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


In which John Green teaches you about World War II, a subject so big, it takes up two episodes. This week, John will teach you how the United States got into the war, and just how involved America was before Congress actually declared war. John will actually talk a little about the military tactics involved, and he’ll get into some of the weaponry involved, specifically the huge amount of aerial bombing that characterized the war, and the atomic bombs that ended the war in the Pacific.

Transcript Provided by YouTube:

00:00
Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course U.S. history, and today we’re going to talk
00:03
about a topic so huge to history buffs that we can only discuss a tiny, little fraction
00:08
of it. I am of course referring to paratroopering. No World War II.
00:12
World War II is the only historical event that has, like, its own cable channel. Well
00:16
I should say it used to have its own cable channel. These days the History Channel is
00:19
of course devoted primarily to lumberjacks and oh my gosh is that guy really going to
00:23
shoot an alligator. Who knew how nostalgic we could be for documentaries
00:26
about Joseph Stalin. Mr. Green, Mr. Green. Finally we get to the
00:29
good stuff: like Patton, and Rommel, and Churchill, and Eisenhower, Stalingrad, Gomer Pyle!
00:35
Oh I’m sorry to disappoint you, Me From the Past, but while Patton and Eisenhower
00:39
were Americans, Rommel was a German (or General Monty Montgomery’s dog).
00:44
Regardless, they were both from the green parts of not-America also no Americans fought
00:47
at the battle of Stalingrad, although we did talk about that in Crash Course World History.
00:51
And Gomer Pyle was a television character played by Jim Nabors. I believe that you mean
00:55
to refer to the journalist Ernie Pyle. intro
01:07
So here at CrashCourse we like to focus on causes and effects of wars rather than strategy
01:11
and tactics, but given the importance that World War II has in the American imagination,
01:16
we’re gonna discuss those a bit too today. We’re going to defy Maria von Trapp and
01:19
start before the very beginning, because America’s ideas about foreign policy were shaped by
01:24
two things: The Great Depression and World War I.
01:26
After the American experience of World War I, it’s not surprising that Americans were
01:30
just a smidge gun shy about involvement in foreign affairs. Seriously Stan? A gun pun?
01:35
Now? No. Now America actually came out of World War
01:38
I stronger than ever but man did a lot of people die for not much change.
01:43
I mean I guess the Treaty of Versailles sort of re-made Europe, but it didn’t make it
01:48
better. And the League of Nations was a flop and generally
01:50
there was a lot of disappoin ted idealism. The period of time between 1920 and the U.S.
01:54
entry into World War II has been called an age of isolationism, although that isn’t
01:58
100% accurate. I mean, for one thing the U.S. sponsored a
02:01
series of arms reduction negotiations that resulted in the Washington treaties limiting
02:05
the number of battleships that a country could possess.
02:07
But of course those negotiations led to a fat lot of nothing because the idea of a nation
02:12
limiting its battleships was a bigger joke even than the League of Nations, which I will
02:15
remind you, we invented and then did not join. Another way that the U.S. was less-than isolationist
02:21
was our pursuance of the Good Neighbor Policy with Latin America. So called because we were
02:25
not a good neighbor. Our idea was to be less intrusive in Latin
02:28
American politics, and we did remove troops from the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which
02:32
was something but “good neighbor” is a bit of an exaggeration.
02:36
I mean we continued to support repressive dictators like Somoza in Nicaragua and Batista
02:40
in Cuba. You know, we’d never really been great neighbors.
02:43
However, we were isolationist in the sense that the United States was much less involved
02:47
in world trade, largely because of the Depression, you know that meant that there wasn’t much
02:52
world trade, but also because of tariff policies. But there was also something isolationist
02:55
about the formal actions of Congress, like after Europe and Asia began to become belligerent
03:00
in the 1930s with Japan’s invasion of China, and Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, and the
03:05
rise of fascist dictators in Spain and, of course Germany, Congress responded by passing
03:10
a series of Neutrality Acts which banned the sale of arms to belligerents.
03:14
Even if they were really nice, tea-drinking belligerents who we were pals with.
03:17
And that points to another reason why people tend to regard this as a time of isolationist
03:21
sentiment, our old friend Eurocentrism. We were generally neutral in terms of foreign
03:25
intervention when it came to Europe. Popular groups, like America First with celebrity
03:30
members from Charles Lindbergh to E. E. Cummings cautioned against involvement in foreign affairs.
03:35
But they mostly meant European affairs. The U.S. didn’t officially get involved
03:39
in the war until two years after Hitler invaded Poland but America was deeply involved in
03:43
the European war before we actually sent troops. FDR really wanted to help the Allies, especially
03:49
the Brits, who after the French surrender in 1940 were the only ones actually fighting
03:53
the Nazis until 1941, when there were a whole lot of Russians also fighting them.
