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Global Warfare and Economic Upheaval
(1917 - 1945)
© Copyright 2006 Bryan Hardesty. All rights reserved.
(NOTE: The DVD Edition of The American
Testimony is now available at our
AMERICA ENTERS THE GREAT WAR
In the opening days of 1917, Woodrow Wilson
made preparations for his second term of office. Central to his reelection campaign
was his insistence on keeping the United States out of the escalating war in Europe.
Triggered by the 1914 assassination of Austria’s archduke, and fueled by a combination
of long-festering territorial disputes and sectarian hostilities, Germany, Austria-Hungary,
Bulgaria, and Turkey aligned themselves as the Central Powers, waging war against
the Allied nations of Great Britain, France, Russia, Serbia, Belgium, Romania, Portugal,
Montenegro, Greece, Italy, and Japan. U.S. trade enterprises favored the Allies,
a fact that was not overlooked by Germany. Submersible German U-boats became the
terror of the Atlantic, and with the loss of American lives in the 1915 torpedoing
of the British passenger liner Lusitania, many in the United States urged their
government to issue a war declaration against the Central Powers. However, with
few available military resources, Woodrow Wilson opted for diplomacy to avoid—or
at least delay—armed conflict. On January 31, 1917, Germany boldly announced its
intention to sink all ships entering the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts
of the Allied nations. Four days later, the president broke relations with Germany.
Shortly thereafter, British intelligence operatives intercepted
and decoded a secret telegram written by German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann
to the government of Mexico. The message revealed Germany’s offer to aid Mexico
in reclaiming Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, in the event of America's entry in
the war on the side of the Allies. On February 24th, the British government passed
the Zimmerman telegram to U.S. officials, and within days, its contents were published
in newspapers across nation. Incensed Americans renewed their cry for a war declaration
against Germany and its Central Powers partners.
Overseas, Imperial Russia, in its own fight against Germany, faced a series of military
setbacks that devastated its economy. Demoralized and facing food shortages, the
Russian people forced their imperial ruler, Czar Nicholas II of the Romanov dynasty,
to relinquish power in March of 1917. Opposition to the Czar was fueled by various
groups dedicated to the communist doctrine of Karl Marx. Although the Duma, Russia’s
parliamentary body, established a provisional government, its authority was challenged
by a band of militant communist revolutionaries called Bolsheviks. The fall of the
Czar emboldened Bolshevik founder, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov to end his exile in Switzerland
and return to Russia under his new name, Lenin.
Germany, meanwhile, remained embroiled in warfare at both its
eastern and western borders. With German military resources divided, Woodrow Wilson
was emboldened to bring America into the European conflict. Addressing a special
session of Congress on April 2, 1917, the president cited the threats exposed in
the Zimmerman telegram, the need to protect U.S. shipping interests, and the belief
that the U.S. could hasten the war’s end and play a role in restructuring postwar
Europe. The war declaration against Germany passed in the Senate on April 4th and
the House of Representatives on April 6th. Thereafter, Wilson signed the resolution.
The president often referred to the conflict as “The War to End All Wars” or “The
War to Make the World Safe for Democracy.” The American people, however, called
it “The Great War.” Only many years later would it be referred to as World War I.
To pay for war expenditures, Wilson persuaded Congress to raise the income tax rate.
Millions of new taxpayers were acquired when moderate and lower income families
were subjected to the same tax obligations already imposed on wealthier Americans.
The measure was presented to the people as a temporary tax for the war effort alone.
On May 18, 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, requiring
American men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for the military draft. The
age range later was broadened to cover ages 17 to 46.
Congress then passed the Lever Act, granting the Wilson administration
broad control over the production, pricing, and distribution of America’s food and
fuel supplies. The president appointed Herbert Hoover to head the newly-created
Food Administration, promoting increased food production and decreased consumption,
so that the U.S. could feed its European allies. Cooperating producers were paid
above market value. The Fuel Administration was likewise established to enforce
policies of increased fuel production and decreased domestic usage, so that American
fuel could be sent to Europe.
RUSSIA'S BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTION
In June of 1917, the first group of American expeditionary forces,
under the command of General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing, arrived in France, amassing
at the strategic city of Verdun. Transport ships arrived on a continual basis, adding
to the American presence. Naval destroyers were employed to defend the troop transport
convoys from German U-boat attack.
Alexander Kerensky emerged as Russia’s prime minister, though his power base remained
unstable. The communists of Russia’s enemy, Germany, funded a personal military
for Bolshevik leader Lenin in the hopes that he could overthrow Kerensky and install
a communist regime that would end hostilities with the Germans. Lenin enticed Russian
industrial workers with promises that they would share ownership in the nation’s
factories and mines if they participated in the revolt. Free land was also offered
to Russian peasants in exchange for their assistance. Lenin’s Bolsheviks, nevertheless,
failed in their first attempt to overthrow the Kerensky government in July of 1917.
Thereafter, Lenin remained in hiding for four months while his associate, Leon Trotsky,
reorganized the Bolsheviks and made preparations for a second assault. By the time
Lenin reemerged, infighting had weakened the Kerensky government. What was the month
of November on the U.S. calendar was still the Russian month of October, and it
was during this time that the Bolsheviks invaded the Russian capital of Petrograd,
storming the Winter Palace where the government convened. Prime Minister Kerensky,
absent when the takeover occurred, quickly amassed a small army to launch a counter-assault.
His attempt to retake the Winter Palace failed, and the Bolsheviks took control
With Lenin in power, the thieving Bolsheviks embarked on a door-to-door terror campaign,
removing middle-class and wealthy Russians from their homes, then dispatching them
to labor camps without their possessions. Those who resisted or even complained
were shot. Because this operation required the efforts of the entire Bolshevik army,
Lenin dispatched his aide, Leon Trotsky, to negotiate peace with Germany. As part
of the Bolshevik concessions, the Russian provinces of Poland, Norway, the Baltic
States, and the Ukraine were transferred to Germany. Thereafter, Lenin moved Russia’s
capital from Petrograd to the less vulnerable location of Moscow.
Freed from conflict in the east, Germany was able to reinforce
troops along its western front, where a stalemate with British and French forces
had persisted for months. The Germans were entrenched outside of Paris, and without
American participation, France was doomed to fall to the enemy.
AMERICA RESCUES FRANCE
On January 8, 1918, Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress to unveil his
Fourteen Points peace
plan. Among the lofty goals, the president called for open treaties between nations
(as opposed to secret pacts); freedom for all nations to navigate the high seas;
free trade between countries; the reduction of armaments; a fair adjustment of various
countries’ colonial claims; a redress of grievances among the different ethnic cultures
in the Eastern and Balkan regions of Europe (including the readjustment of political
boundaries); and the creation of what Wilson called a “general association of nations”
to preserve the peace.
Patriotic Americans were reluctant to challenge the president’s
bold moves to acquire new powers beyond those specified in the Constitution. Wilson
confidently created the War Labor Board in April of 1918, forcing every American
industry to accept labor unions. Thereafter, union membership in the United States
In May of 1918, Congress passed the Sedition Act, prohibiting
any criticism of the government, the flag, or any military uniform. Under this legislation,
Woodrow Wilson was empowered to suspend First Amendment rights and incarcerate antiwar
dissidents. The Overman Act was also signed at this time, granting Wilson unprecedented
powers over all government agencies for the duration of the war. No American president
prior to this time had been given such complete dominion over the nation.
In the Summer of 1918, American troops joined British and French
forces on a mission to invade the northwestern Russian seaports of Murmansk and
Archangel, for the purpose of blocking German access to supplies. Though these forces
also aided Russian anti-Bolsheviks, they were prohibited by the Wilson administration
from launching a direct assault against Lenin’s government. During the month of
June, the president ordered ten thousand American troops to help stranded Czech
and Slovak fighters cross Russia on the trans-Siberian railway to escape their German
The American First Army under General Pershing grew to a half million men by the
summer of 1918, offering much needed support to weary and demoralized French troops.
On the official record, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces was French Marshal
Ferdinand Foch, though American troops would ultimately answer to Pershing. On May
28, 1918, the American First Division attacked the German fortifications in the
northern French village of Cantigny, while in June, the Second and Third Divisions
aided the French north of the Marne River, driving the Germans out of the forest
known as Belleau Wood. These fighters moved onward to halt the German advance at
the river town of Chateau-Thierry in northern France. With this fierce battle, the
Germans ended their offensive campaign, shifting to a strictly defensive mode. The
American drive gave the Allies the military advantage for the first time since the
The Germans had constructed an elaborate system of trench fortifications in northeastern
France near the border of Belgium. Named after German Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg,
this Hindenburg Line became the primary target of the Allies. On July 18, 1918,
Marshal Foch launched the Somme Offensive (in reference to the major northern French
river that emptied into the English Channel). By early September, combined American
and French forces overtook the French city of St. Mihiel, conquering the deeply
entrenched fortifications that had been held by the Germans since the onset of the
war. The relieved citizens of the town embraced their liberators.
