It is tempting to link both 20th century world wars together into a common historical thread. Perhaps this is true from a European perspective, but the United States approached each war in an entirely different way. Many Americans protested against the nation’s involvement in the First World War. They questioned why the country supported the British and French over the Germans, or why it needed to become involved in European conflicts in the first place. The Germans provoked the United States, but never attacked American territory. Isolationism remained a potent force during the first war and strengthened in the two decades that followed. With the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and endemic unemployment, America had its own problems, many people argued. Hitler, the Nazis and the Japanese militarists posed no threat to America.
Even seen now from the perspective of history the entry of the United States into the Second World War came with astonishing swiftness. On December 7, 1941, a task force of Japanese aircraft carriers engineered a surprise attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, killing several thousand Americans, and destroying or crippling much of the country’s naval capacity. Almost instantaneously, Japan attacked American positions in the Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific. Within a few days of the attack, the United States declared war on Japan, and Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.
A famous quotation from Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned and accomplished the Pearl Harbor attack, sums up the American reaction. “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Yamamoto spent considerable time in the United States before the war, and he knew what he was talking about. Pearl Harbor destroyed all vestiges of isolationism in an instant. California braced for a Japanese attack. The nation, from the steel mills of Chicago, to the wheat fields of Kansas, to the film studios of Hollywood, mobilized for war. Protest against the war would be nearly nonexistent for its entire duration. Few Americans, at the time or afterward, questioned the notion that the war was a just cause, a crusade to make the world safe for democracy.
In the Pacific, the war against the Japanese was brutal and hard. In the Philippines, American and Filipino forces held out against superior Japanese armies for four critical months, until April of 1942. In June of 1942, American naval air forces dealt a crushing blow to their Japanese counterparts at the battle of Midway in the central Pacific. The first great American attack against Japanese forces was the torturous campaign on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands starting in August 1942 and lasting six months. At Guadalcanal, combined land air and sea actions stopped the Japanese Empire at its furthest extent.
If Midway evened up the relative strength of the naval forces, Guadalcanal gave the Americans their impetus toward eventual victory in the Pacific. During 1943, 1944, and 1945, combined American land, sea and air forces under General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz closed the ring around the Japanese Empire one bloody island at a time. Names like Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa became part of American iconography. Ultimately, Japan could match neither America’s resolve nor its industrial might. Japan surrendered in August 1945 and was occupied by American military forces.
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