World War II
Selected and introduced by Jennifer D. Keene
At 6 am on December 7, 1941, two consecutive waves of Japanese bombers, torpedo planes, and dive-bombers attacked the Pearl Harbor naval station on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The attack on Pearl Harbor was part of a coordinated Japanese assault throughout the Pacific that also targeted the Philippines, Guam, and Hong Kong (Document 14). The United States declared war against Japan the next day. “There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) told the nation (Document 15). Four days later Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. The nation was now at war on two fronts, fighting determined and capable enemies.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was the culmination of a decade of tension between Japan and the United States. President Roosevelt tried to use a series of escalating sanctions to curtail Japan’s ambitions to extend its territorial control throughout Asia. Western nations, including the United States, had little interest in ceding their colonies or overseas markets to Japan. In the end, Japan elected to push out Western imperial nations by force.
The Japanese attack unified the nation, ending two years of debate over whether or not the wars in Europe and the Pacific were America’s wars to fight. Most pre-war discussion, however, had focused on how to respond to German, not Japanese, aggression. The prevailing feeling that it had been a mistake to get involved in World War I led to the adoption of a strict policy of neutrality in the 1930s (Documents 1 and 2). After Hitler’s 1939 attack on Poland ignited World War II, Roosevelt struggled to reconcile the nation’s desire to help Great Britain defeat Nazi Germany with the policy of official neutrality (Document 6). FDR endorsed sending economic aid to Great Britain as the best way to stay out of the war, arguing that without this American lifeline Great Britain would succumb to Nazi Germany (Documents 3 and 4). Charles Lindbergh, the most prominent member of the America First movement, openly challenged FDR’s claim that Nazi Germany posed a direct threat to the United States (Document 8). These criticisms forced FDR to proceed cautiously, even as he aligned the United States more closely ideologically (Documents 5 and 10) and militarily (Document 11) with Great Britain. By the fall of 1941, the majority of Americans supported FDR’s decision to shoot iv on sight German submarines trying to sink British merchant ships transporting American goods (Document 13). Critics continued to attack FDR’s gradual abandonment of neutrality (Document 12), but Pearl Harbor ended all debate.
Even before the declarations of war, American society was changing as a result of overseas conflicts. A peacetime draft was introduced in 1940, and the exploding war trade pulled migrants to major cities in search of well-paying jobs. Both developments concerned African Americans who worried that racial discrimination would prevent them from having equal opportunities in the military and defense industries. FDR managed to halt a threatened March on Washington by promising access to high-paying defense jobs (Document 9), while First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt offered more adamant support for racial equality by supporting the training of black military pilots (Document 7). Throughout the war African Americans challenged segregation in the military and on the home front, racial discrimination in the workplace and housing market, and the seating of German POWs in restaurants while black soldiers were turned away (Documents 20, 21, and 24).
Eager for explanations after the attack on Pearl Harbor, some Americans suspected that Hawaiian residents of Japanese ancestry must have helped Japan. Prejudice against Asian Americans was not new, but the war amplified fears that Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were disloyal. In the winter of 1942, FDR authorized their exclusion from the West Coast, and soon the War Relocation Authority was overseeing the removal of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry to internment camps (Documents 16 and 17). Once in the camps, Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans struggled to retain a semblance of normal life, and photographs offer some insight into their experiences (Document 27). Legal challenges to the Japanese internment reached the Supreme Court, which in 1944 upheld the constitutionality of the removal process without ruling directly on the constitutionality of internment in Korematsu v. US (Document 29).
In writing the majority decision for Korematsu, Justice Hugo Black noted that “we deem it unjustifiable” to call the internment camps “concentration camps with all the ugly connotations that term implies.” His remark revealed that by 1944, Americans were well aware of Adolph Hitler’s plan to exterminate European Jews. The first news of the Final Solution reached Washington, D.C. in 1942, shortly after the German decision to initiate a systematic genocide to replace uncoordinated mass killings (Document 18). By 1944, American bombers were in range of the Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland but the military decided against bombing the gas chambers v and crematorium, a decision that proved controversial (Document 26). Instead, after Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945 the United States took the lead in organizing the postwar Nuremburg Trials to punish Nazi perpetrators for crimes against humanity (Document 34).
Of course, before it could try enemy leaders in Germany (and also Japan) for war crimes, the United States and its allies had to win victory on both fronts. Mobilizing the nation’s manpower meant recruiting men and women to serve the war effort in a multitude of ways. Eventually, over 16 million men served in the armed forces, a figure that included 10 million draftees. The military suffered approximately 291,000 deaths and 670,000 wounded. Almost 350,000 women served in the armed forces, including 150,000 women in the Women’s Army Corps who served as radio operators, clerks, technicians, and auto mechanics (Document 22). Three million civilian women joined the 16 million already in the workforce, the highest number of paid female workers yet recorded. Would these experiences working in civilian factories or serving in uniform permanently change the role of women in society? This question was anticipated and discussed even before the war was officially over (Document 30).
For men on the front lines, in Europe and in the Pacific, victory came with a high cost. Nearly two-thirds of the men who died in combat were killed in 1944 and 1945. The closer the Allies got to defeating Japan and Germany, the harder these enemy armies fought. The wartime diary of James J. Fahey and dispatches by war correspondent Ernie Pyle reveal the emotional and psychological side of combat (Documents 19 and 23). The differing leadership styles of General Dwight D. Eisenhower in Europe and General Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific offer a study in contrasts, yet each proved inspiring to the men under their command (Documents 25 and 28).
President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not live to see the end of the war. When he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, Harry S. Truman became president. He soon learned of a four-year secret weapons program called the Manhattan Project that was attempting to produce an atomic bomb. In July, the United States successfully tested its first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert. Upon hearing the news, Truman issued a veiled ultimatum to Japan to immediately surrender or suffer immense destruction (Document 31). On August 6, 1945 the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, killing 80,000 people. “I shall give further consideration and make further recommendations to the Congress as to how atomic power can become a powerful and forceful influence towards the maintenance of world peace,” Truman told the American people while announcing the attack vi (Document 32). Three days later, a second nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki killed 35,000 people. Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945.
Victory on the battlefield against Japan and Germany did not bring certainty that years of peace would follow. Amid the celebrations, a host of new anxieties arose. What would the existence of atomic bombs mean for the future? US investigators offered one answer when they insisted that surveying the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki would help Americans devise ways to defend their cities from similar attacks (Document 33). World War II was over, but the nuclear age had begun.