Study Guide

World War II Analysis

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  • War

    The Attack on Pearl Harbor

    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, December 7th, 1941, Japan broke that stalemate in the most shocking way possible. More than 400 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, 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 December 7th "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.

    The "Germany First" Strategy

    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 Joseph 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.

    The Normandy Invasion

    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 hadn't 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. 

    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 quite the great path of destruction in its wake.

  • Race

    The "White Man's War"

    During World War I, African Americans had joined the war effort with the hopes that their patriotic service might be rewarded. They had imagined that through their participation, both the world and the United States would become "safe for democracy." 

    But by war's end, Blacks had discovered their expectations betrayed. Jim Crow restrictions remained securely intact in the South, racially-motivated crimes including lynching were on the rise all over the country, and racial discrimination kept Black Americans underpaid or unemployed.

    So, by the outbreak of World War II, African Americans were much more cynical. Some responded to Japanese and German hostilities with uncertainty, others with spite. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Black sharecropper remarked to his white landlord, "I hear those Japs done declared war on you white folks."blank">Civil Rights Movement.

  • Culture

    Beneath "the Good War"

    American popular memory of World War II as "the Good War" communicates the positive effects of wartime mobilization upon the economy, the ideological fight to end fascism, and the defense of American civilization against enemy attack. 

    The simple phrase, however, doesn't reflect the extraordinary and, for some soldiers, the senseless sacrifices made on the battlefield. Really, it just euphemizes the horrors of war.

    Popular films, novels, comic books, and memorials also tell an often simplistic story of patriotic Allied forces, bloodthirsty enemies, glorious battles, and grand victories, emphasizing the fact that, in the end, good triumphed over evil. 

    But the soldiers' story of World War II is far more complex. It's raw, unfiltered, disturbing, and difficult to stomach-full of anger, panic, irony, and confusion. As many veterans of war will attest, the day-to-day reality of life on the frontlines is as important to the history of this—or any—conflict as the study of other aspects of modern warfare.

    Escape Routes

    Perhaps it's easy to recognize physical harm—injury, dismemberment, and death—suffered by the servicemen who fought on the World War II battlefields, but war also inflicted damage upon each soldier's intellect, wit, honesty, compassion, privacy, and individuality. 

    Soldiers dealt with boredom, loneliness, and the terrible pain of being homesick. These "wounds" are far less obvious, but they can be illustrated through records of first-hand accounts, journals, letters, poems, jokes, slang, rumors, idioms, and, even profanity. That is, through all the materials used by each GI to communicate and to escape his plight.

    Servicemen sought distractions from the realities of war whenever and wherever they could find them. Erotic literature, rumors, and lewd humor all served as temporary antidotes for despair. Fibs about promiscuous women back home or in the Women's Army Corps, tall tales of free Ford cars awaiting each soldier upon his return home, and rumors of impending peace settlements soothed discontent and sustained hopes. Alcohol and superstition provided buffers against the difficult reality of deploying weapons to kill others. 

    Profane expressions such as "chickens--t," "f---ing -A," and, simply, "f---in'" became popular in wartime for conscripts who wished to express their bitterness among one another.

    Just as marijuana and heroin soothed American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, World War II servicemen indulged in alcohol to overcome fear, numb pain, and distract themselves from gruesome images of sticky body fragments and charred corpses lodged in their memories. 

    "You can't take much of that sort of thing without going mad," one veteran explained.blank">Source)

    In stark contrast to familiar portrayals of battlefield glory and patriotic sacrifice, many infantrymen were driven by the longing for family and for the comforts of home, and the desire to return to a normal life in America.

  • Society

    Sad Voyage of the St. Louis

    On the night of June 4th, 1939, the German steamship St. Louis, a well-appointed ocean liner of the Hamburg-America Line, lay at anchor just four miles off the coast of Florida. The lights of Miami twinkled, clearly visible across the water, and the ship's passengers just might have been able to hear the faintest strains of jazz and swing music drifting out from the famous nightclubs of Miami Beach, carried along by the warm evening breeze. 

