Origins: The second World War originated initially in Asia, when Japan attacked Manchuria between 1931 and 2932. In Japan, civilians lost control of the government and the ultranationalist pro-military element ruled the country. In 1937 Japan launched a full scale invasion of China. It began in a battle at the Marco Polo Bridge, but Japanese forces eventually controlled most of China. Japanese bombers bombed cities which killed thousands of civilians. In the Rape of Nanking, Japanese soldiers, enflamed by the passion of war and a sense of racial superiority, raped seven thousand women, murdered hundreds of thousands of unarmed soldiers and civilians, and burned one third of the homes of Nanking. Over 400,000 Chinese died as Japanese soldiers used them for bayonet practice and machine gunned them into open pits. Japanese aggression aroused feelings of Chinese nationalism and by September, 1937, nationalists and communists agreed on a "united front" to oppose the Japanese. They did not defeat the Japanese, but did tie down half their army of 750,000 soldiers. The two sides often clashed with each other which rendered resistance less effective. While the nationalist forces moved inland, Chinese communists waged guerrilla warfare against the Japanese, sabotaging bridges and railroads and harassing troops. Their actions won them much support among the Chinese peasants.

Although Japanese action met with intense international opposition, most nations were preoccupied with the Depression, and would not act. In the meantime, Japan solidified its position by signing the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in September, 1940 under the terms of which each agreed to go to war with the others in the event of a declaration of war. In April, 1941, Japan signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union which precluded hostilities in Asia, particularly in Manchuria. Japan had secured its base.

Italy, which had lost over 600,000 soldiers in World War One, and whose economy had been devastated, had expected far more recompense and respect at the warís conclusion that it received. In reality, the great powers at Versailles had virtually shut Italy out of any division of the spoils of war. This played into the hands of Benito Mussolini, who promised to restore Italy to glory. Under Mussoliniís leadership, Italy annexed Libya and conquered Ethiopia in 1935 and 1936. Mussoliniís army of 250,000 used poison gas, tanks and artillery against an Ethiopian army which was totally unprepared. When the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, appealed personally for help from the League of Nations, the Italian delegates hooted him down. Mussolini then intervened in the Spanish Civil War on behalf of General Francisco Franco, who overthrew the republican government, and annexed Albania in 1939. He considered Albania a bridgehead for a future invasion of the Balkans. Even so, most Italians were opposed to war (unlike Japan) so Italy was engaged in a diplomatic guessing game with the balance of Europe.

In Germany, resentment against harsh treatment under the Treaty of Versailles played into the hands of Adolf Hitler, who referred to the Treaty as the "November Crime" and which he blamed on Germanyís internal enemies: Jews and Communists. Attempts had been made in European capitals to ease the terms of the Treaty; but when Hitler ignored its terms, most European leaders simply looked the other way. In 1933 Germany resigned from the League of Nations and began rebuilding its military, despite the provisions of Versailles. In 1935, German forces occupied the Rhineland (a demilitarized area bordering France) and joined Italy in the Spanish Civil War. In March, 1938, the German army forced reunion (Anschluss) with Austria in an attempt to integrate all German speaking people into a single homeland. In September, 1938, Hitler demanded the immediate annexation of the Sudetenland, the German speaking portion of southern Czechoslovakia. France and England, suddenly concerned, sent representatives to meet with Hitler at Munich. The policy adopted became known as appeasement. Both nations were wearied from the depression and unprepared for war; therefore peace at the price of Hitlerís aggression seemed a reasonable price to pay. They agreed to allow Hitler to annex the Sudetenland without so much as consulting the Czechs. Hitler faithfully promised that the annexation would be sufficient, and he would make no further territorial demands. The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew back to London with Hitlerís signature on that promise, and promised the British people "peace in our time."

Hitler immediately broke his word and occupied most of Czechoslovakia. Alarmed, France and Britain abandoned appeasement and guaranteed the security of Poland. In the meantime, the Soviet Union, under Joseph Stalin, was convinced that Western Europe planned to deflect German aggression towards the Soviets. Despite deep ideological differences, Germany and the Soviets executed the Russian German Treaty of Non-Aggression, under the terms of which each pledged neutrality in the event of war by a third party. The purpose was to prevent another two-front war. A secret provision of the Treaty also divided Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence: Germany would control western Poland and Lithuania while the Soviets would control eastern Poland, eastern Romania, Finland, Estonia and Latvia.

