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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: From Depression to War

By Tom Morrow

The second World War was the largest and most deadly global military conflict in recorded history. It was the defining seven-year period of the 20th century – certainly the most important event in U.S. history.

The War historically began on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, drawing in the Polish allies of the United Kingdom and France. History should never forget that as early as 1937, the Japanese were invading China, killing thousand. What began as a territorial conflict in Eastern Europe spread quickly to Western Europe and beyond. In the Pacific, Japan captured dozens of islands and then attacked the U.S. installations in the Philippine Islands, Alaska, and Hawaii.

Germany was joined by Italy and Japan, with other minor allies such as Austria, Rumania, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. This confederation was known as the “Axis Powers.”

In 1940, Adolf Hitler, the Nazi leader in Germany, had signed a “non-aggression” treaty with the Soviet Union. When German invaded Poland from the west, Russia invaded from the east. Then Germany invaded Russia in June 1941. In December 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, various U.S. bases in the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island, and then landed a force on Attu, in Alaska’s Aleutian islands.

As the War dragged on, Italian forces collapsed, surrendered, then joined the Allies in 1943. On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered, then Japan gave up on Aug. 14, 1945. The War officially ended on Sept. 2, 1945, with the formal surrender of the Empire of Japan on the deck of the battleship USS Missouri.

Approximately 62 million people died in the war. Most of the casualties were civilians as a result of the large-scale Allied aerial bombing of cities, disease, starvation, and Hitler’s Holocaust genocide. It is estimated the Soviet Union, alone, suffered more than 25 million deaths; China lost some 10 million of its citizens.

For the Allied nations of the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Holland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, China, and the United States, some 17 million military and 35 million civilians were killed. For the Axis Powers, 8 million military and 4 million civilians were killed.

The United States had 16 million in uniform services. Many more worked in wartime factories producing planes, guns, tanks, bombs and ammunition. We lost more than 600,000 of our military personnel.
While there are many reasons declared as the causes of World War II, these aspects stand out: nationalistic control of vast geographic regions, and the natural resources those nations possess – namely oil. Japan, Germany, and Italy all needed the natural resources of others to maintain their imperialistic goals.

In Europe, the Treaty of Versailles, which officially ended World War I, with an Allied Powers victory, was perceived by Germany as unjust. Essentially, it stripped that nation of much of its natural resources and burdened it with nearly unsustainable cash payments of its former enemies. This resentment fueled the success of the militarist Nazi Party. The Hitler and the Nazis succeeded beyond their wildest expectations primarily due to the economic conditions created by the world-wide Great Depression of the 1930s. The power the Nazis gained allowed them to re-arm Germany, launching Hitler on his blood-thirsty rampage.

The strength of the United States was forged by the challenges we faced during World War II.


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