The Beginning of the War

Italy and Germany

While Benito Mussolini’s rise to power was linked to a chaotic struggle for political power that took place in Italy in the aftermath of World War I, Adolf Hitler took advantage of the disastrous economic situation in Germany. In both cases, nationalist rhetoric was critical to gaining popular support.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the rise to power of Mussolini and Hitler

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Following the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Mussolini created the Combat League. Recognizing the failures of the Fascists’ initial revolutionary and left-leaning policy, he moved the organization away from the left and turned the revolutionary movement into an electoral movement named the National Fascist Party.
  • In 1922, Mussolini became prime minister. Within several years, he turned Italy into a dictatorship.
  • The German economy suffered severe setbacks after the end of World War I, partly because of reparations payments required under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.
  • Promising the recovery of economy and the restoration of German national pride, the Nazis were the largest party in the Reichstag after the federal election in 1932.
  • In 1933, in the aftermath of the Reichstag Fire and passing of the Enabling Act, most German civil liberties were rescinded and Hitler and his cabinet were allowed to pass laws without the consent of the president or the Reichstag.
  • Both fascist Italy and Germany established substantial social welfare programs, which translated into popular support among their beneficiaries.

Key Terms

  • Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro: The Italian fascist leisure and recreational organization for adults, incredibly effective and popular during the dominance of Fascism in Italy.
  • National Fascist Party: An Italian political party, created by Benito Mussolini as the political expression of fascism (previously represented by groups known as Fasci). The party ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943.
  • Nazi Party: A political party in Germany active between 1920 and 1945 that practiced Nazism. Initially, its political strategy focused on anti-big business, anti-bourgeois, and anti-capitalist rhetoric; however, in the 1930s, the party’s focus shifted to anti-Marxist and anti-Semitic themes.

The Rise of Mussolini

Prior to World War I, Benito Mussolini opposed military conscription, protested against Italy’s occupation of Libya, and was the editor of the Socialist Party’s official newspaper, Avanti!. Over time, he simply called for revolution, without mentioning class struggle. Mussolini’s nationalism enabled him to raise funds from Ansaldo (an armaments firm) and other companies to create his own newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia to convince socialists and revolutionaries to support the war. The newspaper became Fascism ‘s official newspaper.

Following the Treaty of Versailles, in 1919 Mussolini created the Fasci di Combattimento or Combat League. It was originally dominated by patriotic socialist and syndicalist veterans who opposed the pacifist policies of the Italian Socialist Party. The Fascists initially had a platform far more inclined to the left, promising social revolution, proportional representation, women’s suffrage (partly realized in 1925), and dividing private property held by estates. Recognizing the failures of the Fascists’ initial revolutionary and left-leaning policy, Mussolini moved the organization away from the left and turned the revolutionary movement into an electoral movement in 1921 named the National Fascist Party. Support for the Fascists began to grow in 1921, and Fascist-supporting army officers began taking arms and vehicles from the army to use in counter-revolutionary attacks on socialists.

By 1921, the government headed by Giovanni Giolitti was unstable enough to be threatened by a growing socialist opposition. Giolitti believed that the Fascists could be toned down and used to protect the state from the socialists. He decided to include Fascists on his electoral list for the 1921 elections. In the elections, the Fascists did not make large gains, but Giolitti’s government failed to gather a large enough coalition to govern and offered the Fascists placements in his government. The Fascists rejected Giolitti’s offers and joined with socialists in bringing down his government.

In October 1922, Mussolini took advantage of a general strike by workers, and announced his demands to the government to give the Fascist Party political power or face a coup. With no immediate response, a small number of Fascists began a long trek across Italy to Rome which was called the March on Rome, claiming to Italians that Fascists were intending to restore law and order. Mussolini himself did not participate until the very end of the march. The Fascists, under the leadership of Mussolini, demanded Prime Minister Luigi Facta’s resignation and that Mussolini be named prime minister. Although the Italian Army was far better armed than the Fascist paramilitaries, the Italian government under King Victor Emmanuel III faced a political crisis. The king was forced to choose which of the two rival movements in Italy would form the government: Mussolini’s Fascists, or the anti-monarchist Italian Socialist Party. He selected the Fascists.

On October 28, 1922, the king selected Mussolini to become prime minister, allowing Mussolini and the Fascist Party to pursue their political ambitions as long as they supported the monarchy and its interests. Mussolini at 39 was young compared to other Italian and European leaders. His supporters called him Il Duce (“The Leader”). A personality cult was developed that portrayed him as the nation’s savior which was aided by the personal popularity he held with Italians already which would remain strong until Italy faced continuous military defeats in World War II.

