By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Analyze Japan’s efforts to expand its empire in Asia and the Pacific
- Discuss Hitler’s actions in the 1930s and how they led to World War II
- Explain how and why the United States was less engaged in responding to threats to peace in the 1930s
- Discuss why Japan eventually decided to attack the United States
The attempts by Western nations to build a structure of world peace with the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations ultimately unraveled during the 1930s. National and international grievances, competing ideologies, and economic self-interest all hammered away at the fragile international order.
Asia for Asians
The fight between Japan and China in the 1930s lit the fuse that made World War II a global conflict. The spark may have been Japan’s long-standing perception of Western racism, dating back to the nineteenth century and shown more recently in the rejection of Japan’s proposed racial equality amendment to the Treaty of Versailles. This had been done at the insistence of Australia and the British delegation. Part of Japan’s underlying thinking was to rid Asia of Western colonial influences, although it also clearly saw itself as the new leader of the region.
Since the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Japan had held the right to lease the South Manchuria Railway in northeastern China, a privilege previously held by Russia. However, Japan now claimed rights to control extensive territory in northeastern China outside the railway zone and stationed its troops in the region. In 1931, these troops detonated explosives along the track of the South Manchuria Railway and blamed the act on Chinese saboteurs. This gave Japan an excuse to invade and annex Manchuria (also called Manchukuo) on the pretext that it was defending Japanese interests. To deflect international attention from this incident, commonly known as the Mukden Incident, the Japanese provoked some sharp clashes with Chinese troops in Shanghai. A cease-fire on May 5, 1932, concluded the First Shanghai Incident.
Simultaneously, the Imperial Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchukuo continued to expand its operations and control. The army pushed southward to the Great Wall, absorbing more Chinese territory into its zone of control. Eventually, on May 22, 1933, the Japanese and China’s Guomindang government (GMD, also spelled “Kuomintang”) concluded the Tanggu Truce, forming a demilitarized zone that stretched one hundred kilometers south of the Great Wall and essentially detached Manchukuo from the nation of China. Thereafter, Manchukuo, which had rich coal and iron ore deposits, was developed as an economic engine for the Japanese Empire, securing North China, countering any spread of communism or Soviet influence, and preparing the way for a wider conflict (Figure 13.4).
The nationalist GMD government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had been fighting a civil war since 1927. In 1934, GMD troops displaced from Manchukuo by the Japanese had repositioned themselves south of the Great Wall when President Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi)1 ordered them to attack the Chinese communists under Mao Zedong at their nearby base in Yan’an, Shaanxi Province. Chinese public opinion rejected the idea of Chinese fighting Chinese in the face of Japan’s aggression. In December 1936, during the so-called Xian Incident, Chiang Kai-shek was taken prisoner in Xian, China, by Manchurian forces and forced to negotiate a cessation of the Civil War and the creation of the Second United Front—unifying the GMD and the CCP against Japan.
Tensions in North China escalated early in July 1937, as Japanese troops were conducting night exercises near the Marco Polo Bridge ten miles west of Beijing and firefights erupted between them and Chinese troops. The Japanese quickly overcame the Chinese forces and secured their control of the area around Beijing and Tianjin.
Chiang Kai-shek then decided to shift the fighting to the Shanghai region, where he had better forces and a seeming numerical advantage. The Japanese responded by mounting a major offensive, and by November 1937, the GMD forces had been badly mauled. After losing 250,000 troops, they retreated westward to China’s capital in Nanjing. Japanese forces closed in on Nanjing, and Chinese troops continued to retreat westward. On December 12, 1937, Chinese resistance at Nanjing ceased, and Japanese troops entered the defenseless city, commencing a terrifying seven-week reign of terror and plunder. Foreign witnesses in the city estimated that twenty thousand Chinese women and girls were raped. Some thirty thousand Chinese soldiers who could not be evacuated were executed, and perhaps as many as twelve thousand civilians were also killed. Other historians put the number of dead at 300,000. (Such discrepancies in numbers occur because historians may disagree on which deaths can be attributed to an event.) The tragedy became known as the “Rape of Nanking” (the older spelling of Nanjing) and was taken up at the Tokyo War Crimes trials after the war.
