[Partly edited on 12/02/10 and 11/28/11, 11/24/14 and 11/18/16]].

World War II


I made the generalization that one of the most disturbing developments of they period after World War I was the rise of totalitarian movements like Communism, Fascism, and National Socialism.  During the period between the two world wars, totalitarianism seemed to be the wave of the future and democracy seemed to be on its last legs.  In Russia (what became the Soviet Union), the Communist regime tried to dominate every aspect of life in an attempt to create Marx's dream of a proletarian dictatorship.  In Italy, Mussolini imposed fascism on his people, again insisting that only through giving unlimited power to the state would Italy again become a great power.  In Germany, Hitler and his Nazi party took control of the government, the economy, the schools--promising the German people a thousand year reich, an empire in which the superior Aryan race would have the preeminence it deserved.

Now what was particularly alarming about all this is that these totalitarian powers were not content to simply dominate their own people.  Each was committed to a philosophy of expansion. The Communists wanted world wide proletarian dictatorship and started Comintern to that end.  The Fascists were committed to the idea that nations either advanced aggressively or they died.  Hitler, too, was committed to a philosophy that said that nations either expand or die. 

The totalitarian leaders told their people that the democracies of the world were weak, that totalitarian societies of one flavor or another would emerge victorious.  During the World War II period and during the Cold War which followed, it often looked like these leaders were right on both counts.

The democracies certainly looked weak in the way they handled the events that led up to World War II.  One example: Ethiopia.  In 1935, Italy launched a basically unprovoked attack on Ethiopia.  Haile Selaisse warned the League of Nations that permitting such aggression would open up the doors to international lawlessness.  The League labeled Italy the aggressor, but took no practical action.  There was supposed to be an arms embargo on Italy so that the Italian conquest would be slowed down, but it didn't work: Italian troops with modern weapons ended up slaughtering the barefoot tribesman that opposed them.  The Soviet Union and the US refused to "recognize" the legitimacy of Italian control, but Britain and France did: and what difference did it make anyway?

The ineffectiveness of the democracies in stopping Italian aggression confirmed the totalitarian notion that the democracies were weak and destined to fall to those people who would fight.

II.  German expansion/democractic inaction

While Mussolini was embarking on his attempts to recreate a modern Italian equivalent of the old Roman Empire, Hitler was preparing Germany for the creation of the "Third Reich," the 3rd great German Empire--an empire, he promised, that would last for 1000 years. 

In 1935, he rearmed Germany, building up German forces well beyond the 100,000 limit of the Versailles treaty.  The democracies did nothing.

In 1936, Hitler fortified the Rhineland area, another violation of the Versailles treaty.  The democracies did nothing.

In 1938, Hitler's thugs destabilized Austria and brought about the "anschluss," the unification of Germany and Austria.  The democracies did nothing as Hitler's empire began to grow.  And Hitler wanted more.

After annexing Austria, Hitler prepared for an attack on the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia.  Now Czechoslovakia had been formed from the remnants of the Hapsburg empire after Austria's collapse in WWI.  The democratic leaders, especially Woodrow Wilson, had encouraged and supported the nation from its beginnings, and the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was not at all pleased the Germany was going to try to annex part of the country.

But Hitler invited Chamberlain to negotiate.  In September of 1938, Britain, Italy, France, and Germany signed on to the Munich Agreement--an agreement that allowed Hitler to take the Sudetenland in return for his promise to make no more teritorial demands in Europe.  Chamberlain said this agreement meant "peace in our time," and "peace with honor."  Hardly!  The Czechs had no choice but to accept the loss of the Sudetenland to Hitler.  But Hitler soon wanted more--and in March of 1939, he annexed what was left of Czechoslovakia.  And the democracies did nothing.

