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and brutal atrocities that culminated in the "rape of Nanking" by Japanese troops, the Chinese moved their capital to Chungking. In a very real sense, the Second World War had commenced—the fighting in China did not end until 1945.
American sentiment went out to the Chinese people. The loosely organized "China Lobby," led by novelist Pearl Buck and Time magazine publisher Henry Luce, acted as a public relations agency and churned out press releases on behalf of the Chinese government. Congressional leaders hoped to keep alive the fiction of the "Open Door" and America's "special relationship" with the Chinese, but public opinion was clearly opposed to military intervention in Asia.
On December 12, 1937, an incident occurred that threatened to draw the United States into the war raging in China. Japanese pilots bombed and sank an American gunboat, the USS Panay, on the Yangtze River as its crew helped evacuate the embassy at Nanking. Two Americans were killed and 30 wounded. Several American and British oil tankers were also attacked. The Japanese Foreign Office, not nearly as aggressively expansionist as the military command, moved quickly to defuse the tension. The foreign minister extended a personal apology to Ambassador Grew, and more than two million dollars was paid in reparations. The diplomatic crisis passed, but the Panay incident stimulated Congress to vote on the "Ludlow amendment." Louis Ludlow, a representative from Indiana, introduced a constitutional amendment that would prohibit war—except in case of invasion—without the majority approval of voters in a national referendum. It took tremendous political pressure from the White House to defeat the Ludlow resolution by an uncomfortably narrow vote of 209 to 188.
With the escalation of fighting in China, the Roosevelt administration called for a "moral embargo" of military technology against nations that bombed civilians. This was directed at the Axis Powers aiding Franco, as well. An informal private boycott of Japanese goods was also expanded, and President Roosevelt authorized the purchase of Chinese silver. This allowed the Nationalist government to meet the "cash-and-carry" provisions of the Neutrality Act. Japan ominously responded in November 1938, by announcing a "New Order" in East Asia based upon the exploitation of China and Manchuria.
Conditions continued to deteriorate in Europe. Adolf Hitler began implementing his plan to unite all ethnic Germans within the Third Reich. In early 1938, the Fuhrer demanded that the Austrian chancellor appoint local Nazis to his cabinet. Kurt von Schuschnigg responded by calling a plebiscite—or vote—to rally popular support against the German pressure. Hitler acted too quickly, however, and stationed troops menacingly close to Austrian border. Schuschnigg resigned to prevent bloodshed. He was replaced by an Austrian Nazi, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who invited the Germans into Austria to keep order. The Anschluss, the political unification of Austria and Germany, was completed by the middle of March. A subsequent plebiscite revealed overwhelming Austrian support for joining the Third Reich.
In November 1938, Americans were shocked with news of "kristallnacht." Nazi thugs, spurred on by black-shirted SS (Schutztaffeln) secret police forces, rampaged through Jewish neighborhoods. They vandalized homes, synagogues, and shops—shattering windows in the "night of the broken glass." This began a systematic confiscation of Jewish property and the restriction of German Jews to "ghettos." Roosevelt recalled the American ambassador in protest, and the State Department refused to apologize for Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes's characterization of Adolf Hitler as a "brutal dictator."
President Roosevelt moved cautiously in the face of increased tensions in Europe and Asia. He was alarmed by the rise of fascist and totalitarian states but recognized that the vast majority of Americans opposed intervention. In a speech delivered to a Chicago audience on October 5, 1937, he urged a "quarantine" of aggressor nations to isolate "the epidemic of international lawlessness." Initial reaction to the "Quarantine Speech" was generally favorable, but opponents of the speech were not muted. The Chicago Tribune, a leading isolationist newspaper, charged that Roosevelt was stirring up "war fright" among the American people. The Wall Street Journal admonished the president to "stop foreign meddling" because the nation wanted peace. Several isolationist congressmen threatened impeachment proceedings. Roosevelt's intentions in calling for a "quarantine" are open to interpretation. Nonetheless, he soon retreated from any implication that he was calling for even moral or economic pressure against the aggressors.
