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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

Pearl Harbor and Mobilization

Pearl Harbor headline 

Pearl Harbor
Image Sources: US Air Force Museum

Account of Secretary of State Cordell Hull of activities on December 7, 1941, following Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

Shortly after three o'clock I went to the White House, where I talked with the President and others for forty minutes. Mr. Roosevelt was very solemn in demeanor and conversation. The magnitude of the surprise achieved by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor was already becoming evident But neither he nor any of us lost faith for a moment in the ability of the United States to cope with the danger.

We had a general discussion preparatory to a conference that the President decided to hold that evening with Stimson, Knox myself General Marshall, Admiral Stark, and other principal advisers. We discussed in a tentative way the many different steps that would have to be taken, when and by whom. The President early determined to go to Congress with a message asking for a declaration of a state of war with Japan.

The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, Spartacus Educational

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, that brought the United States into World War II was preceded by a steady deterioration of relations as the Roosevelt Administration sought to slow Japanese expansion in the Pacific.

In July 1940, in response to Japan's invasion of Manchuria, President Roosevelt ordered a ban on American trade with Japan, a move that led to the Japanese seeking additional resources from other parts of Asia to support industrial and military expansion. Japan then invaded the British and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia followed by attacks on French Indochina in September. In July 1941, all Japanese assets in the United States were frozen. Similar action by Great Britain and the Netherlands affected shipments of oil from the East Indies. This created such a critical situation for Japan that its cabinet decided that, unless the United States made concessions, the oilfields to the south would be seized by military operations.

Diplomatic exchanges between American and Japanese officials continued through December 7. the Casualities to U.S. service personnel were 2,343 killed, 960 missing, and 1,272 wounded; 151 U.S. planes destroyed on the ground and all eight U.S. battleships at anchor in Pearl Harbor were either sunk or damaged. At a cost of only 28 airplanes shot down, the Japanese had dealt the U.S. a staggering blow. See The Pearl Harbor Attack, United States Air Force Museum. On the following day, President Roosevelt formally requested that the Congress declare war in the famous speech that began: "Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."

While the Roosevelt Administration's policies toward Germany, Japan and the other Axis powers prior to December 1941 were heavily influenced by the substantial isolationist sentiment against the U.S. entering a war, the attack on Pearl Harbor allowed the President to use the strong public reaction to forge a united effort to mobilize the country for war. See The Day after the Day of Infamy, Man-on-the-Street Interviews after Pearl Harbor, Library of Congress. Such former isolationist critics as the America First Committee also came on board to back the U.S. entry into the War, with the AFC executive board voting four days after Pearl Harbor to dissolve the organization, announcing that "The time for military action is here."

Even prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the threat posed by the deteriorating world situation had led to substantial increases in U.S. military spending, with Republicans who had opposed Roosevelt's budget deficits for domestic programs now supporting major investment in an expanded military. Appropriations for the Army grew from about $500 million in 1939 to over $8 billion in 1940 and $26 billion in 1941. The Naval Expansion Act signed in June 1940 authorized the construction of new battleships, aircraft carriers, destroyers and aircraft. After the Japanese attack, the President announced goals to produce 60,000 airplanes in 1942 and 125,000 more in 1943 and 120,000 tanks over the 1942-43 period. By the summer of 1942, the Army had 1.5 million soldiers, and by the end of the year its numbers had surged to 5.4 million. At the end of the war in 1945, the Army had over 8 million officers and troops. See Mobilization: The U.S. Army in World War II, The United States Army. To compensate for the manpower demands of the military, the government encouraged women to enter the workforce to fill both industrial and service jobs supporting the war effort. The public also strongly supported the war through its investment in War Bonds, which in 1942 alone generated $1 billion for military needs and also helped to restrain inflation by diverting excess funds. See Biography of Henry Morgenthau, Jr., US Department of the Treasury.

The mobilization for wartime also finally brought an end to the Depression. The Gross National Product doubled from 1940 to 1945, and thousands of new jobs were created to produce the weapons, aircraft and other needs to support the War effort. As available manpower was streteched through the combined demands of the military and the industrial sector, the government encouraged women to enter the workforce to fill both manual and service positions.