Upon taking power, Mussolini formed a legislative coalition with nationalists, liberals, and populists. However, goodwill by the Fascists toward parliamentary democracy faded quickly; Mussolini’s coalition passed the electoral Acerbo Law of 1923, which gave two-thirds of the seats in parliament to the party or coalition that achieved 25 percent of the vote. The Fascist Party used violence and intimidation to achieve the 25 percent threshold in the 1924 election and became the ruling political party of Italy.

Following the election, Socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti was assassinated after calling for an annulment of the elections because of the irregularities. Following the assassination, the Socialists walked out of parliament, allowing Mussolini to pass more authoritarian laws. In 1925, Mussolini accepted responsibility for the Fascist violence in 1924 and promised that dissenters would be dealt with harshly. Before the speech, Blackshirts smashed opposition presses and beat up several of Mussolini’s opponents. This event is considered the onset of undisguised Fascist dictatorship in Italy, though it would be 1928 before the Fascist Party was formally declared the only legal party in the nation.

Over the next four years, Mussolini eliminated nearly all checks and balances on his power. In 1926, he passed a law that declared he was responsible only to the king and made him the sole person able to determine Parliament’s agenda. Local autonomy was swept away, and appointed podestas (persons appointed to serve as mayors) replaced communal mayors and councils. Soon after all other parties were banned in 1928, parliamentary elections were replaced by plebiscites in which the Grand Council nominated a single list of candidates. Mussolini wielded enormous political powers as the effective ruler of Italy. The king was a figurehead and handled ceremonial roles; he retained the power to dismiss the prime minister on the advice of the Grand Council—which is what happened in 1943.

A major success in social policy in Fascist Italy was the creation of the Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro (OND) or “National After-Work Program” in 1925. The OND was the state’s largest recreational organizations for adults. The program was so popular that by the 1930s, it was responsible for establishing and maintaining 11,000 sports grounds, over 6,400 libraries, 800 movie houses, 1,200 theaters, and over 2,000 orchestras. Membership was voluntary and nonpolitical. It is estimated that by 1936, the OND had organized 80 percent of salaried workers. Membership was voluntary and nonpolitical. Nearly 40 percent of the industrial workforce had been recruited into the program by 1939 and the sports activities proved popular with large numbers of workers. The OND had the largest membership of any of the mass Fascist organizations in Italy.

Another organization, the Opera Nazionale Balilla (ONB), was widely popular and provided young people with access to clubs, dances, sports facilities, radios, concerts, plays, circuses, and outdoor hikes at little or no cost. It also sponsored tournaments and sports festivals.

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Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, Germany, ca. 1940, Part of Eva Braun’s photo albums, ca. 1913 – ca. 1944, seized by the U.S. government.

The Rise of Hitler

The German economy suffered severe setbacks after the end of World War I, partly because of reparations payments required under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. The government printed money to make the payments and to repay the country’s war debt; the resulting hyperinflation led to inflated prices for consumer goods, economic chaos, and food riots. When the government failed to make the reparations payments in January 1923, French troops occupied German industrial areas along the Ruhr. Widespread civil unrest followed.

The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP; Nazi Party) was the renamed successor of the German Workers’ Party founded in 1919, one of several far-right political parties active in Germany at the time. The party platform included removal of the Weimar Republic, rejection of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, radical anti-Semitism, and anti-Bolshevism. They promised a strong central government, increased Wohnraum (living space) for Germanic peoples, formation of a national community based on race, and racial cleansing via the active suppression of Jews, who would be stripped of their citizenship and civil rights. The Nazis proposed national and cultural renewal based upon the Völkisch movement.

When the stock market in the United States crashed in 1929, the impact in Germany was dire. Millions were thrown out of work and several major banks collapsed. Hitler and the NSDAP prepared to take advantage of the emergency to gain support for their party. They promised to strengthen the economy and provide jobs. Many voters decided the NSDAP was capable of restoring order, quelling civil unrest, and improving Germany’s international reputation. After the federal election of 1932, the Nazis were the largest party in the Reichstag, holding 230 seats with 37.4 percent of the popular vote.

