As Japan was opened by the Admiral Matthew C. Perry in 1854, the United States was a nation of contradictions. As Perry's black ships were landing in Edo Bay, his nation was growing bitterly divided over the issue of state's rights versus national interests. Japan seemed very far off, especially to a nation that was centered on the Atlantic.
Within eight years, the United States would have fought its bloodiest war, far more deadly than the whole of World War II. By the end of the 19th century its borders would stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and many islands would seek the protection of or be claimed under its flag.
The result of the war was mass military technology. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, America excelled at making machines. The 200 years before World War II was a time of fantastic change, with innovation and revolution remaking the "state-of-the-art" every decade and then every few years.
Just eight years after he landed in Edo Bay, Perry's ships fought in a civil war back in America that stunned the nation in its carnage. But it was seen as a local war, and the world powers did not take note. So in 1872 the world's greatest sea power, Great Britain, embarked on a race with Germany that would culminate in the World War I battle of Jutland. The "Great War," as it was called before there were enough world wars to number, was to kill more people in four years than had existed on the planet during the first era of humanity.
In this world of mechanized death, the nations came together to try to control the race for the seas. The Washington Treaty of 1921 and the London Treaty of 1930 sought to limit the Pacific Powers' navies, to keep the ratio of power as a balance. The Washington treaty set America's navy at five battleships for every three English and one Japanese. Of course, the Allies saw their burden as defending their interests in two navies. So they felt justified in building more. The Japanese leadership, especially the Imperial Army, saw their interests being limited. How can you be a world power if you have fewer battleships than the other world powers? Neither Washington nor London saw the Japanese point of view.
But the Allies had never seen the Asian point of view very clearly. Fear and ignorance had colored almost all of the actions of the Western Leaders throughout the history of contact. America enacted tough immigration laws that banned Asian immigration, and incarcerated those who were legally immigrating for months without reason. One man was incarcerated in a mental institution, simply because no one realized that he was Chinese. In Asia, the western powers destabilized many governments, notably China, in order to control trade. Britain fought several opium wars in the 19th century to control the market. When Sun Yat Sen called for Chinese Nationalism and took control of the government in 1911, Western leaders were duplicitous, calling for his support while ensuring that control of China's exports were firmly in Western hands.
The United States just before World War II was a nation conflicted. The Great Depression had ended the “Roaring Twenties” which were really not roaring. America had suffered the least of any combatant in World War I. Her casualties numbered less than any other nation, and her civilian population knew nothing of air raids and little of starvation. Charles Lindbergh's Atlantic Flight and the explosion of radio marked the twenties. Dancing and prohibition were an interesting dichotomy that Americans were happy to use as diversions from the growing economic problems at home and the increasingly unstable world scene. The happy atmosphere hid deep fears about world stability and economic progress.
The Stock Market crash of October 1929 brought those fears to the forefront. The Great Depression, marked by strikes and violent union organizing, hardened a generation to suffering and loss. For the European American workingman, the thirties meant fear, hunger and unemployment. The segregation that was the basis of American society endured, as blacks had to wait for their social revolution.
The same month and year that Adolf Hitler took power Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President. Roosevelt was a child of privilege, a man who survived polio to become Governor of New York and President of the United States. Unable to walk unassisted by braces and crutches, he was a powerful mind in a crippled body. Careful to never actually deny his disability, he also took great pains to hide it. He always appeared without wheelchair or braces in public. In a very different media world, the press never mentioned it, even though they knew he was stricken. He was elected in 1933, and returned for the next four terms. His sweeping changes were unlike any other country's response to the Depression: While Britain and France cut back spending and Germany and Italy rearmed, the United States embarked on a huge social spending program. Roosevelt even had the bravery to try to change the structure of the Supreme Court to back his reforms.
Roosevelt survived attempted assassination and republican campaigns for the White House. He was loved and hated, but respected as a formidable political adversary. For thousands of young boys who would grow up to serve in Europe and the Pacific, Roosevelt was the only President they had ever known.
In foreign policy Roosevelt had a strategic dilemma. He did not want a war on two fronts. Japan was becoming more and more aggressive, sinking American and British gunboats in China in 1937. A strong neutrality movement, led by Atlantic Flyer Charles Lindbergh, agitated to keep America out of the war clouds forming in Europe. But Roosevelt saw Hitler and Nazism as a threat, and ordered the Navy into a secret war against the German Kriegsmarine in 1939. American warships and sailors were fighting two years before Pearl Harbor, and they were shooting at Germans. The sinking of the USS Reuben James in 1939 and other warships sunk or damaged could not be ignored.
With Lend Lease in 1940, Roosevelt could openly help the British, who were standing against Hitler alone. Lend Lease infuriated the America First movement, who saw it as a step closer to war. Roosevelt saw it as a necessary step towards insuring the survival of Great Britain. With Lend Lease and the growing comradeship between Churchill and Roosevelt, the two countries were moving towards an Alliance that would create a powerful army that would be unbeatable.
In 1940 no one knew that. Roosevelt and his Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall recognized war was inevitable or at least likely. Marshall drew up the plans to create a professional army out of a civilian population that was not militarily minded. The Draft Act of 1940 and the transition from civilian to military economy would be the single greatest factor in defeating the Germans. The Russians would suffer more casualties, the British would fight longer, but the Americans would build enough equipment to field 2000 divisions. The 12 million American men under arms in 1945 would not have been ready or fighting overseas if not for Marshall's massive organizational planning in 1939 and 1940. The creation of a draft army that would not accept defeat is one of the overlooked miracles of the war.
But if Roosevelt could not convince the American people of the need to fight in Europe, Marshall's soldiers would have fought in the Pacific. The attack on Pearl Harbor united the country in a way that no one, especially the Japanese, had foreseen. Adolf Hitler's quixotic declaration of war on the United States on December 11, 1941, allowed Roosevelt to focus the American public on the need to defeat Nazi Germany. Without much way to strike back against the U-boats wreaking havoc on the East Coast, and a strategic need to divert the balance of American Forces to the Pacific, Roosevelt could not focus on Europe immediately. But soon he and Marshall would announce their 'Germany first' strategy that would define the European War.