World War II Part 1: Crash Course US History #35


Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
U.S. history, and today we’re going to talk about a topic so huge to history buffs that
we can only discuss a tiny, little fraction of it. I am of course referring to paratroopering.
No World War II. World War II is the only historical event
that has, like, its own cable channel. Well I should say it used to have its own cable
channel. These days the History Channel is of course devoted primarily to lumberjacks
and oh my gosh is that guy really going to shoot an alligator.
Who knew how nostalgic we could be for documentaries about Joseph Stalin.
Mr. Green, Mr. Green. Finally we get to the good stuff: like Patton, and Rommel, and Churchill,
and Eisenhower, Stalingrad, Gomer Pyle! Oh I’m sorry to disappoint you, Me From
the Past, but while Patton and Eisenhower were Americans, Rommel was a German (or General
Monty Montgomery’s dog). Regardless, they were both from the green
parts of not-America also no Americans fought at the battle of Stalingrad, although we did
talk about that in Crash Course World History. And Gomer Pyle was a television character
played by Jim Nabors. I believe that you mean to refer to the journalist Ernie Pyle.
intro So here at CrashCourse we like to focus on
causes and effects of wars rather than strategy and tactics, but given the importance that
World War II has in the American imagination, we’re gonna discuss those a bit too today.
We’re going to defy Maria von Trapp and start before the very beginning, because America’s
ideas about foreign policy were shaped by two things: The Great Depression and World
War I. After the American experience of World War
I, it’s not surprising that Americans were just a smidge gun shy about involvement in
foreign affairs. Seriously Stan? A gun pun? Now? No.
Now America actually came out of World War I stronger than ever but man did a lot of
people die for not much change. I mean I guess the Treaty of Versailles sort
of re-made Europe, but it didn’t make it better.
And the League of Nations was a flop and generally there was a lot of disappoin ted idealism.
The period of time between 1920 and the U.S. entry into World War II has been called an
age of isolationism, although that isn’t 100% accurate.
I mean, for one thing the U.S. sponsored a series of arms reduction negotiations that
resulted in the Washington treaties limiting the number of battleships that a country could
possess. But of course those negotiations led to a
fat lot of nothing because the idea of a nation limiting its battleships was a bigger joke
even than the League of Nations, which I will remind you, we invented and then did not join.
Another way that the U.S. was less-than isolationist was our pursuance of the Good Neighbor Policy
with Latin America. So called because we were not a good neighbor.
Our idea was to be less intrusive in Latin American politics, and we did remove troops
from the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which was something but “good neighbor” is a
bit of an exaggeration. I mean we continued to support repressive
dictators like Somoza in Nicaragua and Batista in Cuba. You know, we’d never really been
great neighbors. However, we were isolationist in the sense
that the United States was much less involved in world trade, largely because of the Depression,
you know that meant that there wasn’t much world trade, but also because of tariff policies.
But there was also something isolationist about the formal actions of Congress, like
after Europe and Asia began to become belligerent in the 1930s with Japan’s invasion of China,
and Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, and the rise of fascist dictators in Spain and, of
course Germany, Congress responded by passing a series of Neutrality Acts which banned the
sale of arms to belligerents. Even if they were really nice, tea-drinking
belligerents who we were pals with. And that points to another reason why people
tend to regard this as a time of isolationist sentiment, our old friend Eurocentrism.
We were generally neutral in terms of foreign intervention when it came to Europe.
Popular groups, like America First with celebrity members from Charles Lindbergh to E. E. Cummings
cautioned against involvement in foreign affairs. But they mostly meant European affairs.
The U.S. didn’t officially get involved in the war until two years after Hitler invaded
Poland but America was deeply involved in the European war before we actually sent troops.
FDR really wanted to help the Allies, especially the Brits, who after the French surrender
in 1940 were the only ones actually fighting the Nazis until 1941, when there were a whole
lot of Russians also fighting them. Even Congress recognized that the Nazis were
a threat, and in 1940 it agreed to allow Cash and Carry arms sales to Great Britain.
