The United States’ Situation Before and After War

30 Jan


During the Second World War, the largest and bloodiest war fought in the history of the world, the war led to the deaths of between 70 and 100 million people. Unfortunately, casualty estimates from the war vary significantly from country to country, and many are based entirely on speculation from first hand accounts. Considering that high explosives can completely nullify a person, that helps not, or the fact that United States military labels individuals as “missing in action” until their body can be found. Although noble, this does not aid in effective casualty numbers regarding the largest calamity in history. Regardless, the average comes out to roughly 27,600 deaths per day, which boils down to 1,150 per hour, 19 per minute, which amounts to one death every three seconds. The statistic, when looked at from such a personal angle, is horrifying. Many people fail to comprehend the magnitude of so many deaths. Josef Stalin once said, “One death is tragic, one million is a statistic”. And, for a person who literally liquidated his entire politburo and army high command in the 1930’s (a tragic mistake in hindsight), he was surprisingly accurate.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941, American president Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared to almost leap at the opportunity to go to war. Prior to the attack, George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, had issued a telegram warning all United States military bases, whether Navy or Army (the United States Air Force did not become its own branch until 1947), that a Japanese attack would come along the West Coast. When or where it would fall was anybody’s guess, but surprisingly enough, Pearl Harbor had not been labeled a high risk concern. Even when a midget submarine was able to slip through the antisubmarine net ringing the shallow harbor and trail in the wake of United States Navy tug (it would later be fired upon and rammed by the destroyer USS Ward, the first shots of America’s entry into World War II), or when a lowly private manning a primitive radar station outside the harbor spotted the incoming Japanese aircraft and was told not to worry, the United States simply shrugged off the incoming threat. American involvement in the war had gradually been increasing into the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, and as the clock ticked down to the attack on Pearl Harbor the graph representing American involvement looked more exponential and less logarithmic. This amount of American involvement was precisely what prompted Japanese intervention. 1939’s so-called “cash-and-carry” agreement between the United States and Great Britain signed into law that American tanks and weapons would be purchased by the British government with cash, and subsequently carried aboard British ships back to the United Kingdom. As interventionism was still a major part of American foreign policy in the 1930’s and into the 1940’s, spearheaded by one of America’s premier icons, pilot Charles Lindbergh, the United States was gradually being sucked into the war, just as the vortex had managed to swallow whole the United States in the previous war. This idea of isolationism, a byproduct of the postwar 1920’s (which led the United States to veto American participation in the international League of Nations, the brainchild of president Woodrow Wilson), led the United States to not immediately leap the precipice into immediate armed support of Great Britain, after 1940 the soul ally capable of contesting Nazi Germany left in Europe. Even the antiwar sentiment bred by 1928’s Kellogg-Briand Pact, or the mid-1930’s Nye Committee in the United States Congress, American involvement was becoming inevitable. The close ties between the United States and Britain forged in iron in the previous war appeared unbreakable. In 1940, President Roosevelt signed into law a program known as “battleships for bases”, where the United States would hand the British 50 mothballed destroyers and cruisers whose keels had been laid during or before the previous war in exchange for the use of British bases in the Caribbean, Atlantic, and Southeast Asia. The program was another step toward a joint Anglo-American collaboration toward the defeat of Nazi Germany, a defeat that was to be total after Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to unconditional surrender at Casablanca three years later. That same agreement forged at Casablanca would be one of the driving impetuses behind Nazi Germany’s suicidal continuation of the war into the spring of 1945. In 1941, the Lend-Lease Act was signed into law, the final piece of the grand puzzle of Anglo-American unity. The agreement stated that the British, and the Chinese and Soviets, would essentially take American materiel and promise to pay at a later date, and that the United States would begin utilizing their own ships to transport the goods in order to circumvent the roving U-boat wolf packs prowling the North Atlantic, as the United States was still technically neutral. The last payment of Lend-Lease was made in December of 2006. In all, Lend-Lease was the driving impetus behind the largely impractical arctic convoys, and would cost the United States well over $40 billion. In August of 1941, a formal agreement was made in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, aboard the British cruiser HMS Prince of Wales. This “Atlantic Charter” set forth the goals of the Allied powers, President Franklin Roosevelt’s so-called “four freedoms”, to a life equipped with the freedom of worship, speech, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. His “freedoms” closely mirrored the Fourteen Points Woodrow Wilson had forged twenty years earlier to avert war, the same points that become the masthead of the League of Nations.

