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Diplomacy and Conflict • Negotiating Peace: Diplomacy During WWII
Overview

World War II, the largest and most destructive conflict fought in human history, began in September 1939, when German leader Adolf Hitler directed his army to invade Poland. The Polish invasion provoked declarations of war from Poland's allies, the United Kingdom and France. In Asia, the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 began with the Japanese invasion of China in July 1937, and many historians consider that event the first battle of World War II.

Early Years of the War

Germany, Italy, and Japan had formed the Axis alliance in May 1939 and committed themselves to world conquest. After Germany invaded western Poland on September 1, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland on September 17. The two invading countries had made a secret agreement to divide Poland and allow several Baltic states to be in the Soviet sphere of influence. After Poland was defeated in early October, the Soviets forced Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to allow Russian troops on their soil. The Soviets next turned to Finland, which refused to cooperate, leading to the Russo-Finnish War. Although Soviet forces finally broke through the Mannerheim Line in February 1940, they suffered heavy losses, which led the rest of the world to underestimate Soviet military capabilities.

Germany, France, and Britain, meanwhile, had entered a period known as the Phony War, which mainly involved blockades, mine laying, and sporadic naval action. That six-month lull ended in April 1940, when Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. Hitler followed that action with a blitzkrieg attack on France on May 10, 1940. By June 22, the Battle of France was over, and Germany now occupied Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Italy, which chose to remain neutral during the early stages of the war in Europe, had finally declared war on Britain and France on June 10.

Hitler now set his sights on Britain, but the German Army was stymied by British resistance during the Battle of Britain and turned east to launch Operation Barbarossa, the code name for the German invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941. That decision proved to be a costly blunder, however, as stiff Soviet resistance, particularly during the siege of Leningrad, drained German resources and manpower. The United States remained neutral in the summer of 1941, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt steered massive amounts of economic and military aid to the Allies—Britain, France, and the Soviet Union—through the lend-lease program.

The U.S. in the Pacific

Although Japan controlled large areas of China by 1941, the Japanese military had grown weary of China's guerrilla warfare tactics and turned its attention instead to Southeast Asia. After Japan invaded Indochina on July 26, 1941, Roosevelt froze all Japanese assets in America, a maneuver that cut off all trade between the two nations and deprived Japan of crucial U.S. oil supplies. In response, Japan's leaders decided to wage a war against the United States and launched a surprise air attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7; the United States declared war on Japan the following day. On December 11, Japan's allies, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States.

The U.S. Pacific fleet emerged from the Pearl Harbor attack severely crippled, and without naval protection, U.S. forces in the Philippines and other Pacific islands were quickly overrun. The British faired no better; they lost Hong Kong on December 25 and were crushed at the Battle of Singapore in February 1942, resulting in the loss of the Malay Peninsula to the Japanese. The Netherlands suffered the same fate; Japan controlled most of the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) by the end of February.

With U.S. industry producing ships, planes, and submarines at record rates, the U.S. Navy quickly recovered from its debacle at Pearl Harbor. In May 1942, in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Americans dealt a severe blow to the Japanese. In June, the Battle of Midway again demonstrated growing U.S. superiority in both weapons and in the tactics of carrier-based naval operations. At the same time, the U.S. submarine fleet was wreaking havoc on Japanese military and commercial shipping by choking off the island nation from vital supplies.

Meanwhile, U.S. general Douglas MacArthur began a strategy of "island hopping," by which U.S. forces took control of the many isolated Japanese outposts in the Pacific theater. He moved first on New Guinea and then launched an invasion of Japanese outposts in the neighboring Solomon Islands; he took Guadalcanal after terrible fighting in February 1943. U.S. forces moved ever closer to mainland Japan by taking Guam and Saipan in the Mariana Islands in the summer of 1944.

In October of that year, MacArthur led a powerful invasion force to the Philippines. There, off the island of Leyte, in what became known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the U.S. Navy dealt the Japanese fleet another near-fatal blow. The conquest of the Philippines was largely complete by March 1945, and in April, U.S. marines took the island of Okinawa, very near the Japanese coast. The stage was now set for a final, massive invasion of Japan itself.

Allied Advances in Europe

In the European theater during 1942–1943, German forces in the Soviet Union remained bogged down at Leningrad and suffered devastating losses at the Battle of Stalingrad, resulting in a full-scale German retreat from the Eastern Front in early 1943. Meanwhile, the British Royal Air Force and the U.S. Air Force had intensified the Allied bombing campaign in 1942 and seriously damaged German industrial capacity. Not yet prepared to invade German-occupied France, Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill decided to first challenge the German Army in the North African campaign. Striking out from Casablanca in Morocco in November 1942, British and U.S. forces under Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower conquered areas of Algeria held by the French Vichy regime (a puppet government set up by Hitler after his conquest of France). Moving east, the Allied forces met the Germans in an important engagement at the Kasserine Pass in February 1943 and finally forced a German surrender of all of Tunisia in May that same year.