By the way, “Cash and Carry” is the name of a liquor store near Stan’s house, but
anyway the sale of arms were “cash” sales meaning that they were not paid for with loans
or IOUs and the carry part meant that the British would carry their own arms over, you
know, to Britain. It’s the difference between buying a pizza
at a grocery store and getting it delivery, except, you know, it’s not like that at
all and I just want pizza. Then, in September 1940 Congress created the
nation’s first peacetime draft, taking the next step toward involvement. And that was
a huge deal because, you know, you don’t muster an army with no desire to eventually
use it. By 1941, in spite of all our neutrality, FDR
had pretty clearly sided with the Allies. America became the “arsenal of democracy”
with the Lend Lease Act authorizing military aid to countries that promised to pay it back
somehow after the war. We promise, we’ll figure it out.
So, the U.S. essentially gave billions of dollars worth of arms and war material to
Britain and, after the Nazis invaded in June of 1941, to the USSR as well.
And the U.S. also froze Japanese assets here and basically ended all trade between America
and Japan. But of course the event that pushed us fully
into the war happened on December 7, 1941 when Japanese pilots attacked the American
naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. 187 aircraft were destroyed, 18 naval vessels
were damaged or destroyed, and more than 2000 American servicemen were killed.
FDR asked Congress for a declaration of war, which they granted voting 477 to 1. And the
day after that, Germany declared war on the United States and World War II officially
became a world war. We almost always start the American story
of World War II in Europe because, you know, Hitler, so I’m going to start in the Pacific,
where until 1944 there were actually more American personnel deployed than in Europe.
Things didn’t start well in the Pacific. Let’s go to the ThoughtBubble.
Perhaps worse than Pearl Harbor was the surrender of 78,000 American and Filipino troops at
Bataan. This was the largest surrender by American troops in history and it resulted
in thousands dying on the Bataan Death March to prisoner of war camps where thousands more
would die. But in May of 1942 we protected Australia
from the Japanese fleet by winning the Battle of the Coral Sea, and then in June we won
a huge victory at Midway island, midway between Hawaii and Japan I guess, and probably named
by historians. The U.S. strategy in the Pacific has been
called Island Hopping and it involved taking Japanese controlled islands one at a time
to be used as bases for bombers that could then be used against Japan itself. It was
a slow process and the fighting over these jungle-y South Pacific islands was fierce
and extraordinarily costly. The battle at Guadalcanal went from August 1942 to February
1943 and they didn’t freeze like in Stalingrad, but conditions weren’t much better.
And now let’s switch to the European theater. We call this the European war because we were
fighting against Europeans and it ended in Europe, but the first U.S. troops to fight
against Nazis actually did so in North Africa, so it’s kind of a misnomer.
American weaponry was pretty poor but after our initial invasion in North Africa in November
1942 we got into it, and by 1943 we and the British defeated Rommel in the desert and
we were ready to invade Europe, which should have made Stalin happy because up to this
point Russians had been doing the bulk of the dying in the war.
But Stalin wasn’t happy, first because he was a mean and nasty person and those kinds
of people are rarely happy, and secondly, because rather than invading France and striking
at Germany more directly, the Allies invaded Sicily and Italy where we fought for most
of 1943 and much of 1944 until finally, on June 6th we joined some Brits and Canadians
in invading Normandy on D-Day. And that was the beginning of the end for the Nazis.
Thanks, ThoughtBubble. Oh it’s time for the Mystery Document already? Alright. The
rules here are simple. I read the Mystery Document and usually I
get it wrong and I get shocked. “They seemed terribly pathetic to me. They
weren’t warriors. They were American boys who by mere chance of fate had wound up with
guns in their hands, sneaking up a death-laden street in a strange and shattered city in
a faraway country in a driving rain. They were afraid, but it was beyond their power
to quit. They had no choice. They were good boys. I talked with them all afternoon as
we sneaked slowly forward along the mysterious and rubbled streets, and I know they were
good boys. And even though they weren’t warriors born to the kill, they won their
battles. That was the point.” Man, that is some good writing, Stan. By famous
war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Pewwww. That was me being a warrior. Pew, pew.
I can’t even make finger guns. That’s-that’s how much of a not-warrior I am. I’m a worrier.
