The United States Of
America, Part Seven
This is the story of how the American Republic
developed from colonial beginnings in the 16th century, when the first European
explorers arrived, until modern times.
History of the United States:
THE GREAT DEPRESSION
In 1929, Hoover's first year as president, the prosperity of the 1920s capsized.
Stock prices climbed to unprecedented heights, as investors speculated in the
stock market. The speculative binge, in which people bought and sold stocks for
higher and higher prices, was fueled by easy credit, which allowed purchasers to
buy stock "on margin." If the price of the stock increased, the purchaser made
money; if the price fell, the purchaser had to find the money elsewhere to pay
off the loan. More and more investors poured money into stocks. Unrestrained
buying and selling fed an upward spiral that ended on October 24, 1929, when the
stock market collapsed. The great crash shattered the economy. Fortunes vanished
in days. Consumers stopped buying, businesses retrenched, banks cut off credit,
and a downward spiral began. The Great Depression that began in 1929 would last
through the 1930s.
Causes of the Depression
The stock market crash of 1929 did not cause the Great Depression, but rather
signaled its onset. The crash and the depression sprang from the same cause: the
weaknesses of the 1920s economy. An unequal distribution of income meant that
working people and farmers lacked money to buy durable goods. Crisis prevailed
in the agricultural sector, where farmers produced more than they could sell,
and prices fell. Easy credit, meanwhile, left a debt burden that remained
The crisis also crossed the
Atlantic. The economies of European nations collapsed because they were weakened
by war debts and by trade imbalances; most spent more on importing goods from
the United States than they earned by exporting. European nations amassed debts
to the United States that they were unable to repay. The prosperity of the 1920s
rested on a weak foundation.
Effects of the Depression
After the crash, the economy raced downhill. Unemployment, which affected 3
percent of the labor force in 1929, reached 25 percent in 1933. With one out of
four Americans out of work, people stopped spending money. Demand for durable
goods—housing, cars, appliances—and luxuries declined, and production faltered.
By 1932 the gross national product had been cut by almost one-third. By 1933
over 5,000 banks had failed, and more than 85,000 businesses had gone under.
The effects of the Great Depression were devastating. People with jobs had to
accept pay cuts, and they were lucky to have work. In cities, the destitute
slept in shanties that sprang up in parks or on the outskirts of town, wrapped
up in "Hoover blankets" (newspapers) and displaying "Hoover flags" (empty
pockets). On the Great Plains, exhausted land combined with drought to ravage
farms, destroy crops, and turn agricultural families into migrant workers. An
area encompassing parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado
became known as the Dust Bowl. Family life changed drastically. Marriage and
birth rates fell, and divorce rates rose. Unemployed breadwinners grew
depressed; housewives struggled to make ends meet; young adults relinquished
career plans and took whatever work they could get.
Modest local welfare resources and charities barely made a dent in the misery.
In African American communities, unemployment was disproportionately severe. In
Chicago in 1931, 43.5 percent of black men and 58.5 percent of black women were
out of work, compared with 29.7 percent of white men and 19.14 percent of white
women. As jobs vanished in the Southwest, the federal government urged Mexican
Americans to return to Mexico; some 300,000 left or were deported.
On some occasions, the depression called up a spirit of unity and cooperation.
Families shared their resources with relatives, and voluntary agencies offered
what aid they could. Invariably, the experience of living through the depression
changed attitudes for life. "There was one major goal in my life," one woman
recalled, "and that was never to be poor again."
President Hoover, known as a
progressive and humanitarian, responded to the calamity with modest remedies. At
first, he proposed voluntary agreements by businesses to maintain production and
employment; he also started small public works programs. Hoover feared that if
the government handed out welfare to people in need, it would weaken the moral
fiber of America.
Hoover finally sponsored a measure to help businesses in the hope that benefits
would "trickle down" to others. With his support, Congress created the
Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1932 that gave generous loans to banks,
insurance companies, and railroads. But the downward spiral of price decline and
job loss continued. Hoover's measures were too few, too limited, and too late.
