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Lecture: World War II


  • The Story of the War to 1941
  • Pearl Harbor: The U.S. Enters the War
  • Women on the Home Front movie
  • Japanese-American Internment
  • Music of the War Years
  • Primary Document: Zoot Suit Riots
  • Hiroshima movie
  • image list
    Timeline © Copyright 2008 Eric Davis http://hopes-and-dreams.net

    "War Plane"


    Document: Langston Hughes: Beaumont to Detroit (1943)

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    The Story of the War to 1941

    Although the Stock Market crash took place in the U.S., the impact was global for several reasons. First, the U.S. investments in Europe were pulled out as companies scrambled to maintain domestic production. Germany was the hardest hit by this abandoning of production facilities, as much of her industry was American-owned and managed during the 1920s. Second, the U.S. traded with almost everyone, and even had a commercial relationship with the Soviet Union. With most of the nations who traded with the U.S. trading with everyone else, the Depression quickly became a global phenomenon.

    Italy: Fascism and Depression

    In Italy, the Depression was a problem, but to a great extent the political solution to economic problems had existed there since 1922. You'll remember how humiliated Italy was by her treatment at the Versailles Conference after World War I. This humiliation, combined with a fear of communism and a lack of commercial markets due to thwarted dreams of empire, led to political change. In 1922, the fascist party, led by Benito Mussolini, came into power.

    Fascism was based on the idea, originated in the Roman Empire, of a bundle of stickes (fascisti). Individually, a stick could be broken, but together the bundle was invincible. In fascism a strong leader is necessary, and he makes all the decisions for the good of the country. Fascism is ultra-nationalist; the nation is far more important than individuals. In Mussolini's case, it also relied on support from the middle classes (whom he permitted to control business without much government interference), terror in dealing with political enemies (mostly communists), and solving economic strife with a military build-up designed to create an Italian empire.

    By the time the Depression hit, Mussolini was able to simply gear up the military more strongly, and prepare to take over parts of Africa to start the Empire. Although business interests suffered from a lack of international trade, the fascist emphasis on self-sufficient nationalism and military buildup meant there was little change in Italy.

    Germany: Hyperinflation and Depression

    Germany was a different matter. She had already suffered enormously during the 1920s despite foreign investment, because she had to pay reparations to the winners of World War I. Reparations payments never met the demands, which angered France far more than Great Britain.

    The Ruhr

    In 1923, France decided to remedy matters by annexing the Ruhr Valley, the last industrial area of Germany. With the loss of the Ruhr, the Germany monetary system went under. Money printed by the government had little to back it other than industrial production, so inflation ran out of control. In 1919, German money was worth 4 marks to each American dollar. In 1923, it was 4.3 trillion marks to each American dollar. This is called hyperinflation.

    It meant that you could spend your entire life savings on a loaf of bread. People carried shopping carts full of cash through the streets to buy the week's groceries. No one was kicked out of their homes or unable to travel, because housing and transportation costs were controlled by the government; rents and fares had been set. People could live in beautiful homes, take the trolley to work, get paid millions of marks per day (wages also inflated, but not as fast) and be unable to eat.

    In this environment, only goods and foreign money had any value. Tourists flooded into Berlin after 1923, where you could buy an apartment building for $50 and have sex with a minor (even 12-year-olds became prostitutes) for a pair of shoes or a pound of butter. In elite clubs, you could trade your coat to the hat check girl in return for a bindle of cocaine. The German government had to scrap the monetary system and start over, but by 1929 the German people had been experiencing only false prosperity, bouyed up by American investment in their industries. This investment was pulled out with the Stock Market Crash.

    The Weimar Republic and the Nazis

    The political system at the time was the Weimar Republic, established under the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles without consideration for German wishes or history. Germany had never had a republic or representative government; before World War I Germany had been ruled by a royal family and the aristocrats (junkers). The Republic itself was dependent on American investment, and after 1929 political parties proliferated in Germany, numbering 30 or more by 1933. "Hitler"

    Hitler, who had founded the National Socialist (Nazi) party in the 20's under the principles of fascism, appealed to crowds by calling for one party, a national party. He also tore up the Treaty of Versailles, to the cheers of many. Throughout the 20's the Nazi party had been developing its principles of racial and ethnic purity, and a Third Reich (after the First with Charlemagne in 800, and the Second under Bismarck's unification in 1871). He blamed the Jews and communists for the loss of World War I, claiming that both groups valued their international connections to other Jews and other communists more than they valued the nation. The Nazi party had been raising its own "Hitler Youth" for years, providing young people in a troubled time with a sense of pride and destiny. In 1933 Hitler became chancellor under President Hindenburg, who was elderly and would die soon, leaving Hitler and the Nazis in power.

