CICERO Systems™

Notice: You are currently previewing Unit 12: World War II

Unit Overview

With the memories of the Great War only twenty years old, the nations of the world experienced a new series of tensions starting in the 1930’s. New, aggressive leaders sought to expand the influences of their nations, creating tensions of interests and ideologies. International socialists in the Soviet Union looked to expand their military and communist ideological influence westward with invasions of neighbors. National socialists, or Nazis, looked to advance their racial ideology eastward into the same area where the Russian Soviets were looking to expand. Italian fascists, eying a resurrection of the Roman Empire, looked to expand into Africa, Albania, and Greece. In Asia, the Japanese looked to create an empire in their own image. Meanwhile, liberal democracies like Britain and France sought to stop the expansion of these aggressive powers, and protect the interests of their much older empires.

The result was World War II, the largest war in history. Over 50 million people were killed, with many more civilians slaughtered as collateral damage or in state concentration camps. Millions of innocent people were killed in Nazi death camps because of their racial or religious identity, or in Soviet gulags because of their beliefs and class identity. It was a war of massive industrial armies and a war of competing ideologies. 

Beginnings in Europe

In 1938, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany took action, annexing neighboring Austria and Sudetenland. British and French leaders, wishing to avoid war, tried to appease Hitler by allowing the annexations, on the promise that he expand no more. Hitler’s promise, however, did not last. Germany later annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia and then invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. In response the United Kingdom and France declared war on the Nazi regime two days later. The Soviet Union had unexpectedly signed a non aggression pact with the Nazis and invaded Poland on September 17. Both nations were buying time to be ready to fight one another. The two totalitarian regimes swiftly completed the fifth partition of Poland between the Russians the Germans. The Soviets went on to quickly conquer Estonia, Latvia, and the Bessarabia portion of Romania. The Germans had marched too far eastward in Poland and compensated the Soviets by giving them free reign to conquer Lithuania. The Soviets then went after Finland. As the Soviets continued their war in Eastern Europe, Germany stood eye to eye with French and English soldiers in what was called the “Phony War.” The Phony War gave Germany time to take Norway and Denmark, allowing them North Sea ports and control of the entrance to the Baltic Sea.

American Neutrality

The United States, as it had in World War I, stood poised to supply the democratic nations with weapons and other material. President Roosevelt, however, had to get past the neutrality laws that were passed in 1935. Among other plans, FDR and Congress successfully passed a policy called Lend-Lease in 1941. According to the policy, the United States would supply the Allies with war material, and in return England would provide the United States 99-year leases on British bases in the Caribbean and Newfoundland. Although the United States did not formally enter the war, it was clear that their support was for Britain and the Allies. In addition, the arrangement created jobs for American workers and profits for American companies. This, combined with the millions of American men eventually drafted into service brought an end to the Great Depression.

Beginnings in the Pacific

Just as the Great Depression helped lead to the German aggression in Europe, economic conditions influenced Japan to act. The Depression had forced America and Europe to cut back on its trade with Japan. This need for raw materials such as steel, oil, wood, and food drove the Japanese government to turn to military seizures of materials no longer available through trade. Japanese forces invaded Manchuria and China, and persecuted the conquered people. The United States responded with condemnations and economic embargos.

Unfortunately, Japan did not yield to American demands, and continued its expansion into European-held Asian colonies. When the United States cut off trading oil with Japan and froze all Japanese assets in America, the Japanese formulated a pre-emptive plan to attack the United States. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack on United States on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

In a dramatic speech to Congress the following day, President Roosevelt recounted the attack, “a date which will live in infamy,” and requested a declaration of war against Japan. Congress overwhelmingly complied, with only one dissenting vote in the House of Representatives. Japan’s allies, Germany (who were involved in an assault on the Soviet Union) and Italy declared war on the United States. Ironically, Japan never declared war on the Soviet Union. Earlier, during the 1930s, the Japanese had lost a number of border skirmishes with the Soviet Union, but did not invade when the Soviets were preoccupied with Germany after 1941. Instead, they changed direction and decided to take on the American and British in the Pacific.

