The 1940s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News

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The 1940s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News



At the end of World War I (1914–18), Germany was punished by the victorious Allies (led by France, Great Britain, and the United States). In the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, Germany was forced to surrender territory and to admit to having started the war. Of the Allies, only the United States wanted Germany returned to full strength. With their national pride wounded, by 1933 Germans were ready to elect as their leader the fascist Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). He promised to restore the country's dignity. In the late 1930s, Germany, Italy, and Japan (known as the Axis powers) were planning to build empires in Europe, East Asia, and Africa. With American economic interests under threat, by 1940 many American officials thought war would be the only way to achieve peace.

The war in Europe began on September 3, 1939, when Hitler's armies invaded Poland. But even after fighting had begun, Americans were reluctant to get involved. The public believed that the United States had been pushed into World War I by bankers and arms manufacturers seeking to make a profit. Those who did not want to see this happen again were known as isolationists. They believed that the United States should stay isolated from problems abroad.

Isolationists such as the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902–1974) wanted to create "Fortress America," keeping the United States safe from the corrupting influence of Europe. Their opponents, known as interventionists, thought that the only way to protect American interests was to be active abroad. This did not always mean direct military action. Many interventionists felt that America could help defeat fascism by supplying nations such as Great Britain with ships, airplanes, and tanks. Other Americans saw military action as the only way to save democracy from the fascist governments in Germany, Italy, and Japan. President Franklin D. Roosevelt hoped to persuade his fellow Americans that joining the war was the right thing to do.

The United States officially entered World War II on December 8, 1941, the day after Japanese bombers had destroyed the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. But in fact, Americans had been involved in military operations for most of 1941 and even earlier. By February 1941, the Battle of the Atlantic was raging between Germany and Great Britain. President Roosevelt moved the American "sea frontier" to the middle of the Atlantic, providing naval protection for British cargo ships. In June 1941, the German army advanced on Russia, quickly reaching the gates of Moscow. Fearing that the fall of Moscow would free Germany to launch new attacks on Great Britain, Roosevelt extended Lend-Lease (a program for supplying military equipment to the British) to include the Soviet Union. In July 1941, U.S. Marines landed on Iceland, preventing Germany from building a stronghold there. Throughout September and October 1941,

German submarines and destroyers attacked American ships. On October 30, 1941, the United States suffered its first major loss. German torpedoes sank the USS Reuben James in the Atlantic; over one hundred American lives were lost.

In East Asia, tensions had been rising since the early 1930s. Yet attempts were made to avoid war as late as 1941. In January of that year, a peace proposal offered the withdrawal of Japanese troops from China. But the U.S. government doubted the Japanese could stick to their promise. With war already destroying Europe, and tension rising around the world, American interventionists were gaining public approval. After the surprise Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, the isolationist argument could no longer be taken seriously.


President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been pushing carefully for American involvement in World War II since fighting began in Europe in 1939. Between 1939 and 1941, huge resources had been directed to war-related manufacturing and the military. Roosevelt said that in the 1930s he had been "Dr. New Deal" (New Deal was the name given to his domestic policies during the 1930s). After Pearl Harbor, he became "Dr. Win-the-War." Because of the government resources already allocated for fighting a war, the United States was able to respond quickly.

Even so, the Pearl Harbor attack was a major setback for the U.S. Navy. For the first six months after December 1941, American forces struggled against the Japanese. On December 10, 1941, three days after Pearl Harbor, Japan destroyed the American air fleet at Clark Field in the Philippines. Japan then took the Philippines and quickly moved on to Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. American territories in the Pacific such as Guam and Wake Island were lost before Christmas. In February 1942, the American Pacific fleet was almost wiped out completely in the Battle of the Java Sea. The bombing of Tokyo, Japan, by a squadron of planes led by General James Doolittle (1896–1993) in April 1942 boosted morale, but few planes or U.S. soldiers survived the raid.

Although the attack on Tokyo was costly, it marked a turning point in the Pacific campaign. In May, American planes launched from the USS Lexington and USS Yorktown put three Japanese aircraft carriers out of action. Though the Lexington was lost, it was an important breakthrough. In June 1942, the Japanese fleet was stalled at the Battle of Midway; on August 7, American Marines landed on the island of Guadalcanal. Their fight with the Japanese for control of the Pacific would be long and brutal. Neither side was willing to take prisoners. Marines burned surrendering Japanese with flame-throwers and put severed heads of enemy soldiers on stakes. Casualties were horrific on both sides. In the spring of 1945 alone, 130,000 Japanese and nearly 15,000 Americans lost their lives at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

But although the fight with Japan would last another two years, by 1943 the balance had shifted in favor of the United States. After the disastrous Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Japanese were desperate. They trained teenage boys to fly planes but not to land them; instead, they crashed their planes into American ships. These strategies, called kamikaze missions, were seen by Americans as a sign of Japanese fanaticism and savagery.


