One reason is certainly the vastness of the whole conflict. The ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Korean’ Wars can largely be said to confine within the geographical limits of those two countries. Obviously they involved the US, China, Soviet Union and extended geographically into other areas, but you get the point. WORLD WAR, however, carries a much more epic connotation.
So if we lay out a few things, I think it’ll make it clearer. Let’s discuss scope, including beligerents, the origins, and the ramifications or long-term results.
1.Scope: The enormity of the war defies logic, and it really should be classified as ‘The World Wars of 1937-1954’ if you ask me. When an American student is asked to assess WWII, s/he will often begin with Pearl Harbor, some 8 years after the start of the Asian Theatre. The Wars transformed the ‘dynamic of destruction’ begun in WWI into a truly catastrophic and epoch-defining conflict in which Race, Ethnicity and Combatant-Status were given entirely new meanings. The Wars involved nearly everyone on the globe (not literally) fighting nearly everyone else, and in seemingly any single theatre of fighting, the complexities are mind-boggling enough to almost defy explanation. In looking at the scope of destruction in Warsaw in 1939, it’s difficult to imagine that War could be more brutal, until you look at the ‘Rape of Nanking’ or the fratricidal and very confusing wars fought in the Balkans. The scope of the war also involved ideologies on a scale not really seen before. The clash of western liberalism, national socialism and marxist inspired communism really dealt a sense of seriousness and existentialism to the conflicts. By that I mean there was a real sense of an apocalyptic showdown: each saw the ‘other’ as not only the enemy, but barbaric and even ‘evil.’ Barbarism is present in all wars, but again, the scope, the severity of the death and destruction of both individuals and of groups of people, is staggering.
2.Origins: What caused the War(s)? The answer to many is even more disturbing than the actual war, because it appears to many that the origins of this brutal war lie in a decision by the victors of WWI to impose a settlement upon Germany that would end all wars. What does this really mean? It means that even without Hitler, the suffering of the Germans prior to the outbreak of hostilities was incredible. The moral and physical landscape of Europe had been ravaged by WWI to such an extent that it would seem no war could ever take place again. The Great Terror and Holodomor in the USSR had already hit their peaks by 1939 (the traditional start of WWII) and that was only the beginning. The origins of the war lie in nefariousness, in cunning, in duplicity, in deceit and in imperialism. Which means it basically started like any other war – except this time ideologies were the driving force, rather than economics. Hitler didn’t invade Poland to secure minerals, to acquire natural forests or to take advantage of their industry. He essentially invaded to secure ‘living room’ for his Germanic peoples, his ‘Volk’. In his moral landscape there was no room for the Jew, the Slav or the undesirables. At the same time, Stalin invaded to secure the territory of the Ukraine and the Baltic countries in a bid to continue his centralization of Soviet power into a country denied to him in 1921. Russia had all the natural resources in the world with the open tundra of Siberia, so he was not after resources either, his was an ideological mission to spread Communism.
3.Ramifications: We are in the year 2014 and the United States is the lone super-power. Yet in 1938 the US was far from a global super-power in today’s sense of the word. The War(s) dramatically impacted the United States’ meteoric rise to the top of the world. The US was spared the civilian bloodshed and infrastructural damage of the European/Asian wars, yet reaped the physical and moral benefits by defeating Nazism, culturally colonizing Western Europe, and catapulting her economy into superstardom through the tremendous industrial capabilities gained through the War’s result. The USSR and USA came out of the conflicts much better off, and to cut this answer a little short – the Korean War and Vietnam Wars don’t exist without the USA’s triumph in WWII. Neither does our current predicament in Afghanistan. The Soviets continued expanding and went into Afghanistan in 1980, a place even the Tsars at the height of their empire couldn’t do very well. The US’s interventions in Asia and Latin America and the Soviet Union’s interventions and expansions into Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus were direct results of the situation in Europe after 1945.
In a nutshell, that is why people are still fascinated with the Wars of 1937-1954. That and the well-publicized and relatively unprecedented genocide of Europe’s jewry which spawned our idea of, and our word for, Genocide.
