The United States and World War II: From the Edge of Defeat to the Edge of Victory, 1939–1943

On the evening of November 28, 1943, the leaders of the Allied war effort—President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, and Premier Josef Stalin—discussed the world’s most destructive modern war. Dining at the Soviet embassy in Tehran, Iran, the “Big Three” moved quickly from a review of their current military operations to an animated exchange of views on the political organization of the postwar world. The choice of subject spoke volumes, for Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin assumed that they—and not the Germans and Japanese—would dominate the peace. At different times and in different ways the Allied anti-Axis coalition had moved by the end of 1943 from the edge of defeat to the edge of victory.

Four years earlier the visions of victory came from meetings in Berlin and Tokyo. The momentum for changing the world’s map rested with Nazi Germany, the Japanese Empire, and fascist Italy. Pursuing their visions of a new world order, the Axis states had tested the resolve of the Western democracies and the Soviet Union and found that resolve wanting. Between 1936 and 1939 Adolf Hitler, disregarding the cautious advice of his senior military officers, defied the Allies by remilitarizing the Rhineland (1936), annexing Austria (1938), and occupying Czechoslovakia (1938–1939). The Italians under Benito Mussolini had extended their African empire into Ethiopia without Western resistance, and the Germans and Italians had supported the victorious fascists in a civil war in Spain (1936–1939). In the Far East the Japanese government, dominated by the military, had used its armed forces to create a puppet state in Manchuria (1931) and had then opened a war of conquest against the Chinese Nationalist government (1937) in the name of civilizing China, ending European imperialism in Asia, and forming an Asian economic sphere that would feed and supply Japan.

Much to the glee of the Axis leaders, the aggression of the 1930s threw the potential anti-Axis coalition into disarray. The simultaneous pressure in both Europe and Asia seemed to present insoluble political and military problems for Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. After disappointing talks with the Western Allies, the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler in August 1939. The Tri-Partite Pact (1940) between Germany, Italy, and Japan pledged mutual assistance if an uncommitted nation (i.e., the United States) entered a war with any of the signatories, and in 1941 Japan and the Soviet Union signed a neutrality agreement. For the Axis powers the great imponderable in their strategic calculations was the United States, whose manpower and industrial resources for war they recognized. They assumed, however, that the United States could not muster the national will to fight a global, two-front war. The dinner conversation in Tehran would prove how wrong these calculations were, but in 1939 Hitler and his Japanese allies had every reason to doubt that the United States would disrupt their plans for a Thousand Year Reich and a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Despite tentative efforts by President Roosevelt to alert the American public to the danger of Axis aggression, Congress best represented public opinion when it passed a series of neutrality acts after 1935, acts designed to limit public and private financial and economic assistance to any belligerent. The acts assumed that the United States could follow isolationist policies that would prevent its entry into “foreign wars” and still protect its national interests and physical security. Reexamining their war plans in 1938, Army and Navy planners saw no political support for any strategy but the defense of the Western Hemisphere. In practical terms this area was the hemisphere north of the equator, the Pacific Ocean west to the International Date Line, the Atlantic Ocean east to Greenland, and the approaches to the Caribbean basin. In a new set of war plans, labeled RAINBOW, the planners examined a wide range of contingencies. Although the planners considered the possibility of having allies, they focused on the problem of hemispheric defense without allies against attacks by both the Japanese and Germans. It was an unhappy exercise. The Philippines and Guam could not be defended, and the planners concluded that the United States—even if it mobilized immediately—could defend its hemispheric security zone by itself only with great difficulty.

The German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the subsequent declarations of war by Great Britain and France ended the uncertainty about a European war, yet for a year the conflict did not sharply alter American defense policy. Although Roosevelt issued a declaration of national emergency on September 8, 1939, the administration supported programs to improve the readiness of only the regular Army and Navy, for it assumed the public would support no larger mobilization and that the Allies would finally stop Hitler by force and diplomacy, even without Russian assistance.

The stunning German conquests of Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries, and France in June 1940 brought a dramatic change to American policy. With only a battered Britain still in the war, the United States could no longer count on a balance of power in Europe to protect its own interests. After June 1940 the Roosevelt administration, always aware of the divisions in American public opinion, moved cautiously in the name of hemispheric defense toward policies that assisted Great Britain. The United States agreed to consult with Canada, an active belligerent, on the defense of the hemisphere’s northern frontier. It then wrested an agreement from its Latin American neighbors that a hemispheric coalition should block the transfer of French and British possessions in the Caribbean basin to the Axis, which might convert these colonies into military outposts. Sensitive to Churchill’s pleas for arms, Roosevelt in September 1940—with the reluctant approval of his military advisers—transferred fifty overage destroyers to the Royal Navy in exchange for base rights to eight naval stations from Newfoundland to Trinidad. The agreement increased the Royal Navy’s antisubmarine convoy force and improved the coverage of the U.S. Navy’s air and surface neutrality patrols. Less to the military’s liking was the president’s demand that the British be allowed to purchase scarce military equipment—including aircraft—originally ordered by the Army and Navy.

The fall of France and the start of the air-naval Battle of Britain brought new urgency to programs to improve America’s military strength, but the emergency actions did not immediately strengthen the nation’s military position or bring much assistance to the embattled British. Inhibited by divided opinion about intervention, Roosevelt, military planners, and Congress took only minimal or clearly popular steps to mobilize. Within a clear tradition of emphasis on hemispheric defense, Congress approved in July 1940 an emergency, expansionist “Two Ocean Navy” act to double the tonnage of the Navy’s combatant fleet. Although none of the new vessels could join the fleet until 1943, the 1940 authorizations included nine battleships, eleven Essex-class carriers, and forty-four heavy and light cruisers. Relying upon the fleet as the bastion against foreign troubles had been American policy since the days of Mahan. The complementary reliance upon air power was newer but no less compelling. In 1940 the Army Air Corps drafted plans to expand to fifty-four groups and 4,000 combat aircraft, then revised its estimates up to eighty-four groups and 7,800 combat aircraft. These plans also received governmental approval.

The most dramatic and controversial programs of 1940 were designed to enlarge the Army’s ground forces. Initially, the War Department General Staff, dominated by Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, did not favor a major manpower mobilization, since the regulars to train new units and adequate equipment were in short supply. Roosevelt and Congress, however, saw manpower mobilization as an essential act to awaken the public to the possibility of war, even if the immediate results of mobilization would be decreased readiness. Alerted for active duty in June 1940, National Guardsmen began to enter federal service for additional training in September. By June 1941 nearly 300,000 Guardsmen had swelled the ranks of the active Army. In the meantime, over 600,000 draftees joined them, for in September 1940 Congress passed the Selective Service and Training Act, the nation’s first peacetime draft. Supplemented by mobilized reserve officers and other new officers and enlistees, the new Army—the Army of the United States—mustered 1.2 million men by the summer of 1941. It was a force weakened, not strengthened, by manpower expansion and materiel shortages.

Hectored by strident advocates both for and against intervention in the European war, Roosevelt also found himself at odds with his senior military advisers (Marshall and Chief of Naval Operations Harold R. Stark) over the course of the readiness program. Aware that his own urge to help Britain was stronger than the public’s and deep in his third presidential election campaign, the president searched for acceptable ways to keep Britain in the war against Germany, the only alternative he saw to direct American participation. The consummate politician, FDR realized that military mobilization could not substitute for the possible deterrent effect of other American policies. When he ruled that the Army Air Corps should share new aircraft production on a fifty-fifty basis with the British, the AAC staff protested that this decision endangered the nation. The president replied simply, “Don’t ever let me see those charts again!”

Confident that his seven years as assistant secretary of the navy had made him a qualified strategist, the president concluded in June 1940 that American interests would be served if he deterred the Japanese from advancing upon the Allies’ colonial empires in Southeast Asia. Correctly guessing that the European war would prove too great a temptation to the Japanese, who coveted Asia’s oil and raw materials, Roosevelt ordered the fleet to the unfinished base at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii. When the admiral commanding the fleet later protested that permanently basing the fleet at Pearl Harbor actually reduced its readiness, FDR replaced him. Searching for some way to contain Japan—a policy that served the Allied war against Germany and also protected China and the Philippines—the president risked both increased criticism at home and Japanese belligerency abroad. In 1940 there were no good choices.

As 1941 dawned, the fragile anti-Axis coalition, still based on the continued belligerency of Great Britain, received several encouraging developments. In the United States FDR won reelection, and public opinion, however fatalistic, swung toward more active support of Great Britain, even at the risk of war. The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force had made the invasion of England a risk Hitler would not accept, and the Third Reich had once more turned its attention to Lebensraum in the east and an attack on the Soviet Union, its nominal ally. Despite savage submarine attacks upon its maritime commerce, Great Britain survived and even frustrated Italian designs for African hegemony. The British also destroyed part of the French fleet and ended the French military presence in the Middle East, thus retaining access to the resources of India and the oil-rich Arab lands. American planners watched these developments and soon shared FDR’s assessment that the British Empire had not yet lost the war. With the president’s approval, the time had come to talk with the British about America’s role should it become a belligerent.

From January to March 1941, the principal planners of the United States Army and Navy met with their British counterparts and hammered out the broad contours of an Allied strategy for victory in a war the United States had not yet entered. The Americans had already examined the relevant issues in drafting the Navy’s Plan DOG, which assumed a war with allies against all the Axis powers. The British planners, reflecting the judgment of Winston Churchill, had made a similar analysis. The major challenge was Hitler’s Germany, for only Germany had the manpower, industrial might, and military capability to ensure an Axis victory. Italy and Japan could not long survive with Nazi Germany destroyed. The defeat of Germany, therefore, received the highest priority. The ABC-1 Staff Agreement (March 1941) represented a military strategy that meshed with the established policies of the United States and Great Britain: i.e., that the course of world politics depended upon the mastery of Western Europe and the northern half of the Western Hemisphere. “Germany First” would be the centerpiece of Allied strategy.