Hoover's reputation suffered
further when war veterans marched on Washington to demand that Congress pay the
bonuses it owed them (see Bonus March). When legislators refused, much of
the Bonus Army dispersed, but a segment camped out near the Capitol and refused
to leave. Hoover ordered the army under General Douglas MacArthur to evict the
marchers and burn their settlement. This harsh response to veterans injured
Hoover in the landmark election of 1932, where he faced Democrat Franklin Delano
Roosevelt. Roosevelt was New York's governor and a consummate politician. He
defeated Hoover, winning 57 percent of the popular vote; the Democrats also took
control of both houses of Congress. Voters gave Roosevelt a mandate for action.
The New Deal
Roosevelt was a progressive who had been a supporter of Woodrow Wilson. He
believed in active government and experimentation. His approach to the Great
Depression changed the role of the U.S. government by increasing its power in
Roosevelt gathered a "brain
trust"—professors, lawyers, business leaders, and social welfare proponents—to
advise him, especially on economic issues. He was also influenced by his
cabinet, which included Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, Secretary of
State Cordell Hull, Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, and Labor Secretary
Frances Perkins, the first woman cabinet member. A final influence on Roosevelt
was his wife, Eleanor, whose activist philosophy had been shaped by the women's
movement. With Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House, the disadvantaged gained an
advocate. Federal officials sought her attention, pressure groups pursued her,
journalists followed her, and constituents admired her.
The First New Deal
Unlike Hoover, Roosevelt took strong steps immediately to battle the depression
and stimulate the U.S. economy. When he assumed office in 1933, a banking crisis
was in progress. More than 5,000 banks had failed, and many governors had
curtailed banking operations. Roosevelt closed the banks, and Congress passed an
Emergency Banking Act, which saved banks in sounder financial shape. After the
"bank holiday," people gradually regained confidence in banks. The United States
also abandoned the gold standard and put more money into circulation.
Next, in what was known as the first Hundred Days, Roosevelt and the Democratic
Congress enacted a slew of measures to combat the depression and prevent its
recurrence. The measures of 1933 included: the Agricultural Adjustment Act,
which paid farmers to curtail their production (later upset by the Supreme
Court); the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which established codes of
fair competition to regulate industry and guaranteed labor's right to collective
bargaining (again, the law was overturned in 1935); and the Public Works
Administration, which constructed roads, dams, and public buildings. Other acts
of the first Hundred Days created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation,
which insured deposits in banks in case banks failed, and the Tennessee Valley
Authority (TVA), which provided electric power to areas of the southeast. The
government also set up work camps for the unemployed, refinanced mortgages,
provided emergency relief, and regulated the stock market through the Securities
and Exchange Commission.
The emergency measures raised employment, but the New Deal evoked angry
criticism. On the right, conservative business leaders and politicians assailed
New Deal programs. In popular radio sermons, Father Charles Coughlin, once a
supporter of Roosevelt, denounced the administration’s policies and revealed
nativist, anti-Semitic views. The Supreme Court, appointed mainly by
Republicans, was another staunch foe; it struck down many pieces of New Deal
legislation, such as the NIRA, farm mortgage relief, and the minimum wage.
On the left, critics believed that Roosevelt had not done enough and endorsed
stronger measures. In California, senior citizens rallied behind the Townsend
Plan, which urged that everyone over the age of 65 receive $200 a month from the
government, provided that each recipient spend the entire amount to boost the
economy. The plan's popularity mobilized support for old-age pensions. In
Louisiana, Democratic Governor Huey Long campaigned for "soak the rich" tax
schemes that would outlaw large incomes and inheritances, and for social
programs that would "Share Our Wealth" among all people. The growing Communist
Party, finally, urged people to repudiate capitalism and to allow the government
to take over the means of production.
The Second New Deal
In 1935 the New Deal veered left with further efforts to promote social welfare
and exert federal control over business enterprise. The Securities and Exchange
Commission Act of 1934 enforced honesty in issuing corporate securities. The
Wagner Act of 1935 recognized employees' bargaining rights and established a
National Labor Relations Board to oversee relations between employers and
employees. Finally, the Works Project Administration put unemployed people to
work on short-term public projects.