WW II workersWW II women workersLeft: Man and woman working together adjusting the controls of P-51 Mustang fighters for the United States Army Air Forces on final assembly line at North American Aviation Co. plant. Image Source: Library of Congress

Right: Recruitment poster seeking women to work as government stenographers. Image Source: National Archives & Records Administration

Internment Policy

As in World War I, the first months of the U.S. entry into the war also provoked fears of domestic espionage and concerns over the loyalties of those within the country, primarily directed at Japanese-Americans. The opening Japanese successes, including the invasion of two of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, generated anxiety over a possible attack on the West Coast. In March 1942, the President signed Executive Order No. 9102, creating a civilian agency in the Office for Emergency Management to provide for the removal of persons or classes of people from designated areas considered of military importance, principally on the West Coast. The government rapidly built ten relocation camps that ultimately would house more than 110,000 Japanese Americans. Later, as the fears of a Japanese invasion diminished, some of these internees would be dispersed to other locations for supervised work, including serving as farm laborers in states like New Jersey. War Relocation Authority Camps in Arizona, 1942-1946, University of Arizona. In 1944, the internment policy was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States, which would become one of the Court's most highly criticized decisions in its history.

Exclusion order announcing instructions for removal of Japanese Americans in San Francisco. Image Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum
The internment of Japanese Americans was implemented despite intelligence reports that the vast majority were loyal to the U.S., as indicated in the excerpt below from a memo to the Chief of Naval Operations.

From: Lieutenant Commander K.D. RINGLE, USN.
To: The Chief of Naval Operations.
Via: The Commandant, Eleventh Naval District.
Subject: Japanese Question, Report on.

...The primary present and future problem is that of dealing with those American-born United States citizens of Japanese ancestry, of whom it is considered that least seventy-five per cent are loyal to the United States. The ratio of those American citizens of Japanese ancestry to alien-born Japanese in the United States is at present almost 3 to 1, and rapidly increasing....

That, in short, the entire "Japanese Problem" has been magnified out of its true proportion, largely because of the physical characteristics of the people; that it is no more serious than the problems of the German, Italian, and Communistic portions of the United States population, and, finally that it should be handled on the basis of the individual, regardless of citizenship, and not on a racial basis....

Source: The Densho Project

Although recognizing that the wide-ranging internment of Japanese Americans affected many loyal citizens, the Supreme Court declined to interfere with the military's judgment under the threat of attack.

...Compulsory exclusion of large groups of citizens from their homes, except under circumstances of direct emergency and peril, is inconsistent with our basic governmental institutions. But when under conditions of modern warfare our shores are threatened by hostile forces, the power to protect must be commensurate with the threatened danger....

Source: Opinion for the Court of Justice Hugo Black,

Korematsu v. United States

Most historians have believed, however, that the Japanese motive for attacking the U.S. was not a prelude to a North American invasion, but a move to force eventual negotiations for a peace treaty that would allow Japan to pursue her goals in Asia without American interference, thus giving Japan access to the mineral and oil resources she lacked.See John D. Hayes, The War in the Central and Northern Pacific, Grolier Online; see also Prison diaries of Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, Spartacus Educational.


"Man-on-the-Street" Interviews Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor >> American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

World War II History Info

Japanese-Americans Internment Camps During World War II >> J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

December 7, 1941 >>

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

Great Depression and World War II, Library of Congress

American Isolationism >>

The America First Committee, Sheldon Richman, The Future of Freedom Foundation

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

Civil Rights & Japanese American Internment >> The Densho Project

Educational Tools

We Witnessed the Attack on Pearl Harbor >> Scholastic, Inc.

World War II, The Home Front >> History 102, Stanley K. Schultz, Professor of History, University of Wisconsin

The Homefront: America and WW II >> History Teaching Institute, The Ohio State University

Using Primary and Secondary Sources to Study an American Tragedy: Japanese-American Internment during World War II >> Mark Solomon, University of Iowa

Lesson Plan: Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself >> Library of Congress

Lesson Plan: Japanese Relocation/Internment >>