    For the passengers of the St. Louis—nearly 1,000 European Jews seeking refuge in America from Nazi persecution in their home countries—Miami must have beckoned as the impossibly idyllic fulfillment of an unlikely dream, a tropical port of entry to a land of freedom.

    But four miles offshore was as close as the passengers of the St. Louis would ever get to American soil. Blocked from entry by a narrowly restrictive American immigration policy and rejected as well by both Cuba and Canada, the St. Louis eventually had no choice but to turn around and sail back to Europe. Having come so heartbreakingly close to freedom, at least 250 of the ship's 937 Jewish passengers would go on to be killed in the Holocaust.

    The tragic, poignant story of the St. Louis stands out in the history of America's response—or non-response—to the Holocaust as an unusually dramatic moment of decision. As the ship drifted off the coast of Florida, its passengers and crew fired off desperate telegrams to the State Department, to the president, even to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, begging for someone—anyone—to intervene by granting them a special exemption to enter the country despite lacking the correct paperwork.

    Mini background lesson: The intended destination of the St. Louis hadn't been the United States but rather Cuba, and all the ship's passengers had bought expensive visas to enter that country legally before they left Germany. However, while the ship was at sea, the Cuban government ruled that those visas weren't valid and refused to allow the passengers to unload in Havana. The St. Louis, running low on supplies after two weeks at sea and another week quarantined in Havana harbor, then turned toward Florida as a last resort.

    Back to the story. But President Roosevelt never responded to the desperate cables sent to him from aboard ship, and government officials at the port of Miami refused to budge from their strict regulations against the entry of immigrants lacking proper documentation. Bureaucratic inertia prevailed over human compassion, and the eventual consequence was the loss of hundreds of innocent lives.

    Not Yet the Holocaust

    There are several explanations for America's seeming indifference to the plight of Germany's Jews at the time of the St. Louis tragedy. Anti-Semitism, sadly, had long been a factor in American culture, as had a broader xenophobic hostility toward foreigners in general. 

    At the same time, the prolonged economic crisis of the Great Depression had caused many Americans to focus narrowly on their own problems, ignoring those of other people abroad. 

    Finally—to offer a more charitable explanation of American indifference—there was the fact that the Holocaust hadn't yet become fully recognizable as the Holocaust. The Nazis' hatred of Jews was certainly undeniable, but it wasn't yet clear, by the late 1930s, that it would lead to genocide.

    Adolf Hitler's own fanatical anti-Semitism dated back to at least 1919 and official government persecution against Jews had begun almost immediately after he gained power in Germany in 1933. But that persecution had, at first, taken the form of civil-rights violations and various forms of social marginalization rather than outright violence. 

    The situation grew steadily worse throughout the 1930s, culminating in November 1938 in the first widespread acts of coordinated violence against Jews—the Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") pogrom, in which Nazi storm troopers and ordinary German citizens smashed and burned Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues throughout Germany. At least 91 Jews were killed, thousands were arrested by Hitler's special police, and many more—like the passengers of the St. Louis—resolved to try to escape from Germany before things got even worse.

    Today, historians usually cite Kristallnacht as the beginning of the Holocaust, the moment when the systematic but largely nonviolent anti-Semitic persecution of the Nazis' first years in power began to evolve into the outright genocide of the Jewish people. But to people at the time, it was somewhat less obvious that Kristallnacht had marked the passage of this horrible turning point. 

    When the St. Louis sailed out of Hamburg harbor in May 1939, the Nazis' hadn't yet enacted a policy of mass murder. There weren't yet any death camps, any mass graves, or any railroad cars packed with starving Jewish prisoners. It wouldn't be until the outbreak of war in September 1939 that German soldiers would begin killing large numbers of Jewish civilians. It wouldn't be until late 1941 that the first Nazi extermination camps would open in Poland. 

