World History 2 219 - 13.1.3 Sleeping Giants

Hitler planned to finish off Britain with a cross-channel invasion using air and submarine bases in both Norway, which had surrendered in June 1940, and northern France. Through the late summer and into the fall of 1940, the Battle of Britain raged in the skies over Britain as a duel between the German Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force (RAF). The Germans initially focused their attacks on shipping in the English Channel and then began to bomb weapons-production facilities. The British gradually built up the RAF with new recruits of non-British volunteers, including a few U.S. pilots. Aided in part by the innovation of radar, which gave some advance warning of German onslaughts, the RAF prevailed. By October 1940, having lost approximately 40 percent of its planes of all types, the Luftwaffe had failed to achieve the air superiority needed to capture Britain. When the Luftwaffe shifted its focus from military to civilian targets, particularly the bombing of London, it inadvertently gave the British the opportunity to rebuild their airfields and defense plants and assemble more planes.

In the 1930s, the United States wanted to insulate itself from conflicts in the rest of the world. Aroused by dramatic hearings into the causes of the country’s entry into World War I, Congress passed the Neutrality Acts in 1935, 1936, and 1937, forbidding the export of arms and the making of loans to belligerent nations. These acts effectively handcuffed the government. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took office in 1933 just two months after Hitler became chancellor of Germany, was prevented from rendering much assistance to China against Japan, to Ethiopia against Italy, or to Republican Spain against fascist General Franco. But the 1937 Neutrality Act granted Roosevelt a little leeway. The United States could render nonmilitary assistance such as oil to a belligerent nation if that nation could both pay cash for the goods and carry them home itself.

As the world watched Hitler annex Czechoslovakia and then invade Poland, Roosevelt sought to offer more substantial military assistance to Britain and France. To beef up the defenses of the United States, Roosevelt pressed Congress to approve a two-ocean navy in 1938 and began to funnel aid to Britain and China within the confines of what was allowable. After much debate, in November 1939 Congress repealed provisions of earlier Neutrality Acts and authorized trade in military hardware on a cash-and-carry basis. With the Luftwaffe struggling in the summer of 1940, the responsibility for subduing England increasingly fell to the German submarine fleet, on the theory that England could be starved to death. Roosevelt created the Atlantic squadron in January 1939 and gradually expanded a U.S. naval patrol and escort service for shipping headed for England.

In one ten-day period in July 1940, German submarines sank eleven British destroyers, prompting the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, to appeal to the United States for help. Liberally interpreting the Neutrality Act of 1939, Roosevelt agreed to exchange fifty World War I–era destroyers for lease rights at British naval bases in Newfoundland and the Caribbean. Critics and isolationists like aviator Charles Lindbergh, a leader of the America First Committee, took Roosevelt to task. But in March 1941, the president persuaded Congress to approve the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed the government to “sell, transfer title to, exchange, lease, lend or otherwise dispose of, to any such government any defense article.” The United States could now provide these materials to any country deemed vital to its own defense. It was a way to aid those countries already fighting but without taking direct military action.

Beyond the Book

The Question of U.S. Neutrality

In the 1930s, many in the United States were reluctant to find themselves embroiled in another war. As Hitler’s power grew in Europe and Japan expanded its empire in the Pacific, the United States thus adopted a policy of neutrality. This continued even after Japan invaded China and Germany invaded Poland and ultimately western Europe. Although President Franklin Roosevelt favored aiding the British, his opponents in Congress feared the potential consequences. The political cartoonist Clifford Berryman created a number of cartoons in the 1930s and early 1940s whose subject was U.S. neutrality.

Examine the two cartoons that follow. In the first (Figure 13.9), Uncle Sam proclaims, “Lafayette, we are here!” words spoken by Colonel Charles E. Stanton at the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette after U.S. troops joined the British and French in fighting World War I. (Lafayette had famously fought on the side of the colonists in the American Revolution.) In the second image, Uncle Sam is working as a hod carrier, someone who carried bricks (Figure 13.9).

Image (a) shows Uncle Sam sitting in the middle of a drawing of the United States. Canada is drawn toward the top (north) of the picture, the Pacific Ocean is on the left, Mexico is drawn to the south, the Gulf of Mexico is drawn to the southeast, while the Atlantic Ocean is drawn to the east. Uncle Sam says, “Lafayette We Are Here.” Image (b) shows Uncle Sam carrying a stack of bricks on a pole with a platform. To his left, a man with glasses, a white shirt and black overalls with a hat labeled Japan is kneeling and holds a brick and a spatula with cement. He is building a wall labeled “World Domination.” In the background, a small person in a bear costume points at Uncle Sam and says, “Why don’t you quit being a hod carrier, Uncle?” There is a barrel lying on its side in front of Uncle Sam.
Figure 13.9 In both (a) “Lafayette, we are here!” and (b) “Uncle Sam as Hod Carrier”, cartoonist Clifford Berryman uses the image of Uncle Sam to comment on the policy of U.S. neutrality. (credit a: modification of work “Lafayette, we are here!” by Clifford Kennedy Berryman/Washington Evening Star/National Archives; credit b: modification of work “Uncle Sam as Hod carrier” by Clifford Kennedy Berryman/Washington Evening Star/National Archives)
  • What is Berryman saying in these cartoons about the U.S. policy of neutrality? Does he favor it? What does he think will be its consequences?
  • How does Berryman convey his ideas in the cartoons?

