America in a World at War p.704-730

Chapter 26 Study Guide

In Chapter 26 we look at the changes begot by war. Having dealt with changes fostered by the First World War, Americans entered into an era of normalcy during the 1920s. Yet even in the midst of the peace and prosperity of the 1920s, Americans often seemed to be fighting a cultural war that pitted those who adhered to older traditional values and beliefs against those who accepted the new values of the era. It was during the Jazz Age that America continued its transition from an agricultural to an industrial nation, women made strides in breaking out of their constraints, and African Americans became more outspoken in their demand for equality. Furthermore, the new openness about sex and the challenges of science to fundamentalist religious beliefs during the 1920s caused anxiety in many quarters. Then came the economic disasters of the Great Depression.

The collapse of the nation's economic system led to the election of Franklin Roosevelt and to the mobilization of the federal government in a war against joblessness, poverty, and homelessness. The Roosevelt revolution forever changed the relationship between the American people and their government. Then, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Americans had to face the anxiety of change within a nation whose very survival depended on successful mobilization for war. Since this was total war, not only did troops have to be mobilized, but the homefront had to be mobilized as well to produce the material necessary to defeat Japan and the Axis Powers.

In the Pacific, America was largely on its own to fight the Japanese; and, after initial losses, successfully broke the momentum of Japan's offensive at the Battle of Midway. In turning to the European theater we look at America's Europe First strategy and at the undercurrent of suspicion among the Allies, obvious in the second-front controversy. In November 1942, American and British forces landed in North Africa and were eventually successful in defeating General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps. Back in Europe, the Soviet army's successful defense of Stalingrad proved to be a turning point in the European war.

The focus of the chapter then shifts to a discussion of the nation's mobilization for war on the production front. This mobilization brought: 

(l) renewed government-business cooperation and an acceleration of corporate growth, 

(2) the growth of scientific research facilities through government incentives, 

(3) new economic opportunities for African Americans, Mexicans, and women, 

(4) the growth of labor unions, and 

(5) the successful conversion of American factories from civilian production to military production.

The Second World War, to an even greater extent than the First World War, was a total war, requiring not only military mobilization but mobilization of the civilian population as well. As civilian workers poured into the nation's defense plants, the primary responsibility for coordinating total mobilization of the home front fell on the federal government. Therefore, the federal bureaucracy mushroomed in size as one can see in the coordinating efforts of the War Production Board, the Office of Price Administration, and the Office of War Information. Furthermore, the government relied primarily on deficit spending to finance the war. This massive influx of money into the economic system brought full employment and prosperity. As more Americans than ever before moved to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by wartime prosperity, communities changed and conflict emerged between war workers and native citizens. Although the war provided opportunities for African Americans, the Detroit riot of 1943 made clear that racism remained a shaping force in blacks lives. The zoot-suit riot in Los Angeles in 1943 demonstrated that the same was true for Mexican Americans.

For women, the war became a turning point. More women, including more married women and mothers, entered the labor force than ever before. As some of the negative attitudes toward women working in heavy industry began to change, women experienced more geographic and occupational mobility. Although they continued to receive lower pay than men and were still concentrated in sex-segregated occupations, more women than ever were deciding to remain in the labor market. But even with those changes, home and family responsibilities continued to fall on their shoulders. In many cases, the wartime absence of husbands and fathers made women fully responsible for the family. The combination of these factors and experiences meant that many women gained a new sense of independence.

Forcibly removed from the West Coast, Japanese Americans were transported to relocation centers and interned chiefly because of their ethnic origin. As a result, many felt betrayed by their government. There was also the paradox of African American soldiers fighting in a segregated American military against racist Nazi ideology. Furthermore, African Americans on the home front continued to face political, social, and economic discrimination. As in the First World War, African Americans saw the war as an opportunity to achieve their goal of equality in American society. Through the NAACP's Double V campaign and through the founding of the Congress of Racial Equality, African Americans became more outspoken in their attempt to realize that goal. We then turn to America's tragic failure to live up to its democratic ideas America's refusal to help European Jews and others attempting to escape Hitler's Germany. Roosevelt and Congress knew as early as 1938 of Hitler's anti-Semitic policies and actions, and by 1943, Roosevelt was aware of the existence of the Nazi death camps. Although the administration established the War Refugee Board in early 1944, it was a case of too little too late.