    The Nazi response to the Depression was firm under Hitler. Disenfranchise the Jews (who ran most banks and controlled most professions) under the Nuremberg Laws. Expand Germany, first to reunite the whole German people from the divisions caused by the Versailles Treaty, then to expand. Complete party control of the state and the elimination of political enemies. Compared to Hitler, Mussolini looks like a softie (he incarcerated only 40 political prisoners in his career). When Germany pulled out of the League of Nations in 1933, everyone knew she had military designs.

    Germany on the Move

    But under the Treaty of Versailles, as you have read, Germany should not have been militarily ready in 1933. She should have had no army, air force, or offensive weapons. But she did because back in 1922, Hans von Seekt of the WWI German General Staff had created a secret arrangement with Stalin, new premier of the Soviet Union. In return for German military training for its officers (Germany was still considered the best military in the world, even after its loss), Stalin would provide land in the USSR secretly for the development of German military weapons. The League of Nations, investigating inside Germany during the 20's for evidence they were breaking the Treaty, never knew about it. But by 1933 Germany was ready to mobilize. "1939 Map"

    In 1936, Germany took back the Rhineland, an industrial area occupied by France consisting of a huge amount of territory on both sides of the Rhine. In 1936, both Hitler and Mussolini were able to test new weapons in the Spanish Civil War. They assisted Fascist Generalissimo Francisco Franco into power, and were able to test techniques of blitzkrieg, or lightening war, on innocent civilians, wiping out entire villages. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria, assisted by Austrian collaborators (Hitler himself was Austrian). The German troops occupied the Sudetenland ("southern land"), the area of Czechoslovakia with a German-speaking population. When Neville Chamberlain questioned Hitler's actions at the Munich Conference in September 1938, Hitler assured him he was just trying to reunite Germany, a cause with which many were sympathetic.

    Then the following year, Germany took over the rest of Czechoslovakia, so obviously Hitler had greater designs than a united Germany. Britain decided that if he set foot in any further sovereign country, there would be war. (In other words, France was too weak to do anything about any of this, and Britain had no intention of going to war to save Czechoslovakia). In September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, having already assured the USSR's cooperation in the Non-Aggression (or Nazi-Soviet) Pact the month before.

    Everyone had known the public provisions of the Pact: Germany and the USSR had promised not to go to war with each other. Innocent enough. But the secret part of the pact said that when Germany invaded Poland, she would cede eastern Poland and the republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia to the USSR. All the USSR would have to do is not interfere, and she would get all that land. Good deal. When Hitler moved into Poland, however, Stalin (who did not trust Hitler -- who would?) went ahead and occupied these areas just in case.

    The official date of the start of this "European Theater" of the war is September 1, 1939, because that's when Poland (a country recreated to make a buffer zone between the Soviet Union and Germany) was invaded. Britain and France had declared war on Germany. But unlike in World War I, Germany was only fighting on the western front. And, unlike in World War I when Germany had to go through Belgium to get to France, blitzkrieg was a technique that could steamroll over any French defenses. Blitzkrieg began with air attacks to bomb out communications and transportation, followed by tanks to blast through defenses, then lighter armored vehicles, then infantry mopping up at the rear.

    Poland was taken in four weeks. Then Denmark, Norway and Holland were taken. Then by spring 1940, Germans broke through Franco-British troops, forcing the British to retreat off the continent. All of France was occupied except the south, which was controlled by the native pro-Nazi Vichy government. Spain was already fascist under Franco, and neutral. Hitler attacked Britain, starting air bombardment in summer.


    By this time, Japan was already several years ahead of the game, so I have to back up (sorry, it's a long story).

    Japan had not been treated well by the European powers for many years. In 1904-05, Japan had literally exploded on the world scene due to her extraordinary victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. Japan, thought to be a backward Asian nation, had modernized using European ideas and technology during the Meiji Restoration of the late 19th century. By 1904 she was sophisticated enough to wipe out the Russian Pacific Fleet in a matter of hours. The event was so surprising that it was a long-term cause of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, because the Russians realized their government was behind the times.