Although FDR did not formally approve ABC-1, Army and Navy planners worked out the details of a “Germany First” strategy in War Plan RAINBOW 5. Without being precise about the place and timing of specific campaigns, the planners foresaw an offensive war that included naval operations to secure control of all critical seaways and to ruin the enemies’ seaborne commerce, strategic bombardment to destroy their air forces and warmaking capacity, the encouragement of resistance movements to erode their political control, and land campaigns to destroy the Axis ground forces. In its Victory Program plan completed in September, the Army estimated that the United States would require a wartime Army of 8.7 million men, divided into a ground army of 6.7 million capable of fielding 213 divisions (half armored or motorized) and an Army air force of 2 million and 195 air groups. The Army planners believed that three-quarters of this force would be available for overseas service. Planners of the Air Corps (soon to be renamed the U.S. Army Air Forces, or USAAF) drafted their own supplement to RAINBOW 5, known as AWPD-1. The planners listed all the tasks they expected the USAAF to perform but put their emphasis on the strategic bombardment of Germany, mounted from England and the Middle East. To conduct all the air tasks, the planners predicted an air force of 64,000 aircraft and 239 air combat groups, about half of which would be bombers. The highest priority in aircraft development was the creation of a very long-range bomber with a 4,000-mile range, a decision that eventually produced the B-29.

The war and FDR, however, confounded the buildup of the American armed forces, since the president still hoped he could avoid war by supporting the Allies and deterring Japan. Recognizing that Britain could not pay for American munitions, the administration and its congressional allies, buoyed by polls that the public favored military assistance to the British, won approval of the Lend-Lease Act in March 1941. Despite repayment provisions, the act further fused the United States to the Allied war effort and gave the British a claim to American war production uninhibited by their inability to pay. In May the administration extended Lend-Lease to the Chinese Nationalists with the faint hope that the Chinese would pin the Japanese army to the mainland of Asia. By November 1941, the cost of Lend-Lease programs had mounted to $13 billion, ten times the amount originally appropriated, and had disrupted delivery schedules to the American armed forces.

The war’s major development came in June, when Hitler gave the Allies their greatest strategic gift by invading the Soviet Union. Other than extending Lend-Lease aid to the Russians (transporting was quite a different problem), the United States could do little to assist the Soviet armed forces, whose introduction to the Blitzkrieg resulted in one of history’s most dramatic military disasters. Riding its euphoria and panzers as far as the approaches to Leningrad, Moscow, and the Donets river basin, the Wehrmacht had locked itself in battle with a foe of greater numbers and equal tenacity. His mind awash with historical analogies to the war against Napoleon, Churchill lauded the Russians despite their Communism, but Allied military analysts doubted whether the Soviets could stay in the war. They also warned that the Russo-German war removed the last real check upon Japanese expansionism into Southeast Asia. In fact, Japanese military planners were already hard at work on strategic concepts that included the United States’ possessions and forces as objectives.

The most immediate strategic challenge, however, was getting Lend-Lease equipment to England across an Atlantic Ocean patrolled by German U-boats (Unterseebooten), commanded by officers determined not to lose another Battle of the Atlantic as they had done in 1918. Although the British had formed convoys from the start of the war, the Royal Navy’s beleaguered escort forces could not stop U-boat “wolfpack” attacks from producing shocking losses of merchantmen. In the ABC-1 talks the Royal Navy asked for help, and, in the guise of defending neutral rights at sea, FDR gave it. Throughout 1941 the president expanded American naval operations in the Atlantic, and by December the United States was in an undeclared naval war with Germany. Roosevelt expanded the Navy’s patrol force to full fleet status, reinforced it from the Pacific Fleet, and gave Admiral Ernest J. King the command. To assist the British, the U.S. Navy began to convoy merchantmen as far east as Iceland and reported U-boat sightings to the Royal Navy; to protect its reconnaissance operations from Iceland, the United States garrisoned the island with a brigade of Marines. Despite Hitler’s demands for caution, German submarines in October hit one American destroyer and sank another.

The United States’ major strategic concern in November 1941 remained deterring Japan. Roosevelt believed he had warned the Japanese against attacking Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies. His military advisers and critics thought he had done nothing but provoke the war he wished to avoid. America and Japan moved toward war in the summer of 1941 when, against continued American warnings, Japan occupied critical military positions in southern French Indochina. Similar moves in 1940 had brought weak economic sanctions, but this time FDR froze Japanese assets and embargoed oil exports. Negotiations accelerated in activity but declined in hopefulness. American military planners believed the Japanese would strike, and they considered a naval raid on Pearl Harbor a possibility. Polishing their war plans, their Japanese counterparts went further and made the Pearl Harbor strike on the Pacific Fleet an essential part of their opening attacks, which included simultaneous campaigns against Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Malaya. Championed by the brilliant, indomitable commander of the Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Pearl Harbor strike summed up Japan’s basic strategy: a quick, limited war of conquest between India and the International Date Line, followed by a strategic defense and a negotiated peace with the Allies. The Japanese assumed that the Allies would exhaust themselves in the war with Germany and that the anti-imperialist United States would not wage total war to recover Asian colonies when it had not rescued China and had renounced its own claims to the Philippines.

Assessing FDR’s diplomacy and the mounting fear of a Japanese attack, American strategists in Washington worried most about the Philippines, whose defense rested upon the fragile capabilities of the Asiatic Fleet and an American-Philippine army, commanded by Douglas MacArthur. The planners doubted that the Philippines could be defended, but in July 1941 Roosevelt mobilized the Philippine armed forces and ordered the military chiefs to reinforce MacArthur’s command and the Asiatic Fleet. MacArthur unleashed his own persuasive prose to urge that the Philippines be defended. Despite “Germany First,” the Army and Navy in November 1941 had a reinforcement program underway; B-17s, additional submarines, artillery and antiaircraft units, and munitions were on their way to the Philippines. Japanese domination of the central Pacific highlighted the importance of the Hawaii-Australia-Malay Barrier route south of the equator. British and American planners estimated that any strategic defense of Allied interests in the Pacific would require holding the Malay Barrier-Australia line, although the Americans would not make a firm commitment to defend Singapore. Heated discussion on these matters in Washington, London, Manila, and Hawaii distracted American leaders from the dangers to Pearl Harbor. Faced with ambiguous political reporting and incomplete radio intelligence, the Roosevelt administration foresaw war but not its exact opening acts. Sailing in radio silence along the northern Pacific route, the Japanese navy brought its carrier strike forces undetected into Hawaiian waters.

Enduring Defeat, Planning for Victory

After the Allied rout in Burma in May 1942, General Joseph W. Stilwell spoke of the disaster in his theater, but his words applied to the entire American experience in the first six months of World War II: “I claim we got a hell of a beating . . . and it is humiliating as hell.” From the Sunday-morning attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) until the naval victory in the Battle of Midway (June 4–5, 1942), the United States saw its armed forces in the Pacific reel from one defeat to another as the Japanese conducted an Asian version of the Blitzkrieg and seized every one of their planned objectives at minimal cost and almost exactly according to schedule. The attack on Pearl Harbor was so stunning that its impact sent a shudder throughout America, unifying a confused public (“Remember Pearl Harbor!”) and propelling the nation into war with Japan. Germany and Italy then declared war on the United States, convinced that the new enemy would spend itself in the Pacific.

Whatever its shortcomings in political acumen and technical execution, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ensured that the Pacific Fleet—the only major threat to Japan’s strategic design—would not interfere with operations in Asia and the western Pacific. Columns of oily smoke and flame rose above the blasted anchorages and air stations of Oahu; in one morning the United States lost 2,500 servicemen, 200 aircraft, five battleships, and three other ships. Eight more vessels suffered battle damage. The only comforts were that American soldiers, sailors, and Marines had fought back with ferocity and that the Japanese had missed three carriers and their escorts, which had been at sea convoying reinforcements to the island outposts around Hawaii; furthermore, the Japanese had not done serious damage to the fleet’s fuel farms and maintenance facilities. But the physical wreckage was bad enough, and the psychological wreckage reached all the way to Washington.

Japan’s simultaneous attacks on other Allied targets proceeded with shocking speed, especially since uninformed Americans thought the Japanese armed forces were inferior copies of their European models. Strategic and tactical skill, significant advantages in both the numbers and quality of aircraft and warships, and eleven divisions of hardened soldiers gave the Japanese offensive the appearance of invincibility. British Commonwealth forces lost Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, and Burma, while outmatched Allied naval forces could only delay the conquest of the Netherlands East Indies. Fanning out from military bases in the central Pacific, the Japanese seized Guam and Wake Island and moved south toward Australia through New Britain and New Guinea and the Solomons to the east. For the United States the fall of the Philippines produced special agonies, for, in the face of disheartening odds, the Filipino-American forces actually resisted until early May 1942, but they could be neither withdrawn nor reinforced.