By the end of September, the number of U.S. troops in Europe exceeded one million,
and these Americans took the lead in the war, launching the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
Facing enormous resistance, General Pershing’s men incrementally drove the Germans
from Verdun to Sedan, encountering trenches, barbed wire, and concealed machinegun
pits along the way. The twenty-three mile drive was costly, as the Americans suffered
more than 100-thousand casualties. During this campaign, Army Corporal Alvin York
accomplished the most daring single-handed feat of the war. After killing more than
twenty Germans, York was joined by seven fellow soldiers in capturing 132 enemy
prisoners and 35 German machine guns. York’s prisoners were forced to carry wounded
Americans. At the end of the 47-day Meuse-Argonne Offensive, U.S. troops overtook
the German rail and communications center at Sedan.
With this war came the earliest use of armored tanks and airplanes in battle. The
planes were initially employed to locate enemy positions; then later for dropping
bombs. Over time, pilots in opposing airplanes began firing pistols at one another,
to little effect. Thereafter, machine guns were mounted to the front of planes,
synchronized to allow bullets to pass between the propeller blades. Pilots who downed
at least five enemy planes were granted the title “Ace.” Twenty-two Americans
became flying aces; the most notable being Eddie Rickenbacker, who gunned down 22
enemy aircraft and four observation balloons.
THE FALL OF THE CENTRAL POWERS
In September of 1918, Bulgaria became the first Central Powers
nation to surrender to the Allies, followed by Turkey in October. Though diplomats
from Germany and Austria-Hungary offered a cease-fire proposal to the United States,
President Wilson’s harsh demands forced them to break the negotiations. Since Austria-Hungary’s
military campaigns had been waged exclusively with Italian forces, Austro-Hungarians
negotiated their own armistice with Italy. Ethnic Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes seized
the opportunity to split from Austria-Hungary and form their own country, Yugoslavia.
On October 31st, Austrian Emperor Charles declared his empire bankrupt and went
On November 9th, domestic revolt in Germany forced Kaiser Wilhelm II to abdicate
the throne. Two days later, on November 11, 1918, German representatives met with
the Allied commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, inside a railway carriage in the forest
of Compiegne. With the signing of the armistice, Germany agreed to surrender weapons
and disperse troops. The Great War, which had taken more than ten million lives,
had come to an end.
Though American’s were overjoyed that peace had come, federal
officials found themselves in a quandary. During the course of the war, the U.S.
Congress had concluded that a nationwide prohibition against alcoholic beverages
would conserve the grains used for liquor distillation, as well as maintain the
sobriety of military personnel. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was
drafted for this purpose, and though the original causes for prohibition were nullified
with the war’s conclusion, state governments moved ahead, ratifying the amendment
on January 16, 1919.
Meanwhile, overseas, most of the monarchies of old had fallen, and the governments
of the victorious Allied Powers believed that postwar Europe could be restructured
in a way to avoid future conflicts. During January of 1919, Allied leaders assembled
in Paris, France, to design a new geopolitical order for central and eastern Europe.
In attendance was Woodrow Wilson, the first U.S. president to leave his country
while serving in office. His delegation included Secretary of State Robert Lansing
and presidential advisor Edward Mandell House. Wilson was one of the “Big Four”
dominating the conference, joining British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, French
Premier Georges Clemenceau, and Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando. Representatives
from the Central Powers nations were excluded from the assembly, as this was a meeting
of the conquerors.
At Wilson’s insistence, the first order of business was to charter
the League of Nations, a global peacekeeping body and mediator in international
disputes. Afterward, the delegates began crafting final peace terms. To placate
the vindictive French, allied leaders jointly agreed to hold Germany responsible
for the war. The vanquished country was ordered to pay for all damages and compensate
war veterans. The cost was estimated at 33-billion dollars; at that time an impossible
sum to pay. Germany was also ordered to renounce its prior treaties with Russia
and Romania, and surrender virtually all warships and weapons, keeping only enough
for a tiny defensive force. A six-mile wide strip of German territory, running along
the west bank of the Rhine River, was designated a neutral zone to be occupied by
French authorities for a period of fifteen years.
Allied leaders redrew boundary lines in central and eastern Europe
with little regard for ethnic, cultural, or language characteristics of the affected
lands. Wilson’s delegation altered the borders of countries they had never visited,
and were immune from the consequences of their decisions. Western lands of the old
Russian Empire, granted to Germany by the Bolsheviks, were used to create the independent
countries of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. Austria-Hungary was
divided into Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Austria. Sections of the former
Ottoman Empire of Turkey were reduced, creating Albania, Saudi Arabia, the French
colony of Syria, and the British colonies of Iraq, Kuwait, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan.
France, Japan, and Great Britain also took administrative control over various German
colonial possessions in Asia and the Pacific.
Postwar Poland had vastly different borders from the Poland of
old, and clashing cultures abounded. Yet the most profound ethnic and language differences
were in the new nation of Yugoslavia, where Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians, Herzegovinians,
Montenegrins, and Slovenes were grouped together with small clusters of Poles, Czechs,
Italians, Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Slavs. Likewise, Czechoslovakia
was comprised of Czechs, Bohemians, and Slovaks.
With peace terms established, representatives from the warring
nations gathered at the Palace of Versailles, outside Paris, in May of 1919. Germans,
for the first time, learned their country’s fate. Allied representatives instructed
them to either sign the treaty or face economic and military consequences so severe
that their own people would likely revolt. With great reluctance, but little choice,
Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919—the fifth anniversary of
Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination (the event that had triggered
TURMOIL, FOREIGN AND DOMESTIC
Woodrow Wilson returned to the United States to submit the League of Nations charter
to Congress. Immediately, political opposition arose over an article in the
League covenant demanding member nations to militarily defend their fellow member
nations in time of war. This article violated the Constitution of the United States,
which granted Congress the sole authority to make war declarations on behalf of
the nation. In a compromise measure, Henry Cabot Lodge, chairman of the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, drafted list of reservations, keeping U.S. participation in
the League limited to issues that did not conflict with the Constitution. The president
defiantly mocked the Lodge Reservations, refusing to compromise.
So preoccupied was the president over the League issue, he virtually
ignored the threat of an impending Bolshevik-style revolution in his own country.
The Lenin regime in Russia, having executed former Czar Nicholas II and his entire
family, unveiled a plan for worldwide communism. By March of 1919, communist disciples
from countries all over the world—including the United States—assembled in Moscow
to form an organization called the Third International. They were trained to agitate
the most resentful and undereducated segments of their countries’ populations in
order to disrupt the social order. Trade unions were the favored outlets for recruitment;
and in 1919 alone, more than 2,600 labor strikes occurred in the United States.
Multi-union strikes, affecting a wide range of services, paralyzed Seattle, Washington,
while months of rioting by members of the United Mine Workers Union terrorized northeastern
U.S. cities. White supremacism also reared its ugly head in the riots, as communist
agitators stirred white workers with pronouncements that Americans of African descent
were poised to replace them in the factories. Race riots spread across the nation,
fueling additional fears for safety by Americans of every race.
In the midst of social turmoil, there emerged a number of courageous leaders who
stood against the tide of chaos. When Boston policemen went on strike in September
of 1919, Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge fired them all, asserting that they
had no right to strike against public safety. Coolidge then brought the National
Guard into Boston to maintain order until a new police force could be hired and
trained. His swift handling of the crisis propelled him to national prominence.
Woodrow Wilson, meanwhile, embarked on a multi-city speaking tour to persuade the
American people to pressure their congressmen to approve U.S. membership in the
League of Nations. Though most audiences were thrilled at the spectacle of seeing
an American president in person, they remained, on the whole, apathetic toward the
cause he promoted. On September 25, 1919, Wilson collapsed after addressing the
people of Pueblo, Colorado. The tour was abruptly halted, and the ailing president
was rushed to the nation’s capital in his private rail carriage. Back at the White
House, he suffered a severe stroke on October 4th, paralyzing the left side of his
body. Wilson’s wife and personal physician concealed the severity of his condition
from others, so that he would not be relieved from duty. Under the pretense of serving
as her husband’s personal messenger, Edith Wilson undertook the task of the presidency,
issuing executive decisions on her own accord. Suspicious presidential cabinet members,
such as Secretary of State Robert Lansing, were fired by the first lady.
Since the weakened state of the executive branch was advantageous
to Congress, legislators refrained from demanding Wilson’s removal from office.