Japan redoubled its efforts to subdue China. Having retreated farther west to defend the GMD’s new provisional capital at Chongqing, some GMD armies put up stiff resistance in places, but by 1938, they had been pushed back significantly. To prevent further Japanese advances, Chiang Kai-shek ordered the opening of the dikes on the Yellow River, flooding large portions of central China, killing an estimated 400,000 people and dislocating ten million more. In December 1937, the Japanese sank the USS Panay, a gunboat on the Yangtze River that was extracting American and Chinese civilians from Nanjing at the time. The Japanese government accepted responsibility and apologized for the Panay incident, paying restitution of more than $2 million (at least $37 million in today’s money). Through all this, public opinion in the United States, while increasingly shifting in favor of China, was still undecided about entering any war.
The Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe seemed to signal the decline of the older Western-dominated world order. Japanese intellectuals, politicians, military leaders, and mass media envisioned that Japan could fashion a “new order” of regional supremacy for itself. In an August 1940 radio address, Japanese foreign minister Yosuke Matsuoka broached his vision for a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere as a blueprint for Japan’s ascent to world-power status. A year later, he published a book further developing his ideas for liberating Asians from European domination and expelling the “white race bloc” suppressing Asia’s destiny. By 1941, creating the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere had become the publicly articulated objective of Japan’s Asian aggression, and it remained so until Japan’s defeat in 1945.
Eventually, finding themselves in a stalemate in China and needing more natural resources to sustain the war and the goal of creating the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the Japanese military and civilian governments began to consider a thrust into Southeast Asia. Such a move would inevitably mean a confrontation with the United States and its colony the Philippines. Japan conceived a desperately hopeful plan of war against the United States and an initial knockout strike on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Peace in Our Time
In furtherance of his promise to revive Italian glory, Benito Mussolini (popularly known as Il Duce, “the leader”) sought to expand the Italian protectorate of Somali in East Africa. A border dispute with Ethiopia, which Italy had long sought to colonize, arose in November 1934, and the Ethiopians took the matter to the League of Nations on January 5, 1935. When a full-scale Italian invasion of Ethiopia began on October 3 of that year, the League Council immediately declared Italy the aggressor, and fifty-one member nations approved sanctions against Italy. Unwilling to defy Mussolini, however, the British and French undermined the League in a secret agreement permitting Italy to absorb Ethiopia into a special economic zone. In May 1936, Italian forces took the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, and shortly thereafter, Italy formally annexed the country. In Italy, Mussolini’s popularity grew, especially among Italian youth.
Britain and France were even more reluctant to confront Germany. Adolf Hitler had often pledged to scrap the Treaty of Versailles. His first step came just nine months after becoming chancellor when he conducted referenda to let the German people decide whether they wanted to remain in the League of Nations. The result was predictable, and in October 1933, Germany withdrew from the League.
By the 1930s, some in Britain and elsewhere had come to view Hitler as a deeply patriotic German seeking merely to serve the interests of his battered nation. Others saw him and his politics as potentially dangerous and unsettling to European stability. The British government did, however, negotiate with Germany to contain the size of the German navy, and France sought a Treaty of Mutual Assistance with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Using the French-Soviet cooperation as an excuse, in March 1935 Hitler publicly announced that Germany had already secretly begun to rearm in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles. On March 2, 1936, about three thousand German troops reoccupied the Rhineland, a part of Germany demilitarized by the Treaty. France feared protesting this too strongly because it did not want and was not ready to fight another war. The British public did not see the move as overtly hostile.
Though the Versailles Treaty specifically prohibited unification of Austria with Germany, Hitler moved to accomplish this anyway. Austria’s prime minister attempted to stave off unification by calling for a referendum in March, but the next day Hitler preemptively sent troops into Austria. When the referendum was held, the people voted for union with Germany. Flush with his victory over Austria, Hitler continued to “gather the German people,” and his eyes turned to those portions of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland, containing some three million ethnic Germans, including many who had been folded into that nation by the Treaty of Versailles (Figure 13.5).