New Dealers also enacted a series
of measures to regulate utilities, to increase taxes on corporations and
citizens with high incomes, and to empower the Federal Reserve Board to regulate
the economy. Finally, the administration proposed the Social Security Act of
1935, which established a system of unemployment insurance, old-age pensions,
and federal grants to the states to aid the aged, the handicapped, and families
with dependent children. Largely an insurance program, Social Security was the
keystone of welfare policy for decades to come.
In the election of 1936,
Roosevelt defeated his Republican opponent, Alf Landon, in a landslide and
carried every state but Maine and Vermont. The election confirmed that many
Americans accepted and supported the New Deal. It also showed that the
constituency of the Democratic Party had changed. The vast Democratic majority
reflected an amalgam of groups called the New Deal coalition, which included
organized labor, farmers, new immigrants, city dwellers, African Americans (who
switched their allegiance from the party of Lincoln), and finally, white
At the start of Roosevelt’s
second term in 1937, some progress had been made against the depression; the
gross output of goods and services reached their 1929 level. But there were
difficulties in store for the New Deal. Republicans resented the
administration's efforts to control the economy. Unemployment was still high,
and per capita income was less than in 1929. The economy plunged again in the
so-called Roosevelt recession of 1937, caused by reduced government spending and
the new social security taxes. To battle the recession and to stimulate the
economy, Roosevelt initiated a spending program. In 1938 New Dealers passed a
Second Agricultural Adjustment Act to replace the first one that the Supreme
Court had overturned, and the Wagner Housing Act, which funded construction of
Meanwhile, the president battled
the Supreme Court, which had upset several New Deal measures and was ready to
dismantle more. Roosevelt attacked indirectly; he asked Congress for power to
appoint an additional justice for each sitting justice over the age of 70. The
proposal threatened the Court's conservative majority. In a blow to Roosevelt,
Congress rejected the so-called court-packing bill. But the Supreme Court
changed its stance and began to approve some New Deal measures, such as the
minimum wage in 1937.
During Roosevelt’s second term,
the labor movement made gains. Industrial unionism (unions that welcomed all the
workers in an industry) now challenged the older brand of craft unionism
(skilled workers in a particular trade), represented by the American Federation
of Labor (AFL). In 1936 John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers of
America (UMWA), left the AFL to organize a labor federation based on industrial
unionism. He founded the Committee for Industrial Organizations, later known as
the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Industrial unionism spurred a
major sit-down strike in the auto industry in 1937. Next, violence erupted at a
steelworkers' strike in Chicago, where police killed ten pickets. The auto and
steel industries, however, agreed to bargain collectively with workers, and
these labor victories led to a surge in union membership.
Finally, in 1938 Congress passed
another landmark law, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). It established
federal standards for maximum hours and minimum wages for workers in industries
involved in interstate commerce. At first the law affected only a minority of
workers, but gradually Congress extended it so that by 1970 it covered most
employees. In the 1930s, however, many New Deal measures, such as labor laws,
had a limited impact. African Americans, for instance, failed to benefit from
FLSA because they were engaged mainly in nonindustrial jobs, such as
agricultural or domestic work, which were not covered by the law. New Deal
relief programs also sometimes discriminated by race.
The New Deal never ended the
Great Depression, which continued until United States entry into World War II,
revived the economy. As late as 1940, 15 percent of the labor force was
unemployed. Nor did the New Deal redistribute wealth or challenge capitalism.
But in the short run, the New Deal averted disaster and alleviated misery, and
its long-term effects were profound.
One long-term effect was an
activist state that extended the powers of government in unprecedented ways,
particularly in the economy. The state now moderated wild swings of the business
cycle, stood between the citizen and sudden destitution, and recognized a level
of subsistence beneath which citizens should not fall.
The New Deal also realigned
political loyalties. A major legacy was the Democratic coalition, the diverse
groups of voters including African Americans, union members, farmers, and
immigrants who backed Roosevelt and continued to vote Democratic.
The New Deal's most important
legacy was a new political philosophy, liberalism, to which many Americans
remained attached for decades to come. By the end of the 1930s, World War II had
broken out in Europe, and the country began to shift its focus from domestic
reform to foreign policy and defense.