Several factors precluded American intervention in Europe or China during these years; including the economic imperatives of the Great Depression, the state of American military preparedness, and public sentiment. Old-line isolationists joined with pacifists in urging that the United States remain apart from the various conflicts. In a visceral reaction to the slaughter of the First World War, a large portion of the American intellectual community philosophically embraced pacifism. Princeton University students, also motivated by the instincts of self-preservation, founded the "Veterans of Future Wars," and with grim humor insisted on thousand dollar bonuses before marching off to foreign battlefields.
In May 1937, Neville Chamberlain became prime minister of Great Britain and attempted to limit the territorial expansion by Hitler through a foreign policy known as "appeasement." Chamberlain argued that the Fuhrer initially was reacting to unfair provisions of the Versailles Treaty, and the prime minister appeared willing to acquiesce to the inclusion of ethnic Germans into the Third Reich. Chamberlain was hopeful that once "Herr Hitler" was rightfully appeased, Germany would join the western democracies in halting the spread of communism. With the general support of the British people, who joined most Americans in opposing military action against the Axis Powers, Chamberlain offered only ineffectual diplomatic protests when Germany absorbed Austria.
After the Anschluss, Hitler focused his acquisitive intentions toward the German-speaking minority in the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. As the Fuhrer blustered, the Prague government indicated a willingness to put its well-trained army in the field and counted on the military support of its allies, France and the Soviet Union. Deluded that they could appease Hitler, Chamberlain joined French premier Edouard Daladier in pressuring the Czechs to resolve the crisis peacefully. In an effort to settle the crisis, Hitler met with Chamberlain and Daladier at Munich in late September 1938. Mussolini was also present, but the Czechs were not invited.
The outcome of the Munich Conference was what Hitler demanded. The Sudetenland was incorporated into the Third Reich, and Chamberlain returned to London to announce "peace for our time." Hitler solemnly pledged that the Sudetenland was his "last territorial claim." Portentously, however, Josef Stalin had not received an invitation to Munich and he was convinced—with good reason—that Britain and France planned to deflect further German expansion eastward against the Soviet Union. Although not directly involved in the negotiations, President Roosevelt congratulated Chamberlain for preserving the peace and held out the hope that a final settlement had been reached in Europe.
Six months later, Hitler gave graphic testimony to the worthlessness of his promises, when Germany absorbed the remainder of Czechoslovakia. He also pressured Poland for the port city of Danzig and a strip of land linking Germany with East Prussia. The Polish leaders refused these demands, and Britain and France gave assurances that they would honor their defense commitments to Poland. In April, Italian troops moved into Albania, and the western democracies pledged to defend Romania and Greece.
At this juncture, President Roosevelt sent a remarkable message to Hitler and Mussolini, urging them to guarantee that for ten years they would not attack any of 31 specified nations. This was most certainly a naïve and presumptuous request, although it scarcely merited the scathingly insulting response that Hitler publicly presented to the Reichstag. In a two-hour address laced with sarcasm, the Fuhrer evoked laughter from the admiring legislators by reeling off the names of the 31 countries and denying any aggressive intentions against them.
Well-placed Soviet fears of isolation drove Stalin in the spring of 1939 to seek military pacts with Britain and France, as well as Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states. Not a single nation, however, agreed to an alliance with the Soviet Union. On August 23, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Russian Foreign Commissar Vyacheslav Molotov stunned the world by signing a mutual non-aggression pact. Hitler and Stalin promised to remain neutral if either became involved in war. Secretly, they agreed to carve up the Baltic States and Poland "in the event of a territorial and political transformation."
On September 1, 1939, the Second World War commenced in Europe when German troops invaded Poland. After the conquest of Poland and its division between Germany and the Soviet Union, Europe settled into the "Phony War." In the spring, Hitler unleashed a "blitzkrieg" ("lightening war") that swept through Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Taking advantage of the non-aggression pact, Soviet forces defeated Finland and occupied the Baltic States. Winston Churchill succeeded the discredited Neville Chamberlain as prime minister of Great Britain, but he could offer little help to the French who surrendered to Germany on June 22, 1940. The Germans occupied strategically significant portions of France, and Marshal Henri Pétain established a government at the southern city of Vichy that collaborated with the Nazis. This agreement prevented the French Navy from uniting with the British.
