7.7G: Conducting WWII

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Learning Objective 7G

Explain similarities and differences in how governments used a variety of methods to conduct war.

Historical Development 1

World War II was a total war. Governments used a variety of strategies, including political propaganda, art, media, and intensified forms of nationalism, to mobilize populations (both in the home countries and the colonies or former colonies) for the purpose of waging war.

Historical Development 2

Governments used ideologies, including fascism and communism to mobilize all of their state’s resources for war and, in the case of totalitarian states, to repress basic freedoms and dominate many aspects of daily life during the course of the conflicts and beyond.

Historical Development 3

New military technology and new tactics, including the atomic bomb, fire-bombing, and the waging of “total war” led to increased levels of wartime casualties.


World War II Was a Total War

World War II, like its predecessor WWI, was a total war. Nations fighting in the war used all available power and resources to mobilize their societies for war. 

Features of WWII total war included:

  • recruiting large numbers of soldiers
  • increasing military production
  • propaganda campaigns to convince populations to support the war and limit anti-war messages
  • funding the war
  • diverting non-military resources to support the war effort
  • mass targeting of civilian populations

Strategies for fighting and winning World War II

To win this second global war, governments did the following:

  • substantially increase military spending
  • increase the size of the government
  • coordinate pro-war propaganda campaigns
  • innovate and build new military technologies

Increased military spending

Following WWI, Britain substantially decreased its military spending. However, after Hitler began to rearm Germany, Britain increased its defense spending again.

Increased size and role of government

Total war required governments to increase in size and expand their roles within their nations. This expansion continued a trend that began in WWI and continued as governments battled the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The expansion of prowar propaganda

World War II required society-wide sacrifice. Convincing populations to fight, go without expected comforts, and ration their use of consumer goods meant that governments needed to effectively use propaganda to encourage sacrifice in the name of patriotism and nationalism.


Newspapers and magazines



Innovations in technology and war strategy

World War II continued the innovation in new industrial weapons and fighting strategies that had begun in World War I. All participants in the war targeted civilians and urban centers, with civilian deaths exceeding battlefield deaths.

Military battle deaths
Civilian deaths

Air raids: Air raids during World War II involved sustained aerial attacks on railways, harbors, cities, civilian housing, and industrial districts in enemy territory. Bombers specifically targeted civilian areas with no military value to terrorize civilian populations and disrupt their usual activities. Aviation technology rapidly advanced during the war, allowing for larger cargoes and more powerful bombs to be dropped as the war progressed.

  • B29: the B-29 bomber was the most effective long-range heavy bomber of WWII. Boeing produced the first B-29 in 1940. During WWII, Boeing manufactured thousands of bombers. The United States military primarily used the bomber in the Pacific theatre against the Japanese. More than a thousand planes at a time bombed Tokyo during the many American bombing raids against the city.

Firebombing: Firebombing is a bombing technique designed to damage a target, generally an urban area, through the fire caused by incendiary devices (intended to cause fires) rather than the blast effect of large bombs. Firebombing allowed for higher levels of destruction as fires could spread and damage nearby buildings that blasts would have left unaffected. Air raiders used firebombs and traditional explosive bombs to increase the destructive impacts of air raids.

Locations of major air raids and firebombing with civilian deaths

The Allied Powers

Soviet Union (500,000 civilians killed)

  • China (260,000 to 351,000 civilians killed)
  • France (67,000 civilians killed)
  • Britain (60,000 civilians killed)
    • London
  • Poland (tens of thousands of civilians killed)

The Axis Powers

  • Germany (353,000 to 635,000 civilians killed)
    • Berlin
    • Dresden
    • Hamburg
  • Japan (330,000 to 900,000 civilians killed)
    • Tokyo
  • Italy (60,000 to 100,000 civilians killed)
  • Hungary (20,000 to 30,000 civilians killed)

Radar: The British built the first radars in the late 1930s. Radars work by sending out electromagnetic energy that bounces back to a receiver when it hits some resistance or object that slows it down or stops its forward movement. Radar helped the Allied forces detect enemy ships and planes. By the start of WWII, the British had a network of radars along their southern coast. As radar advanced throughout the war, it helped Allied forces detect enemy ships and planes.

The atomic bomb: The United States developed the atomic bomb during World War II. The bomb works by harnessing the energy of splitting atomic nuclei into a massive blast. The United States detonated two nuclear weapons over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945. The two bombings killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people, mostly civilians, and remain the only use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict. The atomic bomb is considered the first weapon of mass destruction with the capability to kill tens of thousands within seconds.