World War II For Dummies
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A number of people and events influenced the course and outcome of World War II. This helpful timeline of World War II (WWII) maps out those key figures and actions in the years surrounding the war.

Examining the beginnings of World War II

Officially, World War II began when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and the French and English declared war against Germany as a result of that invasion. But the war’s beginnings came long before this invasion. World War II was the product of a lot of things coming together in just the wrong way at just the wrong time.

The World War I peace agreement

When the Great War ended, the winners (Britain, France, the United States, and Italy) wanted the losers (Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire) to pay. Because the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires no longer existed, that left Germany to bear the brunt of the victors’ vindictive peace agreement. Humiliated and broke, Germany began nursing a big-time grudge. The victors themselves weren’t even happy with the outcome. Some (Italy) felt cheated; some (France) felt that Germany hadn’t been punished enough, and some (the U.S.) just wanted the heck out of Dodge.

In addition, the peace agreement created new nations (Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia) in Eastern Europe from the wrecked Austro-Hungarian Empire and other pieces of land from here (Germany) and there (the Soviet Union). Think that didn’t tick everybody off?

The global economy

All the nations experienced financial troubles following World War I. The European nations (especially Germany, with the war debt hanging over its head) were practically destitute. Slowly, each made an economic recovery — just in time for the world economy to spiral downward. The U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, and the economies in Europe tanked pretty soon after that. Weakened by the war, no European nation was able to stop the economic downturn. And many saw the ruined economy as an indication that capitalism and democracy had failed.

The rise of totalitarianism

With the world in such a mess, folks looked toward their governments to solve their problems, and those countries without a strong tradition of democratic rule were susceptible to promises made by future tyrants who claimed that by consolidating power in one party and one man, they could provide stability and order.

As a result, in Germany specifically (and in Italy earlier), the fledgling democracies gave way to dictatorships and eventual totalitarian rule (that is, all aspects of life are controlled by the dictator). In Italy, this dictator was Benito Mussolini; in Germany, it was Adolf Hitler.

The birth of Fascism and Nazism

Fascism is a political ideology in which the state is exalted above all else. All effort and resources are committed to glorifying the state. Individual freedom doesn’t exist; there is only the freedom to serve the state. Fascists believe that people reach their potential only through service to their nation. If the nation is great, the people are great. And the best representation of the nation’s greatness is through war. Italy was Fascist, as was Spain after the Spanish Civil War.

Nazism is Fascism with a significant difference: the race issue. The Nazis believed that race is the fundamental trait and therefore the defining characteristic of a people. Just as dogs are genetically predisposed to certain roles (some hunt and others herd, for example), each race is genetically predisposed to certain roles. Some are leaders; other races (the “inferior” ones) are meant to be mastered. The Aryan race is, according to Nazis, the Master Race. Then, in descending order are, non-Aryan Caucasians, Asians, Africans, and finally Jews. The Jewish people occupied a special place at the bottom of the Nazi racial hierarchy for the following reasons:

  • They “corrupted” the other inferior races and the weak minded of the Master Race with what Hitler thought of as Jewish ideas: equality among people and individual freedom.
  • They wanted to take over the world and thus posed a specific threat to the Master Race who, as the Master Race, deserved to rule the world.
  • They were “parasites” who betrayed Germany during World War I.

The rise of Hitler

There have always been tyrants and people who abused power, and in many ways, Hitler was no different than any other dictator. He consolidated power by eliminating anyone who could oppose him. He targeted and abused groups he didn’t like. He used propaganda as a tool to lull the German people into believing that what he told them was true.

In other ways, Hitler was different. He had the power of an industrialized nation behind him. He had the capability to export his policies all over Europe through diplomatic trickery and lies and then through war. He had the certainty of his fanatical vision of a Jew-free Europe. And, maybe most frightening of all, he had the ability to make the German people as a whole believe that, by following him down the path to hell, they were fulfilling their destiny for greatness.

The British and French fear of another war

The British and French, having just been through one horrific world war (although they didn’t call it that at the time), were willing to do just about anything to make sure that they didn’t find themselves in another horrific war. For both countries, this determination to avoid conflict resulted in their policy of appeasement. By giving in to the demands of aggressors, such as Hitler, they hoped to avert another crisis that would lead to war. Obviously, this strategy didn’t work.

The isolationism of the United States

The United States, separated from Europe by an ocean, wanted to remain separated from Europe. Like the French and British, the Americans had seen enough of war. They learned as much about European politics and intrigue and blood feuds as they wanted to during the Great War, and they had no intention now of allowing themselves to get mixed up in that mess again. So they developed an isolationist policy and naively insisted that what went on in Europe — or anywhere else in the world, for that matter — was not their concern.

