Lecture 11: World War II


Was the American generation that fought World War II, as Tom Brokaw says, the greatest generation? This lecture deals with the rise of military aggression worldwide in the 1930s, with the entry of the United States into a second world war, with the conduct of that war, and with its significance for the postwar world. Traditionally we have analyzed the effects of this war on the global balance of power. This lecture, however, concludes by focusing on the effects of the war experience on American democracy.



The Second World War left lasting impressions on the American system and the American identity.  Along with the Great Depression, it forged what one commentator has called “the greatest generation” in American life.  Memorable, too, were distinctive voices of the wartime era—that of President Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, and that of Tokyo Rose, Japanese broadcaster to American troops in the Pacific.

Rise of Fascism & Militarism

The rise of fascism in Italy, National Socialism in German, and imperial militarism in Japan posed potent challenges to peace and order in the 1930s.  These were anti-democratic movements the United States and other western powers, absorbed with their own problems, hoped would run their course and not have to be confronted.

Aggression & Response

Military aggression in Asia and Europe compelled response by the western democracies.  The response in Europe was appeasement; the response of the United States was neutrality.

War & Neutrality

The war in Europe began with the German (and Soviet) invasion of Poland in 1939.  Germany soon achieved dominance of the European continent, leaving Britain alone in opposition.  The U.S. adapted its official neutrality to these circumstances.  Meanwhile, events in the Pacific, culminating at Pearl Harbor, finally brought the U.S. into the war.

The European Theater of War

The western allies decided that Europe, not the Pacific, was their top priority.  They disagreed on just how to prosecute the war, but a strategy developed: North Africa, Italy, and finally, the opening of a western front by cross-channel invasion.  The strategy accomplished the defeat of Germany in the spring of 1945.

The Pacific Theater of War

In key naval engagements, most notably Midway, the U.S. stopped the momentum of Japanese expansion and commenced a broad counteroffensive.  An island-hopping approach brought the U.S. to the point of invasion of Japan by spring 1945.  The development and deployment of the atomic bomb, however, made that invasion unnecessary and ended the war.

Legacies of the Second World War

There are two types of legacies of this great war: those of international relations, and those of national character.

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“Causes Which Render Democratic Armies Weaker than Other Armies at the Outset of a Campaign, and More Formidable in Protracted Warfare”*

In this chapter Tocqueville describes the condition of armies in a democracy, and how a democracy responds when engaged in war.


·         Place yourself in the position of President Roosevelt immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor. As a student of Tocqueville, what encouragement might you offer the American people?


*The link for this chapter is to University of Virginia Hypertexts, as the University of Adelaide version of Tocqueville lacks this chapter.


Take a look at this National Archives lesson on the “Day of Infamy” speech, which you heard in lecture.

The A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima by a B-29 bomber called the Enola Gay. Check out this page on the Enola Gay Exhibit at the Smithsonian. 

Film Review

Flags of Our Fathers

Letters from Iwo Jima

Casablanca (1942)

Sahara (1943)

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Book Review

Brokaw, The Greatest Generation

Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers

Newman, The Enola Gay and the Court of History

Prange, At Dawn We Slept