Perhaps the most simplistic answer to the question “what was the cause of WWII?” would be WWI, though after our assigned reading, we have learned that it’s far more complicated than that! The Great War, or WWI ended with the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was assigned blame for starting WWI in the Treaty’s war guilt clause and was initially given a reparations bill of $33 billion in gold (Keene, Cornell, & O’Donnell, 2013). Unsurprisingly, war guilt and insurmountable debt bred resentment and hopelessness among Germans. This post-war vulnerability made Germany susceptible to falling under the spell of a power-hungry fascist who sought to unite the country by assigning blame to the Jewish people and to create a master race by exterminating non-Aryans. Simultaneously, Japan, under the rule of Emperor Hirohito, wished to gain more territory. In 1937, the Japanese attacked China and killed over 250,000 in the Rape of Nanking. This event evoked sympathy from the U.S., who wished to push back against Japan and limit its imperialism (Keene et al, 2013). Meanwhile, Germany violated part of the Treaty by re-arming itself, annexing Austria, and occupying Sudetenland. Rather than fight back, neighboring countries permitted Germany to occupy Sudetenland, believing that Hitler’s goal was simply to take on this region as part of Germany because its citizens were also German-speaking (Keene et al, 2013). Many Europeans sympathized with Germany and felt that the Treaty had been too harsh, which made it easier for them to view Hitler’s goals as reasonable. The Munich Conference of 1938 led to the agreement that Germany could keep Sudetenland and also gave Hitler the impression that Western democracies weren’t strong enough to resist his next moves to take over Europe and establish a master race (Keene et al, 2013). Days after Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact, enabling the Germans an easy entrance into Eastern Europe and arming his men with supplies, Hitler invaded Poland. This brought a decisive declaration of war from Britain and France on September 1st, 1939 (Keene et al, 2013). The U.S. at this point was still eager to remain neutral, though sympathies undoubtedly lied with the Allies. Neutrality laws prevented the U.S. from giving money to Allies, so arms and ships were instead loaned to Britain and the U.S.S.R with FDR’s lend-lease policy (Keene et al, 2013). Unfortunately, this practice of lending ships to Britain made it difficult for the U.S. to maintain neutrality because Germans were attacking them with submarines. The U.S. had plenty of reasons to step into the war being fought in Europe between our allies Britain and France against Germany but as Roosevelt told the nation “our national policy is not directed toward war…its sole purpose is to keep war away from our country and our people” (FDR as cited by Keene et al, 2013, p. 688).
Under the leadership of FDR, the U.S. held tight in neutrality until December 7th, 1941, a “day that will live in infamy,” as FDR said. In my estimation, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was the most significant event leading our country to war. Japan’s attack gave us permission to abandon neutrality. Having naval troops in the Pacific made it easier to support our trade with China. Japan aimed to increase its control over the Pacific and end its dependence upon Western nations for resources (Keene et al, 2013). As our Keene et al (2013) text explains, Prime Minister Churchill found renewed hope after the attack on Pearl Harbor because he knew this meant that the U.S. would be joining the war against Germany, which posed a significant threat to his own nation. Kagan and Hyslop (2018) detail Japan’s highly-strategized assault on Pearl Harbor, that fateful Sunday morning. They explain that a Japanese attack in the Pacific was anticipated by the U.S. military, but they did not expect that that attack would happen so far away from Japan, and the U.S. Navy was hopelessly unprepared for an attack in Hawaii (Kagan and Hyslop, 2018).
My paternal grandfather was a WWII Navy vet. He joined the Navy at 18 and on December 7th, 1941 he was a 22, working as the head radioman on the destroyer the Ralph S. Talbot which was docked in Pearl Harbor. My grandfather did not like to speak much about what he saw in war, but as a veteran of 3 wars, survivor of 14 out of the 15 WWII battles in the Pacific, and his ship’s historian, I know he was full of stories. He did co-author a book about Pearl Harbor, so at least he was telling the public his stories! What he shared with me before he died in 2001 was that he was actually on-board his ship the morning the attack occurred and that as the radioman he picked up signal of the approaching Japanese aircraft and reported it to his superiors but was told to disregard it and that the sounds were likely from whales! He witnessed two kamikaze planes cut across the deck of his ship and take the legs off two of his crewmen. I simply cannot imagine what thoughts and feelings he must have had at the time. He was already a married man and I know my grandma must have been terrified when she heard the news. To think that he went on for 3 more years, battling in the endless Pacific Ocean simply blows my mind. Being a “liberal” I am generally against war and perhaps not as patriotic as this side of the family might like me to be, but thinking about my grandpa’s heroism makes me very proud.
Kagan, N., Hyslop, S. (2018). Excerpt: rare world war II maps reveal Japan’s Pearl Harbor strategy. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2018/12/pearl-harbor-maps–atlas-of-WWII/ (Links to an external site.)
Keene, J., Cornell, S. & O’Donnell, E. (2013). Visions of America: A History of the United States (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.