The close proximity of France to Great Britain allowed German forces to design a direct assault on England. During the ensuing "Battle of Britain," the German Luftwaffe rained destruction on the major cities in southern England. The British Royal Air Force pilots, with the aid of recently developed radar installations, eventually beat back the German bombers and prevented an invasion. As Churchill phrased it, "never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." Nevertheless, the British empire still faced Germany alone, and Hitler remained on the offensive. President Roosevelt realized that American aid would be indispensable in defeating the Axis Powers, a fact underscored when Japan formally joined forces with Germany and Italy in the Tripartite Pact of September 1940.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe, isolationist sentiment remained strong in the United States. Most Americans opposed direct military intervention in the conflict. President Roosevelt, acting in concert with congressional allies, pursued a multi-pronged strategy to deal with the crisis. He took diplomatic steps to shore up defenses in the Western Hemisphere; and sought to aid the British in their struggle against Hitler, while building up American military programs in case war became necessary.
The United States strengthened hemispheric defenses with the Declaration of Panama, drafted in October 1939. All American states agreed to a "security zone" of between 300 and 1,000 miles extending off their coasts south of Canada, which had joined the war against Hitler. American naval vessels formed "neutrality patrols" to track and report the presence of German submarines in the security zone. President Roosevelt ordered the Navy to make their reports in "plain English" over the radio. In a stretch of its neutral status, the United States concluded a defense agreement with Canada that gave each nation the use of the other's naval facilities. The Act of Havana was unanimously approved at the Inter-American Conference, held in July 1940. It provided for the occupation of any European possession in the hemisphere endangered by an aggressor.
In November 1939, Congress passed yet another Neutrality Act, but for the first time belligerents were permitted to purchase arms and munitions on a cash-and-carry basis. This clearly benefited the British empire, with its large merchant marine and Royal Navy. President Roosevelt also began laying plans to aid the British more directly in their death-struggle with Hitler.
American military preparedness began before the Germans invaded Poland. In the spring of 1938, President Roosevelt signed into law an appropriations bill designed to give the United States a two-ocean Navy within ten years. Congress provided for "a Navy second to none" and 3,000 naval aircraft, although the chief of naval operations astutely observed that, "dollars cannot buy yesterday." In June 1940, as France fell to German troops, Roosevelt added two prominent Republicans to the cabinet. Henry Stimson became secretary of war, and Frank Knox headed the Navy Department; both opposed isolationism. The following September, Congress passed the Burke-Wadsworth bill, the first peacetime military draft in American history. Congress also authorized an army of 1,200,000 troops and 800,000 reservists.
In September 1940, President Roosevelt took a bold step to improve the desperate military situation in Europe. In an executive decision that by-passed Congress, FDR swapped 50 aging naval destroyers in exchange for ninety-nine-year leases on eight British air and naval bases stretching from Newfoundland to British Guiana. The president justified his action as part of a "defense of the Western Hemisphere" program, and Americans generally favored the so-called Destroyer-Bases deal. Public opinion still opposed entering the war, but by now the majority of Americans favored direct aid to Britain.
Following an unprecedented third-term victory, during which he vowed not to send American boys "into any foreign wars," President Roosevelt called upon the United States to become the "Arsenal of Democracy." In his State of the Union address to Congress, in January 1941, he urged further support to those nations fighting tyranny and fascism. He looked forward to the time when the world would embrace the "four essential human freedoms"-freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Four days later, implementing the Arsenal of Democracy concept, the "Lend-Lease" bill was introduced in Congress as "An Act to Promote the Defense of the United States."
