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David M. Kennedy
World War II ended an era in the history of warfare. That era had opened with Napoleon Bonaparte's reliance on the leve;e en masse to replace France's relatively small regular fighting force with a vast citizen army. It continued through the Union's demonstration of the military importance of a deep civilian economic base in the American Civil War. It culminated in the twentieth century's two world wars, which pitted against one another the huge, lavishly equipped conscript forces of fully mobilized advanced industrial states in protracted contests of attrition.
All those conflicts were wars of quantities and endurance. Their outcomes were largely determined by the sheer size of armies -- and, increasingly, economies -- and by the ability of the combatant states to sustain their armed forces in the field for long periods.
That kind of warfare came to a catastrophic climax in World War II. Fittingly, in a conflict that turned on matters of scale, the numbers tell much of the grisly story. More than fifty nations declared formal belligerency, and few neutrals escaped the effects of the war's violent upheavals. The struggle went on for nearly six years in Europe and by one manner of reckoning even longer in Asia. It consumed over one trillion dollars of the planet's wealth. More than 100 million men took up arms. The war claimed some 60 million lives. And for perhaps the first time in the sorry annals of warfare, a majority of the dead were civilians, including the 6 million Jewish victims of Adolf Hitler's Holocaust, a cruelly systematic scheme of mass murder that gave rise to a chilling neologism, genocide.
The United States, late to the fighting and far removed from the major battlefronts, suffered few civilian deaths, but took some 16 million men and several thousand women into service, more than 400,000 of whom lost their lives. And America's economic engagement in the war was nothing short of prodigious. Forty percent of wartime production in the United States went to satisfy the ravenous appetites of the American and Allied armed forces, yielding 5,777 merchant ships, 1,556 major warships, 299,293 aircraft, 634,569 jeeps, 88,410 tanks, 2,383,311 trucks, 6.5 million rifles, and more than 40 billion bullets.
The ultimate reasons for war on such a horrendous scale no doubt lay in what Sigmund Freud called man's cruel determination to play the wolf to man. But its proximate causes can be traced to the troubled aftermath of World War I (1914-1918), in particular, to the thwarted yearnings of three states -- Italy, Japan, and Germany -- to enlarge their spheres in the world, by violent means if necessary; indeed, in the case of Germany's Hitler, by violent means if possible. Of those three, Japan and Germany proved capable of working the worst mischief. And of those two, Germany was by far the more formidable adversary. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said once the war came, "Defeat of Japan does not defeat Germany," whereas "defeat of Germany means defeat of Japan." Accordingly, the cornerstone of American, British, and Soviet strategy in the war was the "Germany-first" doctrine. All other decisions respecting priorities, timing, the allocation of resources, theaters of operation, and force configuration built on that foundational premise.
Japan's aspirations were incubated as early as the nineteenth century. With remarkable purposefulness following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan transformed itself in less than two generations from an insular feudal fiefdom into a robust modern industrial society. Its ambitions and its prowess alike were on display in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 -- the first time in modern history that a European power suffered defeat by a non-Western state. Japan's response to the onset of the Great Depression -- itself largely a product of the international economic distortions occasioned by World War I -- had been to invade the Chinese province of Manchuria, install a puppet government, and dispatch half a million Japanese colonists to develop the region's industrial and agricultural resources.
Some historians date the beginning of World War II to the Japanese incursion in Manchuria in 1931; others cite the full-scale Japanese invasion of the Chinese heartland in 1937 as the war's moment of origin. But Japan's military adventurism had as yet only regional implications. Arguably, Japan might have been appeased, and its provocations confined to one corner of Asia, by some recognition of its stake in China -- noxious as that might have been to recognized norms of international behavior, not to mention to the Chinese.
But world war came only when Europe, too, plunged into the maelstrom with Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939. In the context of Europe's disruption, Japanese cupidity expanded to include Southeast Asia, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, and India. The conflicts in Asia and Europe now fatefully merged, leading in 1940 to a formal alliance among Japan, Germany, and Italy -- thereafter known as the "Axis powers" -- and eventually to Japan's attempt to shield its imperial project in Asia from American interference with a daring attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. With that act, and America's immediately subsequent entry into the war, virtually the entire planet was wreathed in violence.
Unlike Japan, Germany was never appeasable. Throughout the 1920s, Hitler built his National Socialist German Workers' (Nazi) Party out of the septic sludge of anti-Semitism and smoldering grievances over the vindictive settlement inflicted on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles that concluded World War I. The Great Depression visited especially severe privations on the German people, giving ex-soldier Hitler the chance to avenge his bitter resentment over Germany's military defeat in 1918. Appointed chancellor in 1933, Hitler turned the Reichstag into his personal instrument, dissolved the trade unions, muzzled the press, and declared the Nazis the only legal political party in the Reich. In the Nuremberg Decrees of 1935, he stripped Germany's half-million Jews of their citizenship, excluded them from the professions and military service, and banned marriage between Jews and Aryans.
