The World War II Multimedia Database

For the 72 Million

United States in World War II

The President of the United States had a strategic dilemma throughout the start of World War II. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was secretly aiding the British in their war against Nazi Germany. He did not want war with Japan, because it would prevent the full weight of the United States military and industry from being brought to bear on Germany. He felt that the China Incident – as the Second Sino-Japanese War was known in the late 1930s — was diverting the attention away from the more important threat in Europe.

The American public did not share his sense of urgency. The European War seemed far away. Much of the American public blamed the Europeans for their war, and wanted no part of it. China, while forgotten during the invasion of Poland, the Fall of France, and the Battle of Britain, seemed to many Americans to be the war America should fight, if America had to fight at all. Another sizable group, led by famed flier Charles Lindbergh, argued that the two oceans meant America didn’t need to engage with the world at all, and should remain in isolation from the world’s wars. Pearl Harbor shattered the isolationist arguments.

The heady days of December 7-10, 1941, with the Japanese advancing successfully along the entire front, must have been sorely trying on Roosevelt. The American public was incensed by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which was seen as a treacherous, even cowardly, first strike against an unprepared America. While Roosevelt would be forever accused of allowing the attack to happen, in December 1941 the American public united against Japan in a way that the week before seemed impossible.

For Roosevelt, it was the wrong war at the wrong time. While Churchill reveled in the American entry into the war, saying “so we had won after all,” he was making an assumption that most Americans were not — that the United States would be fighting against Germany. If in 1941, Roosevelt had gone to Congress with a declaration of war against Germany when the Japanese were winning everywhere, he would have lost crucial congressional support, perhaps even hounded out of office.

Adolf Hitler provided the answer. Like Churchill, he knew this was victory, an Axis one. On December 11, 1941, he declared war against the United States. His U-boats attacked American shipping from the Caribbean to Iceland, sinking many ships in the new “happy time” for German submariners.

Even with the German declaration, Roosevelt found himself unable to honor his agreements with Churchill to defeat Germany first. The precarious position of Allied forces meant that most of the men and materiel had to go to the Pacific. United States Navy Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Ernest King, was a constant advocate for the Pacific Operations, while Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall agreed with Roosevelt that Germany was the greatest threat.

For the first year of the war, the Pacific received most of the men and ships and tanks and planes that were trickling off of America’s growing assembly lines. Especially after November 1942 (the Torch landings in North Africa) more and more of America’s war potential was being sent to Europe. Army General Douglas MacArthur, Vice Admiral William Halsey and Admiral Chester Nimitz complained, and requisitioned more men and more equipment for the Pacific Theatre of Operations, but were consistently told to make due.

What no one could imagine in 1942 was that the Americans would revolutionize the concept of total war. Before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt had secretly ordered members of his staff to convert America to a war footing in 1939. Marshall had developed a draft plan that would convert a highly motivated civilian population into a armed force of twelve million and enough materiel to equip 2000 divisions.

By June 1944, while the United States was able to support the Normandy landings and just one month later operations in Southern France, another entire amphibious operation was ongoing in the Marianas. While the Japanese could build only two fleet carriers and seven smaller carriers, the United States built over 100 carriers of all types during the war, and over 100,000 aircraft.

Unlike the Axis Powers, the United States and Great Britain went to total war mobilization immediately upon the start of hostilities. The American workforce, idle or unemployed since the Great Depression, mobilized everyone, including African Americans, women, and students. Also unlike the Axis, they did not have to initiate compulsory service in industrial plants, although the social stigma of not supporting the war amounted to compulsory service.

Men not in uniform were questioned on the street. Although rationing was enforced, most items except gasoline were readily available. Since cars were not made from 1942-1945, gasoline was not missed as much as it could have been. One nurse recounted decades later how ice cream was available in every New York restaurant, even though it was impossible to find in England were she had been stationed.

The sense of unity and comradeship was a sustaining factor throughout the war. With little consumer goods and large salaries, War Bonds and movies were the few items that everyone purchased. This savings would sustain the postwar boom in the United States until the 1980’s, when another military buildup would be accomplished without war bonds and turn the world’s largest creditor into the world’s largest debtor. The American public held the notion of a postwar world as a time when the industry would shift from military production to consumer production. Privately, the economists feared another worldwide recession after the war, but that never materialized.

During the war, the public had to be satisfied with radio serials and movies. Starting with “Wake Island” (1942) the war figured prominently in American cinema. The War Office exploited Hollywood; Disney made ships’ insignia and several actors and directors served in the Armed Forces. Frank Capra, a successful director of films about the common man, created the highly successful “Why We Fight” series, which clearly outlined the goals of the Allies around the world.

The motivation of the American fighting man bore little resemblance to the Hollywood image, however. Except when thrown into combat prematurely, as in Buna, New Guinea in 1942 or Kasserine Pass in Tunisia in 1943, the American GI gave good service, surprising their enemies with their commitment to battle. Preferring and able to use huge quantities of ammunition prior to attack, the American desire to fight and win was never in doubt. But in after-action interviews, the American soldier rarely cited winning the war as his primary goals. For all nations, most rank and file soldiers in the front lines were loyal to their units and friends first, preferring to fight so as not to appear a coward in front of their buddies.

As the war dragged on into its third year, some people wondered if Roosevelt should run for a fourth term. He had been President since most of the young men fighting and dying overseas had been children; he enjoyed enormous popularity. However, the war seemed very far from ending, and Roosevelt’s administration was shocked by a slight decrease in public support for the war.

Roosevelt was keeping many secrets from the American public. In a technically inferior counterpart to the Manhattan Project, the Japanese were sending thousands of balloon bombs into the Jet Stream to fly from Japan to America. The hope was to start massive forest fires in the American Northwest. While the Americans were unaware of the Jet Stream, the Japanese failed to note the high precipitation and humidity that prevented forest fires. The bombs did reach as far East as Michigan and some may lie undiscovered to this day. A balloon bomb killed five people in Oregon in 1945. They are the only known casualties from the Japanese attack.

As the only combatant to not sustain severe air attack, the United States emerged form the war as the supreme world power. In 1945, it possessed the largest navy in the world, a huge, technically advanced army, and enough money to bankroll the world’s rebuilding through the Marshall Plan.

The women and blacks who had taken up positions in America’s factories were asked to step aside when the soldiers returned. This was done, but not without planting the seeds of dissent that would break open in the form of the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The war had radically changed America; it was a world power, and American society enjoyed unprecedented levels of wealth and comfort. But within two decades, another war in Vietnam would reveal severe spiritual needs as well.

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