November 20, 2014 20:39 UTC

The Making of a Nation

American History: US Declares War on Japan, Germany and Italy

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, center, walking through a desert village in Egypt
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, center, walking through a desert village in Egypt

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STEVE EMBER: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember.

(MUSIC)

Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in December of nineteen forty-one was one of the most successful surprise attacks in the history of modern warfare. Japanese warships, including several aircraft carriers, crossed the western Pacific to Hawaii without being seen. They launched their planes on a quiet Sunday morning and attacked the huge American naval and air base at Pearl Harbor

(SOUND: Pearl Harbor attack)

ANNOUNCER: “We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin: The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by air, President Roosevelt has just announced.”

ANNOUNCER: “The attack apparently was made on all naval and military activities on the principal island of Oahu. A Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor naturally would mean war.”

STEVE EMBER: Many of the American sailors were asleep or at church. They were unprepared for the attack. In fact, some people outside the base thought the Japanese planes must be new types of American aircraft on training flights. The sounds of guns and bombs soon showed how wrong they were.

The Japanese planes sank or seriously damaged six powerful American battleships in just a few minutes. They killed more than three thousand sailors. They destroyed or damaged half the American airplanes in Hawaii.

The USS California after being struck by a torpedo and a bomb during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor
The USS California after being struck by a torpedo and a bomb during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

American forces, caught by surprise, were unable to offer much of a fight. Japanese losses were very low.

There was so much destruction at Pearl Harbor that officials in Washington did not immediately reveal the full details to the public. They were afraid that Americans might panic if they learned the truth about the loss of so much military power.

The following day, President Franklin Roosevelt went to Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Japan.

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: “Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, members of the Senate, and of the House of Representatives:

"Yesterday, December seventh, nineteen forty-one -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor, looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific …

"No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory…

"We will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us …

"I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, nineteen forty-one, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

STEVE EMBER: The Senate approved President Roosevelt's request without any opposition. In the House of Representatives, only one congressman objected to the declaration of war against Japan.

(MUSIC)

Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Congress reacted by declaring war on those two countries.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ended the long American debate over whether to become involved in the Second World War. American politicians and citizens had argued for years about whether to remain neutral or to fight to help Britain and France and other friends.

An American soldier in training
An American soldier in training

Japan's aggressive attack at Pearl Harbor united Americans in a common desire for military victory. It made Americans willing to do whatever was necessary to win the war. And it pushed America into a kind of world leadership that its people had never known before.

President Franklin Roosevelt and his advisers had to make an important decision about how to fight the war. Would the United States fight Japan first, or Germany, or both at the same time?

Japan's attack had brought America into the war. And it had severely damaged American military power. But Roosevelt decided not to strike back at Japan immediately. He would use most of his forces to fight Germany.

There were several reasons for Roosevelt's decision. First, Germany already controlled much of Europe, as well as much of the Atlantic Ocean. Roosevelt considered this a direct threat. And he worried about possible German intervention in Latin America.

Second, Germany was an advanced industrial nation. It had many scientists and engineers. Its factories were modern. Roosevelt was concerned that Germany might be able to develop deadly new weapons, such as an atomic bomb, if it was not stopped quickly.

Third, Britain historically was one of America's closest allies. And the British people were united and fighting for their lives against Germany. This was not true in Asia. Japan's most important opponent was China. But China's fighting forces were weak and divided, and could not offer strong opposition to the Japanese.

(MUSIC)

Adolf Hitler's decision to break his treaty with Soviet leader Josef Stalin and attack the Soviet Union made Roosevelt's choice final. The American leader recognized that the Germans would have to fight on two fronts: in the west against Britain and in the east against Russia.

He decided it was best to attack Germany while its forces were divided. So the United States sent most of its troops and supplies to Britain to join the fight against Germany.

American military leaders hoped to attack Germany quickly by launching an attack across the English Channel. Stalin also supported this plan. Soviet forces were suffering terrible losses from the Nazi attack and wanted the British and Americans to fight the Germans on the west.

However, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and other leaders opposed launching an invasion across the English Channel too quickly. They worried that such an invasion might fail, while the Germans were still so strong. And they knew this would mean disaster.

For this reason, British and American forces decided instead to attack the Italian and German troops occupying North Africa.

British forces had been fighting the Italians and Germans in North Africa since late nineteen forty. They fought the Italians first in Egypt and Libya. British forces had successfully pushed the Italians across Libya. They killed more than ten thousand Italian troops and captured more than one hundred thirty thousand prisoners.

But the British success did not last long. Hitler sent one of his best commanders, General Erwin Rommel, to take command of the Italians. Rommel was brave and smart. He pushed the British back from Libya to the border with Egypt. And in a giant battle at Tobruk, he destroyed or captured more than eight hundred of Britain's nine hundred tanks.

(SOUND: Rommel’s tanks)

Rommel's progress threatened Egypt and the Suez Canal. So Britain and the United States moved quickly to send more troops and supplies to stop him.

Slowly, British forces led by General Bernard Montgomery pushed Rommel and the Germans back to Tripoli in Libya.

Erwin Rommel
Erwin Rommel

In November nineteen forty-two, American and British forces commanded by General Dwight Eisenhower landed in northwest Africa. They planned to attack Rommel from the west, while Montgomery attacked him from the east.

But Rommel knew Eisenhower's troops had done little fighting before. So he attacked them quickly before they could launch their own attack.

A major battle took place at Kasserine Pass in western Tunisia. American forces suffered heavy losses. But in the end Rommel's attack failed. Three months later, American forces joined with Montgomery's British troops to force the Germans in North Africa to surrender.

The battle of North Africa was over. The allied forces of Britain and the United States had regained control of the southern Mediterranean Sea. They could now attack Hitler's forces in Europe from the south.

(SOUND)

The Allies wasted no time. They landed on the Italian island of Sicily in July of nineteen forty-three. German tanks fought back. But the British and American forces moved ahead. Soon they captured Sicily's capital, Palermo. And within weeks, they forced the German forces to leave Sicily for the Italian mainland.

In late July, Italy's dictator, Benito Mussolini, was overthrown and placed in prison. The Germans rescued him and helped him establish a new government, protected by German troops. But still the Allies attacked.

They crossed to the Italian mainland. The Germans fought hard. And for some time, they prevented the allied troops from breaking out of the coastal areas.

The fighting grew bloodier. A fierce battle took place at Monte Cassino. Thousands and thousands of soldiers lost their lives. But slowly the allies advanced north through Italy. They captured Rome in June of nineteen forty-four. And they forced the Germans back into the mountains of northern Italy.

The allies would not gain complete control of Italy until the end of the war. But they had succeeded in increasing their control of the Mediterranean and pushing back the Germans.

One reason Hitler's forces were not stronger in Africa and Italy was because German armies also were fighting in Russia. That will be our story next week.

(MUSIC)

Our program was written by David Jarmul. You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and pictures at voaspecialenglish.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. I’m Steve Ember, inviting you to join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.

___

This was program #191. For earlier programs, type "Making of a Nation" in quotation marks in the search box at the top of the page.

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