Should we go to war? Few Americans wanted to enter World War II. But how could the U.S. do nothing when Europe's freedom was at stake?
America was coming out of a devastating economic depression. More than 20 years before, 116,516 U.S. troops had died in Europe fighting World War I. Few Americans wanted to plunge into another world war. But could the U.S. abandon Britain, its longtime friend?
In Britain, a strong leader rallied his people. On June 4, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill boldly addressed a worldwide radio audience. "We shall defend our island no matter what the cost may be," he vowed. "We shall fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets, and in the hills. We shall never surrender!"
Germany unleashed a blitz (intense campaign) of air attacks on Britain. German planes outnumbered British planes by four to one.
By January 1941, things still looked bad for Britain. What should America do? Franklin D. Roosevelt had just won re-election to an unprecedented third term as U.S. President. In the campaign, he had promised that American soldiers would not be sent into foreign wars. But Roosevelt felt compelled to go to Britain's defense.
January 6, 1941 *:
Washington, the U.S. Congress President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to pass what would be called the Lend-Lease Act. That law would allow the President to lend or lease [rent] guns, tanks, planes, and ships to any nation that the President thought needed help. That country, every American knew, was Great Britain.
"Such aid is not an act of war," the President said. "When the dictators are ready to make war upon us, they will not wait for an act of war on our part. They didn't wait for Norway or Belgium or the Netherlands to commit an act of war."
January 25, 1941: London, the East End Bomb craters pockmarked the streets. Cardboard and old newspapers covered the shattered windows of the old buildings in this neighborhood of the poor. The winter's wind whipped through holes in bomb-torn houses to leave icicles on bathroom faucets. Hitler's blitz had killed more than 20,000 women and children, and injured more than 40,000.
Opinion polls showed that most Americans favored giving help to Britain--but did not want to send U.S. troops to fight. Yet some Americans volunteered.
February 16, 1941: New Orleans, Louisiana, a recruiting center Mrs. L.M. Joffrion, of nearby Donaldsville, came to the center with her three oldest sons: Leonard, 20; Ray, 18; and Olin, 17. They were being sworn into the U.S. Army Air Corps. Her husband, now dead, had fought in France during World War I.
"When they were babies," she told a Times-Picayune [newspaper] reporter, "I kept hoping I wasn't bringing them up to fight. But, well, it looks like I am. I think the best way of staying out of war is by being fully prepared. I'm not in favor of fighting a war on foreign soil, but if that becomes necessary, it's something that has to be done."
February 24, 1941: Washington, the U.S. Senate Nevada's Pat McCarran rose to speak against Lend-Lease. "If this bill is passed," said the Senator, "every boy who goes into the Army next month will be going for good. He may think he's going for a year--that's the happy promise--but he's going out to die."
Congress passed the Lend-Lease bill on March II, 1941, and President Roosevelt signed it into law the same day. Soon, U.S. auto plants were producing tanks and planes instead of cars. As more men went into battle, women took their places on factory assembly lines.
Meanwhile, Japan threatened to join Germany in the war.
June 18,1941: Tokyo Imperial Navy Headquarters Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was being quizzed [by Japan's military leaders] about his plan to attack America's Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. "How can you sail undetected some 5,000 miles from Japan to Pearl Harbor with more than 30 battleships, cruisers, and aircraft carriers, plus their fuel tankers ... ?" a staff officer asked. "You will surely be seen during a voyage of almost three weeks."
"We will go north, where the sea is stormy and has little traffic in December," Yamamoto said calmly. "The American planes based at Pearl Harbor can only spot us when we will be about a hundred miles away--too late to stop our carriers from launching their planes."
In Europe, Hitler's troops had scored stunning victories, from France to Greece. Russian leader Joseph Stalin feared that his country would be next. On June 22, his fears came true when Hitler sent 3 million troops racing toward Moscow, the Soviet capital.
U.S. leaders worried that the nation might have to fight a war both in Europe and in Asia. Japan occupied much of eastern China, and had invaded neighboring French Indochina (Southeast Asia) in July 1941. Japan had no oil of its own and purchased 70 percent of its supplies from the U.S. But on July 26, President Roosevelt made it illegal for any U.S. company to sell oil to Japan.
August 9-12, 1941: Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, Canada President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill secretly met for the first time. Churchill spoke openly about what he wanted most: the United States shooting at Hitler. He told Harry Hopkins, one of Roosevelt's closest aides, "I would rather have a declaration of war now and no supplies for six months than double the supplies you are sending us but no declaration of war."
Roosevelt frowned when he heard that. He told Hopkins that most Americans wanted England to win--but not at the cost of even one American soldier's life.