Membership in the League of Nations was soundly rejected, as was the Treaty of Versailles,
which had ended the war. Instead, Congress issued a joint resolution declaring the
By the dawn of the 1920s, monetary inflation in the U.S. had elevated prices to
more than double their prewar rates. Compounding America’s failing economy were
the outbreaks of violence in previously peaceful communities. On April 15, 1920,
Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were accused of murdering
two men during a shoe factory robbery in South Braintree, Massachusetts. This crime
was unique in that communist agitators portrayed the accused as victims of American
Marxist ideology in America was buttressed by an emerging eugenics movement, advocating
the elimination of the human species’ weaker members. Among the pioneers of the
American eugenics movement was Margaret Sanger, an Aryan race supremacist, who founded
the Planned Parenthood organization, initially for the purpose of sterilizing those
people deemed genetically inferior by the intellectual elite of society. An additional,
long-term objective of Sanger’s organization was to eliminate pregnancy as a consequence
of sexual promiscuity.
Traditionally, the political preferences of most American wives
were reflected in the votes of their husbands. Nevertheless, several states extended
voting privileges to women, and the federal government moved to make it a nationwide
right. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing the right for
both sexes to vote, was ratified on August 18, 1920, less than three months prior
to the presidential election.
A RETURN TO NORMALCY
By this time, Woodrow Wilson had recovered sufficient motor function to make limited
public appearances. At the Democratic convention, delegates deadlocked on 37 ballots
between Wilson’s son-in-law, Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, and Attorney General
A. Mitchell Palmer. A compromise candidate, Ohio governor James G. Cox, eventually
emerged with the party’s presidential endorsement. His running mate was Assistant
Naval Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt. Though Roosevelt’s government service record
was unremarkable, his family name elicited a positive response from a nostalgic
public that greatly admired his distant cousin, former president Theodore Roosevelt,
who had died in 1919.
Meanwhile, in the Republican convention, party icon Henry Cabot
Lodge persuaded delegates to endorse Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio as their
candidate. Calvin Coolidge, the widely admired Massachusetts governor who broke
the 1919 Boston police strike, was chosen as Harding’s running mate. With a campaign
slogan that called for a return to normalcy, Harding garnered a landslide victory
over Cox. On election night, November 2nd, the nation’s first commercial radio station,
KDKA in Pittsburgh, went on the air, reporting the election results.
Though painted by the press as intellectually dim, Harding was
a master at assembling an effective team to reverse the economic crisis triggered
by Wilson’s policies. The new president’s chief problem-solver was Treasury Secretary
Andrew Mellon, who asserted that high tax rates restricted the nation’s primary
sources of productivity and severed the flow of prosperity to the people. At Mellon's
urging, Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1921, lowering maximum tax rates by 27
percent. The accompanying Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 limited government spending.
As national pride reemerged, so did intolerance toward senseless
acts of violence. Despite the European cries of clemency for Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo
Vanzetti, American jurors found the Italian anarchists guilty in the Massachusetts
shoe factory double homicide trial. The death penalty was imposed, much to the protest
of Marxists worldwide.
The changing national mood left socialists without a base of
power in America. Lacking the political clout of his former presidential advisory
position, Edward Mandell House founded the Council on Foreign Relations on July
29, 1921, as an association of progressive power brokers in the fields of politics,
international banking, social planning, academia, and journalism. Whereas individual
members possessed limited powers of influence on their own, the council collectively
wielded the clout to affect the decisions of world leaders—a longtime goal of Colonel
With the German military neutralized under the Treaty of Versailles, Japan seized
former German colonies in Asia and the Pacific, while simultaneously issuing economic
and political demands of China. In an effort to thwart future outbreaks of hostilities,
the United States convened the Washington Conference in November of 1921, hosting
representatives from Great Britain, France, Japan, Italy, China, the Netherlands,
Belgium, and Portugal. The conference, lasting through February of 1922, produced
a series of agreements aimed at rendering warfare obsolete. In the Five Power Treaty,
the U.S., Britain, Japan, France, and Italy reduced naval fleets to achieve balance
between one another. Because America was the only nation flanked by both the Atlantic
and Pacific Oceans, equality was detrimental, and Japan emerged with naval supremacy
in the Pacific. Abiding with the treaty, the U.S. government destroyed many of its
own costly battleships.
The Washington Conference also produced the Nine Power Treaty,
reaffirming the sovereignty of China. This was accompanied by the Four Power Treaty,
in which the United States, Great Britain, Japan, and France agreed to acknowledge
one another’s possessions in the Pacific.
The ravages of war had left many European countries too economically
strained to purchase American agricultural and industrial goods in quantities equal
to prewar levels. The federal government offered loans to those wartime allies willing
to buy American products, while simultaneously enacting the 1922 Fordney-McCumber
Tariff, raising foreign import duties so that Americans would likewise purchase
more domestic-made goods. American businesses, meanwhile, embarked on a campaign
to treat their employees so well that they would no longer feel inclined to join
counterproductive labor unions. In addition to sponsoring insurance and pension
plans, major corporations offered stock options to grant employees partial ownership
in their companies. As a result, union membership dropped by twenty percent. By
1923, the U.S. began experiencing a new economic boom.
For the first time, the majority of American homes and businesses
were wired for electricity, creating a market for such appliances as washing machines,
refrigerators, electric stoves, vacuum cleaners, toasters, and radios. The nation
also experienced a rise in new home construction, as well as an increase in the
development of new industries. Millions of automobiles appeared on American roads,
creating the demand for fueling stations, roadside stands, and motor lodges.
Though publicly favored for its role in the economic upturn, the Harding administration
found itself embroiled in scandal. In the Teapot Dome Affair, Naval Secretary Edwin
Denby transferred naval oil fields to Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall who, in
turn, leased the fields to two commercial oil producers in exchange for hundreds
of thousands of dollars in bribes. Fall was eventually convicted and imprisoned
for his role in the bribery scheme. President Harding’s closest advisor, Attorney
General Harry Daugherty, was also implicated in the Teapot Dome Scandal, as well
as a separate bribery controversy.
Harding was touring the western states and Alaskan territory
when the earliest news reports of the scandals appeared. While returning from Alaska
during June of 1923, the president fell ill. His
physician overlooked the more obvious symptoms of ptomaine poisoning, treating him
for heart disease instead. Warren G. Harding died on August 2, 1923 in San Francisco,
Vice President Calvin Coolidge was vacationing at his father’s farm in Vermont when
he received news of Harding’s death. As a justice of the peace, Coolidge’s father
administered the presidential oath of office to his son. Upon returning to the nation’s
capital, the new president, a man of unimpeachable integrity, ordered a decrease
in the size of government, setting the example by vastly reducing his own staff.
As often as time would allow, Coolidge personally greeted visitors touring the White
Across the Atlantic, the German economy collapsed under the demands
of the 1919 Versailles treaty. Severe monetary inflation instantaneously wiped out
the life savings of most Germans. Though the people of France relished Germany’s
downfall, the United States government responded in compassion. In 1924, a committee
was formed under American financier Charles Dawes to design a reasonable debt repayment
plan and provide new loans to stimulate industrial growth in the downtrodden nation.
Through the Dawes Plan, American banks loaned 2 ½ billion dollars to Germany over
a six year period.
Meanwhile, Joseph Stalin, the brutal secretary general of the communist party in
Soviet Russia, orchestrated his own ascendance to the head of government, after
the first Soviet premier, Vladimir (also known as Nikolai) Lenin, died in January
of 1924. Once in power, Stalin embarked on an accelerated program of deception and
terror to achieve global communism. Russian peasants, expecting free land for their
loyalty to communism, were instead branded “petty bourgeois” by Stalin, then dispatched
to collectivist farms; joining those former middle-class and wealthy civilians labeled
bourgeoisie. The poverty and starvation that persisted in Soviet Russia stood in
drastic contrast to the new period of prosperity and abundance in the United States.
In the election of 1924, Calvin Coolidge, having restored dignity to American presidency,
won the Republican nomination on its first ballot, with Charles Dawes as his running
mate. The party endorsement came at a time when Coolidge was grieving the July 1924
death of his son, Calvin Jr., from a blood infection. Opposing the incumbent president
was Democratic candidate John W. Davis, a Wall Street attorney whose running mate,
Charles W. Bryan, was the brother of longtime party icon William Jennings Bryan.
A third party, the New Progressives, consisting of moderate socialists and union
loyalists, endorsed Robert M. La Follette, but failed to attract significant support.
Calvin Coolidge received more votes than both his opponents combined.
With great reverence toward the dignity of the presidency, Coolidge
maintained a servant’s attitude, refusing to use the executive office for self promotion.