As American began to step gingerly toward war, the idea of American isolationism stood. Even on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor, American citizens were heckling newsreels or newspapers showing Roosevelt. American intervention, however tentative in the late 1930’s, was becoming more vocal, and was no longer limited to the Atlantic by 1941. That summer, the United States approached the League of Nations, and demand they levy embargoes on crude oil and scrap metal against the Empire of Japan, which had been waging a largely genocidal campaign against China since 1937. The League, an entirely powerless organization (which was demonstrated when Japan simply quit the League in 1933 following the publication of the Lytton Report condemning the invasion of Manchuria, or when Italy did the same when the League condemned its invasion of Abyssinia in 1936), agreed with Roosevelt’s course of action. The embargoes were levied, and teeth was given to the League’s actions with the deployment of the United States Pacific Fleet, whose anchorage was and still is at Pearl Harbor, to the Sea of Japan. American and Japanese relations gradually began to falter throughout the year, especially when the Dutch joined the crude oil embargo. Their partnership meant the Dutch East Indies would no longer be supplying the Empire with oil, and Java was almost like Japan’s version of OPEC. The embargo, and the Dutch agreement to join, meant Japan was limited to an eighteen month supply of crude oil to wage war in China, and abroad. The Japanese, who had gone through a sort of renaissance in the early 1930’s (renaissance being used loosely. It was more of a military coup than a renaissance), were also pursuing an idea known as the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”, which dictated that all of the Far East would be placed under a Japanese sphere of influence, and would ultimately answer to Tokyo. The plan was more philosophical than realistic, as the Kwantung Army had become bogged down in costly anti-guerrilla attrition warfare in China, and the Philippines, an American possession, stood like a brick wall before the resources of Southeast Asia. President Franklin Roosevelt had also stated his desire to commission 150 new warships before 1942. Roosevelt’s statement was more than likely designed to worry the United States’ rivals than actually possessing any realistic backing, as the United States had slipped into a recession in 1937 due to the backlash of the New Deal, which, economically, had achieved very little. And Roosevelt’s statement had fostered fear in his enemies, and like a cornered fox, Japan was preparing to fight back. The Imperial Japanese Navy staff, which was generally at odds with the Army general staff, commissioned Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, a seasoned veteran who had lost two fingers on his left hand during the 1905 Battle of Tsushima Strait, to plan the best course of action for war with the United States. The Navy staff reminded him that, if surprise were utilized effectively, the Japanese military would have to conquer all of Southeast Asia within six months before the United States possessed the offensive capability to fight back. And surprisingly enough, that model was stunningly accurate. Although there were intermittent raids in early 1942 directed at Japanese bases in the Marshall Islands executed by Admiral William Halsey, these were designed primarily to elicit a positive response from the American populace and trick them into believing the United States was doing something to vindicate Pearl Harbor.