The defense of the Philippines depended upon the Asiatic Fleet, the Far East Air Force (FEAF) of about 140 aircraft, 31,000 American and Filipino regulars, 100,000 Filipino levies, and the fertile brain of Douglas MacArthur. None proved adequate to meet the Japanese invasion. Through command lapses that still defy explanation, the majority of the FEAF bomber and fighter force burned to junk on the ground from a bombing attack on December 8. The remaining planes and the Asiatic Fleet could not stop invasions throughout December in both northern and southern Luzon, and the Navy fell back to join the Anglo-Dutch squadron defending the Malay Barrier. MacArthur himself did not enjoy one of his finest hours in command, for, alternating between romanticism and despair, he threw his feeble ground forces against the Japanese army rather than retreat immediately to the Bataan peninsula according to plan. By the time his battered forces eventually reached Bataan, they had already suffered serious losses; more important, they had abandoned the food, supplies, and munitions that might have prolonged their resistance or at least reduced their subsequent suffering. Under field conditions that beggar the mind, the Philippine army fought until early April 1942. Disease, malnutrition, and ammunition shortages doomed Bataan’s staunch defenders. Their comrades on Corregidor Island resisted an additional month, and then General Jonathan Wainwright, who assumed command after FDR ordered MacArthur to Australia, surrendered the remaining forces throughout the Philippines. Thousands of American and Filipino servicemen and civilians faded into the mountains to form guerrilla units that harassed the Japanese for four years. Wainwright cabled Washington: “With profound regret and with continued pride in my gallant troops, I go to meet the Japanese commander. Good-bye, Mr. President.”

As the Philippines fell, the Japanese and the Allies raced toward the last unconquered outposts along the periphery of the eastern line the Japanese intended to defend. The U.S. Army had already dispatched over 100,000 ground and air troops to the island line from Hawaii to Australia, and its planners foresaw using Australia as the base for an advance against the islands of the Malay Barrier, the “soft underbelly” of the Japanese Empire. Having promised “I shall return,” MacArthur had begun to organize the counteroffensive, but his forces and those of his Australian counterparts needed time, and only the Navy could buy it. After Pearl Harbor, FDR changed the Navy’s leadership, appointing Admiral King to the dual position of fleet commander and chief of naval operations. FDR sent Chester W. Nimitz to Pearl Harbor to command the Pacific Fleet and all other naval activities in the Pacific. Nimitz’s ability to stop the Japanese centered on only four carriers and their escorts. This force raided Japanese islands in the central Pacific, and two carriers delivered a squadron of AAF B-25 medium bombers close enough to Japan to stage a dramatic raid on Tokyo on April 18. The initiative, however, remained with the Japanese. The Navy had one closely guarded advantage: its radio interception, decoding, and radio traffic analysis skills gave it special insights into Japanese plans and deployments.

In the spring of 1942 the Japanese moved simultaneously in three directions—toward the Aleutians in the northern Pacific, across the central Pacific, and against the remaining Allied outposts on New Guinea and in the Solomon Islands. The grand design was to cut the supply line to Australia and engage the U.S. fleet in decisive battle. (The Aleutian attack was a ruse.) At the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 3–8, 1942) a U.S. Navy task force with two carriers fought a confused battle with a Japanese invasion force in the first major sea engagement in which airplanes bore the offensive burden and the fleets never saw one another. The Americans lost one carrier, but the Japanese called off their fleet. A month later Admiral Yamamoto sortied with the Combined Fleet to capture Midway and draw Nimitz’s three remaining carriers into a decisive battle. Forewarned by his intelligence experts, Nimitz committed his naval aviation against the Japanese carrier force on June 4. The Japanese fleet proved difficult to locate, and the squadrons arrived over their targets at varied times and already low on gas. Three torpedo squadrons attacked without fighter cover and perished, but their attack diverted the Japanese fighters, which did not intercept three following divebomber squadrons. The Americans caught the Japanese carriers in the process of refueling and rearming their planes and turned three of them into exploding, sinking pyres. The battle later cost each fleet another carrier. Japanese losses in pilots, planes, and carriers meant that the Combined Fleet no longer had any appreciable offensive edge over the Pacific Fleet, however reduced. For the moment the Pacific war hung in the balance.

As the American armed forces and public opinion reeled under the news from the Pacific, the Roosevelt administration rallied to build the diplomatic, political, and strategic foundations for ultimate victory. A cautious Wilsonian, FDR wanted a clear statement of Allied war aims that would appeal to the American people. In August 1941, he negotiated with Churchill an idealistic document, known as the Atlantic Charter, that branded fascism a menace to all mankind. FDR’s own “Four Freedoms” further identified the basic human values for which the Allies were fighting. In January 1942, he persuaded the British, Russians, and Chinese to sign the Declaration of the United Nations, a statement that pledged the Allies to pursue total victory (and no separate peace treaties) to the limits of their means in order “to defend life, liberty, and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands.” The foreign signatories viewed the statement as part of the price of American participation, but FDR viewed it as not only an instrument to mobilize home-front support, but a guide for American diplomacy and strategy.

Translating a policy of total victory into strategic plans proved difficult for the Americans and British and nearly impossible in collaboration with the Russians and Chinese. The ABC-1 statement about defeating “Germany First” seemed sensible, and neither the Americans nor the British ever strayed far from this position. Nevertheless, the orchestration of the war against Germany and Japan in terms of the timing and geographic emphasis of military operations provided ample opportunities for disagreement and strategic negotiations. These opportunities received their first full examination at an Anglo-American conference in Washington in December 1941–January 1942, a conference attended by Roosevelt, Churchill, and their principal military advisers. The British had a far more precise strategic vision than their American counterparts: defeat Germany by bombing, internal subversion, aid to the Russians, and military operations along the vulnerable frontiers of Festung Europa. Reverting to their traditional approach to defeating continental enemies, the British wanted to avoid a direct confrontation with a full-strength Wehrmacht in northern Europe until this confrontation carried little risk of a 1914–1918 stalemate. Instead they urged operations in the Mediterranean theater, where they were already engaged and where their scarce naval, air, and ground forces had shown some ability to check the Germans and Italians. Churchill stressed that the Mediterranean theater offered many strategic opportunities, since the African littoral could be wrested from the Vichy French forces in Morocco and Algeria and the German-Italian army campaigning in the Libyan-Egyptian area against the British 8th Army. Churchill argued that a 1942 campaign in this area would divert German troops from Russia and strengthen the British war effort. What he did not say was that this campaign would be British-commanded (thus presumably using the greatest Allied expertise in generalship) and help restore the integrity of the British Empire, which Churchill desperately wanted to preserve.

The American military planners found the British position unappealing and pressured FDR not to accept Churchill’s strategy. The Army representatives, equally knowledgeable about World War I, doubted that the Allies could avoid a major campaign against the Wehrmacht in France, accepting even the most optimistic estimates of the Russian contribution. Strategic bombing, which the Army planners favored, was an unproved war winner, but at least it would support an invasion. The impact of subversion by resistance movements was equally uncertain. And operations in Scandinavia and the Mediterranean seemed unlikely to bleed the Wehrmacht in quantities that justified the commitment. The Army planners, with the notable exception of Dwight D. Eisenhower, also warned FDR that British strategy seemed designed more to preserve the empire than to defeat the Germans, and they feared that the British would fight only for narrow national interests. In addition, Admiral King, an Anglophobe, urged that the war against Japan should not be delayed by the “Germany First” strategy.

The Washington conference produced no firm commitments to future operations other than that the Allies should work together to mount a bombing campaign and antisubmarine effort. In principle the Americans agreed to Churchill’s “tightening the ring” strategy of limited operations, but they approved no specific operations. After the conference, however, the Army’s planners proposed a more detailed strategy for 1942–1943. The U.S. Army ground and air forces would deploy to England (BOLERO) in order to prepare for two possible expeditions to the Continent. An invasion in 1942 (SLEDGEHAMMER) would occur if the Russians appeared to be on the verge of defeat or the Hitler regime was weakened by internal upheaval. More likely was a 1943 invasion (ROUNDUP) that would throw forty-eight divisions (thirty American) onto the Continent for a massive campaign against the Wehrmacht. Examining the implications of these operations, the British responded that they did not think Allied cargo and amphibious assault shipping could meet the demands of this strategy; and, equally perceptive, they did not believe that the U.S. Army could raise and train an air and ground force adequate to give the Allies the necessary edge to guarantee victory without prohibitive losses.

In deciding where to strike first and in what force, FDR’s viewpoint proved critical. From his perspective, coalition and domestic politics played a larger role than strategic theory. First of all, FDR recognized that his commitment to a “second front” (wherever it might be) would play a role in the Allies’ continued will to fight, and he placed the highest priority on Allied solidarity, both in waging the war and designing the peace. Always the man of action rather than of theory or long-range planning, FDR wanted to commit the American armed forces in 1942 against both Japan and Germany and in ways more dramatic than weak bombing raids and naval warfare. His politico-strategic sense was sound, sounder than his military advisers’, who recognized the role of “politics” but thought it meant elections and party advantage. FDR had no desire for the Democrats to lose the congressional elections of 1942, but his purposes were larger. He feared that inaction in 1942 would produce domestic pressure to abandon the “Germany First” strategy and endanger the administration’s ability to mobilize the home front for total war. Influenced by Churchill’s golden rhetoric and alarmed by his Army planners’ insistence on a real SLEDGEHAMMER, the president in July 1942 made two critical commitments: to send American divisions to French North Africa along with the British and to allow a modest counteroffensive in the south Pacific. In effect, FDR’s decision meant that a major invasion of France would have to wait until 1944. His decision pleased the British, the Navy, and General MacArthur, who had his own strategic designs and his own political base among the Republican Party and the press.

Dealing with the British in 1942 forced the Americans to organize themselves for coalition operations and for interservice cooperation, neither skills in which the American armed forces were very advanced. The organizational arrangements they created lasted beyond the war. To advise the president, the senior service commanders created the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), which included obvious members like General Marshall and Admiral King. When Admiral Stark lost his post as chief of naval operations to King, the new CNO became the only Navy representative, but FDR soon appointed a personal chief of staff and ad hoc chairman of the JCS, Admiral William D. Leahy, a former CNO and trusted friend. On the Army side, General Marshall urged the equal participation of General H.H. “Hap” Arnold, his deputy chief of staff for air and commanding general, USAAF. Arnold’s participation seemed justified by the assumed role of air power and the independent status of the Royal Air Force. When the American military “big four” met with the British, the JCS became part of the Combined Chiefs of Staff; more important, the CCS created its own Anglo-American staff system to study plans and operations directed by the CCS. For actual management of operations—and for strategic recommendations—the CCS agreed on further integration. The American and British organized their field forces as both combined (all Allied) and joint (all services) in each geographic theater. The commander’s nationality and service would be determined by the nature of the war in the theater and which nation would provide the bulk of the forces.

