World War II pitted the “Grand Alliance” of Great Britain, the Soviet Union, the French government in exile, and the United States against the Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy. The Allies consisted of the world’s leading colonial power, Great Britain; the world’s lone Communist nation, the Soviet Union; and the world’s strongest capitalist country, the United States—ingredients for an uncomfortable alliance. From the outset, the United States deployed military forces to contain Japanese aggression, but its most immediate concern was to defeat Germany. Before battles in Europe, Asia, and four other continents concluded, more than 60 million people perished, including 405,000 Americans. Six million Jewish civilians died in the Holocaust, the Nazi regime’s genocidal effort to eradicate Europe’s Jewish population. The Soviet Union experienced the greatest losses— nearly 27 million soldiers and civilians, more than two-fifths of all those killed.
War in Europe
United against Hitler, the Grand Alliance divided over how quickly to mount a counterattack directly on Germany. The Soviet Union, which bore the brunt of the fighting in trying to repel the German army’s invasion, demanded the speedy opening of a second front through France and into Germany to take the pressure off its forces. The British wanted to fight first in northern Africa and southern Europe, in part to remove Axis forces from territory that endangered their economic interests in the Mediterranean and the oil-rich Middle East and in part to buy time to rebuild their depleted fighting strength. President Roosevelt understood Soviet demands for immediately establishing a second front, but such a plan would involve fierce and bloody battles to attack the center of Axis strength. The president did not want to risk losing public support early in the war if the United States experienced heavy casualties. He approved his military advisers’ plans for an invasion of France from England in 1943, but in the meantime he agreed with Churchill to fight the Germans and Italians on the periphery of Europe.
From a military standpoint, this circuitous approach proved successful. In October 1942, British forces in North Africa overpowered the Germans at El Alamein, pushing them out of Egypt and removing their threat to the Suez Canal. The following month, British and American troops landed in Algeria and Morocco, controlled by the pro-Nazi French government, and under the British general Bernard Montgomery and the American general George S. Patton they engaged the desert forces of the German general Erwin Rommel. After some early defeats, the combined strength of British and American ground, air, and naval forces drove the Germans out of Africa in May 1943.
These military victories failed to relieve political tensions among the Allies. Although the Soviets had managed to stop the German offensive against Stalingrad, the deepest penetration of enemy troops into their country, Stalin expected the second front to begin as promised in the spring of 1943. He was bitterly disappointed when Roosevelt, hoping to replenish military resources that had been lost in North Africa, postponed the crossEnglish Channel invasion of France until 1944. To Stalin, it appeared as if his allies were looking to gain a double triumph by letting the Communists and Nazis beat each other into submission. Churchill’s strong anti-Communist beliefs fueled Stalin’s suspicions.
Instead of opening a second front in France, British, American, and Canadian troops invaded Italy from its southern tip in July 1943. Their initial victories quickly led to the removal of Mussolini and his retreat to northern Italy, where he lived under German protection (Map 23.1). Not until June 4, 1944, did the Allies occupy Rome in central Italy and force the Germans to retreat.
To overcome Stalin’s dissatisfaction with the postponement of opening the second front, President Roosevelt issued orders to give the Soviets unlimited access to LendLease supplies to sustain their war efforts and to care for their citizens. In November 1943, the American president and the British prime minister met with the Soviet leader in Tehran, Iran. Roosevelt and Stalin seemed to get along well. Stalin agreed to deploy troops against Japan after the war in Europe ended, and Roosevelt agreed to open the second front within six months. Churchill joined Roosevelt and Stalin in supporting the creation of an international organization to ensure postwar peace.
World War II in Europe, 1941-1945 By late 1941, the Axis powers had brought most of Europe and the Mediterranean region under their control. But between 1942 and 1945, the Allied powers drove them back. Critical victories at Leningrad and Stalingrad, in North Africa, and on the beaches of Normandy forced the retreat, and then the defeat, of the Axis powers.
This time the Americans and British kept their word, and the Allies finally embarked on the second-front invasion. Under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, on June 6, 1944—called D Day—more than 1.5 million American, British, and Canadian troops crossed the English Channel in 4,000 boats and landed on the beaches ofNormandy, France. Paratrooper landings behind German lines and naval bombardments supported this astonishing amphibious assault. Despite deadly machine-gun fire from German troops placed on higher ground, the Allied forces managed to establish a beachhead. The bravery and discipline of the troops, along with their superior numbers, overcame the Germans and opened the way for the Allies to liberate Paris in August 1944. By the end of the year, the Allies had regained control of the rest of France and most of Belgium.
Amid these Allied victories, Roosevelt won a fourth term against Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey, governor of New York. He dumped from the campaign ticket his vice president, Henry A. Wallace, a liberal on economic and racial issues, and replaced him with Senator Harry S. Truman of Missouri, who was more acceptable to southern voters. Despite his declining health, Roosevelt won easily with 432 electoral votes and a margin of more than 3.5 million popular votes.