After a brief discussion of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, we look at decisions made at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences. The Yalta Conference is often described as the high point of the Grand Alliance. The agreements reached there are explained in the context of the suspicions among the Allies, the goals of each of the Allies, and the positions of each of the Allied armies. Upon Roosevelt's death in April 1945, Harry S Truman ascended to the presidency, and less than a month later Germany surrendered. As the war continued in the Pacific, allied leaders met once again at the Potsdam Conference. Unlike the Yalta Conference, the Potsdam Conference revealed a crumbling alliance in which any sense of cooperation had given way to suspicions among competitive nation states. These suspicions, so obvious at Potsdam, were a portent concerning the post-war world. Within this context, the authors discuss the final battles in the Pacific theater, the Potsdam Declaration, and President Truman's decision to use atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Fighting for Freedom: 1942-1945

1941 FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech. Fair Employment Practices Committee established.

1942 Japanese occupy Manila. United States interns Japanese Americans.
Doolittle raid. OPA freezes prices. Battle of the Coral Sea. Battle of Midway. Steel strike leads NWLB to impose Little Steel formula.
British and Americans launch bombing offensive against Germany. Darlan affair.

1942-43 Operation Torch. Battle of Guadalcanal.

1943 Casablanca Conference. Germans lose battle of Stalingrad. Congress repeals the Chinese Exclusion Act. Wildcat strikes. Detroit race riots. "Zoot Suit" riots. Mussolini resigns; Badoglio government surrenders. Invasion of Italy. Teheran Conference.

1944 War Refugee Board created. Liberation of Rome. Allies launch cross-channel invasion of Normandy. Allies free Paris. Hitler launches V-1 and V-2 rockets against London. Battle of Saipan. MacArthur returns to the Philippines. Japanese launch kamikaze attacks. Congress passes G.I. Bill of Rights. FDR wins fourth term. Gunnar Myrdal publishes An American Dilemma.

1944-45 Battle of the Bulge.

1945 Firebombing of Dresden. Americans and Russians meet at the Elbe.
Germany surrenders.


War and Diplomacy: World War II transformed the United States more fundamentally than any conflict since the Civil War. It revolutionized American foreign policy by causing the nation's leaders to realize that the United States must commit itself to playing a leading role in postwar collective security efforts to avoid a repeat of the events that led up to the war; it expanded the role of the federal government in myriad ways; it ended the Great Depression; and it changed the role of women and other minority groups, fueling postwar demands for greater rights among groups that helped to maintain the nation's freedom during wartime.

Economic Transformations: World War II succeeded where the New Deal failed-in ending the Great Depression. Federal spending increased more than tenfold between 1939 and 1945; at the same time, Americans saved money due to the shortage of consumer goods, helping to spark a massive postwar boom. The war also spurred economic growth in the West, where federal military and infrastructural spending helped to transform the region's economy. The war led to unprecedented government spending on research and development, which produced a host of new innovations, with both military and civilian applications. Increased taxation, including the first federal withholding taxes, helped to finance the costly war effort.

American Diversity: The struggle against Nazi ideas of racial superiority forced the United States to grapple with the issue of racial and ethnic diversity in the United States. The United States placed over 100,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps in the name of protecting national security, a controversial decision that evoked little popular opposition at the time. Despite this action, the federal government and the American people largely came to see the nation's ethnic diversity as a source of its strength, a major difference from World War I, when government efforts to promote national unity helped spark anti-foreign hysteria. African Americans, the nation's most prominent racial minority, demanded a greater role in the war effort and an end to discrimination in defense industries; their military efforts helped lead to the desegregation of the armed forces soon after the war's end.

