As the 1930s unfolded, it became clear that peace would not last for long. Japan’s advances through China and its violent attack on Nanjing showed that its military-dominated government would continue to press aggressively for more territory.
The rise of fascism in Italy and Germany continued unchecked. The Nazis were able to manipulate the situation to their diplomatic advantage and gain British and French acquiescence to the takeover of Austria and the Sudetenland (in Czechoslovakia) before any war began. The outbreak of World War II unveiled the Nazi military juggernaut, with several European countries quickly falling to Nazi control and Britain becoming an embattled country that sought new support and assurances from the United States. The Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in the Pacific in 1941 made the United States a full participant in the global war.
The United States and Great Britain engaged Hitler in actions in North Africa throughout 1942. The Allied successes there and in Italy helped destabilize Mussolini’s fascist government in Rome, and he was removed from power in 1943. On the eastern front, the Soviet Union fought protracted battles against the Nazis, with significant losses of civilian and military lives.
The United States continued to move against Japan’s holdings throughout the Pacific and was able to retake numerous islands from the Japanese. These losses, especially at the Battle of Midway, called into question the military control of the Japanese government. New concerns arose in areas like India, where anti-British sentiment was growing. For some time, the Nazi government had been working toward the extermination of the Jewish people and of others it deemed undesirable. The Holocaust claimed the lives of millions of people in Europe.
The war had massive effects for those on the home front, whose lives changed drastically as rationing and shortages became commonplace. Many nations had to mobilize their efforts to keep industry running and materials reaching the troops on the front lines, which brought women into offices and factories in new numbers. The focus on science and technology brought innovations such as radar, early computers, and medical advancements into military applications. Not least was the Manhattan Project’s work on atomic energy, which led to the construction of the first nuclear weapons.
Even before the end of the war, the Allied powers were confident that victory would come. In a series of meetings, Allied leaders arranged the postwar world they envisioned, including by deciding how Germany would be divided. In the Pacific theater of war, the showdown between the United States and Japan concluded with the dropping of the first nuclear bombs, first at Hiroshima and then at Nagasaki. In the aftermath of the conflict, it was clear just how much had been lost. Tens of millions of people had died. Nazi and Japanese war criminals were put on trial. The governments of several countries were in shambles. But rebuilding did begin, in Japan starting with a new constitution and a new focus on demilitarization and human rights.