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Table of Contents:Further Readings | View Multimedia File(s) World War II (1939-1945) was an international conflict involving 61 countries that mobilized over 100 million people for military service in four geographic regions: Europe, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific. The war left 55 million people dead (30 million civilian and 25 million military), cost over one trillion dollars, and resulted in more material destruction than any other armed conflict in history. The United States emerged from the war as the most powerful nation in the world, while the Soviet Union gained a stronghold over Eastern Europe. The war pitted the Allied Powers (the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China, among others) against the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, Japan, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and others). The leading figures for the Allies were U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945), British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1940-1945, 1951-1955), and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin (1928-1953). The Axis was led by German dictator Adolph Hitler (1933-1945), Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1922-1943), and Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo (1941-1944). World War II began on September 1, 1939, when 1.5 million German troops invaded Poland. Germany's superior air power and technologically advanced armored and motorized divisions overwhelmed Polish forces that were often fighting on horseback with obsolete equipment. By September 20, Poland had been overrun by the German blitzkreig (lightning war). England and France declared war on Germany in response to the invasion. Undeterred, German forces swept through Western Europe in the spring of 1940, taking Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. In June France was overtaken. The German war machine was not stymied until that fall when Hitler attempted to subdue Britain by air and sea. Aided by the development of radar, Britain handed Germany its first significant defeat of the war, forcing Hitler to indefinitely postpone a land invasion of England. Despite its proclaimed neutrality, the United States was preparing for war. Congress approved the sale of surplus war material to Britain in June 1940, and it passed the first peace-time-draft legislation in September. In March 1941, Congress appropriated $7 billion in Lend-Lease aid to countries fighting against the Axis. Four months later the United States stationed Marines in Iceland and authorized the Navy to escort convoys in the area. In August President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter, outlining joint national policies for the postwar period. U.S. relations with Japan were also deteriorating. In September 1940, the United States prohibited the exportation of steel, scrap iron, and aviation gasoline to Japan after Japanese
troops entered northern Indochina. When Japanese troops occupied southern Indochina in July 1941, President Roosevelt retaliated by freezing Japanese assets in the United States. Diplomatic efforts between the two countries ended when Japan bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. The next day Congress declared war on Japan. Axis military conquests continued in 1942. In January Japan invaded New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the East Indies, Burma, and the Philippines. In February Germany invaded North Africa and two months later sent troops into Greece and Yugoslavia. On June 22, 1941, Hitler ordered three million troops into Russia. Dubbed Operation "Barbarossa," Germany's invasion took the Soviet Red Army by surprise. More than a million Soviet troops were taken prisoner during the first three months of battle, and by the end of the year, German soldiers had advanced several hundred miles, camping outside of Moscow and fighting in Stalingrad. Hitler's drive into Russia marked the peak of territorial expansion for Axis powers during World War II. It also marked a turning point. German advances were slowed by autumn rains, and then halted by the Russian winter. Most German soldiers in Russia lacked warm clothing and sufficient supplies. A number of German divisions retreated, while others were taken prisoner by the better-outfitted Russians. Reinforcements and resources sent to bolster German troops on the Eastern Front in 1942 did so at the expense of Axis campaigns on the Western Front and in Africa during 1943. The Allies began 1943 with a string of victories in North Africa, ultimately leading to the surrender of all Axis forces on the continent by May. From North Africa the Allies invaded Sicily, where they routed enemy troops and proceeded onto the Italian mainland. Hitler's attempt to invigorate the Russian invasion during the summer of 1943 only further depleted Axis resources. As 1943 ended the Soviets were on the offensive, driving German forces back across Poland. At the same time the Allies were on the offensive in the South Pacific where U.S. troops captured the Solomon, Aleutian, and Gilbert Islands. At the outset of 1944 the Allies drafted plans for an invasion to end the war in Europe. U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) headed "Operation Overlord," the largest amphibious assault in history. In the early morning hours of D-Day, June 5, 1944, 5,000 ships, 10,000 planes, and 176,000 soldiers crossed the English Channel and pounded the beaches at Normandy, France. Despite suffering heavy casualties against well-armed, concrete-fortified German defenses known as pillboxes, the Allies opened a 60-mile beachhead through which a million troops would pass during the next month. Paris was liberated by August. The Germans made a desperate Nazi counterattack at the German-Belgian border in December 1944, which is called the "Battle of the Bulge" for the deep bulge it created in Allied lines. After its failure, the German army collapsed inside the Allied vise. U.S. forces from the west and Russian forces from the east converged at the Elbe River in April, and Germany unconditionally surrendered the next month, on May 7, 1945.
Following victory in Europe, the Allies turned their attention to the South Pacific. After securing control of Iwo Jima, the Philippines, and Okinawa, the Allies made plans for invading Japan. To avoid the heavy casualties predicted to result from such an invasion, President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953), who took office following President Roosevelt's death, authorized the dropping of two atomic bombs. On August 6, 1945, the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and three days later the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Japan unconditionally surrendered on September 2. Prior to his death Roosevelt met with Churchill and Stalin in February 1945, at the Yalta Conference, where the three leaders agreed to separate postwar Germany into four zones that would be occupied by the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. During the period of occupation Germany would be disarmed and its economy rebuilt. The Red Army's occupation of its postwar zone, however, gave way to the creation of Communist governments in Eastern Europe under Soviet control. The Yalta Conference also established the groundwork for an international war crimes tribunal at Nuremberg for the prosecution of Nazi leaders. Finally, the Yalta Conference finalized details for the creation of the United Nations. World War II also brought greater unity to the U.S. home front. Over 16 million U.S. citizens served in the armed forces during the war, so just about everyone knew a relative, friend, or acquaintance that was fighting in some part of the world. Families pulled together through food shortages, increased taxes, and lines at the gas station. An unprecedented number of women went to work, particularly in factories. Not surprisingly, the troops' return home in 1945 precipitated the postwar Baby Boom. Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you ... I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory! Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force, D-Day, June 5, 1944
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