In practice, only in the European-Mediterranean theaters did the Allies create a truly cooperative command system, and even there national and civilian-military divisions on strategy surfaced throughout the war. On the mainland of Asia the two principal Allied commanders, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, dominated strategy, with minor (and frustrated) American influence exercised by General Stilwell and the air commander, General Claire Chennault. In the Pacific, where only the Australians and New Zealanders provided significant non-American forces, the CCS accepted two American commanders, MacArthur in the southwest Pacific area and Nimitz in the Pacific Ocean areas, which included the south Pacific, central Pacific, and northern Pacific. Neither MacArthur nor Nimitz proved very ecumenical in their management of the war. Although both commanded joint and combined forces at some point in the war, MacArthur and Nimitz ran their theaters with Army and Navy staffs respectively. Their personal preferences reinforced service predispositions on strategy. Selectively encouraged by Marshall and King, MacArthur and Nimitz both urged additional American commitments to the war upon Japan, but they had different ideas about just what sort of war that should be. MacArthur favored an Army-USAAF advance through the large jungle islands toward the Philippines, in which ground-based air and Army and Australian divisions would carry the war. Nimitz thought in terms of fleet actions and amphibious operations across the central Pacific in the best War Plan ORANGE tradition. By appeasing both MacArthur and Nimitz, the JCS remained decisive in shaping Pacific operations, while FDR ensured that the war on Japan did not jeopardize “Germany First” by holding a veto over JCS plans.

Mobilization and Opportunity

America’s entry into World War II meant that the world’s most powerful economy had joined the Allied cause, and from the beginning of the war the Roosevelt administration intended to make the United States the anti-Axis coalition’s “Arsenal of Democracy.” In crude terms the United States preferred to spend dollars, not lives, and to place forces in the field that enjoyed superiority in both the technical quality and quantity of their military equipment and supplies. America’s farms and factories could support not only the nation’s own armed forces but those of the British Empire, the Soviet Union, Nationalist China, and any other ally (like the Free French and Free Poles) who wanted to take the field. In the case of the British, the United States also bolstered a domestic economy stretched to poverty levels by the war effort, for British civilian morale and industrial productivity were important to the Axis defeat. In the broadest national terms the “Arsenal of Democracy” approach was successful, for the United States spent more money on the war ($350 billion in direct expenditures) than the other major belligerents but suffered the fewest war-related military deaths (405,399) among its allies and foes. Removed by distance from the fighting as it was, its civilian casualties were trivial. During the war it placed a smaller proportion of its population in uniform than the other major belligerents, and in 1945 in both absolute and relative terms its economy remained the world’s strongest.

American strategy for a two-front war, of course, required a manpower mobilization that in absolute numbers exceeded all previous national experience. Between December 1941 and December 1946, more than 16 million Americans wore uniforms, approximately 11 million as members of the Army, 4 million as sailors, 669,000 as Marines, and 350,000 in women’s military units. When the war ended, around 12 million Americans were still serving, of whom 266,000 were women. The major instrument for mobilizing manpower was the Selective Service System; it was already functioning on the day of Pearl Harbor, and a year later all formal volunteering for the armed forces ended by law. The draft legislation by the end of 1942 required that all males ages eighteen to sixty-four register, but in practice the upper age limit for service was set at forty-four, then dropped to thirty-eight. The Selective Service System registered 36 million males but inducted only 10 million members of the military pool. The majority of men rejected (6.4 million) had medical defects that would not have spared them from service in other nations. The draft officers found only 510,000 registrants absolutely disqualified for service. In sum, the United States put about one-sixth of its total male population into uniform.

The manpower mobilization forced the armed services under political pressure to drop or modify their policies on the admission and assignment of ethnic minority males, who could be drafted, and women, all volunteers. The largest minority in service was African-American. Before the war’s end, 650,000 African-Americans had joined the air and ground armies. Another 167,000 black men became sailors (and thirteen naval line officers), and 19,000 joined the Marine Corps. Americans of Latino descent served throughout the armed forces, including senior officers, and numbered an estimated 350,000. Mexican migrant workers added 125,000 men to the ranks. Chinese, Koreans, and Filipinos of American citizenship joined all the services and often joined special forces and intelligence units.

Americans of Japanese ancestry born in the mainland states and Hawaii (Nisei) prized their citizenship and bristled at accusations of disloyalty, accusations that sent 110,000 family members (about 62 percent citizens) to barren relocation camps in 1942. Hawaiian Japanese in 1943 rushed to join a token unit, the 100th Infantry Battalion, raised in part to send young, dissident Nisei to the mainland. The battalion grew to become the 442d Regimental Combat Team, which won unparalleled honors in the war against Germany. The “Go For Broke” Nisei provided an estimated 10,000 officers and men for a unit of 4,500 authorized billets. The regiment suffered 717 combat deaths and collected almost 10,000 Purple Hearts for wounds. Many GIs bore more than one wound and hospital trips, which explains some of the soft statistics. (A monument to all Nisei service personnel lists 16,163 individual names, including 37 women.) Members of the regiment received over 5,000 decorations for valor, and the 442nd RCT received eight unit citations.

For multiculturalism, the 298th Infantry Regiment, Hawaiian National Guard, set the standard. It included prewar Guardsmen and new soldiers from the Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese, Mexican, Polynesian, haoli (white) and hapa (mixed race) communities of the islands. The regiment served on security duties in the South Pacific during 1943–1944.

Between 1906 and 1935 more than 150,000 Filipinos came to the United States, principally to serve as farm workers in Hawaii and California. Ineligible for naturalization under the existing laws, Filipinos could not join the armed forces unless born in the United States. Ironically, Filipinos could enlist in the Philippine Scouts, part of the American colonial army. The valiant service of the Scouts in a losing cause convinced Congress to change the law in 1942 and allow Filipino “aliens” to enlist and in 1943 to use service as a path to citizenship. Although the Army created an infantry regiment, separate infantry battalion, and airborne reconnaissance battalion, between 1943 and 1945 Filipino soldiers could be found throughout the Sixth and Eighth Armies in the southwest Pacific. They performed valuable service in the liberation of the Philippines, 1944–1945. An estimated 400,000 Filipinos served in the U.S. armed forces, the Army of the Commonwealth of the Philippines, in the Philippine Scouts, and in the guerrilla units formed by the U.S. Army Forces Far East.

Federal personnel planners urged the services to recruit women for an estimated 400,000 jobs that would free males for combat service. Before the war ended an estimated 350,000 women had donned uniforms for temporary, noncombat jobs. About half of them served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), the only service units other than nurses to go overseas. More than 6,500 WAACs were black women. The Army and Navy expanded their nursing corps to 14,000, who served in all overseas theaters. The Navy and Marine Corps enlisted almost 100,000 women auxiliaries. Although not technically military, the 1,900 female aviators of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) ferried USAAF aircraft between stateside bases, and thirty-eight died in crashes.

Native Americans, most of them volunteers from reservations, added 25,000 warriors to the services, with 22,000 going to the Army. One-fifth of the 45th Infantry Division, Oklahoma National Guard, came from residents of the former Indian Territory, populated by the displaced “civilized tribes” from east of the Mississippi. Texas and southwestern National Guard units included Pimas, Kiowas, Apaches, Comanches, and Navajo. The 32nd Infantry Division, Wisconsin National Guard, included hundreds of Great Lakes tribal members.

In theory, the armed forces assigned members on the basis of character, education, trainability, aptitude, and physical qualifications. African-Americans faced racial prejudices that limited assignments. These racial assumptions held that blacks could not and should not command whites. Blacks lacked technical aptitudes. Either because of slavery or racial characteristics, blacks would not fight and die for the United States, which ignored a good deal of history. Educated blacks served only to challenge Jim Crow barriers, which was partially true. Most blacks could serve usefully in labor units. The war put a lie to all these assumptions, although it is also true that in 1941–1945 black enlisted personnel, mostly drafted, came from the undereducated south.

Only one-third of black GIs served abroad, the largest number (132,000) in Europe, 1944–1945. About 50,000 black soldiers served in 22 combat units in Europe, the bulk of them in the 92d Infantry Division in Italy, 1943–1945, with uneven success and poisoned by interracial friction among its officers. The most notable service came from all-black tank, tank destroyer, artillery, and truck battalions of the “Red Ball Express.” In the infantry replacement crisis of 1944–1945, 4,500 black GIs volunteered to serve as replacement infantry platoons in white companies in ten different divisions. The experience did not test real integration, which would have been the color-blind assignment of black officers and NCOs.

The most telling experience was the formation of the four-squadron 332d Fighter Group (“The Red Tails”) and the 477th Medium Bomber Group. Both groups came from the USAAF pilot-training school at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. The USAAF did not welcome this “experiment,” but it faced stubborn pressure from white, urban northern Democrats and black civil rights leaders. A handful of white officers, notably Colonel Noel Parrish, supported the mission. Eventually, 450 Tuskegee fighter pilots flew 15,000 sorties against the Luftwaffe. Sixty-six died in aerial combat over Germany and Italy. The 332nd group commander, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (USMA 1936) became the first black general in the U.S. Air Force.

