Japan invaded in China in 1937, using its superior military to overwhelm poorly trained and ill-equipped Chinese forces along much of the country's coastline and far into portions of its vast interior. Within months, Japan's Imperial Army captured Nanking, the capital of China's Nationalist government, punishing the civilian population of the city for its brief resistance by indulging in an orgy of atrocity; the infamous outbreak of rape, looting, murder, and mayhem known ever after as the "Rape of Nanking" ended with the city ruined and as many as 300,000 innocent people dead.
The United States, still hoping not to be drawn into the overseas conflicts embroiling Europe and Asia, remained officially neutral in the Sino-Japanese conflict. But widespread reports of Japanese brutality made most Americans sympathetic to the plight of the Chinese people, and the federal government began working to embargo shipments of oil, airplane fuel, and other war materials to Japan. The Americans viewed the trade restrictions as a clear but not belligerent signal of their disapproval of Japan's aggressively expansionistic actions. Japan's military rulers, however, came to see American efforts to restrict their access to vital raw materials as a virtual act of war. Japan was an island nation, lacking natural resources of its own. If the United States succeeded in shutting off its access to foreign oil, steel, iron, and rubber, the huge Japanese military machine would soon grind to a halt.
Hoping to avoid war, the two nations engaged in contentious diplomatic negotiations through much of 1941. However, with Japan ultimately unwilling to give up its aggressive ways in the Pacific, and the United States unwilling to sanction Japan's militaristic acts, those negotiations soon turned into stalemate. On the morning of Sunday, 7 December 1941, Japan broke that stalemate in the most shocking way possible. More than 400s Japanese bombers, launched from a fleet of six aircraft carriers, executed a devastating surprise assault on the United States naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the destroying most of the U.S. Pacific air fleet and many of the naval vessels in the harbor. Nearly 2,500 American servicemen died, and over 1,000 more suffered wounds in the attack.
Japan's decision to attack Pearl Harbor had been made in the deeply misguided hope that a sudden knockout blow against the American Pacific Fleet would make it impossible for the United States to intervene against Japan in Asia. Instead, the attack enraged the American people and galvanized them into action. The next day, President Roosevelt denounced Japan's attack, calling 7 December "a date which will live in infamy," and Congress declared war on Japan. Just three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, and Congress responded by declaring war against the two European Axis nations. By mid-December 1941, the United States was finally and officially engaged in a world war.
Despite Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and the clear threats facing the United States in the Pacific, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pledged American support to Great Britain and Russia in the arduous fight against Germany. The Pacific Front would have to wait.
By 1942, when the first U.S. troops arrived in Europe, German troops held a clear advantage over the British. Hitler had managed to trample the Polish and French armies and continued to push west. Germany also controlled the waters; German U-boat submarines were far more powerful and technologically advanced than any Allied naval vessel. Hitler's navy had destroyed hundreds of Allied battleships and threatened British and American merchant vessels.
Hitler's armies invaded Russia in June 1941, and the Soviet Union's Red Armies suffered tremendous casualties in their struggle to push back German forces on its western front. Believing—rightly so—that his nation bore the brunt of the war, Russian dictator Josef Stalin demanded the immediate assistance of the Allied nations. Stalin realized that without help, Germany would triumph. President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed to limited cooperation with Stalin, concluding that Nazi Germany was, in fact, far worse a threat than Communist Russia. In return, Stalin pledged his aid in the war against Japan once Germany had been defeated.
By the summer of 1944, Germany stood alone, the last of the Axis forces in Europe. In September 1943, following successful Allied campaigns in the Mediterranean, the Italian government had surrendered. Still, strong German forces occupied much of Italy and continued to control France, sapping the strength of Allied troops. Hitler's momentum had not yet been broken.
Allied leaders decided to attack German forces in France. By June 1944, nearly 3 million troops, thousands of fighter planes and ships, and 2.5 million tons of supplies had been gathered in Great Britain in preparation for a large-scale assault on Hitler's strongholds in France.8 On June 6, swarms of troops and armored military vehicles landed on the beaches of Normandy in Northern France. Although the Nazi armies had not expected the attack from the North, they mobilized quickly. Thousands of GIs died that day. War correspondent Ernie Pyle remembers, "Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn't know they were in the water, for they were dead."9
Still, the Allied offensive was triumphant. By the end of July, German troops had begun to retreat, and on August 25, two weeks after President Roosevelt had died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage, Paris had been liberated. Down half a million men, Nazi armies turned toward the German homeland to fortify its borders. By January 1945, Allied armies had pushed Hitler's troops even further into the German interior, and by March Germany had been all but defeated. On May 1, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in Berlin. The following day, the German government surrendered, ending the war in Europe.
While the war in Europe had come to a close, the conflict in the Pacific only intensified. Under President Harry S. Truman, the United States struggled to force Japanese military leaders to surrender. After three years of some of the most ferocious fighting in the entire war, there seemed no end in sight. Allied leaders assembled in Potsdam near Berlin in late July to send an ultimatum to Japan. "The alternative to surrender," they informed Japanese leaders, "is prompt and utter destruction."10
When no surrender came, President Harry Truman, with the support of Allied nations, gave the orders to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. On the morning of 6 August 1945, a U.S. bomber deployed the first nuclear weapon to ever be used in war. "Little Boy," as it was referred to in code, destroyed the city of Hiroshima, killing over 130,000 people instantly. Thousands more suffered and ultimately died from injury and illness inflicted by the explosion.
Just three days later, on the morning of 9 August 1945, the United States dropped another nuclear bomb—this one called "Fat Man"—on the Japanese port city of Nagasaki. The explosion incinerated everything within a two-mile radius. Some 75,000 people, or nearly one-third of the total population of Nagasaki, perished in the attack, while thousands more died in the following years from radiation sickness.
The use of the most terrible weapon in existence ultimately led to Japan's surrender and brought World War II to an abrupt end.
Such an ending to the Second World War, with the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in Japan, was, in the words of historian Eric Foner, "the logical culmination of the way World War II had been fought."11 A war that had begun on battlefields, spilled quickly into densely populated regions where millions of noncombatants—mostly women, children, and elderly men—lost their lives. While 10% of all those killed in World War I were civilian casualties, an astounding 40% of the total number of those who died in World War II were noncombatants. That is, roughly 20 million of the 50 million who perished were people simply going about their daily lives. In 1939, a Washington Post headline declared, "Both Sides Agree Not to Bomb Civilians." By the end of the war, however, cities full of civilians—London, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo—had been bombed, Nazi Germany had methodically murdered millions of innocent people they deemed to be members of "inferior races," and the thriving cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been flattened by nuclear bombs. The "Good War" left a great path of destruction in its wake.