As the Empire of Japan prepared itself for war with the United States, so too did the United States prepare itself for war with Japan. The United States, since the 1920’s, had known it would inevitably go to war with Tokyo. Washington had known that any direct threat in the postwar world would come from the Far East, as Japan gradually spread its sphere of influence like a veil over East Asia, however forcefully. Yet the United States new as well that Germany could not be ignored, and as the rise of Hitler in the 1930’s showed, Germany was still a threat to the United States, and the Western World. The War Department, which would later become known as the Department of Defense (and which did not have its own building until the Pentagon was built on a mud flat along the Potomac in 1943), had constructed a plan known as Rainbow 5, which stated that in the event of war with the Empire of Japan and Nazi Germany simultaneously, which was becoming a possibility by 1940, the United States would hold Japan at bay in the Far East, while defeating Germany in Europe. Once Germany’s defeat could be achieved, the United States would turn offensive action toward Japan. On paper, the plan was strategically sound, and combined with the military-industrial capabilities of the Empire of Japan it made the accurate assumption that Japan would be almost incapable of waging offensive war into 1943. But in practice, would be prove untenable. The lack of American offensive action by the summer of 1942 in both Europe and the Pacific had caused many American generals to become anxious. Even Dwight Eisenhower, a member of the Army’s general staff in Washington, was quoted as saying “get it over with”. This anxiety and desire to just go to war created two fronts for the United States during the war. In  Europe, the United States had drafted a plan known as Roundup, designed to expedite an invasion of France by the summer of 1942. The plan was for an amphibious landing to strike at Calais, just twenty miles across the English Channel from Dover, and drive the nearly 600 mile distance to Berlin across largely flat terrain, the same inspiration for 1944’s Operation Market Garden. On paper, and in practice, the idea would have been suicide. The Wehrmacht in France in 1942 outnumbered the combined Anglo-American forces nearly ten to one, and in the air nearly six to one. A smaller plan, known as Sledgehammer, was devised as a sort of small scale amphibious landing meant to distract the German military from combat in Russia in order to keep as much pressure off Stalin as possible, but Sledgehammer, too, was entirely unrealistic, and displayed for the British Imperial General Staff America’s complete ineptitude regarding the situation unfurling in Europe. Britain’s answer to the American debacle came in the form of Operation Gymnast, later known as Torch: the American landings in Algeria and Tunisia. America was immensely reluctant to bow to the will of the British regarding offensive action in Africa, as they believed they would be fueling British desires for postwar colonization, yet they conceded. They had to. Without the British, the Americans could achieve nothing. Even with the British, the Americans’ first engagement against a German foe was a defeat.

In 1940, the United States’ situation on the world stage, militarily, was dire. The United States Army numbered just over 100,000 men, 14,000 of which were officers, many of whom could not even read a map. The United States Army was ranked seventeenth largest in the world behind Romania. In 1939, the United States Army had manufactured six medium tanks. The following year, the German Wehrmacht had invaded France equipped with nearly 3,000. Even in 1941 there remained in the Army command die hard advocates of the use of horses in combat, and the last true cavalry unit in American history was forced to kill their horses to avert starvation on Bataan (Bataan, too, fostered the first surrender by American Marines in history). In 1940, prior to the passage of the Selective Service and Training Act (the first peacetime draft in American history which bolstered the United States Army to nearly a million and a half men, still smaller than Japan’s Kwantung Army in China), the United States Army was able to field five infantry and armored divisions. That same year, Germany invaded France with 136. The United States Army Air Force consisted of around 50,000 personnel and about 2,100 aircraft, and the United States Navy possessed only three fleet carriers, two of which had been laid down two decades earlier. The Empire of Japan possessed eight. Many of the United States’ coastal guns had not been fired in nearly twenty years, and the Army did not possess enough antiaircraft guns to protect a single city from attack, not even Washington, D.C., or New York City. The average age of a United States Army major was 48, while the average age of a National Guard lieutenant was 40. In 1940, the War Department had been allotted $9 billion for funding as war with Japan was becoming inevitable. Yet by 1945, America’s dire situation had been completely flipped around. During almost every war America becomes involved in, it initially is shown as an underdog, beaten, battered, and bruised. Yet in these dark times for the United States, it almost seems a miracle that military geniuses seem to pour out from the woodwork, and although it is true America’s military hierarchy during the War was diluted with its share of incompetents, but the ability of the United States to rebound from Pearl Harbor and end up dropping two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 proved if it fell, America would go down swinging.

