UNITED STATES HISTORY
A Date Which Will Live in Infamy
*Japan’s ruthless invasion of China demanded an American response,
but Americans demanded a response short of war. Instead, in
July 1940, the United States placed an embargo on Japan, outlawing
the export to Japan of aviation gasoline and most types of machine
tools. In September, the embargo was extended to scrap
metal, which Japan (with few natural resources) depended on.
Shortly afterwards, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany
and Italy and occupied French Indo-China. In 1941, the US
cut off sales of all oil to Japan (who bought 80% of its oil from
the US). The British and the Dutch put embargoes on trade
with Japan as well, and the Japanese grew desperate.
*Encircled by potential enemies and deprived of natural resources,
Japan began developing an ‘Eastern Strategy’ in September, 1941
(although both Japanese and American plans for a war in the
Pacific had existed since at least the 1920s).
*The United States had cracked the Japanese secret code, and knew
an attack was coming somewhere in the Pacific, but did not know
where. The Philippines seemed the most likely target.
*On December 7th, 1941--a date which will live in infamy--the
United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by
naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
*By 9.45, 2,400 Americans would be dead and 1,200 more
wounded. Some ships were sunk with men trapped inside who
took days to die of starvation.
*Of eight battleships in Pearl Harbor that day, the Arizona sank
and remains at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the Oklahoma capsized
(and was later raised and sold for scrap), and six others were
badly damaged but later repaired and returned to active
service. Other ships and many airplanes were destroyed, but
the most important ships in any modern navy, the aircraft
carriers, were not touched because they were out on manœuvres that
*Upon learning of the carriers’ survival, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku
felt that his prediction that he could "run wild considerably for
the first six months or a year but... [had] utterly no confidence
for the second and third years" would probably come true.
*Shortly afterwards, the Japanese ambassador brought a message
that was supposed to have been delivered earlier. It made
demands that the US would have been forced to refuse, after which
war would have been declared. Because it got there late, the
Japanese were correctly accused of a sneak attack, and the United
States Congress declared war on Japan on 8 December,
1941. Only one person in the entire Congress was
opposed: Jeannette Rankin of Montana.
*On 11 December 1941, Germany and Italy, to help their ally Japan,
declared war on the United States. Over two years after the
invasion of Poland, the United States was involved in the Second
World War, a war, Roosevelt said, to make the world safe for
*The bombing of Pearl Harbor was only the first of several attacks
on the United States by the Empire of Japan. They attacked
airbases on Wake Island and on Guam and in the Philippines.
Although the commander of the Philippines, Douglas MacArthur, had
heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he did not prepare for an
attack in the Philippines. On 12 December, the Japanese
landed on Luzon, the main island of the Philippines, and moved
towards the capital, Manila. MacArthur withdrew his troops
to the Bataan Peninsula which he hoped would prove more
defensible. In March, at the President’s orders, MacArthur
fled to Australia, but he made a promise: "People of the
Philippines, I shall return."
*The Japanese surrounded the American forces, and starvation
forced them to surrender. The Japanese, who followed bushido,
the code of the warrior, considered anyone who surrendered a
coward, and unworthy of decent treatment. A good warrior
fought to the death, or committed seppuku, also known as hara-kiri,
a form of ritual suicide. The 76,000 Americans and Filipinos
who surrendered were forced to march in small groups 60 miles to a
railroad junction, where they were sent on to a prisoner of war
camp. Along the way the starving, dehydrated prisoners were
guarded constantly and pushed along as fast as, or faster than,
they could march. If any fell down, stopped for water, or
acted disrespectfully towards the captors, they would be beheaded
on the spot with one of the swords that were part of the Japanese
uniform. Of 76,000 prisoners, 10,000 died on what has come
to be called the Bataan Death March.
*Between these invasions and the bombing of Pearl Harbor,
Americans were terrified of a Japanese invasion of America.
Lights were shut off at night to foil air attacks.
*Fearing sabotage and espionage, the US government imprisoned
about 110,000 Japanese-Americans, many of them citizens, in
internment camps in remote areas away from the coast. Many
had to sell most of their property in a hurry, getting poor
prices, and many had their assets frozen. They stayed in the
camps until 1945, except for those of draft age who were
citizens: they served in the US Army in Europe while their
families were held in these prison camps. They formed the
442nd Regiment, which fought in Italy and France, and became the
most decorated unit in the war.
