World War II, the Cold War, and the 1950's

The Road to World War II

The entire world was gripped by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin tried to make the Soviet Union into an industrial power based on communism. Communism is a form of government in which goods and property are publicly owned and the means of production are state-owned.

In Germany and Italy, fascist dictators rose to power. Fascism is a political belief that countries are best ruled by a dictator, or one ruler who has absolute power. Any opposition is forbidden.

At the same time, the Japanese military conquered Manchuria in 1931 and invaded China in 1937. Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935. In 1936, Germany’s Adolf Hitler started his march to world conquest. He took over the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia without a fight. Hitler signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1939. When Germany attacked Poland in 1939, Great Britain and France declared war. Nations took sides as the war began.

Axis Powers Allied Powers
Germany France
Italy Great Britain
Japan United States
USSR first allied with Germany USSR joined Allies before war’s end

Germany quickly conquered most of Europe with its blitzkrieg (“lightning war,” or a war done with great speed and force). In 1941, Hitler turned his armies toward the Soviet Union, despite the pact he had signed with Stalin.

In the United States, isolationists wanted the country to remain neutral. Congress passed Neutrality Acts in the 1930s. The acts prevented the United States from providing support to foreign countries that were at war. However, the acts included one key exception: the United States could sell goods, except for weapons, to other nations as long as the goods were paid for immediately and the goods were transported on non-US ships.

Others, including President Roosevelt, recognized the dangers that the Axis powers posed. They worked to find ways in which the United States could help the Allies. In 1940 Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act. This act, which was based on earlier provisions in the Neutrality Acts, provided arms and support to Great Britain and many other countries. Importantly, it also kept the United States from becoming directly involved in the war.

German U-boats (submarines) began to harass and then attack US supply ships in the North Atlantic. The event that finally brought the United States into World War II, however, came from another source. The Japanese launched a sneak air attack on the US naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941. Four days later, the Axis powers in Europe declared war on the United States.

World War II was truly a “world” war. Fighting raged in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific islands until 1945. Allied leaders agreed that they would fight until their enemies surrendered unconditionally.

The Home Front

At home, major industries quickly mobilized to produce war goods after the Lend-Lease Act was passed. Many men were drafted into the armed forces or joined voluntarily. As they left their jobs behind, women took their places. Women also served in the military in noncombat positions. A system of rationing, limiting the availability of food and other products, was put in place. Americans planted “Victory Gardens” to grow their own fruits and vegetables. They organized scrap drives to collect and reuse paper, rubber, and metals such as copper and steel.

War Ration Book

Internment Camps

After Pearl Harbor, Americans of Japanese, German, and Italian descent suffered discrimination and harassment. Many were arrested, were forced to move, or had their property taken away. More than 100,000 Japanese, German, and Italian Americans were sent to internment, or prison, camps during the war. Most of them were American citizens.

The Allies invaded the European continent on June 6, 1944. The Germans were finally defeated in May 1945. The Japanese continued to fight until the United States dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. On August 14, 1945, Japan formally surrendered and World War II was over.

The Cold War

With the signing of the peace treaties that ended World War II, the United States became one of two major world powers. The other world power was the Soviet Union.

An organization called the United Nations was formed in 1945. Its purpose was to negotiate disputes between nations. The hope was that this would lead to world peace. Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union had joined together during the war to defeat Germany and Japan. However, when the war ended, Great Britain and the United States had a hostile relationship with the Soviet Union. A struggle developed between different social and economic systems in the East and the West. This period of struggle was called the Cold War. It was called a “cold” war because the two sides did not confront each other directly in war.

The Soviet Union set up Communist governments in several Eastern European countries. These countries were called satellites because they depended upon Soviet economic ties. Occupation forces kept the countries under Soviet control.

The United States used a strategy of containment to keep communism from spreading around the world during this period. Containment involved creating alliances with other countries to keep the power of the Soviet Union in check. An arms race between the two nations lasted for the next 40 years. Each side tried to have bigger and better weapons than the other. US weapons were kept in countries bordering the Soviet bloc, or satellite countries. This was meant to deter the Soviet Union from expanding into more countries.

To support containment, the United States, Canada, and the Western European countries formed a military alliance called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Soviet Union and its satellites formed the Warsaw Pact military alliance.

The Marshall Plan

As a result of World War II, much of Western Europe was in ruins. Cities had been destroyed. Millions of people were homeless and starving. Secretary of State George Marshall proposed a plan to aid these countries. The Marshall Plan gave millions of dollars in cash and materials to help countries rebuild. The United States believed this aid would ensure that Europe would not turn to communism.

The Cold War at Home

Americans feared that the Communists might take over the world in the post-war era. This fear increased when Communists came to power in China in 1949. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and his followers led a “witch hunt” in the 1950s. This became known as McCarthyism. McCarthy and his followers accused many Americans of being Communists or Communist sympathizers. In Congress, the House Un-American Activities Committee carried out its own investigations. Thousands of Americans lost their jobs as a result of McCarthyism. In 1954, Senator McCarthy’s colleagues in the US Senate denounced (spoke out against) him, and his committee condemned his actions.

The 1950s

In 1944 Congress passed legislation to help veterans returning from World War II. Many soldiers had no jobs when they returned home. The GI Bill of Rights gave veterans low-interest loans to buy houses, helped them look for jobs, and provided unemployment compensation and money to go to college. Millions took advantage of the programs.

During the war, many women had worked in factories to help the war effort. When the veterans returned, those women lost their jobs even though many wanted to keep working.

Some African-Americans also lost their jobs to returning veterans at the end of the war. In addition, many of the African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, and other minorities who had served in the armed forces faced discrimination when they returned home.

After World War II, the nation’s economy continued to grow. The standard of living grew also. A new white-collar population emerged in the 1950s. White-collar workers are professionals who are paid salaries instead of hourly wages. Many families moved out of the cities and into new housing in the suburbs, small communities that developed outside urban areas. New highways were built to connect the suburbs with the cities. The baby boom, a rapid growth in the birth rate, created a need for more schools. This helped fuel the construction industry.


Changes to life in the United States came with the growth of television. About 80 percent of families in the country had at least one TV by 1957. A new form of music, called rock ‘n’ roll, grew in popularity. It was a combination of African-American rhythm and blues, country and western, gospel music, and jazz. Young people no longer had to work to help support their families, as they had during the Great Depression and World War II. They now had leisure time. Many had money to spend on clothes, music, and other entertainment.