Great Britain was no longer able to fulfill the cash-and-carry provision of the Neutrality Act, and Lend-Lease was designed to give the British the tools needed to keep fighting. It authorized the United States government "to sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of," military equipment to "any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States." Congress held public hearings, during which historian Charles A. Beard protested that passage of the Lend-Lease bill would drag the U.S. into the foreign conflict. With a reference to the New Deal's agricultural program, Democratic senator Burton K. Wheeler, a progressive from Montana, bluntly argued that after plowing under rows of crops to raise prices, Lend-Lease "will plow under every fourth American boy." Senator Robert Taft, a Republican from Ohio, more temperately observed that, "lending war equipment is a good deal like lending chewing gum. You don't want it back."
After months of heated debate, Congress passed the Lend-Lease bill, and Roosevelt signed it into law on March 11, 1941. It was, essentially, an unofficial declaration of war by the United States against Germany. Eventually, more than 50 billion dollars of military aid was sent to nations fighting the Axis Powers. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June, Lend-Lease was extended to Stalin's government. In the meantime, the public debate continued in America over the nation's proper role in the Second World War.
Internationalists tended to believe that American national security depended on supporting Britain in the struggle against fascism. William Allen White, a newspaper editor from Emporia, Kansas, founded the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, in the spring of 1940. White had previously urged passage of the revised Neutrality Act that permitted the sale of arms to belligerents. The White committee, drawing its support primarily from the East and West coasts and the South, subsequently supported the Destroyer-Bases deal, military conscription, and the Lend-Lease Act.
The American First Committee was formed the day after the Destroyer-Bases agreement. The head of the committee was Robert E. Woods, a general during the First World War and chairman of the board of Sears Roebuck. Prominent supporters of the organization included Senators Burton K. Wheeler and Gerald Nye, and famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. It drew its rank-and-file strength from the Republican Party, old-line isolationists, noninterventionist students, and Americans of German or Irish descent. Within a year, the committee numbered more than 450 chapters, most of them located not far from Chicago. "America Firsters" were determined to keep the United States out of the war, and they opposed sending military aid to Britain under the Lend-Lease Act.
The White Committee, and other supporters of President Roosevelt's foreign policy, accused the America First members of being fascist sympathizers and anti-Semites. There was certainly some truth to these charges. Father Charles Coughlin, a popular "radio priest" who had dubbed the New Deal the "Jew Deal," endorsed the America First Committee. Charles Lindbergh was especially open to pro-Nazi accusations. He spent a great deal of time in Germany during the 1930s, sometimes as the guest of Hermann Goering, who was transforming the Luftwaffe into a formidable air force. Lindbergh toured military facilities and openly admired German society. In a speech in New York delivered in April 1941, Lindbergh flatly questioned whether the United States could win a war against Germany. The following September, Lindbergh told an audience in Des Moines, Iowa, that "the three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration."
It was no surprise that the Roosevelt administration viewed the American First Committee as a threat to national security. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, under J. Edgar Hoover, placed members of the committee under surveillance and opened their mail. Government officials spread off-the-record accusations that the non-interventionist committee was an unpatriotic organization. This whispering campaign, coupled with the extremist rhetoric of some of their supporters, eventually turned the tide of public opinion against the America Firsters. Four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the Second World War, the America First Committee formally disbanded.
In August 1941, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met for the first time aboard a ship in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. The two democratic leaders agreed that Hitler had made a grave military mistake in attacking the Soviet Union, and they drew up eight "common principles" to guide the post-war world. The result of their talks was the Atlantic Charter, a truly remarkable document considering the fact that the United States was nominally a neutral nation.
The Atlantic Carter was a visionary mixture of idealistic and pragmatic goals. Roosevelt and Churchill pledged their nations did not seek territorial aggrandizement; acknowledged the right of self-government for all peoples; and called for freedom of the seas, international economic cooperation, and the disarmament of aggressor nations. Churchill expressed some misgivings about the effect these goals would have on the British empire, and Roosevelt chose not to include a specific reference to a new international organization to maintain world peace. The president had learned the lessons taught by Woodrow Wilson during his fight over the League of Nations. Both leaders, however, were united in their common war aims. In September, it was announced that 15 nations, including the Soviet Union, had endorsed the principles of the Atlantic Charter. The groundwork was laid for the post-war world, but the Axis Powers were far from defeated.
