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World War II

Prelude to WW II: Isolationism, Refugee Policy and the Roosevelt Administration
Pearl Harbor and Mobilization
Internment Policy
Pacific Theatre
European Theatre
Wartime Refugee Policy
The Atomic Bomb
Pacific Theater

Baataan headline Image Source: US Air Force Museum


In the days following Pearl Harbor, American troops were on the defensive as the Japanese overwhelmed the U.S forces in the Phillipines and the Solomon Islands, and attacked the British in Singapore, Burma and New Guinea. General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the U.S. forces in the Philippines, was ordered to leave the islands in March 1942 as the Japanese advanced; despite MacArthur's failure to protect the U.S. bombers from being destroyed on the ground by Japanese air assaults and other mistakes he committed in defense of the islands, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor as the Roosevelt Administration attempted to salvage some positive news from the humiliation at the hands of the Japanese. In the Bataan "Death March", the Japanese forced their American and Filipino prisoners to march some sixty-five miles through intense heat with little water or food, shooting or beheading by sword those stragglers unable to continue, with an estimated 5,000 to 11,000 never making it to the Japanese prison camp.

Message transmitted to President Roosevelt from Major General Jonathan D. Wainwright prior to the surrender of the remaining American forces in the Philippines, May 6, 1942 Source: The Bataan Death March

For the President of the United States:

It is with broken heart and head bowed in sadness, but not in shame, that I report to Your Excellency that I must go today to arrange terms for the surrender of the fortified islands of Manila Bay...

...If you agree, Mr. President, please say to the nation that my troops and I have accomplished all that is humanly possible and that we have upheld the best traditions of the United States and its Army.

May God bless and preserve you and guide you and the nation in the effort to ultimate victory.

With profound regret and with continued pride in my gallant troops I go to meet the Japanese commander.

Good-by Mr. President.

By failing to follow up their attack on Pearl Harbor to destroy the remaining U.S. fleet, however, the Japanese allowed the Navy to recover quickly, particularly by utilizing the aircraft carriers that were not in port at Pearl Harbor on December 7. In April 1942, primarily to restore morale of both the military and of the civilian population, Tokyo was bombed in the celebrated "Doolittle Raid", led by Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle, launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet. The bombing did little damage, but surprised both the Japanese and American public after the early round of Japanese victories.

While the Doolittle Raid was essentially a measure to boost public spirits, the overreaction of the Japanese political and military leadership to the raid led to miscalculations that shifted the momentum of the Pacific War. In response to the Doolittle Raid, which the Japanese mistakenly believed originated from the airfield on Midway Island, the Japanese fleet advanced toward Midway, but met unnexpectedly strong resistance in May 1942 in aircraft carrier-based battles in the Battle of the Coral Sea. In the Battle of Midway in June, the Japanese suffered a devastating defeat that included the loss of the four aircraft carriers that had participated in the raid on Pearl Harbor, as well as over a hundred top pilots. The Allies then launched a counter-offensive with Marine landings on Guadalcanal and nearby islands in the Solomons. Simultaneous Army campaigns headed by General Douglas MacArthur with the aid of Australian troops also succeeded in driving the Japanese from New Guinea. In November 1943, the Marines also won control after heavy casualties of the Tarawa and Makin islands in the Gilberts chain. See John D. Hayes, The War in the Central and Northern Pacific, Grolier Online; World War II History Info: The Pacific Theatre.

In early 1944, the U.S. also took the islands of Kwajalein, Roi and Namur in the Marshalls chain. The loss of Saipan in July 1944, which was heavily fortified with 30,000 troops and considered by the Japanese as the key to the defense of their home islands, also provoked a political crisis leading to the fall of the government of Emperor Hideki Tojo. In a desperate effort to regain the initiative after the defeat on Saipan, the Japanese undertook a poorly-planned air attack on the U.S. fleet off the Marianas, losing over 400 planes to only 30 for the Allies. Without the protection of the carrier planes, the remaining vessels of the Japanese fleet became vulnerable to air attack and were forced to return to waters closer to their home islands. The Marianas then became the base for intensive bombing of both civilian and military targets in Japan, estimated to have cost some 500,000 lives. See World War II Multimedia Database; Blankets of Fire, U.S. Bombers over Japan During World War II, Kenneth P. Werrell.


European Theatre

In Europe, the first U.S. troops arrived in Great Britain only a few weeks after Pearl Harbor in January 1942, and in the following month the U.S. and the United Kingdom signed a Mutual Aid Agreement formalizing their military alliance. It would be nearly a year, however, before the American soldiers saw ground action. The early U.S. contribution was more significant in the air, when they followed up the Royal Air Force offensive launched in May 1942 against Germany, commencing their own raids on the 4th of July against the Nazis.

On land, after considerable debate, the Allies agreed that they would were not ready to launch a direct assault on the German positions in Europe, but would first attack the Nazis under General Erwin Rommel in North Africa. Under the code name Operation TORCH, American troops landed in November 1942 to support the British 8th Army under Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, who had had defeated Rommel at El Alamein. As part of the planning, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was named as Commander in Chief of the Allied Forces, a position he would continue to hold throughout the war. The decision to engage the Germans in 1942 was partly due to political considerations of President Roosevelt, who believed he could not wait longer to show the public that Americans were taking the offensive against the Nazis, as well as competition within the armed forces for the allocation of resources:

American military plans had never envisioned an invasion of Europe before 1943, except in the most exceptional circumstances, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt had concluded that he simply could not wait that long for American soldiers to begin fighting the nation's chief enemy. He accordingly directed Marshall to find some way to come to grips with the Germans in 1942. At the same time, American commanders in the Pacific were casting covetous eyes on the men and equipment BOLERO [code name for the planned invasion of Europe] was concentrating in Europe. Unless Eisenhower made some use of that military power soon, Marshall knew, MacArthur and the Navy would submit persuasive arguments to transfer it to their commands. Reflecting longstanding British concern for the Mediterranean, Prime Minister Churchill strongly supported a North African campaign as one component of a peripheral strategy to tighten the ring around Germany. Bowing to the inevitable, Marshall at last selected TORCH as the best of a poor lot of options. It was up to Eisenhower to carry the plan through.

