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The Road to Pearl Harbor

50c. War Breaks Out

German Troops
German troops parade through Warsaw in September 1939 following their invasion of Poland. Britain and France responded to this action with declarations of war against Germany. World War II was officially underway.

On July 7, 1937, a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese troops broke out at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing. The cause of the fracas is unknown, but the Japanese government used it as a pretext to launch a full-scale invasion of China. Hoping to deliver a quick knockout punch, the Japanese furiously bombed Chinese cities and advanced with their better-equipped army. Despite enduring heavy losses, the Chinese regrouped in the interior of their vast land and mounted an entrenched resistance.

Reports of the "rape of Nanking," the sacking of the Chinese capital reached the American mainland in the summer of 1937. The brutalities prompted President Roosevelt to abandon cooperation with Congressional isolationists to pursue a more forceful approach against the Japanese.

Neville Chamberlain, Edouard Daladier, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler
The Munich Pact of 1938 recognized Germany's claim to the Sudetenland and Italy's claim to Ethiopia in exchange for the promise of no further aggressions. This memorial sheet depicts Neville Chamberlain and Eduardo Daladier, the leaders of Britain and France, standing opposite Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

In October 1937, he delivered his famous Quarantine Speech in Chicago. For the first time, Roosevelt advocated collective action to stop the epidemic aggression. But his hopes of igniting American sensibilities failed. Even when a Japanese plane bombed the USS Panay on December 12, there was no cry for a response. The Panay had been stationed in China on the Yangtze River. Japan apologized and paid an indemnity and the incident was soon forgotten, despite the loss of three American lives. Compared to the public response to the sinking of the Maine in 1898, the American people hardly mustered a whisper.

Emboldened by western inaction, Hitler's troops marched into Austria in 1938 and annexed the country. Then Hitler set his eyes upon the Sudetenland, a region in western Czechoslovakia inhabited by 3.5 million Germans. In September the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy met in Munich attempting to diffuse a precarious situation.

Britain and France recognized Hitler's claim to the Sudetenland and Mussolini's conquest of Ethiopia in exchange for the promise of no future aggressions. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to Great Britain triumphantly proclaiming that he had achieved "peace in our time." It would be one of the most mocked statements of the 20th century.

Map of Sudetenland
This map of Czechoslovakia shows the fierce land-grabbing that took place in the Fall of 1938. Hungary, Germany, and Poland all managed to claim a piece as their own.

European appeasement failed six months later, as Hitler mockingly marched his troops into the rest of Czechoslovakia.

In May 1939, Roosevelt urged Congressional leaders to repeal the arms embargo of the earlier Neutrality Acts. Senators from both parties refused the request. Another bombshell crossed the Atlantic on August 24. Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin agreed to put their mutual hatred aside. Germany and the Soviet Union signed a ten-year nonaggression pact. Hitler was now free to seize the territory Germany had lost to Poland as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. On September 1, 1939, Nazi troops crossed into Poland from the west.

Finally, on September 3, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. World War II had begun.

On the Web
Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall
The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, built during the 1980s in Jiangdongmen, China, is the final resting place of victims of the Nanking Massacre of 1937. This virtual Memorial Hall is a tribute to the many victims. Warning: graphic pictures and text underscore the brutality.
Roosevelt's "Quarantine the Aggressor" Speech
Likening the international situation to an infection, FDR called for a quarantine of the illness in this 1937 address. Roosevelt spoke of a spreading "epidemic of world lawlessness" that, like a disease, must be quarantined to prevent others in the world community from being infected.
Nazi-Soviet Relations 1939-1941
The Avalon Project at Yale Law provides several documents seized from the German Foreign Office in 1945. Read the correspondence that charts the evolution of diplomacy between Germany and the Soviet Union, culminating in their non-aggression treaty of 1939. "I believe I may say to you, Duce, that through the negotiations with Soviet Russia a completely new situation in world politics has been produced." -Adolf Hitler to Benito Mussolini, 1939.
The Sudetenland
Control of the Sudetenland had long been a point of contention between Germany and Czechoslovakia. Although the region's inhabitants were mostly German-speaking, treaties had granted possession of the Sudetenland to Czechoslovakia — until the Munich Agreement of 1938. This website offers background on the predicament of the Sudetenland and offers links to maps, photos, personal accounts and more on the Munich Agreement.
Primary Documents: United Kingdom
When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain left the Munich Conference in September 1938, he believed he had scored a victory in his negotiations with Hitler and Mussolini. Stepping from the plane on his return to England, he waved the printed statement he would later make public. Read the text here, at the Brigham Young University website on British primary documents.
War and Crises in Europe and Asia: 1937-40
For an in-depth account of war and aggression in Asia and Europe between 1937 and 1940, open this online book to Chapter 21. Heavy on detail and strategy, and very light on commentary. Follow inline links to maps of the locations mentioned in the text.
I believe it is peace for our time ... Go home and get a nice quiet sleep. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain claimed a diplomatic victory after meeting with Hitler and Mussolini in 1938.
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In a secret addendum to the Nazi-Soviet Nonagression Pact, Germany and the Soviet Union agreed on how they would divvy up Eastern Europe.
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