By the fall of 1941, the United States was engaged in an undeclared naval war with Germany. President Roosevelt ordered the navy to "shoot on sight" any German submarines after an American destroyer, the Greer, was attacked near Iceland. In October, the Kearny was torpedoed killing 11, and the destroyer Reuben James was sunk—more than 100 sailors perished. Congress amended the Neutrality Act in November, to permit trade with belligerents and the arming of merchant vessels. Seven merchant ships were sunk by U-boats before the United States formally entered the war. With the escalating naval action in the Atlantic, it is somewhat ironic that the United States was pulled into the Second World War due to events in the Pacific.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoye proclaimed the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" in August 1940. This was an expansion of the "New Order" to include Japanese mandates and British, Dutch, and French possessions. After Japan assumed a protectorate over French Indochina and began building air bases, President Roosevelt placed General Douglas MacArthur in command of all army forces in the Far East, nationalized the armed forces of the Philippines, and issued an executive order freezing Japanese financial assets. This effectively ended all trade with Japan. The Japanese government then faced the choice of withdrawing from the mainland of Asia or negotiating an end to the embargo. Another alternative was to expand militarily throughout the region, seizing the raw materials needed from American and European possessions. In September, Japan joined Germany and Italy in the Tripartite Pact, which was aimed at the United States. The Axis Powers pledged to support each other should they be attacked by a nation not yet at war.
In the fall of 1941, Prime Minister Konoye requested General Hideki Tojo, the war minister, to begin a token withdrawal of Japanese forces from the Asian mainland. When the general refused, Konoye resigned and Tojo became the premier. On November 5, the Japanese cabinet decided to continue the negotiations in Washington, but if no agreement was reached by the end of the month, war would result. A special envoy, Saburo Kurusu, was sent to Washington to join Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura, a retired admiral. By this time, American military intelligence had cracked the Japanese diplomatic codes. The intercepts were code-named "Magic," and revealed that after November 29, "things are automatically going to happen."
As the negotiations continued in Washington, it became clear that neither side was prepared to make major concessions to avoid war. On November 20, the Japanese diplomats presented their government's final proposals, demanding that the United States cease aiding China, resume full trade with Japan, and lift the freeze on Japanese assets. Six days later, Secretary of State Hull countered that the Japanese must withdraw their forces from China and French Indochina and renounce the Tripartite Pact. On December 1, Emperor Hirohito met with the Japanese cabinet and approved Tojo's call for war against the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands.
The Japanese fleet that attacked the United States military and naval forces based at Pearl Harbor, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, got underway on November 25. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the assault, promised the Japanese government six months of victories in which to force a favorable negotiated settlement. On December 7, the six aircraft carriers reached their launching point, 275 miles north of Pearl Harbor. Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, aboard the Akagi, sent off the first wave of bombers and fighters that struck at 7:55 a.m.
Total surprise was achieved, and the Japanese attack was devastating. Two U.S. battleships, the Arizona and the Oklahoma, remain at the bottom of Pearl Harbor today; six others were severely damaged, although they ultimately fought again. Nearly 200 aircraft were destroyed, and more than 2,400 Americans—civilians and military personnel—were killed in the two hours of action. The Japanese lost only 30 planes, and their fleet returned undetected to home waters. The American defeat was attributable to faulty intelligence analysis and numerous errors in judgement and procedures. Later claims that President Roosevelt knew of the planned attack, and allowed it to occur to pull the United States into the war, are not substantiated by the evidence.
Meanwhile, the diplomatic charade was played out in Washington on December 7. Nomura and Kurusu were supposed to deliver the formal rejection of Hull's proposal at precisely 1:00 p.m., local time—20 minutes before the scheduled attack against Pearl Harbor. They were more than an hour late, however, and Secretary of State Hull was aware that the assault had begun when they met. Hull went through the motions of reading the note before showing the stunned Japanese diplomats to the door.
