1. Education
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Overview of World War II

The Origins of World War II

By

Franklin D Roosevelt, Thirty-Second President of the United States

Franklin D Roosevelt, Thirty-Second President of the United States

Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-26759 DLC
America and Isolationism

When events began happening in Europe that would eventually lead to World War II, many Americans took an increasingly hard line towards getting involved. The events of World War I had fed into America's natural desire to isolationism, and this was reflected by the passage of Neutrality Acts along with the general hands off approach to the events that unfolded on the world stage.

Increasing tensions

While America was wallowing in neutrality and isolationism, events were occurring in Europe and Asia that were causing increasing tension across the regions. These events included:

  • Totalitarianism as a form of government in the USSR (Joseph Stalin), Italy (Benito Mussolini), Germany (Adolf Hitler), and Spain (Francisco Franco).
  • A move towards fascism in Japan.
  • The creation of Manchukuo, Japan's puppet government in Manchuria, beginning the war in China.
  • The conquest of Ethiopia by Mussolini.
  • Revolution in Spain led by Francisco Franco.
  • Germany's continuing expansion including taking the Rhineland.
  • The worldwide Great Depression.
  • World War I allies with large debts, many of which were not paying them off.

America passed the Neutrality Acts in 1935-37. These created an embargo on all war item shipments. Americans were not allowed to travel on belligerent ships, and no belligerents were allowed loans in the United States.

The Road to War

The actual war in Europe began with a series of events:

  • Germany took Austria (1938) and the Sudtenland (1938)
  • The Munich Pact was created (1938) with England and France agreeing to allow Hitler to keep the Sudtenland as long as no further expansion occurred.
  • Hitler and Mussolini created the Rome-Berlin Axis military alliance to last 10 years (1939)
  • Japan entered an alliance with Germany and Italy (1939)
  • The Moscow-Berlin Pact occurred promising nonaggression between the two powers (1939)
  • Hitler invaded Poland (1939)
  • England and France declared war on Germany (September 30, 1939).

The Changing American Attitude

At this time despite Franklin Roosevelt's desire to help the "allies" (France and Great Britain), the only concession America made was to allow the sale of arms on a "cash and carry" basis.

Hitler continued to expand taking Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium. In June, 1940, France fell to Germany. Obviously, this quick expansion got America nervous and the US began to build the military up.

The final break in isolationism began with the Lend Lease Act (1941) whereby America was allowed to "sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of, to any such government....any defense article." Great Britain promised not to export any of the lend lease materials. After this, America built a base on Greenland and then issued the Atlantic Charter (August 14, 1941) - a joint declaration between Great Britain and the US about the purposes of war against fascism. The Battle of the Atlantic began with German U-Boats wreaking havoc. This battle would last throughout the war.

The real event that changed America into a nation actively at war was the attack on Pearl Harbor. This was precipitated in July 1939 when Franklin Roosevelt announced that the US would no longer trade items such as gasoline and iron to Japan who needed it for their war with China. In July 1941, the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis was created. The Japanese began occupying French Indo-China and the Philippines. All Japanese assets were frozen in the US. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor killing over 2,000 people and damaging or destroying eight battleships greatly harming the Pacific fleet. America officially entered the war and now had to fight on two fronts: Europe and the Pacific.

Part 2: The War in Europe,   Part 3: The War in the Pacific,   Part 4: The Homefront

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.