World War II (1933–1945) for AP U.S. History (page 2)

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Updated on Mar 4, 2011

American Foreign Policy in the 1930s

As Italy, Germany, and Japan all expanded their empires in the 1930s, most Americans favored a continuation of the policy of isolationism. An isolationist group, the America First Committee, attracted nearly 820,000 members by 1940. Isolationists believed that it was in America's best interests to stay out of foreign conflicts that did not directly threaten American interests. A congressional committee led by Senator Gerald Nye investigated the origins of America's entry into World War I and found that bankers and arms manufacturers did much to influence America's entry into the war. On a practical level, Americans were consumed with the problems of the Great Depression and were generally unable to focus on overseas problems.

Congressional legislation passed in the period attempted to keep America out of future wars between other powers. The Neutrality Acts of 1935 stated that if countries went to war, the United States would not trade arms of weapons with them for six months; in addition, any nonmilitary goods sold to nations at war would have to be paid for up front and would have to be transported in non-American ships (this was called "cash-and-carry").

German expansionism in Europe convinced Franklin Roosevelt that the United States, at some point, would have to enter the war on the side of Great Britain (even though public opinion strongly opposed this). On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and two days later England and France declared war on Germany. Within three weeks, Roosevelt asked Congress to pass the Neutrality Act of 1939, which would allow the cash-and-carry sale of arms to countries at war (this legislation was designed to facilitate the sale of American arms to Britain and France). The bill passed on a party-line vote.

News of rapid German advances in Europe began to change American attitudes, with more and more people agreeing with Roosevelt that the best course of action would be to prepare for eventual war. The rapid defeat of France at the hands of the Nazis was stunning to many Americans. In September of 1940, Roosevelt gave Great Britain 50 older American destroyers in return for the rights to build military bases in Bermuda and Newfoundland.

The United States and the Middle East in the Interwar Era

In the 1920s, the United States rejected Woodrow Wilson's vision of the United States as an active leader on the world stage and instead turned to a twenty-year period of isolationism. As a result, American political involvement in the Middle East became minimal, leaving France and Great Britain to exert tremendous influence in the region. As previously noted, France had a mandate to control Syria and Lebanon, while the British controlled Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine. In 1932, the British granted Iraq independence, although the British continued to have major influence on government officials and their actions in Iraq.

In the 1920s, the Middle East remained a romantic and idealized region of the world to most Americans. They became fascinated with the adventures of T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") leading and uniting Arab tribesmen against the Turks in World War I and went in droves to see romantic movies set in the deserts of the region, starring Rudolph Valentino. The appeal of Zionism for many American Jews waned in the post–World War I years as stories of the sufferings of Jews that were so widespread in the World War I era declined.

However, the concern among Jews in the United States for the plight of European Jews increased with the ascension of Adolf Hitler to power in Germany in 1933. With the increased persecution of the German Jews in the mid-1930s, pressure began to be exerted on European countries as well as on the United States to allow more German Jews to immigrate. In the 1930s, there was increased hope that a Jewish homeland could be established in Palestine, but this hope was dashed by a White Paper issued by the British government in 1939, which seriously limited the number of Jews who could immigrate to Palestine.

There are historians who are very critical of the conscious decision of the United States in the 1930s not to allow more Jewish refugees into the country. These critics state that if the United States had opened its shores to more Jews in the 1930s, their lives could have been saved. Provisions of the National Origins Act of 1924 limited the number of Germans who could enter the country to slightly over 25,000 per year. In addition, immigrants from all countries were refused admission if they could not prove that they could support themselves once they arrived in the United States, thus further limiting the number of Jewish immigrants who could settle in the United States. As a result, an average of fewer than 9000 Jews from Germany entered the United States annually during the 1930s.

It should be noted that American public opinion in the decade was decidedly against allowing more immigrants to enter the country, especially immigrants who were Jewish. America was in the midst of the Great Depression; editorial page writers, politicians, and many average citizens stated that under these circumstances the last thing America needed was immigrants competing for precious jobs that existed there. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism did not exist only in Germany; anti-Semitic sentiment in the United States strongly opposed allowing any more Jewish immigrants into the country.

The one resource from the Middle East that attracted great interest from American investors in the 1920s and 1930s was oil. As more and more Americans began to drive automobiles in the 1920s, reliable sources of petroleum products were needed outside of the United States. In 1928, British, French, Dutch, and American oil companies agreed to the Red Line Agreement, in which they agreed to act together to export oil from the region; as a result, America began to export oil from Iraq in late 1928.

In 1933, the King of Saudi Arabia granted Standard Oil of California the right to export Saudi Arabian oil; five years later, geologists working for Standard Oil of California discovered major oil reserves in Saudi Arabia.

