A world war is a war affecting the majority of the world's most powerful and populous nations. World wars span multiple countries on multiple continents, with battles fought in multiple theaters. The term has usually been applied to two conflicts of unprecedented scale that occurred during the 20th century, World War I (1914-.1918) and World War II (1939-.1945). By the end of World War I, four major imperial powers-the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires-had been militarily and politically defeated and ceased to exist. The European nationalism spawned by the war and the breakup of empires, the repercussions of Germany's defeat and problems with the Treaty of Versailles are generally agreed to be factors in the beginning of World War II.
The first shot of World War II in Europe was fired 20 years, 9 months, 19 days and 18 hours after the last shot of World War I was fired. It was fired from the 13,000 ton German gunnery training battleship Schleswig Holstein (Captain Gustav Kleikamp) which was on a visit to Poland to honour the sailors lost on the German cruiser Magdeburg sunk in 1914, some of whom were buried in Danzig. It was anchored in Danzig (now Gdansk) harbour at the mouth of the River Vistula. At 4.30 am on September 1, 1939, the ship moved slowly down the Port Canal and took up position opposite the Westerplatte (an area containing Polish troop barracks, munition storage and workshops) and at 4.47 am, at point blank range, the order to "Fire!" was given. World War II had begun. Seven days later, on September 7, after a heroic defence by Major Henryk Sucharski and his troops, and a devastating attack by Stuka dive bombers, the 200 man Westerplatte Garrison surrendered.
World War II will forever remain one of the most cataclysmic events in the history of mankind-in terms of the number of people involved, the men and women killed, and the devastation wrought by modern weaponry. The "American spirit" began in World War II. When there is a genuine threat to a democracy, We're all in this together, and we will fight it out together. As American soldiers went off to battle, the country's citizens came together to support them. Troops from across the country were shipped to battlefields around the world. Peace At Any Cost? You be the judge.
With hindsight it seems obvious that events in Europe and Asia during the 1930s would inevitably lead to a cataclysmic global war. Japan's overt militarism and avowed expansionism, Adolf Hitler's and Benito Mussolini's strident fascist rhetoric and their dreams of new German and Italian empires, and the macabre dress rehearsal of the Spanish Civil War, were the thunder claps heralding the storm. But, at the time, the vision of the free world's leaders was, with a few exceptions, clouded. In most cases this was not because of latent fascist sympathies or ignorance and naivety but because of a desire for continued peace and a hope that other nations' bitter ideological differences need not spread worldwide. For the leaders of Britain, France, and the United States, the defining experience of their lives had been World War I: the anguish had been so great that it was thought that another such war must be avoided at virtually any cost.
Such views were particularly strong in the U.S. America was not concerned with ideology-the great monolith of the constitution took care of that - nor with security - two great oceans and national pride took care of that. The government had grave domestic issues to deal with; it was not inclined to worry about strife abroad.
Even America's mighty self-confidence had been shaken by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. The 1920s boom had produced record profits. Goods were available in ever-increasing quantities, but not enough people could afford them. Output had rocketed, fueled by over-confident speculators and increasing upper and middle-class affluence. Between 1925 and 1929, the value of all stocks listed on the New York Stock Exchange leaped from $27 billion to $67 billion.
But the bubble had been blown too large by the hot air of overconfidence. The shock waves caused when the bubble burst were to reverberate for ten years; the aftershocks for decades. On "Black Thursday," October 24, 1929, Wall Street was hit by blind panic. Share prices plummeted, as people, shorn of all confidence, sold as rapidly as possible. Attempts to stem the tide failed and the downward spiral continued until, by November, prices had fallen to 1927 levels.
The catastrophe spread across the country and the world. By 1932, U.S. production output had fallen by 40 percent, wages by 60 percent. Few escaped: many of the rich became impoverished; many of the poor became destitute. Homes and farms were repossessed, the unemployed (at least 12 million of them) roamed the streets, or scoured the country looking for work. Soup kitchens, vagrants, hobos, and beggars became ubiquitous symbols of the new poverty.
Amid hardship and despair, however, America found a savior. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an unlikely popular hero. A rich and successful son of the New York aristocracy, he had all the advantages of privilege and learning. But fate had given him an unwanted additional "asset." In 1921, he had been struck down by polio, which left him unable to walk unaided. This had both humbled him and made him appealing to the humble. He was seen as a man who had attained high office by having the courage to overcome adversity.
In his speech on winning the Democratic Party's nomination for the 1932 presidential election, Roosevelt promised a "new deal for the American people." At the election, thirty years of Republican domination were swept away as he won 472 electoral-college votes to Herbert Hoover's 59.
Roosevelt changed the political complexion of the U.S. for the next fifty years. The "rugged individualism" of Republican politics had been unable to meet the challenge of the Depression. Roosevelt began a program of federal intervention to rebuild the American economy. In his inaugural address on March 4, 1932, he promised "action, and action now" in this "dark hour of national life."
During a remarkable "Hundred Days," Congress enacted fifteen significant pieces of legislation, laying the foundations of long-term economic reform. Recovery did not happen overnight, and many areas of Roosevelt's strategy were flawed, but together they represented a positive plan and led to a new and vitally important optimism.
As Roosevelt's presidency matured, he was challenged by more progressive Democrats not only to plan for economic recovery but also to plan for liberal social reform. His response, although cautious and pragmatic, led to significant improvements in social welfare and employment legislation.
