Study Guide

World War II

World War II Introduction

World War II has been called "The Good War," which is a strange title for the bloodiest military conflict in human history.

There was so much blood, even Quentin Tarantino would've been queasy. 

So, the "Good War" might not be the best nickname for a period in history in which the methodical murder of millions of Jews and the use of nuclear weapons in the final days of war exposed the awful truth that science and technology might actually lead to the destruction of mankind.

But the supposed "good" thing about WWII is that America got involved in it for good reasons—to stop Hitler's racist atrocities and the spread of fascism. Compared to the other pointless wars we'd recently fought—cough, WWI—WWII did seem pretty noble. But nobility was hardly the whole story. Americans at home as well as soldiers on the front experienced the war as...a mixed bag, at best.

Out on the front lines of the war, America was facing new challenges and chances, too. With help from Special Forces like the Tuskegee Airmen, the Navajo code talkers, and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, we kicked some serious Axis tail. But our technology was changing, too, ultimately leading to one of the most controversial and devastating military decisions of the 20th century: the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As we hope you're beginning to see, World War II can't be easily summed up. We've got some stories to tell from the front lines that should prove to you how intricate and complex the war really was. In that sense, it was sort of like our tax code—overly long, a necessary evil, inciting millions of people to want to go out and get revenge.

What is World War II About and Why Should I Care?

"The Good War." You've probably seen this phrase before in reference to World War II. 

Odd, right? It's a weird way for Americans, specifically, to remember a war that took four times as many American lives as World War I, seven times as many as the Vietnam War, and a hundred times as many as the American Revolutionary War

So, what's good? 

Take, for instance, the fact that by war's end, Allied forces had successfully defeated Hitler's Nazi regime, preventing the Third Reich from gaining domination over all of Europe—and potentially the globe—and putting an end to some of history's most gruesome and terrifying racial crimes. 

And the war ushered in a new world order in which imperialism could no longer be sustained. In other words, immediately following the war, people long under the control of powerful colonial governments claimed their independence and the right to rule themselves. And the United States emerged from the war as one of, if not the, most powerful nations on the globe.

On the home front, WWII transformed America's culture, technology, and economy. Industry boomed to supply the Allies with weapons and transportation, and ended the Great Depression for good. Everybody, including women, immigrants, and African Americans, had more economic opportunity than ever before.

But WWII also revealed some of the ugliest, most uncool parts of our national character. 

And this is a common theme in history that continues to this day.

  • Westward expansion provided more land for settlers, but the region also lacked governmental support and it was often a treacherous journey.
  • Industrialization is good, but it also forces the little guys to modernize, too.
  • Republican policies and Democratic policies might both sound good to their respective creators, but they may be alienating or harmful to the entire other party.

Back to WWII. America had some pretty arcane immigration policies on the books, barring Jewish immigration to America from the countries where Jews were the victims of an ongoing genocide. At first we didn't really know what was going on for Jews in Europe, but slowly we found out. And still, we did nothing to help. 

Furious? Wait, there's more: African-American soldiers could totes die for their country, but didn't have equal rights back at home, and Japanese Americans who'd built their lives here were forcibly incarcerated because they might be Japanese spies for the enemy.

America's always been solid at Jekyll and Hyde-ing it, and we wouldn't count on that changing any time soon. It's okay, facepalms are the first step to acceptance.

World War II Resources

Books

John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986)
Provocative and disturbing chapters describe the ways in which Americans dehumanized and demonized the Japanese in popular culture. Dower also explains how Japanese defined themselves with respect to their American foes. This fascinating book includes several pages of illustrations including American political cartoons and Japanese propaganda posters.

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl (1947)
Anne Frank was a young Jewish girl just 11 years old when Germany invaded and occupied the Netherlands, where she'd been living with her family since 1933. Nazi rule meant increasing persecution of Holland's Jews, and in 1942, Anne's family went into hiding in the "secret annex"—a hidden attic—of an Amsterdam row house. For two years the family hid there, before they were betrayed and arrested by the Germans, then deported to the death camps of Poland, where Anne died in 1945. Only her diary survived to tell her tragic story.

Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989)
Historian and World War II veteran Paul Fussell illustrates the odd incongruities between wartime rhetoric and frontline realities. In his humorous, vulgar, and heart-breaking descriptions of what American and British soldiers experienced in what has been called "The Good War," Fussell dissects euphemisms, demystifies common assumptions, and offers you a gripping image of one of history's most violent wars. It's half history text, half memoir.

Phillip McGuire, ed., Taps for a Jim Crow Army: Letters from Black Soldiers in World War II (1982)
This rich collection of letters from African-American soldiers to the United States government illustrates the frustration and anger felt by those serving in segregated military units. An essential—and rich—primary resource for those interested in the origins of the Civil Rights Movement.

Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986)
Historian Richard Rhodes carefully documents the events that led to the creation of the atomic bomb and tells the stories of those who were forced to grapple with the ultimate, devastating effects of their research.