03:57
Even Congress recognized that the Nazis were a threat, and in 1940 it agreed to allow Cash
04:01
and Carry arms sales to Great Britain. By the way, “Cash and Carry” is the name
04:05
of a liquor store near Stan’s house, but anyway the sale of arms were “cash” sales
04:09
meaning that they were not paid for with loans or IOUs and the carry part meant that the
04:14
British would carry their own arms over, you know, to Britain.
04:17
It’s the difference between buying a pizza at a grocery store and getting it delivery,
04:20
except, you know, it’s not like that at all and I just want pizza.
04:24
Then, in September 1940 Congress created the nation’s first peacetime draft, taking the
04:28
next step toward involvement. And that was a huge deal because, you know, you don’t
04:32
muster an army with no desire to eventually use it.
04:35
By 1941, in spite of all our neutrality, FDR had pretty clearly sided with the Allies.
04:40
America became the “arsenal of democracy” with the Lend Lease Act authorizing military
04:44
aid to countries that promised to pay it back somehow after the war. We promise, we’ll
04:48
figure it out. So, the U.S. essentially gave billions of
04:51
dollars worth of arms and war material to Britain and, after the Nazis invaded in June
04:55
of 1941, to the USSR as well. And the U.S. also froze Japanese assets here
05:00
and basically ended all trade between America and Japan.
05:03
But of course the event that pushed us fully into the war happened on December 7, 1941
05:07
when Japanese pilots attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
05:11
187 aircraft were destroyed, 18 naval vessels were damaged or destroyed, and more than 2000
05:17
American servicemen were killed. FDR asked Congress for a declaration of war,
05:21
which they granted voting 477 to 1. And the day after that, Germany declared war on the
05:26
United States and World War II officially became a world war.
05:30
We almost always start the American story of World War II in Europe because, you know,
05:34
Hitler, so I’m going to start in the Pacific, where until 1944 there were actually more
05:38
American personnel deployed than in Europe. Things didn’t start well in the Pacific.
05:42
Let’s go to the ThoughtBubble. Perhaps worse than Pearl Harbor was the surrender
05:46
of 78,000 American and Filipino troops at Bataan. This was the largest surrender by
05:50
American troops in history and it resulted in thousands dying on the Bataan Death March
05:54
to prisoner of war camps where thousands more would die.
05:57
But in May of 1942 we protected Australia from the Japanese fleet by winning the Battle
06:01
of the Coral Sea, and then in June we won a huge victory at Midway island, midway between
06:06
Hawaii and Japan I guess, and probably named by historians.
06:10
The U.S. strategy in the Pacific has been called Island Hopping and it involved taking
06:13
Japanese controlled islands one at a time to be used as bases for bombers that could
06:18
then be used against Japan itself. It was a slow process and the fighting over these
06:23
jungle-y South Pacific islands was fierce and extraordinarily costly. The battle at
06:27
Guadalcanal went from August 1942 to February 1943 and they didn’t freeze like in Stalingrad,
06:33
but conditions weren’t much better. And now let’s switch to the European theater.
06:38
We call this the European war because we were fighting against Europeans and it ended in
06:42
Europe, but the first U.S. troops to fight against Nazis actually did so in North Africa,
06:46
so it’s kind of a misnomer. American weaponry was pretty poor but after
06:49
our initial invasion in North Africa in November 1942 we got into it, and by 1943 we and the
06:55
British defeated Rommel in the desert and we were ready to invade Europe, which should
06:59
have made Stalin happy because up to this point Russians had been doing the bulk of
07:03
the dying in the war. But Stalin wasn’t happy, first because he
07:06
was a mean and nasty person and those kinds of people are rarely happy, and secondly,
07:10
because rather than invading France and striking at Germany more directly, the Allies invaded
07:15
Sicily and Italy where we fought for most of 1943 and much of 1944 until finally, on
07:21
June 6th we joined some Brits and Canadians in invading Normandy on D-Day. And that was
07:27
the beginning of the end for the Nazis. Thanks, ThoughtBubble. Oh it’s time for
07:30
the Mystery Document already? Alright. The rules here are simple.
07:35
I read the Mystery Document and usually I get it wrong and I get shocked.
07:39
“They seemed terribly pathetic to me. They weren’t warriors. They were American boys
07:43
who by mere chance of fate had wound up with guns in their hands, sneaking up a death-laden
07:48
street in a strange and shattered city in a faraway country in a driving rain. They
07:53
were afraid, but it was beyond their power to quit. They had no choice. They were good
07:59
boys. I talked with them all afternoon as we sneaked slowly forward along the mysterious
08:04
and rubbled streets, and I know they were good boys. And even though they weren’t
08:08
warriors born to the kill, they won their battles. That was the point.”
08:12
Man, that is some good writing, Stan. By famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Pewwww. That
08:20
was me being a warrior. Pew, pew. I can’t even make finger guns. That’s-that’s
08:26
how much of a not-warrior I am. I’m a worrier. I knew it was Ernie Pyle for two reasons.
