The World War II Research Paper

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World War II was a military conflict from 1939 to 1945 that engulfed much of the globe. It is considered to have been the largest and deadliest war in world history, killing 62 million people on the battlefield, in massive bombings of civilians in cities, and by genocide. There were two hostile camps—the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, Japan, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, Finland (cobelligerent), Thailand, and others; and the Allied Powers of the British Empire and Commonwealth (including India, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), France, the United States, the Soviet Union, China, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Poland, and others. The global reach of the empires of France, Italy, and Britain meant that non-European areas became directly involved with battles fought in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. Organized civilian resistance movements in occupied countries (notably Yugoslavia, France, and Greece) made important contributions to the Allied war effort. The economic effects of the war have been estimated at $1 trillion in 1945 (approximately $10.5 trillion in 2005 terms). It is the only time in history that nuclear weapons were used (by the United States against Japan). The end of World War II resulted in the partitioning of Europe into East (ruled by Communist governments under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union aligned under the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, or Comecon, and the Warsaw Pact) and West (with democratic governments receiving economic reconstruction aid through the U.S. Marshall Plan aligned under NATO), the U.S. occupation of Japan, and new international organizations such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. The immediate postwar era also saw the rise of European integration efforts with the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community, which would develop into the European Union by the end of the century, and the beginning of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union that would mark the second half of the twentieth century.

Expansionism and Economic Conditions

Territorial expansion of Germany and Italy began before any military hostilities. The most noted example of territorial demands made by Hitler’s Germany is Czechoslovakia (where Germans comprised one-third of the population), followed by German-speaking Austria. But the Reich sought further expansion. Many in Germany never accepted the creation of Poland following World War I, and they focused territorial demands on the Polish Corridor, a narrow strip of land separating East Prussia from Germany that allowed Poland access to the Baltic Sea, but also sought broader territory that would expand Germany to a common border with Russia. In 1935 Germany regained the Saar region, in March 1936 it reoccupied the Rhineland, and in 1937 it achieved Anschluss (union) with Austria. Italy’s fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, also hoped to acquire territory, particularly at the expense of France, Albania, and Greece, to create a New Roman Empire. In 1934 Italy moved against Abyssinia on the border of Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia. Territory was also an important factor in the war in Asia. One of the most often cited reasons for Japan’s aggression in Asia is that nation’s need for the raw materials naturally lacking in its own territory. Thus Japan, the only burgeoning industrial economy in Asia at the time, invaded first Manchuria, then other areas throughout the Asian mainland, and finally the Western Pacific in order to secure necessary natural resources such as oil and iron ore.

The economic effects of the Treaty of Versailles and the Great Depression were important factors in radicalizing German politics. In April 1921 Germany was presented with a reparations bill of $33 billion by the victorious allies of World War I. Reparations payments hobbled the weakened German economy, causing rapidly rising inflation and a dramatically depreciating currency. France refused Germany’s request for a postponement, Germany defaulted on the war reparations in 1923, and the French army occupied part of the Ruhr (the German industrial zone). Hyperinflation ensued as the German currency, the mark, plummeted to 4 billion marks to the dollar (from 75 marks to the dollar in 1921 and 18,000 in January 1923), eliminating life savings and making salaries worthless. Groceries cost billions of marks (wheelbarrows of currency were needed for a single loaf of bread) and hunger riots broke out. In September 1923 the German government resumed reparations payments, inciting bitter popular resentment and paving the way for extremist political groups such as the Nazi Party (National Socialist Party).

Ideology, Nationalism, And Militarism

Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the German army was allowed to remain intact and was not forced to admit defeat by surrendering. The German general staff supported the idea that the army had not been defeated on the battlefield and could have fought on to victory were they not betrayed at home (the Dolchstosslegende, or “stab-in-the-back legend”) by German politicians who signed the November 1918 armistice (the “November Criminals”). The theory became very popular among Germans: Adolf Hitler, a World War I veteran, became obsessed with this idea, laying blame firmly on Jews and Marxists for undermining Germany’s war effort. The Nazi Party won 230 of 608 seats in the Reichstag (German parliament) in January 1933; within six months Hitler was elected chancellor. The Nazis pledged to first restore Germany to its rightful place in Europe, and then to seek world power.