During World War II, the United States would have to move to actively protect its oil reserves in Saudi Arabia from attack by the Axis powers. Thus began the trend, which has lasted into the twenty-first century, of the United States depending on the Middle East region for oil and using its military to protect its oil interests there.

The Presidential Election of 1940 and Its Aftermath

No president in American history had ever served more than two consecutive terms. Just before the Democratic National Convention, Roosevelt quietly stated that if he was nominated, he would accept. Roosevelt was quickly nominated; his Republican opponent was Wendell Wilkie, an ex-Democrat. Roosevelt emerged victorious, but by a smaller margin than in his two previous victories. A number of those who voted against Roosevelt did so as a protest against the widerspread poverty and unemployment that still existed in America.

Roosevelt interpreted his victory as a mandate to continue preparations for the eventual U.S. entry into World War II. By early 1941, Roosevelt proposed giving the British aid for the war effort without getting cash in return (it was stated that payment could be made after the war). By the terms of the Lend-Lease Act, Congress gave the president the ability to send immediate aid to Britain; Roosevelt immediately authorized nearly $7 billion in aid. As Roosevelt had stated in a 1940 speech, the United States had became an "arsenal of democracy."

In August of 1941, Roosevelt secretly met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland. The two agreed that America would, in all probability, soon be in the war and that the war should be fought for the principles of democracy. Roosevelt and Churchill authorized the publication of their commonly held beliefs in a document called the Atlantic Charter. In this document, the two leaders proclaimed that they were opposed to territorial expansion for either country, and they were for free trade and self-determination. They also agreed that another world organization would have to be created to replace the League of Nations and that this new world body would have the power to guarantee the "security" of the world. Roosevelt also agreed that the United States would ship lend-lease materials bound for Britain as far as Iceland; this brought the United States one step closer to full support for the Allied cause.

The Attack on Pearl Harbor

The Japanese desire to create an Asian empire was the prime motivation behind their invasion of Manchuria in 1931, attacks on eastern China in 1937, and the occupation of much of French Indochina in 1941. As a result of Japanese actions in Southeast Asia, Roosevelt froze all Japanese assets in the United States, cut off the sale of oil to Japan, and closed the Panama Canal to Japanese ships.

From July 1941 until the beginning of December, near-constant negotiations took place between diplomats of Japan and the United States. The Japanese desperately wanted to regain normal trade relations with the United States, but American diplomats insisted that the Japanese leave China first, which the Japanese were unwilling to do. Most Japanese military and civilian leaders were convinced that the Japanese could never achieve their goal of a Pacific empire as long as the United States was militarily active in the region. By December 1, the planning was complete for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

A few revisionist historians believe that Franklin Roosevelt knew of the impending attack on Pearl Harbor. These historians maintain that Roosevelt was acutely aware that many Americans were still opposed to American entry into war, but that an event such as Pearl Harbor would put the entire country squarely behind the war effort. The vast majority of historians believe that American intelligence knew the Japanese were going to attack somewhere, but didn't know that the attack would be at Pearl Harbor; many in American military intelligence believed the Dutch East Indies would be the next target of the Japanese. The "Roosevelt Knew" thesis might be good for a documentary film or two but little else.

On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, 190 Japanese warplanes attacked the American Pacific fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. When the attack was done, 150 American airplanes were destroyed (most of them never left the ground), six battleships were sunk, as were a number of smaller ships, and nearly 2400 Americans were killed. Luckily for the American navy, the aircraft carriers based at Pearl Harbor were out at sea on the morning of the attack.

The next day Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war, stating that December 7 was "a date which will live in infamy." On December 11, Germany and Italy (who had signed a Tripartite Pact with Japan in 1940) declared war on the United States.

America Enters the War

In September of 1940, the President had authorized the creation of a system for the conscriptionof men into the armed forces; in the months immediately after Pearl Harbor, thousands were drafted and countless others volunteered for service. Soldiers in World War II called themselves "GIs"; this referred to the "Government Issued" stamp that appeared on the uniforms, tools, weapons, and everything else the government issued to them. A Council for National Defense had also been created in 1940; this body worked rapidly to convert factories over to war production. Additional legislation was also needed to prepare the country for war. In early 1942, the General Maximum Price Regulation Act immediately froze prices and established the rationing system that was in place for most of the war. The Revenue Act of 1942 greatly expanded the number of Americans who had to pay federal income tax, thus increasing the amount of federal revenue.

