Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

Question for Discussion: How did American
involvement in World War II affect
American society and culture?

Reading: Hymowitz, pp. 311-314; Gerster, pp. 165-176;
Hoffman, pp. 247-254, 270-277

Video: Century of Women: Rosie the Riveter

Daily Class Web Links

World War II: The Global War

Maps of World War II

World War II at Home: The United

World War II and the Holocaust

Daily Class Outline

1. The Causes of World War II

2. American Entry into World War II

3. American Women and World War II

4. The Holocaust and the German Plan to
Exterminate Jews

Daily Class Questions

1. According to the Atlantic Charter, what are the United States' larger goals in World War II?

2. Do you think President Roosevelt and the United States are really committed to the larger principles of the Atlantic Charter?

3. According to A. Philip Randolph, why should American Blacks support and fight for the United States in World War II?

4. What does Randolph argue Black American soldiers will be fighting for in World War II?

5. How did World War II change the lives and roles of American women?

6. What did American women learn as a result of their expanded roles and increased opportunities during
World War II?

7. Given what you know about the causes of World War I, what do you think were the major causes of World War II?

8. What were the goals of the Germans and the Japaneese during World War II?

Daily Class Notes

In order to understand World War II, we need to first look at how the global economic depression affected the major economic and military powers in the 1930s. Like the United States, the major European empires--France, Britain, Germany, and Belgium--were devastated by the depression. And like the European countries, Japan was hurt by the depression. For each of these major powers the large question was this: How could they get their economies growing again? Williams believes that World War II was caused by the conflicting economic, political, and military strategies these countries adopted to overcome the global depression of the 1930s.

Williams argues that the United States was devastated by the depression. Many Americans began to question whether their economy or society worked. Despite Roosevelt's and all the government's efforts, the depression lingered on throughout the 1930s. The severity and length of this depression caused many Americans to question whether the American Dream was still possible. Throughout our history, Americans believed that each generation would be wealthier, more successful, and have a higher standard of living than the last. As Williams argues, Americans came to believe that their individual freedom depended on increasing wealth and opportunities. Only through economic growth and imperial expansion could Americans continue to experience increasing wealth and achieve the American Dream.

But the depression caused Americans to question whether the American Dream was still possible. Faced with growing disillusionment about the American economy, government, and society, President Roosevelt worked to restore faith in the American Dream and the future. Roosevelt and his advisors soon realized that the only way to end the depression was to expand the American empire. The United States needed to use its economic and military power to force open foreign markets and sources of raw materials in order to get the American economy growing again. Roosevelt realized that the American economy, what Williams calls market capitalism, no longer would work without the support of the federal government. Under Roosevelt, especially during World War II, we see an increasing cooperation between large, dominant American corporations and the federal government. Williams writes: "Lacking the elementary candor to admit that marketplace capitalism had failed, American leaders had no recourse but to employ the State to create markets, control raw materials, and accumulate capital." During the 1930s and throughout World War II, the federal government subsidized larger American corporations by massive military spending. As we will see, it is during these years that we first witness the massive growth of what President Eisenhower will call "the military-industrial complex."

In addition to trying to prop up the American economy by providing social welfare to those hurt by the depression and supporting large dominant corporations become profitable again, Roosevelt committed the United States to protecting and expanding its control over what Williams calls the American empire. Roosevelt strengthened our control over Latin American governments by putting strong, authoritarian leaders who supported the United States into power. Roosevelt said of the dictator of Nicaragua who the United States had helped put in power, "He may be a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch." In addition to reasserting our imperial control over Latin America, Roosevelt tried to reassert and expand our imperial control over Asia by challenging the growing Japanese empire. Finally, Roosevelt used economic and political pressure to force Britain, France, and Germany to open their markets to American goods and allow American economic interests access to their colonies. Roosevelt concluded that only by strengthening the United States' domination and control over this emerging global economy could we recover from the depression and guarantee that it would never happen again. With a dominant American empire projecting its power over the entire world, there would always be markets for American goods and sources of cheap raw materials. This dominant American global empire would reassure Americans, William argues, that empire as a way of life would once again guarantee them increasing individual wealth and opportunities.