Although the Nazis won the greatest share of the popular vote in the two Reichstag general elections of 1932, they did not have a majority, so Hitler led a short-lived coalition government formed by the NSDAP and the German National People’s Party. Under pressure from politicians, industrialists, and the business community, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. This event is known as the Machtergreifung (seizure of power). In the following months, the NSDAP used a process termed Gleichschaltung (coordination) to rapidly bring all aspects of life under control of the party. All civilian organizations, including agricultural groups, volunteer organizations, and sports clubs, had their leadership replaced with Nazi sympathizers or party members. By June 1933, virtually the only organizations not in the control of the NSDAP were the army and the churches.

On the night of February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building was set afire; Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist, was found guilty of starting the blaze. Hitler proclaimed that the arson marked the start of a communist uprising. Violent suppression of communists by the Sturmabteilung (SA) was undertaken all over the country, and four thousand members of the Communist Party of Germany were arrested. The Reichstag Fire Decree, imposed on 28 February 1933, rescinded most German civil liberties, including rights of assembly and freedom of the press. The decree also allowed the police to detain people indefinitely without charges or a court order. The legislation was accompanied by a propaganda blitz that led to public support for the measure.

In March 1933, the Enabling Act, an amendment to the Weimar Constitution, passed in the Reichstag by a vote of 444 to 94. This amendment allowed Hitler and his cabinet to pass laws—even laws that violated the constitution—without the consent of the president or the Reichstag. As the bill required a two-thirds majority to pass, the Nazis used the provisions of the Reichstag Fire Decree to keep several social democratic deputies from attending; the Communists had already been banned. On May 10, the government seized the assets of the social democrats; they were banned in June. The remaining political parties were dissolved, and on July 14, 1933, Germany became a defacto one-party state when the founding of new parties was made illegal. Further elections in November 1933, 1936, and 1938 were entirely Nazi-controlled and saw only the Nazis and a small number of independents elected. The regional state parliaments and the Reichsrat (federal upper house) were abolished in January 1934.

In this period, Germany was still in a dire economic situation; millions were unemployed and the balance of trade deficit was daunting. Hitler knew that reviving the economy was vital. The Nazis continued social welfare policies initiated by the governments of the Weimar Republic and mobilized volunteers to assist those impoverished, “racially-worthy” Germans through the National Socialist People’s Welfare organization. The organization oversaw charitable activities and became the largest civic organization in Nazi Germany. Successful efforts were made to get middle-class women involved in social work assisting large families. The Winter Relief campaigns annual drives to help finance charitable work) acted as a ritual to generate public feeling. In June 1933, the “Reinhardt Program” for infrastructure development was introduced. It combined indirect incentives, such as tax reductions, with direct public investment in waterways, railroads, and highways. It was followed by similar initiatives resulting in great expansion of the German construction industry. Between 1933 and 1936, employment in construction rose from 666,000 to over 2 million. In 1934, using deficit spending, public works projects were undertaken. A total of 1.7 million Germans were put to work on projects in 1934 alone. Average wages both per hour and per week began to rise. All social programs in Nazi Germany excluded German Jews. For example, government-run health care insurance plans were available, but Jews were denied coverage starting in 1933. That same year, Jewish doctors were forbidden to treat government-insured patients. In 1937, Jewish doctors were forbidden to treat non-Jewish patients, and in 1938, their right to practice medicine was removed entirely.

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Overview of the mass roll call of SA, SS, and NSKK troops. Nuremberg, November 9, 1935. (National Archives Gift Collection)

The Rise of Japan

In the aftermath of World War I, Japan’s ambitions to become a global power led to establishing a unique totalitarian political system that combined ancient Japanese traditions with elements of European fascism and resulted in aggressive territorial expansion.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the rise of Japan as a world power and a fascist power

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Despite some democratic changes in the 1920s, the after-World War I period in Japan was marked by the implementation of a military dictatorship and territorial expansionism that were considered the best ways to protect what Japanese saw as their spiritual and cultural values.
  • The Peace Preservation Law of 1925, along with other anti-radical legislation, curtailed individual freedom in Japan and outlawed groups that sought to alter the system of government or to abolish private ownership. Historians consider these developments to be critical to the end of democratic changes in Japan.
  • In response to post-World war I disarmament efforts, a movement opposing the idea of limiting the size of Japanese military grew within the junior officer corps. On May 15, 1932, a group of naval officers staged a coup that aimed to overthrow the government and replace it with military rule.
  • In September 1932, the Japanese were becoming more locked into the course that would lead them into World War II. The state was being transformed to serve the Army and the emperor, but the emperor would become a figurehead  while real power would fall to a leader very similar to a führer or duce. This style of government was linked to a movement that historians refer to as “statism” in Shōwa, Japan,  Shōwa nationalism, or Japanese fascism.
  • The 1930s marked the period of Japan’s aggressive expansion in Asia.
  • In 1940, Japan, Italy, and Germany signed the Tripartite Pact, which created the alliance of Axis powers.

