The Road to World War II - An Overview

Japan’s sneak attack of December 7, 1941, on the United States caught Americans by surprise. The nation’s people and their leadership were caught off guard by what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “a day which will live in infamy.” Government leaders and any North Dakotans who followed current events, however, were not surprised that war with Japan came about; it was the nature of the attack that was the surprise.

Relations between the United States and Japan had been tense for some time. Japan openly declared that its intention was to create the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.” In order to fully industrialize, Japan needed huge supplies of iron ore, rubber, and oil - none of which it had. But its neighbors - China, French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies (Sumatra, Java, Borneo, New Guinea), Malaya - had what the Japanese coveted. In July of 1941 Japan took over French Indochina and seemed willing to risk war with Great Britain, the Netherlands, and even the United States, which owned the Philippines, to achieve its objectives.

The United States responded by freezing Japanese assets and cutting off Japan’s access to oil and mineral resources. Congress authorized the drafting of men into the army (the first peace-time draft) and approved funds to establish a two-ocean navy.

During the autumn of 1941, Japanese and American diplomats carried on negotiations to iron out differences between the two nations. Those discussions were continuing even as Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. “AIR RAID, PEARL HARBOR - THIS IS NO DRILL” came the message at 7:58 AM on Sunday, December 7, 1941. A sneak attack, and the United States was thrust into war.

The USS Arizona ablaze in Pearl Harbor. Courtesy of Department of Defense, U.S. Navy.

In Europe war had been going on since Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Two days later Great Britain and France declared war on Germany in defense of Poland. In the spring of 1940 German armies easily conquered Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, and northern France. In June Benito Mussolini’s Italy joined Hitler’s Germany, forming the Berlin-Rome Axis. In September Japan joined the Axis powers. Each nation promised that if one of the three got into war with the United States, the others would also.

Great Britain now stood alone in Europe (Russia had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany which would later be broken). Germany began massive bombing of London and other British cities.

Although as at the outbreak of World War I, the United States maintained neutrality, that neutral position became increasingly difficult. In late 1940 the United States helped Great Britain by trading to her 450 destroyers in exchange for 99-year leases to naval and air bases in British North America. In early 1941 Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act which empowered the president to sell or lease any defense articles to any country whose defense was important to the United States. America provided the enemies of the Axis with $50 billion in arms and food. As before American entry into World War I, the United States and Germany engaged in naval war. After a German submarine attempted unsuccessfully to sink the American destroyer Greer on September 4, 1941, the President ordered the navy to “shoot on sight” any German submarine. On October 31, 1941, a German sub sank the destroyer Reuben James, killing 115 American sailors.

Although the famous aviator from Minnesota, Charles Lindbergh, and North Dakota Senator Gerald P. Nye continued to call for the nation’s noninvolvement in the war, the naval war had already begun. After December 7, noninvolvement was impossible. The Pearl Harbor attack killed 2,403 and wounded 1,178 Americans.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change