Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.
War on an Unprecedented Scale
Imagine waking up on the island of Hawaii on Sunday morning, December 7th, 1941. You're having breakfast or getting ready for church on a day that seems like any other. Then suddenly you hear the roar of fighter planes in the skies. This is no drill! The Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbor!
For many Americans, this was a real-life experience. World War II was an unbelievably tragic event in human history, taking the lives of somewhere between 50 to 80 million people throughout the world. While the death toll among Americans was relatively low compared with other countries (roughly half a million people), the war had a profound impact on the United States.
World War II began in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Great Britain and France game to Poland's defense, while Fascist Italy allied itself with Hitler's Germany. At this point, the U.S. was not directly involved in the war, although it did support Great Britain by sending supplies to the beleaguered island nation. Some Americans felt the U.S. should become involved, but isolationism tended to be more popular. Isolationism is the foreign policy approach of avoiding involvement in the affairs or conflicts of other nations.
This all changed on the morning of December 7, 1941. The Japanese had been an ally of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and were seeking control of the Pacific Ocean. They believed they could destroy the American Navy in a surprise attack from which the U.S. could not recover. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor devastated the American Navy, sinking four battleships, damaging the rest, and killing 2,403 Americans. The following day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a speech to Congress, asking for a declaration of war. The U.S. was a ''Sleeping Giant'' that the Japanese had not killed off, but merely awoken.
U.S. Involvement in WWII: Timeline
Let's look at some of the most important events of World War II in relation to U.S. involvement (we've already discussed the significance of Pearl Harbor). We've already discussed the significance of Pearl Harbor.
- The Battle of Coral Sea (May 1942): At the Battle of Coral Sea, U.S. naval forces halted a Japanese attack toward Australia. Although technically a tactical victory for the Japanese, American forces won a strategic victory by stopping the advance of the Japanese.
- The Battle of Midway (June 1942): At the Battle of Midway, U.S. naval forces avenged Pearl Harbor by achieving a stunning victory over the Japanese. Four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk, while the U.S. only lost one. This important battle was the turning point of the war in the Pacific Theater. From this point on, the Japanese would be on the defensive.
- The Allied invasion of Sicily (July-August 1943): One of the largest amphibious assaults in history, Allied forces invaded the island of Sicily, forcing German and Italian troops to retreat to mainland Italy. This important victory helped lead to the fall of dictator Benito Mussolini and opened up Italy to Allied occupation.
- D-Day (June 6, 1944): Operation Overlord—better known as D-Day—was the Allied invasion of Normandy, France. This daring amphibious assault was met with fierce German resistance but ultimately proved successful. Led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, D-Day was the turning point of the war in the European Theater. This victory opened up occupied Europe to the Allies and gave them a starting point for their march into Germany.
- The Battle the Bulge (winter 1944-1945): The Battle of the Bulge was Hitler's last desperate attempt to stem the tide of the American advance into Germany. This surprise attack caught the Americans off-guard, but in the end, they were able to pull out a victory.
- The atomic bombing of Japan (August 6th and 9th, 1945): Japan's refusal to surrender prompted the U.S. to drop two atomic bombs on Japan. On August 6th, ''Little Man'' was dropped on the city of Hiroshima. A few days later, ''Fat Man'' was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. These bombings led to the surrender of the Japanese on September 2, 1945, a day that became celebrated as V-J Day, which stood for Victory over Japan Day.
U.S. Involvement in WWII: Impact
What was the lasting impact of World War II on the United States? In short, the U.S. emerged as one of the two global superpowers (along with the Soviet Union). The war spurred tremendous industrial and economic growth in the U.S. Most historians agree that it was World War II that brought the U.S. out of the Great Depression, which had devastated the country throughout the entire decade of the 1930s. The 1950s were a prosperous decade, in part, because of the economic impact of WW II.
The war also had social impacts. During the war, a significant number of women chose to work outside of the home, often in war effort jobs. This helped lead to more equality for women, which was a major theme of the 1960s. So many babies were born between in the post war period of 1946-1964 that this period is known as the Baby Boom.
All right, let's now take a moment to review what we've learned in this lesson about the United States' involvement in the second world war. We saw that the main challenge facing the prospect of America entering the war was its isolationism, which we learned is the foreign policy approach of avoiding involvement in the affairs or conflicts of other nations. This approach was popular in the U.S. until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Important WW II battles included the Battle of Midway (June 1942), which was the turning point of the war in the Pacific Theater, and D-Day (June 6, 1944), which was the turning point of the war in the European Theater. Other notable battles/events include the battle of the Allied Invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943 and the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-1945.
Finally, we learned that the atomic bombings of Japan on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 brought a swift end to World War II. Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945, a day which became known as V-J Day, which stood for Victory over Japan Day. So many babies were born after WW II (between 1946 and 1964) that this period is known as the Baby Boom.
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