Racism and anti-Semitism characterized the Nazi Party, which organized official boycotts of Jewish shops and professional men and the opening of the first concentration camp in Dachau, outside Munich, in March 1933. In September 1935 the Nuremberg Laws relegated Jews to separate, second-class status and prohibited intermarriage and sexual relations with Aryan Germans. In November 1938 Nazis orchestrated a nationwide pogrom on Jews following the murder of a German diplomatic assistant in the German embassy in Paris by a French Jew. Jewish homes, shops, and 191 synagogues were destroyed and 20,000 Jews were arrested on Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”). German anti-Semitism culminated in the Holocaust.

Although technically an absolute monarchy under Emperor Hirohito, Japan was politically dominated by a group of militaristic generals in charge of the most powerful army in Asia at the time. Japanese militarism was accompanied by racism, toward both Europeans and other Asians, especially Chinese and Koreans. Anyone who was not Japanese was considered inferior and treated as such. One example of Japanese violent racism is General Shiro Ishii’s Unit 731 experiments in Pingfan in Harbin, China, in which as many as 10,000 Chinese, Korean, and Russian prisoners of war and civilians were subjected to brutal experiments in vivisection, germ warfare, and weapons testing.


Britain and France followed an early policy of accommodation and compromise in Germany’s favor in the hope of avoiding another war, known as the “policy of appeasement”; many thought the Treaty of Versailles imposed unreasonable demands on Germany. In June 1935 the Anglo-German Naval Agreement was signed, signaling Britain’s unwillingness to defend the Versailles settlement. In March 1936 German military reoccupation of the Rhineland (demilitarized under the Versailles Treaty) met with no opposition from France and thus successfully challenged France’s willingness to defend the Versailles settlement. In January 1937 Hitler publicly broke with the Treaty of Versailles.

Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister of Britain from 1937 to 1940, is known for adopting a policy of appeasement in an attempt to preserve the peace and buy time for any major rearmament. In September 1938 Britain, France, and Italy agreed at the Munich Conference to grant Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland to Germany. In return, Hitler gave Chamberlain his personal word on future cooperation. The Munich Pact is considered the height of appeasement. On his return to London, Chamberlain stated: “We regard the agreement signed last night [Munich Pact] and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again____ My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.” Chamberlain resigned in 1940 and was replaced by Winston Churchill, who led Britain to the end of the war. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of nonaggression signed by Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 is also considered by some historians as an act of appeasement or as an attempt by Joseph Stalin to buy time to prepare for an impending German attack on the Soviet Union.

U.S. Entry Into The War

Since 1940 the United States had allowed the covert operation in China of the American Volunteer Group, or “Chennault’s Flying Tigers,” to assist the Chinese war effort. The Flying Tigers destroyed an estimated 115 Japanese aircraft, sunk numerous Japanese ships, and participated in the Burma land campaign. U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt cut exports of oil and scrap iron to Japan in 1941. Japan planned and executed a strike on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Sunday, December 7, 1941, to cripple the U.S. Pacific fleet and consolidate oil fields in Southeast Asia. The attack on Pearl Harbor achieved military surprise and severely damaged the U.S. navy, and it remains the largest military attack on U.S. soil.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941, in the hope that Japan would assist Germany by attacking the Soviet Union (it did not). Pearl Harbor, in conjunction with Hitler’s declaration of war, gave Roosevelt the domestic support he needed to join the war in Europe and Asia without meaningful opposition from Congress. Many historians consider this an important turning point of the war in Europe, marking the formation of a grand alliance of powerful nations (the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union) against Germany.

Postwar Division, Occupation, and Reconstruction

After World War II, Europe was informally partitioned into Western Europe and Eastern Europe under the NATO and Warsaw Pact military alliances and the Marshall Plan and Comecon economic arrangements. Germany was formally divided into the states of the Federal Republic of Germany (F.D.R., or West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (G.D.R., or East Germany). Allied troops remained in Germany for decades following the war. Following German reunification in October 1990, the new united Germany still had Soviet troops stationed in its eastern provinces.

The U.S. Marshall Plan intended to rebuild the European economy and promote European unity while thwarting the political appeal of communism. For Western Europe, economic aid ended the dollar shortage and stimulated private investment for postwar reconstruction. The Marshall Plan required European states to work together to utilize the funds, an obligation that later facilitated the formation of the European Economic Community.

The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON, Comecon, CMEA, or CEMA) was formed in 1949 as an economic organization of Communist states. Its original members were the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Albania, the German Democratic Republic, and Poland. Albania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania, which were allied with the Axis Powers during the war, came under the Soviet sphere of influence, with their Communist governments joining the Soviet-led Comecon economic and trade area, as did Poland. In 1950 East Germany joined Comecon. (Other members included Mongolia [1962], Cuba [1972], and Vietnam [1978]. Yugoslavia [1964] was an associate member; other Communist countries or Soviet-friendly governments were observers.) Comecon members had common approaches to state economic ownership and planned management, and political regimes that espoused the ideologies of Marxism-Leninism. In 1949 the ruling Communist parties of the founding states were also linked internationally through the Cominform, the Communist Information Bureau, which established information exchanges between members. The East European members of Comecon were also militarily allied with the Soviet Union in the Warsaw Pact.

In Asia, the U.S. military occupation of Japan led to Japan’s democratization. China’s civil war continued during and after World War II, culminating in the establishment of the Communist People’s Republic of China. Europe’s Asian colonies India, Indonesia, and Vietnam started toward independence.

Legacy Of World War II

One of the most important legacies of World War II was the creation of a set of international institutions to provide for international governance of global security and monetary relations. Postwar security and economic institutions were created exclusively by the victorious Allied Powers and reflected the postwar power structure. The term United Nations was first coined by Roosevelt during the war to refer to the Allies. On January 1, 1942, the Declaration by the United Nations committed the Allies to the principles of the Atlantic Charter and pledged them not to seek a separate peace with the Axis Powers. Thereafter, the Allies used the term United Nations Fighting Forces to refer to their alliance. The United Nations institutions were created during the war itself to govern international relations after the war.

The initial ideas for a global security organization were first elaborated at wartime Allied conferences in Moscow, Cairo, and Tehran in 1943. During August to October 1944 representatives from France, Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and the United States met in Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., to prepare plans for an organization that would maintain peace and security, and economic and social cooperation. The formal monetary conference predated the security conference: The United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference of July 1 to 22, 1944 (called the Bretton Woods conference), took place in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, with 730 delegates from 45 Allied countries. It established the Bretton Woods system of international exchange-rate management that remained in place until the mid-1970s, and it produced two separate institutions (called the Bretton Woods institutions) to monitor, regulate, and facilitate international monetary affairs and finance in the post-World War II era. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both headquartered in Washington, D.C., have had lasting influence on the international political economy since their inception. The International Monetary Fund was entrusted with overseeing the global financial system by monitoring exchange rates and balance of payments, providing liquidity, and offering technical and financial assistance. The World Bank, or International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), was entrusted with providing finance such as grants or loans at preferential rates, technical assistance, and advice to countries for the purpose of economic development and poverty reduction, and for encouraging and safeguarding international investment. Although the World Bank’s activities have evolved to focus on developing countries, the first loan issued by the World Bank was approved on May 9, 1947, to France in the amount of $250 million for postwar reconstruction; this remains its largest loan to date in real terms. World Bank loans and grants provide financing to countries that have no access to international capital markets.

