Editor’s Introduction Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

World War II is remembered not only for its violent encounters on the battlefield, its war of words between competing ideologies, its genocidal events, and, ultimately, its reconfiguration of Europe. It is also remembered for having reshaped whole areas of modern life, from economics and social relations to politics and popular culture. Along with the Civil War, it continues to be one of the most written about topics in US (and international) history.

World War II is remembered not only for its violent encounters on the battlefield, its war of words between competing ideologies, its genocidal events, and, ultimately, its reconfiguration of Europe. It is also remembered for having reshaped whole areas of modern life, from economics and social relations to politics and popular culture. Along with the Civil War, it continues to be one of the most written about topics in US (and international) history.

At the start of the 1940s, war having already broken out in Europe and conflicts continuing to erupt in Asia, the United States remained largely outside the fray. The presidential election of 1940 brought a new and different Republican candidate, Wendell Wilkie, who sought to raise the prospects of the Grand Old Party in the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats. The campaign, as most campaigns do, had its ups and downs. Wilkie tried to portray himself as harder edged than FDR in military matters and foreign affairs, but to no avail. Roosevelt, running for a third term, demonstrated that he still had the trust of the people, particularly with world war looming in the distance. The veteran New Dealer would soon add “war president” to his list of accolades.

Isolationist Tendencies

Not a strict isolationist himself, Roosevelt nevertheless found himself adhering to the then prevalent isolationist strain of political thought in the United States in the first years of his new administration. Americans had already rejected participation in the League of Nations, as they had involvement in the World Court. As conditions worsened in Europe in the 1930s, Americans stood firm that they had no role to play in the emerging conflict and instead would remain neutral (as they had done during the lead-up to World War I). For many Americans, the British still were not entirely to be trusted, even at this late date in the two countries' long relationship; Churchill was viewed by some as a smooth propagandist. Under these circumstances, laws were passed in the United States prohibiting the sale of munitions and the lending of money to belligerent nations, and overseas travel was restricted to US or neutral carriers. Foreign trade became a catch-as-catch-can affair, with few steady trading partners in the world at large.

But this pattern could not persist forever. Dictators in Europe and an aggressive regime in Japan had inserted troops into Austria, Czechoslovakia, Ethiopia, and China (Manchuria). Soon Poland, France, and the Low Countries were largely under Nazi control, and Churchill's pleadings for US assistance to Britain began to take on a different cast. At a minimum, it seemed, the US military budget should be increased, and starting in 1940 a push for significant growth indeed occurred. Efforts were now underway to bolster the army, including its air force, and to create a two-ocean navy capable of conducting operations in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Also in 1940 came conscription, or the signing up of young men for military service. Soon, even key aspects of national neutrality legislation were being modified to allow for munitions sales to Britain, and an exchange was set up whereby fifty US ships of war were handed over in return for the establishment of US military bases in far-flung territories of the British Empire.

Not that the changes under way took place in an atmosphere of consensus and collegiality. There still was sharp domestic opposition to the Roosevelt administration even as it geared up for defense of the nation and its interests; the isolationists (and nativists) did not simply give up. They opposed the so-called Lend-Lease program of aid to the Allies and even the patrol of the Atlantic by US naval vessels in search of Axis submarines. Nor were they swayed, particularly, by the German invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941, a watershed moment in the European war (one leading to Hitler's crippling). Meanwhile, Diplomatic exchanges between the United States and Japan in the summer and fall of 1941 revealed how far apart those two nations were in their expectations and, ultimately, how blinded by the safety and security of home the isolationists were. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was a humiliating defeat for the United States and a moment when all talk of staying out of the war ceased.

Mobilizing for War

The two years of defense buildup prior to Pearl Harbor proved invaluable for the United States. By the end of 1941, the army had a million and a half men on active duty, more than half of them inducted through the Selective Service System. Officer-training programs had been greatly expanded, too. In industry, manufacturers had already been put partly on war footing owing to the impact of Lend-Lease and the defense orders it brought. In short, the nation was far better prepared for a global war than it had been in 1917, when the first world war broke out. And this new war, even more so than the first, was a battle not just of strategy and military operations but also of technology and the mass production of equipment. These were two areas in which the United States excelled.