Key Terms

  • Tripartite Pact: A 1940 pact signed by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. Its objective was to “establish and maintain a new order of things,” with Nazi Germany and Italy taking leadership in Europe and Japan in Greater East Asia. The signatories of this alliance become known as the Axis powers.
  • May 15th Incident: A 1932 coup staged in response to post-World war I disarmament efforts that aimed to limit the size of Japanese military. Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi was assassinated by 11 young naval officers. The following trial and popular support of the Japanese population led to extremely light sentences for the assassins, strengthening the rising power of Japanese militarism and weakening democracy and rule of law in Japan.
  • Imperial Rule Assistance Association: Japan’s para-fascist organization created by Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe on October 12, 1940, to promote the goals of his Shintaisei (“New Order”) movement. It evolved into a “statist” ruling political party, which aimed at removing the sectionalism in the politics and economics in the Empire of Japan to create a totalitarian one-party state, in order to maximize efficiency of Japan’s total war effort.
  • Second Sino-Japanese War: A military conflict fought primarily between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan from 1937 to 1945. It was the most tragic war in 20th-century Asia.

Japan declared war on Germany on August 23, 1914, and immediately sought to expand its sphere of influence in China and the Pacific. It succeeded to some extent, taking over a number of German colonial holdings in the region. Although Japan belonged the victors of World War I, the Japanese were excluded from the prestigious club of world powers and were instead grouped with smaller, less influential countries. In 1919, Japan proposed a clause on racial equality to be included in the League of Nations Covenant at the Paris Peace Conference. The clause was rejected by several Western countries and was not forwarded for larger discussion at the full meeting of the conference. The rejection was an important factor in the coming years in turning Japan away from cooperation with the West and toward nationalistic policies. All these events released a surge of Japanese nationalism and resulted in the end of collaboration diplomacy, which supported peaceful economic expansion. The implementation of a military dictatorship and territorial expansionism were considered the best ways to protect the Yamato-damashii, or what Japanese saw as their spiritual and cultural values.

The Rise of Japanese Fascism

In the 1920s, Japan witnessed a development of democratic trends, including the introduction of universal male suffrage in 1925. However, pressure from the conservative right forced the passage of the Peace Preservation Law of 1925 along with other anti-radical legislation. The act curtailed individual freedom in Japan and outlawed groups that sought to alter the system of government or abolish private ownership. The leftist movements that had been galvanized by the Russian Revolution were subsequently crushed and scattered. Historians consider these developments to be critical to the end of democratic changes in Japan.

In response to post-World War I disarmament efforts, a movement opposing the idea of limiting the size of Japanese military grew within the junior officer corps. On May 15, 1932, the naval officers, aided by Army cadets and right-wing civilians, staged a coup that aimed to overthrow the government and replace it with military rule (known as the May 15th Incident). Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi was assassinated by 11 young naval officers. The following trial and popular support of the Japanese population led to extremely light sentences for the assassins, strengthening the rising power of Japanese militarism and weakening democracy and the rule of law in Japan.

In September 1932, the Japanese were becoming more locked into the course that would lead them into World War II, with Sadao Araki leading the way. Araki was an important right-wing thinker who linked the Japanese ancient code and contemporary local and European fascist ideals to form the ideological basis of an intellectual and political movement known as Shōwa nationalism. Totalitarianism, militarism, and expansionism were to become the rule, with fewer voices able to speak against it. In a September 23 news conference, Araki first mentioned the philosophy of “Kōdōha.” The concept of Kodo linked the Emperor, the people, land, and morality as indivisible. This led to the creation of a “new” Shinto (an ethnic religion of the people of Japan) and increased emperor worship.

The state was being transformed to serve the Army and the emperor, but the emperor would become a figurehead while real power would fall to a leader very similar to a führer or duce. On the other hand, traditionalist Navy militarists defended the emperor and a constitutional monarchy with a significant religious aspect. With the launching of the Imperial Rule Assistance Association in 1940 by Prime minister Fumimaro Konoe, Japan would turn to a unique form of government that resembled totalitarianism. All political parties were ordered to dissolve into the association, forming a one-party state based on totalitarian values. Various nationalist initiatives were intended to mobilize Japanese society for a total war against the West. This style of government was linked to a movement that combined such ideas as Japanese nationalism, militarism, and “state capitalism.” Historians refer to it as “statism” in Shōwa, Japan, Shōwa nationalism, or Japanese fascism. The creation of the Imperial Rule Assistance Association in 1940 is also seen as a Japanese response to the rise of fascism in Europe, which was to prevent the influences of German and Italian fascist movements.

