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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.

During the thirties, America and much of the world suffered from a stifling depression. At one point nearly half of the working-age adults was unemployed. Only those who lived through it can ever know it’s dramatic affect. In the late part of the decade, America quickly moved from an agrarian society to that of a powerful industrial complex.

In the mid-thirties America’s military force was minuscule. Less than 150,00 men served in the Army, which was ranked 16th largest in the world.

Most of today’s generations weren’t alive when World War II occurred and have little knowledge of what caused it. Here’s a “thumbnail” sketch of what and how it happened.

The War historically began on Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, drawing in the Polish allies of the United Kingdom and France. But, students of history should never forget that as early as 1937 the Japanese were invading China, killing thousand. Japan’s action could be interpreted as the beginning of World War II.

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 fascist 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 in June 1941 Germany violated its treaty and invaded Russia.

On Dec. 7, 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, and then in 1943, joined the Allies. 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.

It is estimated that 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 also 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 more than 16 million in the uniform services; many more worked in wartime factories producing planes, guns, tanks, bombs and ammunition. The U.S. lost more than 600,000 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 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 to its former enemies. This resentment fueled the success of the militarist Nazi Party. 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 today’s United States was forged by the challenges we faced during World War II. Ironically, the one primary thing that ended the war is what has kept belligerent nations from causing another global conflict: nuclear weapons.