The empire building of Japan

Japan, long a key player in Asia, wanted to consolidate its power there. Japan still held the German bases that it had occupied in China during World War I, and as one of the victors, Japan got to keep large sections of Chinese territory that had once been controlled by the Germans, in addition to being given control of islands that had belonged to Germany. Japan also sought to increase its holdings in China, which, in addition to being a problem for the Chinese, was also a problem for the United States, who had interests there, too.

World War II comes to America: Pearl Harbor

Japan’s ambassadors delivered the first part of a final Japanese diplomatic note to U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull on December 6, 1941. On the morning of December 7, the final portion of the note arrived from Tokyo to the Japanese ambassadors. The note broke diplomatic relations with the U.S. and provided instructions to destroy the code machines in the Japanese embassy. The ambassadors were to deliver the note in the early afternoon. While the Japanese ambassadors received this information, so too did American intelligence. Everyone understood the note’s meaning: War was to be declared that afternoon.

Soon after receiving the note, warnings were sent to American commanders in Hawaii, the Philippines, Panama, and San Francisco with the information that the ultimatum would be delivered at 1 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Separate messages were sent to the United States army and navy. Somehow, the alert messages bound for Hawaii ended up being transmitted by commercial telegraph and radio. A bicycle messenger, on his way from Honolulu to deliver the coded messages, found himself in the middle of a war.

The attack on Pearl Harbor

War came to America at 7:55 a.m. on a quiet Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The base on Oahu Island was the home of the United States Pacific Fleet and about 50,000 American troops. At Pearl Harbor was the largest concentration of U.S. forces in the Pacific.

A fleet of six Japanese aircraft carriers and escort ships stationed itself 230 miles off Oahu and launched its first wave of 183 fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes. They were to inflict as much damage on the fleet as they could. They were to especially target the eight U.S. battleships and two U.S. carriers. They also sought to destroy aircraft parked on the ground.

The first wave of Japanese bombers found plenty to attack. About 200 American ships and smaller craft were anchored in the harbor, and hundreds of warplanes were parked wingtip to wingtip at the airfields (planes arranged this way are easier to protect from sabotage).

A second wave of 170 Japanese aircraft followed up and found the harbor obscured by giant columns of black smoke and antiaircraft fire. During this wave, the Japanese lost 19 aircraft from ground fire and American fighters that had managed to get into the air.

The entire attack lasted only about an hour and fifty minutes.

The effect at Pearl Harbor

The attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2,400 Americans and wounded another 1,200. Of those dead, 1,103 sailors and marines were killed when a Japanese bomb penetrated the forward magazine (the compartment where a ship’s ammunition is stored) of the battleship USS Arizona, sinking the ship and the men aboard it. The USS Oklahoma, another battleship, was also sunk with heavy loss of life. The other six battleships were damaged, and so were a number of cruisers and destroyers. Over 340 of the 400 aircraft on Oahu were destroyed or damaged as well.

In the short run, the Japanese accomplished their objective. They had knocked the United States Pacific Fleet out of action temporarily. But how temporarily was the most important issue. In the long run, the United States was able to overcome the damage at Pearl Harbor for the following reasons:

  • The aircraft carriers weren’t touched. The carrier would prove to be the decisive weapon of the naval war in the Pacific, not the battleship, which every naval strategist before 1941 thought would be the primary naval weapon.
  • The submarines were not attacked. Submarines became one of America’s most potent weapons in crippling Japan’s vital supply lines.
  • The repair dockyards and fuel-oil storage tanks were undamaged. Thus, Pearl Harbor was able to serve its important role in wartime as a repair and refitting base for the Pacific Fleet. In fact, most of the American ships damaged in the attack were repaired and entered action against the Japanese later in 1942 and 1943.

Nevertheless, Pearl Harbor was a bitter defeat for the United States. American territory had been attacked, and American lives had been lost. Pearl Harbor unified the divided and uncertain American population as no earlier action could.

The United States declares war on Japan

Japan had underestimated the Americans, who they believed would prefer to negotiate rather than fight. To the contrary, America wanted revenge.

Although deeply divided over war issues and neutrality before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Congress was now united in seeking a declaration of war. As outlined in the United States Constitution, the president must ask Congress for such a declaration, which Roosevelt willingly did. In his message to Congress, Roosevelt captured the emotions of the day:

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. . . . Always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had no doubt what Roosevelt’s words meant for the British. “So we had won after all!” he wrote. “After seventeen months of lonely fighting and nineteen months of my responsibility in dire stress. We had won the war. England would live; Britain would live; the Commonwealth of Nations and the Empire would live.”

A World War II timeline

For a brief rundown of World War II, check out the following chart, which highlights critical political events, leaders, and military action in the years preceding, during, and following the war:

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About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Keith D. Dickson, PhD, is a professor of military studies at the Joint Forces Staff College, National Defense University. He is a retired Colonel, US Army Special Forces.

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