Hemisphere Defense or Sea Command: America’s Choice in 1940

Map of a proposed hemispheric defense for the United States from Life magazine, July 8, 1940
Map of a proposed hemispheric defense for the United States from Life magazine, July 8, 1940

On the eve of America’s entry into World War II, George Fielding Eliot reported for Life magazine that the country essentially had three ways to defend itself against an Axis invasion.

He rejected the first option, a purely defensive strategy, out of hand. Protecting just the United States, the Caribbean, the Panama Canal and Samoa, but not Canada, Greenland, Newfoundland and South America, would allow Germany and Japan to gain footholds in the Americas.

The whole of military history rises up to warn us that this is the inevitable prelude to defeat.

The choice, he argued, was between hemisphere defense and sea command. Read more

The Rise and Fall of Japan’s Empire in Maps

Japan's imperial ambitions as depicted in the 1945 American propaganda film Why We Fight: War Comes to America
Japan’s imperial ambitions as depicted in the 1945 American propaganda film Why We Fight: War Comes to America

It is debatable when the history of the Japanese Empire began. One can go back to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, but wasn’t the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, fought over influence in Korea, really the starting point of Japanese imperialism?

Or the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War? Fought for influence in Korea as well as Manchuria.

Or 1910, when Japan annexed Korea?

A watershed moment came in 1931, when Japan occupied Manchuria. There was no doubt at that point the island nation had become a colonial and an expansionist power. Read more

The Octopus in Political Cartoons

Octopuses are a popular trope in political art. They came in vogue in the 1870s, when Frederick W. Rose depicted Russia as a giant octopus lording over Eastern Europe. The sea monster was quickly given to Germany when it posed a bigger threat to peace in Europe. During the early Cold War, it was Russia’s turn again. The octopus was the perfect metaphor for spreading communism.

Here is a selection of the best and worst tentacled sea creatures. Read more

Hitler’s Feared Invasion of the Middle East

Map of Nazi-occupied Europe and possible Middle East invasion routes, from Life magazine, May 5, 1941
Map of Nazi-occupied Europe and possible Middle East invasion routes, from Life magazine, May 5, 1941

In the spring of 1941, Nazi Germany controlled of all of Western Europe and the question was where Adolf Hitler would strike next? Would he finally attempt an invasion of Great Britain? Or would he move into the Middle East instead and grab the oilfields? (Few anticipated at the time he would break his nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union.)

Life magazine argued that year that an invasion of the Middle East by way of North Africa was most likely. This would allow Hitler to avoid aggravating the United States on the one hand, which might get involved if Germany invaded England, and Turkey on the other, which had resisted German overtures for an alliance.

“The one little hitch is the open space of water between Italy and the African mainland,” the magazine wrote, otherwise known as the Mediterranean Sea. Read more

How the Nazis Planned to Invade Great Britain

The Nazi whale swallows the Jonah Britain in the 1943 American propaganda film Why We Fight: The Battle of Britain
The Nazi whale swallows the Jonah Britain in the 1943 American propaganda film Why We Fight: The Battle of Britain

After Germany had overrun France and the Low Countries in the spring of 1940, an invasion of Britain — the only free nation left in Europe — seemed like a distinct possibility. German fighter planes and bombers waged a months-long air war with their British counterparts over the Channel and the south of England that summer. The Germans meant to follow up with an amphibious assault once the Luftwaffe had established air superiority.

Of course, the Germans never got there. Prime Minister Winston Churchill congratulated Britain’s airmen in August, saying they had “unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger” and were “turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion.”

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” he said.

The British had been outnumbered and outgunned yet managed to fend off the Nazi air assault and give Adolf Hitler his first defeat.

Even if they had failed, though, it is doubtful the Germans could have pulled off an invasion. Read more

The Axis Invasion of America That Never Came

A possible German invasion of North America as depicted in the 1945 American propaganda film Why We Fight: War Comes to America
A possible German invasion of North America as depicted in the 1945 American propaganda film Why We Fight: War Comes to America

The Axis powers in World War II never really had any plans to invade the continental United States. The Nazis hoped to keep the Americans out of the war altogether. As late as the spring of 1941, Adolf Hitler said a German invasion of the Western Hemisphere was as fantastical as an invasion of the Moon.

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December of that year did prompt the Germans to develop long-range bombers that could reach the East Coast. But although Hitler started speaking grandly of a future contest between America and Germany, no preparations for war were made.

Nor did the Japanese think seriously about conquering the United States. Some advocated seizing Hawaii and Japan briefly occupied the leutian Islands in Alaska, but that was it.

Of course, that’s what we know now. Things looked very different in the winter of 1941, when America unexpectedly found itself at war with both the Empire of Japan and a Nazi Germany that dominated Europe. Read more

The German National Redoubt That Wasn’t

German gun positions on the Kneifelspitze in the Berchtesgaden Alps, 1944
German gun positions on the Kneifelspitze in the Berchtesgaden Alps, 1944

As the war in Europe drew to a close, the Western Allies convinced themselves that the fall of Berlin would not be the end of it. The Nazis, they believed, would hunker down in the Austrian and Bavarian Alps and continue the war from a formidable Alpenfestung in the mountains.

Time magazine, in February 1945, predicted that top Nazi officials, accompanied by Hitler Youth fanatics and dedicated SS officers, would retreat, “behind a loyal rearguard cover of Volksgrenadiere and Volksstürmer, to the Alpine massif which reaches from southern Bavaria across western Austria to northern Italy.” Read more