AMERICAN ENTERS THE WAR
In September of 1940 the President had authorized the creation of a system for the conscription of men into the armed forces; in the months immediately after Pearl Harbor, thousands were drafted and countless others volunteered for service. Soldiers in World War II called themselves “GIs”; this referred to the “Government Issued” stamp that appeared on the uniforms, tools, weapons, and everything else the government issued to them. A Council for National Defense had also been created in 1940; this body worked rapidly to convert factories over to war production. Additional legislation was also needed to prepare the country for war. In early 1942 the General Maximum Price Regulation Act immediately froze prices and established the rationing system that was in place for most of the war. The Revenue Act of 1942 greatly expanded the number of Americans who had to pay federal income tax, thus increasing the amount of federal revenue.
America was forced to fight a war in Europe and a war in the Pacific. In the European theater of war, American naval forces first engaged the Germans as they attempted to protect convoys of ships taking critical food and supplies to Great Britain. These convoys were often attacked by German submarines. In this Battle of the Atlantic German torpedoes were dreadfully accurate (even though sonar was being used by the Americans). Between January and August of 1942, over 500 ships were sunk by German submarines.
American infantrymen were first involved in actual fighting in North Africa. American and British forces joined to defeat French North Africa in late 1942. American troops also played a role in the battles that eventually forced General Rommel’s Africa Korps to surrender in May 1943. American and British soldiers also began a difficult offensive into Sicily and Italy two months later; by June of 1944 Rome had surrendered.
Ever since 1941 the Soviet Union had been the only power to consistently engage the Nazi army (the Soviet Union lost 20 million people in World War II). Stalin had asked on several occasions that a second front be opened in Western Europe; by early 1944 an invasion of France by water was being planned by Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of all Allied forces (who would become president in 1953).
The D-Day invasion took place on the morning of June 6, 1944. The initial Allied losses on Omaha Beach were staggering, yet the D-Day invasion was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. By the end of July over 2 million Allied soldiers were on the ground in France, and the final squeeze of Nazi Germany began. American and British forces liberated French cities and towns as they moved eastward; at the same time Russian troops were rolling westward. By August Paris had been liberated.
The last major German offensive of the war was the Battle of the Bulge. Nearly 85,000 American soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured in this battle. The German attack moved the Allied lines back into Belgium, but reinforcement led by General George S. Patton again forced the Germans to retreat. When the German general staff learned that they had not been victorious at the Battle of the Bulge, most admitted that Germany would soon be defeated, American and British bombings did much to destroy several German cities.
Advancing American, British, and German troops were horrified to find concentration camps or the remnants of them. These camps were integral parts of Nazi Germany’s Final Solution to the “Jewish problem,” Between 1941 and 1945 over 6 million Jews were killed in the event now referred to as the Holocaust. Historians maintain that if the war continued for another two years, all of European Jewry might have been eliminated. Advancing troops were outraged at what they saw in these camps, and on several occasions shot all of the Nazi guards on the spot. Why the Holocaust occurred, and why it was endorsed by so many Germans, is the subject of hundreds of books and articles in scholarly journals.
Some historians are critical of the diplomatic and military actions of the United States both before and during the Holocaust. During the mid- to late 1930s, the State Department made it very difficult for European Jews to immigrate to the United States; with alarming unemployment figures in the United States because of the Great Depression, American decision makers felt it unwise to admit large numbers of immigrants to the country. Franklin Roosevelt knew of the existence of the concentration camps as early as late 1943, yet chose not to bomb them (which many in the camps say they would have welcomed). Roosevelt maintained that the number one priority of America had to be winning the war.
In M arch 1945 Allied troops crossed the Rhine River, and met up with advancing Russian troops at the Elbe River on April 25. In fierce fighting the Russians took Berlin. Deep in his bunker, Hitler committed suicide on May 1, and Germany unconditionally surrendered one week later. Celebrations for V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day) were jubilant in London and Paris, hut were more restrained in American cities, as the United States still had to deal with the Japanese.
In February of 1945 Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill met at the Yalta Conference. Franklin Roosevelt had been elected to a fourth term in 1944, but photos reveal him to be very ill at Yalta (he would live only another two months). At Yalta the three leaders made major decisions concerning the structure of postwar Europe. It was agreed that Germany would be split into four zones of occupation (administered by England, France, the Limited States, and the Soviet Union), and that Berlin, located in the Soviet zone, would also be partitioned. Stalin promised to allow free elections in the Eastern European nations he had freed from Nazi control, and said that the Soviets would join the war against Japan after the surrender of Germany. Many historians consider the decisions made at the Yalta Conference (and the failure of the Soviet Union to totally adhere to them) to be major reasons for the beginning of the Cold War.
Some historians are critical of Franklin Roosevelt for “giving in” to Stalin at Yalta, It should be remembered that at the time of this meeting Roosevelt had only two months to live. In addition, in February 1945 the atomic bomb was not yet a working weapon, American planning for the defeat of Japan was for a full attack on the Japanese mainland; in Roosevelt’s eyes, Soviet participation in this attack was absolutely crucial (in return for this support Roosevelt made concessions to Stalin on Eastern Europe and supported the Soviet acquisition of ports and territories in Korea, Manchuria, and Outer Mongolia). Winston Churchill had strong reservations about the ultimate goals and conduct of Stalin and the Soviet Union at Yalta; these reservations would later intensify, and were articulated by Churchill in his “iron curtain” speech of March 1946.