After hearing President Roosevelt describe December 7, 1941, as "a date which will live in infamy, Congress declared war against the Japanese empire." The sole dissenting vote in the House of Representatives came from Jeanette Rankin, of Montana, who also had opposed entering to First World War in 1917. Several days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, fulfilling the spirit of the Tripartite Pact. The previous spring, American and British military commanders had decided to focus on Hitler if the United States entered the war. The "Germany First" strategy, however, was abandoned largely because of the rapid Japanese advance in the Pacific and the logistical problems involved with the European theater of operations.
Before 1941 ended, the Japanese seized Guam, Wake Island, and the British possession of Hong Kong. Japanese troops continued their advance, forcing General Douglas MacArthur to withdraw his forces defending the Philippines to the mountainous Bataan peninsula, across Manila Bay. The "battling bastards of Bataan" and the troops on the nearby island of Corregidor fought valiantly, but the outcome was never in doubt. MacArthur, vowing "I shall return," was ordered to Australia to take command of Allied operations in the southern Pacific. General Jonathan Wainwright subsequently surrendered the American and Filipino forces, although scattered guerilla detachments continued to fight in the hills.
The Japanese onslaught swept through the South Pacific, but the tide of battle turned early in the war. A number of factors led to the blunting of the Japanese offensive. It was a stroke of good fortune that when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor not a single aircraft carrier was present. The Japanese navy lacked radar, which the U.S. fleet began to install in 1942. Radio intercepts and decoding capability gave American intelligence officers insights into Japanese plans and deployments. Furthermore, the industrial might of the "Arsenal of Democracy" provided the ships and planes that ultimately overwhelmed the Japanese imperial forces. With the aid of other Allied forces in the Asian theater—primarily from Australia and New Zealand—American sailors, soldiers, and marines bore the brunt of the fighting against Japan.
In early May 1942, the Battle of the Coral Sea thwarted a Japanese invasion of New Guinea. The aircraft carrier Lexington was lost, but the Japanese fleet was turned back despite suffering fewer losses. A month later, Admiral Yamamoto led his fleet against Midway Island, expecting to destroy Admiral Chester Nimitz's three remaining carriers. The Battle of Midway was a decisive American victory. The Yorktown was sunk by a torpedo after being damaged by enemy planes, but all four Japanese carriers were sunk. It was the first naval defeat for Japan in modern history.
The American offensive in the Pacific began following Midway. Admiral Nimitz's fleet was based at Pearl Harbor, Admiral William "Bull" Halsey commanded a southern task force at New Caledonia, and General MacArthur commanded the army troops and land-based aircraft. In August, the six-month struggle for the Solomon Islands commenced with landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi. The Battle of Savo Island was the worst naval defeat suffered by the United States Navy, but eventually the Japanese were driven from the Solomons. With these victories it was possible to advance on Japan in a series of bold "island-hopping" leaps, seizing those with strategic value and isolating heavily defended strongholds such as Rabaul on New Britain Island.
The Gilberts and the Marshalls campaigns were the first large-scale amphibious operations in the Pacific. Makin was occupied by army troops after four days of fierce fighting, while Tarawa was captured by marines under the command of General H. M. "Howling Mad" Smith. By early 1944, Eniwetok was taken—this led to the abandonment of Truk by the Japanese. In June, Admiral Raymond Spruance led the Fifth Fleet at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Several hundred Japanese planes were destroyed in an action known as the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot." The Japanese never recovered from these losses, and Saipan, Guam, and Tinian fell within weeks. This led to the resignation of the Tojo government. With the conquest of the Marianas, B-29s were soon striking Japanese cities.
In October, MacArthur's forces, with Halsey's Third Fleet carriers in support, attacked the Philippines. The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the greatest air-naval engagement in history. Despite the damage inflicted to American ships by the Kamikazes, the Japanese Imperial Navy suffered such irreversible losses that it was no longer a factor in the outcome of the war. The Philippines were secured by the spring of 1945, and MacArthur made good his pledge to return.