Strange Alliance

Entering World War II in late 1941, the United States allied with Britain and the Soviet Union, a strange alliance of a democracy, a parliamentary monarchy, and a communist dictatorship. The three were united in opposition to common enemies, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Britain was also at war with Japan over seizure of British colonies in Asia and the Pacific. The leaders of the three major allies decided to focus their attention on defeating Hitler first, with the war in the Pacific considered secondary. British leader Winston Churchill and Roosevelt agreed on a plan to weaken Germany through campaigns in North Africa to get the American public’s focus on the European war. From there, however, the two differed on what to do next. Britain wanted to free its ally Greece, and then march up the Balkans to create a buffer between Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, thus strengthening the position of the British Empire. Roosevelt wanted to take Sicily, and then march up the Italian peninsula to the German underbelly. He also wanted an early cross-channel invasion of France to push into Germany. Churchill persuaded Roosevelt to delay the invasion as long as possible. He wanted to face a German army weakened by massive battles with the Soviet Union. Delay would also leave a weakened Soviet Army after the war. Soviet forces had been concentrating on pushing out German invaders who had invaded had Russia in the summer of 1941.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin was incensed that the Soviets had to take on the bulk of the German Army, while the western allies did not fully commit to an invasion of France. After nearly losing the war, the Soviets then counterattacked Germany from the east. They ended up losing over 20 million troops, but they methodically pushed the enemy back to Germany.

In 1944, Stalin got the invasion of France he had been demanding. Led by Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, on June 6, opening a Western Front against Nazi Germany. Once establishing a foothold, the Allies moved swiftly towards Berlin. In August, less than three months after D-Day, the Allies liberated Paris. By March 1945, they had reached the Rhine River. Finally, on May 2, 1945, Berlin fell to the Soviets. Although Hitler committed suicide before he could be captured, many Nazi officials became Allied prisoners. In addition, as the Allies advanced through Europe, the horrors of the Holocaust became shockingly apparent.

The Big Three at Yalta

Prior to the end of the war, the Big Three, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, met at Yalta in February 1945. The purpose of the conference was to discuss not only the completion of the war, but the future of the post-war world. The USSR had agreed to the formation of a United Nations, however, Stalin wanted all 16 Soviet republics within the Soviet Union represented. Roosevelt countered that the United States should have all of its states represented then. The Allies finally allowed the Belorussia Soviet Socialist Republic and the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic to join and receive separate votes. The United States took this as a sign of Soviet willingness to cooperate. Roosevelt appreciated the Soviet need for friendly neighbors on its West. The Soviet conquest of eastern Poland was accepted. In return, Poland received parts of eastern Germany and all of East Prussia as compensation. They all agreed that the Nazis would be punished and Germany demilitarized. The USSR demanded reparations for its heavy losses. Churchill and the United Kingdom opposed reparations. Nonetheless, Roosevelt finally agreed to force Germany to pay $20 billion, half of which would go to the USSR. To avoid the repeat of the post-World War I disaster, reparations would come in goods, production, and equipment, not in gold.

The powers also agreed on the terms of occupation of Axis territory. Each army would occupy to where they had advanced, except in Germany and Austria (a Germanic nation, a former empire, and the birthplace of Hitler). The German capital of Berlin was divided into four zones: one Soviet, one American, one British and even one for the French. The Soviets were stationed in the Balkans, except in Greece, which had been liberated with British help and Yugoslavia, where Communist leader Marshall Tito had driven the Nazis out himself. The Soviets were in Poland, in Czechoslovakia, and in eastern Austria. American troops had to move back westward across to Elbe River to give the Soviets the German province of Thuringia. The Soviets then agreed to declare war on Japan, once the German war was finished.