*Several Japanese-Americans challenged the legality of this, and
several cases went to the Supreme Court, which upheld the
constitutionality of internment based on national ancestry (and
partly based on the Alien Enemies Act of 1798). Two such
cases were Hirabayashi v. United States (1943) and
Korematsu v. United States (1944), which are significant
because they justified an expansion of government’s powers in
wartime, and the precedent they set in that area is still
considered legally valid.
*In 1988 the US government paid each survivor $20,000 tax-free and
apologised for the internment of Japanese Americans.
*America was not the only victim of Japanese aggression. In
December, the Japanese attacked British and Dutch colonies
*On Christmas Day, 1941, the Japanese captured Hong Kong.
*On 8 December, the Japanese invaded British Malaya, and by 31
January had captured the whole Malay Peninsula and were ready to
*In February 1942, Japan captured Singapore in the largest
surrender of British forces in history (80,000 British and
colonial troops were taken prisoner, many of whom died, as about
27% of POWs in Japanese camps did). Many Indian soldiers
captured in Singapore joined the Japanese army, convinced that
they could win India’s independence as part of the Greater East
Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Many Indians did not join, though
(and were often treated brutally as punishment), and India as a
whole rejected Japan’s offer of help in a revolt against Britain
in hopes that India could gain its independence peacefully and
honourably after the War.
*On 19 February, the Japanese bombed Darwin on Australia’s
Northern Territory. Although it did little militarily
significant damage, it had a powerful psychological effect, and
Australia even devised a plan to evacuate all its people to
South-eastern Australia and just defend Sydney and Melbourne if
*In January, Japan invaded Burma (with the help of the Thai Army),
and by May the British had retreated to the Indian border.
*In February, Japan invaded the Dutch East Indies. By March
the Japanese controlled most of the East Indies aside from
Southeastern New Guinea. At first, they were supported by
local Indonesian nationalists seeking independence under the
leadership of Sukarno and others. However, when they saw
that the Japanese were even more oppressive than the Dutch, some
nationalists revolted against them as well. This nationalist
movement would keep the Dutch from holding onto the East Indies
even after they reclaimed them at the end of World War II.
*At the Battle of the Java Sea in February 1942 the Imperial
Japanese Navy destroyed the main Allied fleet in the Southwest
*In April 1942 the Allies began to re-group and better co-ordinate
their commands. General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral
Chester Nimitz were given command of all Allied forces in the
*On 18 April, 1942, 16 bombers from the US Army Air Corps under
the command of Jimmy Doolittle bombed Tokyo. Although the
damage was minimal and all the planes were shot down, the
Doolittle Raid provided a great boost to American morale.
*In May the Allies learned through their codebreakers that the
Japanese planned to attack Port Moresby in New Guinea (which would
create a base for attacks on Australia) and rushed to defend
it. The resulting Battle of the Coral Sea was the first time
the Imperial Japanese Navy was stopped.
*Although the Japanese lost more men, the Allies lost more
ships. However, the Japanese advance was stopped and they
failed to capture Port Moresby and Australia was saved.
*The Battle of the Coral Sea was a turning point in naval
warfare: it was the first battle in which the opposing
fleets never sighted one another—all the fighting was done by
warplanes attacking the enemy’s ships.
*To try to slow down America and force the US out of the war,
Japan attacked the US Naval Air Station on Midway Atoll on 4 June,
1942. Had this succeeded, Japan would then have moved on to
invade Guam, Samoa, and Hawaii in hopes of forcing America out of
*Instead, the Battle of Midway was the turning point in the war in
the Pacific. Again warned by American and British
codebreakers, the Allies were ready and even prepared an
ambush. American warplanes surprised the Japanese while they
were refuelling their own planes on the carrier decks. This
meant all the planes were in the open, unable to move, and tied to
fuel pumps. The Japanese lost four heavy carriers, over 300
planes, and most of their best pilots and were not able to train
new ones with the same skills quickly enough. America lost
one aircraft carrier and about 100 planes.
*The Battle of Midway ended on 7 June, 1942, exactly six months
after the attack on Pearl Harbour. The Japanese had run wild
for six months, and would henceforth be on the defensive.
--Victory at Sea #4: Midway is East
*After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the spirit of isolationism
vanished, and Americans pulled together to defeat the Axis.
Just as Americans mobilised on the Home Front during the Great
War, they did so as well during the Second World War, but on an
even larger scale.