The Navy and Marine Corps made more limited steps in opening their ranks to ethnic minorities, but blacks faced the greater challenges toward integration. In principle, the Navy could assign black sailors to any billet, not just as stewards, but in reality the majority of black sailors served in shore depot, construction, and base service units. They also suffered the greatest casualties ashore: 202 sailors killed and more than 300 injured in the 1944 ammunition dump explosion at Port Chicago, California. Nevertheless, pressured by Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal, the Navy created all-black crews for a destroyer escort, a patrol craft, and twenty-five service ships, to demonstrate the broad skills of black sailors. The Marine Corps organized two defense battalions and sixty-two depot and ammunition companies, many of which saw rear area combat on Pacific islands during 1944–1945.

The armed forces exploited cultural diversity against foes that worshiped “purity.” One innovation by the Marine Corps was to use Navajo tribesmen to send rapid, secure tactical radio voice messages. The U.S. Army had experimented in World War I using Choctaw “codetalkers” and employed Comanches in the same role in the European war, 1944–1945. The Marine Corps created its “codetalkers” after Japanese and Navajo linguists, most of them missionaries, convinced Navy-Marine Corps communications security officers that no Japanese could understand or duplicate Navajo, an archaic tonal language with no alphabet. Some Japanese, however, could speak some variety of American English. Eventually, 429 Navajo “codetalkers” directed air and artillery strikes and made urgent position reports in the Pacific war. The U.S. Army Military Intelligence Service recruited and trained more than 6,000 Americans of Japanese and Chinese descent to serve as interpreters and translators for the war with Japan. All the services benefited from their courage and imaginative missions from Burma to New Guinea.

The “Arsenal of Democracy” policy meant that the armed services did not have an unlimited call upon the nation’s manpower (even those who met service standards), for the policy required a motivated, capable industrial and agricultural work force. Manpower experts in the federal government in 1942 estimated that the war effort would require a military and civilian work force of around 60 million from a total population of 135 million. (The actual work force in 1945 numbered 73 million.) Enlarging the work force—as long as the armed forces did not exceed 15 million—did not prove especially troublesome. When the munitions industry began to expand in 1940, there were 7 million unemployed American workers. As these Americans entered the military and civilian war work, they were joined by another 7 million Americans who had not worked before. The prospect of war work produced a vast national internal migration; retirees, women, and blacks appeared in vast numbers on the assembly lines, and impoverished farmers and agricultural workers from the south and prairie states moved to industrial complexes in the east, the midwest, and Pacific states. The industrial work force expanded by 10 million, and the agricultural work force declined by 5 million.

Placing the right numbers of people with the right skills in war work taxed the Roosevelt administration, however, since it and Congress refused to conscript war workers. The government, instead, depended upon wage incentives to attract workers. Uncontrolled, this approach did not work well, for war industries bid against one another for skilled workers, and worker turnover early in the war damaged productivity in critical industries. The strongest element of compulsion in mobilizing civilian labor was the provision for the Selective Service System to grant occupational deferments, and in the course of the war it provided deferments for over 5 million workers. The inefficiency of wage incentives, however, convinced the government to take greater direct control of manpower policy, and in early 1942 two new agencies, the War Manpower Commission and the National War Labor Board, assumed responsibility for coordinating government-industrial relationships and policies. Both agencies established programs to train, attract, and keep war workers on the job, but neither succeeded in injecting any substantial compulsion into the labor supply system.

The government rejected “work or fight” programs and refused to approve laws to outlaw strikes or the right of individual workers to choose their own jobs. Labor unions and the farm lobby proved powerful influences upon national policy; for example, the tobacco industry managed to have itself labeled “critical” to the war effort, thus securing deferments for 2 million workers. The civilian labor managers enjoyed two limited successes, curbing military demands for more men and bringing some uniformity to wage policies, which dampened labor pirating. They were more successful in establishing training programs for undermanned trades (e.g., metalworking) and in securing better working conditions. Fortunately, the unmobilized labor force of 1941 and the wage incentive policy combined to provide the “Arsenal of Democracy” with adequate war workers. World War II provided a boon for the American worker, whose wages during the war increased 68 percent while the cost of living increased only 23 percent. On the basis of income distribution changes within the population during the war, fully one-third of Americans moved into the middle class, and their reborn optimism, new skills, and unspent savings provided the foundation of postwar prosperity.

Mobilizing labor for war provided ample challenges for the Roosevelt administration, but industrial mobilization and the production of war materiel made labor problems pale by comparison. Nevertheless, the government hammered out its basic policies by 1943. Many of the technical problems of military procurement were well known from the World War I experience. The barriers to effective mobilization were more political than technical, although shortages of both raw materials and industrial plants slowed mobilization. The war did not end the deeply held beliefs about the American economy that had characterized the New Deal years and shaped national politics in the 1930s. Economic planners, farmers, labor and consumer groups, and the intellectual coalition of government administrators and academics feared that America’s corporate and financial leaders would use the war to curb the federal government’s power to push the economy toward full employment and a wider distribution of wealth. Some business leaders and their Republican allies did indeed see the war as such an opportunity, but the majority of business leaders simply did not want the wartime emergency to be an excuse for extending permanent government control, which they thought would ruin their postwar ability to do business as market-oriented, profit-making corporations. The War and Navy Departments tended to favor the business point of view, since they wanted industry to provide the weapons of war as quickly as possible in enormous quantities, and they believed that reform of the American economy would inhibit the war effort. Civilian analysts estimated that the Army’s “Victory Program” would cost $150 billion. The Navy’s early wartime estimates were no less breathtaking. FDR himself changed his own appreciation of the military’s needs. Before the fall of France he saw no need for urgency, but in January 1942 he told Congress that the United States would need to produce in the next two years 185,000 aircraft, 110,000 tanks, and 55,000 antiaircraft guns. Lend-Lease produced additional demands upon the “Arsenal of Democracy,” and before the war’s end the United States had provided its allies with 37,000 tanks, 792,000 trucks, 43,000 aircraft, and 1.8 million rifles.

Amid much political bargaining the government established its basic policy for industrial mobilization before Pearl Harbor. That policy assumed that the war effort would depend upon the profit motive and corporate leadership to spur industrial expansion. Government regulation would be minimal and come only when political pressure or business uncooperativeness demanded action. Certainly the military would not determine economic policy, since such an approach was politically unacceptable and neglected the importance of national interests beyond victory in World War II. Instead, nonmilitary agencies would determine the relationship between immediate military requirements (American and Allied), domestic needs, the available resources, and the structure of the economy. Tested in 1940–1941, when munitions production doubled, the government thought it had found a formula for spurring the conversion of an expanded industrial plant to war production. Essentially, the government promised to relieve war industries of financial risk by buying weapons on a cost-plus-fixed-profit basis, with additional incentives to exceed time and quantity goals. It provided attractive tax write-offs for plant expansion and modernization, purchased and leased factories to private companies, provided scarce raw materials, and helped recruit and train labor. Large industries also could assume freedom from antitrust prosecution. Despite numerous problems, the World War II industrial mobilization proceeded without the degree of inefficiency and waste that had characterized World War I, and corporate profits during the war mounted from $6.4 billion to $10.8 billion, which kept business cooperative. Industrial productivity drove the gross national product up from $91 billion in 1941 to $166 billion in 1945.

The federal government, however, could not surrender economic mobilization to American business, since the war was too important to be left to management. Before Pearl Harbor the Roosevelt administration followed a modus operandi it had developed in the 1930s. When an economic problem cried for government intervention, the administration created a special agency to deal with the problem, but the agency seldom had clear power or authority, sharing its mission with others. This system (or lack thereof) drove politicians and bureaucrats to distraction, but it preserved FDR’s power and allowed all the competing political interests to seek accommodation or annihilation. They usually compromised, as the president wanted. In January 1942 the administration finally decided that its current way of doing business would not suffice and created the War Production Board (WPB), headed by retailing executive Donald M. Nelson.

FDR could have granted Nelson a “czar’s” powers, since in March 1942 Congress in a second War Powers Act gave the president the authority to allocate materials and facilities to war production, an implied charge to centralize economic mobilization. He did not do so. Temperamentally, Nelson was no Bernard Baruch, and he faced powerful competitors in the Army and Navy (who coordinated their own plans through the Joint Munitions Board), the Lend-Lease Administration, the Maritime Commission, the Office of Civilian Supply, the Office of Price Administration, and five different Anglo-American supply coordination boards. Without a clear political mandate from FDR and nearly friendless in Congress, Nelson had little success in controlling military orders or pressuring industry to cut domestic production. Unsettled strategic plans and unresolved conflicts over scarce raw materials brought increased demands for central control by somebody. The military departments did not relish the role, but they would have taken it since equipment scarcities were still epidemic. In May 1943, FDR finally created the Office of War Mobilization and persuaded James F. Byrnes, an astute former senator and Supreme Court justice, to take the job. With increased authority, expanded production, and clear strategic plans, Byrnes made OWM the central coordinator of a mobilization kingdom that continued to be peopled by fractious bureaucratic barons and political interests.

Selected Items, American War Production July 1940–August 1945



Artillery pieces


Shoulder weapons

14 million

Trucks and jeeps

2.4 million

Combatant vessels


Landing craft and ships








“Liberty” ships




The actual instruments for producing materiel for the war effort were as varied as the agencies created to direct the mobilization. When economic incentives and some degree of self-regulation stimulated producers, they found ways to increase production of such critical items as food and petroleum products, assisted by rationing and pricing policies that restricted domestic consumption. The same approach applied to rubber, with the additional provision that the chemical industry found it attractive to produce synthetic rubber. The voracious need for metals could be only partially served by increased production, so durable consumer goods disappeared from the marketplace and manufacturers moved to paper and plastics as substitute materials in both military and civilian consumables. The scarcity of raw metals and steel also furnished the government with the most effective tool for settling priority disputes among war industries. Designed by Ferdinand Eberstadt, a Baruch protégé and leader of the Army-Navy Munitions Board, the Controlled Materials Plan went into effect in late 1942 and allowed the WPB to adjust production schedules to FDR-JCS strategic decisions by allocating steel, aluminum, and copper to the twelve principal government contractees rather than the thousands of contractors. Each claimant, therefore, had to persuade a Requirements Committee chaired by Eberstadt on the virtues of its raw-materials needs. The WPB further influenced the process by also controlling the delivery of scarce raw materials and components, thus shaping production schedules.

