Japan uses skirmish with Chinese troops as pretext to begin World War II

On July 7, 1937, a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese troops broke out at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peking. 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.

Japanese soldiers attack Wanping town in 1937. Public domain.

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.




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 USS 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.

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 Soviet leader Josef Stalin agreed to put their mutual hatred aside. Germany and the Soviet Union signed a ten-year non-aggression 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.

This work by The Independence Hall Association is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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World War I completely transformed the American army into a top-rate force

World War I was the first time in American history that the United States sent soldiers abroad to defend foreign soil. On April 6, 1917, when the United States declared war against Germany, the nation had a standing army of 127,500 officers and soldiers. By the end of the war, four million men had served in the United States Army, with an additional 800,000 in other military service branches.

Once war was declared, the army attempted to mobilize the troops very quickly. The fatigued British and French troops, who had been fighting since August 1914, sorely needed the relief offered by the American forces. In May 1917, General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing (pictured above) was designated the supreme commander of the American army in France, and the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) were created.

Pershing and his staff soon realized how ill-prepared the United States was to transport large numbers of soldiers and necessary equipment to the front, where supplies, rations, equipment, and trained soldiers were all in short supply. Since even the transport ships needed to bring American troops to Europe were scarce, the army pressed into service cruise ships, seized German ships, and borrowed Allied ships to transport American soldiers from New York, New Jersey, and Virginia.

The mobilization effort taxed the limits of the American military and required new organizational strategies and command structures to transport great numbers of troops and supplies quickly and efficiently.




Although the first American troops arrived in Europe in June 1917, the AEF did not fully participate at the front until October, when the First Division, one of the best-trained divisions of the AEF, entered the trenches at Nancy, France. Pershing wanted an American force that could operate independently of the other Allies, but his vision could not be realized until adequately trained troops with sufficient supplies reached Europe.

Training schools in America sent their best men to the front, and Pershing also established facilities in France to train new arrivals for combat.

Throughout 1917 and into 1918, American divisions were usually employed to augment French and British units in defending their lines and in staging attacks on German positions. Beginning in May 1918, with the first United States victory at Cantigny, AEF commanders increasingly assumed sole control of American forces in combat. By July 1918, French forces often were assigned to support AEF operations.

During the Battle of St. Mihiel, beginning September 12, 1918, Pershing commanded the American First Army, comprising seven divisions and more than 500,000 men, in the largest offensive operation ever undertaken by United States armed forces.

This successful offensive was followed by the Battle of Argonne, lasting from September 27 to October 6, 1918, during which Pershing commanded more than one million American and French soldiers. In these two military operations, Allied forces recovered more than two hundred square miles of French territory from the German army.

U.S. Army forces in action in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Source: Wikipedia

By the time Germany signed the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the American Expeditionary Forces had evolved into a modern, combat-tested army recognized as one of the best in the world. The United States had sustained more than 320,000 casualties in the First World War, including over 53,000 killed in action, over 63,000 non-combat related deaths, mainly due to the influenza pandemic of 1918, and 204,000 wounded.



In less than two years the United States had established new motorized and combat forces, equipped them with all types of ordnance including machine guns and tanks, and created an entirely new support organization capable of moving supplies thousands of miles in a timely manner.

World War I provided the United States with valuable strategic lessons and an officer corps that would become the nucleus for mobilizing and commanding sixteen million American military personnel in World War II.

(c) Library of Congress. Used with permission.

Germany forces a neutral America to enter World War I

Since the days of George Washington, Americans struggled to remain protected by the mighty oceans on its border. When European conflicts erupted, as they frequently did, many in the United States claimed exceptionalism. America was different. Why get involved in Europe’s self-destruction?

When Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife were killed in cold blood in the summer of 1914, thus igniting the most destructive war in human history, the initial reaction in the United States was the expected will for neutrality. As a nation of immigrants, The United States would have difficulty picking a side. Despite the obvious ties to Britain based on history and language, there were many United States citizens who claimed Germany and Austria-Hungary as their parent lands. Support of either the ALLIES or the CENTRAL POWERS might prove divisive.

In the early days of the war, as Britain and France struggled against Germany, American leaders decided it was in the national interest to continue trade with all sides as before. A neutral nation cannot impose an embargo on one side and continue trade with the other and retain its neutral status. In addition, United States merchants and manufacturers feared that a boycott would cripple the American economy. Great Britain, with its powerful navy, had different ideas. A major part of the British strategy was to impose a blockade on Germany. American trade with the Central Powers simply could not be permitted. The results of the blockade were astonishing. Trade with England and France more than tripled between 1914 and 1916, while trade with Germany was cut by over ninety percent. It was this situation that prompted submarine warfare by the Germans against Americans at sea.

German U-boat Warfare

With American trade becoming more and more lopsided toward the Allied cause, many feared that it was only a matter of time before the United States would be at war. The issue that propelled most American fence sitters to side with the British was German submarine warfare.




The British, with the world’s largest navy, had effectively shut down German maritime trade. Because there was no hope of catching the British in numbers of ships, the Germans felt that the SUBMARINEwas their only key to survival. One “U-BOAT” could surreptitiously sink many battleships, only to slip away unseen. This practice would stop only if the British would lift their blockade.

Sinking the Lusitania

The isolationist American public had little concern if the British and Germans tangled on the high seas. The incident that changed everything was the sinking of the LUSITANIA. The Germans felt they had done their part to warn Americans about the danger of overseas travel.

The German government purchased advertisement space in American newspapers warning that Americans who traveled on ships carrying war contraband risked submarine attack. When the Lusitania departed New York, the Germans believed the massive passenger ship was loaded with munitions in its cargo hold. On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the ship without warning, sending 1,198 passengers, including 128 Americans, to an icy grave. The Lusitania, as it turned out, was carrying over 4 million rounds of ammunition.

President Woodrow Wilson was enraged. The British were breaking the rules, but the Germans were causing deaths.

Wilson’s Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, recommended a ban on American travel on any ships of nations at war. Wilson preferred a tougher line against the German Kaiser. He demanded an immediate end to submarine warfare, prompting Bryan to resign in protest. The Germans began a 2-year practice of pledging to cease submarine attacks, reneging on that pledge, and issuing it again under U.S. protest.

Wilson had other reasons for leaning toward the Allied side. He greatly admired the British government, and democracy in any form was preferable to German authoritarianism. The historical ties with Britain seemed to draw the United States closer to that side.

Many Americans felt a debt to France for their help in the American Revolution. Several hundred volunteers, appropriately named the LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLES, already volunteered to fight with the French in 1916. In November of that year, Wilson campaigned for re-election with a peace platform. “He kept us out of war,” read his campaign signs, and Americans narrowly returned him to the White House. But peace was not to be.

This work by The Independence Hall Association is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.