The Czechoslovaks, in the only real democracy created by the Treaty of Versailles, pinned their hopes for defense against Germany on the western nations and on treaties for mutual defense signed with France in the 1920s and early 1930s. Sudeten Germans had organized their own Nazi Party, however, and began agitating to join Germany. By 1938, it seemed that Britain and France were most concerned with avoiding another major war, so to defuse the situation, the Czechoslovak government granted the Sudeten Germans self-government. Tensions grew. As Hitler pressed for full inclusion of the Sudetenland in Germany and war seemed on the horizon, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Germany to meet with him. Hitler seemed prepared for war. Instead, Chamberlain proposed to hold a general conference to address the crisis over the Sudetenland, and Hitler agreed.
The Munich Conference was attended by Chamberlain, Hitler, French prime minister Édouard Daladier, and Mussolini (ostensibly a neutral party but one who had already assured Hitler of his support). On September 30, they produced the Munich Pact, in which Czechoslovakia granted territorial concessions to Germany, Poland, and Hungary in what has since been called appeasement (Figure 13.6). The hope of Great Britain and France was that Hitler would be satisfied and cease to be aggressive. The alternative meant fighting Germany, which neither government wanted.
The Western world had not yet decided which was the greater threat to world peace, a fascist Germany or the communist Soviet Union. Some political conservatives in England and France hoped for a German alliance against the Soviets, as did Hitler. The British military was not confident of its preparedness for war, and the isolationist policy of the United States diminished the hope of any aid from Washington. With anxiety growing in London over Britain’s possessions in Asia and Japanese aggressions there, domestic support for negotiated solutions was widespread among liberals, and a bargain with Hitler seemed a reasonable policy. In the ensuing weeks, German troops entered the relinquished areas, and by the spring of 1939, Germany had gone on to absorb the rest of Czechoslovakia.
During these years, the Nazis were progressively implementing increasingly severe persecutions of Jewish people. First, a law enacted on April 7, 1933, banned them from positions in the civil service. That same year, the first and longest-surviving Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, was set up near Munich, intended for political prisoners (Figure 13.7). Several laws collectively known as the Nuremberg Laws were promulgated in 1935, institutionalizing Nazi racial theories and discrimination against Jewish people. A Jewish person was defined as anyone with three Jewish grandparents, regardless of whether they were active in the Jewish religious community or how deeply they identified as German. Jewish people were denied citizenship in the new Nazi-led German empire, called the Third Reich, and were forbidden to marry or have sexual relations with ethnic Germans, designated as “Aryans.” They lost the right to vote and most other political rights.
Germany was becoming legally structured as an “us” versus “them” nation, and the treatment of its Jewish people demonstrated the fearsome power of the state. Two days of violent attacks on them in November 1938, ignited by the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a Polish Jewish man, became known as Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.” Almost every synagogue in Germany was torched during the rampage, as well as 90 percent of Jewish-owned businesses. Some thirty thousand Jewish males were taken into custody and sent to Dachau, which by then had been augmented by camps at Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. All but about two thousand were released in 1939.
Kristallnacht caused a severe deterioration in Germany’s international standing. In Britain, an outraged public pressured Parliament into allowing unaccompanied Jewish children under seventeen to take refuge in England. During the nine months before the war, this Kindertransport may have rescued as many as ten thousand children. Across Europe, many Jewish people became refugees as they fled the oppressive politics of the Nazis. A thirty-two-nation international conference was held in France during the summer of 1938 to solve the Jewish refugee crisis, but no country stepped forward to accept any such immigrants. In February 1939, a bill was introduced into the U.S. Congress to allow ten thousand Jewish children to enter the country in 1939 and another ten thousand in 1940. Though popular, the bill failed due to lukewarm political support.
In Asia, Shanghai was an option for Jewish refugees looking for a new home. The city, along with Franco’s Spain, was unconditionally open to Jewish migration. Nominally still a German ally in 1939, the Nationalist government in the southwestern corner of China formulated a plan to provide a haven for European Jewish refugees. It had multiple reasons for doing so, including attracting international Jewish support and gaining favor with Britain and the United States against Japan. A number of schemes were hatched, both by members of the GMD government and by private individuals, one even gaining the support of scientist Albert Einstein. GMD diplomats in Europe like Feng Shan Ho, consul general in Vienna, issued visas to Jewish refugees seeking to relocate to Shanghai. A Jewish community of more than twenty thousand displaced persons had reached the city by the end of the war.
