World War II produced a radical redistribution of world power. Japan and Germany, the two dominant military powers in their regions before the war, were utterly defeated. Britain and France, though victorious, were substantially weakened. Only the United States and the Soviet Union were able to project significant influence beyond their national borders.

Overall, however, the United States was clearly the dominant world power. “What Rome was to the ancient world,” wrote the journalist Walter Lippmann, “America is to be to the world of tomorrow.” But peace did not usher in an era of international harmony. The Soviet occupation of eastern Europe created a division soon to be solidified in the Cold War. The dropping of the atomic bombs left a worldwide legacy of fear.

It remained to be seen how seriously the victorious Allies took their wartime rhetoric of freedom. In August 1941, four months before the United States entered the war, FDR and British prime minister Winston Churchill had met for a conference, on warships anchored off the coast of Newfoundland, and issued the Atlantic Charter. The Charter promised that “the final destruction of Nazi tyranny” would be followed by open access to markets, the right of “all peoples” to choose their form of government, and a global extension of the New Deal so that people everywhere would enjoy “improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security.” It referred specifically to two of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms—freedom from want and freedom from fear. But freedom of speech and of worship had been left out because of British reluctance to apply them to its colonial possessions, especially India.

The Four Freedoms speech and the Atlantic Charter had been primarily intended to highlight the differences between Anglo-American ideals and Nazism. Nonetheless, they had unanticipated consequences. As one of Roosevelt’s speechwriters remarked, “when you state a moral principle, you are stuck with it, no matter how many fingers you have kept crossed at the moment.” The language with which World War II was fought helped to lay the foundation for postwar ideals of human rights that extend to all mankind.

During the war, Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian nationalist leader, wrote to Roosevelt that the idea “that the Allies are fighting to make the world safe for freedom of the individual and for democracy seems hollow, so long as India, and for that matter, Africa, are exploited by Great Britain, and America has the Negro problem in her own home.” Allied victory saved mankind from a living nightmare—a worldwide system of dictatorial rule and slave labor in which peoples deemed inferior suffered the fate of European Jews and of the victims of Japanese outrages in Asia. But disputes over the freedom of colonial peoples overseas and non-whites in the United States foretold more wars and social upheavals to come.


1. Why did most Americans support isolationism in the 1930s?

2. What factors after 1939 led to U.S. involvement in World War II?

3. How did government, business, and labor work together to promote wartime production, and how did the war affect each group?

4. Describe the impact of federal defense spending on the West Coast and the South.

5. Explain how conservatives in Congress and business used the war effort to attack the goals and legacy of the New Deal.

6. How did the war alter the lives of women on the home front?

7. How did a war fought to bring “essential human freedoms” to the world fail to protect the home-front liberties of blacks, Indians, Japanese Americans, and Mexican Americans?

8. Explain how World War II promoted an awareness of the links between racism in the United States and colonialism around the world.

9. What was the impact of the GI Bill of Rights on American society, including minorities?

10. Describe how the decisions made at the Bretton Woods conference in 1933 created the framework for postwar U.S. economic and foreign policy.


1. How did Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms link America’s wartime goals and civil liberties at home? Were the images accurate depictions of freedom for all Americans?

2. Discuss Japanese American internment as an example of the war’s effects on freedom.

3. How did the war help spark the civil rights movement?

4. Compare Henry Luce’s and Vice President Henry Wallace’s visions of America’s role in the postwar world. What are the key elements in the definition of freedom for each?

5. Discuss how FDR’s Four Freedoms speech and the Atlantic Charter laid the foundation for postwar ideals of human rights.

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