Culture: Despite the natural anxiety caused by the war, the conflict also demonstrated the resilience of American culture and society. Americans came to believe that they were fighting to uphold the ideals of democracy and material prosperity. They looked forward to a postwar age in which mass consumption would be the order of the day. Families were strained as a result of the demands of military services, as working women often lacked access to child care. Marriage rates increased significantly during the war, as did births (a preview of the postwar "baby boom.".

Digital History

America at War: World War II

On September 1, 1939, World War II started when Germany invaded Poland. By November 1942, the Axis powers controlled territory from Norway to North Africa and from France to the Soviet Union. After defeating the Axis in North Africa in May 1941, the United States and its Allies invaded Sicily in July 1943 and forced Italy to surrender in September. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the Allies landed in Northern France. In December, a German counteroffensive (the Battle of the Bulge) failed. Germany surrendered in May 1945. The United States entered the war following a surprise attack by Japan on the U.S. Pacific fleet in Hawaii. The United States and its Allies halted Japanese expansion at the Battle of Midway in June 1942 and in other campaigns in the South Pacific. From 1943 to August 1945, the Allies hopped from island to island across the Central Pacific and also battled the Japanese in China, Burma, and India. Japan agreed to surrender on August 14, 1945 after the United States dropped the first atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. World War II cost the United States a million causalities and nearly 400,000 deaths. World War II killed more people, involved more nations, and cost more money than any other war in history. Altogether, 70 million people served in the armed forces during the war, and 17 million combatants died. Civilian deaths were ever greater. At least 19 million Soviet civilians, 10 million Chinese, and 6 million European Jews lost their lives during the war. In both domestic and foreign affairs, its consequences were far-reaching. It ended the Depression, brought millions of married women into the workforce, initiated sweeping changes in the lives of the nation's minority groups, and dramatically expanded government's presence in American life.

The Dawn of the Atomic Age

In 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt, warning him that the Nazis might be able to build an atomic bomb. On December 2, 1942, Enrico Fermi, an Italian refugee, produced the first self-sustained, controlled nuclear chain reaction in Chicago. To ensure that the United States developed a bomb before Nazi Germany did, the federal government started the secret $2 billion Manhattan Project. On July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert near Alamogordo, the Manhattan Project's scientists exploded the first atomic bomb. It was during the Potsdam negotiations that President Harry Truman learned that American scientists had tested the first atomic bomb. On August 6, 1945, the Enola Gay, a B-29 Superfortress, released an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. Between 80,000 and 140,000 people were killed or fatally wounded. Three days later, a second bomb fell on Nagasaki. About 35,000 people were killed. The following day Japan sued for peace.

President Truman's defenders argued that the bombs ended the war quickly, avoiding the necessity of a costly invasion and the probable loss of tens of thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives. His critics argued that the war might have ended even without the atomic bombings. They maintained that the Japanese economy would have been strangled by a continued naval blockade, and that Japan could have been forced to surrender by conventional firebombing or by a demonstration of the atomic bomb's power. The unleashing of nuclear power during World War II generated hope of a cheap and abundant source of energy, but it also produced anxiety among large numbers of people in the United States and around the world.  

Biography of America

World War II (series 22)
America is enveloped in total war, from mobilization on the home front to a scorching air war in Europe. Professor Miller's view of World War II is a personal essay on the morality of total war, and its effects on those who fought, died, and survived it, including members of his own family. 

Lecture Outlines

World War II 1939-1945

The Homefront 1941-1945

In the fall of 1994, the Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., installed in its main hall the fuselage of the Enola Gay, the airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare on Hiroshima in 1945. Originally, the airplane was to have been accompanied by an exhibit that would include discussions of the many popular and academic controversies over whether the United States should have used the bomb. But a powerful group of critics led by veterans' groups and aided by many members of Congress organized to demand that the exhibit be altered and that it reflect only the "official" explanation of the decision. In the end, the museum decided to mount no exhibit at all. The Enola Gay hangs in the Smithsonian today entirely without explanation for the millions of tourists who see it each year.

The furor that surrounded the Air and Space Museum installation reflects the passions that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki continue to arouse among people around the world, and people in the United States and Japan in particular. It also reflects the continuing debate among historians about how to explain, and evaluate, President Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb in the war against Japan.

Truman himself, both at the time and in his 1955 memoirs, insisted that the decision was a simple and straightforward one.

American invasion of mainland Japan that might have cost as many as a million lives. Given that choice, he said, the decision was easy. "I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used." Truman's explanation of his decision has been supported by the accounts of many of his contemporaries: by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, in his 1950 memoir, On Active Service in Peace and War; by Winston Churchill; by Truman's senior military advisers. It has also received considerable support from historians. Herbert Feis argued in The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II (1966) that Truman had made his decision on purely military grounds?to ensure a speedy American victory. David McCullough, the author of a popular biography of Truman published in 1992, also accepted Truman's own account of his actions largely uncritically, as did Alonzo L. Hamby in Man of the People (1995), an important scholarly study of Truman. "One consideration weighed most heavily on Truman," Hamby concluded. "The longer the war lasted, the more Americans killed." Robert J. Donovan, author of an extensive history of the Truman presidency, Conflict and Crisis (1977), reached the same conclusion: "The simple reason Truman made the decision to drop the bomb was to end the war quickly and save lives."

Other scholars have strongly disagreed. As early as 1948, a British physicist, P. M. S. Blackett, wrote in Fear, War, and the Bomb that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was "not so much the last military act of the second World War as the first major operation of the cold diplomatic war with Russia." The most important critic of Truman's decision is the historian Gar Alperovitz, the author of two influential books on the subject: Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam (1965) and The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (1995). Alperovitz dismisses the argument that the bomb was used to shorten the war and save lives. Japan was likely to have surrendered soon even if the bomb had not been used, he claims; large numbers of American lives were not at stake in the decision. Instead, he argues, the United States used the bomb less to influence Japan than to intimidate the Soviet Union. Truman made his decision to bomb Hiroshima in the immediate aftermath of a discouraging meeting with Stalin at Potsdam. He was heavily influenced, therefore, by his belief that America needed a new way to force Stalin to change his behavior, that, as Alperovitz has argued, "the bomb would make Russia more manageable in Europe."

Martin J. Sherwin, in A World Destroyed (1975), is more restrained in his criticism of American policymakers. But he too argues that a rapidly growing awareness of the danger Stalin posed to the peace made leaders aware that atomic weapons and their effective use could help strengthen the American hand in the nation's critical relationship with the Soviet Union. Truman, Sherwin said, "increasingly came to believe that America's possession of the atomic bomb would, by itself, convince Stalin to be more cooperative."

John W. Dower's War Without Mercy (1986) contributed, by implication at least, to another controversial explanation of the American decision: racism. Throughout World War II, most Americans considered the Germans and the Italians to be military and political adversaries. They looked at the Japanese very differently: as members of a very different and almost bestial race. They were, many Americans came to believe, almost a subhuman species. And while Dower himself stops short of saying so, other historians have suggested that this racialized image of Japan contributed to American willingness to drop atomic bombs on Japanese cities. Even many of Truman's harshest critics, however, note that it is, as Alperovitz has written, "all but impossible to find specific evidence that racism was an important factor in the decision to attack Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

The debate over the decision to drop the atomic bomb is an unusually emotional one driven in part by the tremendous moral questions that the destruction of so many lives raises and it has inspired bitter professional and personal attacks on advocates of almost every position. It illustrates clearly how history has often been, and remains, a powerful force in the way societies define their politics, their values, and their character.

"Hiroshima: Was it Necessary?" by Doug Long

The Decision (Nagasaki Exploratorium)

Hiroshima: Harry Truman on Trial - History News Network


The decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan remains one of the most controversial in American history, so much so that a group of historians recently held a mock trail for Harry Truman on the decision. Peruse the sites listed above and summarize the arguments for the prosecution and the defense. Ultimately, do you think President Truman made the right decision? Why or why not? Should the second bomb (Nagasaki) be held to a different moral standard than the first (Hiroshima)?