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The Arsenal of Democracy

The prospects for an Axis victory led the United States to take its first tentative steps toward direct involvement in the war. In 1941, 70 percent of the American public favored backing Britain against Hitler, even at the risk of war; 70 percent of the same public wanted to stay out of that war, encouraged by such prominent figures as Charles Lindbergh and the American ambassador to Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy. A year earlier, attitudes were much the same. Roosevelt became convinced that he needed to remain in the White House for an unprecedented third term to bring about the rearmament of a reluctant nation. Somehow, he had to engineer his nomination and election without providing an opening for a challenger from the isolationist wing of his own party.

In September 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt approved the transfer of 50 destroyers to Britain, in return for a lease on British bases in the Caribbean. As Britain's prospects deteriorated, he pushed constantly against the boundaries of the Neutrality Act with every ploy he could imagine, all the while denying any desire to take America to war. That September, the United States initiated a peacetime Selective Service and a partial mobilization of the National Guard. In December 1940, Roosevelt announced the United States would provide military supplies to Britain under a policy termed "lend-lease." The President justified his actions by declaring that the United States must become the "arsenal of democracy." In the summer of 1941, Roosevelt ordered the Navy to escort merchant convoys as far as Iceland. This order resulted in an undeclared war between American destroyers and German submarines, and led to the sinking of the destroyer Reuben James by the Germans on 31 October 1941.

Historians of America's total military and logistic effort in World War II may well agree that the eighteen months of preparations before Pearl Harbor played a crucial, if not decisive, part in the outcome of the war. During this period the Military establishment of the United States was rehabilitated and the foundation laid for America's tremendous war production achievement. The RAINBOW plans were the war plans to defeat Italy, Germany and Japan. RAINBOW V, the plan in effect on 7 December 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, was the plan the US used to fight the Axis powers.

World War II affected Americans on the home front in ways that varied from the selection of movies to rationing of consumer goods. A crucial element of the home front effort was the mobilization of resources in support of the fighting forces. The tremendous mobilization of resources made the Allied victory possible. Mobilization included the training of personnel, and the production of weapons, ammunition, and equipment. These activities required an extensive domestic construction program to build the facilities necessary to train and equip the Allied forces. The military of the late 1930s lacked the materiel readiness to fight a sustained war, especially using the blitzkrieg tactics of World War II. The requirements for supplying materiel to Britain and the Soviet Union further amplified the challenges of industrial production.

Type 1940 1941 1942 1943 1944 1945 Total
Very Heavy Bombers 0 0 4 91 1,147 2,657 3,899
Heavy Bombers 19 181 2,241 8,695 13,057 3,681 27,874
Medium Bombers 24 326 2,429 3,989 3,636 1,432 11,836
Light Bombers 16 373 1,153 2,247 2,276 1,720 7,785
Fighters 187 1,727 5,213 11,766 18,291 10,591 47,775
Reconnaissance 10 165 195 320 241 285 1,216
Transports 5 133 1,264 5,072 6,430 3,043 15,947
Trainers 948 5,585 11,004 11,246 4,861 825 34,469
Communication/ Liaison 0 233 2,945 2,463 1,608 2,020 9,269
Total by Year 1,209 8,723 26,448 45,889 51,547 26,254 160,070
In January 1939, President Roosevelt was already aware of the relative weakness of the Army's air arm. He advocated an immediate expansion of the Air Corps to bring it in line with the air forces of rival powers. In April 1939, Congress responded with an authorization to expand the Air Corps to 6,000 aircraft. In mid-1940, as Hitler's blitzkrieg rumbled through France, Roosevelt had called for a 50,000 plane Air Corps supported by production levels of 50,000 planes per year. It was clear to Army Air Forces leadership that a massive expansion would be necessary for US air power to play the decisive role it anticipated for itself in World War II.

Immediately after the fall of France in June 1940, the Navy also initiated an expansion program. On 19 July 1940, less than a month after the French surrender, Congress authorized the acquisition of 13 battleships, 6 aircraft carriers, 32 cruisers, 39 submarines, and 101 destroyers. The carriers were of the Essex variety, which constituted the backbone of the Pacific fleet in the forthcoming war. The increased number of ships was accompanied by a comparable expansion of shore facilities.

Though the conversion to wartime production in 1940 and 1941 provided a transition to declared war, even greater efforts were required after the United States entered the war. The industrial mobilization process begun during the protective mobilization phase intensified until the United States could overwhelm the Axis powers with its material resources.

Despite the shortages of raw materials, American industry soon began the transition to wartime production. Automobile factories converted their production lines to military vehicles, and other factories made similar conversions. Where existing facilities were unsuited for munitions production, new factories or shipyards were constructed to meet the production requirements. As the war progressed, the logistical advantages of the United States provided a crucial edge to the Allies. As the Axis powers gradually lost their war production capabilities to Allied bombing, the Allies increased their capabilities until the final defeat of Germany and Japan.

The ability of the United States to project its power depended on sea control. In the Atlantic, Britain and the United States faced a serious threat from German submarines. This threat called into question the ability of the Grand Alliance to bring about the complete defeat of Nazi Germany. By working closely with the navies of Britain and Canada, by building large numbers of merchant vessels and warships, and by devising innovative methods and new weapons for antisubmarine warfare, the United States contributed to Germany's defeat in the so-called Battle of the Atlantic. Allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic was a precondition for the defeat of Germany.

The scope of the American contribution to the war against Germany and Italy started modestly and grew to enormous proportions. At the beginning of the North African invasion, the United States could provide only one corps. By the close of the war, six numbered American armies operated in western Europe, although the Fifteenth Army was not organized until the end of the war. Americans provided 61 of 91 Allied divisions in the western Europe theater of operations, plus 7 of 18 divisions in Italy. Four of the six Allied tactical air commands were American. Even these figures do not represent the full American contribution to the Allied victory. The United States provided ammunition, equipment, and other essential military supplies to British and Russian forces.



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