The United Nations Conference on International Organizations opened at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco on April 25, 1945, with fifty nations and some nongovernmental organizations represented. Initially referred to as the United Nations Organization, the UN was comprised of several administrative bodies (General Assembly, Secretariat, Economic and Social Council, Trusteeship Council, and the International Court of Justice to adjudicate disputes among nations), the most prominent of which is the Security Council, where members resolve action on issues of war and aggression. (For example, all UN peacekeeping operations must be approved by the Security Council.) The United Nations Charter was signed on June 26, 1945, and the UN, headquartered in New York City, came into existence in October 1945 after the charter had been ratified by the five permanent members of the Security Council and a majority of signatory states. It replaced the League of Nations, which had been founded after World War I and had proved ineffective at preventing war and securing peace and order. The structure of the UN reflected the World War II victory, with the most powerful Allies—the United Kingdom, France, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China—holding the only permanent seats in the UN Security Council with veto power over decisions. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund came into existence a few months after the UN, in December 1945 following international ratification of the Articles of Agreement (called the Bretton Woods agreements).

Another legacy of World War II saw the development and use of many new technologies, including long-range missiles, jet aircraft, radar, and atomic (nuclear) weapons. Nuclear weapons were created in the top-secret Manhattan Project in the United States (with assistance from the United Kingdom and Canada) by an international team that included emigre scientists from Central Europe, initially out of fear that Germany would develop them first. (The Soviet Union became the second nuclear power in 1949.) Nuclear weapons have only been used twice in the history of warfare, both in the closing days of World War II by the United States against Japan, the first on August 6, 1945, on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and the second on August 9, 1945, on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Each use comprised the dropping of a single airborne atomic bomb (atom bomb, A-bomb, or simply “the bomb”). The bombs killed an estimated 200,000 people (mostly civilians) instantly, and twice as many later through the effects of radiation. The advent of nuclear weapons came only weeks after the signing of the UN Charter, providing immediate impetus to concepts of arms limitation and disarmament. The first resolution of the first meeting of the UN General Assembly on January 24, 1946, was “The Establishment of a Commission to Deal with the Problems Raised by the Discovery of Atomic Energy,” which called upon the commission to make specific proposals for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.”

World War II atrocities and genocide in both Europe and Asia led to a consensus that nations must work to prevent such tragedies in the future. Another early objective of the United Nations was to create a legal framework for considering and acting on complaints about human rights violations. The UN Charter obliges all member nations to promote “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights” and to take “joint and separate action” to that end. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 as a common standard of achievement for all.

World War II resulted in a fundamental shift in global power from the weakened British Empire to the United States and the Soviet Union. Almost immediately following World War II, a protracted geopolitical, ideological, and economic struggle emerged between two of the most powerful Allied Powers—the United States and the Soviet Union. The struggle was called the cold war because it did not involve direct armed conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, although each formed an opposing military alliance in Europe and engaged in the biggest arms race (including nuclear weapons) in history. The cold war lasted from about 1947 to the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO, or the North Atlantic Alliance, Atlantic Alliance, or Western Alliance) was established with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949, in Washington, D.C., for the purpose of collective security of the members, binding each to a military alliance with all the others. The treaty avoids identification of an enemy or concrete measures of common defense, but the implied adversary was the Soviet Union. This marked a significant change in the isolationist tendencies of the United States and signaled the lasting involvement of the United States in European security affairs. It also formally divided the World War II Allies in the West from the Soviet Union by creating a new military alliance composed largely of World War II Allied Powers. The original members of NATO were the United States, France, Britain, Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland (West Germany was not incorporated until 1955, after the formation of the Warsaw Pact).

In 1955 the Warsaw Pact (Warsaw Treaty, or Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance) was established as a military organization of Eastern and Central European Communist states to counter the threat perceived by NATO. Its members consisted of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, East Germany (in 1956), and Albania (which withdrew in 1968). Similar to the NATO members, the Warsaw Pact signatories pledged to defend each other if one of them was attacked. It is noteworthy that the members of the Warsaw Pact consisted of Axis Powers as well as Allied Powers (the Soviet Union and Poland). The Warsaw Pact officially dissolved in 1991. Although not a member of NATO, the Axis Power Japan became allied with the United States. Although not a member of the Warsaw Pact, the Allied Power China was friendly to the Soviet Union. Countries such as Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Austria, India, Sweden, and Finland conspicuously maintained their neutrality by participation in the Non-Aligned Movement.


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