Hitler also began to rearm Germany, at first surreptitiously, then brazenly in 1935 when he announced plans to create a 36-division German army, and more brazenly still in 1936 when he marched thirty-five thousand troops into the Rhineland, flagrantly violating the Versailles Treaty's prohibition on militarizing the buffer zone that separated France and Germany. Banking on the pusillanimity of the other European states and scarcely taking notice of the distant and apparently indifferent Americans, Hitler annexed Austria in early 1938. A few months later, he absorbed the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia into the Reich, a deed meekly accepted by the other powers in the notorious Munich Pact, and a prelude to the conquest of the entirety of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Italy meanwhile attacked Ethiopia in 1935, and the following year Germany and Italy together openly supported fellow-fascist Francisco Franco's successful military revolt against the left-leaning Republican government in Spain.
Hitler savored these mostly bloodless victories, but full-scale war was what he wanted. On September 1, 1939, he got it, pouring thousands of German troops across the Polish border. They employed the fearsome new tactic of blitzkrieg ("lightning war"), which sought to achieve quick and relatively inexpensive military success through the shock effect of swift and deep penetration by heavily armored columns. Britain and France declared war on Germany, but they proved unable to help Poland, also invaded from the east by the Soviet Union and quickly conquered and partitioned by the two aggressors. The following spring, Hitler unleashed blitzkrieg on Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France, all of which crumpled ingloriously before the German onslaught. On July 10, 1940, he commenced aerial bombardment of Britain, preparatory to an anticipated amphibious invasion. Foiled in that objective by the fiery defiance of newly installed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and by the legendary resistance of the Royal Air Force, Hitler turned eastward again in June 1941 with a massive invasion of his erstwhile partner in aggression, the Soviet Union, opening what was to become until its conclusion the war's principal fighting front, sweeping first eastward, then westward over immense stretches of terrain and engaging millions of German and Soviet troops. Here for the first time blitzkrieg failed. Stalemated on the endless Soviet steppes, Hitler was now forced to fight the kind of war he had hoped to avoid -- a lengthy battle of attrition requiring full mobilization and deep drafts of manpower and matériel.
Americans long watched these events with a lack of concern born of ancient habits of isolationism. The United States had grown to maturity on a remote continent with no powerful neighbors to fear, breeding in Americans the dangerous illusion that the world's troubles had no bearing on their own fate. The disappointing fruits of Woodrow Wilson's intervention in the European war in 1917 only reinforced the venerable wisdom that America's interests were best served by remaining aloof from the conflicts that seemed to convulse other societies with tragically metronomic regularity. In the two decades after World War I, Americans had virtually washed their hands of the international system. They spurned membership in the League of Nations, helped to strangle world trade by erecting the highest tariffs in their history, disrupted international capital flows by insisting that the Europeans repay their World War I-era debts, imposed sharp limits on immigration for the first time, and applauded when Congress enacted five successive "Neutrality Acts" in the 1930s, a decade that may be fairly described as the high-water mark of American isolationism.
Yet some Americans, notably President Franklin D. Roosevelt, early sensed the
dangers that German Nazism and Japanese militarism posed for the United States. From 1935 forward, Roosevelt tried, sometimes hesitantly, but with notable consistency, to educate his countrymen about the gathering international peril. The United States could not survive, he said at Charlottesville, Virginia, in June 1940,
as a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force. Such an island may be the dream of those who still talk and vote as isolationists. Such an island represents to me...the nightmare of a people lodged in prison, handcuffed, hungry, and fed through the bars from day to day by the contemptuous, unpitying masters of other continents.
Roosevelt promised to "extend to the opponents of force the material resources of this nation." Along with the Germany-first doctrine, that pledge defined the essence of America's grand strategy in the war -- a strategy Roosevelt later described as making the United States "the great arsenal of democracy."
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, provided the occasion for America's formal entry into the war, which by then had been raging for several years in both Asia and Europe. But Japan remained for the United States only a secondary foe. Germany was the principal enemy, the one whose victory could most seriously threaten the United States.
Well before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt had begun to implement America's grand strategy for the defeat of Germany by securing passage of the Lend-Lease Act. In March 1941, Congress initially appropriated some $7 billion in Lend-Lease aid for Britain -- a sum that roughly equaled the entire federal budget in each year of the New Deal decade of the 1930s. A grateful Churchill called Lend-Lease "the most unsordid act in the history of any nation." Hitler thought it tantamount to a declaration of war.
In many ways, it was. The United States had now massively and unequivocally committed the resources of its behemoth economy -- long slumbering through the Depression, but still possessed of enormous latent strength -- to the struggle against the Axis powers. Before the war ended in 1945, the United States spent over $350 billion to fight it -- more than the amount spent by Britain and the Soviet Union combined -- including $50 billion in Lend-Lease aid.
The United States also mustered a 90-division army, a powerful navy organized around the new technology of aircraft carriers, and a huge long-range bomber fleet, dedicated to the novel doctrine of "strategic bombing," whose principal objective was not to attack the enemy's fighting forces in the field, but to cripple the enemy's economy and crush its citizens' morale by attacking its civilian heartland.