Expansionism

The Japanese Empire’s main economic problem lay in that rapid industrial expansion had turned the country into a major manufacturing and industrial power requiring raw materials. In the 1920s and 1930s, Japan needed to import raw materials such as iron, rubber, and oil to maintain strong economic growth. Most of these resources came from the United States. The Japanese felt that acquiring resource-rich territories would establish economic self-sufficiency and independence, and they also hoped to jump-start the nation’s economy in the midst of the Great Depression. As a result, Japan set its sights on East Asia, specifically Manchuria with its many resources.

With little resistance, Japan invaded and conquered Manchuria in 1931. It claimed that the invasion was a liberation of the Manchus from the Chinese, although the majority of the population was Han Chinese as a result of the large-scale settlement of Chinese in Manchuria in the 19th century. Jehol, a Chinese territory bordering Manchuria, was taken in 1933. In 1936, Japan also created a Mongolian puppet state in Inner Mongolia named Mengjiang, which was also predominantly Chinese as a result of recent Han immigration to the area. In 1937, Japan invaded China, creating what was essentially a three-way war between Japan, Mao Zedong ‘s communists, and Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists. The invasion started what would become known as the Second Sino-Japanese War, which after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 would merge into the greater conflict of World War II as a major front of what is broadly known as the Pacific War. The Second Sino-Japanese War was the largest Asian war in the 20th century. It accounted for the majority of civilian and military casualties in the Pacific War, with anywhere between 10 and 25 million Chinese civilians and over 4 million Chinese and Japanese military personnel dying from war-related violence, famine, and other causes. By the end of the Pacific War, Japan had conquered much of the Far East, including Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Indonesia, part of New Guinea, and some islands of the Pacific Ocean.

On September 27, 1940, Imperial Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Its objective was to “establish and maintain a new order of things,” with Nazi Germany and Italy taking leadership in Europe and Japan in Greater East Asia. The pact also called for mutual protection—if any one of the member powers was attacked by a country not already at war (excluding the Soviet Union) and for technological and economic cooperation between the signatories. The signatories of this alliance become known as the Axis powers.

The imperial ambitions of Japan and particularly the 1931 Invasion of Manchuria dramatically revealed the helplessness and ineffectiveness of the League of Nations. The league was unable to do anything in light of the events. Japan withdrew from the organization in 1933.

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Japanese troops (2nd Division) entering Tsitsihar during the Japanese Invasion of Manchuria, November 19, 1931, photo by Osaka Mainichi.

The Expanding Axis

In September 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, agreeing to provide military and economic support to each other.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the formation of the Axis powers of World War II, along with each country’s geographic expansion prior to the war

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Tripartite Pact, also known as the Berlin Pact, was an agreement between Germany, Italy, and Japan signed in Berlin on September 27, 1940. A number of independent and so-called client states, including Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, joined the alliance.
  • In the late 1930s, Germany occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia. The German invasion on Poland on September 1, 1939 marked the outbreak of World War II. Within several months months, Germany occupied a huge part of the European continent, including Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.
  • In the 1930s, Italy expanded its influences in Africa, although its sphere of interest in Europe was relatively limited.
  • Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria marked the beginning of its aggressive and successful expansion in East Asia and the Pacific.

Key Terms

  • Tripartite Pact: A pact signed in Berlin, Germany, on September 27, 1940, which established the Axis powers of World War II. The pact was signed by representatives of Nazi Germany (Adolf Hitler), Fascist Italy (foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano), and Imperial Japan (Japanese ambassador to Germany, Saburo Kurusu).

The Tripartite Pact

he Tripartite Pact, also known as the Berlin Pact, was an agreement between Germany, Italy, and Japan signed in Berlin on September 27, 1940. It was a defensive military alliance that was eventually joined by Hungary (November 20, 1940), Romania (November 23, 1940), Bulgaria (March 1, 1941) and Yugoslavia (March 25, 1941), as well as by the German client state of Slovakia (November 24, 1940). Yugoslavia’s adherence provoked a coup d’état in Belgrade, and Italy and Germany responded by invading Yugoslavia (with Bulgarian, Hungarian, and Romanian assistance) and partitioning the country. The resulting Italo-German client state of Croatia joined the pact on June 15, 1941.