    During the teens and 20s, Europeans tried to limit Japanese militarism, and Japan permitted the limitations for the sake of being considered a serious international player and joining in global trade. She accepted limitations on the size of her navy and army, as proposed by the League of Nations. She was dependent on foreign trade for food, since the island nation of Japan could not produce enough for its population. When the Depression came and international trade ground to a halt, Japan was perilously short of food. Her new government, dominated by military types, felt that it was Japan's turn for an empire. All the important nations had an empire to supply them with raw materials and markets for goods.

    So Japan mobilized and expanded, first into Manchuria in 1931, then into China in 1937. The plan was to expand southward to Indonesia, where oil deposits ensured self-sufficiency, before the U.S. could stop them. Japan knew the U.S. would become involved, for two reasons. First, the U.S. was friends with republican China (it wasn't communist till 1949). Second, Japan had designs on European and American island holdings in the Pacific, including the Philippines. But Japan also knew that eventually the U.S. would have to become involved in what Hitler and Mussolini were up to in Europe.

    The Axis

    In 1937, Hitler and Mussolini decided they had something in common. At first it was hard to see what. Hitler was short, slight, meticulous, devious, mesmerizing and spoke in a scratchy voice with an Austrian accent so thick even many Germans couldn't understand what he was saying. Mussolini was big and expansive, with a powerful voice and loads of charisma. But they were each fascist leaders who didn't want interference from anyone in their plans. Italy had taken Ethiopia in 1935, and Hitler had cabled his approval. By 1937 they allied as the Axis Powers. This was based on the idea that if you drew a line from Berlin to Rome, it would create an "axis" around which the whole world would turn. Their alliance was formalized in the Pact of Steel in May 1939.

    In September 1940, Japan joined the Axis (ruining, to my mind, the whole idea). Japan had little in common with the western fascists, but both sides realized that the U.S. was moving closer to entering the war against them. Whichever "Theatre" the U.S. entered first, European or Pacific, it would be good for the other side to have her fight on two world-wide fronts, dividing American power. If the U.S. entered the European Theatre first, Japan agreed to declare war so she'd have to fight in the Pacific. If the U.S. went against Japan first, Italy and Germany would declare war to open the European front. Afterward, when Japan had taken all of Asia, and Italy had taken all of Africa, and Germany had taken all of Europe, they could fight each other. "Isoroku Yamamoto"

    In July 1941, Japan occupied French Indochina, and the U.S. retaliated by cutting off sales of rubber, scrap iron, oil and aviation fuel. Japan knew a lot about America, and not just that she had cut off all supplies. The leader of the navy, Admiral Yamamoto, had spent time in Houston touring the oil fields. He knew the U.S. had extraordinary industrial capacity for waging war. In 1940, Britain had been screaming for American assistance as her cities got bombarded every night by the German Luftwaffe. Then Hitler had gotten frustrated because he couldn't invade Britain, and because the British had succeeded in bombing Berlin (which Hitler said they would never be able to do). To distract Germany from the Berlin bombing, and to utilize the troops waiting in northern France for the British invasion, he had attacked the Soviet Union. The attack on the USSR was supposed to be the next step in Hitler's plan, after Britain was occupied. But the British, even with their cities being destroyed, slept in the subways at night and came up to their jobs in the morning. The Royal Air Force went up every night to meet the Luftwaffe, and had bombed cities in Germany, affecting production. Hitler had lost patience and attacked Russia in June 1941, forcing Stalin to join with Britain in alliance.

    So Japan knew that the U.S. would soon be joining the war, Japan was not yet near Indonesia, where the oil was. So in December 1941, Yamamoto planned the destruction of the entire American Pacific Fleet, all of which was stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawai'i.

    Pearl Harbor: The U.S. Enters the War

    The American military were very concerned about the possibility of espionage in light of the Hawaiian and Japanese population of Hawai'i. So they had lined up the airplanes, wingtip to wingtip, on the tarmac at Pearl to make surveillance easier. And on a Sunday morning, everyone was supposed to be in church, so all ships were supposed to be at Pearl.

    Yamamoto knew that it was essential to do two things: give the Americans as little warning as possible under international law, and wipe out the entire fleet in one blow. The Japanese declared war one hour before the attack, but the message went to Washington and got tangled up in translation and analysis of its veracity. The message didn't get to Pearl until an hour after the attack, leading everyone (including many textbooks) to call it a "sneak attack".