His quiet demeanor prompted many cynics in the press to call him “Silent Cal,” when,
in reality, he gave more speeches than any previous president, held a record-breaking
five hundred and twenty news conferences, and was the first president to regularly
address the American people with radio messages.
and socialists concluded that since they could not put their candidates in office,
they would use the American court system to force their agenda upon the nation’s
people. In promoting an atheistic worldview, the American Civil Liberties Union
(ACLU), originally founded to defend violent communist rioters, sought a public
school instructor who would challenge state ordinances prohibiting the teaching
of Darwinism. Physical education instructor John Scopes heeded the call and was
subsequently charged with violating Ohio law. His trial was held in the town of
Dayton in 1925, drawing national attention. Scopes was defended by famed socialist
defense attorney Clarence Darrow, while former Secretary of State and longtime Democratic
party leader William Jennings Bryan argued the state’s case. Though the jury found
John Scopes guilty, the ACLU ignored the verdict and printed Darrow’s arguments
in a widely distributed pamphlet designed to persuade public schools to teach Darwinism
as a viable explanation for the origins of life. Within days of winning the state’s
case, William Jennings Bryan died.
the remaining years of the Calvin Coolidge presidency, the United States enjoyed
a period of general peace and prosperity. The economic boom was bolstered by passage
of the Revenue Act of 1926, which substantially diminished the income tax, abolished
the gift tax, and cut the estate tax by fifty percent. Americans of all ages were
able to return to the joys of leisure-time pursuits. While historians commonly characterized
the decade as “the roaring twenties” or “the jazz age,” the people of that era described
their time as “Coolidge Prosperity.” Renewed enthusiasm for sports was fueled by
the exploits of football marvel Harold “Red” Grange, baseball spectacle George Herman
“Babe” Ruth, and boxing sensation Jack Dempsey. New Orleans jazz music was popularized,
while marathon dancing and “flapper girls” became gleeful fads of the period. Motion
pictures incorporated synchronized sound in 1926, rendering silent feature films
obsolete. Nevertheless, these diversions did not diminish public enthusiasm for
literature. Bestselling writers included F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of 1925’s “The
Great Gatsby”, and Ernest Hemingway, who penned “The Sun Also Rises” in 1926.
war of the previous decade had facilitated improvements in aircraft design, leading
to the employment of mail, cargo, and passenger planes during the 1920s. In May
of 1927, Charles Lindbergh, a 25 year-old aviator, embarked on the world’s first
solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, piloting a single-engine airplane called
the Spirit of St. Louis. The successful New York-to-Paris journey, lasting 33 ½
hours, transformed Lindbergh into an international hero. The celebratory spirit
shared between Americans and Europeans left many with a sense of global unity.
Soon thereafter, government officials in various nations grew
in the conviction that war could be eradicated through mutual cooperation. On August
27, 1928, representatives from fifteen nations gathered in Paris, France, to sign
the Kellogg-Briand Pact. The measure, initially launched as a prohibition against
war between France and the United States, served as the basis for an international
ban on war. The document was largely symbolic, with no provisions for enforcement.
President Coolidge, in a spirit of goodwill, participated in the signing ceremonies,
though he held no naïve illusions about its long-term effectiveness.
On the domestic front, the president persistently pressured Congress
to reduce taxes, which in turn freed private capital for reinvestment in the nation’s
commercial activities. As a result, a budget surplus was produced every year Coolidge
was in office. The president nevertheless adhered to a belief that no official in
his capacity should serve the country more than eight years.
HERBERT HOOVER AND THE GREAT DEPRESSION
With the assumption that they could somehow persuade the president to run for a
third term, delegates to the 1928 Republican Convention made little effort to seek
a replacement whose philosophical outlook was similar to that of the incumbent.
When Calvin Coolidge remained adamant in his refusal to run again, they hastily
settled on Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, whose first government post was a
commission appointment in the Woodrow Wilson administration. The nation’s voters,
in positive spirits, saw no reason to deviate from Republican leadership, and Hoover
won the 1928 election, defeating Democrat Alfred E. Smith, governor of New York
and the first Catholic presidential candidate. Whereas Calvin Coolidge had adhered
to the sound principles of a market driven economy, Herbert Hoover was willing to
accept the increasingly popular notion that economic outcomes could be controlled
through government intervention.
In keeping a campaign promise to raise farm incomes, Hoover signed
the Agricultural Marketing Act in June of 1929. Under the act, the Federal Farm
Board was created, loaning approximately 500-million dollars to farm cooperatives
for the purpose of hoarding grain surpluses until farmers could get the higher prices
they wanted. However, since wartime European allies had recovered their ability
to grow crops, foreign orders for the higher priced American grains came to a halt.
Meanwhile, America’s meddlesome Federal Reserve Board, overly
eager to aid Great Britain’s economic recovery, discouraged investment in U.S. treasury
bonds by reducing the amount of interest awarded to investors. Since corporate stocks
had yielded a high rate of return during the Roaring Twenties, investors turned
away from treasury bonds and pumped money into the stock market at a frenzied pace.
The Federal Reserve had already encouraged member banks to loosen their lending
qualifications, and stock shares were purchased on a ten percent cash down-payment,
with broker loans covering the other ninety percent. This practice of “margin buying”
flooded the stock market, and very few corporations were able to generate enough
profit to justify the amount of investment dollars they received.
The simultaneous drop in treasury bond investments caused the
U.S. gold supply to dwindle. In a further act of bureaucratic stupidity, the Federal
Reserve reacted to this blunder of their making by drastically reducing the amount
of currency in circulation. Depleted of available cash reserves, American business
investors were forced to dump their stocks. The spiraling effect resulted in the
sell-off of 13 million shares on “Black Thursday,” October 24, 1929, followed by
“Black Tuesday,” October 29th, in which another 16 ½ million shares were dumped.
By November, approximately 30 billion dollars in stock values were wiped out.
Though responsible for triggering the Great Depression, the seven
men who comprised the Federal Reserve Board embarked on a propaganda campaign to
blame the crisis solely on stock market investors.
In previous depressions, economic recovery occurred through the
natural course of free market interaction. Not content to allow the economy to stabilize
on its own, the federal government worsened the crisis through further meddling.
The Smoot-Hawley tariff was enacted in June of 1930 for the purpose of increasing
tax revenues on foreign-made goods entering American ports. However, the exporting
countries retaliated, imposing their own tariffs on U.S. goods. The naïve farmers
who had pressured Congress to pass the Smoot-Hawley Act would lose nearly two billion
dollars over the next four years.
Distracted by the domestic crisis, very few Americans took notice to the Japanese
invasion of the northeastern Chinese province of Manchuria in September of 1931.
China’s Nationalist government, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, was already embroiled
in an internal struggle with Communist insurgents under Mao Tse-tung, when Japan
attacked. The League of Nations in Europe timidly protested the invasion, but took
no further action. Manchuria fell under Japanese control and was renamed Manchukuo.
Back in America, thousands of banks failed due to the Federal
Reserve policy of fractional reserve banking, which encouraged banks to offer loans
up to ten times the amount of their cash reserves. When borrowers could not repay
the loans, bank reserves were wiped out. In January of 1932, the Reconstruction
Finance Corporation was created, spending over two billion dollars to aid imperiled
banks, lending institutions, and farm cooperatives. Six months later, the Federal
Home Loan Banking Act allocated 125 million dollars to mortgage and insurance companies,
so they would not be forced to foreclose on homes and farms. Other emergency relief
programs were authorized by the president to assist America’s seven million unemployed
During the summer of 1932, socialist radicals transported war
veterans to the nation’s capital to demand premature payment of the bonuses they
were due to receive in 1945. Though most returned home after lodging their protests,
some five thousand stayed behind, constructing a shantytown encampment near the
Capitol building. The mob quickly turned violent, leaving two dead. With local police
overwhelmed, President Hoover dispatched army personnel to disperse the rioters
and demolish the shantytown.
Leftist propaganda campaigns were launched to tarnish the presidency.
Radical photographers and motion picture cameramen corralled union members to amass
at bread lines and soup kitchens in major cities. Quick snippets of these images
were incorporated in newsreels at a rapid pace that kept most movie audiences from
noticing the scarcity of women and children in the scenes. Farmers joined the cause,
declaring a holiday from bringing their goods to market during August of 1932. These
coordinated efforts had a profound impact on public opinion, and Herbert Hoover
would conclude his term—somewhat undeservedly—in disgrace.
FDR AND THE NEW DEAL
New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt had once stated that he could think
of no better person to be president than Herbert Hoover. By 1932, however, he was
one of Hoover’s most vocal critics. Known by many as “FDR,” he was a distant cousin
to former president Theodore Roosevelt. Enamored by the idea of royal blood lines,
FDR had married his cousin Eleanor. Though materially privileged, Roosevelt endured
life-altering suffering after being stricken by polio in August of 1921—less than
a year after his unsuccessful bid for the vice presidency. Though the affliction
left his legs permanently paralyzed, he employed resourceful engineers to construct
steel braces that enabled him to stand erect and walk short distances with assistance.
In an era when physical disability tended to foment public doubt in one’s capacity
to lead, FDR found it necessary to conceal the severity of his condition. Though
obviously crippled, his otherwise vigorous and cheerful demeanor, combined with
his evident strength to overcome adversity, greatly impressed the American people.