AMERICA AND WORLD WAR II
The roots of World War II can be found in the debris of World War I, which left
legacies of anger and hardship. After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles
imposed large reparations on Germany. The reparations and wartime destruction
caused severe economic problems in postwar Germany. Other European nations
grappled with war debts, hunger, homelessness, and fear of economic collapse.
Under these circumstances, totalitarianism spread.
From 1922 to 1953 dictator Joseph Stalin controlled the Union of Soviet
Socialist Republics (USSR), which was formed after the Russian Revolution of
1917. The USSR became a police state that suppressed opponents and deprived
citizens of rights. Elsewhere, militarism and expansionism gained ground. In the
1930s the Japanese military won influence, and Japan began to expand its
territory. In 1931 Japan attacked the Chinese province of Manchuria. Condemned
by the League of Nations for its attack, Japan quit the league. Italy turned to
fascism, a strong centralized government headed by a powerful dictator and
rooted in nationalism. Fascist leader Benito Mussolini seized power in Italy in
In Germany, the Nazi Party, led by Adolf Hitler, came to power (see
National Socialism). Hitler believed that Aryans were a master race destined for
world rule. He sought to form a great German empire—one that gave the German
people, in his words, "the land and the soil to which they are entitled on this
earth." Global depression in the 1930s helped bring the Nazis to power. In 1932,
with six million Germans out of work, the Nazis won more votes than any other
party, and in 1933, just as Roosevelt took office, Hitler became the German
prime minister. Like Japan, Germany quit the League of Nations.
Germany soon revealed its
expansionist goals. In 1933 Hitler began to build up the German military, in
violation of the Treaty of Versailles. In 1936 he sent troops into the
Rhineland, a demilitarized region in western Germany. The same year, Hitler and
Mussolini signed an alliance, the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. In 1940 the alliance
was extended to include Japan. The three nations—Germany, Italy, and
Japan—became the Axis Powers. The start of World War II was near.
Isolationism vs. Internationalism
Most Americans of the 1930s recoiled from involvement in the European conflict;
they favored U.S. isolationism, and many supported pacifism. Some believed that
"merchants of death" (bankers and arms dealers) had lured the United States into
World War I. The Roosevelt administration, too, tried to maintain friendly
foreign relations. Roosevelt recognized the USSR in 1933 and set up a Good
Neighbor Policy with Latin America. No state, the United States said, had the
right to intervene in the affairs of another. Roosevelt also made progress
toward lower tariffs and free trade. In 1935 and 1936, Congress passed a group
of neutrality acts to keep the United States out of Europe's troubles. The first
two acts banned arms sales or loans to nations at war. The third act, a response
to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), extended the ban to nations split by civil
But as conflict spread abroad, Americans discarded their neutral stance. Many
opposed fascist forces in the civil war in Spain. There, democratic armies fell
to dictator Francisco Franco, who was supported by Hitler and Mussolini. Japan
launched a new attack on China in July 1937 to obtain more Chinese territory. It
quickly overran northern China. Hitler marched through Europe. Germany in 1938
annexed Austria and then seized Czechoslovakia without resistance. In August
1939 Hitler and Stalin signed a nonaggression pact. On September 1, 1939, Hitler
invaded Poland, which led England and France to declare war on Germany.
Americans increasingly doubted that the United States could avoid becoming
In September 1939 Roosevelt called Congress into special session to revise the
neutrality acts. The president offered a plan known as cash-and-carry, which
permitted Americans to sell munitions to nations able to pay for them in cash
and able to carry them away in their own ships. Isolationists objected, but
Congress passed the Neutrality Act of 1939, which legitimized cash-and-carry and
allowed Britain and France to buy American arms. The war in Europe, meanwhile,
grew more dire for the Allies. In June 1940 Germany conquered France, and
British troops that had been in France retreated across the English Channel.
Then German bombers began to pound Britain.
In June 1940 the United States started supplying Britain with "all aid short of
war" to help the British defend themselves against Germany. Roosevelt asked
Congress for more funds for national defense. Congress complied and began the
first American peacetime military draft, the Selective Training and Service Act,
under which more than 16 million men were registered. After the 1940 election,
Roosevelt urged that the United States become "the great arsenal of democracy."