    With all the airplanes lined up, it was difficult for planes to take off and counter the attack. The Japanese sunk most ships in Pearl and disabled the rest, with few losses. Yamamoto, at sea on his ship, kept a tally as the planes reported back. By the end of the attack, he realized that several ships had not been at Pearl, including two aircraft carriers. "USS Arizona Plaque"

    If all the ships had been destroyed, the Japanese had estimated that it would take the U.S. two years to rebuild the fleet and counter-attack in the Pacific. Yamamoto knew that the presence of two aircraft carriers would make this process faster, perhaps as fast as a year (as it turned out, six months would be sufficient). He is reported to have said, "we have awakened a sleeping giant", knowing that the U.S. would be on the scene very quickly instead of knocked out of the war for two years.

    Because of the Axis alliances, we were immediately at war with Germany and Italy as well as Japan. President Roosevelt had been waiting, assisting the British in every way possible (such as Lend-Lease). With the Pacific Fleet crippled, the decision was easy to help in Europe first. Ultimately, it would be up to Roosevelt, Winston Churchill of Great Britain, and Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union to plan the Allied strategy. This will have far-reaching consequences, as we shall see.

    Women on the Home Front

    "Female Welder"

    Document: Ad: I'd rather be with them... (The WAC, 1944)

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    Many women entered war work during the war, joining the factory work force to make airplanes and ships. Clearly, the government needed them, and created Rosie the Riveter as an image of a true contributor to the war effort. Women were at least expected to volunteer for the Red Cross. Women who worked in factories often had access to special federally funded day-care centers for their children, and received a high wage when compared with fields dominated by females (domestic service, teaching, social work). The money they received they spent, on war bonds and products, stimulating the economy.

    The military also needed women for desk jobs, to free up men for active service, and as nurses. They took military jobs in clerical pools and communications, and were sometimes subject to hostility. Fellow soldiers who believe that women belong in the home didn't like seeing them in an office. Being nurses was OK, because that was considered an extension of their maternal nurturing role (and, frankly, because they'd been nurses since the Civil War). One particularly hostile group was mothers of sons who had worked safe desk jobs, but then were sent to the front and replaced by women. And there were problems with wearing the uniform, a male symbol. As the war went on, fashion adopted the boxy shoulders and slim skirt of the military uniform.

    Bosses in industry were divided in their view of women in their workforce. Most wanted production increased, and didn't care how it happened; they supported government propaganda encouraging women to enter factory jobs. Most segregated male and female workers, which was wise in the face of male resentment. There were basically three ways that male workers could show their distaste for a female in the workplace. They could neglect her, refusing to train her or giving her a tool and not showing her how to use it. They could abuse her, deliberately giving her heavy work to try to make her leave (most women rose to the challenge). Or they could treat her with derision, pinching and patting her bottom as she went by, assuming she was "easy" because she wasn't at home while her man was away. "Women Polishing Aircraft Windows"

    Although many women had to put up with the harassment, segregating workers was easier than dealing with trouble. In one company, all trucks were driven by men; in another, all trucks were driven by women.

    Other biases against women were more subtle. They received less pay than men, which was justifiable if they were less experienced. No one complained, since most were receiving more than they ever had before. The pay was high for them, and it gave them a feeling of independence that outlasted the war. But they were often given the jobs considered "most suitable" for women, since it was thought that females were better at repetitive tasks, those requiring manual dexterity or patience, and any kind of detail work or working to specifications. It was thought that men became frustrated with such jobs, and their big hands were no good at them. So the top job for a woman in a factory was inspector.

    Compared to home life, most women considered factory work a breeze. Studies showed that in married households where the man was at war, the woman did 100% of the work, but that when the man was not in the military the woman still did 79% of all housework. This was regardless of whether she worked outside the home or not. If her husband was gone, she became head of the household quite suddenly, and was expected to handle complex war-time taxes, buy war bonds, budget, and provide for herself and her children. "Bond Truck"

    Much of her time was spent in line, a responsibility that during the Depression was shared with men. There were severe shortages, and rationing of food and consumer goods during the war. Clothing and textiles were particularly problematic: linens, towels and diapers (no paper diapers yet) all cost twice as much, and children's clothing was of particularly low quality. All cloth was needed for uniforms, tents, bandages, sheets overseas. Most women spent time each evening after work mending clothes. Children's shoes were on 10-week back-order throughout the war (imagine guessing your one-year-old's shoe size weeks in advance). Rubber pants, for preventing diaper leaks, arrived with no elastic on the legs and were thus useless.