America was forced to fight a war in Europe and a war in the Pacific. In the European theater of war, American naval forces first engaged the Germans as they attempted to protect convoys of ships taking critical food and supplies to Great Britain. These convoys were often attacked by German submarines. In this Battle of the Atlantic, German torpedoes were dreadfully accurate (even though sonar was being used by the Americans). Between January and August of 1942, over 500 ships were sunk by German submarines.

American infantrymen were first involved in actual fighting in North Africa. American and British forces joined to defeat French North Africa in late 1942. American troops also played a role in the battles that eventually forced General Rommel's Africa Korps to surrender in May 1943. American and British soldiers also began a difficult offensive into Sicily and Italy two months later; by June of 1944, Rome had surrendered.

Ever since 1941, the Soviet Union had been the only power to consistently engage the Nazi army (the Soviet Union lost 20 million people in World War II). Stalin had asked on several occasions that a second front be opened in Western Europe; by early 1944, an invasion of France by water was being planned by Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of all Allied forces (who would become president in 1953).

The D-Day invasion took place on the morning of June 6, 1944. The initial Allied losses on Omaha Beach were staggering, yet the D-Day invasion was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. By the end of July, over 2 million Allied soldiers were on the ground in France, and the final squeeze of Nazi Germany began. American and British forces liberated French cities and towns as they moved eastward; at the same time, Russian troops were rolling westward. By August, Paris had been liberated.

The last major German offensive of the war was the Battle of the Bulge. Nearly 85,000 American soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured in this battle. The German attack moved the Allied lines back into Belgium, but reinforcement led by General George S. Patton again forced the Germans to retreat. When the German general staff learned that they had not been victorious at the Battle of the Bulge, most admitted that Germany would soon be defeated. American and British bombings did much to destroy several German cities.

Advancing American, British, and German troops were horrified to find concentration camps or the remnants of them. These camps were integral parts of Nazi Germany's Final Solution to the "Jewish problem." Between 1941 and 1945, over 6 million Jews were killed in the event now referred to as the Holocaust. Historians maintain that if the war continued for another two years, all of European Jewry might have been eliminated. Advancing troops were outraged at what they saw in these camps, and on several occasions shot all of the Nazi guards on the spot. Why the Holocaust occurred, and why it was endorsed by so many Germans, is the subject of hundreds of books and articles in scholarly journals.

Some historians are critical of the diplomatic and military actions of the United States both before and during the Holocaust. During the mid to late 1930s, the State Department made it very difficult for European Jews to immigrate to the United States; with alarming unemployment figures in the United States because of the Great Depression, American decision makers felt it unwise to admit large numbers of immigrants to the country. Franklin Roosevelt knew of the existence of the concentration camps as early as late 1943, yet chose not to bomb them (which many in the camps say they would have welcomed). Roosevelt maintained that the number one priority of America had to be winning the war. Nevertheless, historians note that concern for the plight of the Jews caused a number of world leaders to support the creation of the state of Israel in the years immediately following the war.

In March 1945, Allied troops crossed the Rhine River, and met up with advancing Russian troops at the Elbe River on April 25. After a fierce battle, the Russians took Berlin. Deep in his bunker, Hitler committed suicide on May 1, and Germany unconditionally surrendered one week later. Celebrations for V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day) were jubilant in London and Paris, but were more restrained in American cities, as the United States still had to deal with the Japanese.

In February of 1945, Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill met at the Yalta Conference. Franklin Roosevelt had been elected to a fourth term in 1944, but photos reveal him to be very ill at Yalta (he would live only another two months). At Yalta, the three leaders made major decisions concerning the structure of postwar Europe. It was agreed that Germany would be split into four zones of occupation (administered by England, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union), and that Berlin, located in the Soviet zone, would also be partitioned. Stalin promised to allow free elections in the Eastern European nations he had freed from Nazi control, and said that the Soviets would join the war against Japan after the surrender of Germany. Many historians consider the decisions made at the Yalta Conference (and the failure of the Soviet Union to totally adhere to them) to be major reasons for the beginning of the Cold War.

Some historians are critical of Franklin Roosevelt for "giving in" to Stalin at Yalta. It should be remembered that, at the time of this meeting, Roosevelt had only two months to live. In addition, in February 1945, the atomic bomb was not yet a working weapon. American planning for the defeat of Japan was for a full attack on the Japanese mainland; in Roosevelt's eyes, Soviet participation in this attack was absolutely crucial (in return for this support, Roosevelt made concessions to Stalin on Eastern Europe and supported the Soviet acquisition of ports and territories in Korea, Manchuria, and Outer Mongolia). Winston Churchill had strong reservations about the ultimate goals and conduct of Stalin and the Soviet Union at Yalta; these reservations would later intensify, and were articulated by Churchill in his "iron curtain" speech of March 1946.

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