The Outbreak of Hostilities: On September 1, 1939, Hitler launched Operation Fall Weiss, the invasion of Poland. The invasion was preceded by a fake attack on a German radio station by soldiers pretending to be Polish activists. At the same time, Soviet Tanks invaded from the East, and Poland was subdued within a month. The Germans used Panzer ("armored") columns and a new technique: Blitzkrieg ("lightning war") which alarmed Britain and France. An ultimatum to withdraw from Poland was ignored, and Britain and France declared war on Germany. Neville Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister.

Initially, Germany dominated the Atlantic with U-boats which devastated British shipping. U-boats often traveled in wolf packs which neutralized the effectiveness of the convoy system. Even after the discovery of the Enigma Machine which enabled British intelligence to crack the German code, advance knowledge of submarine locations was not always available.

In April, 1940 German forces attacked and occupied Denmark and Norway; then in May they attacked Belgium, the Netherlands and France. All fell quickly, with France signing an armistice in June. In an act of vengeance, Hitler required the French to sign the armistice in the same railroad car in which the World War One armistice had been signed, and at the same location. After the surrender, the car and monument accompanying it were blown up. Mussolini, now convinced that Germany would win the war, entered the conflict on the side of the Axis powers. British forces, trapped against the English Channel, managed a desperate daring escape across the Channel at Dunkirk. Britain now stood alone against Germany.

Hitler then launched Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of Britain. He began with relentless air bombardment by the German air force, the Luftwaffe. Over forty thousand Britons were killed in the air assault as major cities were bombed. The British people rallied at the words of their new Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, who proclaimed, "We will fight them on the beaches, we will fight them on the landing grounds, we will fight them in the hills. We will never surrender." On another occasion, Churchill remarked, "If Hitler were to invade Hell, I should find occasion to speak favorably of the Devil in the House of Commons." Eventually, the Royal Air Force managed to counter German air attacks, and Hitler was forced to call off the planned invasion of Britain. Britainís iconic "last invasion" date of 1066 remained intact.

Hitler then turned on the Soviet Union, notwithstanding his treaty with Stalin. His plan was to create more lebensraum ("breathing space") for the German people whom he considered superior to all others. He also believed the Communist system to be essentially bankrupt: he once remarked to his officers, "You only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down." Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia, was launched June 22, 1941. It was a fatal mistake.

Hitlerís generals had argued forcefully against the invasion. They pointed out that it was the invasion of Russia that had undone Napoleon. Hitler argued back that he knew the mistakes which Napoleon had made, and would not repeat them. The only thing that was in fact was repeated was history. The invasion of Russia proved Hitlerís undoing.

Hitler had underestimated the resolve of Stalin who called the Battle the "Great Patriotic War." The German army of 150 divisions soon faced 360 Soviet divisions. Stalin also ordered entire factories to be dismantled and moved eastward to the Ural Mountains. Soviet industry soon outstripped the German war machine. Additionally, the Soviets received aid and support from the United States, The German advance on Moscow stopped outside the city on Saturday, December 6, 1941. German problems were exacerbated by the Russian winter, which was the most severe in decades. The Germans had been so certain of early victory that they did not supply their troops with winter clothing. The Russians were much better prepared. The cold was so severe that diesel fuel in the German tanks congealed. Prior to snow, the tanks bogged down in the mud of the Russian autumn. The Russians, armed with the famous T-34 tank were able to pick the Germans to pieces. In a last desperate attempt to regain the initiative, German forces moved against the city of Stalingrad in June, 1942, where they hoped to capture the oil fields of the Caucasus. Stalin ordered his troops, "not a step back." Eventually, T-34 tanks counter-surrounded the German forces. Bloody street to street fighting resulted, but the Soviets held their ground.

In the Pacific, Japan occupied French Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) with the blessings of the German controlled Vichy government of France. The United States, alarmed at Japanese aggression, placed an embargo on oil and scrap metal shipments to Japan and demanded that Japan withdraw from China and Indochina. The new Japanese Prime Minister, Hediki Tojo (1884-1948) was forced to choose between succumbing to U.S. demands, or war with the U.S. He chose the latter. On December 7, 1941, Japanese carrier based bombers attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The fleet was under the command of Isukuru Yamamoto, a brilliant naval officer educated in the U.S. who spoke fluent English. In response to the attack, the U.S. declared war on Japan. Hitler and Mussolini in turn declared war on the U.S. on Thursday, December 11, 1941. The U.S. was now joined in both the European and Asian wars.

Japan remained on the attack for the next year, extending its conquest to most of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Malaya, as well as several Aleutian Islands. New Zealand and Australia were within reach. Under the battle cry of "Asia for Asians," they also captured British Singapore. Their efforts to create a "Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" at first appealed to the people of Southeast Asia as an effort to rid the area of European imperialism; however it soon became apparent that the true agenda was "Asia for the Japanese."