III.  Japanese expansion/democratic inaction

Meanwhile (or, actually, just a bit before this), the Japanese were embarking on an expansionist campaign of their own.  In the early years of the 20th century, Japan had been moving in the direction of democracy.  Unfortunately, in the 1920's a military dictatorship took over, a dictatorship commited to an "expand of die" philosphy similar to that of Mussolini.  In 1931, the Japanese annexed Manchuria, and from that base launched further incursions into Chinese territory.  They committed horrible attrocities, e.g., the "Rape of Nanking,"  an unprovoked attack that left 300,000 civilians dead and tens of thousands of women raped.  The democracies did nothing but protest--and it was clear to the Japanese military that further expansion was likely to be easy.

IV.  German/Russian non-aggression pact

For Hitler, too, expansion of his empire seemed a fairly easy task.  Having taken the major part of Czechoslovakia without effective resistance, Hitler thought he might continue into Poland.  But there was a worry: what about the Soviet Union?  Would they intervene should Hitler attack Poland?  Well, Hitler negotiated with Joseph Stalin, and the Soviets and Germans signed onto a "non-aggression" pact: basically an agreement to divide eastier Europe between themselves.

V. Attack on Poland--democracies finally act

Without Stalin to worry about, Hitler could make his move.  On August 31, 1939, Hitler attacked Poland.  This time, the democracies declared war: but too late to save Poland. Hitler launched a "Blitzkrieg" attack: lightning war.  A massive air assault by Hitler's Luftwaffe destroyed the Polish air force in a matter of days.  By September 17, Hitler's forces dominated most of Poland.  Meanwhile, the Russians took Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and eastern Poland and began an (eventually successful) war on Finland.

VI. Axis/Russian advances

In 1940, Italy joined the war as well, combining with Germany and Japan to created what we call the "Axis."  Japan began creating an island empire in the Pacific, and Mussolini eventually (with the help of Hitler and German generals like Rommel) began trying to create an empire in North Africa.

Things were not going well for the allies.  In April of 1940, Norway and Denmark fell to Hitler.  In May, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg fell.  In June of 1940, defeated British and French troops had to evacuate from Dunkirk while France itself was either occupied by Hitler directly or in the hands of a government (the Vichy government) that worked hand in glove with the Nazis.

VII. Battle of Britain

The British  continued the fight against Hitler--but how long could they hold out?  In August 1940, Hitler's Luftwaffe began the "Battle of Britain," a series of air assaults on British targets that continued for months  (until June 1941).  Ultimately, 40,000 civilians died in these attacks--with Hitler deliberately targetting civilians hoping to demoralize the British.  But stirred up by new Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the British held on.  The pilots of the RAF took to the skies in their Spitfires and held off the Luftwaffe.  "Never before in history have so many owed so much to so few," said Churchill.  And that's absolutely right.

VIII.  Where was America?

But why was Britain standing alone? Where was the United States?

America was very slow to react, in large part because Americans had come to regard WWI as a great mistake and were convinced that getting involved in another European war would be an even greater mistake.

Contributing to this attitude was a senate investigation led by senator Albert Nye of North Dakota.  Senator Nye's committee concluded, plausibly, that direct American involvement in WWI had come about because American arms manufacturers and other big businesses had made tons of money selling weapons and other supplies to WWI belligerents like Britain and France.  When these nations hadn't the cash to pay, the US government had stepped in with massive loans to these countries [William Jennings Bryan (three-time Democratic presidential nominee and Wilson's Secretary of State) had opposed these loans as the equivalent of war. Bryan was right about many things--and this, perhaps, was another.]. But this meant that America stood to lose millions and millions of dollars if Britain and France lost and couldn't pay off their debts. So, the argument ran, we ended up throwing good US lives after bad US bucks. 

In any case, we were not going to make that mistake again.  In 1935, 1936, and 1937, Congress passed Neutrality Acts trying to prevent a repeat of pre-WWI mistakes.  No American was allowed to sail on a belligerent ship, the ship of a country at war.  No American could sell or transport munitions to a belligerent country.  No American could make loans to a belligerent country.