As the Democratic candidate for the 1932 presidential election,
Franklin Roosevelt announced his New Deal program, at that time a promise to reduce
government expenditures, balance the federal budget, and ensure a stable currency.
However, after overwhelmingly defeating Herbert Hoover in the election, FDR’s implementation
of the New Deal would have opposite results. Within 48 hours of his
inauguration, the new
president ordered a bank holiday, keeping financial institutions closed to prevent
the depletion of their reserves by panicked customers. Herbert Hoover had conceived
the plan, but was not granted congressional approval. FDR circumvented this obstacle
by citing a provision in 1917’s Trading with the Enemy Act. Because the nation was
not at war, he secretly declared the American people enemies of the state, so that
the banks could be closed under a subtle form of martial law. The fact that this
bold move went unchallenged attests to the extraordinary charm and charisma of the
Franklin Roosevelt inspired a renewed sense of hope among the
nation’s people, and this confidence in a brighter future was likewise shared by
members of Congress, who willingly endowed the president powers far beyond the allowable
limits dictated by the Constitution. On March 9, 1933, the Emergency Banking Relief
Act was passed, ordering the confiscation of all gold and gold certificates held
by the American people. Anyone caught holding gold was subject to a 10 thousand
dollar fine and ten years in prison. After a four-day closure period, banks were
reopened, replacing gold holdings with newly printed Federal Reserve notes.
By hoarding all the nation’s gold, the federal government was able to procure loans
for relief programs to provide jobs for the unemployed. The first of these was the
Civilian Conservation Corps, established on March 31, 1933. Single men between the
ages of 19 and 25 were paid a dollar per day for forestry work. The president then
embarked on a program to elevate farm incomes. Under the Agricultural Adjustment
Act, passed by Congress on May 12th, farmers were paid to destroy crops and kill
livestock, thereby creating shortages that would elevate prices. The logic behind
this measure proved imbecilic. Though the farmers were paid more for each product,
they ultimately lost money because they had fewer quantities to sell. In 1933 alone,
6 million pigs were destroyed in an effort to raise pork prices. The unintended
consequence was the dangerous reduction in the nation’s food supply, which caused
many Americans to go hungry. The program ultimately impoverished most farmers.
Ill-conceived and hastily executed New Deal programs were largely
the product of Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust,” a group of scholars—mostly from Columbia
University—who presumably possessed the knowledge to solve the nation’s problems.
Though well-versed in abstract ideas, these icons of academia lacked the sound wisdom
of real-world experience, remaining ignorant of the practical logistics and realistic
outcomes involved in executing their schemes. (In the ensuing years, such self-important
university professors would be regarded as “intellectual morons.”) While some
Brain Trust scholars were enthralled by the economic theories of Soviet communism,
others followed the fascist model of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who had
converted Italy’s free market system to a state controlled economy.
Under the Federal Emergency Relief Act, passed on May 12, 1933, the Roosevelt Administration
structured a rewards program to entice state governments to contribute funds for
federal relief programs. This was followed on May 18th with the authorization of
the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), establishing a government-owned electric utility
company. Designed to convince Americans that customers of such a government controlled
enterprise would pay lower rates for the same services offered by privately-owned
competitors, the TVA charged less money than the actual cost to run the operation.
The federal government simply offset these losses by raising income taxes on all
Americans. Thus, the 98 percent of the population residing outside the Tennessee
Valley paid for services they did not receive.
PROLONGING THE DEPRESSION
New Deal legislation continued
to be enacted at a frenzied pace without adequate in-depth study of potential consequences.
Pre-1933 contractual agreements involving transactions in gold were voided at the
stroke of the presidential pen on June 5, 1933. Eleven days later, the Federal Deposit
Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was created to insure depositor accounts in member
banks for up to five-thousand dollars. Bank losses would be covered thereafter by
The most ambition New Deal program of FDR’s first one hundred days in office was
the National Industrial Recovery Act, passed on June 16th, granting the Roosevelt
administration sweeping regulatory control over the nation’s private industry. The
free market’s traditional role in determining private industry’s manufacturing output,
distribution, and pricing of goods was usurped by the National Recovery Administration
(NRA). Business owners were pressured to sign compliance agreements, abiding
with approximately 700 NRA codes, while labor unions were granted blanket authority
over the working environments of every industry. The American people were told it
was their patriotic duty to purchase only from businesses displaying the NRA symbol
of the blue eagle. Compliance was so strict that a New Jersey tailor was jailed
for pressing suits at five cents below the cost dictated by the Tailor’s Code. Six
thousand NRA code enforcers roamed city streets, entering businesses unannounced
to ensure their codes were obeyed.
On June 19, 1933, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order
6166, creating a Tax Division within the Justice Department. Though the Supreme
Court, in the 1921 Merchant’s Loan and Trust Company v. Smietanka case, defined
the word “income,” in the 16th Amendment as a corporate profit, the new tax bureau
targeted workers’ wages. These funds were necessary to bankroll such relief agencies
as Public Works Administration—which created jobs for the construction of roads,
sewage systems, bridges, and public buildings—as well as the Civil Works Administration—which
paid unskilled workers to rake leaves and pull weeds on public grounds.
On December 5th, 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment was passed, repealing the Eighteenth
Amendment’s prohibition on alcoholic beverages. The freedom to consume liquor was
restored to the people, while other liberties were rapidly removed. The government
continued to pass new bills, creating scores of new bureaus and agencies to
regulate every aspect of American enterprise. Legislation was enacted with a swiftness
that rendered the public unable to fully scrutinize the ramifications of each change.
With reassuring “fireside chat” radio addresses, President Roosevelt allayed fears
and convinced the people that brighter days were ahead. Preoccupied by the changing
domestic landscape, Americans gave little thought to the growing peril abroad.
Coinciding with the ascendancy of Franklin Roosevelt to the American presidency,
Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Wildly popular for his bold defiance
against the 1919 Versailles Treaty, Hitler infused the demoralized German people
with a renewed sense of national pride. As founder of the National Socialist Workers
Party—Nazi Party for short—Hitler adopted elements of socialism and fascism to restore
his battered nation to prominence. Grateful Germans focused on Hitler’s role in
resuscitating their country, ignoring the gangster tactics he employed to consolidate
power. None challenged him when he proclaimed himself Fuhrer (Supreme Leader) of
Germany. In violation of the Versailles Treaty, Hitler began to rearm his nation.
Germany grew stronger as the United States weakened. The first
round of New Deal legislation devastated the already depressed American economy,
and the value of the U.S. dollar was diminished by forty percent. President Roosevelt
defended his programs as experiments, arguing that such efforts were better than
no action at all. In 1935, he announced his Second New Deal, beginning with the
Works Progress Administration (WPA), an expansive, taxpayer funded jobs program,
spanning a broad field of professions and crafts. In addition to projects for manual
laborers, which included road, bridge, public building, and parks construction,
the WPA offered jobs to employ writers, musicians, actors, and artists.
The primary flaw of New Deal programs was that most could not
be enforced without substantially violating the constitutional rights of individuals.
Court challenges began early in Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, and by mid-1935,
the first arguments reached the Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, 1933’s National
Industrial Recovery Act (which launched the National Recovery Administration) was
declared unconstitutional on May 27, 1935. Congress and the White House countered
on July 5th with the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act).
Disguised as a law enforcement measure to prevent violence in the workplace, the
bill granted labor unions unilateral powers to compel businesses to operate under
similar terms to those NRA codes struck down by the Supreme Court. Thus, the threat
of government prosecution for code violations was replaced by the threat of labor
strikes if business owners did not continue to behave as they had under the NRA
Blue Eagle banner.
On August 15, 1935, the Social Security Act was passed, establishing the nation’s
first permanent system of federal welfare. As a government-controlled, old-age pension
program, the Social Security Administration extracted taxes from both employers
and workers for use as retirement and disability payments. As a result, older workers
were given the incentive to retire, opening job opportunities to younger, unemployed
Overseas, Italian forces under fascist dictator Benito Mussolini
invaded the west African nation of Ethiopia in October of 1935. When the effete
members of the League of Nations did little more than lodge a complaint, Germany’s
Adolf Hitler confidently prepared to launch invasions of his own.
Meanwhile, the Roosevelt Administration remained vexed by the
Supreme Court, which declared the Agricultural Adjustment Act unconstitutional in
January of 1936. Eight additional New Deal programs were struck down in the ensuing
months, though FDR delayed retaliatory measures for the sake of his reelection campaign.
PRELUDE TO A NEW WAR
Events in distant lands made it increasingly difficult for U.S. government officials
to concentrate solely on domestic issues. In March of 1936, Adolf Hitler dispatched
armed forces to reoccupy Germany’s Rhineland, a region demilitarized under the terms
of the Versailles Treaty for the purpose of distancing German troops from the borders
of France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Despite protests, European leaders remained
timid in confronting the German Fuhrer.