In May 1939, almost one thousand Jewish refugees escaping Nazi persecution took passage on the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner, heading for sanctuary in Cuba. But Cuba refused to admit them. The ship’s captain then tried to get Canada or the United States to accept the refugees, but that effort failed as well. While the ship sailed around to no avail, conditions on board deteriorated to the point that it came to be called the “voyage of the damned.” Finally, after a month, the ship was forced to return to Antwerp, Belgium, where most of the passengers disembarked. Ultimately, England accepted about three hundred of them, France took some, and a few more went to Belgium and the Netherlands. Of the original passengers, 70 percent survived the war, but more than two hundred were killed by the Nazis.
The ambition to expand eastward had motivated Germany for some time. The hunt for Lebensraum, or living space, had fueled its search for overseas colonies in the late 1800s and was an express goal of World War I. In the lands seized from countries in eastern Europe, Hitler envisioned German families settling and producing large numbers of children, supplanting the native Slavic populations. In this way, physically and culturally “superior” Germans would reclaim Europe from “inferior” Jewish and Slavic peoples. Similar ideologies meant to rationalize the displacement of a territory’s residents by a supposedly superior population have appeared in history before, like Manifest Destiny in the United States and Japan’s expansionist policies in Korea and Manchuria. To the east of Germany, the Treaty of Versailles had created an independent Poland and awarded parts of Germany to Poland in the process. This “Polish Corridor,” in an area where many Polish people already lived, was intended to give Poland access to a port, and the German city of Danzig (Gdańsk), bordering it, was made a semi-independent city-state with its own parliament (Figure 13.8). Poland was a prime target of the Nazis as they looked for Lebensraum.
The lessons learned from Hitler’s violation of the Munich Pact spurred Britain and France to take action to protect Poland. They have also been invoked by world leaders ever since, whenever the aggression of one nation threatens the sovereignty or the territorial integrity of another. Using the example of Munich to warn against the perils of allowing one nation to invade another without opposition, whether it be Hitler’s Germany or Putin’s Russia, is known as invoking the Munich Analogy.
The key to whether Germany could be boxed in was the attitudes of Stalin and the Soviet Union. As early as the summer of 1938, Stalin began to think of making some sort of deal with Germany. During the following summer, relations between Germany and the Soviet Union began to improve. Stalin, aware of Hitler’s musings in his book Mein Kampf, understood the long-term threat Germany posed and sought to buy time to prepare for possible war. For his part, Hitler wanted to avoid Germany’s World War I mistake of fighting on two fronts simultaneously. The result was the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of August 23, 1939. In this pact, Germany and the USSR agreed not to attack one another or to assist other nations in attacking the other. Included in the agreement were secret protocols that essentially divided eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and parts of eastern Poland were allocated to the USSR as a reward for cooperating with Germany in the dismemberment of Poland.
Seeing the pact as an ominous green light for a German eastward thrust, two days later Britain signed a mutual defense agreement with Poland. All things seemed ready for the German onslaught, which was launched on September 1, 1939. Britain and France fulfilled their commitment to Poland and declared war on Germany, forming the partnership known as the Allies, but not on the Soviet Union. About two weeks later, Soviet forces invaded Poland from the east. Crushed from two sides, Poland essentially ceased to exist. The European fires of World War II had been ignited.
Poland provided the Germans an opportunity to test their strategy for victory, known as blitzkrieg or “lightning war.” It consisted of quick, massive air strikes to secure domination of the air, destroy the enemy’s ammunition stockpiles and the transportation and communications infrastructure, and generally disorient the enemy and depress morale. Then a massive land invasion of troops, fast-moving armor, and heavy artillery would overwhelm defenses. The Polish army of a million troops lacked modern equipment and was saddled with older strategic thinking that urged confronting the Germans head-on. The relatively flat landscape of western Poland offered few natural barriers to traffic and suited Germany’s battle plan well, enabling the Germans to successfully employ several maneuvers to penetrate and encircle.