"Magic" was an electronic deciphering machine used by the U.S. government to crack the codes Japan used to send orders to its armed forces. Magic was so secret that the Special Intelligence Service (SIS) did not trust the White House to know about it. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was not allowed to read translated Japanese orders until January 23, 1941, 140 days after Magic was first used. On December 6, 1941, in Washington, D.C., at 1:00 p.m., Roosevelt sent a copy of a decoded Japanese message to U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. The message contained plans for a Japanese assault on American forces in the Pacific. Afraid that the Japanese might intercept normal military communications, Marshall sent a warning about the message to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by Western Union telegram. The message was not marked as urgent. The following morning, the Western Union office near Pearl Harbor sent a bicycle messenger to the naval base. He reached his destination at 11:45 a.m. local time, almost four hours after the Japanese attack had begun. The telegram finally reached the Pearl Harbor base commander at 4:00 p.m., long after the U.S. fleet had been destroyed.

Roosevelt's policy of building up the military and armaments manufacturing made America's intervention in the war much more successful than it might have been. But although the American public was strongly behind the fight against Japan, the Roosevelt administration had to be more careful in entering North Africa and Europe. In Egypt, British troops

had been struggling against German tank divisions since early 1941. Then in October 1942, led by General Bernard Montgomery (1887–1976), the British defeated the Germans at El Alamein. Over fourteen thousand British lives were lost in just four days, but German losses were heavier.

In November, with German General Erwin Rommel (1891–1944) in slow retreat, American Marines led Operation Torch, a troop landing on the Moroccan and Algerian coasts. Its planner, Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969), would later become Supreme Allied Commander in Europe because of this operation's success. The battle for the empty deserts of North Africa seemed pointless to some. But it made possible the later invasion of Italy, forcing the resignation of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini (1883–1945). Operation Torch is often seen by military historians as a practice run for the invasion of France by American and British troops in 1944. Lessons learned on the North African beaches undoubtedly saved many lives in later campaigns.


After January 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt met regularly with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) to plan strategy. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) was the third Allied leader, but he had difficulty traveling to summit meetings. The partnership with the Soviets was in any case never likely to last beyond the end of the war. Some American and British strategists had even considered siding with Nazi Germany against Russia prior to 1939.

In Stalin's absence, Roosevelt and Churchill worked on plans for the invasion of northern France at the Quebec conference in August 1943. Stalin agreed to the plans, hoping that such an invasion would draw German troops away from the bloody Russian front. But it was not possible for Britain to conduct the invasion alone. The high risk of heavy American casualties made it difficult for Roosevelt to justify an immediate invasion for political reasons, however. When Roosevelt and Churchill finally met with Stalin in Tehran, Iran, late in 1943, they told Stalin that his Russian troops would have to continue fighting the German army for some time to come.

Roosevelt gambled on the Russians being able to weaken the German army so that fewer American troops would die in the invasion of Europe. The gamble paid off. On June 6, 1944, now known as D-Day, Operation Overlord moved 150,000 American and British troops onto the beaches of northern France. The troops faced later setbacks, such as the Battle of the Bulge in the forests of Belgium. But with German forces weakened in the onslaught, the Allies' armies moved steadily across northern Europe toward Germany. As the troops advanced, British and American bombers flattened factories, oil depots, and cities in the German heartland. In February 1945, the city of Dresden was firebombed, killing 135,000 civilians. This was almost three times the number of people killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan a few months later.

The ruthless burning of Dresden has since been interpreted as revenge for the destruction of Coventry, Hull, and other British cities. But the effect of the Allied bombing on German morale was profound. Berlin, the German capital, lay in ruins; on April 30, 1945, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler shot himself dead. On May 7, the German army surrendered. Although Roosevelt had died a month earlier, on April 12, his careful management of the war effort in part had achieved this total and unconditional surrender.

The Yalta Conference

Between February 4 and 11, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin met at Yalta (a port city on the Black Sea in the republic of Ukraine in the Soviet Union). The three Allied leaders needed to decide what to do when the war ended. They discussed future European borders and the postwar governments of Poland, Germany, and other countries in Eastern Europe. At the time of the conference, the Soviet Red Army was moving quickly toward Berlin, Germany. Roosevelt knew that, having lost millions of men, the Soviets would not want to hand back territory they had gained during the fighting. More than anything, Roosevelt wanted to insure free democratic government and free markets throughout Europe and East Asia. He gave land to Stalin in return for reassurances about Soviet future plans. But when Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, his successors were not so generous. The postwar world as envisaged at Yalta was seen by later U.S. politicians as a sellout of American interests.


