World War II (1933–1945) for AP U.S. History (page 3)

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Updated on Mar 4, 2011

The Role of the Middle East in World War II

The Middle East played an important strategic role in Allied military planning during World War II. Some historians argue that this is the first time American political leaders appreciated the true significance of the region in world affairs. The Americans and the British both thought it absolutely crucial that oil resources in the region not fall in to German hands, and that these resources continue to be available for the Allied war effort.In addition, there were fears that the Germans and the Japanese might link up and cut off British access to India; control of the Middle East would be central to this plan.

Many of the efforts to maintain control of the Middle East for the strategic interests of the Allies fell on the Americans. The United States established diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and gave the Saudis large amounts of economic aid to ensure the continued flow of Saudi oil supplies. American diplomats in both Washington and Turkey worked to convince the Turks to stay neutral in the war, which would allow the Allies continued access to the Mediterranean Sea. In addition, American and British forces landed in Morocco and Algeria in 1942. Military planners placed Allied troops in the region to prepare for an eventual invasion of Italy. In 1943, British and American forces occupied Tunisia (which was controlled by the Germans), and from there began their assault on Sicily and eventually Italy itself.

American Lend-Lease efforts extended aid to both Great Britain and the Soviet Union by late 1941, and American efforts to assist the Soviet war effort also went through the Middle East. The Americans established large port facilities in Iran, where the parts for trucks, airplanes, weapons, and other war material were landed, assembled, and then sent by train to the Soviet armies fighting the Germans on the Eastern front. History of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union points to this assistance being absolutely indispensable for the eventual Soviet victory over the Nazis. The thousands of Iranians employed by the Americans in this effort were thankful for the additional income these jobs provided them, but sometimes complained about the arrogance and total disregard for local manners and customs exhibited by their employers and the majority of American soldiers stationed in Iran.

The War Against Japan

In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan advanced against British controlled islands and territories in the Pacific. By April of 1942, Hong Kong and Singapore were both in Japanese hands. General Douglas MacArthur controlled a large American and Filipino force in the Philippines. A large Japanese force landed there, and in March MacArthur was forced to abandon his troops and go to Australia. On May 6, 1942, Americans holding out on the Bataan Peninsula were finally forced to surrender. About 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners were forced to endure the 60-mile Bataan Death March, during which over 10,000 prisoners were executed or died from weakness (it was several years before Washington became aware of this march).

Just two days later, the Americans won their first decisive victory at the Battle of the Coral Sea. American airplanes launched from aircraft carriers were able to stop the advance of several large Japanese troop transports. Troops on these ships were to be used for an attack on Australia. After this defeat, the Japanese could never again mount a planned attack there. American airplanes also played a crucial role in the Battle of Midway. This battle took place in early June 1942; in it, the Japanese lost 4 aircraft carriers and over 200 planes. Many military historians consider the battle to be the turning point of the Pacific War; after this, Japan was never able to launch a major offensive. By mid-1942, American industrial might became more and more of a factor; the Americans could simply produce more airplanes than the Japanese could.

The Japanese were again halted at the Battle of Guadalcanal, which began in August of 1942 and continued into the following year. American marines engaged in jungle warfare and even hand-to-hand combat. On many occasions Japanese units would fight nearly until the last man. Beginning in 1943, the Allies instituted a policy of island-hopping; by this policy, key Japanese strongholds would be attacked by air and sea power as American marines would push on around these strongholds. By late 1944, American bombers were able to reach major Japanese cities, and unleashed massive bombing attacks on them.

By 1944, the war had clearly turned against the Japanese. In late October, General MacArthur returned to the Philippine island of Leyte (although the city of Manila was not totally liberated until the following March). The Japanese began to use kamikaze pilotsin a desperate attempt to destroy Allied ships. Several more bloody battles waited ahead for American forces. America suffered 25,000 casualties at the Battle of Iwo Jima, and another 50,000 at the Battle of Okinawa. After these battles, however, nothing was left to stop an Allied invasion of Japan.

The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb

The incredibly bloody battles described in the preceding section greatly concerned military officials who were planning for an invasion of Japan. Japanese resistance to such an attack would have been fanatical. Franklin Roosevelt had suddenly died in late 1945; the new president, Harry Truman, was informed in July 1944 about the atomic bomb. The actual planning for this bomb was the purpose of the Manhattan Project, begun in August 1942. Construction of this bomb took place in Los Alamos, New Mexico, under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The bomb was successfully tested in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945.