The Pact’s objective was to “establish and maintain a new order of things,” with Nazi Germany and Italy taking leadership in Europe and Japan taking leadership in Greater East Asia. For the next 10 years, the original signatories agreed they would “stand by and co-operate with one another” and declared “to assist one another with all political, economic and military means when one of the three contracting powers is attacked” by a country not already involved in the war, excluding the Soviet Union.

Many contemporary world leaders and later historians believed that the Tripartite Pact was directed primarily at the United States, at the time reluctant to enter the global war. The resulting alliance of three global powers aimed to further discourage the United States from direct military involvement. Its practical effects were limited, since the Italo-German and Japanese operational theaters were on opposite sides of the world and the high contracting powers had disparate strategic interests. Some technical cooperation was carried out, and the Japanese declaration of war on the United States propelled, although it did not require, a similar declaration of war from all the other signatories of the Tripartite Pact.

Expansionism

In the years leading to the Tripartite Pact, Germany, Italy, and Japan all turned into totalitarian regimes with imperial ambitions.

Germany

After the annexations of Austria in 1938 and Czechoslovakia in 1939, Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939—the day that marks the outbreak of World War II. The invasion and occupation of Denmark and Norway followed. In May of 1940, Germany moved forward and occupied Luxembourg, followed, within days, by the Netherlands and Belgium. On June 22, France signed an armistice agreement with Germany. As a result, Germany occupied northern France and the Atlantic coastline, while southern France remained under the control of a Nazi-controlled French government with capital in Vichy. On June 21, Italy invaded southern France. After chaotic negotiations between Germany and Italy, Mussolini requested a demilitarized zone along the French border, and on June 24, Italy agreed to an armistice with the Vichy regime to that effect.

With France neutralized, Germany began an air campaign (the Battle of Britain) to prepare to invade Britain. The campaign failed and the invasion plans were cancelled. After the the Axis powers invaded Yugoslavia, the country was divided into a number of spheres of interest. German and Italian troops largely administered Croatia, which in theory was an independent state. Germany established a military occupation administration in Serbia and annexed part of Slovenia. By June 1941, the Axis powers, most notably Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria, occupied Greece.

Italy

While Germany lost its African colonies in the aftermath of the defeat in World War I, Italy sought to expand its colonial holdings in the region in the 1930s (prior to that, Italy colonized Eritrea and part of Somalia, known also Italian Somaliland, in the 1880s). In 1934, Italian Libya was formed from the colonies of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. In 1935–1936, Italy overtook Ethiopia and between 1940 and 1941, it occupied British Samaliland. In Europe, Albania was an Italian protectorate and dependency from 1939. Already after signing the Tripartite Pact, Montenegro became an Italian dependency in 1941. Known as the Governorate of Montenegro, it was under the control of an Italian military governor.

Japan

With little resistance, Japan invaded and conquered Manchuria in 1931. Jehol, a Chinese territory bordering Manchuria, was taken in 1933. In 1936, Japan also created a Mongolian puppet state in Inner Mongolia named Mengjiang, which was also predominantly Chinese as a result of recent Han immigration to the area. In 1937, Japan invaded China, creating what was essentially a three-way war between Japan, Mao Zedong ‘s communists, and Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists. The invasion started what would become known as the Second Sino-Japanese War, which after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 would merge into the greater conflict of World War II as a major front of what is broadly known as the Pacific War. By the end of the Pacific War, Japan had conquered much of the Far East, including Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Indonesia, part of New Guinea, and some islands of the Pacific Ocean.

The postcard shows young children dancing around waving Japanese, Germany, and Italian flags. Above them are portraits of Hitler, PM Konoe, and Mussolini.

“Good friends in three countries”: A Japanese propaganda poster promoting the Tripartite Pact between Japan, Germany, and Italy.

The Mood in America

The outbreak of World War II and increasing threats from Nazi Germany and Japan changed the U.S. long-standing position of isolationism and non-interventionism.

Learning Objectives

Contrast the principles of American interventionists and non-interventionists at the start of the Second World War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the aftermath of World War I, both the government and the public in the United States supported a non-interventionist and isolationist stand.
  • The post-World War I isolationism and non-interventionism resulted in a number of so-called neutrality acts passed in the 1930s in response to the growing turmoil in Europe and Asia.
  • Following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the Stimson Doctrine was introduced. It applied the principle of non-recognition of international territorial changes that were executed by force.
  • When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, marking the outbreak of World War II, Americans were divided over the question of non-interventionism. Interventionists emphasized the threat posed by a German -Italian victory and the core ideological differences between Americans and fascist powers in Europe.
  • In 1940, Roosevelt was elected for his third term. Shortly after re-election, he delivered a radio address in which he used the slogan “Arsenal of Democracy.” Roosevelt promised to help the United Kingdom fight Nazi Germany by giving them military supplies while the United States stayed out of the actual fighting.
  • In 1941, the actions of the Roosevelt administration made it clear that the United States was on a course to war. This policy shift, driven by the president, came in two phases. The first came with the passage of the 1939 Neutrality Act, and the second phase was the Lend-Lease Act of early 1941.