    Appliances were either not made or not repairable, as all metal went toward the war effort. Sewing machine companies were forbidden to make parts during the war, and there were no replacement bedsprings or refridgerator parts available. Any man with mechanical ability was overseas, so there were no repairs for the toilet, sink, washing machine, or furnace. After September 1942, can openers, water heaters, mixers and toasters were not even made.

    Health care was poor, again because so many doctors and nurses and supplies went to the war effort. The war saw the end of the obstetric house call: it was much more efficient to deliver babies in the hospital than in the comfort of home when you were short on doctors. You either had your baby in a hospital or you had it alone. There were children's epidemics of mumps, measles, scarlet fever, and polio during the war. Most women found welding and typing easier than keeping their children healthy and their house clean. In 1945, when they returned to their home-based roles, 80% said they would stay in their jobs if they could. High school students in Rhode Island have put together an excellent website on women in wartime: What did you do in the war, Grandma?

    Popular culture reflected the strength of females during the war years. Actresses like Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Lauren Bacall, and Bette Davis were all strong, competent women who played intelligent, determined and witty characters.

    One of the most popular films, "His Girl Friday", came out in 1940. Originally it was a play called "The Front Page", written for two men in the leading roles, reporters on a newspaper. But "His Girl Friday" starred Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, with Russell as one of the reporters, Hildy. Hildy, divorced from Grant's character (the editor of the paper), is determined to marry someone else, settle down, and have kids. Sexual tension between her and her ex runs throughout the film, in the form of the intense bantering so popular to screwball comedy. In the end, the excitement of newspaper work lures her away from her marriage plans and back to Grant. They are planning their second honeymoon as the film ends, and discover they will be covering a story on their way. Her decision, job instead of family, is rare in the movies and only possible because she is getting married at the end to the guy she loves.

    His Girl Friday from Vimeo.

    JapaneseAmerican Internment

    "Internees"The most important issue to understand involving JapaneseAmerican internment is civil rights. Most of the JapaneseAmericans relocated from the west coast were American citizens, detained without warrant and removed to internment camps. The Bill of Rights protects citizens from search and seizure, and the deprivation of liberty or property without due process of law.

    The military tried to negate the Bill of Rights through an Executive Order, signed by FDR. Many people protested this treatment, but few did on the west coast. Bainbridge Island, Washington, provides one exception. The Woodwards ran a newspaper in Bainbridge, an area with a very large population of Japanese ancestry. They lived integrated with their white neighbors; all their children went to school together. When the JapaneseAmericans were interned, it ripped their community apart. The Woodwards had their JapaneseAmerican correspondents report from the camp, so that those left behind would be up-to-date on births, marriages, deaths and events.

    When the war was over, many American communites did not want their JapaneseAmerican people to return. Bainbridge also had a minority who didn't want them to come back; indeed, much of their property had been taken while they were away. But the Woodwards persisted in their welcoming attitude, and today the community thrives.

    At the time, the Supreme Court supported internment in the case Korematsu v United States. The Supreme Court, if divided on an issue, releases two opinions: the majority opinion, or ruling, is written by the Chief Justice. The dissenting opinion is written by one of the dissenting justices, who does not agree with the courts decisions. Dissenting opinions may be useful if a similar case arises again. In this, Justice Black provides the justification for the ruling, and Justice Murphy provides the dissenting opinion.

    Document: Korematsu v the United States (1944)

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    Music of the War Years

    Swing was a term used to describe Big Band Jazz, jazzy music made for dancing.


    "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" was one of the most popular songs of World War II, and the Andrews Sisters made it famous with their particular style of harmony. Lyrics


    Glenn Miller's band was the most popular band for dancing in the U.S., and "In the Mood" was one of the songs they made famous.

    "War Songs"

    Though not technically a war song, "I'll Be Seeing You" is an example of one of the sad ballads connected with the war years. It's really in the tradition of sentimental ballad, but everyone associates it with the agony of having a loved one overseas in World War II.  Lyrics

    Primary Document: Zoot Suit Riots

    The Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 were also covered by Carey McWilliams, the journalist who reported on the Okies. It is a further example of racism during the war years. Think to yourself:

    Document: Carey McWilliams: The Zoot Suit Riots (1943)

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    Document: The Franck Report (June 1945)

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    Using primary source footage, I have created a brief movie about Hiroshima.





    All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.