In the spring of 1945, fighting in the Pacific was at its fiercest. It was feared that a push to invade Japan itself would cost more than one million American lives. American government strategists knew they had to avoid such shocking losses. American bombers had been pounding targets on the Japanese mainland for many months with some success. But on July 16, 1945 a new weapon became available. On that day, the first atomic bomb was exploded at Alamogordo, New Mexico. On August 6, an atomic bomb, code-named "Little Boy," was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing fifty thousand people in a few seconds.

The Japanese were confused. All communication with Hiroshima was lost instantly. Not realizing the power of this new weapon, the Japanese allowed the August 8 deadline for surrender issued by the United States to pass. On August 9, a second Japanese city, Nagasaki, was flattened by a second atomic bomb, code-named "Fat Man." Unconditional surrender followed on August 15, 1945, known ever since as Victory in Japan (V-J) Day. The most destructive and lethal war in human history was over.

Although the atomic bombs ended the war, President Harry S Truman had problems justifying his decision to use nuclear weapons. Important military figures, such as the army's general Dwight D. Eisenhower and the navy's admiral of the fleet William D. Leahy (1875–1959), opposed the idea. Truman argued that by shortening the conflict, the bombs saved more lives than they destroyed. But in fact, Japan was on the brink of collapse anyway. Its navy had been completely destroyed, many of its factories had stopped operating, and its army was cut off. So, while Truman's argument was partly true, other political reasons also came into play.

The first was that the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, had cost $2 billion. Some officials, including General George C. Marshall, thought failure to use the bomb would be a waste of money and would damage the administration. Secondly, and more importantly, Truman wanted to prevent the Soviets from taking over Japan. The whole plan to rebuild and exploit a free market in East Asia depended on a swift end to hostilities. If the Red Army had taken Japan, a new conflict within a few years seemed certain. With the American public unwilling to see many thousands more young men slaughtered, the atomic bomb appeared to be the only solution. In the end, some of the warnings from Truman's critics came true. Dropping the atomic bombs on Japan began an international era of fear and distrust, and the threat of global annihilation.


Civil liberties, or fundamental individual rights protected by law, and personal freedoms are usually the first casualties of war. During the Civil War (1861–65), President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) allowed defendants to be imprisoned without being charged with a specific crime. In World War I, President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) restricted political activity and free speech. World War II was no exception. But although it removed some freedoms, the Roosevelt administration also convinced many Americans that giving up their civil liberties was a matter of national pride.

Even before the United States officially entered the war, the federal government began to put pressure on civil liberties. Enacted by Congress and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, the Alien Registration Act (also known as the Smith Act) made it illegal to hold certain political opinions or to talk about them publicly. The first convictions under the act took place in 1944. Eighteen hard-line communists, known as Trotskyites, from Minnesota were sentenced to between twelve and eighteen months in jail. Their crime was they had spoken out against the war aims of the U.S. government. Curiously, the Communist Party of the U.S.A. (CPUSA) supported the trial and the conviction.

Although the Smith Act was repealed in 1948, it was reenacted later the same year. President Harry S Truman, desperate to show he was not soft on communists, directed the Justice Department to bring the eleven members of the National Board of the CPUSA to trial. They were convicted of making anti-American statements in 1949 and released on bail. Two appellate court decisions upheld the Smith Act's restrictions and, in 1951, four of the eleven convicts jumped bail.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Japanese Americans discovered that their civil liberties and rights as U.S. citizens were not guaranteed. On March 31, 1942, Japanese Americans on the West Coast were ordered to report to control stations. From there they were taken to camps where they were interned (held captive). Between 1942 and 1945, ten camps held around 120,000 people from the western states. They were allowed to bring with them only what they could carry, and they were forced to sell their houses, land, and automobiles at very low prices. In 1983, a report calculated that Japanese American citizens lost $6.2 billion in property and earnings (at 1983 prices) during the three-year period. It was not until 1988 that the U.S. Congress issued a formal apology for the internment to Japanese Americans.

Throughout the 1940s, American courts struggled with the problems of free speech and internment. African Americans actually saw some improvement in their civil rights during the decade. The 1944 Smith v. Allwright ruling banned an all-white Democratic primary in Texas, while black leader Adam Clayton Powell (1908–1972) was elected to the U.S. Congress in the same year. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court took steps to limit the power of the authorities over individual citizens. Overall, however, civil liberties were eroded in the United States during the 1940s. The Smith Act and the internment of Japanese Americans were both wartime measures. But after 1945 further legal challenges would come from efforts to control the spread of communism.