Key Terms

  • cash and carry: A policy requested by U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt first in 1936, and later in 1939. It allowed the sale of material to belligerents, as long as the recipients arranged for the transport using their own ships and paid immediately in cash.
  • Neutrality Acts: A number of laws that were passed by the United States Congress in the 1930s, in response to the growing turmoil in Europe and Asia that eventually led to World War II. They were spurred by the growth in isolationism and non-interventionism in the U.S. following its costly involvement in World War I and sought to ensure that the U.S. would not become entangled again in foreign conflicts.
  • Arsenal of Democracy: A slogan used by Franklin D. Roosevelt in a radio address in which he promised to help the United Kingdom fight Nazi Germany by giving them military supplies while the United States stayed out of the actual fighting. The term came to specifically reference America and its industrial machine as the primary military supplier for the Allied war effort.
  • Stimson Doctrine: A U.S. political doctrine that applied the principle of non-recognition of international territorial changes that were executed by force (ex injuria jus non oritur). It was introduced in the aftermath of the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria and named after the secretary of state in the Hoover administration.
  • America First Committee: The foremost and biggest non-interventionist pressure group fighting against the American entry into World War II.
  • Irreconcilables: A bi-partisan group of senators who opposed the Treaty of Versailles in the United States in 1919.

Non-Interventionism before World War I

Despite the United States’ participation in World War I and Woodrow Wilson ‘s active efforts to establish a new, peaceful global order, non-interventionist tendencies of U.S. foreign policy were in full force in the aftermath of the war. The Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles, which automatically rejected the United States’ membership in the League of Nations. A group of senators known as the Irreconcilables, identifying with William Borah and Henry Cabot Lodge, two prominent Republican politicians known for their commitment to isolationism, had objected the clauses of the treaty which compelled America to come to the defense of other nations. The results of the 1920 elections, with the victory of Republican Warren G. Harding supporting American opposition to the League of Nations, proved that the isolationist stand enjoyed substantial support among ordinary Americans.

Non-interventionism or isolationism took a new turn during the Great Depression. President Herbert Hoover repeated the United States’ commitment to isolationism while his successor, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, translated this commitment into a number of foreign policy decisions, including the introduction of the Good Neighbor Policy in Latin America. The policy aimed to replace earlier military interventions of the United States in Latin America with the principle of non-intervention and non-interference in the domestic affairs of Latin America. The United States did not take any formal steps in light of such critical international events as Fascist Italy’s colonization of Ethiopia, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, or the brutal Spanish Civil War.

Neutrality Acts of the 1930s

The post-World War I isolationism and non-interventionism in the U.S. resulted in a number of so-called neutrality acts passed in the 1930s in response to the growing turmoil in Europe and Asia. The 1935 act imposed a general embargo on trading in arms and war materials with all parties at war. It also declared that American citizens traveling on warring ships traveled at their own risk. The act was set to expire after six months, but the 1936 act renewed its provisions and additionally forbade all loans or credits to belligerents. In January 1937, Congress passed a joint resolution outlawing the arms trade with Spain. The Neutrality Act of 1937 included the provisions of the earlier acts, this time without expiration date, and extended them to cover civil wars as well. Further, U.S. ships were prohibited from transporting any passengers or articles to belligerents and U.S. citizens were forbidden from traveling on ships of belligerent nations. In a concession to Roosevelt, a ” cash and carry ” provision that had been devised by his adviser Bernard Baruch was added: the president could permit the sale of materials and supplies to belligerents in Europe as long as the recipients arranged for the transport and paid immediately in cash, with the argument that this would not draw the U.S. into the conflict. Roosevelt believed that cash and carry would aid France and Great Britain in the event of a war with Germany since they were the only countries that controlled the seas and were able to take advantage of the provision. Finally, the Neutrality Act of 1939 was passed allowing for arms trade with belligerent nations (Great Britain and France) on a cash-and-carry basis, thus, in effect, ending the arms embargo. Furthermore, the Neutrality Acts of 1935 and 1937 were repealed.

