While it may be the case that a popular and misinformed view of the entry of the United States into World War Two has displaced that of historical accuracy for the majority of casual observers of history, those with a deeper immersion in the historical facts recognize a more complex and perhaps more profound set of reasons and circumstances that led to the US entry into the war.
The casual and uninformed observer no doubt believes that Hitler’s conquests in Europe along with the terror-inspiring Nazi-sponsored U-boat warfare in the North Atlantic and beyond, along with the imperial Japanese invasion of China are the reasons for the US entry into the war. These ideas are sound enough, but they tell only a partial story, the exterior of the issues and events. Admittedly, the concrete reason for war was the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, a single event which demonstrated the intention of the Axis powers to rule the earth.
However, this surprise attack gave rise to one of the war’s most enduring and over-riding myths: that America’s entry into the war was precipitated primarily on moral grounds. This idea proves to be particularly specious given the historical evidence: although moral obligation might be given as the reason for US entry into the war, one, with study can easily “rejects the purely moral justification of American entry into the war against Hitler,” (Russett, 1997, p.
44) and it is equally as thorny, although just as tempting,, to frame US conflict with Japan on purely moral grounds. While it is true that the Japanese, “were often unkind conquerors,” (Russett, 1997, p. 44)they were also “welcomed in the former European colonies of Southeast Asia, and Japan” (Russett, 1997, p. 44) and they were able to keep some good relations native rebels; so Japanese territorial expansion and influence was in no way one-sided or always regarded as brutal.
Whether or not moral justification was desired or necessary for the US to declare war on Japan, it is “Hitler, not Tojo, who is customarily presented as the personification of evil” and therefore it is Germany, not Japan, which carries most of the weight of “moral justification” for the US entry into World War Two,” (Russett, 1997, p. 44) although even this position is tenuous weighed against the very real historical ambivalence displayed by the American government during Hitler’s rise to power and Germany’s subsequent campaign of European conquests.
When Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933 he had already divulged most of his far-reaching plans for war in Europe and especially for war in the east, against Russia. Also divulged was his violent antisemiticism and his ambition to attain global German and Nazi hegemony. In his celebrated “autobiography” Mein Kampf, Hitler made clear to whomever was paying attention (presumably the world) his “attitudes and plans which were the basis of the Nazi government and of his foreign policy. ” (Goldston, 1967, p. 60) The policies and ambitions were “frankly stated for all the world to read” (Goldston, 1967, p.
60) and it is to the sorrow and pity of millions that Hitler’s blatant pronouncements went unheeded by politicians and generals throughout Europe. In fact, if a moral imperative played any role in the mind-set of the Western, future-Alllied, powers during this time, it was an imperative of peace. And it was precisely this imperative toward preserving peace: for Britain to prevent another Great War in Europe and for America to refuse involvement in another European war, which led to the tragic escalation of what began as a localized conflict into a global catastrophe.
This mistake would be repeated at least three more times as the world sped toward World War Two. On at last three occasions: during the Anschluss when Hitler integrated Austria into the German Reich, again during Hitler’s military conquest of the Sudentland and, once more, when Hitler engineered the political conquest of Czechoslovakia at Munich, the post-war Treaty of Versailles had been broken. From the base of 100,000 troops permitted under the Versailles Treaty, Hitler, on 1 October 1934: ordered a trebling of army size, as well as the creation of an air force, which had been illegal under the Versailles terms.
On 7 March 1936, troops were sent into the Rhineland, unilaterally abrogating the demilitarization of Germany’s western frontier provided for under the Locarno Pact” (Black, 2003, p. 4). Later, after this initial violation, “troops were sent into the Rhineland,” which broke the Treaty of Versailles openly. (Black, 2003, p. 4). In each of these cases, military intervention by France, Britain, and Russian was not only lawful, it was indicated by treaty: and, as is obviously the case looking back on history, each of the chances provided an opportunity for the Allied powers to prevent World War Two.
During the invasion of the Sudentland, Hitler’s true ambitions lay elsewhere, he desired to invade Czechoslovakia, and in doing so, secure the German flank for an eventual invasion of the Soviet Union. Clearly, Germany was heading in the direction of war. So, any argument that Hitler or Germany’s were hidden or hard to understand is weak, if not plainly foolish. This fact, however, seemed to have little influence of the European policy of appeasement, which allowed not only human rights abuses in the Reich to continues unchallenged, but allowed for blatant military conquest of sovereign nations by Germany.
Meanwhile, America’s isolationist vision towards continued, leaving Hitler with a free hand after his shrewdly engineered “Pact of Steel” had been concluded with his sworn enemy the Soviet Union. The US entered World war One slowly, and after “the conclusion of hostilities there was a wave of revulsion against war and military activity, ” (Aldcroft, 1997, p. 8) which resulted in a public unwillingness to support intervention which might lead to military conflict.
Though the pattern of appeasement followed by France and Britain in the wake of Hitler’s string of highly-visible conquests is difficult to understand, the apprehension toward war which had been seeded in the aftermath of World War One, “pacifism was strong in both Britain and France, in large part in response to the massive casualties in World War One” (Black , 2003, p. 4). as well as serious problems with the ensuing Treaty of Versailles are the best explanation for the malaise of the Allies. Instead of “responding forcefully against the successive breaches of the Versailles settlement,” (Black , 2003, p. 4).
France and Britain decided to take a pretty much passive position in regards to Nazi Germany. Clearly these actions “encouraged Nazi expansionism” (Black , 2003, p. 4). even though the British and French governments were blind to the dangers of Nazism and believed that they were averting a war through their diplomatic efforts. Meanwhile, everyone concerned hoped Hitler’s conquests would be limited and that he would spend his time “ruling Germany” and not seeking conflict or expansion throughout Europe. Of course, these hopes turned out to be foolishly placed because “”Hitler’s aim–as he had set it down in Mein Kampf[…
] was an expansion of Germany” (Jarman 206) and the outbreak of the war made those who had sought to make diplomacy the leading idea for dealing with Hitler had to admit that his diplomacy was merely a smokescreen to his desire to make war on those he believed were his enemies or those who opposed his plans for expansion for Germany. That he had already made all of his ambitions clear in his book was not important to the European leaders who dealt with Hitler initially; they just believed whatever he said to the loss of territories and thousands of peoples lives. (Jarman).
Nothing seem to limit or stop the Allied policy of appeasement at Munich, which sacrificed the nation of Czechoslovakia to Hitler and the Nazis without a shot being fired. Hitler was also “determined to destroy Czechoslovakia, a democratic state that looked to other great powers for support” (Brown, 2004, p. 40); this would be a demonstration of the Reich’s power and intentions to expand its territories in the face of European opposition. Later, just “six months before the start of the Second World War, Czechoslovakia had ceased to exist,” (Brown, 2004, p. 40). and was incorporated into the Reich.
Munich provided the most dramatic, and obvious, representation of Hitler’s ambitions and yet the irony is Germany would have been unable to match the military forces of the Allies during any of the three conquests outlined above. At the time of Munich, the German army could “muster only 31 divisions or regular troops and 7 reserve divisions;” (Brown, 2004, p. 40) this in contrasted with Allied powers “the French could hurl over 100 divisions and simply walk to Berlin. ” (Brown, 2004, p. 40). In fact, the Czech army itself might have provide for its own protection had it been allowed to fight.
Instead, Hitler was allowed to digest his conquests and plot his eventual war with the Soviet Union. No matter how considered the overwhelming historical evidence is that the Allies could have prevented the rise of global Nazism and the eventual outbreak of World War Two by abandoning their policies of appeasement and confronting the Third Reich with overwhelming military force. If moral justification had been lacking, one might interpret the Allied non-response to Hitler’s early acts of conquest and aggression as an act of graciousness — in sparing not only the soldiers but civilian populations from needless bloodshed.
After-all, Germany had, her self only recently emerged from a terrible ravishment in the fiery end of World War One and her suffering under the Treaty of Versailles and the extraction of war-debts had brought Germany nearly to collapse. Even the Germans deserved better than a second war so closely following upon the Great War. If this had been the reasoning, in the absence of moral imperative, in the absence of signed treaties, and in the absence of military superiority, then even the Allied appeasement at Munich might have been at least understandable.
Although the the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939 offered Germany protection from Soviet military retaliation and allowed the proposed invasion of Poland to take place without fear of Soviet reprisal. The Wehrmacht defeated the Polish army in just over 25 days and later when Spring allowed a more forceful and aggressive campaign strategy, the Wehrmacht descended upon the ‘low countries:” Denmark, Belgium, Norway, and the Netherlands. After two and a half months, the French surrendered.
And even though the majority of the British expeditionary force to the continent escaped at Dunkirk, the British experienced the loss of their heavy equipment” (Russett, 1997, p. 25). Ultimately, Mussolini decided to launch Italy into the war only a fear days after France’s surrender. Meanwhile, America’s involvement in the war was limited to the implementation of the “The Lend-Lease Act, which was to pour billions of dollars of supplies into Britain” (Russett, 1997, p. 26) and also, pave the way for military involvement.
Not only did US forces occupy Iceland, but “President Roosevelt had agreed that American ships would escort convoys–including British ships” (Russett, 1997, p. 26) to Iceland. This convoying was not entirely peaceful, it meant that “if German U-boats approached the American escorts were to “shoot on sight” (Russett, 1997, p. 26) to insure that the goods got through. These were steps to protect Britain and also steps toward total war. However, the role of “Lend_lease” itself proclaimed a total lack of moral imperative on the behalf of the American people regarding Hitler’s conquests in Europe.
While Hitler was gobbling up Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland — and even before his physical conquest, during his rise to power — the same ethical and moral reasons for making war against the Nazi Regime existed as would exist many months later, after the destruction and deaths of millions of Europeans, Africans, Russians, Americans, and Japanese was assured by the conflagration of a World War. If there was a time when a moral imperative should have played a role in the events which ed to America’s involvement in World war Two, Munich makes much ore an apt case than Pearl Harbor.
Looking back over the vents which preceded the invasion of Poland, there seems to be no moral impediment for American intervention in Hitler’s rising Nazi state. Meanwhile, in the Pacific war, where America’s ambitions and motivations toward war were much less ambiguously articulated, Japan continued with an “exhausting and seemingly endless war” (Russett, 1997, p. 45) which started with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and was “greatly escalated by the clash at the Marco Polo Bridge which expanded into severe open warfare with China in 1937” (Russett, 1997, p.
45); such considerations were deeply incongruous with American ambitions in Southeast Asia. The imperative, however, was not one of moral obligation but one of geopolitical power. The same can be said for the Hobson’s choice ultimately faced by the Japanese. Although the attack on Pearl Harbor appeared to the American public as an act of ruthless aggression; to the Japanese, given the dwindling options for an Imperial future, as we will discuss directly, the act might easily have been viewed as a defensive military act of aggression.
The friction between the US and Japan over the “China Incident” stemmed basically from an opposition of geopolitical ambitions. Japan considered itself and Imperial power, one which was as entitled to territorial expansion and expansion of influence as Britain or the United States and it viewed Southeast Asia and China as residing within its natural spheres of influence. To give up ambitions in China would be admitting that Japan was a second or third-rate world power and the elite of Japan’s military and civilian leaders found such a decision impossible because it gave in entirely to American demands.
Faced with such a choice, the Japanese began to orbit around diplomatically and then join into the Nazi-led Axis, since it was obvious that the British? American alliance was likely headed toward a Allied war in Europe anyway. In July of 1941, Japanese assets were frozen in America, and “the consequent cessation of shipment of oil, scrap iron, and other goods from the United States, Japan’s economy was in most severe straits and her power to wage war directly threatened” (Russett, 1997, p.
46) and her ability to make war was becoming severely threatened by the ongoing embargoes against her. Japanese military planners estimated that “reserves of oil, painfully accumulated in the late 1930s when the risk of just such a squeeze became evident, would last at most two years” (Russett, 1997, p. 46) by which time it would be far too late to make a stand, militarily, against the United States in China or elsewhere.
Somehow, Japan had found its way to a “no good choices” scenario, with acquiescence to American demands dooming Japan to a less than coequal status with the world’s dominant powers, or war with the United States — sooner than later — before supplies dwindled below practical abilities to make war. Diplomatic efforts proved useless when “The United States, and the British and Dutch,” (Russett, 1997, p. 47) would end the embargoes only as a response to “Japanese withdrawal from air and naval bases in Indochina” (Russett, 1997, p.