08:31
First, he’s talking about cities so it’s the European theatre. Secondly, he’s the
08:35
best European theatre American writer in World War II by far.
08:38
So while Americans did liberate Paris and were part of the final assault on Germany,
08:42
and also liberated a number of concentration camps, Russians did most of the fighting in
08:46
Europe, losing at least 20 million people, and in the end it was the Russians who captured
08:52
Berlin. Although the Nazis never really had a chance
08:53
to win the war after they started fighting the Russians and the Americans entered into
08:57
it, it didn’t actually end until May 8th or 9th, 1945 (depending on when you got the
09:02
news) And the war in the Pacific continued until
09:04
August. Japan surrendered unconditionally after the United States dropped an atomic
09:08
bomb on Hiroshima on August 6th and on Nagasaki on August 9th.
09:12
We don’t celebrate the end of World War II in the United States, and I guess this
09:15
is because we would have to decide whether to celebrate the end of the war in Europe
09:19
or in Japan. Or maybe it’s just because it’s difficult to celebrate the use of atomic
09:24
weapons. Atomic bombs were developed through the Manhattan
09:26
Project, so called because the bombs were partly invented in Chicago and then built
09:30
and tested in New Mexico. Trickery. That was the sort of covert thing the U.S.
09:34
used to do really well before we developed the Internet. Although we weren’t that good
09:38
at it since the Soviets did steal our technology and build a nuclear bomb like three years
09:42
later. The two atomic bombs that were eventually
09:44
dropped were the most destructive weapons the world had ever seen. The one dropped on
09:48
Hiroshima killed 70,000 people instantly and by the end of 1945 another 70,000 had died
09:54
from radiation poisoning. The bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki also
09:57
killed 70,000 people. In fact, the death toll from those two bombs was greater than the
10:02
number of American fatalities in the entire Pacific War.
10:05
And that leads to one of the most hotly debated questions in recent history: was the use of
10:09
atomic bombs justified or ethical? Those arguing against their use often point
10:13
out that the Truman administration had good evidence that Japan would surrender if they
10:17
were allowed to keep their emperor on the throne.
10:19
And some also point out that the primary targets were not military, although there were 40,000
10:24
troops stationed in Hiroshima. Others argue that the real reason the United
10:27
States dropped the bombs was to threaten the USSR, and prevent them from taking more territory
10:32
in the east. And then there’s the argument that using such a destructive weapon was morally
10:36
reprehensible because it was so destructive as to be qualitatively different from other
10:41
weapons. For a couple centuries, our weapons had had
10:43
the theoretical capability of eliminating all humans, but never before had it been so
10:48
easy. But others reply that dropping the bombs helped
10:51
save American lives. Some of Truman’s advisers worried that invasion of Japan would result
10:55
in 250,000 American deaths and at least that many Japanese deaths.
11:00
And that’s important to note because if there was one thing truly, horribly innovative
11:04
about World War II, it was bombing. Sure there was radar and jets, but they weren’t
11:09
nearly as significant as aerial bombardment, and by the time the a-bombs dropped, the idea
11:14
of precision bombing only military targets wasn’t an option, in part because bombing
11:19
was incredibly risky to planes and pilots. And by 1945, it was an acceptable and widespread
11:24
strategy to target civilians as part of a total war. In World War II perhaps 40% of
11:30
the estimated 50 million people killed were civilians.
11:32
Compare that with World War I, where it was only 10%.
11:35
We should be horrified that 140,000 people were killed in Hiroshima, but we should be
11:39
horrified by all the civilian attacks in World War II. 25,000 people died in Dresden, more
11:45
than 100,000 died in the firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945.
11:49
Thinking about Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs is important because it forces
11:53
us to consider our understanding of history. Part of why we say that using atomic bombs
11:57
was worse than conventional bombing was because we know what came after – the Cold War,
12:02
the threat of nuclear annihilation. From the present, the dawn of atomic warfare is indeed
12:07
terrifying. But people living at the time were living
12:09
amid a different kind of terror and they couldn’t have known that there would be a nuclear arms
12:14
race that threatened all of humanity. The Japanese didn’t look like they were
12:17
going to give up and people on both sides were dying every day, so before we pass judgment,
12:22
let’s try to put ourselves in the shoes of both the soldiers who were fighting, who
12:27
didn’t have to fight on mainland Japan, and the civilians who were killed by the bombs.
12:32
There’s no answer to be found there, but the opportunity of studying history is the
12:35
opportunity to experience empathy. Now of course we’re never going to know
12:38
what it’s like to be someone else, to have your life saved or taken by decisions made
12:43
by the Allied command. Studying history and making genuine attempts
12:46
at empathy helps us to grapple with the complexity of the world, not as we wish it were, but
12:51
as we find it. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week.
12:55
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