Axis war production in neither Asia nor Europe was sufficient to match that of the United States and the Allies. U.S. naval yards built more ships than the Germans could sink, and the tide of battle turned in favor of the Allies. In Eastern Europe, the Red Army repelled the German attack on Stalingrad and pursued the fleeing German army, and inflicted heavy casualties along the way. By 1944, they had reached the outskirts of Berlin, inflicting more than six million casualties on the Germans, more than twice the initial invasion force. At the same time, British and American forces attacked German positions in north Africa and then crossed the Mediterranean into Italy. On June 6, 1944, "D-Day, Allied Forces landed on the coast of Normandy and began a march toward Germany from the West. German forces were overwhelmed; Berlin fell to the Soviets, and Germany was forced to surrender unconditionally on May 8, 1945. A week earlier, on April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in the Fuehrerbunker along with his mistress, Eva Braun, whom he married one day before.

The tide of War in the Pacific turned on June 4, 1942 at Midway Island. Admiral Yamamoto had planned to surprise the surviving American fleet there and destroy it; but thanks to Operation Magic, a code breaking device, the Allies knew of the Japanese plan, and were waiting on them. Much of the Japanese fleet was destroyed; and the Japanese did not have the resources to rebuild large naval losses. The Allies then began a campaign of "island hopping" by which they retook islands in the Marianas and Philippines, and later Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Japanese resistance was savage. At Okinawa, the Japanese first used Kamikaze ("divine wind") pilots to attack Allied battle ships. One hundred ten thousand Okinawan civilians died fighting rather than surrender.

The Japanese islands were now within easy reach. Napalm fire bombs were dropped from low altitude planes at night, inflicting devastating losses. Many Japanese dwellings were made of paper, and burned quickly. The firebombing of Tokyo in March, 1945, destroyed twenty five percent of the city, killed one hundred thousand people, and left another million homeless.

The end came quickly thereafter. On August 6, 1945 at 8:15 a.m. local time, an American bomber dropped an Atomic Bomb which exploded 1100 feet over Hiroshima. Three days later, another bomb was exploded over Nagasaki. The cities were destroyed, and thousands of people instantly vaporized. Others died of radiation poisoning in the days to come. In all, over two hundred thousand people died. On August 8, pursuant to an agreement with the other allies reached at the Yalta Conference, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria. Emperor Hirohito then went on the radio and told the Japanese people they must "bear the unbearable," and surrender unconditionally. The act of unconditional surrender was signed on September 2, 1945 aboard the USS Missouri. The war was over.

At the surrender ceremony, Japanese officials came on board in tuxedoes and tails. The occasion for them, surrender after thousands of years without ever losing a battle, was solemn and formal. The American official who accepted the surrender, General Douglas McArthur, did not share in the formality. He wore an open collared shirt, and never even removed his sun glasses.

Life During the War: Areas under Japanese control were governed by Japanese military personnel. Only Thailand, which allied itself with the Japanese, was granted self-rule, and rewarded with additional territory. In Europe, Hitler allowed the Danes to maintain their government under German supervision and left the civilian government in tact in Norway and Holland, although their governments had gone into exile. France and the Atlantic Coast were ruled by the Vichy government, which answered directly to Berlin. Sadly, General Petain, the hero of the Battle of the Marne of World War One, collaborated with the Nazis and was disgraced after the war. Hitler allowed these governments to remain in tact as he considered the people to be racially superior. In the Balkans and eastern Europe, direct German military rule was imposed.

Both Germany and Japan ruthlessly exploited the resources of conquered areas to fuel their respective war machines, including the use of slave labor. Local populations were forced to work on the war effort for little sustenance. The treatment of many was little more than torture. Many people in conquered areas collaborated with the Axis powers. In Japanese held areas, there was little resentment as local people saw themselves simply exchanging one imperialist power for another. Bureaucrats, police officials and businessmen often collaborated as a means of gaining power and in order to prosper financially. Collaboration often meant turning in friends and neighbors as revenge for past grievances. Anticommunist Belgians, French, Danish and Dutch joined Hitlerís elite military group, the Waffen SS. Several Chinese generals went over to the Japanese side.

Others resisted, using such techniques as sabotage, armed assaults and assassinations. Guerilla fighters blew up ammunition dumps and destroyed communication facilities. The German and Japanese people themselves had no axe to grind; however any lack of compliance would be considered an act of treason. Organizations such as the church and labor unions which might lead resistance had been destroyed. The most notable act of defiance was a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. Several officers and others were executed, some by brutal means, for their participation.