47); and at this time the Japanese military began to consider war with the U. S. inevitable. Most of the Japanese elite “were opposed to any settlement which would in effect have meant withdrawal from China” (Russett, 1997, p. 47) which would also mean the increase of Western, particularly American influence, in precisely those ares which Japan’s ruling castes believed were the natural provinces of the Japanese Empire.
It is impossible to view the preceding acts perpetrated against the Japanese as anything other than aggressive, if falling short of actual military warfare; it was clear that Japan was being pushed just about as far to the brink of war as any nation could be pushed. It is impossible to extract from the American non-intervention in Europe coupled with its seeking intervention by economic and diplomatic means in Manchuria and Southeast Asia a policy which is driven by moral, rather than global-poltical, imperatives.
In fact, positing American neutrality throughout the early days of Hitter’s conquests with American proactive intervention in Japanese Imperial expansion requires one to admit very little in the way of moral imperative. While the Japanese military planned for war, the American government also planned for an escalation of hostilities: “By autumn 1941, however, opinion was crystallizing in the highest levels of the American decision-making system” (Russett, 1997, p. 50) this process was leading to war.
Roosevelt “informally polled his cabinet on the question of whether the country would support war against Japan” (Russett, 1997, p. 50) and the result was that “All members responded in the affirmative” (Russett, 1997, p. 50); with public support behind the war, conflict with Japan seemed immanent. By the beginning of December their attack was irrevocably set in motion. The Japanese conviction that war could not be limited to the British and Dutch had to be based wholly on inference.
Yet it was a correct analysis and a solid conviction, as shown by the otherwise inexplicable risk they took at Pearl Harbor “the attack ensured American popular support for the war in the Pacific, just as the moral argument against Hitler in Europe worked to fuel public support for the American entry into World War Two” ; so, in effect, where the brutality and obvious territorial ambitions of Hitler had failed to ignite American sentiment for war, the attack by Japan ignited an inferno that would draw the US into the most notable global conflict of the twentieth-century.
(Russett, 1997, p. 51) In conclusion, the US entry into World War Two when studied at more than a popular “mythic” level, is a story which combines the global-political ambitions of many nations with the propagandistic impulse which is necessary to “sell” even just wars to the soldiers who must fight them and to the publics which must support them. The US entered World War Two not so much as an agent of moral “good” or to stop a great evil which was recognized as emerging from the Third Reich.
As we have seen, if this had truly been the motivation for a US war against Germany, moral justification had been provided as early as 1933 when Hitler rose to power declaring his ambitions to shirk off the Treaty of Versailles, wipe out Soviet Russia and destroy the Jews. Certainly, by the time of the Munich agreement, Nazi Germany was a recognized threat to both world order and world morality. The facts of history, while deepening and shadowing the more broad strokes of myth, fail to eliminate altogether the essential ideas contained within the myth.
While it is true that the US entered World War Two in what could properly be described as a “tardy” fashion, and failed to seize the opportunity to help to push the European Allies to a timely confrontation with the burgeoning Reich before the loss of millions, the fact remains that US involvement in World War Two was the triumph of good over evil adn did provide a victory for freedom, democracy, and humanism which did not exist in the Nazi state.
However, it is important also to realize that one of the key Allies, Soviet Russia, stood as perhaps an even more corrupt regime than the Nazis, slaughtered as many, if not more, Jews, political prisoners, and Russian citizens, combined as the Nazi regime — the truths of history provide the seeds of myth and from those seeds, often, the fruit of what is essential can be tasted.
If history shows that the US entry into World War Two was based less in moral grounds than myth would have us belive, it is also true that American morality and strength of character provided an indelible asset in claiming victory against both the Nazis and the Japanese during the Second World War.
Aldcroft, D. (1997). The Versailles Legacy. History Review, (29), 8+. Black, J. (2003). World War Two.New York: Routledge. Brown, M. D. (2004, December). The S. O. E. and the Failure of the Slovak National Uprising: Martin D. Brown Tells the Little-Known Story of How British and American Soldiers Disappeared in Slovakia’s Tatra Mountains during the Remarkable Episode of Slovakia’s National Uprising against Its Nazi-Supporting Government during the Second World War. History Today, 54, 39+. Jarman, T.
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