The way I like to talk about this is in this way: what are the phases necessary for developing a nuclear weapon? In some ways, it’s easiest to first talk about this in the context of the American Manhattan Project.
In 1939, Einstein and Szilard wrote the famous letter to Roosevelt about bomb issues. FDR said, “sounds interesting,” and made a very small exploratory committee to look into it (the Uranium Committee at the National Bureau of Standards). This is what we might call an exploratory stage. It was basically theoretical studies and small laboratory studies. The questions they were trying to answer were very basic: Is atomic energy something worth worrying about? Can an atomic bomb, or an atomic reactor, be built in the near term by anybody?
The conclusions they came to weren’t encouraging. By 1941 the top science advisors in the US had basically concluded that while it might be possible to make nuclear weapons, it was going to be very difficult to do so and probably not worth spending a lot of money and time on in the near term. The atomic bomb, they reasoned, was unlikely to play a role in World War II.
Towards the end of 1941, though, they received a report from scientists working in a similarly exploratory capacity in the UK which concluded that the bomb could probably be built in a short amount of time if a sufficient effort was put into it. The British scientists were successful in convincing the American administrators that the program should be moved into a new stage of development.
This new stage we might call the pilot stage. It sought to establish on a small scale some of the key aspects that would go into a real production model. Roosevelt approved this just before Pearl Harbor. Basically this required building several small-scale production plants, and funding work on building an experimental nuclear reactor.
By mid-1942 it became clear that they felt this was all worth spending more money on, and by late 1942 it was decided that the US Army should be brought into the matter, because they had the experience necessary to construct the massive factories and plants necessary to produce actual atomic bombs. This is the transition into the production phase. You’ll note that in this case, the pilot stage was very brief. This was unusual and noted even at the time; they were really flying by the seat of their pants, drawing up plans to build full-scale industrial reactors even before the first experimental nuclear reactor had gone online (which happened in December 1942).
It is this final phase, from 1943 to 1945, that is the Manhattan Project proper, when it was run by the Manhattan Engineer District of the US Army Corps of Engineers. This is the full (crash) production program to make atomic bombs, and required a huge expenditure of resources.
There is some irony in the fact that the original, 1941 estimate by the US scientists about the difficulty of making an atomic bomb was more or less correct. They had concluded that a bomb, though feasible, would be very difficult to make, and that nobody else was likely to really be working on one. The UK scientists underestimated the difficulty substantially. The final bomb project cost about 5X what was estimated in 1942, when it started the transition into the production phase, to give some indication of the disparity of estimates. And we now know, of course, that making an atomic bomb was difficult and no other nation did get very far in it during the war.
OK, but back to Germany. Where did they end up? They started their exploratory phase in 1939, the same as the USA (and the same as the USSR, Japan, France, and the UK). Like the US, they concluded that this was interesting but pretty difficult. Nobody thought this was going to be an issue in the present war — which, of course, Germany was doing very well in, early on.
By 1942, they started to realize that things weren’t going so well. They started to get more interested in the uranium issue. But even then, it was still just a transition towards the pilot stage — they were looking into building an experimental reactor. They were hampered in this by many factors.
They never got to the end of this phase before the war ended. What if they had? They still would have to start a production phase, which was the most difficult and most costly of the phases.
So by 1945 they were almost to the phase that the United States moved out of in 1942. They were pretty far from getting a bomb, and even if they had decided, in 1942, to start building one, it’s really unclear that they would have been able to pull it off, merely because the sizes of the buildings required for such a program would make them very attractive bombing targets.
This photo was taken at the funeral of British King Edward VII, May 20, 1910.
Standing from Left –
Haakon VII, King of Norway Ferdinand I, Tsar of Bulgaria Manuel II, King of Portugal Wilhelm II, German Emperor George I, King of Greece Albert I, King of the Belgians
Seated from the Left –
Alfonso XIII, King of Spain George V, King of Great Britain Frederick VIII, King of Denmark