*On 16 January, 1942, the War Production Board was created to
manage the nation's manufacturing output, which was turned
entirely toward the war effort. Unemployment vanished almost
overnight. Although many of the New Deal's make-work
programs were cancelled by the conservative Congressmen elected
later that year, they were no longer needed, as all Americans now
had a job to do.
*All industries were now turned towards war production.
Civilian automobile and aircraft factories began producing
warplanes, tanks, and ships. Henry J. Kaiser specialised in
producing Liberty ships, mass produced vessels made of
pre-fabricated parts that could be assembled in 40 days, instead
of 200--he once fully constructed one in 14 days as a publicity
stunt, another was launched just 4 days and 15 hours and 29
minutes after her keel was laid (although some finishing touches
remained to be completed).
*To keep these factories running, particularly after the Japanese
conquest of Malaya and the East Indies cut off most shipments of
natural rubber, gasoline rationing was instituted, not as much to
save gasoline as to keep tires from wearing out.
Furthermore, the United States built 51 synthetic rubber plants,
reducing dependence on foreign rubber.
*Farmers once again prospered, and new machines, better strains of
seed, and improved fertilisers made them more productive than
ever. However, to feed American and Allied soldiers, food
was rationed throughout the US. Shoppers could only buy food
or gasoline if they turned in a coupon from a ration book
(obtained from the local school), although some shopkeepers sold
extra food on the black market.
*Among the rarest foods were sugar, fruit, and coffee. Metal
good were almost impossible to buy, as it was all used in war
materials, as was rubber. Scrap metal drives were held,
asking all citizens to recycle any metal they had lying
around. Nylon stockings, invented in 1939, vanished because
nylon was used in making parachutes.
*Rationing was necessary in part because people had money to spend
at last. Full employment initially led to inflation early in
1942, until the Office of Price Administration froze prices on 90%
of goods sold in the United States and also put controls on rent.
*Workers were in such demand that wages soared as companies tried
to attract workers from the limited labour pool (although workers
in vital war industries were often exempt from the draft).
However, the War Labor Board put limits on wages and attempted to
regulate labour disputes.
*Although unions had promised not to strike in any way that would
hurt the war effort, a few did anyway when their wages were
capped, until the Smith-Connally Act was passed in June, 1943
allowing the government to seize and run any factory that was shut
down by labour disputes and made strikes against government-run
industries a criminal offence. Under this act, the
government took over the coal mines (where the United Mine Workers
had repeatedly shut down production) and, temporarily, the
*One way businessmen got around the wage limits was by offering
other benefits, such as health insurance and pensions, which were
not limited by the War Labor Board. This allowed working
class Americans to truly join the middle class and be very
prosperous after the war.
*Another way industry dealt with a shortage of workingmen was by
employing women. More than six million American women, at
least half of whom had never worked outside the home before,
entered the labour force. This was seen as both practical
and patriotic, and whereas most women who took jobs during WWI
returned to their homes afterwards, many who worked during WWII
stayed in the workforce. The government had to set up over
3,000 day-care centres to take care of working women's children
during the war.
*Other women served their country by doing non-combat duty in the
military as WAACs (Women's Army Auxiliary Corps), WAVES (Women
Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), and WASPs (Women
Airforce Service Pilots) or as nurses.
*In some ways, the wartime economy was a cruel twist of
fate: during the Depression, there had been plenty of things
to buy and no money to buy it with; during WWII there was plenty
of money but little to buy. Even if food and gasoline were
rationed and most manufacturing was turned toward producing war
materiel, Americans were able to put their extra cash towards
something. To fund the war, which cost twice as much as all
previous American wars combined, the government again sold War
Bonds, which Americans bought both as an expression of patriotism
and as a sound investment, which paid off after the War with a
long period of prosperity even better than that of the 1920s.
*War bonds could not fund the entire war, and the income tax was
vastly expanded to include four times the number of people it had
tapped before the war, and in 1944 and 1945 the highest tax
bracket paid 94% of all annual income above $200,000.
*Most Americans felt that such sacrifices were worth it.
Even Americans who had opposed the war before it came now
supported it—the America First Committee dissolved itself on 10
December, and Charles Lindbergh volunteered to train pilots for
the US Army Air Corps, but was turned down. However, he got
a job as a civilian technical advisor and ended up helping make
many warplanes and their crews more efficient and actually flew in
about 50 combat missions as a civilian--he once even shot down a
*The government made sure people knew how important the war was
through the Office of War Information, which produced a constant
stream of propaganda, through posters, magazine and newspaper
stories, music, radio, and film, as even the entertainment
industry was drafted into service. Film and radio stars and
directors were given jobs in the military or in the Bureau of
Motion Pictures (part of the OWI) to promote the war effort and to
record it for posterity.