Onto Japan and the End

As the tide turned against Germany, American and British forces began to make progress against the overextended Japanese forces in the Pacific. Japan had miscalculated the ability of the Americans to fight a war in Europe and then bounce back from defeat at Pearl Harbor as quickly as they did. The Japanese had lost any advantage they may have had after Pearl Harbor within six months after the surprise attack. Still, Japanese resistance was strong. More and more, the Americans relied on massive bombing raids to break Japanese resolve. American firebombing of Tokyo killed thousands more Japanese than the later atomic bombs. As an invasion of the Japanese home islands was being considered, American scientists with the Manhattan Project completed the work on an atomic bomb. The military estimated that the United States would lose over 1 million troops in an invasion of the nation’s islands, which would also kill between seven and ten million Japanese.

The decision was left to the new President, Harry Truman, who took office following President Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945. President Truman ordered the military to use atomic bombs against Japanese cities as an alternative to sending in a mass ground force of Allied troops. The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6. When the Japanese refused to surrender, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. Following the mass destruction of the atomic bombs, the Japanese finally surrendered.

Victory in World War II brought the United States the distinction of being the only country to ever use nuclear weapons against enemy cities, but in doing so they may have saved over 10 million lives. Another result of World War II was the emergence of the United States as a new economic superpower. In addition, both the Soviet Union and America emerged as military superpowers. The break-up of the Allied alliance grew into a Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union that would go on for the next forty-five years. The totalitarian Soviet Union dictatorship replaced the Nazi and Japanese dictatorships as America’s global adversary.


Once the German war was over, Churchill and Stalin met with the new American President, Harry Truman, in Potsdam, Germany. They had to decide what would become of Poland. After all, the French and the British had declared war on Germany to defend Polish independence in the first place. By the end of the war, Poland had two governments in exile. The one that had fled German and Soviet advances operated in exile in London. The other was a Communist government set up by the Soviets. Both had resistance groups. The Soviets controlled Poland, however, and the Communist Poles would not let the old government Poles come home. In reaction, Truman ended Lend-Lease to the USSR over this issue.

Churchill and Stalin wanted to divide the globe into spheres of influence, as European victors had always done. The USSR would hold sway in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The British Empire would have influence in the Mediterranean, especially in Greece and Italy. Truman and the United States objected to arcane ancienè regime diplomacy. The United States was less power conscious; they were more idealistic and interested in opening up markets. The Americans wanted democracies, self determination for smaller nations, basic human rights, economic freedom, and international cooperation. They believed easing inequalities in economic and social spheres would bring lasting peace.

At Potsdam, Truman was the new leader.  Churchill wanted the United Kingdom to retain its British Empire; however, he lost an election back in Britain, and was replaced by Clement Attlee. Attlee wanted restrictions on the world’s political, economic, and social systems. At Potsdam it came down to American idealism against the Soviet desire for concrete gains. The Soviets had suffered massive losses. They agreed to take the reparations from their own zone in East Germany, plus 25% of industrial equipment from the West and a portion from the income that would come from Eastern food sold to the West.

Punishment of the Allies’ Enemies

Peace treaties were made to recognize democratic governments in the Axis powers of Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. A four power control panel would handle German affairs. There would be punishment of war criminals at the trials of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg from November 1945 to October 1946. Ten Nazis were hanged. Nazi leaders Herman Goering and Heinrich Himmler escaped execution by killing themselves before they could be hanged.

At the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo, many Japanese officers were tried and executed, or imprisoned at these trials or at trials in other Asian nations. The Japanese leader, Hideki Tojo, tried to commit suicide but failed, and he was later executed. The Imperial Family escaped prosecution and agreed to help General MacArthur take control of the Japanese nation. The Emperor told the nation he was not a god and that MacArthur was in charge. MacArthur was able to create a capitalist democracy in Japan, allied with the United States.