War in the Pacific
With the Soviet Union bearing the brunt of the fighting in eastern Europe, the United States shouldered the burden of fighting Japan. U.S. military commanders began a two-pronged counterattack in the Pacific in 1942. General Douglas MacArthur, whose troops had escaped from the Philippines as Japanese forces overran the islands in May 1942, planned to regroup in Australia, head north through New Guinea, and return to the Philippines. At the same time, Admiral Chester Nimitz directed the U.S. Pacific Fleet from Hawaii toward Japanese-occupied islands in the western Pacific. If all went well, MacArthur’s ground troops and Nimitz’s naval forces would combine with General Curtis LeMay’s air forces to overwhelm Japan.
All went according to plan in 1942. Shortly after the Philippines fell to the Japanese, the Allies won a major victory in May in the Battle of the Coral Sea, off the northwest coast of Australia. The following month, the U.S. navy achieved an even greater victory when it defeated the Japanese in the Battle of Midway Island, northwest of Hawaii. In August, the fighting moved to the Solomon Islands, east of New Guinea, where U.S. forces waged fierce battles at Guadalcanal Island. After six months ofheavy casualties on both sides, the Americans finally dislodged the Japanese. By late 1944, American, Australian, and New Zealand troops had put the Japanese on the defensive with further victories in the Mariana Islands, north of Guam, and the Marshall Islands, east of the Philippines, allowing General MacArthur to return to the island that the Japanese had forced him to abandon three years earlier.
In 1945 the United States mounted its final offensive against Japan. In preparation for an invasion of the Japanese home islands, American marines won important battles on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two strategic islands off the coast of Japan. The fighting proved costly—on Iwo Jima alone, the Japanese fought and died nearly to the last man while killing 6,000 Americans and wounding 20,000 others, demonstrating that the Japanese would ferociously defend their homeland against the American invasion planned for November. At the same time, the U.S. Army Air Corps conducted firebomb raids over Tokyo and other major cities, killing some 330,000 Japanese civilians. These attacks were conducted by newly developed B-29 bombers, which could fly more than
3,000 miles and could be dispatched from Pacific island bases captured by the U.S. military. The purpose of this strategic bombing was to destroy Japan’s economic capability to sustain the war rather than to destroy their military forces. B-29s dropped bombs that set fire to Japanese buildings, which were constructed mainly of wood, and ignited firestorms that caused widespread destruction. At the same time, the navy blockaded Japan, further crippling its economy and reducing its supplies of food, medicine, and raw materials (Map 23.2). Still, the Japanese government refused to surrender and indicated its determination to resist by launching kamikaze attacks (suicidal airplane crashes) on American warships and airplanes.
World War II in the Pacific, 1941-1945 After bombing Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japan captured the Philippines and wrenched control of Asian colonies from the British, French, and Dutch and then occupied eastern China. The Allied powers, led by U.S. forces, eventually defeated Japan by winning a series of hard-fought victories on Central Pacific islands and by bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Ending the War
With victory in sight in both Europe and the Pacific, the Allies addressed problems of postwar relations. In February 1945, Roosevelt and Churchill met with Stalin in the resort city of Yalta in the Ukraine. There they clashed over the question of the postwar government of Poland and whether to recognize the claim of the Polish government in exile in London, which the United States and Great Britain supported, or that of the pro-Soviet government, which had spent the war in the USSR. The loosely worded Yalta Agreement that resulted from the conference called for the establishment of permanent governments in Poland and the rest of eastern Europe through free elections. Because the USSR considered Poland vital to its national security—it had been invaded from Europe through Poland twice in the past thirty years—the Soviets interpreted the Yalta accord differently than did the Americans and the British, a difference of opinion that soon degenerated into a serious rupture in relations among the parties known as the “Big Three.”
Despite this controversy, the Allies left Yalta united over other issues. They renewed their commitment to establishing the United Nations, and the Soviets reaffirmed their intention to join the war against Japan three months after Germany’s surrender. The Allies also reached a tentative agreement on postwar Germany. The United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France would parcel out the defeated country into four zones, each occupied by one of the powers. They would further subdivide Berlin into four sectors because the capital city fell within the Soviet occupation area. As with the accord over Poland, the agreement concerning Germany created tension after the war.
The Yalta Conference concluded just as the final assault against Germany was under way. The Germans had launched one last offensive in mid-December 1944. Mobilizing troops from remaining outposts in Belgium, they attacked Allied forces in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge because of the way that their assault looked when sketched on Allied maps. After an initial German drive into enemy lines, American and British fighting men recovered and sent the Germans retreating across the Rhine River and back into Germany. Pushing from the west, General Eisenhower stopped at the Elbe River, where he had agreed to meet up with Red Army troops who were charging from the east to Berlin. After an intense assault by the Soviets, the German capital of Berlin fell, and on April 25 Russian and American forces linked up in Torgau on the Elbe River. They achieved this triumph two weeks after Franklin Roosevelt died at the age of sixty-three from a cerebral hemorrhage. On April 30, 1945, with Berlin shattered, Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. A few days earlier, Italian antifascist partisans had captured and executed Mussolini in northern Italy. On May 2, German troops surrendered in Italy, and on May 7 the remnants of the German government formally surrendered. The war in Europe ended the next day.