In 1941 he and British prime minister Winston Churchill announced the Atlantic
Charter, which set forth Allied goals for World War II and the postwar period.
The two nations pledged to respect "the right of all peoples to choose the form
of government under which they will live" and promised a free world without war
"after the final destruction of Nazi tyranny." Isolationists criticized each
move towards war; however, the United States was still not actually at war.
In 1941 the conflict worsened. Despite the nonaggression pact, German armies
moved through the Baltics and into Russia. Meanwhile, as Japan continued to
invade areas in Asia, U.S. relations with Japan crumbled. On December 7, 1941,
Japan attacked a U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The next day it
attacked the main American base in the Philippines. In response, the United
States declared war on Japan, though not on Germany; Hitler acted first and
declared war on the United States. The United States committed itself to
fighting the Axis powers as an ally of Britain and France.
The Nation at War
Even before Pearl Harbor, the American government had begun to mobilize for war.
After the attack, the United States focused its attention on the war effort.
World War II greatly increased the power of the federal government, which
mushroomed in size and power. The federal budget skyrocketed, and the number of
federal civilian employees tripled. The war also made the United States a
military and economic world power.
The armed forces expanded as
volunteers and draftees enrolled, growing to almost 12 million men and 260,000
women by 1945. Roosevelt formed the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a military advisory
group, to manage the huge military effort. New federal agencies multiplied. The
Office of Strategic Services gathered intelligence and conducted espionage, the
War Production Board distributed manufacturing contracts and curtailed
manufacture of civilian goods, and the War Manpower Commission supervised war
industry, agriculture, and the military. Other wartime agencies resolved
disputes between workers and management; battled inflation, set price controls,
and imposed rations on scarce items; turned out propaganda; and oversaw
broadcasting and publishing.
As the United States moved to a
wartime economy, the depression ended, and the U.S. economy came to life.
Industry swiftly shifted to war production, automakers began turning out tanks
and planes, and the United States became the world's largest weapons
manufacturer. New industries emerged, such as synthetic rubber, which
compensated for the loss of rubber supplies when Japan seized the Dutch East
Indies and Malaya. The war economy brought new opportunities. Americans
experienced virtually full employment, longer work weeks, and (despite wage
controls) higher earnings. Unions gained members and negotiated unprecedented
benefits. Farmers prospered, too. Crop prices rose, production increased, and
farm income tripled.
Labor scarcity drew women into
the war economy. During the depression, the federal government had urged women
to cede jobs to male breadwinners. However, when the war began, it sought women
to work in war production. More than six million women entered the work force in
wartime; women's share of the labor force leaped from 25 percent in 1940 to 35
percent in 1945. Three-quarters of the new women workers were married, a
majority were over 35, and over a third had children under 14. Many women held
untraditional jobs in the well-paid blue collar sector—in shipyards and in
airplane plants, as welders and crane operators. Women found new options in
civilian vocations and professions, too. Despite women’s gains in the workplace,
many people retained traditional convictions that women should not work outside
the home. Government propaganda promoted women's war work as only a temporary
response to an emergency.
Members of minorities who had
been out of jobs in the 1930s also found work in the war economy. Hundreds of
thousands of African Americans migrated from the South to Northern industrial
cities to work in war industries. More than one million black people served in
the armed forces in segregated units; the government ended its policy of
excluding blacks from combat.
As Northern black urban
populations grew, racial violence sometimes erupted, as in the Detroit race
riots of June 1943. African Americans linked the battle against Nazis abroad
with the fight for racial justice at home. Membership in the NAACP increased
tenfold, and another civil rights organization, the Congress of Racial Equality
(CORE), began in 1942. Early in 1941, labor leader A. Philip Randolph met with
Roosevelt administration officials to demand equal employment for blacks in
industries working under federal government defense contracts. Randolph
threatened to lead 100,000 African Americans in a march on Washington, D.C., to
protest job discrimination. In response, Roosevelt issued a directive banning
racial discrimination in federal hiring practices and established the Fair
Employment Practices Commission. Like African Americans, Mexican Americans and
Native Americans had more job opportunities.