Much debate has taken place over the American decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japanese cities. For Harry Truman, this was not a difficult decision. Losses in an invasion of Japan would have been large; Truman later admitted that what had happened at Pearl Harbor and on the Bataan Death March also influenced his decision. Some historians also claim that some in both the State Department and the War Department saw the Soviet Union as the next potential enemy of the United States and wanted to use the atomic bomb to "show them what we had." After the atomic bombs were dropped, American public opinion was incredibly supportive of Truman's decision. It should be noted that movies, newsreels, and even comic books made the eventual decision to drop the bomb easier by turning the war against the Japanese into a race war. The Japanese were referred to as "Japs," were portrayed with crude racial stereotypes, and were seen as sneaky and certainly not to be trusted (it is interesting to note that the war against Germany was usually portrayed as a war against "Hitler" or against "the Nazis" and almost never as a war against the German people).

On August 6, 1945, the airplane Enola Gay dropped a bomb on the city of Hiroshima. Over 75,000 were killed in the attack. Three days later another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Some historians are especially critical of the dropping of the second bomb; there is evidence that the Japanese were pursuing a surrender through diplomatic circles on the day of the attack. Japan surrendered one day later, and V-J celebrations took place in many American cities the following day.

The Home Front During the War

As previously stated, the federal government took action even before the war began, to prepare the American economy for war. Thousands of American businessmen also went to Washington to take on jobs relating to the war effort. These were called "dollar-a-year" men, as almost all still received their regular salary from wherever they worked.

The demand for workers increased dramatically during the war years, thus increasing wages for workers as well. Union membership increased during the war; unions generally honored "no-strike" agreements that were made in the weeks after Pearl Harbor. Beginning in 1943, some strikes did occur, especially in the coal mines.

The government needed money to finance the war effort. As stated previously, more money was raised by expanding greatly the number of Americans who had to pay income taxes. In addition, America followed a policy begun in World War I and sold war bonds.

During both wars, various celebrities made public appearances to encourage the public to buy these bonds.

Average Americans were asked to sacrifice much during the war. Goods such as gasoline, rubber, meat, sugar, and butter were rationed during the war; American families kept ration cards to determine which of these goods they could still buy during any given period. Recycling was commonplace during the war, and many had to simply do without the goods they desired. Women, for example, were desperate for silk stockings; some took to drawing a line up the back of their legs to make it appear that they had stockings on. City dwellers had to take part in "blackouts," where they would have to lower all shades to make any enemy airplane attacks more difficult. Men and boys both took turns at lookout stations, where the skies were constantly scanned for enemy bombers. Many high schools across the country eliminated vacations during the year; by doing this, school could end early and students could go off and do essential work. Many workers stayed for extra shifts at work, called "victory shifts."

Popular culture also reflected the necessities of war. Many movies during the war were light comedies, designed to keep people's minds off the war. Other movies, such as Casablanca, emphasized self-sacrifice and helping the war effort. "White Christmas" (sung by Bing Crosby) was a favorite during the war, evoking nostalgia in both soldiers abroad and those on the home front. Professional baseball continued during the war, but rosters were made up of players who had been classified 4-F by local draft boards (unfit for military service). The All-American Girls' Baseball League was founded in 1943 and also provided a wartime diversion for thousands of fans.

Women also entered the American workforce in large numbers during the war. Many women working in "traditional women's jobs" moved to factory jobs vacated when men went off to fight. The figure of Rosie the Riveter symbolized American working women during the war. In the 1930s, women were discouraged from working (the argument was that they would be taking jobs from men); during World War II, many posters informed women that it was their patriotic duty to work. Problems remained for women in the workplace, however. For many jobs, even in the defense industry, they were paid less than men. It is also ironic that when the war ended, women were encouraged that it was now their "patriotic duty" to return home and become housewives.

Discrimination During the War

Many blacks also took important factory jobs and eagerly signed up for military service. However, discrimination against blacks continued during the war. Black military units were strictly segregated and were often used for menial chores instead of combat. Some American blacks at home began the Double V campaign. This pushed for the defeat of Germany and Japan but also the defeat of racial prejudice. CORE (the Congress for Racial Equality) was founded in 1942, and organized the very first sit-ins and boycotts; these actions would become standard tactics of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Many on the West Coast feared that the Japanese who lived there were sympathizers or even spies for the Japanese cause (even though many had been born and brought up in the United States). On February 19, 1942, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered Japanese-Americans to internment camps. American public officials told the Japanese that this was being done for their own protection; however, many Japanese noted when they got to their camps that the guns guarding these relocation centers were pointed inward and never outward. Many businesses and homes were lost by Japanese citizens.

Influential Japanese-Americans were outraged by these actions, and a legal challenge was mounted against the internment camps. In a 1944 decision, Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the internment camps were legal, since they were based "on military necessity." In 1988, the United States government formally apologized to those who had been placed in camps and gave each survivor $20,000. It should be noted that American units of soldiers of Japanese descent were created during the war, and that they fought with great bravery in the campaign against Hitler.

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