The defeat of Poland removed a buffer between German-occupied and Soviet territory. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Stalin began to take steps to prepare the USSR for what might happen next. At the end of 1939, he launched the “Winter War” against Finland to obtain territory near Leningrad (the city formerly known as St. Petersburg or Petrograd) that would bolster Soviet defenses. In April 1941, the Soviets signed a Neutrality Pact with Japan, freeing both nations from the prospect of a multiple-front war. The Kremlin in Moscow received a continuous stream of intelligence warning of an impending invasion. After receiving one such report outlining German battle plans, Stalin called up half a million reservists. Yet, fearing to provoke the Germans into action, he was cautious with his forces.

Having detected flaws in the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland and its struggle against Finland in the Winter War, Hitler was confident he could defeat Stalin. Betraying the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, he assembled the largest land-invasion force in world history, more than three million troops, including contributions from countries with their own grievance against the Soviet Union such as Finland, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Italy, Slovakia, and Spain. Operation Barbarossa began on June 22, 1941, leading the Soviet Union to formally join the Allies in opposing Germany (Figure 13.10).

This map shows the Western Russian region. In the top left is the Baltic Sea surrounded by Finland, Russia, Lithuania, and Poland. At the bottom of the map is the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The whole right half of the map is Russia, with some rivers labeled and the cities of Kharkov and Stalingrad in the south. The city of Moscow is in the middle along with Gorky, and Onega and Archangel at the top of the map, along the White Sea. There are three gray arrows coming out of the south of Finland going three directions into Russia. There are three gray arrows coming out of the east side of Lithuania going into Russia and White Russia. There are two gray arrows coming out of White Russia on the east going into Russia. There are 2 gray arrows pointing south, coming out of the south of Poland and pointing toward Ukraine, running along the bottom left of the map. There is a gray arrow from the bottom right corner of the map showing the 11A and Romanian Army advancing toward the cities of Odessa and Kishinev. There is a small gray arrow coming from Kiev (which is located in the middle bottom of the map) going toward Russia. There are two white arrows coming toward Moscow (one from the west and one from the north) and one white arrow pointing out of Moscow (going toward the east). There is a white arrow pointing north toward Leningrad, and one pointing north toward Onega.
Figure 13.10 The goal of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa was the invasion of the Soviet Union. The arrows show the routes taken by the invading German army (field armies and Panzer groups) and its allies as they moved to capture major Soviet cities such as Leningrad and Moscow and to gain control of ports on the Black Sea. (credit: modification of work “Operation Barbarossa corrected border” by U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In the first two days of the campaign, two thousand Soviet planes were destroyed on the ground. The speed of the German attack was greater than anticipated, and within weeks, Belorussia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia had been occupied by the German army, which was called the Wehrmacht (“defense power”). By August, the Germans had captured Kyiv, an industrial center that contained a large portion of the Soviet economic infrastructure at that time. By November, Hitler had gone farther into Russia than Napoleon had. The German army stood at the gates of Leningrad, on the outskirts of Moscow, and on the Don River. Of the 4.5 million troops with which the Soviets had begun, 2.5 to 3 million were lost; of their fifteen thousand tanks, only seven hundred were left. Moscow was in panic, and a German victory seemed imminent.

But serious problems arose that came back to haunt the Germans. The speed of the advance had strained the delivery of supplies. The force advancing on Moscow needed nearly thirty train shipments of fuel each day to maintain its pace, but by November, it was receiving only three. In August, a shortage of clean water had spread dysentery and cholera among the troops. When the late summer rains came, German soldiers found that they could neither drive fast (because of mud) nor keep themselves and their equipment dry. Once the Russian winter began, it became so cold that bread rations froze and had to be chopped into portions with axes.

The siege of Leningrad lasted 872 days and was one of the longest and deadliest in world history. In early 1942, nearly 100,000 people in the city starved to death each month, and some of the remaining residents resorted to cannibalism to survive. Overall, a million and a half people perished. Facing this, Stalin seems to have momentarily faltered. By the end of 1941, his head of security was instructed to send feelers to the Germans through the Bulgarian ambassador to Moscow, broaching the possibility of peace.

Link to Learning

Read some excerpts from the diaries of Leningraders during the siege of 1941–1944 in “Voices of War: Memories from the Siege of Leningrad” (presented by Russia Beyond).

With the war expanding into the plains of Russia, Churchill requested a face-to-face meeting with Roosevelt, who secretly sailed to Newfoundland in August 1941 for the purpose. This conference was the first of what have since become commonplace events in diplomacy—summit meetings of the heads of state. The two leaders produced the Atlantic Charter, a recasting of the principles articulated in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points (1918) into eight major points that reflected British and U.S. goals for a postwar world, though not the Soviet Union’s goals for Europe. It insisted on the unconditional surrender of the Axis nations—Germany, Italy, and Japan—renounced any territorial expansion, and affirmed the right of self-determination. There would be freedom of the seas, reduced barriers to free trade, and promotion of social welfare through economic cooperation. Peace would be promoted through the disarmament of aggressor nations.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax