The United States Enters the World War II
“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.” Everyone listening to the president speak on the radio knew that this meant that the United States would finally join the war.
A large part of the U.S. Pacific Fleet rode at anchor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (then a U.S. territory, not yet a state), and hundreds of planes awaited action on the base’s airfields. Troops assigned to duty in the Pacific were very happy with their lot; as long as the United States was not at war, they could enjoy the gorgeous climate of the islands. None of them ever imagined that they were in any danger. U.S. officials had intercepted coded messages and knew that a Japanese attack was being planned, but they were unable to find out where or when. The public knew nothing of this.
Japan had repeatedly violated the Washington Conference treaties, invading and conquering Manchuria and attacking U.S. ships near Nanjing in 1937. After increasingly sharp exchanges between Japanese and American diplomats, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor with the intention of wiping out the U.S. Navy and reducing the United States to the status of a second-rate power.
With no warning, Japan began bombing the base at 8:00 A.M. on December 7. The Japanese destroyed twenty warships and 200 airplanes, and killed about 2,400 Americans in the attack. The bombing was highly efficient and very successful, and left the United States no choice but to declare war.
Mobilization in the United States
World War II brought the U.S. economy out of the Depression. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, all thought of neutrality was forgotten. The United States was committed to defeating Japan and also to helping the Allied powers defeat the Germans. American civilians readily accepted rationing of goods that were needed for the troops and the war effort: sugar, coffee, cigarettes, silk (needed for parachutes), tires (needed for rubber), and canned goods. Clothing styles changed in order to conserve fabric: skirts were shorter; dress styles were plainer, without flounces or ruffles; trouser cuffs and jacket lapels were narrowed; and the deep hems common before 1941 were now tiny.
Between 1940 and 1943, more than 450,000 Americans took jobs in the munitions industry. Unemployment dropped to below 1929 levels and wages rose. The military employed hundreds of thousands, including women, who served as nurses and in a variety of noncombat jobs. Many of them ended up serving in Europe and the Pacific.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR signed legislation that ordered the forced evacuation of all Japanese Americans—about 120,000 immigrants and children of immigrants—living on the West Coast. No specific charges were ever made against any of them, nor was there the slightest reason to suspect any of them of disloyalty to the United States. Despite these facts, both the government and the people gave in to racist fears; the Japanese Americans were relocated to internment camps throughout the western states. Located in barren areas far from the coast, these camps had few comforts, although they were a far cry from the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
Many Japanese Americans enlisted in the U.S. Army and served with distinction. Those who did not enlist remained in the camps and were not released until 1945. Not until 1988 were the survivors offered an official apology from the federal government. This executive order marked the low point of FDR’s legacy.
Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:
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