Thursday, December 07, 2006

Start of World War II

Today is December 7, the 65th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Coincidentally, starting about two weeks ago the U.S. media started pointing out that the war in Iraq had "lasted longer than World War II".

Now, this is one of the reasons people in other countries get upset with Americans. There's a certain amount of insular arrogance that suggests that the Iraq War, which began in 2003, has now been going on for "longer than World War II". This statement is true only if you think World War II began, oh, on December 7, 1941.

What the media meant is that the U.S.'s participation in the Iraq War has gone on longer than the U.S.'s participation in World War II. One "media outlet" got it right... and that was The Daily Show, whose British correspondant pointed out that Britain had been in World War II since September 3, 1939. (Okay, so not all U.S. media news claimed that the war was "longer than World War II". But CNN and FOX News did.)

This does bring up the question of when, exactly, did World War II begin. The traditionally accepted date is September 3, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, prompting Britain and France to declare war on Germany (followed soon after by Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and other Commonwealth nations).

The trick with World War II is that it was actually several conflicts that occurred at the same time. The primary conflict was Germany versus France and the British Commonwealth. When Germany invaded Poland, soon after the Soviet Union aided Germany in the partitioning of Poland. Although both Germany and the U.S.S.R. knew that they would be at odds eventually, they were technically allies at the time. Germany wouldn't fight the Soviet Union until June 22, 1941, when Germany invaded the U.S.S.R.

So, Germany seems to be the central figure in World War II, and it was, but the war wasn't considered over until August 15, 1945, V-J Day (Victory Over Japan; sometimes called V-P Day, for Victory in the Pacific, and celebrated in the U.S. on August 14 as that is when the people of the U.S. found out the war was over due to time zone differences). V-E Day (Victory in Europe) commemorates the surrender of the German army on May 8, 1945. If World War II was central to Germany, why is it not considered over until Japan was defeated?

That's a good question. The two theatres of operation were like two separate wars. You could argue, though, that the central power in the war was not Germany, but Britain. Britain declared war on Germany, and Britain was one of the countries attacked in early December, 1945. With the signing of Japan's surrender, Britain was no longer at war.

The United States came into the war rather late, for political reasons. And, in fact, it did not enter voluntarily. Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor, and Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. on December 11, 1941. With the U.S. entry into the war, and all three major Axis powers at war with the U.S., the European and Pacific wars have gelled into World War II.

What's interesting is that the Second Sino-Japanese War is still considered apart from World War II, at least in the west. Japan invaded Chinese-owned Manchuria in 1931 due to an incident created by the Japanese. On July 7, 1937 Japan invaded China. This became the Second Sino-Japanese War. It did not end until September 9, 1945, after the peace declaration was signed between Japan and the U.s. and the British Commonwealth.

If you look up information about the Rape of Nanking, or the Second Sino-Japanese War in a book store, you will find it in the World War II section. For this reason, some have suggested that the true boundary of World War II is July 7, 1937 to September 9, 1945, and it is only Western bias that fails to recognize the start of, and importance, of this conflict. After all, it was the Second Sino-Japanese War that prompted Britain and the U.S. to embargo Japan, which resulted in Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

In other words, depending on who you talk to in the world, the Second World War lasted just over eight years, or just shy of six years. In either case, the war was much longer than the three years and eight months the American press is currently using to compare it to Iraq. For it to truly be longer than World War II, we will have to see U.S. troops in Iraq in 2009 or 2011... neither of which are out of the realm of feasibility.


Michael said...

I've always been partial to the argument that there really was only one World War, and that it began with the Hapsburg invasion of Serbia in July 1914 and ended with the close of fighting in the Pacific in September of 1945. Though I would entertain arguments that the world war didn't actually end until the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.

Perhaps the '89 date is nit-picky, but I think you can make a really strong case that the "first" world war elided into the "second" with a break of only a decade -- the so-called "peace" was just a pause while Japan and Italy let their resentments stew and Germany worked through the shock of collapse and humiliation.

Of course, now that I'm going down this path I realize that the first world war was in large part caused by France's desire to settle the unfinished business of revenge for defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. So perhaps the "world war" was a century-long spasm, the world's reaction to Prussia's discovery of imperialist nationalism as a source of identity and power.

Which takes me back to Napoleon. Oy.

Allan Goodall said...

I've always been partial to the argument that there really was only one World War, and that it began with the Hapsburg invasion of Serbia in July 1914 and ended with the close of fighting in the Pacific in September of 1945.

The trouble with this definition is that there was a cessation of hostilities and a demobilization of armies by the main participants, and at least two participants changed sides from World War I to World War II (Italy and Japan, though in Italy's case weren't they nominally supporting the Triple Alliance at the beginning of the Great War?). That sort of argues against it being all one war.

As you point out, wars rarely happen in a vacuum. They result in long chains of circumstances, for the most part.

In fact, the current period of peace between the nations of Europe is the exception rather than the rule. The reason we have peace in most of Europe (aside from internal struggles) is that every nation needs every other nation to trade with. Once you link economies together, the chance of armed conflict disappears. Attacking the other guys is going to harm you just as badly.

I'd like to think that the United Nations has something to do with it, but I doubt it.

Michael said...

[A]t least two participants changed sides from World War I to World War II (Italy and Japan, though in Italy's case weren't they nominally supporting the Triple Alliance at the beginning of the Great War?)

If you're going to be picky, Italy changed sides three times during the course of the long war: in July 1914 Italy was, as you say, a member of the Central Powers, and was persuaded to join the Entente; after the Versailles Treaty (Italy behaved rather badly during the conference) she adopted fascism and became Germany's pal; and in 1943 she abandoned Germany and joined the Allies.

Yes, there was an actual peace treaty signed and a demobilization. But a number of people on both sides of the 1914-18 conflict accepted that this was going to be a temporary thing because of the flawed nature of the Versailled Treaty. (Keynes wrote an entire book about it.) People also recognized, right after 1919, that Japan and the U.S. would be fighting sooner rather than later, because of Japan's feeling of having been cheated and discriminated against at Versailles.

No argument that many, if not most, people and politicians in the democracies wanted the Versailles Treaty to mark an end of things, but at least two of the "winners" of 1914-18 (Japan and Italy) began re-arming almost immediately after 1919.

I would also argue that it's a bit optimistic to argue that the current peace in Europe is the result of trade interdependency. The period between, say, 1880 and 1914 was considered the Golden Age of free trade, also known as the first period of globalization. Didn't make any difference in 1914. Might not make any difference again. What really keeps the peace in Europe, I suspect, is simply the realization, at both an individual and a national level, that another war like the last one will leave nothing worth rebuilding. The pessimist in me knows that something could always come up that makes people forget or deny this.