The federal government used its war powers over the nation’s financial system to pay for the war, reduce domestic consumption, and control inflation. Increased income and corporate and excise taxes financed the war and checked civilian spending; the government paid 40 percent of the war’s costs from current revenues, a percentage never before approached in American war financing. It also borrowed $187 billion from its own citizens in the form of war bonds and from itself by regulating credit and the money supply through the Federal Reserve System and the Treasury Department. The national debt increased from $49 billion in 1941 to $260 billion in 1945. Money and credit controls supplemented price controls as a check on consumption and inflation, which the administration correctly identified as a threat to public morale and productivity.

The “Arsenal of Democracy” policy also assumed that the American scientific-engineering community would ensure that the armed forces enjoyed technological superiority over the Axis. After some pulling and hauling between the various military and civilian components of the research and development (R&D) community, the administration established the Office of Scientific Research and Development under Dr. Vannevar Bush, president of the Carnegie Institution. An active lobbyist for war-related research, Bush won an important early battle by winning draft exemptions for 10,000 critical scientists and engineers. He also designed the basic R&D system by using liberal government contracts to turn university and industrial research laboratories to critical war projects. Bush successfully argued that government-controlled laboratories would not utilize scientific talent effectively and would stifle technical creativity. Bush and his associates decided which labs would tackle which projects by evaluating the labs’ specialties and arranging close civilian-military collaboration in equipment design. Using their own and British inventions, the American developers produced an impressive list of military innovations: radar, antitank rockets for aircraft and infantry launchers, amphibious vehicles, bombing guidance systems, sonar for detecting submarines and a variety of rocket-propelled weapons for destroying them, improved shells, a radar-controlled proximity fuse for all kinds of ground and naval antiaircraft artillery, drugs to combat infection and tropical diseases, and, ultimately, the atomic bomb. Although German achievements in artillery and tank design—as well as jet aircraft and long-range rockets—proved that the Americans had no monopoly on developmental expertise, the United States created a research and development effort that balanced technical sophistication with mass production and time-urgent deployment.

The Allied accomplishments in the electronic “wizard war” complemented the performance in the mass production war. The use and abuse of the radio wave shaped many military operations. During the course of the war the Allies developed radio signals as guides to long-range air and naval navigation; the use of radar dramatically improved the ability of airplanes and warships to find targets when eyesight failed because of distance, darkness, and weather. Long-range radio communications allowed senior commanders to coordinate the movement of forces far from their headquarters. The widespread use of radio signals, however, opened a whole arena of military operations, and the Allies eventually emerged as victors in the signals intelligence war that resulted. With equipment capable of receiving enemy radio messages, both sides could exploit radio intercepts in several ways. With high-frequency direction-finding receivers, the Allies could locate enemy forces (especially warships) whenever those forces sent radio messages within range of Allied monitoring stations. A careful analysis of radio messages, even when encoded, often allowed Allied intelligence officers to identify the message sender and to track enemy deployments. Finding the location and identity of enemy forces permitted intelligence analysts to make astute guesses about enemy intentions.

One especially significant Allied advantage in signals intelligence was in high-level codebreaking, which often reduced the guesswork involved in assessing the enemy’s intentions, numbers, deployments, equipment, and morale. By midwar, the British and Americans had broken their adversaries’ most important codes, occasionally through pure cryptanalysis utilizing sophisticated mathematical theories, but often only with the help of captured cryptography equipment and codebooks and careless errors by enemy radio operators. Even before Pearl Harbor the United States had penetrated Japan’s foremost diplomatic code, which the Americans read fluently until Japan surrendered. The resulting intelligence, codenamed MAGIC, was vital in the battle against both Japan and Germany; messages from the Japanese ambassador in Berlin to Tokyo reporting his interviews with Hitler and other leading Nazis were an invaluable source of information regarding the Germans. In the Pacific theater, the Americans generated ULTRA, which was intelligence gleaned from breaking Japan’s military codes, including its primary navy code, Army Water Transport Code, military attaché code, main army code, and several army air force codes. In the European and Mediterranean theaters, the British Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park also produced ULTRA, but in this case it denoted intelligence obtained from messages transmitted by the Germans over their supposedly secure Enigma machines. Fortunately for the Allies, the Germans were wrong; from late 1943 until war’s end Bletchley Park produced nearly 84,000 Enigma decrypts per month. Military intelligence resulting from even the best codebreaking effort was rarely perfect or complete, and it would have been useless if it had not been utilized in battle by determined commanders and brave soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Still, codebreakers made an indispensable contribution to Allied operational planning. In the arcane world of coding and codebreaking, and of deceiving the enemy with bogus radio signals, the Allies enjoyed far more success than their enemies.

Maritime Victory

“The Arsenal of Democracy” could do nothing to defeat the Axis unless the Allies could ship American manpower, supplies, and weapons to the theaters of war across the world’s oceans. In 1940–1943 Allied shipping had to run a gauntlet of German U-boats to reach England, and Admiral Karl Donitz and his determined, skillful submariners believed that they stood on the edge of victory even as the United States entered the war. Without a triumph over the U-boats there would be no victory over Germany. As Winston Churchill wrote FDR, “the spectacle of all these splendid ships being built, sent to sea crammed with priceless food and munitions, and being sunk—three or four a day—torments me day and night. Not only does this attack cripple our war energies and threaten our life, but it arbitrarily limits the might of the United States coming into the struggle. The oceans, which were your shield, threaten to become your cage.”

In 1942 the balance in the Battle of the Atlantic swung toward the Germans, who profited immediately from American belligerency. Since the Royal Navy included surface commerce raiders and the Luftwaffe’s antishipping campaign menaced only the convoy routes to northern Russia, the U-boats alone held the initiative in the Atlantic. The Allied antisubmarine warfare (ASW) campaign suffered from shortages of everything: escorts, land-based and carrier-based ASW aircraft, and information, for British codebreakers had lost their ability to read Atlantic U-boat radio messages, which used a new code. Donitz deployed his U-boats in 1942 in two kinds of operations: “wolfpack” attacks against Allied convoys in the North Atlantic and individual patrols against the unconvoyed American ships along the Atlantic seaboard and in the Caribbean. The results were devastating. With only about forty U-boats in combat at any one time, the Germans sank an average of 100 ships (around 500,000 tons) a month for most of 1942. They did so at a cost of only 21 U-boats, easily replaced by the 123 submarines the Germans built in the same period. The Allies lost another 700,000 tons of shipping to German and Italian raiders and mines, while the Japanese onslaught deprived the Allies of an additional million tons. With many defeats from which to choose in 1942, Churchill and Roosevelt regarded the losses in the Battle of the Atlantic as the worst of the year.

Although Anglo-American shipbuilders came close to replacing the 1942 losses, Allied planners had to face the fact that they could not mount any major operations in the European theater unless they defeated the U-boats. The very ability of Great Britain to fight the war rested in the balance, since its merchant fleet had suffered an important net loss by 1943. British imports had dropped by half, producing grave shortages of raw materials, food, and consumer goods. American visitors to England in 1942 were shocked by the widespread poverty of their ally and worried about British war-weariness. The depressing mathematics of 1942 showed that shipping shortages would limit the American buildup in England and further stretch the British economy.

The greatest concentration of wartime shipbuilding was in the San Francisco bay area, the home of fourteen major shipyards that produced merchant ships. All but two of the yards did not exist in 1939, and they were underutilized. The pioneer in efficiency and productivity in building Liberty and Victory ships was a six-company consortium led by Henry J. Kaiser, an industrial visionary of quick, massive production. Using a newly trained work force, including women and minorities, and modular construction, Kaiser’s shipyards could assemble a 10,000-ton Liberty ship in ten days (1942), then seven and a half days. Four shipyards in Richmond, California, built 747 ships, 519 of them Liberties. Kaiser’s workers received pioneering attention in healthcare, wages, plant safety, housing and skilled training. Two thousand miles away, Andrew J. Higgins used many of the same assembly-line innovations to produce 9,000 landing craft in an instant, sprawling empire around New Orleans, Louisiana. In the Mississippi Valley, corporations that specialized in building bridges, factories, and railroad engines as well as tugs and barges built over 1,000 Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs), an essential beaching vehicle carrier for amphibious assaults. Much of this production sacrificed financial cautiousness for speed of delivery, a recognized strategic trade-off.

Oil and gasoline powered the American armed forces, and POL (the military designation for fossil fuels) moved overseas by ship. These ships came in two broad categories, tankers and, for the U.S. Navy, fleet oilers capable of underway refueling. Tankers were the POL workhorses, and the German U-boats made them prime targets in 1942, sinking 97 U.S. tankers in Western Hemisphere waters. Such losses did indeed cripple Great Britain and Japan, but not the United States. Of the 5,777 ocean-going vessels built by American shipyards, more than 700 were tankers. One prime tanker supplier, the Marineship Corporation of the Bechtel-McCone construction empire of California, could build a 22,800-ton tanker (6 million gallon capacity) in thirty-three days and make it operable in two more months. The construction required 17,000 welds and 10,000 cuts and bends to sixteen miles of piping in the ship. The Navy oiler fleet expanded from twenty-nine to nearly one hundred, easily replacing the nine lost to the enemy. In the meantime, tanker losses dropped to twenty-five in 1943, ten in 1944, and six in 1945.