But it was precisely because the United States sought to expand its imperial control over the other major empires--Britain, France, Germany, and Japan--who also wanted to expand their economic and political control over large parts of the world that conflicts soon arose. In Asia, the Japanese, like the United States, believed they had a manifest destiny to create what they called a Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Japan wanted to expand its empire by conquering Korea, China, and Indochina. By expanding its empire, Japan's economy, wealth, and political power would grow rapidly, maybe one day allowing it to challenge the other dominant global empires. But in order to expand its Asian empire, Japan would first have to challenge and defeat the United States, Britain, and France whose empires had already laid claim to large parts of Asia.

In the conflict between competing global empires in Europe, Germany soon asserted its dominance. It had lost World War I and been forced to pay huge reparation costs to the victors only because the United States came to the aid of Britain and France and defeated Germany. In the 1930s, Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany believing that his nation had been cheated by the the victorious allies after World War I. Like the Japanese, Nazi Germany under Hitler came to believe that the only way for Germany to recover from the depression was to expand it economic and political control over other countries, to expand the German empire. From his study of the history of European imperialism Hitler concluded that only be expanding its empire can a country guarantee continued economic growth, increased wealth, and expanded opportunities for its people. But Hitler wasn't planning on trying to challenge France, Britain, and Belgium for imperial control over their African colonies. Unlike earlier forms of European imperialism, Hitler and Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s set out to colonize Europe and Asia itself. Hitler set out to conquer all of Europe and Russia, proclaiming that he was doing to do to Europe what Europe had done to the rest of the world.

Thus, by the late 1930s, the United States faced a growing challenge to its global military and political dominance from the expanding German and Japanese empires. The United States realized that it must use its economic and political power to try to limit their expansion. In the late 1930s, Roosevelt tried to use economic embargoes to Japan and Germany to try to force them to give up their imperial ambitions. But this did not work. In fact, in the face of an expanding American empire, the Japanese and the Germans were even more determined. Why should they allow the United States to grow so powerful that it would one day be able to force its will onto Germany and Japan. Both these countries saw the United States as a growing global empire that threatened to dominate and control them if not stopped. The only way to challenge this growing American empire Germany and Japan concluded was to expand their own empires. Thus, World War II isn't simply a battle between the good and the evil, between freedom and totalitarianism, as most Americans traditionally understand it. World War II grew out of the growing conflict between global empires to determine who would dominate the emerging global economy.

Faced with the rising threat of German imperialism and expansion, the United States in the late 1930s began supporting France and Britain, fearing that if Nazi Germany conquered all of Europe it would threaten American economic expansion and political domination. But despite America's efforts to convince France and Britain that in return for our aid they should recognize our economic and political dominance, they refused. Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Britain, said: "I have no intention of presiding over the demise of the British Empire." Just as in World War I, the United States believed that it had the chance to help end the war and impose its economic and political control over the rest of the world. American goals in World War II are spelled out in "The Atlantic Charter."

In August 1941, before America had even officially entered the war, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill met and signed the Atlantic Charter, declaring that it represented "their hopes for a better future for the world." The Atlantic Charter described a world dominated by the American Open Door; a world in which all the major empires had given up their colonies, and each country now had control over its own society and economy. The Charter also described a global economy based on free trade in which every country had free access to the markets and resources of all the countries in the world. After defeating the Japanese and German empires, the Charter imagines a world led by a global organization, the United Nations, which would maintain the peace, freedom, and security of all the nations. The Atlantic Charter would appear to be a blueprint for a non-imperial world in which all countries have given up their empires and their rights to conquer and control other peoples. But this is not the case.

The Atlantic Charter reflects the United States efforts to force the other major global empires to give up their colonies and open up their markets to American goods. But even though America demanded that Germany, France, Britain, Belgium, and Japan give up their empires and their colonies, the United States had no intention of, as the Charter states, respecting "the sovereign rights and self-government" of all countries. We would continue to exert our economic, political, and military control and domination over the countries in our empire. Recognizing this American hypocrisy, France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and Japan refused to give up their empires. Why should they renounce their control over their colonies when in doing so they would be leaving themselves and their former colonies open to American economic and political domination? But the United States claimed that it wasn't an empire, that it wasn't controlling other countries, and that besides it only was trying to help other countries achieve the wealth and success that we had. This is what Williams is referring to when he charges that the United States saw itself as "a progressive, benevolent global policemen."