The British quickly discovered there was no practical way to render much assistance to the Poles. Instead, they relied on the French to engage the Germans. But the French felt they could not sustain an offensive against Germany’s western front. They preferred to prepare their defenses for an eventual German offensive against France. Britain joined the French by deploying the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to defend the French-Belgian border. By then, Poland was already lost and had been folded into Hitler’s plans of dominating Europe. During the winter of 1939–1940, little action took place on the French-German border save for a few clashes of patrols and reconnaissance units. That period of waiting has sometimes been referred to as the Phony War or, derisively, as the sitzkrieg (“sitting war”).
The German advance westward began with some forays into Norway and Denmark to the north on April 9, 1940. Not wanting to provoke German invasions, both Belgium and the Netherlands declared neutrality. This disadvantaged the British and French, since they were then not allowed to coordinate defenses with Dutch and Belgian forces or station troops in their territory. The Germans then launched their full westward offensive on May 10, 1940. Within a matter of weeks, German troops had overrun western Europe, storming through the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium and into France, avoiding the Maginot Line, a system of fortifications and weapons installations that had been built on the French border in the 1930s in order to protect France from another German invasion. Early in the morning of May 23, 1940, the British commander in France, seeing the perils of his position, gave the order to begin a withdrawal toward Dunkirk on the French coast. Eventually, this culminated in the extraordinary evacuation across the English Channel of much of the BEF and thousands of French and other Allied forces between June 15 and 25 using every British boat capable of crossing the Channel. The retreat saved 200,000 troops.
French prime minister Paul Reynaud resigned rather than sign the armistice agreement with Germany in June 1940. Instead, Marshall Philippe Pétain, a hero of World War I, became the prime minister of a truncated French government based in Vichy, France, that, although nominally independent, cooperated with Germany.
The remarkable success of the German blitzkrieg in Europe during the summer of 1940 presented the Japanese military with some significant strategic opportunities. For instance, the isolation of European colonies in Asia might make them ripe for seizing. Consequently, to provide for mutual defense and perhaps to frighten the United States away from giving more substantial assistance against them, Japan joined Germany and Italy in the defensive military alliance called the Tripartite Pact in September 1940. (Japan and Germany had earlier signed the Anti-Comintern Pact against the Soviet Union, which Japan saw as a rival for dominance in Asia, in 1936, and Italy had joined in a year later. Japan had parted ways with Germany in 1939, however, when the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact was signed, and a new agreement was thus in order.) The U.S. ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, felt discouraged in the attempt to maintain peace. He observed to a colleague in February 1941, “I saw the work of eight years swept away as if by a typhoon, earthquake and a tidal wave combined.”
Hitler planned to finish off Britain with a cross-channel invasion using air and submarine bases in both Norway, which had surrendered in June 1940, and northern France. Through the late summer and into the fall of 1940, the Battle of Britain raged in the skies over Britain as a duel between the German Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force (RAF). The Germans initially focused their attacks on shipping in the English Channel and then began to bomb weapons-production facilities. The British gradually built up the RAF with new recruits of non-British volunteers, including a few U.S. pilots. Aided in part by the innovation of radar, which gave some advance warning of German onslaughts, the RAF prevailed. By October 1940, having lost approximately 40 percent of its planes of all types, the Luftwaffe had failed to achieve the air superiority needed to capture Britain. When the Luftwaffe shifted its focus from military to civilian targets, particularly the bombing of London, it inadvertently gave the British the opportunity to rebuild their airfields and defense plants and assemble more planes.
In the 1930s, the United States wanted to insulate itself from conflicts in the rest of the world. Aroused by dramatic hearings into the causes of the country’s entry into World War I, Congress passed the Neutrality Acts in 1935, 1936, and 1937, forbidding the export of arms and the making of loans to belligerent nations. These acts effectively handcuffed the government. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took office in 1933 just two months after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, was prevented from rendering much assistance to China against Japan, to Ethiopia against Italy, or to Republican Spain against fascist General Franco. But the 1937 Neutrality Act granted Roosevelt a little leeway. The United States could render nonmilitary assistance such as oil to a belligerent nation if that nation could both pay cash for the goods and carry them home itself.
