World War II: A Military and Social History
(30 lectures, 30 minutes/lecture)
Course No. 810
Taught by Thomas Childers
University of Pennsylvania
Ph.D., Harvard University
This course examines one of the greatest conflicts in human history, World War II. Between 1937 and 1945, 55 million people perished. It was a series of interrelated conflicts; no continent was left untouched, no ocean or sea unaffected.
- The war led to the eclipse of European power and the emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as global superpowers.
- The war ushered in the atomic age.
- The war set a stage for the most grisly crimes ever committed in the long course of Western civilization.
- The war led to national liberation from Europe's colonial empires around the world.
In short, World War II defined an epoch in human history, an epoch from which we are beginning to emerge, but an epoch with stains that will not fade.
More than half a century later, pressing questions about this war remain, and this course addresses them:
- Could Hitler have been stopped if the rest of the world had acted against him sooner?
- Could Roosevelt and the U.S. command have foreseen the attack on Pearl Harbor?
- Could more lives have been saved in the death camps as the terrible truth of the Holocaust emerged?
- Did Truman have any alternatives to ordering atom bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
- Did the Allies, in fact, ever come perilously close to losing World War II?
For more than two decades, Professor Thomas Childers has taught history at the University of Pennsylvania, where students consistently rank him as one of the best teachers on campus.
He is widely published on modern Germany and World War II. Dr. Childers is now at work on a trilogy about the war. Volume I,
Wings of Morning, was praised by
The Washington Post as "a powerful and unselfconsciously beautiful book."
The Origins of World War II (Lectures 1–4)
World War I led to the Second in important ways. We examine the controversial Treaty of Versailles and the international security system that its framers envisioned, and we analyze the reasons for its failure.
We dissect Adolf Hitler's conception of foreign policy, his domestic and international objectives, and the means he used to pursue his aims.
We also address the failure of France, Great Britain, and the United States to counter Hitler's attempts to destroy the Treaty of Versailles. Did their still-vivid memories of the horrors of World War I deter them? This failure set the stage for overt Nazi aggression in 1939.
The Beginning of the War in Europe: 1939–1941 (Lectures 5–11)
In these lectures we study:
- The revolutionary German military strategy of Blitzkrieg and its dramatic success in Poland and in the West in 1939 and 1940
- The Miracle of Dunkirk
- German plans to invade Great Britain
- The Battle of Britain and the British triumph over a seemingly invincible foe
- Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union, its stunning opening success in the summer of 1941, and the reasons for its ultimate failure.
The Beginning of the War in the Pacific (Lectures 11–14)
We analyze the dilemmas confronting Japanese policy makers in the years leading to their assault on European colonial possessions in Asia and on Pearl Harbor.
We examine the planning for the attack on Pearl Harbor, the reasons for its success, and the American response.
We assess Japanese strength at its high-water mark. Then we turn to the two decisive American victories that changed the Pacific war: the naval battle at Midway and the long, bloody land campaign for Guadalcanal.
The War in Europe: Turning Points (Lectures 14–17)
We examine the Anglo-American campaigns in North Africa between 1940 and 1942 and the invasions of Sicily and Italy in 1943. These victories were controversial: As Stalin complained, and as the Americans agreed, the campaigns delayed the long-awaited invasion of northwestern Europe.
We study the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942–43, the turning point of the war on the Eastern Front, the reasons for the failure of Hitler's plans in the Soviet Union, and the remarkable rebound of the Red Army.
Western Europe (Lectures 18–20)
Three lectures focus on the planning for D-Day—the course of events on June 6, 1944, and the unexpectedly long campaign in Normandy.
We examine German defensive schemes on the Western Front, the liberation of Paris, the controversy over Operation Market Garden, and finally the massive German counteroffensive in the Ardennes—the Battle of the Bulge—in December 1944.
The War in the Pacific: The Advance toward Japan (Lectures 21–23)
We shift our focus again to events in the Pacific Theater. We examine the two methods of approach to Japan chosen by American strategists—through the southwestern Pacific and through the central Pacific—and the implications of their strategy. We then consider the events on those two approaches.
We analyze, in the southwestern Pacific, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the gigantic naval engagement in the southwest in October 1944, and General MacArthur's subsequent invasion of the Philippines.
Next we follow Admiral Nimitz's relentless advance through the Central Pacific, the "island-hopping strategy," and the climactic battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
A War Unlike All Others (Lectures 24–25)
Two lectures pause the narrative of events to examine two features of World War II that distinguish it from previous conflicts and place its terrifying stamp on the entire era:
The Holocaust. We trace the role of anti-Semitism in Nazi ideology from the very beginning of the Third Reich and the steps that led to the mass murders of European Jews. This "final solution to the Jewish question," as the Nazis called their monstrous plans, is examined in detail.
Strategic bombing. This aspect of the air war killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and forever altered the nature of warfare in the modern age. Its effectiveness and immorality are among the most controversial issues of the war. We examine the air war in Europe and the Pacific and assess its contribution to the Allied victory.
The Home Front in America (Lectures 26–27)
We study the creation of the U.S. Armed Forces (one of the most astonishing accomplishments of World War II). And we look at the day-to-day life of a new phenomenon—the GI, how he was fed, entertained, and equipped.
We also examine the American economic miracle, the creation of the mammoth wartime economy, the influx of women into the labor force, and the social tensions that emerged during the war, especially the racial problems that led to riots in Detroit, Philadelphia, and other cities.
And we will examine the paranoia that led to the internment of Japanese Americans.
The Race to the Bitter End (Lectures 28–30)
We study the "race" between the Red Army and the Western Allies to reach Berlin and the American air assault against Japan, which culminated in the use of nuclear weapons.
We give special attention to Truman's decision to use the bomb.
The course concludes by assessing the historical significance of the war and its colossal human toll.
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