The shipping crisis required an unprecedented American effort to increase production of merchantmen and tankers, and in 1943 the United States tripled its deadweight tonnage (the carrying capacity of ships) in new vessels from 3 million to 9 million tons. To do so, however, meant that the government had to assign lower building priorities to all warships except escort vessels, thus slowing the construction of the vessels the Navy needed to win control of the Pacific and to carry amphibious invasion forces to both the war’s theaters. The U-boats also put enormous strains upon Anglo-American cooperation and upon interservice and civil-military relations among America’s war managers, since “Japan First” strategists like Admiral King argued that the Battle of the Atlantic would prevent SLEDGEHAMMER and ROUNDUP and justified a shift in theater priorities. Navy and Army planners clashed over the allocation of long-range aircraft and the organization of ASW land-based air operations. Military planners complained bitterly whenever Roosevelt committed new vessels to carrying imports to Britain rather than military supplies for American operations abroad. The torpedo explosions in the Atlantic sent concussions throughout the Allied war effort.

Building upon the hard-learned lessons of World War I and the ocean battles of 1940–1941, the Royal Navy, Canadian navy, and U.S. Navy bore the brunt of the war against the U-boats. They received some assistance from the RAF and USAAF, which mounted some long-range reconnaissance operations (useful) and bombed submarine bases and construction yards (largely futile). For victory there was no substitute for convoying. Only troop-carrying transoceanic liners could maintain sufficient speed to outrun U-boats, and even these normally had destroyer screens. Merchantmen formed into convoys off North America, divided into “fast” and “slow” groups. A convoy averaged around fifty vessels, spread in parallel columns over twenty-four square miles of ocean. Bulk cargo merchantmen formed the outer ranks, with oil tankers, munitions ships, aircraft and tank carriers, and troopships clustered in the center of the formation around the convoy commander’s ship. Around the convoy prowled the escorts, usually no more than six. Destroyers and smaller warships (destroyer escorts, frigates, corvettes, and even converted yachts) made up the escort, progressively reinforced with escort carriers, which provided critical air cover. At a 1942 rate of about six convoys a month the Allies plunged through the awaiting wolfpacks.

The Battle of the Atlantic produced some of the war’s hardest service and grimmest experiences. Weather—arctic storms, fog, and heavy seas—plagued friend and foe alike. The U-boats attacked submerged by day and on the surface by night. Usually the first sign of an attack was the roar of a torpedo ripping open a merchantman; tankers and munitions ships often exploded and sank in a cloud of flames. Merchant seamen who escaped their vessels often perished from hypothermia in the frigid seas. Survivors who managed to find lifeboats and rafts might go days before a rescue vessel dared to pick them up. On the escorts the strain of long watches, wretched living conditions, and recurring contacts and searches for U-boats often brought crews to the point of collapse during every voyage. Moreover, the escorts seldom had the release of an obvious victory over the U-boats, unless a victim surfaced before sinking. In any event, the Navy bagged few U-boats in the battle’s opening phases.

For eighteen months the Battle of the Atlantic hung in the balance, and it was not clear until the summer of 1943 that the Allies had won one of the war’s critical campaigns. No single development, either in mass-producing escorts and ASW aircraft or inventing miracle weapons or electronics, spelled victory for the Allied navies. Rather, the ultimate victory rested upon a wide range of organizational, technical, and operational programs. To conduct his share of the campaign, Admiral King created a separate command—the 10th Fleet—from which he directed operations through a series of geographic commands that deployed the escorts, air patrols, and convoys. Intensive ASW training paid dividends as the Navy received more escorts (especially destroyer escorts) and aircraft. Shore-based long-range patrol planes like the PBY Catalina and the Navy’s version of the B-24 and carrier-based search-and-attack aircraft eventually gave the Navy full aerial coverage of its areas of responsibility, including the “black hole” in the Atlantic between Iceland and the Azores that land-based planes could not reach. Since the U-boats had to surface to move rapidly, to recharge their batteries, and to take on fuel and supplies from their own U-boat-tankers, they were especially vulnerable to air attack. They also preferred to move at night on the surface from their European bases, a tactic exploited by RAF Coastal Command, which mounted intense night patrolling over the Bay of Biscay. The ASW campaign also profited from the use of mathematically based operations analysis by American and British teams, who developed optimal ways to use escorts, aircraft, and ASW ordnance.

The technological war at sea also swung against the Germans. Improved radar and sonar aboard escorts and aircraft made it more difficult for the U-boats to surprise a convoy; Allied high-frequency direction-finding equipment intercepted German radio traffic and allowed more accurate position locating. The Allies also invented an airborne radar system that the Germans could not foil with their radar-detecting “black boxes.” The Allies developed and deployed more accurate, destructive ASW ordnance, including rocket-assisted depth charges and magnetic and acoustic antisubmarine torpedoes. In the codebreaking war the Allies used message analysis to discover that the Germans had broken the convoy routing codes, and the subsequent Allied code changes hampered U-boat operations. The Allies also again cracked the Germans’ own U-boat code, which allowed hunter-killer naval support groups to locate and attack submarines before they closed upon a convoy, or to divert convoys around the U-boats. In April 1943, for instance, the Allies learned from ULTRA that the route Convoy SC 127 was sailing would take it into a wolfpack of 25 U-boats. Forewarned, authorities changed the convoy’s route, sending it north of the lurking subs. Several subsequent changes allowed the convoy to avoid smaller U-boat concentrations that ULTRA revealed, and the entire convoy arrived safely in England.

Admiral Donitz’s submarine force had, however, grown throughout 1942, and in early 1943 the admiral launched a major wolfpack effort against the North Atlantic convoys, and the U-boats sent record numbers of Allied ships to the bottom. But the Germans’ own losses increased; they began losing one submarine for every Allied vessel destroyed. In one two-month period the Allies sank fifty-six U-boats. The Germans reached their peak of frustration in May 1943, when fifty-one U-boats attacked a convoy of forty-two vessels and the pack lost six U-boats in order to sink thirteen merchantmen. Donitz ordered his U-boats to safer waters, and in two months sixty-two convoys crossed the Atlantic without any losses at all. Although the German submarine force continued its war until the collapse of the Third Reich, it did so with appalling losses (753 of 863 patrolling submarines; 28,000 of 41,300 sailors) and diminished danger to the Allied war effort. In the meantime American shipyards, working on twenty-four-hour shifts and profiting by one engineering and managerial innovation after another, continued to send warships and merchantmen down the ways and into the war. Aboard those ships moved American troops and military materiel to places thousands of miles distant that had little in common except that they were now battlegrounds.

Opening a Two-Front War

In the face of depressing news about home-front mobilization failures, of Atlantic sinkings, and of German victories in southern Russia, FDR held fast to one politico-strategic conviction: “It is of the highest importance that the U.S. ground troops be brought into action against the enemy in 1942.” Still unhappy about the diversion of American forces from the buildup in England to expeditions in North Africa, the JCS extemporized two major campaigns to meet the president’s charge, a charge based primarily on FDR’s desire to help Russia and to keep the American public committed to a total war effort. Until early 1944 these two campaigns—one in the Mediterranean and the other in the south Pacific—were the focus of America’s battles with the armed forces of Germany, Italy, and Japan. The campaign in the Mediterranean pleased the British, who feared a premature return to France and who questioned American operational expertise. The broadened commitment to the war against Japan united a set of peculiar bunkmates: General MacArthur and all his domestic admirers, prewar isolationists, the pro-China public, most of the leadership of the U.S. Navy, and even part of the War Department General Staff, which could use the Pacific war to badger the British into a firm commitment to a cross-Channel offensive. The British provided the rationale for the Mediterranean: An Allied offensive there would sever Italy and Vichy France from German domination, divert the Wehrmacht from Russia, and provide air and naval bases for further operations against the heart of the European continent. MacArthur provided the Pacific analogue to Churchill’s “soft underbelly” thesis, arguing that operations mounted from the Hawaii-Australia line would strike Japan’s vulnerable southern defenses and destroy its major bases at Rabaul on New Britain Island and Truk in the Carolines.

Mounting the first offensives required hard bargaining regarding the command and distribution of the available American forces. For the North African operations, the CCS selected General Marshall’s protégé Dwight D. Eisenhower but surrounded him with British subordinates. Aware of the tension between the British and the French, the Allies hoped a distinct American coloration to TORCH (the Moroccan and Algerian invasions) would confuse the Vichy defenders and improve the chance that Allied diplomacy would subvert French resistance. In the Pacific the JCS redrew theater boundaries to give Nimitz control of operations in the Solomon Islands and to limit MacArthur’s direct command to the American and Australian forces aimed at New Guinea. The Navy distrusted the idea of any Army general conducting naval operations using scarce carriers, and MacArthur’s performance in the Philippines had not won him any admirers in blue. The commitment of Army and USAAF units by the end of 1942 showed how dramatically TORCH and CARTWHEEL (the isolation of Rabaul) had redirected the deployment plans of “Germany First.” In rough terms the Army and USAAF sent about 350,000 men to the Pacific and 350,000 to the Mediterranean and England. In terms of combat units the disparity became more striking: The departure of six divisions and eleven air groups for Africa and five divisions and fifteen air groups for the Pacific left only one division and sixteen air groups in England. The diversion of USAAF groups left the air effort against Germany with only one-third of the aircraft planned in early 1942. The naval services put even greater emphasis on the Pacific war. In all warship categories, including destroyers, the Navy deployed the majority of its vessels in the Pacific, building its striking forces in August 1942 around its four surviving large carriers and their cruiser-destroyer screens. Of its ten Pacific battleships, only two were new enough for fast cruising. For the south Pacific war the Marine Corps could provide two divisions and fifteen aviation squadrons.