In March 1945, Iwo Jima fell to soldiers and marines after a month of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific. The 22,000 Japanese soldiers, honey-combed throughout the island, fought with a ferocity unsurpassed in previous island campaigns—only 212 finally surrendered. Seven thousand Americans lost their lives before the famous flag raising on Mount Suribachi. On March 9, 200 B-29s hit Tokyo with incendiary bombs, killing an estimated 85,000 people. The largest amphibious operation of the Pacific theater was launched against Okinawa on April 1. A Japanese army 130,000 strong defended the island tenaciously, not yielding until the end of June when the remaining 7,400 surrendered. More than 12,000 Americans died.
With the capture of Okinawa, American troops began to train for the final invasion of the Japanese home islands. Projected casualty figures approached one million, but the surrender of Japan was achieved with the atomic bomb. On August 6, the Enola Gay, a B-29 captained by Colonel Paul Tibbets, dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, the second bomb was detonated over Nagasaki. A total of more than 100,000 Japanese were killed, and the emperor ordered the government to surrender unconditionally. The formal ceremony that ended the Second World War took place aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945.
The United States did not play the singular military role in the European theater that it did in the Pacific. First the British and then the Soviet Union fought the Germans and Italians long before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Under the command of General Dwight David Eisenhower, American troops landed in North Africa, in late 1942, to aid the British under General Bernard Montgomery in pushing German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps off the continent.
Eisenhower's subordinates, Generals Omar Bradley and George S. Patton, Jr., then teamed up with the British to drive the Germans from Sicily in summer of 1943. This triggered the surrender of Italy, which joined the Allied cause against the Germans. Under the command of General Mark Clark, American forces bore the brunt of the fighting in Italy against Field Marshall Albert Kesselring's veteran troops. After a daring amphibious landing at Anzio, Rome was liberated on June 4, 1944. The final German surrender in Italy came the following May, about a week before the fighting ended in Berlin. The Italian campaign tied down a significant number of German troops, and provided airfields for the strategic bombardment of the Third Reich.
Meanwhile, the decisive action in Europe was taking place in the Soviet Union. Following Hitler's invasion in June 1941, the German and Soviet troops and Russian civilians suffered incredible hardships. Over a million Stalingraders, for example, perished before turning back the Germans. The Soviets gradually won this titanic death-struggle, and by mid-1944 the Red Army pushed the Germans out of the Soviet Union and began an advance on Berlin. Perhaps 20 million Soviets died as a result of the Second World War.
Stalin complained frequently to President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill about the lack of a second military front in France. Plans were made for an emergency offensive across the British Channel in 1942, should the Soviets lose their struggle with the Germans, but D-Day did not occur until June 6, 1944. Under the supreme command of General Eisenhower, the Allied invasion of German-occupied Normandy was launched from 5,000 ships. Fifty thousand American troops landed on D-Day, along with British, Canadian, Free French, Polish, and other Allied forces. Patton's Third Army led the dash across the Seine, and Paris was liberated on August 25.
Hitler lost half a million men in the futile defense of Western Europe. In December, the Germans counter-attacked through the Ardennes in the "Battle of the Bulge." They also struck Britain with V-1 and V-2 rockets, which terrorized the population but did relatively little damage. The outcome of the conflict in Europe was no longer in doubt. The Allied troops continued inexorably westward toward Germany, as the Soviets closed in from the east. The Red Army, in fact, faced twice the number of Germans as the western Allies.
German resistance crumbled in the spring of 1945, but that good news was tempered by the death of President Roosevelt on April 12. Harry S. Truman, the blunt-speaking former senator from Missouri, led the United States through the remainder of the war against Germany and made the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. Before the month was out, Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. On May 7, General Alfred Jodl signed the unconditional surrender of Germany, and the war in Europe ended several months before the fighting ceased in the Pacific.
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