Studs Terkel, The Good War (1984)
In this oral history collection, Studs Terkel presents interviews with dozens of people who, in some way, were affected by World War II. His subjects discuss fond memories, regrets and longing, nightmarish experiences, and reflections on the future. Terkel's book humanizes war and helps us understand the ways in which many different lives were affected in complex ways by worldwide crises.

Elie Wiesel, Night (1958)
Wiesel, a survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, vowed not to speak of the horrors he had experienced for ten years following his liberation in 1945. Exactly a decade later, in 1955, he began writing this semi-autobiographical novel, a devastatingly direct account of the Holocaust experience. Wiesel went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

Music

Various Artists, Songs That Got Us Through WWII (1990)
These are just a few of the pop hits from the war years that not only boosted the morale of Americans at home but also comforted and entertained GIs fighting abroad. The collection includes songs by some of the decade's biggest artists, including Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong.

Various Artists, Songs That Got Us Through WWII, Vol. 2 (1994)
A few more of the pop classics enjoyed by American GIs during World War II, this collection includes tracks from Glenn Miller & His Orchestra, Marlene Dietrich, Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, and the sultry Billie Holiday.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Beethoven: The Piano Concertos (1997)
Under Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, only the music of those artists considered purely German could be purchased and performed. Beethoven was one of the few composers who made the cut. Listen to several of his masterpiece piano concertos.

Pink Floyd, Obscured By Clouds (1977)
It has been said that this Pink Floyd album, their seventh, is the first from the group to deal with bass player Roger Waters' reflections on his father's death in World War II.

Images

Images from the National Archives
We already mentioned this one, but we'll repeat ourselves for good measure. The national archives has hundreds of images right here, complete with date and context.

Man of the Year
Time magazine chooses Adolf Hitler as Man of the Year for 1938 but does not feature his face on the cover.

Movies & TV

Why We Fight (1942–1945)
Commissioned by the United States Office of War Information, Frank Capra used clips from Nazi films to create seven American propaganda newsreels, including "The Nazis Strike" and "War Comes to America." Capra followed orders to compile "a series of documented, factual-information films—the first in our history—that will explain to our boys in the Army why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are fighting."

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Starring Spencer Tracy and Judy Garland (of The Wizard of Oz fame), this Oscar-winning film is a fictional account of real events surrounding the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials. With a fascinating screenplay and exquisite acting, Judgment explores the debate over culpability in the Nazi Holocaust.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
At the time of its original release, this historical action film about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a flop. American reviewers panned it for being poorly cast and generally boring. However, in recent years, the film has developed a more favorable reputation in both the U.S. and in Japan.

Fat Man and Little Boy (1989)
This historical drama charts the life of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the secret World War II program known as the Manhattan Project. Actor Dwight Schultz plays Mr. Oppenheimer, who grapples with the heavy scientific and moral implications of developing nuclear weapons.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
This Academy-Award winning film is a fictionalized account of several historical events that occurred during World War II, including the D-Day invasion in Normandy. The story is based loosely on the real-life experiences of Sergeant Frederick Niland, a young man who lost each of his brothers in the war. It has been praised as one of the few fictional films to portray the World War II battlefront with such accuracy.

Schindler’s List (1993)
A Steven Spielberg masterpiece, this historical drama tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a ruthless German businessman who chose to defy the Hitler regime by providing a refuge for hundreds of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust. The central plot, based on a true story, serves to help illustrate the horrific crimes committed against millions of people just half a century ago.

White Light, Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (2007)
This HBO documentary film, which first aired in 2007, tells the story of the "hibakusha, " the people who survived the two atomic bombs dropped over Japan in the final days of the war. Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki revisits the sites of these nuclear attacks and interviews survivors who offer unnerving accounts of the destruction, death, and devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Websites

Images from the National Archives
Scroll through dozens of pages of fascinating photographs from the warfronts in Europe and the Pacific and the American home front.

Jim Crow Armies in World War II
PBS presents a feature on Jim Crow armies in World War II. Be sure to check out the audio clips of veteran African-American soldiers discussing the war and its effects on their lives.

Video & Audio

FDR's "Quarantine" Speech
Listen to a full audio recording of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Quarantine Speech" delivered on October 5th, 1937.

Historical Documents

Winston Churchill, 1940: "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat" Speech
Okay, okay, it's a speech. But close enough. In this speech, Churchill tells the members of Parliament that he'll give everything he has to the cause of fighting evil and tyranny, and Britain has to stand up and fight.

FDR, 1941: Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation
This speech is FDR's reaction to Japan's attack: it's shocked, it's angry, it's articulate, and most of all, it's vengeance-y.

FDR, 1942: Executive Order 9066
But then we've got this reaction to Pearl Harbor, which leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths. This is the executive order that yanked over a hundred thousand Japanese-Americans out of their homes and into internment camps.