WORLD WAR II 1939—1945
THE DILEMMAS OF NEUTRALITY
Americans in the 1930s wanted no part of another overseas war. According to a 1937
Gallup Poll, 70 percent thought it had been a mistake for the United States to fight in
B. The Roots of War
The roots of World War II can be found in the after-effects of World War I.
The peace settlement created a set of small new nations in eastern Europe that were
vulnerable to aggression by their much larger neighbors, Germany and the Soviet Union
(more formally, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR).
In the 1930s, economic crisis undermined an already shaky political order.
Unemployment rose in every country, and the level of international trade dropped by
two-thirds. Economic hardship and political instability fueled the rise of right-wing
dictatorships that offered territorial expansion by military conquest as the way redress old
rivalries, dominate trade, and gain access to raw materials.
Japanese nationalists believed that the United States, Britain, and France had treated
Japan unfairly after World War I, despite its participation against Germany. They
believed that Japan should expel the French, British, Dutch, and Americans from Asia
and create a
Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere
, in which Japan gave the orders
and other Asian peoples complied.
Italian aggression embroiled Africa and the Mediterranean. The Fascist dictator Benito
Mussolini had sent arms and troops to aid General Francisco Franco’s rightwing rebels in
In Germany, Adolf Hitler mixed the desire to reassert national pride and power after the
defeat of World War I with an ideology of racial hatred.
Special targets of Nazi hatred were the Jews, who were prominent in German business
and professional life but soon faced persecution aimed at driving them from the country.
In 1935, the Nuremberg Laws denied civil rights to Jews and the campaign against them
On November 9, 1938, in vicious attacks across Germany that became known as
(“Night of the Broken Glass”) Nazi thugs rounded up, beat, and murdered
Jews, smashed property, and burned synagogues.
Germany and Italy formed the Rome-Berlin Axis in October 1936 and the Tripartite Pact
with Japan in 1940, leading to the term
to describe the aggressor nations.
C. Hitler’s War in Europe
After annexing Austria through a coup and seizing and slicing up Czechoslovakia,
Germany demonstrated the worthlessness of the Munich agreement by invading Poland
on September 1, 1939. Britain and France declared war on Germany.
Western journalists covering the three-week conquest of Poland coined the term
or “lightning war,” to describe the German tactics.