As the world watched Hitler annex Czechoslovakia and then invade Poland, Roosevelt sought to offer more substantial military assistance to Britain and France. To beef up the defenses of the United States, Roosevelt pressed Congress to approve a two-ocean navy in 1938 and began to funnel aid to Britain and China within the confines of what was allowable. After much debate, in November 1939 Congress repealed provisions of earlier Neutrality Acts and authorized trade in military hardware on a cash-and-carry basis. With the Luftwaffe struggling in the summer of 1940, the responsibility for subduing England increasingly fell to the German submarine fleet, on the theory that England could be starved to death. Roosevelt created the Atlantic squadron in January 1939 and gradually expanded a U.S. naval patrol and escort service for shipping headed for England.
In one ten-day period in July 1940, German submarines sank eleven British destroyers, prompting the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, to appeal to the United States for help. Liberally interpreting the Neutrality Act of 1939, Roosevelt agreed to exchange fifty World War I–era destroyers for lease rights at British naval bases in Newfoundland and the Caribbean. Critics and isolationists like aviator Charles Lindbergh, a leader of the America First Committee, took Roosevelt to task. But in March 1941, the president persuaded Congress to approve the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed the government to “sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend or otherwise dispose of, to any such government any defense article.” The United States could now provide these materials to any country deemed vital to its own defense. It was a way to aid those countries already fighting but without taking direct military action.
The Question of U.S. Neutrality
In the 1930s, many in the United States were reluctant to find themselves embroiled in another war. As Hitler’s power grew in Europe and Japan expanded its empire in the Pacific, the United States thus adopted a policy of neutrality. This continued even after Japan invaded China and Germany invaded Poland and ultimately western Europe. Although President Franklin Roosevelt favored aiding the British, his opponents in Congress feared the potential consequences. The political cartoonist Clifford Berryman created a number of cartoons in the 1930s and early 1940s whose subject was U.S. neutrality.
Examine the two cartoons that follow. In the first (Figure 13.9), Uncle Sam proclaims, “Lafayette, we are here!” words spoken by Colonel Charles E. Stanton at the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette after U.S. troops joined the British and French in fighting World War I. (Lafayette had famously fought on the side of the colonists in the American Revolution.) In the second image, Uncle Sam is working as a hod carrier, someone who carried bricks (Figure 13.9).
- What is Berryman saying in these cartoons about the U.S. policy of neutrality? Does he favor it? What does he think will be its consequences?
- How does Berryman convey his ideas in the cartoons?
The defeat of Poland removed a buffer between German-occupied and Soviet territory. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Stalin began to take steps to prepare the USSR for what might happen next. At the end of 1939, he launched the “Winter War” against Finland to obtain territory near Leningrad (the city formerly known as St. Petersburg or Petrograd) that would bolster Soviet defenses. In April 1941, the Soviets signed a Neutrality Pact with Japan, freeing both nations from the prospect of a multiple-front war. The Kremlin in Moscow received a continuous stream of intelligence warning of an impending invasion. After receiving one such report outlining German battle plans, Stalin called up half a million reservists. Yet, fearing to provoke the Germans into action, he was cautious with his forces.
Having detected flaws in the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland and its struggle against Finland in the Winter War, Hitler was confident he could defeat Stalin. Betraying the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, he assembled the largest land-invasion force in world history, more than three million troops, including contributions from countries with their own grievance against the Soviet Union such as Finland, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Italy, Slovakia, and Spain. Operation Barbarossa began on June 22, 1941, leading the Soviet Union to formally join the Allies in opposing Germany (Figure 13.10).
In the first two days of the campaign, two thousand Soviet planes were destroyed on the ground. The speed of the German attack was greater than anticipated, and within weeks, Belorussia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia had been occupied by the German army, which was called the Wehrmacht (“defense power”). By August, the Germans had captured Kyiv, an industrial center that contained a large portion of the Soviet economic infrastructure at that time. By November, Hitler had gone farther into Russia than Napoleon had. The German army stood at the gates of Leningrad, on the outskirts of Moscow, and on the Don River. Of the 4.5 million troops with which the Soviets had begun, 2.5 to 3 million were lost; of their fifteen thousand tanks, only seven hundred were left. Moscow was in panic, and a German victory seemed imminent.