October 31, 1941: Aboard the USS destroyer Reuben James between Iceland and Ireland Twenty-year-old U.S. sailor Leonidas Dickerson had just written to his aunt in Danville, Virginia, to tell her what life was like guarding convoys of cargo ships [from German submarines]. By a secret order from the U.S. President, American warships now guarded convoys to Britain almost all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.
"We have gotten two [German] subs, maybe more," Dickerson told his aunt.
Dickerson never saw the sub that sent a torpedo snaking though the ocean on this dark night. It blew up in the belly of the Reuben James. With red and yellow flames licking from its middle, the destroyer nosed downward to the ocean floor, carrying a hundred enlisted men and officers, Dickerson among them. The first American fighters had died in World War II.
December 7, 1941, 7:53 a.m.: 5,000 feet over Oahu, Hawaii Japanese Commander Mitsuo Fuchida looked from his plane to see eight U.S. battleships lined up in a row, shining like long pieces of silver.... Fuchida radioed [to] the second wave of Japanese bombers that the daring scheme had caught the Americans literally asleep. He radioed the triumphant code words: Tora! Tora! Tora!
The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killed 2,388 people and wounded 2,000. It destroyed or damaged 21 U.S. ships and more than 300 planes.
In a stirring speech, President Roosevelt called December 7 "a date which will live in infamy." He asked Congress to declare war against Japan. With that, the U.S. joined Britain and other Allies in fighting the Axis powers, led by Germany, Italy, and Japan. It was the deadliest war in human history.
WWII Time Line
September 1, 1939
Poland: German tanks enter Poland in ablitzkrieg (lightning-fast invasion), starting World War II.
July 6, 1940
Berlin: Adolf Hitler, dictator of Germany, returns to Berlin after the German army conquered Paris, France.
London: Children sit next to the remains of their home after another night of German bombings.
August 27, 1941
London: Prime Minister Winston Churchill encourages the British with his famous "V for victory" sign.
December 7, 1941
Pearl Harbor: Japanese planes attack the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, sinking ships and killing thousands of people.
December 8, 1941
Washington, D.C.: President Roosevelt asks Congress to declare a state of war with Japan.
December 8, 1941
U.S. Recruiting Stations: Across the nation, young Americans wait in line to enlist for military service.
Rosie the Riveter: As young men go off to war, women take their places on factory assembly lines.
Think About It
1. Why did the U.S. support Britain in the war?
2. What finally made the U.S, send troops to fight in World War II?
Students should understand
* Why Americans were reluctant to enter World War II, and what factors contributed to the U.S. eventually entering the conflict.
Historians trace the causes of World War II (1939-1945) to resentments left unsolved by the division of territory after World War I (1914-1918). Nationalism in Germany, Italy, and Japan also contributed greatly to those countries' aggressions.
* CRITICAL THINKING
CAUSE AND EFFECT: Why were Americans reluctant to become involved in World War II? What changed their minds? (They were reluctant because the U.S. was coming out of a severe economic depression and many American troops had lost their lives fighting in World War I, more than 20 years before. They changed their minds when Japan bombed the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.)
FORMING SUPPORTED OPINIONS: Would the U.S. have entered World War II if Japan had not bombed Pearl Harbor? Explain. (Answers will vary. A no reason might be that the U.S. was too far from the fighting to be affected; a yes reason might cite strong ties between the U.S. and Britain.)
LOOKING AT LEADERS: Give students time to research the lives of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. Have them list three key facts about each leader (e.g., what his childhood was like, how he came to power, and how he governed his people). Then ask: Did what you learned help you understand the role each leader played in World War II? Explain.
SOCIAL STUDIES, GRADES 5-8
* Global connections/Civic ideals and practices: How political ties to Europe and an attack on U.S. territory swung Americans' opinions and the U.S. military into World War II.
* Ambrose, Stephen E., The Good Fight: How World War II Was Won (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Grades 6-12.
* Panchyk, Richard, World War II for Kids: A History With 21 Activities (Chicago Review Press, 2002). Grades 5-7.
* Children of World War II bbc.co.uk/history/ww2children
* See & Hear Veterans' Stories loc.gov/vets//sights.html
* Use a word from this list to correctly complete each sentence.
Winston Churchill, a declaration of war, Great Britain, Adolf Hitler, Italy, Japan, the Lend-Lease Act, Poland, Russia, ships at Pearl Harbor, Joseph Stalin, a U.S. destroyer in the Atlantic Ocean
11. World War II began in 1939, when Germany invaded--
12. The blitz was part of Germany's effort to invade--
13. To help Great Britain, early in 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to pass--
14. The first U.S. fighters to die in World War II were on--
15. The U.S. entered World War II the day after Japan dropped bombs on
12. Great Britain
13. the Lend-Lease Act
14. a U.S. destroyer in the Atlantic Ocean
15. ships at Pearl Harbor