I knew it was Ernie Pyle for two reasons. First, he’s talking about cities so it’s
the European theatre. Secondly, he’s the best European theatre American writer in World
War II by far. So while Americans did liberate Paris and
were part of the final assault on Germany, and also liberated a number of concentration
camps, Russians did most of the fighting in Europe, losing at least 20 million people,
and in the end it was the Russians who captured Berlin.
Although the Nazis never really had a chance to win the war after they started fighting
the Russians and the Americans entered into it, it didn’t actually end until May 8th
or 9th, 1945 (depending on when you got the news)
And the war in the Pacific continued until August. Japan surrendered unconditionally
after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6th and on Nagasaki
on August 9th. We don’t celebrate the end of World War
II in the United States, and I guess this is because we would have to decide whether
to celebrate the end of the war in Europe or in Japan. Or maybe it’s just because
it’s difficult to celebrate the use of atomic weapons.
Atomic bombs were developed through the Manhattan Project, so called because the bombs were
partly invented in Chicago and then built and tested in New Mexico. Trickery.
That was the sort of covert thing the U.S. used to do really well before we developed
the Internet. Although we weren’t that good at it since the Soviets did steal our technology
and build a nuclear bomb like three years later.
The two atomic bombs that were eventually dropped were the most destructive weapons
the world had ever seen. The one dropped on Hiroshima killed 70,000 people instantly and
by the end of 1945 another 70,000 had died from radiation poisoning.
The bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki also killed 70,000 people. In fact, the death toll
from those two bombs was greater than the number of American fatalities in the entire
Pacific War. And that leads to one of the most hotly debated
questions in recent history: was the use of atomic bombs justified or ethical?
Those arguing against their use often point out that the Truman administration had good
evidence that Japan would surrender if they were allowed to keep their emperor on the
throne. And some also point out that the primary targets
were not military, although there were 40,000 troops stationed in Hiroshima.
Others argue that the real reason the United States dropped the bombs was to threaten the
USSR, and prevent them from taking more territory in the east. And then there’s the argument
that using such a destructive weapon was morally reprehensible because it was so destructive
as to be qualitatively different from other weapons.
For a couple centuries, our weapons had had the theoretical capability of eliminating
all humans, but never before had it been so easy.
But others reply that dropping the bombs helped save American lives. Some of Truman’s advisers
worried that invasion of Japan would result in 250,000 American deaths and at least that
many Japanese deaths. And that’s important to note because if
there was one thing truly, horribly innovative about World War II, it was bombing.
Sure there was radar and jets, but they weren’t nearly as significant as aerial bombardment,
and by the time the a-bombs dropped, the idea of precision bombing only military targets
wasn’t an option, in part because bombing was incredibly risky to planes and pilots.
And by 1945, it was an acceptable and widespread strategy to target civilians as part of a
total war. In World War II perhaps 40% of the estimated 50 million people killed were
civilians. Compare that with World War I, where it was
only 10%. We should be horrified that 140,000 people
were killed in Hiroshima, but we should be horrified by all the civilian attacks in World
War II. 25,000 people died in Dresden, more than 100,000 died in the firebombing of Tokyo
in March of 1945. Thinking about Truman’s decision to drop
the atomic bombs is important because it forces us to consider our understanding of history.
Part of why we say that using atomic bombs was worse than conventional bombing was because
we know what came after – the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation. From the
present, the dawn of atomic warfare is indeed terrifying.
But people living at the time were living amid a different kind of terror and they couldn’t
have known that there would be a nuclear arms race that threatened all of humanity.
The Japanese didn’t look like they were going to give up and people on both sides
were dying every day, so before we pass judgment, let’s try to put ourselves in the shoes
of both the soldiers who were fighting, who didn’t have to fight on mainland Japan,
and the civilians who were killed by the bombs. There’s no answer to be found there, but
the opportunity of studying history is the opportunity to experience empathy.
Now of course we’re never going to know what it’s like to be someone else, to have
your life saved or taken by decisions made by the Allied command.
Studying history and making genuine attempts at empathy helps us to grapple with the complexity
of the world, not as we wish it were, but as we find it. Thanks for watching. I’ll
see you next week. Crash Course is made through the combined
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