The Navy–Marine Corps landings at Guadalcanal and nearby islands in August and MacArthur’s Army-Australian advance on Buna, New Guinea, in September opened the south Pacific offensive and set off six months of bitter land-sea-air fighting that ended in a decisive Japanese defeat. Although the jungle war for Guadalcanal tested the fighting heart and skills of two Marine and two Army divisions before the Japanese remnants withdrew, the battle for the Solomons depended ultimately upon air and naval superiority. Admiral Yamamoto and Admiral William F. Halsey attempted to reinforce Guadalcanal and destroy one another’s air units and warships. The U.S. Navy fought its most desperate battles of the war in the Solomons. In seven major fleet engagements and many minor skirmishes, Halsey’s fleet lost twenty-four warships and 5,000 sailors. (In comparison, the ground and air forces had around half as many killed in action.) When the Japanese finally broke off the campaign, only two serviceable American carriers remained. The Japanese suffered even more grievous—and less replaceable—losses: 30,000 soldiers and sailors, 24 warships, more than 100 merchantmen, and 600 aircraft. Among the casualties were many experienced pilots. Moreover, the U.S. Navy demonstrated its willingness to close with the Japanese, even when the flaws in its night-fighting techniques, gunnery, use of radar, and torpedo attack defense tipped the balance toward its more experienced foes. Only in naval air battles—attacks mounted and received—did the Americans show any clear margin of superiority. By the end of the campaign, however, the Americans could meet the Japanese on more than equal terms, whether the combatants were jungle patrols or night-fighting cruisers. The myth of Japanese invincibility died in the Solomons.


MacArthur’s New Guinea offensive established the strategic pattern for Allied victories in the other part of the dual south Pacific advance. With only four American and Australian divisions to commit, MacArthur relied upon USAAF air support and, operating under this air cover, an Allied amphibious fleet composed of beaching ships and craft, cruiser and destroyer escorts, and supply vessels. Tropical diseases, monsoon weather, and jungled mountains conspired with the Japanese to make the Buna campaign a nightmare for the ground troops, but in January 1943 MacArthur’s force held firm control of a lodgment on New Guinea’s northern coast. Although the Buna campaign had been largely an overland epic, MacArthur’s next thrust against the Japanese bases along Huon Bay threw both the 5th Air Force and 7th Fleet into the fray and drew a maximum Japanese air and naval response. The result was a series of disasters for the Japanese as USAAF aircraft, often directed to their targets by ULTRA, destroyed the enemy air cover and reinforcing convoys. By the end of the year MacArthur was prepared to leap the straits to New Britain Island to isolate Rabaul, which he and the JCS no longer thought required actual capture. In the meantime, the American forces in the Solomons had fought up the chain at New Georgia and Bougainville, completing the encirclement. Recognizing the dimension of their defeat in the south Pacific, the Japanese withdrew their fleet and their surviving air units to a new defense line that included the Marianas, the Philippines, Formosa, and Southeast Asia. Deprived of reinforcements, the remaining Japanese garrisons east of this line received orders to delay the Americans as best they could.

Half a world away from the rainforests of the south Pacific, other Allied forces entered the war for the Mediterranean in November 1942. A year later they had driven the Germans back to the approaches to Rome. As General Bernard L. Montgomery’s 8th Army drove a German-Italian army back from El Alamein to Tunisia, an Anglo-American invasion force struck at three Moroccan locations and the Algerian ports of Oran and Algiers. Arrayed against confused Vichy French defenders and assisted by Free French rebels, the Allies plunged ashore in a combination of commando port assaults and nighttime beach landings. Adding tactical confusion to the political puzzle, the Allies overwhelmed the largely feeble French defenses, then negotiated an end to French resistance with the Vichyite military commander, Admiral Jean Francois Darlan.


Initially mistaken about the Allies’ objectives, Hitler and the Wehrmacht responded quickly by occupying all of France and pouring another army into Tunisia. Eisenhower’s command, plagued by poor transportation and rain, lost the race to Tunisia and soon received its first exposure to German tactical expertise in the Tunisian mountains. The results for the Americans were disheartening. In a series of battles—including a German counterattack at Kasserine Pass—the Americans did not measure up. General Eisenhower judged their leadership as “thin” and their discipline close to that of a “disorderly mob.” American tactics and weapons did not match the Germans’, and American operations showed striking defects in intelligence, reconnaissance, and air support. Only American logistics and artillery proved noteworthy. Smarting from criticism spoken and implied, the amateurish American divisions stuck with the task, prodded by a new corps commander, Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr. As his deputy, Major General Omar N. Bradley, noted, the American soldier would improve only by “winning battles and killing Germans.”

Despite the frustrations of the Tunisian campaign, the Allied high command (including Roosevelt and Churchill) assembled in Casablanca in January 1943 to examine their strategy for the coming year. The decisions and indecision had a marked Churchillian cast. The war upon Germany would continue to depend primarily upon strategic bombing, the war against the U-boats, subversion on the Continent, and active operations in the Mediterranean. The British argued that Italy could be driven from the war with the resources already committed to the Mediterranean theater, and the CCS approved planning for an invasion of Sicily. Additional meetings in Washington and Quebec extended and expanded the Mediterranean campaign to include a September invasion of Italy. Buoyed by the final success of the Tunisian campaign, which ended in May 1943 with the surrender of 240,000 Germans and Italians, the Allies had clearly deferred a cross-Channel attack until 1944. The Russians and some American planners wondered if there would be any attack at all.

The reasons in 1943 for expanding the Mediterranean campaign were many and persuasive. In strategic terms a campaign into Italy might divert German divisions from the Eastern Front and provide air bases for Allied bomber strikes against Germany and targets in Eastern Europe. Italy’s collapse would wound the German cause politically and weaken it militarily. In logistical terms the Allies had made an irreversible commitment to the theater, building ports and airfields, establishing supply dumps and bases, and deploying an army of rear-echelon administrative and technical personnel that outnumbered the fighting troops. The Tunisian campaign had also established the fact that Anglo-American command relationships needed refinement. Another major concern was the shocking lack of air-ground cooperation.

The Sicilian campaign (July–August 1943) revealed both improvements and deficiencies in the Allies’ ability to beat the Axis armed forces in battle. Enjoying tactical surprise because the Germans again misjudged the invasion objective, the American 7th Army (Patton) and the British 8th Army (Montgomery) established beachheads ashore, but German-Italian armored counterattacks on the American beaches came within a few kilometers of success. Only the suicidal bravery of American infantry (particularly the troopers of the 82d Airborne Division) and the timely massing of naval and artillery shellfire drove the Germans off. Luftwaffe attacks on the invasion shipping and beaches hindered operations and led Allied antiaircraft gunners to shoot down more friendly troop transports than they did German aircraft. The campaign developed as two operations, primarily because Patton and Montgomery so chose, and Eisenhower and General Harold R.L.G. Alexander, overall ground commander, did not impose their will upon the ambitious army commanders. The result was Patton’s sweeping ground-amphibious envelopment of Messina through Palermo and Montgomery’s plodding advance up Sicily’s eastern coast toward the same objective. The Axis defense forces—built around only two German divisions—fought a skilled delaying action, then evacuated the island across the straits of Messina. Despite the Allied victory, the Sicilian campaign—marked by Anglo-American acrimony—did not bode well for combined operations.

Like the North African invasion, the Allied assault upon Italy began in a miasma of political intrigue. Mussolini’s political and military failures had alienated King Victor Emmanuel and the Italian military high command, who conspired to remove Il Duce in July. The change actually worked to the Allies’ disadvantage, for it removed the pretext for Italian-German cooperation. The Wehrmacht moved swiftly to send troops deep into Italy’s “boot” and to intimidate the Italian armed forces, which either disintegrated or went into captivity. The Italians wanted out of the war, but they didn’t want to fight Germans. This decision meant that an easy landing, especially at Rome or farther north, passed into the realm of might-have-beens. When Italy formally surrendered on September 8, the military results were negligible. The Allies would have to fight up the entire peninsula, a very hard underbelly in topographical and tactical terms. As one Allied general noted, “Wars should be fought in a better country than this.”

The Italian campaign developed in ways that suggested that the Germans were diverting the Allies from other theaters rather than vice versa. Although the British 8th Army—an international force of British Commonwealth, Polish, and French units—managed to land against light resistance and fight up Italy’s eastern coast, the Anglo-American 5th Army (Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark) had to fight a stiff battle at Salerno before it freed the port city of Naples on the western coast. Two months of hard campaigning brought the Allied armies only as far as the Germans’ Gustav Line, a belt of mountain defenses a hundred miles south of Rome anchored in front of the Americans along the Rapido River and the heights above Cassino. Terrain and weather favored the German defenders, who again proved highly professional and definitely undefeated. In a war of rocks and rubble, air superiority and massed artillery could not spare Allied infantry the task of rooting out the Germans position by position. At the end of 1943 the Italian campaign had stalled, with eleven German front-line divisions confounding the best efforts of fourteen Allied divisions.

Assessing the actual course of the war at the end of 1943, FDR, Churchill, and their military planners had to face several strategic situations that carried elements of both promise and disappointment. The offensive war with Japan had developed with greater success than might have been expected, despite limited operations in the Pacific. The Mediterranean campaign had indeed accomplished its more limited objectives (eliminating Vichy France and Italy as Axis assets), but it had not brought excessive pressure upon the bulk of the Wehrmacht. The most impressive military victories, in fact, belonged to the Russians, who had turned the tide at Stalingrad and had begun offensive operations against the Germans. Although the Allied bombardment of Germany had forced the Luftwaffe to redeploy air units from the Russian front, it had not become a true “second front,” at least in Russian eyes. The American mobilization, however, was reaching its productive peak, and the victory in the Battle of the Atlantic meant that American divisions and air groups could now reach England in accelerating numbers. In sum, the war was not yet won, but it would not be lost if the Allied coalition remained intact and applied its military might toward the goal of German and Japanese unconditional surrender.

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