In July of 1936, civil war erupted between rival fascist and communist factions
vying for control of Spain. The Soviet Union issued a worldwide call for communist
volunteers to fight the fascist militarists under General Francisco Franco, and
a number of American socialists responded to the call. The fascist cause in Europe
gained further momentum when Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini
formed an alliance called the Rome-Berlin Axis on October 25, 1936.
In the U.S. presidential election, Republicans refrained from countering the New
Deal platform of the incumbent president, offering a “me too” approach instead.
Their candidate, Alf Landon, a progressive liberal from Kansas, was overwhelmingly
defeated by Franklin Roosevelt. With his new term secured, the president launched
his attack on the Supreme Court. Proclaiming that younger judges were required to
handle the heavy caseload, he proposed a mandatory retirement age of seventy on
the justices, which would, in effect, open six seats for his own appointments. Additionally,
Roosevelt’s court reform plan expanded the number of justices from nine to fifteen.
Though Congress had supported all of FDR’s initiatives to this point, they adamantly
refused to endorse his thinly-veiled attempt to pack the court with like-minded
appointees. The very attempt by Roosevelt to reorganize the Supreme Court was enough
to intimidate the justices into avoiding further challenges to New Deal legislation.
Within months, most of the justices voluntarily retired from the bench, enabling
the president to fulfill his original goal by default. With a cooperative judiciary,
the White House initiated a series of additional New Deal programs.
At the end of December, 1936, thousands of auto workers, under
orders from their union’s communist-founded parent group, the Congress of Industrial
Organizations (CIO), seized control of two General Motors plants, halting production.
In the ensuing months, labor unions to paralyzed a number of American industries,
including steel, rubber, and electronics manufacturing.
Overseas, Japan launched a full-scale invasion of mainland China
during February of 1937. By December, China’s Nationalist government under Chiang
Kai-shek was forced to evacuate the capital of Nanking, leaving the civilian population
to face the full brunt of Japanese atrocities. Thousands of men were disemboweled
or beheaded while the young women were rounded up and sexually tortured. Though
American volunteer pilots, calling themselves the Flying Tigers, aided the Chinese
by engaging in air battles with the Japanese, the world community, on the whole,
ignored China’s plight. The League of Nations merely issued a statement of protest
against Japan—a cowardly response that convinced Germany’s Adolf Hitler that none
would thwart his own plans for conquest.
March of 1938, Hitler’s forces invaded Austria. As expected, no one stood up to
the Germans. Their next target was the Sudeten region in western Czechoslovakia,
where a number of German-speaking people resided. The Nazis annexed that territory
in September of 1938. Though longtime British politician Winston Churchill warned
of Hitler’s intent on bringing all of Europe under Nazi control, pacifists ridiculed
his calls for military readiness, branding him a reactionary and warmonger.
the naïve belief that peace could be maintained through negotiation, the pacifist
British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, met with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini
at the Munich Conference in Germany during the later days of September 1938. French
Premier Edouard Daladier was also in attendance, and these leaders signed an agreement
allowing Hitler to annex the Sudeten portion of Czechoslovakia, in exchange for
Germany’s promise to go no further. After this land-for-peace exchange, Chamberlain
reveled in his short-lived image of great peacemaker of the twentieth century. Approximately
six months later, Germany overtook the remainder of Czechoslovakia, while Italy
Joseph Stalin, the genocidal communist leader of the Soviet Union,
entered the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Adolf Hitler on August 24, 1939. Though having
denounced fascism during the Spanish Civil War, American communists, in the wake
of the new alliance, began praising Hitler while calling on President Roosevelt
to maintain American neutrality toward the developing European conflict.
Prior to the Great Depression, the United States had endured
five previous economic depressions. Though the earlier crises had endured an average
of two to three years and were resolved through natural free market forces, New
Deal government meddling unintentionally strangled free enterprise, plunging the
nation into a prolonged period of deepening poverty. Because government dollars
were pumped into Works Progress Administration film productions, newsreel producers
returned the favor by presenting upbeat images of showpiece relief programs to leave
Americans with the impression that the New Deal was working and better times were
close at hand. In this way, perception had greater impact on public opinion than
Meanwhile, under the secret terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Adolf Hitler and Joseph
Stalin agreed to divide Poland, the nation residing between them. On September 1,
1939, Germany invaded Poland in a lightning-fast attack called “blitzkrieg.”
Facing the ire of their fellow countrymen, the pacifist leaders of Great Britain
and France declared war on Germany on September 3rd. Poorly prepared for conflict,
these two nations lacked the arms necessary for the fight ahead. Vindicated for
his foresight into the crisis, Winston Churchill, the famed British soldier, politician,
historian, and military strategist was appointed to head the British admiralty,
a post he had served in the previous war. Recognizing an opportunity to increase
U.S. industrial production, Franklin Roosevelt offered materiel assistance to Great
Britain and France. Though pressured to remain neutral, the American president knew
that an active war industry was the best hope for bringing the nation out of its
WORLD WAR II BEGINS
Seventeen days after Germany invaded Poland from the west, Soviet
troops entered from the east. The Polish government surrendered on September 27,
1939, and the country was divided between the conquerors. Stalin’s forces executed
approximately ten thousand Polish prisoners. Soviet troops also occupied the Baltic
countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
On April 9, 1940, the Nazis invaded Norway and Denmark. Though
the Norwegians resisted valiantly before falling to the Germans, the Danes quickly
surrendered. By default, the island of Greenland, a Danish possession in the north
Atlantic, was subject to Nazi occupation. To discourage the German presence in the
Western Hemisphere, President Roosevelt dispatched a U.S. coastal patrol to Greenland.
the aftermath of the previous world war, France had constructed the Maginot Line,
a series of fortresses connected by a tunnels, along its border with Germany. However,
Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands failed to construct similar defenses, and
the Nazis could simply approach France by first taking these countries. The invasions
begin on May 10, 1940. That evening, Neville Chamberlain, the pacifist Prime Minister
of Great Britain, resigned in disgrace and was replaced by Winston Churchill. The
Netherlands fell only four days after the Nazi invasion, and British and French
troops were dispatched to aid Belgian forces. Hitler’s war machine was better equipped
and had the superior battle strategy. Belgium and Luxembourg surrendered on May
26th, and the Ardennes Forest served as the primary passageway for the German invasion
of France. The resolve of the French government quickly collapsed, and British expeditionary
forces aiding them were left stranded in northern France. Prime Minister Churchill
coordinated a mass evacuation of roughly 330-thousand troops from the northern French
port of Dunkirk, for the defense of the British Isles in the wake of France’s collapse.
On June 10th, Italy declared war on France and Great Britain, launching an invasion
of southern France.
The defeatist French leader, Henri Petain, hero of the previous war, decided that
rule under the Nazi Third Reich would be preferable to combat, and petitioned Germany
for peace terms. Adolf Hitler demanded Petain’s surrender in the same railcar where
defeated German authorities had signed the armistice that ended the previous war.
On July 16, Petain formally surrendered, and three-fifths of the nation, including
the capital of Paris, was annexed by Nazi Germany, while the unoccupied two-fifths
retained French identity under a Nazi-friendly government assembled in the city
of Vichy. French citizens were taxed to finance the Nazi war effort. A contingent
of patriotic French forces, under the command of General Charles de Gaulle, escaped
to England by way of the Mediterranean Sea. Christening themselves the Free French
Army, their vision was to one day retake their homeland.
Left as the sole European power to face the formidable Nazi war
machine, Great Britain mobilized to redeem time lost after a decade under pacifist
leadership. With steely resolve and brilliant administrative skill, Winston Churchill
quickly prepared his nation for invasion. Unlike the effete French, the British
people refused to consider surrender an option. Over the course of time, new allies
would join their cause.
The fall of France left the status of its southeast Asian colony,
Indochina, in question. With an eye on Indochina’s natural resources, as well as
those in the British colonies of Hong Kong and Singapore, Japan entered an alliance
with Germany and Italy on September 27, 1940, creating the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis.
Afterward, the American president, Franklin Roosevelt, already incensed by the Japanese
occupation of China, further restricted U.S. trade with Japan. Congress, meanwhile,
approved the nation’s first peacetime military draft, calling men from ages 21 to
35 to one-year military training tours.
Since no previous president had served more than two terms in
office, Vice President John Nance Garner assumed that FDR would endorse him for
the election of 1940. Roosevelt, however, refused to relinquish power, running for
an unprecedented third term. When Garner ran against the incumbent president at
the Democratic convention, FDR named Agricultural Secretary Henry Wallace his new
running mate. The distribution of New Deal funds to strategic party leaders secured
Roosevelt’s nomination. The Republicans, meanwhile, maintained a “me too” approach
to the New Deal, endorsing former Democrat Wendell Willkie as their candidate.