By 1945, the size of the United States Army had jumped to almost 17 million personnel. The United States Army Air Force alone consisted of almost three million personnel and was equipped with around 80,000 aircraft. By war’s end, the United States Army Air Force had dropped almost three and a half million tons of munitions on Germany in an effort to pound it into submission by targeting its industrial heart, flying by day. The United States prided itself, however disappointingly misguided that pride was, on the Norden bombsight, which, they bragged, could “drop a bomb into a pickle barrel”. Initially, the sight was an horrendous disappointment, yet gradually improved, and by 1943 became a mainstay aboard USAAF bombers flying out of England, and later Italy. The USAAF’s obsession with precision bombing compelled them to strike German industrial targets, such as ball bearing plants, oil refineries, and tank and aircraft factories by day, leading the 8th Air Force alone to sustain 60 percent casualties during the war. The risk of being killed on a single raid ranged between 70 and 80 percent for a USAAF air crewman, and a bomber crew needed to complete 25 raids in order to receive honorable discharges. In the Pacific, that number was increased to 35, only because after 1944 the Imperial Japanese Air Force, aside from scattered airfields at Iwo Jima or Formosa, was virtually nonexistent. As the United States pursued precision bombing, the British RAF pursued terror bombing, striking German civilian targets by night, bombing residential areas utilizing a highly potent combination of high explosives and incendiaries to wreak havoc. The United States broke Germany’s capacity to wage war, while the RAF broke their will. By 1945, the United States Pacific Fleet consisted of 40 fleet and escort aircraft carriers, while the Imperial Japanese Navy possessed just one, which was not even serviceable, as construction had stalled due to the pressures of the war on Japan’s horribly limited industry. And aside from vindicating the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, forever incorrectly remembered in the annals of history as a nefarious deed, although it was driven by necessity and Japan’s hand was technically forced by the United States’ political and economic aggression. The United States had taken revenge on the Empire with such victories as Midway, the Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf, Guadalcanal, Saipan, Peleliu, and Bougainville. MacArthur’s triumphant march ashore at Leyte, along with Philippine president Sergio Osmena, marked the vindication of not only the humiliating loss of the Philippines three years earlier, yet also of MacArthur’s career. Three years earlier, he had reluctantly fled the islands to Australia, a decision he never fully came to terms with, and one which had almost permanently marred his name. His disgruntled and disavowed men sentenced to death at places such as Bataan and Corregidor had bestowed upon him the spiteful nickname “Dugout Doug”. Yet as the United States slowly crept closer to the Japanese Home Islands, and as Japan become more and more desperate, MacArthur’s reputation gradually changed as well, from hated traitor to celebrated victor. In 1945, the United States had gone from a military hierarchy plagued with scandal to fostering such generals who would survive with an aura of legend as Dwight Eisenhower, Lucian Truscott, George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, Alexander Vandegrift, Alexander Patch, Jacob Devers, Courtney Hodges, Henry “Hap” Arnold, and Omar Bradley. The War Department had gone from spending its meager $9 billion allowance to spending nearly 40 percent of the United States’ GDP by 1945, amounting to around $300 billion. By 1945, the United States had gone from having just six medium tanks six years earlier to being capable of fielding nearly 70,000 Sherman tanks alone. In 1940, budgetary concerns had forced the War Department to train men with broomsticks as substitutes for rifles, stovepipes as substitutes for mortar tubes, and drainpipes as mock rocket launchers, yet by 1945 the United States had manufactured six million M1 Garand semiautomatic rifles alone, and the size of the United States Army had jumped from five to nearly 100 infantry, armored, airborne, and marine divisions. The United States had entered the European theater prepared to take the war straight into the heart of the Third Reich, yet their strategy of immediate aggression had been eclipsed by the British desire, and more realistic approach, to strike at the limbs of the massive Reich before attempting to strike at the core. By 1945, it was the English who had become eclipsed, as American industrial might had gradually begun to outnumber the size of the British Army, and the United States began to take the responsibility of planning major operations, such as Operation Overlord or Avalanche, although there were major exceptions, such as Operations Husky, Market Garden, and Plunder. In the Pacific, the United States had entered as the underdog, with men wading ashore on Guadalcanal equipped with bolt-action relics of the previous war, yet by 1945 it had steamrolled over Japan’s ten million man army and was in the process of knocking on Japan’s door, landing, in April, on the first piece of soil that was, geographically, part of Japan. In 1939, German nuclear physicist Albert Einstein had sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, informing him of Nazi Germany’s desire to create a weapon capable of utilizing the energy release from splitting the atom through nuclear fission, a concept that had been proposed only a few years earlier by Enrico Fermi, to annihilate an entire city. The letter prompted Roosevelt to design a program capable of beating Germany to the proverbial punch, and so the Manhattan Project was created. Headed by theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (not Einstein. Einstein actually had nothing to do with the Project. He only sent Roosevelt the letter that prompted him to create the Project), by July 1945 the first successful atomic bomb was detonated outside Los Alamos, New Mexico. Just under a month later, two of the test bomb’s siblings were to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war in a flash that was both brighter and hotter than the surface of the sun, and ushering in a new age: the age of splitting the atom.