    And it wouldn't be until August 1942 that the U.S. State Department would receive an intelligence report unambiguously identifying Germany's policy as genocide. 

    By that time, Europe had been at war for three years and Hitler's armies controlled most of the continent. There would have been no easy way, by that time, for Americans to come to the aid of Hitler's victims—even if they had made the rescue of Europe's Jews a top priority, which they never did.

    No Exception to Immigration Restriction

    The time when Americans might have made a real difference was earlier—before World War II began in earnest, before it became impossible for refugees to travel across the Atlantic, before Hitler built up his nightmarish machinery of genocide. The time when Americans might have made a real difference was in the late 1930s, when the passengers of the St. Louis—and thousands of other prospective Jewish emigrants from Europe—desperately needed to find a safe haven, another country willing to take them in.

    But America wasn't willing to be that country.

    The United States had a long history of welcoming immigrants and refugees from overseas. Prominent among them was a sizeable community of Eastern European Jews who had arrived in large numbers between 1880 and 1920, most of them fleeing from anti-Semitic persecution and violent pogroms in imperial Russia. 

    So, America had served as a vital escape route for endangered Jews as recently as one generation before Hitler began threatening the very survival of European Jewry during World War II.

    But that earlier, turn-of-the-century Jewish migration had been only one small part of a much larger influx of immigrants who came from all over southern and eastern Europe. Millions upon millions of Italians, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Serbs, Croatians, Slovaks, Czechs, and Hungarians, among others, joined those Jewish immigrants in pouring into the United States in unprecedented numbers. 

    This enormous wave of so-called "new immigration" utterly transformed America's ethnic makeup, profoundly affected the emerging industrial economy, and generated a major backlash from native-born citizens made anxious by the social changes being wrought by the newcomers. 

    The result of this anti-immigrant backlash was the enactment, by 1924, of an extremely restrictive new national immigration policy that imposed strict quotas on the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States from these countries each year. By design, the new immigration policy made it difficult or impossible for Southern and Eastern Europeans to obtain visas legally to enter the United States. And the coming of the Great Depression in 1929 made Americans even less inclined to allow in more foreigners who might compete with them for scarce jobs.

    So, European Jews who suddenly found themselves seeking foreign refuge from Adolf Hitler in the 1930s confronted a harsh American immigration policy designed, just a decade earlier, for the express purpose of keeping them—and the other "new immigrants"—out. 

    The waiting list for scarce visas under the quota system soon stretched out to include thousands of names, creating a backlog many years long. Thousands upon thousands of would-be Jewish emigrants would still be waiting in vain for their quota number to be called when they were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to the concentration camps. Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank, was one of them, having tried but failed to obtain a visa to take his family to America a year before going into hiding in an Amsterdam attic in 1942.

    Thousands of European Jews—including many prominent scientists, most notably Albert Einstein—did beat the odds by escaping into the United States between 1933 and 1941. But many thousands more who might have been rescued were stymied by an uncompromising immigration policy that made no exceptions for refugees or victims of genocide. 

    And even after the horrors of the Holocaust became fully known in 1945, the United States Congress continued to block meaningful changes to immigration policy that might have facilitated the entry of "displaced persons"—Holocaust survivors—until 1948.

    The "Final Solution"

    While the Jews of Europe waited in vain for meaningful changes to American immigration policy, Adolf Hitler began organizing the most horrific crimes against humanity in the known history of the world. 

    By the time war broke out in 1939, Hitler had already stripped Germany's Jews of their civil rights and excluded them from most realms of German society. In 1933, the Nazis purged Jews from the civil service and restricted their participation in the nation's universities and professions. Two years later, Hitler's Nuremberg Laws institutionalized anti-Semitism in German law by making Jews ineligible for citizenship, taking away their right to vote, and making it illegal for them to marry or even have sexual relationships with non-Jewish Germans. 

