War’s start not always tidy, timely, or agreed upon, say The National World War II Museum historians
NEW ORLEANS (September 3, 2009) – Seventy years ago, on Sept. 3, 1939, Great Britain and France, responding to the Nazi invasion of Poland Sept. 1, declared war on Germany, thus fixing the start date of World War II forever for generations to come. But is the date correct? Though most Europeans might say yes, the beginning of the planet’s biggest conflict isn’t so cut and dry according to historians associated with The National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
When Germany sent its troops into Poland, there were several regional conflicts around the globe that would become caught up in the gigantic conflict, but nothing that involved a coordinated fight spanning oceans and continents. Japan had occupied large areas of China, but was still fighting with the Chinese government expending both treasure and blood. Mussolini, meanwhile, had invaded and occupied Ethiopia in Africa. Hitler’s attack on the Poles could be considered another localized fight.
“The German invasion of Poland on September 1 certainly marked the start of a general European war,” says Dr. Donald L. Miller, the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History at Lafayette College in Easton, PA. “But that was not a global conflict, it would not become one until after Pearl Harbor brought America into the fight.”
“Even then, the bombing of the American naval fleet in Hawaii on December 7, 1941 didn’t make the war a totally global one” says Miller a member of the Museum’s Presidential Counselors advisory board. “US anger was directed at the Empire of Japan, not Fascist Germany.”
“It was the prospect of fighting against the Japanese that filled enlistment centers the next Monday,” says the author of The Story of World War II and several other best-selling works on WWII. “It would have been very hard to get Congress to open a second-front by declaring war on Germany.”
The war became a worldwide one, according to Miller, when following Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war on the United States December 11, thus launching a truly worldwide conflict. Hitler’s declaration against the United States, a decision Miller calls “insane,” sealed the fate of nations. That, and the invasion of the Soviet Union, he says, doomed Germany to defeat.
Dr. Gerhard Weinberg, the William Rand Kenan, Jr. Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina, disagrees. “World War II was global from the start of the Germans’ attack on Poland,” says Weinberg who also serves on the Museum’s Presidential Counselors advisory board.. “Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand all declared war on Germany and engaged in combat with the enemy across Africa, the Middle East and Europe.”
“You mean the Australians fighting in Syria in the Middle East in 1941 thought that was a Polish war?” he asks. “No. The notion of one country’s entrance or absence does or does not make it a world war is a peculiarly parochial way of looking at it. I am not arguing that Pearl Harbor was not a critical event, it was. But the Second World War would have been a global war even if the United States had never become involved.”
“One key lies in the mindset of the time,” says Weinberg, author of Visions of Victory: The Hopes of Eight WWII Leaders. “Ordinary people began renaming what was, until the fall of 1939, commonly referred to as the ‘Great War’ as ‘World War One’ implying that Hitler had ushered in a second world war with the Polish invasion.”
“The argument may be decided in 100 years,” says Dr. Gordon “Nick” Mueller. The President and CEO of The National World War II Museum calls the debate “just the sort of discussion we invite about The War That Changed The World in the many seminars and lectures we host at the Museum.” But the Museum’s mission goes beyond public programming as audiences become more advanced and as the first-person experience of talking with veterans becomes harder and harder. With the population of veterans declining at a rate of 900 a day, the Museum is looking for a way to honor them that speaks to today’s generation.
On November 6, 2009, the Museum is readying itself for the premiere of its 4-D cinematic experience Beyond All Boundaries. Overseen by executive producer Tom Hanks and action-packed and authentic in every detail, Beyond All Boundaries tells the tale of America’s experience in World War II and will be shown exclusively at the new Solomon Victory Theater. Also opening in conjunction: The Stage Door Canteen, a live entertainment venue that salutes the stars of the war years and the Home Front, and an upscale eatery inspired by ‘40s fare The American Sector, a Chef John Besh restaurant. Grand opening festivities are sponsored by Satterfield & Pontikes Construction, the contractor for this ambitious project.
The National World War II Museum tells the story of the American Experience in the War That Changed the World - why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today. Dedicated in 2000 as The National D-Day Museum and now designated by Congress as America's National World War II Museum, it celebrates the American Spirit, the teamwork, optimism, courage and sacrifice of the men and women who fought on the battlefront and the Home Front. For more information, call 877-813-3329 or 504-527-6012 or visit www.nationalww2museum.org. Follow us on Twitter at WWIImuseum or visit our Facebook fan page.