For all Americans, war changed
the quality of life. World War II inspired hard work, cooperation, and
patriotism. Citizens bought war bonds, saved scrap metal, and planted victory
gardens. They coped with rationing and housing shortages. The war also caused
population movement. Americans flocked to states with military bases and defense
plants; six million migrants left for cities, many on the West Coast where the
defense industry was concentrated. School enrollment sank as teenagers took jobs
or joined the armed services. People became more concerned about family life,
especially about working mothers, juvenile delinquency, and unruly teenagers.
The United States began to
receive reports of the Holocaust—the Nazi effort to exterminate all of Europe’s
Jews—in 1942, and the State Department recognized Hitler’s genocide by the end
of that year. However, the U.S. government gave precedence to other war matters
and did not found a War Refugee Board until 1944. The board aided in the rescue
and relocation of surviving Nazi victims, but its effort was too weak and too
late to help Europe's Jews; approximately two-thirds of the Jewish population in
Europe was murdered during the war.
In the United States, civil
liberties were casualties of the war. In February 1942 the president authorized
the evacuation of all Japanese from the West Coast. The U.S. government interned
around 120,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them native-born U.S. citizens,
in relocation centers run by the War Relocation Authority. The internment policy
reflected anti-Japanese sentiment on the West Coast that was rooted in economic
rivalry, racial prejudice, and fear of Japanese sabotage after Pearl Harbor.
(The policy affected only the mainland United States, not Hawaii, where more
than 150,000 residents of Japanese descent lived and where the United States
imposed martial law for almost three years.) Forced to sell their land and
homes, the West Coast internees ended up behind barbed wire in remote western
areas. In 1944 the Supreme Court ruled that the evacuation and internment were
constitutional in Korematsu v. United States. By then, however,
the government had started to release the internees. In 1988 Congress apologized
and voted to pay $20,000 compensation to each of 60,000 surviving internees.
Ever since 1941, when Roosevelt and Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter
outlining war goals, the president had considered the war's conclusion. At
wartime conferences, Allied leaders looked ahead to the war's end. In January
1943, for instance Britain and the United States met at Casablanca, Morocco, and
agreed not to lay down arms until certain conditions were met: Germany, Italy,
and Japan had to surrender unconditionally, give up all conquered territory, and
renounce the ideologies that spurred aggression. At subsequent meetings, the
Allied leaders reiterated this pledge and also considered postwar occupation
plans and divisions of territory. However, the Western powers and the USSR did
not trust one another and disagreed on the postwar future of nations on the
In 1944 the war in the European
theater reached a climax. On the eastern front, Soviet armies had pushed Germany
out of the USSR. A turning point had come in early 1943 at Stalingrad, where
about 200,000 German troops surrendered to Soviet troops. The USSR then moved
into Poland and the Balkans, and pushed the Allies to open a second front in
Western Europe. The Allied armies, under General Dwight D. Eisenhower, prepared
a huge invasion of western France. On June 6, 1944, known as D-Day, thousands of
vessels and aircraft carrying British and American troops crossed the English
Channel and landed on the Normandy coast of France.
Allied armies, led by General
George S. Patton, smashed through German lines and started for Paris. Another
Allied army invaded southern France and pressed northward. On August 25, 1944,
the Allied forces liberated Paris after four years of Nazi rule. The Germans
continued to fight in eastern France. Hitler launched a last, desperate
offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, in December 1944. The offensive failed, and
German armies were forced to retreat. Allied armies entered Germany in March
1945, while the Soviets moved toward Berlin from the east. Germany surrendered
on May 8, 1945. The war in Europe was over.
The treacherous Pacific war—a
great land, air, and sea battle—continued. After the attack on Pearl Harbor,
Japan conquered the Philippines, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and Burma.
Troops from the United States, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand tried to stop
the Japanese advance, which reached its peak in the spring of 1942. The turning
point of the Pacific war came in June 1942, at the Battle of Midway. The
American victory at Midway ended the Japanese navy's hope of controlling the
Pacific. The United States then began a long counteroffensive and recaptured
Pacific islands that the Japanese had occupied. In October 1944 the United
States finally smashed the Japanese fleet in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the
But Japan refused to surrender.