In December 1941, Japan attacked American military and naval bases in the Philippines, Hawaii, and Guam. Japan's larger strategy was to deliver a knockout blow to American, British, and French imperial forces in Asia and quickly conquer and control Asia. After Japanese victory, they believed that the United States, Britain, and France could not successfully challenge their military, political, and economic dominance over Asia. The wealth, cheap labor, and resources of its expanded Asia empire would make Japan so powerful that these nations could not challenge imperial Japan. But this turned out to be a bad gamble. The United States was even more determined to defeat imperial Japan and reestablish its economic and imperial control in Asia.

After nearly conquering all of Europe and conquering half of Russia by late 1941, Nazi Germany was now faced with a counterattack. The United States quickly entered the war against Germany after declaring war against Japan in December 1941. Because its industry and economy were not damaged by the war, the United States quickly became the "arsenal of democracy," providing arms and supplies to Britain and Russia in their desperate efforts to keep the Germans from conquering them and all of Europe. By 1942, the United States, Britain, and Russia were allies, working together to defeat the Nazis and the Japanese. The allies plans were to defeat the Germans first and then defeat the Japanese. But in 1942, as Williams charges, the United States made a fatal mistake.

Meeting with Churchill, the Prime Minister of the Soviet Union Joseph Stalin in 1942, Roosevelt promised that the United States and British forces would invade Europe in 1942 and take some of the pressure of the Russian army that was doing most of the fighting against the Germans. But later, after Roosevelt met with Churchill, he decided to delay the allies invasion of Europe until 1944. Roosevelt did this because he realized that to invade Europe in 1942 would force the United States to draft a large army, up to 130 divisions, and cost Americans billions of dollars more and possibly millions of American casualties. Roosevelt wanted to win the war, but he wanted to do so at "the lowest cost." As a result, the Russians carried the brunt of the fighting until 1944, losing a total of 20 million men in the war, whereas the United States lost only 400,000 men. In addition to not wanting to pay the higher costs of a quick, decisive bloody victory, Roosevelt was convinced by Churchill that they should concentrate on liberating the captured British colonies in the Middle East before trying to recapture Europe from Nazi Germany. The Soviets later charged that Americans were allowing Russians to die in the war against Germany in order to support British imperialism.

By the spring of 1945, the United States and its allies had marched all the way into Germany and finally defeated the Nazis. The United States had won the war at very little cost to itself; its economy was booming, its people were enjoying higher living standards, and large corporations were making record profits. But Britain, France, Belgium, and Russia were in ruins, their economies, societies, and peoples suffering. Recognizing its economic, military, and political advantages over its war-ravaged allies, the United States tried to impose its domination and control over a "new world order" led by the United States. But before it could create this new world order, the United States would first have to defeat Japan.

By the summer of 1945, the Japanese were nearly defeated, American bombing, American naval blockade of Japan, and costly military defeats had hurt Japan. In June of 1945, the Japanese were trying to surrender. But they had one condition: they wanted to be allowed to keep their emperor as the figurehead of the Japanese nation. But the United States refused. We demanded complete and unconditional surrender. In order to force the Japanese to surrender, American bombers firebombed and destroyed over 50 Japanese cities, killing over one million people in the early summer of 1945. The United States wanted Japan to unconditionally surrender and accept American control and domination.

Faced with Russian entry in the war against Japan in August 1945, President Truman dropped two atomic bombs on Japan and promised to keep dropping them until Japan surrendered. Truman knew that Japan would surrender as soon as Russia entered the war, but then the United States would be forced to allow Russia to play a role in imposing peace on war-ravaged Japan and Asia. The United States did not want Russia to play this role. We wanted Russia to recognize our dominance and our economic and military leadership. In order to deny Russia a role in the peace in Asia, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Japan, hoping to quickly end the war before Russia could get involved. In addition, President Truman wanted to impress the Russians with the American atomic bomb, hoping that they would recognize our awesome power and accept our domination and leadership of the post-war world.

The tragedy of World War II, much like World War I, is that it did not make the world safe for democracy. Instead the world was still dominated by global imperial powers who wanted to use their economic and military power to dominate and control other countries and peoples. The Cold War, as we shall see, is a global competition between two global empires, the United States and the Soviet Union, over which nation would dominate and control the world. Even after winning the Cold War, the United States refused to realize that it was a global empire and that Americans depended on an "imperial way of life." This is both a tragedy for Americans and the larger world.


© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 20 Oct. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/hitler.htm
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