*The Office of War Information supported women in the workforce by
creating the character of 'Rosie the Riveter.' Mickey Mouse,
Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Popeye the Sailor, and all the other
cartoon characters of the day were put in uniform to defeat the
Axis and promote the life of a soldier or the value of helping the
war effort at home. Musicians wrote and performed music
glorifying soldiers and the cause they were fighting for.
Entire radio series and movies promoted the war effort either
outright or simply through the telling of patriotic stories.
*The movie Sergeant York was created to whip up patriotic
spirit. York himself volunteered to return to the army and
lead all the Southern volunteers and draftees who could not pass
the army's literacy tests (but he was turned down).
*Among the longest-lasting of the OWI's creations is the Voice of
America, which is still the official broadcasting service of the
United States, promoting a positive view of America through radio
programmes around the world. During WWII it broadcast news
and encouragement into Axis-occupied territories, and after the
War it broadcast American news and entertainment into the
otherwise carefully controlled airwaves of communist countries.
*The OWI also included the Psychological Warfare Branch which
attempted the demoralise America's enemies by broadcasting news
and dropping leaflets from planes telling about America's economic
productivity and military successes. They produced other
things as well, like sewing kits that included a pincushion shaped
*The government also began to make spying more organised through
the Office of Strategic Services. They infiltrated foreign
societies and industry, helped supply and train foreign groups
fighting against the Axis, and carried information through enemy
lines. The OSS would later develop into the CIA.
*Despite American enthusiasm to spread liberty to the world,
intolerance remained in America. Japanese on the west coast
were interned, of course, but other races also faced problems.
*In the military, African-Americans still served in separate
units. When given the chance, they often performed very
bravely and effectively, most famously the Tuskegee Airmen (also
known as the Red Tails), but many were not given the opportunity
by white officers who preferred to use them for manual labour.
*In civilian life, the Great Migration continued, but the
continued influx of black workers to Northern cities was not
always welcome, and in 1943 a race riot in Detroit killed 25
blacks and 9 whites.
*To assist American farmers, the bracero program was
developed to bring Mexican workers into the US to work on western
farms. However, as Mexicans and Mexican-Americans moved into
cities to find work, they were not always welcome.
*The most famous instance of racial violence against Hispanics was
a series of Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. The Zoot Suits that
gave the riots their names were distinctive baggy suits favoured
by some young Mexican-Americans, and were associated with a
culture of violence and wild living in the poor parts of many
southwestern cities. Worse, they were unpatriotic suits,
because the government had ordered to clothing manufacturers cut
back on the amount of cloth used in clothing in order to save it
for the war effort.
*On 3 June, 1943, a group of American sailors on leave in Los
Angeles ran into a group of young Mexican in Zoot Suits and got in
a fight. When word got back to the fleet, other sailors got
in taxis and began to seek out Hispanics in Zoot Suits to beat
up. When they could, they stripped off their Zoot Suits and
made bonfires of them. Similar riots spread to other
*Initially the media blamed the riots on Mexicans, but other
people, including Eleanor Roosevelt, said it simply showed a
larger problem caused by the poor conditions that poverty and
prejudice forced many Mexican-Americans to live in.
*On the other hand, Latinos served in the US military in large
numbers, particularly as a percentage of their portion of the US
population. They did not typically serve in segregated
units, although the 65th Infantry Regiment raised in Puerto Rico
was made up almost entirely of Latinos and some units recruited in
the Southwest had many Latino members.
*American Indians also served in World War II, particularly as it
was one way for young men from cultures that had traditionally
valued warfare to earn honor as warriors.
*Joseph Medicine Crow, of the Crow nation, became the last of his
tribe to earn the title of War Chief as, during World War II, he
performed the required four feats of ultimate bravery and
fearlessness. The first feat is to touch an enemy without killing
them, the second is taking an enemy’s weapon, the third is leading
a successful war party, and the fourth is stealing an enemy’s
horse, all of which he did while fighting the Nazis.
*Despite some social and other problems, the Home Front and its
amazing productivity allowed America to truly be the Arsenal of
Democracy that Franklin Roosevelt had hoped she could be, and did
supply the Allies with what they needed to win the war.
This page last updated 11 November, 2020.