The United States wanted to end the war with unconditional surrender from Japan.
It also wanted to avoid more battles like those in Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where
U.S. casualties had been heavy. These factors spurred U.S. plans to use the
The United States in late 1941
established a secret program, which came to be known as the Manhattan Project,
to develop an atomic bomb, a powerful explosive nuclear weapon. The aim of the
project, directed by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, was to build an atom bomb
before Germany did. After Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, Harry S. Truman
became president and inherited the bomb-development program. At this point, the
new weapon had two purposes. First, it could be used to force Japan to
surrender. Second, possession of the bomb would enable the United States, and
not the USSR, to control postwar policy.
Should the United States use the
bomb to finally end the war with Japan? What were American options in 1945? One
option was to invade Japan, which Truman believed would cost half a million
American lives. Some historians have since estimated the likely loss of life at
25,000 to 46,000, though these figures probably cover just the first stage of a
projected November invasion. A second option was not to demand unconditional
surrender but to negotiate with Japan. A third alternative was to let a Soviet
invasion end the war against Japan, which would have diminished U.S. influence
in postwar policy. Scientists who developed the bomb debated what to do with it.
Some found it wrong to drop the bomb without warning and supported a
demonstration explosion to convince Japan to surrender. In Oppenheimer's view,
this course of action was too uncertain and risky; only the shock of using the
bomb on a Japanese city would force Japan to surrender. President Truman agreed.
On August 6, 1945, the United
States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In minutes, half of the city
vanished. According to U.S. estimates, 60,000 to 70,000 people were killed or
missing as a result of the bomb. Deadly radiation reached over 100,000. On
August 8, the USSR declared war on Japan. On August 9, the United States dropped
an even more powerful bomb on Nagasaki. According to U.S. estimates, 40,000
people were killed or never found as a result of the second bomb. On September
2, the Japanese government, which had seemed ready to fight to the death,
Should the United States have
used the bomb? Critics of the decision decry the loss of life. They contend that
any of the alternatives was preferable. Others assert that only the bomb, used
in the way that it was, could have ended the war. Above all, they argue, it
saved countless American lives. American GIs, who had been shipped halfway
around the world to invade Japan after Germany surrendered, were elated. The
bomb also precluded a Soviet invasion of Japan and gave the United States the
upper hand in the postwar world. "Let there be no mistake about it," Truman
later wrote. "I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt
that it should be used."
Effects of the War
After World War II ended, the use of the atomic bomb changed the world in many
ways. Nuclear power led to a four-decades-long arms race between the United
States and the USSR, and nuclear annihilation continues to threaten the world
today. At the same time, nuclear power enabled scientists to develop new sources
During the war, other
technological and medical advances were developed that saved lives and improved
living standards in the decades ahead. Penicillin, a "miracle drug" first used
to treat allied casualties, was used at home to defeat disease, reduce infant
deaths, and extend life expectancy. DDT, a colorless chemical pesticide,
destroyed harmful insects and prevented typhus and malaria. New fuel mixtures
extended the range of warplanes and later of civilian planes; jet propulsion
planes transformed transoceanic flights and were in commercial use by the late
1950s. Other facets of technology developed during World War II included radar,
semiconductors, freeze-dried food, infrared technologies, and synthetic
World War II ended Nazi barbarism
and vanquished totalitarian power that threatened to conquer the globe. The cost
of the war was immense. Allied military and civilian losses were 44 million;
those of the Axis, 11 million. The United States lost almost 300,000 people in
battle deaths, which was far less than the toll in Europe and Asia. At home, the
war quenched isolationism, ended the depression, provided unprecedented social
and economic mobility, fostered national unity, and vastly expanded the federal
government. The U.S. government spent more than $300 billion on the war effort,
which generated jobs and prosperity and renewed confidence. Finally, World War
II made the United States the world's leading military and economic force. With
the Axis threat obliterated, the United States and the USSR became rivals for