    By 1937, the Nazi government had imposed an "Aryanization" program that confiscated many Jewish-owned businesses, and established a Jim Crow-style system of legally sanctioned social segregation in which Jews were confined to their ghettoes and banned from even entering so-called "Aryan zones" of many German cities and towns. 

    The German government devised new ways to humiliate and dehumanize Jews in their everyday lives, for example by forcing them to wear yellow Stars of David prominently on their clothing when they went out in public so that everyone would know they were Jewish, and they ought to be shunned or mistreated. 

    Through this steady erosion of Jewish civil rights and constant demonization of the Jewish people in vicious Nazi propaganda, Hitler laid the foundations for the next, infinitely worse, stage of his anti-Semitic master plan. By using the power of the state to define the Jewish community as a despised, alien, and inferior presence in German society, Hitler set the stage for the genocidal violence of the Holocaust.

    That genocidal violence began in earnest with the outbreak of war on the Eastern Front in 1939. A large majority of the Jewish population of Europe lived east of Germany, mainly in Poland and the Soviet Union. As German forces surged eastward into Poland (1939 to 1940) and then onward into the Soviet Union (1941 to 1943), they found themselves in control of territories that were home to millions of Jews. It didn't take long for the atrocities to begin.

    At first, violence against Jewish civilians unfolded without much central organization, with sporadic massacres by German troops. By mid-1941, the Nazis began to take a much more systematic approach by deploying the Einsatzgruppen ("task groups" of special police, perhaps more accurately translated in this context as "mobile killing units") to follow the regular German army as it advanced into Russia in order to organize the mass murder of Jews there. 

    The Einsatzgruppen would typically move into a town or village that had fallen under German control, round up all Jews living there, march them out to a nearby ravine or ditch that could serve as a mass grave, and shoot them all dead. Four separate Einsatzgruppen battalions fanned out across the Eastern Front, carrying out dozens of massacres in 1941 and 1942. 

    In perhaps the most notorious incident, it took two days for the Nazis to murder some 33,000 people—virtually the entire Jewish population of Kiev, Ukraine—in the Babi Yar ravine, where group after group of victims were forced to lie down naked in a mass grave atop of the bodies of their already-murdered neighbors before being themselves machine-gunned to death.

    By the end of 1941, the rampaging death squads are estimated to have murdered more than a million Eastern European Jews. Yet Hitler and his lieutenants felt that the Einsatzgruppen's methods—requiring an individual gunshot to kill each victim—were too inefficient to achieve the total genocide of the Jewish people. In January 1942, the top leadership of the Nazi Party met at a villa outside Berlin, in a peaceful suburb called Wannsee, to coordinate a more systematic approach to the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question," as they euphemistically described their plans for genocide. 

    Those plans called for Jews in occupied areas to be concentrated into ghettos near rail lines, then transported to new concentration camps to be constructed in Poland. The healthiest Jewish prisoners would be permitted to live for as long as they could serve the Nazis as slave laborers. 

    Anyone too old, young, sick, or frail to do hard labor would be killed immediately. To speed the killing of large numbers of people, the Nazis built special gas chambers disguised as group showers. Prisoners would be ordered to strip down for a wash, then they'd be ushered into the large shower rooms where they'd be killed en masse by cyanide gas or carbon monoxide, enduring terrible suffering in their last moments of life.

    A large majority of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust would die in these death camps—nearly a million at Auschwitz (the largest of the killing centers) alone. The camps were chilling in their efficiency, reducing mass murder to an orderly process of bureaucratic and mechanical ease. These were factories of death, the most terrible manifestations of Hitler's evil. The immeasurable brutality, violence, and dehumanization built into those nightmarish places were difficult to comprehend or describe—even for survivors. 

    Elie Wiesel, who lived through internment at both Auschwitz and Buchenwald and later wrote the moving Holocaust memoir Night, spoke of the difficulty of even communicating what had happened there:

    "It was not easy. At first, because of the language; language failed us. We would have to invent a new vocabulary, for our own words were inadequate, anemic. And then too, the people around us refused to listen; and even those who listened refused to believe; and even those who believed could not comprehend. Of course they could not. Nobody could. The experience of the camps defies comprehension."

    American Response (or Lack Thereof) to the Holocaust

    During World War II, the United States government was slow to take notice of the growing humanitarian catastrophe of the Holocaust, and slower still to take action. 

    In August 1942, the U.S. State Department received—and then suppressed—a cable accurately describing Nazi plans for genocide. State didn't share the intelligence with any other government agency or with the public. 

    After efforts to reform immigration policy to be more welcoming to refugees failed in 1943, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau—the only Jew in FDR's cabinet, and the most prominent advocate of a more interventionist policy against the Holocaust—finally got the president's attention by submitting to his attention a white paper entitled "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government to the Murder of the Jews." 

    A week later, on January 22nd, 1944, Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the War Refugee Board to facilitate aid to Jewish refugees. Still, the new board had few real powers and lacked the capability to do much to aid the endangered Jewish populations of Nazi-occupied Europe while the war still raged.

    At about the same time, American leaders learned that the Nazis were using poison gas to kill large numbers of Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. Still, they took no action. Some Jewish-American leaders urged the government to bomb the camp in order to destroy the machinery of murder there, but American officials refused to do so, insisting that only military and industrial targets would be targeted in air raids. They may also have opposed bombing the concentration camp on the grounds that doing so would have surely killed the Jewish prisoners already there. Without question, there was a thorny moral and ethical problem in the idea of killing current victims of Auschwitz in order to save potential future victims of Auschwitz.

    In any case, Americans made no special effort to destroy or liberate the camps as a priority in their broader war effort. The Nazis were able to continue their genocidal acts right up until virtually, the moment of their defeat and surrender.

    So, in the end, the Allies ended the Holocaust only by winning the war. 

    The Soviet Red Army, pushing westward toward the German border, liberated Auschwitz in January 1945. American soldiers outside Munich rescued the survivors of Dachau—the very first concentration camp Hitler opened (in 1933) and one of the last to be liberated—in April 1945. 

    It was only with the liberation of the concentration camps at the very end of World War II that most Americans really confronted the awful reality of the Holocaust. American soldiers saw with their own eyes the gruesome toll of Hitler's genocidal madness—the mass graves of the victims and the emaciated bodies of the starving survivors. Finally, American newspapers began reporting in detail on the atrocities.

    Shocked and horrified, the American people—and the international community—vowed that never again would the world sit by as evil regimes carried out genocide. 

    But for the Jews of Europe, "never again" was too little, too late. 

    The hard truth is that none of the Allies, including the United States, had taken real meaningful action to rescue the Jewish people during the 1930s (when widespread anti-Semitic violence hadn't yet begun but might reasonably have been foreseen) or even during most of the war (when the magnitude of the Holocaust became undeniable). "Never again" couldn't change the fact that six million innocent people—between two-thirds and three-quarters of the entire prewar Jewish population of Europe—lay dead.

  • Ideology


    With offensives mounted by the Japanese immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military quickly identified the sort of obstacles that it would face on the Pacific front. Japanese forces were considered the most courageous and daring of the Axis enemies. 

    "The Japanese fought by a code they thought was right," American World War II veteran E.B. "Sledgehammer" Sledge explains, "bushido. The code of the warrior: no surrender. You don't really comprehend it until you get out there and fight people who are faced with an absolutely hopeless situation and will not give up."

  • Diplomacy

    Trying to Stay Out of the Good War

    One of the great ironies of our past is that World War II—"the Good War," the one armed conflict that almost everyone now agrees was worth fighting—was just about the only war in modern American history that most Americans at the time did not support joining. 

    Even the three most controversial and unpopular military engagements in our recent history—the wars in Korea (1950 to '53), Vietnam (1961 to '75), and Iraq (2003 to 2011)—all enjoyed, at first, substantially greater public support than did our entry into World War II. 

    Pollsters in 1950 found that a huge majority—about three-quarters of the American people—believed their country's military intervention in Korea to have been "worth it." Nearly identical three-fourths majorities backed the Vietnam War in 1965 and the Iraq War in 2003. Only later, as casualties mounted and victory proved elusive, did public support for those conflicts begin to drop. 

    By contrast, as late as the summer of 1940—nearly a year after World War II began with Nazi Germany's blitzkrieg conquest of Poland—a full 79% of the American people told pollster George Gallup that they'd vote "no" if the question of American entry into the war were put up to a referendum.blank">Pearl Harbor, many—perhaps most—Americans continued to hope against hope that they could stay out of "the Good War" entirely. 

    After December 7th, 1941, of course, isolationist sentiment quickly vanished, as Americans demanded vengeance against Japan's surprise attack—although there's some question whether FDR would have been able to obtain a declaration of war against Germany, as well as Japan, if Hitler hadn't gratuitously declared war against the United States first. 

    In retrospect, it became clear that America's entry into the conflict was the beginning of the end for the Axis powers. But—as the desperate British and French and Chinese and Soviets understood all too well during the difficult first years of the Second World War—it was a turning point that was painfully slow in coming.

  • Science & Technology


    On the morning of August 6th, 1945, the Enola Gay, a United States B-29 bomber, hovered over Hiroshima, Japan. Men commanding the aircraft followed instructions to release "Little Boy," the codename for the massive weapon on board: an atomic bomb. 

    The first nuclear weapon ever to be used in war fell through the sky for nearly one minute before detonating above the city below. It destroyed nearly everything in its path, stretching a full mile from the center of the point of contact. 

    A few concrete structures withstood the attack, but the sheer force of the blast flattened many homes, trees, businesses, churches, temples, hospitals, and schools, while the ensuing fires charred much of what remained. Over 130,000 people were killed instantly and thousands more suffered and ultimately died from injury and illness inflicted by the nuclear explosion.


    Just three days later, on the morning of August 9th, 1945, U.S. bomber Bockscar dropped another nuclear bomb with the codename "Fat Man" on its target in southern Japan. The explosion over the port city of Nagasaki acted as an incinerator, scorching everything within two miles of the bomb. 

    Unlike Hiroshima, Nagasaki was an old-fashioned city, one in which few buildings had been modernized or retrofitted. Most people lived and worked in wood structures built closely together. So, the total destruction caused by the attack was even more far-reaching than the demolition in Hiroshima. 

    A Japanese report described the post-attack landscape as "a graveyard with not a tombstone standing."

    Many of those who served in the Pacific would've agreed. For them, the bombs, in effectively ending the war, may have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of American and Japanese soldiers and civilians who would've died in the escalating conflict in the Pacific. For many of the men risking their lives on the battlefront, the use of nuclear weapons to force a Japanese surrender wasn't a moral issue but rather, welcomed relief from the horrors of war.

    The Legacy of the A-Bomb

    Technological and scientific developments influenced not only the outcome of the global conflict, but also the stakes of warfare in ways previously unimagined. 

    For the first time in history—and the only time since—nuclear weapons were used by one warring nation against another, flattening entire cites, killing tens of thousands of civilians instantly, and poisoning thousands more with radiation-induced illnesses like leukemia, lung cancer, breast cancer, throat cancer, and post-traumatic stress.

    Although the atomic blasts forced Japan to surrender and effectively ended a war that may have continued for months or even years, the deployment of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki exposed the frightening truth that science and technology, rather than elevating the human race, could lead to the destruction of mankind. 

    The existence of the A-bomb, to this day, challenges precious notions of human progress and forces the world to grapple with the petrifying reality of nuclear power.

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