Next, the Allies prepared for the Italian Peninsular campaign. On July 10, 1943, U.S. and British forces began the Sicily invasion; the Italians rebelled against fascist ruler Benito Mussolini, whom King Victor Emmanuel III arrested on July 25. Then, on September 2, the Allies began invading mainland Italy, and Italy surrendered six days later. In response, the Germans invaded Rome and restored the fallen Italian dictator. Fighting against German troops, the Allied advance slowed, but a risky landing behind German lines on a beach at Anzio in January 1944 eventually succeeded, and American forces entered Rome on June 4.

Two days later, on June 6, 1944, Allied forces landed on the coast of France in what became known as the D-Day invasion. Fighting was brutal, but the Allies managed to take control of several beachheads, which they would expand in the following months as they drove on into Germany. Free French Forces, fighting under resistance leader Gen. Charles de Gaulle, and U.S. troops entered Paris on August 25 to the delirious cheers of liberated Parisians.

While another invasion force entered France from the south and bombing raids from England continued to destroy homes and industry in Germany, the Allies pushed on to the German frontier on the Rhine River. There, on December 16, the Germans mounted one final, desperate offensive against the relatively weak center of the U.S. lines. Known as the Battle of the Bulge, it did not last long. Hitler's armies were running out of resources, including crucial fuel supplies, and were throwing inexperienced boys and old men into their ranks to make up for increasing losses. Fighting in bitter cold, the Allies pushed the Germans back for the last time.

End of War in Europe

Now all that remained was to push on into Germany toward the capital in Berlin. Earlier in the war, Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed that they would accept nothing short of unconditional surrender from the Germans. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was not likely to settle for anything less, either, as the Soviets had done the heaviest fighting of the entire war. The battles on the Eastern Front were the biggest in human history, and losses—in military personnel, equipment, and civilian casualties—were staggering.

The Soviets had also encountered the brunt of the Germans' death camps—including Auschwitz—in Eastern Europe, where Hitler had attempted to annihilate the Jewish race and any "inferior," non-Aryan peoples who challenged the Nazi Party's views of racial purity. Many of the millions of victims of the Holocaust had been Soviet citizens before the war, and Soviet losses over the course of the war totaled as many as 25 million people killed.

By early 1945, the combined effect of Allied bombing, invading U.S. and British troops from the west, and vengeful Soviets in the east had reduced much of Germany to rubble. The Soviets carried out the attack on Berlin and captured it by the end of April. Hitler committed suicide in his bunker beneath Berlin on April 30 as the Soviets closed in. On May 8, V-E Day, remaining German forces finally surrendered unconditionally to the Allies.

Defeating Japan

The war in Europe was over, but Japan still remained undefeated. The prospect of invading the island nation was daunting, especially in the face of projected bitter resistance from the Japanese people. Roosevelt had died in April, and when Vice President Harry Truman succeeded to the presidency, he learned of the newest and deadliest U.S. weapon—the atomic bomb. U.S. military leaders urged its use to force the Japanese into surrender.

Hoping to end the war rapidly with minimal loss of American life, Truman gave the order to drop an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima when the Japanese refused to surrender unconditionally. On August 6, 1945, a U.S. plane named the Enola Gay dropped the first of two bombs, which instantly killed 80,000 people and caused unprecedented damage. Three days later, after the Japanese still did not surrender, the second atomic bomb fell on the city of Nagasaki and also instantly killed 80,000. The Allies accepted Japan's surrender on August 14, V-J Day, and on September 2, in Tokyo Bay aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri, members of the Japanese government signed articles of unconditional surrender.

Legacy of the War

Thus ended the most destructive war in history, one that has changed the face of the modern world. About 50 million people died during the war, half of them civilians, and the conflict consumed at least $2 trillion of the world's wealth. Vast stretches of the earth were devastated, cities lay in rubble, and millions were homeless. Europe, in ruins, would no longer be the center of global economic, political, or military power. Japan's empire was destroyed and the nation humiliated. Nazi death camps and the millions who died in them revealed the depths of human misery and evil. The Hiroshima bombing and Nagasaki bombing demonstrated the awesome destructive power of atomic weapons and forever altered calculations about international relations and military power. The United States and the Soviet Union, former allies, would soon find themselves pitted against each other in an increasingly hostile Cold War. Finally, the world faced the monumental task of rebuilding, recovering, and forging a new world order.

"island hopping," "inferior,"
Richard Fogarty
Dr. Richard Fogarty is an associate professor of history at the University of Albany, State University of New York. He has also taught at Bridgewater College, Shippensburg University, University of Georgia, and Univerisity of California, Santa Barbara, where he received his PhD in history. He is the author of Race and War in France: Colonial Subjects in the French Army, 1914–1918 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008). Fogarty's research interests include racism, French colonialism, and World War I.

Further Reading

Beevor, Antony. The Second World War. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012; Tucker, Spencer C., ed. Encyclopedia of World War II: A Political, Social, and Military History. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005; Weinberg, Gerhard L. Germany, Hitler, and World War II. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995; Zabecki, David T., ed. World War II in Europe: An Encyclopedia. 2 vol. New York: Garland Pub., 1999.

MLA Citation

Fogarty, Richard. "World War Ii." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2020, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/310047. Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.

Entry ID: 2171547

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