The war’s end in Europe was fraught with chaos. Germany was committing almost total self-destruction as the Red Army raped, looted, and burned its way across the eastern expanses of the Reich, and as generals were literally stripping entire armies off the Eastern Front and fleeing westward to surrender to Britain and the United States rather than the vindictive Russians. Even in the last, fiery days of the Reich, Germans, from the lowest factory workers to the highest generals, believed the war could still be won. Whether it be some form of far gone Stockholm syndrome or an individual’s extreme capability to convince his or herself that a lie is truth, the Germans believed the war could be won. German generals were even attempting to convince the United States that if Germany surrendered to the Western Allies, the Allies and Germany could fight against the Red Army as a solid front. The generals of the Third Reich were attempting to exploit a dormant mentality that had rested in the minds of every Allied general but had not been made vocal. As the war progressed, and Stalin’s intentions became known, this latent anti-Communist mentality became more vocal, and by war’s end the United States was frantically attempting to corral as many German scientists as possible. Known then as Operation Overcast, and later Paperclip, the United States rounded up hundreds of Nazi scientists, men equipped with the knowledge that had produced jet engines, ejector seats, assaults rifles, rocket engines, and atomic weaponry. What was shown by the United States’ efforts to beat the Red Army to the bunch demonstrated the war that was to end the Second World War: the Cold War. Germany’s inevitable defeat had rested in the minds of every Allied general and politician in 1941, even if their idea was inherently unrealistic and more of a propaganda coup then reinforced by fact. Yet by 1943, the Allied demand for unconditional surrender at Casablanca seemed less unrealistic. The Allied landings on Sicily, and later Italy, and also the dramatic reversals at Stalingrad and Kursk during that year proved Germany’s inability to stem the rising Allied tide. Strategic momentum had permanently shifted to the Allies, and would not be surrendered. Yet by 1945 conflicting interests regarding the postwar world had bred anti-Communist sentiment in the United States, sentiment that had risen in the 1920’s but had gradually subsided, and anti-Capitalist sentiment in the Soviet Union. Stalin’s interests had become known at Yalta in January 1945, and his desires were not conducive to the statutes of the Atlantic Charter, and by 1945 the seeds of the Cold War had been firmly laid, seeds that would germinate and grow well into the 1980’s. This forty year standoff between the Soviet Union and United States, the two greatest military powers following the destruction of Nazi Germany, would be plaid out in proxy wars in such distant locations as Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Nicaragua, Grenada, and Afghanistan. It would permanently reshape the foreign policies of both the United States and Russia, and would both destroy and give birth to opportunistic alliances, some of which are still in place today, such as the American alliance with Israel or the Russian alliance with Syria. Many of these exploitative relations still harbor resistant sentiment in certain countries, such as anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan or Iran, or anti-Russian sentiment in China.

World War II was a political and military game changer not just for the United States, although the war permanently removed the isolated nation from the murky shadows of the world stage, expunged its pariah status, and gave it the title of “super power”.


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