Throughout World War II, the Soviet Union was a useful ally of the United States and Great Britain. Though the Soviets had been enemies of the West since they seized power in Russia in 1917, for the duration of the war, the Allies united against fascism (government by dictators). But as the war drew to a close, it became clear that the postwar goals of the Allies were different. Britain wanted to hang onto its empire, while the United States wanted to make sure international free trade survived. The Soviet Union's aim was to expand its borders.

Until 1945, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) went along with plans agreed to between President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. But at Potsdam, Germany in July 1945, everything changed. Roosevelt, who had died on April 12 of that year, had been replaced by President Harry S Truman, while Churchill had lost the British general election to Clement Attlee (1883–1967). Truman was less friendly toward Stalin than Roosevelt had been, and Stalin himself came to the conference with a tougher agenda. Both Truman and Attlee were convinced Stalin was planning world conquest. Stalin believed the same of them.

After Potsdam, an uneasy truce existed as Europe and Asia were divided up between the three Allied powers. The atomic bomb, which was used to end the war with Japan, added a further element of tension. In 1946, Britain's exprime minister Churchill made a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, declaring that "an iron curtain has descended" across Europe. A year later, George F. Kennan (1904–), an American diplomat stationed in Moscow, Russia, wrote a paper explaining that the Soviet Union had to expand its borders to survive. Kennan urged President Truman to take steps to contain Soviet expansion, and a cold-war term came into common use: containment.

The Arms Race Begins

When the United States exploded the first atomic bomb in a test in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945, American politicians knew they now had a great advantage over the Soviet Union. When the Potsdam conference began the following day, President Harry S Truman could begin negotiations knowing he had the answer to the battle-hardened Soviet Red Army, poised to move in on Japanese territory. But it was impossible to keep the technology secret for long. Despite attempts to control atomic weapons production, the Soviet Union developed its own atomic bomb in 1949. Spies were believed to have stolen the technology from American research facilities. The atmosphere of secrecy and distrust grew more intense on both sides. Within a matter of months, a nuclear arms race was underway.

By 1948, the lines of the cold war had been drawn. The United States, Britain, and France controlled West Germany, and the Soviet Union controlled East Germany. The city of Berlin, now completely surrounded by Soviet territory, was also divided into four zones. On June 24, 1948, the Soviets blockaded overland routes into West Berlin, forcing the other three Allies to fly in food and supplies. As tensions rose, one hundred B-29 bombers, ready to drop atomic bombs onto the Soviet Union, were deployed in Britain. Stalin backed down and reopened the overland routes, but this incident was the beginning of forty years of cold war.

Gradually, the cold war became a part of the political landscape. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established on April 4, 1949. NATO's twelve member countries formed an organized military alliance against the Soviet Union. The military tension, and fears of Soviet expansion, made anticommunist feeling a major influence on postwar politics in the United States.


The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) first began conducting its investigations in 1930 as the Fish Committee. Its job was to uncover anti-American activities among U.S. citizens. In January 1945, the special Fish committee became a standing committee of the House and got its new name. In Public Law 601, Congress gave HUAC permission to investigate activities that might threaten the nation's security. The vague language used to define such activities in the bill meant that the law was open to abuse.

The film industry was HUAC's first high-profile target. From the mid-1930s onwards, many Hollywood actors, directors, writers, and other personnel

joined the Communist Party of the U.S.A. (CPUSA). During World War II, while the Soviet Union and the United States were allies, this was not really an issue. But when the policy of containment (preventing Soviet territorial expansion) came into force in 1947, the U.S. government became very wary of card-carrying Communists in positions of influence. Some HUAC members, such as J. Parnell Thomas (1895–1970), also worried that communist propaganda was appearing in Hollywood movies.

Between October 28 and 30, 1947, HUAC interviewed many actors, writers, and directors as part of an investigation into their political leanings. A total of forty-one people were interviewed, and nineteen were classified as "unfriendly" to the government. Every witness was eventually asked the question: "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America?" Ten witnesses refused to answer the questions and were found guilty of contempt of court by a grand jury in April 1948. Ironically, they were sent to the same prison as ex-HUAC chairman Thomas, who had been convicted of corruption.

HUAC activities in the 1940s marked the beginning of over a decade of anticommunist witch hunting. American politics in the late 1940s and early 1950s was dominated by the fear of communists and the search for spies and subversives. HUAC did not have the powers of the Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee under Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957). But together, these two investigations kept questions of individual rights, free speech, and national security at the forefront of American politics and law in the late 1940s and 1950s.

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The 1940s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News

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The 1940s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News