The United States configured its economy as well as its armed forces to serve its preferred war-fighting doctrine. It brought America's great industrial and scientific strength to bear, first for the defeat of Germany, then Japan, at the least possible cost in American lives. Relative to population, its land forces were far smaller, and its air and naval arms significantly larger, than those of any other belligerent. More than 400,000 Americans made the ultimate sacrifice, but U.S. war deaths were proportionately about one-third of Britain's, and less than one-sixtieth of the Soviet Union's. Some 24 million Soviet citizens perished, two-thirds of them civilians. Reflecting on those numbers, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin bitterly commented that the United States chose to fight with American money and American machines, but with Russian men -- a cynical but not altogether inaccurate assessment.
The United States husbanded its human and material resources carefully and, whenever possible, tried to withhold them from battle until they enjoyed overwhelming superiority. The Americans fought mainly a naval war in the broad expanse of the Pacific, where they allocated a minor fraction of their overall effort, and in the main theater of Europe fought principally from the air until late in the war, launching their major ground attack (enshrined in American memory as D-Day, June 6, 1944), almost five years after Germany's invasion of Poland and less than a year before Germany's surrender in May 1945. Japan conceded defeat three months later, following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs that only the United States had been capable of commanding the resources to build in time for use in the war. (The basic science of nuclear weaponry was widely understood among physicists the world over, but all other powers save Britain, which cooperated closely with the United States, were compelled to abandon or severely curtail their nuclear-weapons programs as too expensive.)
Meanwhile, the United States achieved on the home front something that few societies at war have ever managed to accomplish, and no other in World War II: it grew its civilian economy even while fighting history's most costly conflict. Elsewhere, the war exacted a horrific price not only in lives but in standards of living. Both the Soviet and British civilian economies shrank by nearly a third. Americans, by singular contrast, were better off during the war than they had been in peacetime, the beneficiaries of a 15 percent expansion in the production of consumer goods. It was here that the engines of growth that propelled the American economy through the following half-century of unprecedented prosperity were first ignited. And it was in the booming wartime economy, too, that old prejudices about women in the workforce and the role of blacks in the larger society came under serious assault -- laying the groundwork for the feminist and civil rights revolutions that were such conspicuous features of the postwar landscape. Small wonder that Americans came to remember it as "the good war," one in which they had managed victory in a just cause even while enriching themselves in the process, and opening new paths to individual opportunity and social justice.
At the war's conclusion, Winston Churchill declared that the United States then stood "at the summit of the world" -- an indisputable truth given the unconditional surrender of its foes, the utter desolation of much of Europe and Asia, and the impoverishment of its allies. If by the question "Who won World War II?" one means who paid the greatest price in blood and treasure to defeat the Axis powers, the answer is surely the Soviet Union. But if one means which country reaped the greatest advantages from the war's outcome, the answer is unambiguously the United States. And in stunning contrast to its behavior after World War I, the United States now became, not merely a participant, but the virtually unchallenged leader of the postwar international system. It founded and funded the United Nations, the successor body to the discredited League of Nations, and welcomed its headquarters on American soil. It built the scaffolding on which the postwar global economy flourished by creating new institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the predecessor of the World Trade Organization). The Marshall Plan of 1947 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949 together provided the capital and the security guarantees that underwrote the economic recovery and eventual political integration of the historically warring Old World. Little of this would have been predictable from the vantage point of 1940, the last full peacetime year in the United States, when it remained a militarily weak, economically stricken, and politically isolationist country. World War II thus takes its rightful place among the great transformational events in American history, alongside the Revolution and the Civil War.
The atomic bombs that ended the war also closed the long chapter in military history that Napoleon had inaugurated a century and a half earlier. The advent of nuclear weapons revolutionized warfare. Its future would turn on technology, not numbers. Its outcomes would be decided not on the traditional battlefield where armies had clashed since time immemorial, but in cities held hostage by weapons of mass destruction, and eventually by "asymmetric warfare" waged by terrorist bands against the very nations that had so conclusively demonstrated their capacity to marshal such massive human and economic resources in World War II. There will almost certainly never be another war like it.
Drawing on the thousands of books, diaries, letters, maps, and photographs in the unmatched collections of the Library of Congress, and on the peerless expertise of the Library's researchers and writers, The Library of Congress World War II Companion is at once a definitive source for specific information about the war and a collection of captivating narratives about why and how it was waged, and with what consequences. Like The Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference, this volume addresses not only the major questions of politics, diplomacy, strategy, tactics, and intelligence-gathering, but also less-explored subjects such as the technological changes induced by the war, the organization and characteristics of the armed forces of the major belligerents, the war's impact on daily life in belligerent countries, the role of the media, war crimes, the treatment of prisoners of war, the war's challenges to civil liberties, and the complex and often morally tortured choice between resistance and collaboration. The United States receives special emphasis, but the volume honors the conflict's character as a world war with rich coverage of events in all major belligerent countries and in all corners of the globe. Liberally laced with quotes and eyewitness accounts and featuring more than 160 illustrations, The Library of Congress World War II Companion is an incomparable resource for understanding the events and the people -- from political leaders to ordinary GIs, from spies to slave laborers -- involved in the greatest conflict in human history.
Introduction (c) 2007 by David M. Kennedy