  • a region where one state is dominant through cultural, economic, military or political influence
  • the code name for the research program by the United States, United Kingdom and Canada to develop the atomic bomb during World War II
  • worldwide economic crisis which began with the stock market crash of 1929 and lasted throughout the 1930s
  • having to do with the affairs, cultures or citizens of two or more nations
  • the land that surrounds the Mediterranean sea; the shared physical characteristics and customs of the people who live in the Mediterranean
  • something given or received that is equivalent to a service or debt
  • an autocratic government with absolute power given to the leader or dictator
  • freedom from the control, influence, or support of another person or group
  • The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or the Soviet Union was a constitutionally socialist state that existed between 1922 and 1991, ruled as a single-party state by the Communist Party with Moscow as its capital
  • An empire established by Augustus in 27 BC and divided in AD 395 into the Western Roman Empire and the eastern or Byzantine Empire that at its peak ruled lands in Europe,Africa and Asia.
  • A United States naval base in Hawaii that was unexpectedly attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, which led to the entrance of the United States into World War II
  • a weapon with great explosive energy due to a rapid chain reaction based on nuclear fission or the splitting of nuclei from heavy metals
  • a coalition of powers including Germany, Italy and Japan that opposed the Allied Powers during World War II
  • a long downturn in economic activity; sustain recession; low production and sales with a high rate of business failure and unemployment
  • the system which governs or exercises influence over a state or community
  • having to do with factories, the goods made in factories, or factory workers
  • German political party from 1920 to 1945 which came to power with the rise of Adolf Hitler
  • something, such as a trait or circumstance, that helps someone achieve a goal, especially over another person who does not have the benefit of that trait or circumstance.
  • a government run by the majority where the people hold the power and have equal rights and privlidges
  • the work of conducting negotiations and maintaining good relations between the governments of two or more nations
  • destruction consisting of an extensive loss of life; slaughter on a mass scale
  • chief executive; the highest position of office in a Republican state
  • to identify; to know that something has been seen or experienced before
  • to agree to stop fighting or hiding because it has become clear that you can not win or succeed
  • all of the land and waters that belong to or are controlled by a particular country; an area of land claimed by the United States, but not officially recognized as a state 
  • a one-party government with a government controlled economy in which government officials, not the free market, determine prices and wages. Communists oppose religion, limit civil liberties and desire the elimination of social classes.
  • two or more people, parties, or nations that agree to help one another achieve a common goal
  • a period of sustained political and military tension between the United States and Soviet Union that stops short of full-scale war
  • the main lawmaking body in the United States that consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives
  • a state ruled by a single monarch who holds absolute power
  • a form of government where the head of state is not a monarch and officials are elected into office rather than inheriting their position
  • the city that serves as the official seat of government in a state or nation
  • a narrow passage that connects two bodies of water or; a groove in the bed of a river that allows for navigation
  • a person who sympathises with fascism and possesses extreme right-wing views
  • favoring reform, new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behaviors of others
  • all of the nations that united (including Great Britain, France, and Russia) to defeat the Central Powers during World War I; all of the nations that united (including Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States) to defeat the Axis Powers during World War II
  • one very large area or many separate areas under the control of one person or government
  • relating to or affecting the entire world
  • part of a larger body of water, deep enough for ships to anchor, that provides protection from wind, waves and water currents
  • to take contorl of a region or place through military intervention
  • a system of government power or administration
  • a name that refers to all of the states that did not secede from the United States during the American Civil War
  • the amount of a good or service that is available for purchase
  • a principle of entitlement; fundamental rules
  • June 6, 1944; the day United States ground forces invaded Normandy, France to fight the Nazi's during World War II
  • a particular space with definite or indefinite boundaries that has a specific name
  • a straight center line through an object or body that displays symmetry
  • a formal treaty or agreement between two or more countries
  • an often customary method of achieving an end
  • the point on a compass that is directly opposite from east; the direction of sunset
  • a law