With two liberal candidates as their choice, American voters reelected the liberal
they knew best, and Franklin Roosevelt remained president.
Overseas, German Luftwaffe warplanes flew across the English
channel, bombing London and other British industrial cities. England had never sustained
such destruction, and with British currency on the gold standard, monetary resources
for the purchase of arms were limited. Congress, fearful for the future of the British
Isles, passed the Lend-Lease Act in March of 1941, allowing Great Britain to lease
U.S. war materiel with the option to purchase when funds became available.
With much of western Europe controlled by the Axis powers, Germany invaded the Soviet
Union on June 22, 1941, violating the Nazi-Soviet Pact Hitler had deceptively used
to lull Joseph Stalin into a false sense of security. The invasion took the communist
tyrant by surprise. Though British Prime Minister Winston Churchill despised Stalin,
he was willing to ally himself with any nation that could aid in the defeat of the
Nazis. Acting on Churchill’s request, the United States extended its lend-lease
terms to the Soviet Union, dispatching supplies to the newest enemy of the Axis
In July of 1941, Japan completed its conquest of southern Indochina,
prompting Franklin Roosevelt to freeze Japanese financial accounts in the U.S.,
ban oil exports to Japan, and prohibit Japanese access to the Panama Canal.
On August 9th, the president boarded a British battleship off the coast of Newfoundland
for a meeting with Winston Churchill. The two leaders drafted the Atlantic Charter,
promoting what FDR called his Four Freedoms: freedom of speech and worship and freedom
from want and fear. These lofty ideals were enfolded into a master plan to create
a world peace-keeping body.
In the north Atlantic, German u-boats attacked U.S. warships
patrolling Greenland and Iceland, as well as merchant vessels sending supplies to
the British Isles. When 115 American lives were lost in an assault on the U.S. battleship
Ruben James, Congress authorized the arming of American merchant ships.
Meanwhile, Japanese diplomats repeatedly attempted to reestablish
trade relations with the United States, only to be told on November 4th by Secretary
of State Cordell Hull that no such talks could take place until Japan vacated China
and Indochina. With diplomatic alternatives exhausted, the Japanese empire resorted
to the military option for which it had already prepared.
AMERICA ENTERS THE SECOND WORLD WAR
On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, at 7:55 am, carrier-launched Japanese warplanes
began the first of their bombing raids on U.S. naval and air installations at Pearl
Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Two large battleships, the Oklahoma and Arizona,
were destroyed while six others were crippled, and a number of smaller war vessels
were disabled or damaged. All 150 fighter planes at Pearl Harbor were destroyed
on the ground. American casualties were excessively high, with 2,323 dead
and approximately 1,100 wounded. Though the Japanese lost 29 planes, their attack
decimated half of America’s military air power in the Pacific. The following day,
President Roosevelt addressed
a joint session of Congress for a formal declaration of war on Japan.
Japan’s next target was the Philippines, a southwest Pacific island cluster under
temporary U.S. commonwealth status since the end of the Spanish-American War. Under
the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934, the date of Philippine independence was set for
July 4, 1946, and in the interim, General Douglas MacArthur coordinated American
and Filipino defensive forces. Detecting Japanese intentions far in advance, MacArthur
had urged the Roosevelt administration to better equip the Philippines to resist
invasion, only to be told that ships and planes from Pearl Harbor would be available
if needed. On December 10, 1941, three days after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese
began their invasion of the northern Philippine island of Luzon. The following day,
Japan’s Axis partners, Germany and Italy, declared war on the United States. During
December, Wake Island, the Gilbert Islands, and Hong Kong fell to the Japanese.
By December 26th, General MacArthur declared the Philippine capital of Manila an
open city, shifting the combat zone westward to the Bataan Peninsula to spare the
lives of as many Filipino civilians as possible. The Japanese took Manila on January
2, 1942. In the weeks that followed, Japan occupied New Britain, Singapore, Java
and Rangoon, Burma.
Fearful of espionage on the home front, President Roosevelt ordered
all people of Japanese ethnicity in the U.S., including those who were American
citizens, to be removed from their homes and placed in internment camps. Not since
the time of slavery had the rights of a racial group been so severely violated by
On April 18, 1942, the first U.S. attack on Japanese soil occurred when sixteen
B-25 bombers, under the command of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, conducted an air raid
on the Japanese capital of Tokyo. With inadequate fuel to return to their carriers,
the bombers were forced to crash-land in China. Several of the crewmen were captured
by the Japanese.
American elation over news of Doolittle’s raid was countered by grim reports from
the Philippines. General Douglas MacArthur, vastly popular for his daring exploits
in the previous war, was stranded with 11-hundred troops on the fortress island
of Corregidor in Manila Bay, without sufficient arms or food to withstand the Japanese
siege. In a stand reminiscent of the Battle of the Alamo, MacArthur prepared to
die with his men, initially ignoring presidential orders to leave Corregidor. Convinced
that American morale would suffer significantly if the nation’s most highly decorated
officer of World War I was captured or killed by the Japanese, the Roosevelt administration
assured MacArthur that he
was needed in Australia to coordinate the Allied counterassault of the Philippines.
Under those terms, the General broke through the Japanese naval blockade of Manila
Bay in a PT boat, radioing to the Philippines that he would return. Upon arriving
in Australia, MacArthur learned that the bulk of American ships, planes, and armaments
were being dispatched to Europe, though only Japan had attacked the United States.
Corregidor fell to the Japanese on May 6, 1942, and 75-thousand American and Filipino
troops were forced to march on a 65-mile journey in scorching heat, without food
or water, to their prison camp. In what was known as the Bataan Death March, many
soldiers were wounded or sick with malaria, and those who stumbled were beheaded
or disemboweled by their captors. Filipino civilians who attempted to give food
or water to the vanquished troops were likewise executed. Approximately 10-thousand
prisoners died in the brutal march.
In the north Pacific, a fleet of U.S. ships confronted Japanese
naval forces twice their numbers at the island of Midway in June of 1942. During
the first week of the hard-fought campaign, all four Japanese aircraft carriers
and 300 planes were destroyed, while the U.S. lost only one carrier. Sustaining
severe losses, the Japanese ceased campaigns of conquest, concentrating thereafter
on holding the territories they occupied.
With the bulk of U.S. armaments and personnel devoted to the
European war, American warplanes began extensive bombing raids on Axis strongholds
during July of 1942. In the north Atlantic, however, close to four hundred U.S.
naval vessels were sunk in a six month period by German u-boats.
On August 7th, U.S. Marines launched a counteroffensive of the
South Pacific at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, engaging in a bitter, seven
month struggle to unseat the enemy.
At the other side of the world, Allied forces under General Dwight D. Eisenhower
invaded north Africa in November of 1942, taking the Vichy
French colonies of Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers. This provided the Allies access
to the Mediterranean Sea, the vital link between Europe, Africa, and southwest Asia.
In January of 1943, President Roosevelt met with British Prime Minister Winston
Churchill at Casablanca, and the two leaders reluctantly recognized the ambitious
Free French Army leader, Charles De Gaulle, as the legitimate voice of France.
Despite advances in north Africa, Allied forces were routinely
thwarted by the German Afrika Korps under Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, better known
as the “Desert Fox.” In February of 1943, U.S. forces were badly beaten by Rommel’s
troops at the Battle of Kassarine Pass. All the same, they crippled the Germans,
enabling Allied fighters to advance from Egypt. With Rommel on medical leave in
his homeland, the Germans surrendered in Tunisia on May 12, 1943.
In the southwest Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur masterfully
corralled every available ship and plane in the region, embarking on a brilliantly
conceived “island hopping” strategy to embed Allied forces in areas of minimal Japanese
resistance. As MacArthur’s troops landed in New Guinea, Admiral William Halsey continued
his fight the Solomon islands, while Admiral Chester Nimitz engaged the enemy in
the Central Pacific.
Simultaneously, American troops under General George S. Patton raced with British
Field Marshal Barnard Montgomery to take the Mediterranean island of Sicily. Both
forces arrived in the city of Messina on August 17, 1943, establishing a launch
point for the invasion of Italy, where a governing council under King Victor Emmanuel
III ousted dictator Benito Mussolini and surrendered to the Allies on September
18th. Germany’s Adolf Hitler refused to allow Italy to fall. He dispatched
Nazi forces to repel the Allies, reinstating Mussolini in northern Italy.