What is astonishing in this regard is that, in addition to organizing and supplying its own armed forces and deploying them to the ends of the earth, the United States provided $50 billion worth of goods to Britain, Russia, and its other allies. Shipbuilding and aircraft manufacturing unfolded on an unprecedented scale. Besides destroyers and battleships, which had gotten a leg up in the prewar era, cargo ships, tankers, and supply ships were being turned out by the hundreds thanks to prefabricated parts and engineering and managerial knowhow. Likewise, the production of planes exceeded all expectations: the initial goal of 60,000 planes per year was quickly broken when, in 1943, 86,000 planes rolled out of production hangars, followed by 96,000 in 1944. This feat, moreover, was accomplished with a somewhat irregular workforce made up, in part, of women, retired workers, and people whose regular careers had been disrupted by the outbreak of war. Most men between the ages of 18 and 27 were drafted into one of the services, and most of them went willingly (albeit acknowledging the risk). In the end, about 15 million men (and, to a much lesser extent, women) donned the uniform and participated in the war effort, either by fighting in combat or by supplying the many other services necessary to the cause. Because of the massive effort of all, not only in heavy industry but also in areas such as agriculture, clothing, and more, these troops were the best outfitted in history. None before them had been better fed, better clothed, better equipped, or better cared for medically.

War and Peace

Led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Allied troops invaded the Continent in June 1944. Fierce fighting, difficult conditions, and legendary battles ensued. Similarly, in the Pacific the war was fought at sea, on land, and in the air, with hundreds or even thousands of miles separating the various sites of action. Succeeding Franklin Roosevelt, who died before the war's end (only after having settled postwar agreements such as Yalta), President Harry Truman knew of the enormous sacrifice of the United States from having served under FDR as vice president. Truman dedicated himself to realizing Roosevelt's objectives, including the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan. The final victory of the Allies in Europe came with the surrender of Germany (May 7, 1945). In the Far East, the surrender of Japan (August 14, 1945) came as the result of the United States dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, launching the nuclear era. These events placed the United States in a strong position to influence postwar developments in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.

The end of the war was followed by a rapid demobilization of the armed forces along with the onset of economic inflation, a housing shortage (in the midst of the so-called baby boom), and, perhaps most important, a breakdown of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union—that is, the birth of the Cold War. The decades after World War II came to be known as a unique period in American history, characterized by the exercise of extensive power in world affairs and by notable growth in economic strength and the domestic standard of living.

The War at Home

The war's most immediate impact domestically was its smashing of the Depression of the 1930s and its creation of an American economic powerhouse. The gross national product in the United States was $91 billion in 1939, and $214 billion at war's end. Unemployment went from 15 percent in 1940 to a mere 1 percent in 1944. A general sense of personal and national growth potential pervaded the scene, as Americans doubled down on winning the war and putting the dismal decade of the 1930s behind them. In the event, the federal government, already greatly expanded under the New Deal, ballooned to unprecedented size, as it oversaw war production, labor practices, the rationing of goods, and the setting of prices. The government also sponsored major advances in science, technology, and medicine, including, of course, atomic weapons but also computers, synthetic materials, and new drugs.

At the same time, in the social arena the story was mixed. A notable incursion on civil liberties occurred with the internment of Japanese American citizens (and non-citizens), ostensibly for security reasons. People were removed from their homes and relocated to compounds run by the military. German and Italian Americans faced less stringent actions but nevertheless were discriminated against in local communities and observed by the government. Jewish Americans too faced traditional biases and antagonisms, even while their compatriots in Europe were being slaughtered by the millions. African Americans, likewise, were the targets of prejudice and discrimination not only in industry and society but in the armed forces; although many served their country with distinction and made valuable contributions to the war effort, they returned home to face the usual obstructions. Yet the war and its aftermath did lay the basis for the start of the Civil Rights Movement and spurred black migration from the rural south to the urban north, where advances were made in employment and income.

Women, as well, achieved a new status in American society as accomplished workers in all areas of industry, although supervisory and managerial jobs continued to elude them. Significantly, the barrier to married women seeking employment had been shattered. Women's successes were only short lived, however; in the succeeding Cold War era women once again took a back seat to working men and were steered toward the job of homemaking.

Conclusion

World War II had a lasting impact on the United States both domestically and in terms of the nation's place in the international community. Besides altering values and patterns of life, the war gave rise to a massive military-industrial complex involving government agencies, the military, corporations, and universities in the pursuit of national security and economic and political advantage. Historians and the American populace at large will surely continue to investigate this rich and fascinating subject as they seek to understand the basis of the modern nation.

Bibliography and Additional Resources
  • Dear, I.C.B., and M.R.D. Foot, eds. The Oxford Companion to World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
  • Frentzos, Christos, and Antonio S. Thompson, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Military and Diplomatic History: 1865 to the Present. New York: Routledge, 2013.
  • Kennedy, David M. The American People in World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.
  • Wagner, Margaret E., et al. The Library of Congress World War II Companion. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. Print.
  • Winkler, Allan M. Home Front U.S.A.: America during World War II. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Print.
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