The right actions: the wrong war. This time, the events in Europe would eventually hit the United States no matter what we did.  US inaction only meant further totalitarian aggression and a worse situation when we eventually did decide to fight.  But it was going to take quite a while before we figured this out.

In 1939, when Hitler attacked Poland, the United States acted quickly...too affirm its neutrality!  One more Neutrality Act.  Now we did agree later that year to sell arms to Britain--but only on a cash and carry basis.  No risky loans  No risky transport of weapons.

1940 was a presidential election year.  The Japanese were creating an island empire in the Pacific.  With Hitler's help, Mussolini was trying to create an Italian empire in North Africa.  And Hitler was gobbling up everything in sight, eventually beginning that Battle of Britain I mentioned.  You would think that at least one of the major party candidates would suggest direct American involvement in the war.  But both Roosevelt (running for an unprecedented third term) and Wilkie (the Republican candidate) promised peace.  "Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars," said Roosevelt.

But as Roosevelt began his third term in 1941, he decided *someone* was going to have to stop Hitler.  And so he pushed through Congress a very strange piece of legislation, the Lend-Lease Act.  Lend-Lease promised unlimited assistance to any nation fighting agains Hitler in return for the promise that any leftover materials would be returned to us at the war's end.  Lend-Lease slogans: "Billions, not bodies."  "Send guns, not sons."  Eventually, we spent $50 billion on Lend-Lease assistance.

Now, obviously, once we were spending this kind of money, we had entered the war against Hitler whether we said we had or not.  But also peculiar is what happened to much of that Lend-Lease money.  In June 1941, Hitler broke his non-aggression pact with Stalin, and sent troops into the Soviet Union.  This meant that Stalin was now fighting against Hitler--and therefore was eligible for Lend-Lease money.  And we gave it to him--to the tune of $11 billion!!! 

The Communists had said the capitalists were the time of people who would sell you a rope you planned to hang them with.  Here, we were lending them the rope on the promise they'd return it to us when they were done. It seeemed like we were on the road to disaster: a nation that won't fight for its freedom won't be free very long.

But, as it turned out, the United States wasn't quite the cripple Mussolini, Hitler, the Japanese (and Stalin) thought it was. 

IX.  America gets its act together

December 7, 1941.  The Japanese launched a surprise attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.  In military terms, not a bad move: America didn't have much of a fleet to begin with, and this took out a substantial portion of what we did have.

But the attack on Pearl Harbor proved to be a great psychological mistake.  Overnight, the American mood changed, and the pacifist, isolationist, cowardly United States turned itself into the mightiest military machine in history.  American factories converted to the production of war materials, turning out 40 billion bullets, 300,000 aircraft, 76,000 ships, 86,000 tanks, 2.6 million machine guns.  Henry Kaiser's factories could put together a battleship in 14 days. 

American women went to work in the factories so we could create all this. American farmers turned out record harvests. We eventually had 15,000,000 men serving in the armed forces--enough to do the job.

It is pointless for me to try to condense the long and fascinating story of US military exploits in WW II.  I will only summarize by saying that, after the victory at Midway, American forces got the upper hand in the Pacific, little by little pushing the Japanese back.  We pushed into Italy as well, and, on June 6, 1944, we led the most massive military assault in all of history, the Normandy Invasion.  Once American, British, and Free French forces secured this position, Hitler faced the German nightmare: the two-front war, and, althought there was plenty of fighting left, the German war effort didn't have much chance.  By April of 1945, Hitler lay dead in a Berlin bunker.

The war against Japan looked as if it might go on much longer.  Japanese pilots (the Kamikaze pilots) flew suicide machines, deliberately crashing their planes into American ships to try to take out as many American boys as they could. 

What ended the carnage was the development of the mightiest weapon the world had ever seen.  On August of 1945, the US dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and then a 2nd bomb on the city of Nagasaki. With that, the Japanese surrendered.

It had been a horrible war with at least 40,000,000 casualties--many millions of them civilian casualties.  But the good guys had won...sort of.