These successes received massive popular endorsement in the 1936 presidential election - Roosevelt won all but eight electoralcollege votes - but a sudden recession in 1937 produced both an economic downturn and a conservative backlash, which effectively ended his reformist New Deal policies. However, events on the world stage were about to take precedence in American life.
U.S. foreign policy in the decade after World War I could be summarized as "polite avoidance." Diplomats stood by their government's pledge to pursue peace and took a steadfastly noninterventionist line on international conflict. As the Depression bit deeper, American public opinion turned from polite avoidance to obdurate isolationism - ranging from idealistic pacifism to overt nationalism.
Three Neutrality Acts, in 1935, 1936, and 1937, reflected these sentiments. Whatever his private feelings, President Roosevelt famously declared, "I hate war," and promised to "pass unnumbered hours, thinking and planning how war may be kept from this nation." American neutrality played into the hands of the expansionist plans of Germany, Italy, and Japan; the more so because France and Britain were pursuing similar, if less vociferous, avoidance policies.
Japan's aggression had begun long before, in 1904-5, with the Russo-Japanese War - which Japan won - and the occupation of Korea. In 1931-2 Japan seized Manchuria, then under Chinese control, and by 1937 it had sufficient confidence to invade mainland China.
Early on the morning of December 8, 1941, the Second World War in the Pacific was begun with an amphibious attack by Imperial Japanese Army troops on the Northeast coast of British Malaya. Within hours they pushed their way inland despite heavy transport losses at the hands of the few British aircraft that were in the area. Other attacks at locations across the Pacific followed in rapid succession, the largest of them aimed at the giant American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where it was still December 7.
The USA was leading an international movement to isolate Japan economically and thus force them to withdraw from China. The USA plan was to cut off credit to the Japanese which would prevent them from being able to purchase petroleum. Japan received petroleum (an absolutely vital economic and military commodity, then as it is now) from three sources: The USA, Dutch east indies (Indonesia) and Burma (British controlled in the 1940's). The USA inspired movement included all three sources.
Japan would not accept a withdrawal from the Chinese war and instead began planning a first strike against the USA navy. Eliminating or reducing the USA naval forces in the Pacific would make the Japanese navy paramount, and thus Japan would be able to defeat the economic consequences of the USA ultimatum. After eliminating the USA navy Japan planned to occupy the Dutch East Indies and Burma, thus gaining control of enough oil to run their military and economy.
The strike on Pearl Harbor did exactly as hoped by the Japanese. The USA fleet was crippled. The Dutch lacked forces to repel the Japanese. The British navy (as ordered by Churchill) sent forces to defend their areas but these were totally inadequate for the job and were decimated quickly. Japan occupied all the oil producing areas and settled down to a war of attrition against the USA, which they hoped would wear down the USA politically and enable them to keep their conquests.
In Europe, fascist dictators were on the march. In 1922, Benito Mussolini had come to power in Italy. By 1928 he had suspended parliamentary democracy and assumed the absolute power of a dictator. His invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935 revealed the Western democracies' unwillingness to resist aggression. This gave a clear signal to Mussolini's natural ally to the north, Adolf Hitler.
Hitler had been appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933. With charismatic oratory and a shrewd exploitation of people's grievances, he had built up a notable populist momentum and support for his National Socialist Party. That support was fueled by national resentment of the draconian conditions imposed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War I; the resulting hardships had been greatly increased by the effects of the Depression.
The Fuhrer (Leader) quickly assumed absolute power and systematically rebuilt Germany's economy and military infrastructure. German troops were soon flexing their muscles: in March 1936 they reoccupied the demilitarized Rhineland zone along the FranceGerman border, and in spring 1938 they marched into Austria unopposed. Then, as tension mounted, and with the full support of President Roosevelt, the European policy of "appeasement" produced its greatest folly. Hitler demanded the annexation of the Sudetenland, the German-speaking province of Germany's neighbor Czedhoslovakia. The British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and his French counterpart, Edouard Daladier, flew to Munich to meet with Hitler in September 1938. They struck a notorious deal whereby they agreed to this in exchange for Hitler's guarantee to respect Czechoslovakia's remaining borders. Just over six months later, on March 15, 1939, Hitler occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia.
In Madrid, on March 28, Spain's Republican government surrendered to the fascist rebels led by Francisco Franco, thus ending a civil war which had been a dress rehearsal for global conflict. Since the 1936 army mutiny led by Franco, Germany and Italy had lent major support to the fascist cause. Britain and France, adhering to an international nonintervention agreement, imposed a military embargo on both sides. The German Condor Legion's bombing of Spanish cities, most infamously Guernica, in April 1937, had been a portent of things to come.
Europe prepared for war, but Hitler was ahead of the deadly game. In August 1939 he signed a secret pact with Josef Stalin, premier of the Soviet Union. It opened the way for a German attack on Poland; the Soviets would strike from the east; and the country would be divided between them.
War came on September 1, 1939, one of the most fateful days in modern history. German troops poured into Poland in a ferocious blitzkrieg attack and, despite stiff Polish resistance, moved swiftly toward Warsaw. France and Britain, which had threatened Hitler with war if he invaded Poland, declared war two days later. The Soviet Union invaded Poland on September 17, and by the end of the month Polish resistance had effectively ended.
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