Both the Japanese and Germans were guilty of atrocities. When the SS deputy Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated, the Naziís eliminated the village of Lidice, Czechoslovakia as punishment. When 800 Chinese slave laborers escaped from the Japanese town of Hanaoka, they were hunted down and fifty of them tortured to death.

The most notorious instance of atrocity was the so-called "Final Solution to the Jewish Question," an effort by the Nazis to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Gypsies, Jehovahís Witnesses and Homosexuals were also targeted for elimination. Initially, troops known as SS Einsatzgruppen ("action squads") were sent to kill entire populations of Jews, Gypsies and Slavs. Most were shot and buried in mass graves. Best estimates are that 1.4 million Jews died this way. Later, at the Wansee Conference on January 20, 1942, the "final solution" was worked out: Jews would be evacuated to eastern Poland and there either worked to death or be exterminated. Jews were packed on railroad cars and shipped to camps at places such as Treblinka, Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Inmates were subjected to forced labor, grotesque medical experiments, starvation, and were put to death by flame throwers, hand grenades, machine guns, and eventually in large gas ovens. Over one million Jews perished at Auschwitz alone. Best estimates are that six million Jews perished in the Holocaust.

Women were an integral part of the war effort. Many joined the armed forces although most countries barred them from participation in actual military combat. The exceptions were the women of China and the Soviet Union who did bear arms. Others fought as members of resistance movements. Their status as women made them less suspicious and less subject to be watched. Sadly, the Nazis drew no distinction between men, women, or children. All alike were deported and ultimately executed.

On the home front, women acted as heads of households while the man of the house was away fighting the war. However, after the war they were expected to return to their role as housewife and mother. Although many of their experiences were empowering, some suffered terribly. The Japanese forced over 300,000 women to serve in brothels called "comfort houses" or "consolation centers." They were "presented" to the troops as a gift from the Emperor. Eighty percent of these women came from Korea. They were forced to cater to as many as thirty men each day, and were killed if they tried to escape or contracted a venereal disease. Large numbers of them were massacred as the war came to an end to prevent their discovery.

At least sixty million people died in the War, including twenty million Soviet citizens and fifteen million Chinese, most of whom were civilians.

The Cold War: At the end of the war, the two primary world powers were the United States and the Soviet Union, representing Capitalist or Communist ideologies. In rebuilding Europe and Asia after the war, each side attempted to align postwar areas with itself. The end result was a tense confrontation which lasted another fifty years.

Hitler had at least partially rested his hopes for victory on the belief that the alliance between the Communist Soviets and Capitalist Americans and Britons would not last. The Allies held together during the war, but beneath the surface, tensions existed. Conferences between the Allies at Yalta and Potsdam had planned for "the earliest possible establishment through free elections of governments responsible to the will of the people" in areas freed from German control. However, at the end of the war, the Russian army controlled all of Poland and most of Eastern Germany and Stalin insisted on setting up communist governments in those areas answerable to Moscow. The Soviets occupied eastern Germany and the U.S., Britain and France western Germany. Berlin was divided between the four powers. The hostility between the victorious powers meant that no peace treaty was ever signed. In 1946, Winston Churchill proclaimed that an "Iron Curtain" had fallen over Eastern Europe, with countries behind it controlled by the Soviets. Germany was divided into two countries, East Germany and West Germany. Berlin became a divided city and remained so until 1990.

When communist backed revolts broke out in Greece and Turkey, President Harry S. Truman of the U.S. promulgated the "Truman Doctrine," in which he stated, "I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting armed subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." The Truman Doctrine soon became the policy of containment: which meant preventing the spread of communism beyond its then borders. As part of the Truman Doctrine, the United States formulated the Marshall Plan to rebuild German economies and forestall communist influence. It provided over $14 billion to reconstruct western Europe. The Soviet Union responded with its own plan, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) in 1949. At the same time, military spending on both sides increased. The U.S. joined its first peacetime military alliance, the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) which provided for common defense in the event of attack. The Soviets responded by the creation of a counter alliance, the Warsaw Pact.

Despite ideological differences, the victorious powers did agree to the creation of the United Nations, an organization dedicated to keeping world peace. The final charter was signed at San Francisco in 1945. It provided for a Security Council to maintain world peace with rotating memberships; however five member nations held permanent seats and each could exercise absolute veto power over Council decisions. The five permanent members were the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China.