Source: Biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower,U.S. Army Center of Military History

In January 1943, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill and their top military officials met in Morocco for 10 days at the Casablanca Conference that ended with a joint declaration that the war would end only with the unconditional surrender of the Axis states--a condition later criticized for potentially prolonging the war by undermining the German opposition to Hitler by failing to offer the possibility of a negotiated peace that would avoid total humiliation for the Germans. At Casablanca, the military also agreed to a plan to complement the British night bombing campaign against the Germans with American bombers conducting daylight bombing, which allowed more precise attacks but risked higher losses. See Herman S. Wolk, Decision at Casablanca, Journal of the Air Force Association. Shortly after the end of the Casablanca meeting, the Germans surrendered to the Russians on February 2, 1943, after costly fighting in the Battle of Stalingrad, with the loss of over 200,000 German troops, 1,800 artillery pieces and more than ten thousand vehicles.

After American troops in North Africa were badly defeated in the Battle of the Kasserine Pass, General George S. Patton was named by General Eisenhower to take charge of the 2nd Corps, which had been beaten at Kasserine by the Germans. Patton imposed strict training and discipline, and in March 1943 launched with the British a successful counter-offensive leading to the German surrender of their North African forces in May 1943.

The leaders at th Casablanca Conference also had agreed on the Italian island of Sicily as their next target after the completion of the campaign in North Africa. In July, Patton and Montgomery succeeded in the invasion of Sicily, defeating the Germans in a 38-day long campaign. On Sicily, however, Patton provoked calls for his dismissal when he slapped two soldiers hospitalized for battle fatigue, accusing them of cowardice. In order to save his command, Patton was forced by Eisenhower to apologize publicly to both men and to his troops. See A Great Commander Loses His Temper, America's Library.

The long-planned invasion of France commenced on "D-Day", June 6, 1944, with the Allied first landing on the beaches of Normandy, then proceeding to drive the Germans inland from their coastal positions.

Troops and equipment proceeding inland from Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Image Source: US Army

Paris was liberated on the night of August 24-25, 1944, by the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the French 2nd Armored Division under General Charles de Gaulle. German General Dietrich von Choltitz, commander of the German troops, disobeyed Hitler's orders to destroy the city prior to its fall to the Allies.

Paris victory
U.S. soldiers marching down Champs Elysees after liberation of Paris.

Image Source:

The Allied advances on the West, coupled with the Russians pressing forward on the East, pushed the Germans closer to their borders. In December 1944, however, Hitler launched a surprise counter-offensive in Belgium in an attempt to drive a wedge between the American and British armies and advance to the sea at the English Channel. The initial attack in the Battle of the Bulge led to heavy Allied losses and an eight-day retreat. The German advance stalled, however, when their supplies gave out, and the Allied armies regrouped and soon had the Germans falling back. With declining manpower and supplies, the Germans would not be able to initiate another major offensive for the duration of the war.

In February, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met at the Yalta Conference in the Crimea of the Soviet Union. The agreement they reached set the outline for post-War Europe, and led to the division of Germany and, ultimately, the Cold War. The deteriorating health of Roosevelt apparent at Yalta has long provoked speculation over whether it played a part in the failure of the negotiations with Stalin to force a Soviet withdrawal from the areas they had seized in Eastern Europe. See Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945): The Dying President, Health Media Lab. In mid-February 1945, the Allies bombed Dresden, killing over 100,000 civilians, partly at the urging of Churchill to retaliate for those lost in the Nazi bombing of London.

On April 12, President Roosevelt died after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Georgia. See Official Death Notice. Three days later, after his body briefly was returned to Washington, he was buried at his Hudson River estate in Hyde Park, New York.

Last official picture of Hitler
The last official photo of Adolph Hitler prior to his suicide on April 30, 1945, shown greeting one of the boy soldiers used in the last days of the defense of Berlin.

In April, by prior agreement among the Allies, the Russians were allowed to begin the final attack of the European war leading to the Fall of Berlin. Hitler committed suicide in his bunker on April 30, along with his long-time mistress Eva Braun whom he had married the day before. After stiff fighting, the remaining German resistance in Berlin ended on May 2. On May 7, General Alfred Jodl, representing the German government, signed the act of military surrender in the war room of the Allied headquarters in Reims, France, that provided for fighting to stop at 11:01 a.m. on May 9. The general surrender was formally ratified the next day in Berlin with German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signing an identical document for Soviet General Georgi Zhukov, fixing the official end of Germany’s war with the Allies.


World War II History Info

David M. Kennedy, Ph.D., Victory at Sea, The Atlantic Monthly, March 1999

Great Depression and World War II >>Library of Congress

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

Battle of the Bulge >>

Educational Tools

Winston Churchill and Dresden, The National Archives (U.K.) Learning Curve

Suggestions for the Classroom: MacArthur >>

Lesson Plans: Images in World War II >>