The Stimson Doctrine

Following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the Stimson Doctrine was introduced. Named after Henry L. Stimson, United States Secretary of State in the Hoover Administration (1929–1933), it applied the principle of non-recognition of international territorial changes that were executed by force (ex injuria jus non oritur). The doctrine was also invoked by U.S. Under-Secretary of State Sumner Welles in a declaration of July 23, 1940, that announced non-recognition of the Soviet annexation and incorporation of the three Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—and remained the official U.S. position until the Baltic states regained independence in 1991.

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Henry Stimson in 1929; photo by Harris & Ewing

Stimson was U.S. secretary of state in the Hoover administration, who proposed a doctrine based on the principle of non-recognition of international changes resulting from the use of force.

Opposition to War

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, marking the outbreak of World War II, Americans were divided over the question of non-interventionism. The basic principle of the interventionist argument was fear of German invasion. By the summer of 1940, France suffered a stunning defeat by Germans, and Britain was the only democratic enemy of Germany. In a 1940 speech, Roosevelt argued, “Some, indeed, still hold to the now somewhat obvious delusion that we … can safely permit the United States to become a lone island … in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.” A national survey found that in the summer of 1940, 67 percent of Americans believed that a German-Italian victory would endanger the United States, that if such an event occurred, 88 percent supported “arm[ing] to the teeth at any expense to be prepared for any trouble,” and that 71 percent favored “the immediate adoption of compulsory military training for all young men.”

However, there were still many who held on to non-interventionism. Although a minority, they were well organized, and had a powerful presence in public life and in Congress. The America First Committee (AFC), the foremost non-interventionist pressure group against the American entry into World War II, launched a petition aimed at enforcing the 1939 Neutrality Act and forcing Roosevelt to keep his pledge to keep America out of the war. They profoundly distrusted Roosevelt, arguing that he was lying to the American people. Charles Lindbergh was AFC’s most prominent spokesman, who in a number of popular speeches continued his own and the organization’s strong anti-war stance.

Many conservatives, especially in the Midwest in 1939–41, favored isolationism and opposed American entry into World War II. Conservatives in the East and South were generally interventionists, as typified by Stimson. However, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, united all Americans behind the war effort, with conservatives in Congress taking the opportunity to close down many New Deal agencies.

Roosevelt’s Third Term

In 1940, Roosevelt sought a third term, despite the long-standing tradition of a maximum two presidential terms. He was nominated by 946 to 147 on the first ballot. The new vice-presidential nominee was Henry Agard Wallace, a liberal intellectual who was secretary of agriculture. This represented Roosevelt’s administration shifting to the left, as Wallace was chosen in place of conservative Texan, John Nance Garner. In his campaign against Republican Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt was acutely aware of popular isolationist sentiments and stressed both his proven leadership experience and his intention to do everything possible to keep the United States out of war. Roosevelt won a comfortable victory by building strong support from labor unions, urban political machines, ethnic voters, and the traditionally Democratic South, going on to become the first United States president in American history to be elected to a full third term. The 22nd Amendment, which formally sets a term limit for election, passed in Congress in 1947, after Roosevelt’s death.

Shortly after the re-election, Roosevelt delivered a radio address in which he used the slogan “Arsenal of Democracy.” Roosevelt promised to help the United Kingdom fight Nazi Germany by giving them military supplies while the United States stayed out of the actual fighting. The announcement was made a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, at a time when Germany occupied much of Europe and threatened Britain. Roosevelt’s address was “a call to arm and support” the Allies in their fight against Germany, and to a lesser extent China in their war against Japan. “The great arsenal of democracy” came to specifically reference America and its industrial machine as the primary military supplier for the Allied war effort.

Much of Roosevelt’s speech attempted to remove a sense of complacency still present in the American psyche. Roosevelt refuted the idea that America was safe because the Atlantic Ocean provided a buffer from the Nazis, stating that modern technology had effectively reduced the distance across that ocean.

In 1941, the actions of the Roosevelt administration made it clear that the United States was on a course to war. This policy shift, driven by the president, came in two phases. The first came with the passage of the 1939 Neutrality Act (permitting the United States to trade arms with belligerent nations, as long as these came to America to retrieve the arms, and pay for them in cash). The second phase was the Lend-Lease Act of early 1941. This act allowed the president “to lend, lease, sell, or barter arms, ammunition, food, or any ‘defense article’ or any ‘defense information’ to ‘the government of any country whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States.'” American public opinion supported Roosevelt’s actions.