With the war over in Europe, the United States made its final push against Japan. Since 1942, J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of scientists and engineers had labored feverishly to construct an atomic bomb. Few people knew about this top-secret project, and Congress appropriated $2 billion without knowing its true purpose. Under Colonel Leslie Groves of the Army Corps of Engineers, the military supervised the Manhattan Project, which operated at five sites around the country. The need for tight security hampered the project because the military did not want scientists in different locations to confer with one another.
Vice President Harry S. Truman did not learn about the details of the Manhattan Project until Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, and in July he found out about the first atomic test while en route to a conference in Potsdam, Germany, with Stalin and Churchill. He ordered the State Department to issue a vaguely worded ultimatum to the Japanese demanding their immediate surrender or else face annihilation, though the message did not state specifically by what means. When Japan indicated that it would surrender if the United States allowed the country to retain its emperor, Hirohito, the Truman administration refused and demanded unconditional surrender. As a further blow to Japan, Stalin was preparing to send the Soviet military to attack Japanese troops in Manchuria on August 8, which would seriously weaken Japan’s ability to hold out.
On August 6, before the Soviets’ planned invasion, the Enola Gay, an American B-29 Super Fortress bomber, dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The weapon immediately killed 80,000 civilians, and tens of thousands later died slowly from radiation poisoning. Three days later, on August 9, Japan still had not surrendered, and the Army Air Corps dropped another atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing more than 100,000 civilians. Following these bombings and the advance of the Soviet army into Manchuria, Japan announced on August 14 that it would surrender; the formal surrender ceremony took place on September 2, 1945.
At the time, very few Americans questioned the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan. Truman believed, probably correctly, that had Roosevelt been alive, he would have authorized use of the bombs. Newly on the job, Truman hesitated to reverse a decision already reached by his predecessor. He reasoned that his action would save American lives because the U.S. military would not have to launch a costly invasion of Japan’s home islands. He also felt justified in giving the order because he sought retaliation for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and for Japanese atrocities against American soldiers, especially in the Philippines. With an invasion of Japan planned for November and projections for the loss of American lives ranging from hundreds of thousands to 2 million, the servicemen slated to fight there, as well as their relatives, friends, and neighbors, welcomed Truman’s decision.
Evidence of the Holocaust
The end of the war revealed the full extent and horror of Germany’s calculated and methodical slaughter of certain religious, ethnic, and political groups. As Allied troops liberated Germany and Poland, they saw for themselves the brutality of the Nazi concentration camps that Hitler had set up to execute or work to death 6 million Jews and another 5 million “undesirables”—Slavs, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, the physically and mentally disabled, and Communists. At Buchenwald and Dachau in Germany and at Auschwitz in Poland, the Allies encountered the skeletal remains of inmates tossed into mass graves, dead from starvation, illness, and executions. Crematoria on the premises contained the ashes of inmates first poisoned and then incinerated. Troops also freed the “living dead,” those still alive but seriously ill and undernourished. One U.S. soldier reported his initial impression of the inmates: “They were . . . all skin and bones. They were sick, starving, and dying.”
These horrific discoveries shocked the public, but evidence of what was happening had appeared early in the war. Journalists like Varian Fry had outlined the Nazi atrocities against the Jews several years before. “Letters, reports, tables all fit together. They add up to the most appalling picture of mass murder in all human history,” Fry wrote in the New Republic magazine in 1942. He called on Roosevelt and Churchill to speak out forcefully, urged the pope to excommunicate Catholics who participated in Nazi crimes, and proposed sending food to occupied countries to counter the Nazi claim that they were killing Jews and Poles because there was not enough food to go around.
The Roosevelt administration did little in response, despite receiving evidence of the Nazi death camps beginning in 1942. It chose not to send planes to bomb the concentration camps or the railroad lines leading to them, deeming it too risky militarily and too dangerous for the inmates. In a less defensible decision, the Roosevelt administration refused to relax immigration laws to allow Jews and other persecuted minorities to take refuge in the United States, and only 21,000 managed to find asylum. The State Department, which could have modified these policies, was staffed with anti-Semitic officials, and though President Roosevelt expressed sympathy for the plight of Hitler’s victims, he believed that winning the war as quickly as possible was the best way to help them.
REVIEW & RELATE
• How did the Allies win the war in Europe and in the Pacific?
• How did tensions among the Allies shape both their military strategy and their postwar plans?