But serious problems arose that came back to haunt the Germans. The speed of the advance had strained the delivery of supplies. The force advancing on Moscow needed nearly thirty train shipments of fuel each day to maintain its pace, but by November, it was receiving only three. In August, a shortage of clean water had spread dysentery and cholera among the troops. When the late summer rains came, German soldiers found that they could neither drive fast (because of mud) nor keep themselves and their equipment dry. Once the Russian winter began, it became so cold that bread rations froze and had to be chopped into portions with axes.
The siege of Leningrad lasted 872 days and was one of the longest and deadliest in world history. In early 1942, nearly 100,000 people in the city starved to death each month, and some of the remaining residents resorted to cannibalism to survive. Overall, a million and a half people perished. Facing this, Stalin seems to have momentarily faltered. By the end of 1941, his head of security was instructed to send feelers to the Germans through the Bulgarian ambassador to Moscow, broaching the possibility of peace.
Read some excerpts from the diaries of Leningraders during the siege of 1941–1944 in “Voices of War: Memories from the Siege of Leningrad” (presented by Russia Beyond).
With the war expanding into the plains of Russia, Churchill requested a face-to-face meeting with Roosevelt, who secretly sailed to Newfoundland in August 1941 for the purpose. This conference was the first of what have since become commonplace events in diplomacy—summit meetings of the heads of state. The two leaders produced the Atlantic Charter, a recasting of the principles articulated in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points (1918) into eight major points that reflected British and U.S. goals for a postwar world, though not the Soviet Union’s goals for Europe. It insisted on the unconditional surrender of the Axis nations—Germany, Italy, and Japan—renounced any territorial expansion, and affirmed the right of self-determination. There would be freedom of the seas, reduced barriers to free trade, and promotion of social welfare through economic cooperation. Peace would be promoted through the disarmament of aggressor nations.
The Attack on Pearl Harbor
Trying to pressure the Japanese into ceasing their aggression, in August 1941 the United States imposed sanctions including an embargo on oil and gas sales to Japan. This action further reinforced Japan’s plan to turn to the South Pacific to absorb the natural resources of the crumbling European imperial regimes and the Philippines, a U.S. colony. Seeing the United States as a soft enemy unwilling to make the sacrifices needed to win a war, Japan planned a surprise assault on the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, while last-ditch efforts at a diplomatic settlement between Tokyo and Washington were taking place. The United States wanted Japan to ultimately withdraw from China, to which it would not agree, and Japan felt the United States would not be open to further negotiations. Its leaders decided they had to move against the United States while they still could.
U.S. intelligence services had broken various Japanese codes, and by late November 1941, warnings were being sent to U.S. forces that war with Japan was likely, with the Philippines as the probable target. Early in the morning of December 7, a Japanese task force successfully eluded detection in a surprise attack that devastated the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, sinking or damaging eight battleships and damaging other smaller craft, destroying or damaging approximately three hundred aircraft, killing more than two thousand people, and injuring more than one thousand others. Near-simultaneous attacks were launched on U.S. bases in the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island. The following day, Congress voted unanimously to declare war on Japan. A few days later, following Germany’s and Italy’s declarations of war against the United States, the country entered the war in Europe as well on the side of the Allies. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, China also joined the Allies, but it did not join in the fighting in Europe.
U.S. military planners had estimated that it might take nine million troops organized in more than two hundred divisions to secure victory in Europe and Asia. A massive recruitment and draft program had to be instituted to expand the army and prepare it for combat. Eventually, recruitment efforts expanded to African Americans, women, Native Americans, and thirty-three thousand Japanese Americans. Leadership of the troops fell to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was rapidly promoted through the ranks to become a key aide to Chief of Staff George C. Marshall and commanding general of the European theater of operations.
- 1When Chinese words are written using the English-language alphabet, one of two systems is typically used: pinyin or Wade-Giles. The pinyin system is preferred by the People’s Republic of China, and most Chinese names in this textbook are written in pinyin. In the case of Chiang Kai-shek, the textbook’s editors decided to make an exception and spell his name according to the Wade-Giles system because this is how his name appears in most other history textbooks. Jiang Jieshi is how his name would be written in pinyin.