In November of 1943, President Roosevelt met once again with Prime Minister Churchill,
this time in Cairo, Egypt, where they were joined by Chinese Nationalist Leader
Chiang Kai-shek. As they were meeting, U.S. Pacific forces secured the Gilbert and
Marshall Islands. The Cairo Declaration was issued, demanding Japan’s unconditional
surrender and withdrawal from China. Thereafter, Roosevelt and Churchill journeyed
to the Persian (Iranian) city of Teheran, conducting their first meeting with Soviet
leader Joseph Stalin. Though Allied troops were advancing into Europe through Italy,
Stalin demanded U.S. and British forces open a new front in France, so that German
fighters would be diverted from the Soviet front. In appeasing Stalin, Roosevelt
withdrew vast numbers of Allied fighters from Italy, leaving only the British Eighth
Army and American Fifth Army to face intense German resistance at Monte Cassino
The overwhelming costs of the war, combined with New Deal debt,
forced Franklin Roosevelt to find a means to heavily tax Americans in all income
groups without inciting public backlash. Enlisting the cooperation of employers,
a scheme was devised to extract taxes from workers’ wages before those workers received
their payroll checks. The income deduction was labeled a Victory Tax, falsely implying
that it was a temporary tax for the war effort alone.
THE ALLIES ADVANCE
American fortunes in the Second
World War were gradually improving, but at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.
After a grueling, drawn-out battle
at Stalingrad, Soviet forces gained the advantage over German invaders. All the
while, Allied troops in Italy slowly drove northward, taking the capital of Rome
on June 4, 1944.
On June 6th, 176-thousand Allied troops under the command of
General Dwight D. Eisenhower began the D-Day invasion, crossing the English channel
for a landing on the shores of France’s Normandy region. Facing virtually impenetrable
German fortifications, the Allies were initially pinned on the beaches under fierce
Nazi gunfire. Surrounded by the chaos of human slaughter, a number of besieged American
fighters on Normandy’s Omaha and Utah Beaches mustered the courage to move forward
in the face of almost certain death. Overriding impulses of self-preservation, these
troops advanced tenaciously until German fortifications were penetrated. The Allied
drive into France had begun.
Faraway in the Pacific, U.S. forces emerged victorious after
an intense showdown with the Japanese at Saipan, in the Mariana Islands, during
June and July of 1944. Thereafter, Saipan became a launching point for daily aerial
assaults on the Japanese mainland. This victory coincided with the Battle of the
Philippine Sea, in which Japanese losses severely depleted their armed forces. Americans
recaptured the islands of Guam and Tinian, moving General Douglas MacArthur’s forces
in striking distance of the Philippines.
On the European front, Allied armies under General Omar Bradley
overtook the German transportation hub in the northwestern French city of St. Lo
on July 19, 1944. The French capital of Paris was liberated on August 24th, and
by September, the Allies arrived at the Rhine River bordering Germany.
During October of 1944, General Douglas MacArthur’s Pacific forces
landed at the central Philippine island of Leyte, engaging the Japanese in a series
of three battles. Desperate in the face of impending defeat, Japanese pilots flew
kamikaze suicide missions, attempting to crash explosive-laden planes into U.S.
war vessels. Though they occasionally succeeded, most kamikaze attacks were thwarted
by Allied anti-aircraft gunners. Setting foot on the shores of Leyte, MacArthur
fulfilled his promise to return to the Philippines.
For the 1944 presidential election, the majority of American
voters thought it unwise to change leaders in the midst of war. Concealed from the
public was Franklin Roosevelt’s physical condition. Weak and ill, the president
worked only four hours per day, and Democratic Party insiders, certain that FDR
would not live much longer, focused on the Vice Presidency. For his pro-socialist
sentiments, the current officeholder, Henry Wallace, was rejected in favor of Harry
S. Truman, the U.S. Senator from Missouri. As anticipated, Roosevelt easily won
a fourth term, defeating Republican challenger Thomas Dewey, governor of New York.
During election time, Allied forces entered German soil and drove the Nazis from
the Alsace-Lorraine region. Though General George Patton’s Third Army was rapidly
advancing through Germany, the American drive was halted to allow the Soviets to
enter the capital of Berlin first. In the interim, Adolf Hitler regrouped his forces
into one massive body, launching a surprise counter assault through the Ardennes
Forest on December 16, 1944, in what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Allied forces rapidly fell back until fighters from the U.S. 101st Airborne Division
took the call to resist the German onslaught. They remained firmly entrenched under
continuous artillery fire at the Belgian town of Bastogne; holding their ground
for a month until the arrival of Patton’s Third Army.
The final Nazi offensive ended in failure, and Allied leaders
prepared for the postwar era. Fifty years after the fact, it was learned that the
United States government was extensively infiltrated by communist spies from the
1930s through the early ‘50s.
devoted to Marxist principles, a number of Americans sought influential positions
to advance the cause of global communism. In time, several attained influential
positions in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. Accompanying FDR to the February
1945 Yalta Conference on the Black Sea were presidential advisors Alger Hiss and
Harry Hopkins—both clandestine agents for the Soviet Union. Under their influence,
the sickly American president permitted Joseph Stalin to assume postwar control
over Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Balkan countries in central and eastern Europe,
much to the dismay of Winston Churchill, whose nation had gone to war for the sake
of Poland. Additionally, FDR’s delegation betrayed Chinese Nationalist leader
Chiang Kai-shek by granting Stalin Outer Mongolia, the Kurile Islands, Sakhalin
Island, the northeast Chinese city of Port Arthur, and the northern half of Korea.
From January to March of 1945, General Douglas MacArthur’s forces
liberated the Philippine capital of Manila; then drove Japanese off the fortress
island of Corregidor. Filipino civilians and American prisoners of war hailed the
general’s triumphant return. Simultaneously, U.S. Marines concluded their drawn-out,
bloody campaign on the Pacific Island of Iwo Jima, killing twenty thousand Japanese
at the cost of seven thousand American lives.
Across the globe, Allied western forces captured the German cities
of Cologne and Remagen, where British Prime Minister Churchill surveyed the battle
While the European campaign was winding down, Allied forces in the Pacific encountered
further resistance as they approached Japan. On the first day of April, 1945, four
U.S. army divisions landed on the island of Okinawa, sustaining 50-thousand casualties
over the course of 82 days.
With Japanese supply routes severed,
a long stalemate was broken in Burma, on the southern Asian mainland, and British
Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not live to see the war’s conclusion. The
president died in his Warm Springs, Georgia retreat on April 12, 1945. Vice
President Harry Truman took the oath of office as the conquest of Germany drew
to a close. In their drive to the city of Nuremberg, American forces discovered
death camps where Jews and political opponents to the Nazi regime had been
enslaved and exterminated by the thousands on a daily basis. On April 23, 1945,
Soviet forces entered Berlin. Americans greeted them at the Elbe River two days
April 28th, Italy’s longtime fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, was executed by
firing squad. His body was dangled before jeering crowds in the streets of Milan.
To avoid a similar indignity, Germany’s Adolf Hitler shot himself in his Berlin
bunker on April 30th, with Soviet troops approaching from less than a mile away.
Hitler’s new bride, Eva Braun, swallowed poison, and the couple’s corpses were burned
by aides to spare them from public defilement. On May 7, 1945, Germany formally
surrendered to the Allies. The following day was celebrated as VE—Victory in Europe—Day
in the Allied nations. Nevertheless, the war with Japan raged on.
The lessons of Iwo Jima and Okinawa convinced the Truman administration
that an invasion of the Japanese mainland would result in the deaths of tens of
thousands of Americans. An alternative was presented with the July 16th test detonation
of the first atomic bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
of the bomb’s development over a three year period at the Army’s Manhattan Engineering
District in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the new president was surprised by the news.
At that time, Harry Truman was attending the Potsdam Conference, outside the German
capital of Berlin, with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. (With the European
war over, Churchill left during the conference to resign as Prime Minister of Great
Britain. He was replaced by Clement Attlee.) Truman was also shocked to learn of
the land concessions Franklin Roosevelt had made to Stalin during the Yalta conference.
Little was resolved at the Potsdam meeting, other than Truman’s announcement that
the United States had successfully developed the atomic bomb.
To shorten the war with Japan and spare American lives, two of the devastating new
bombs were utilized. The first was dropped from the B-29 bomber “Enola Gay” on the
Japanese industrial city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, killing approximately 72-thousand
people, injuring another 80-thousand, and exposing some 300-thousand others to large
doses of radiation. On August 9th, the second atomic bomb was dropped on the city
of Nagasaki, killing roughly 78-thousand people. In the aftermath of the devastation,
Japan declared their intention to surrender on August 14, 1945. The formal surrender
took place onboard the USS Missouri on September 2nd, with General Douglas MacArthur
presiding over the ceremony. World War II had, at last, come to an end.
Victory could not have been achieved without the mass mobilization
of American industry and its workers. In the war’s aftermath, the federal government
was in no position resume the anti-business policies of the New Deal. Thus, the
free enterprise system was reborn, and the U.S. economy began its long awaited recovery.
Although armed conflict was over, the nation would soon face new tensions with its
wartime Soviet ally, launching an anxious era called the “Cold War.”
© Copyright 2006 Bryan Hardesty. All rights reserved.
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