What was the Second World War about? According to Allied leaders, that wasn’t a hard question. “This is a fight between a free world and a slave world,” U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace explained. It is “between Nazidom and democracy,” Winston Churchill said, with “tyranny” on one side and “liberal, peaceful” powers on the other.
Would that it were so simple. The Allies’ inclusion of the Soviet Union—“a dictatorship as absolute as any dictatorship in the world,” Franklin D. Roosevelt once called it—muddied the waters. But the other chief Allies weren’t exactly liberal democracies, either. Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United States, and (depending on how you view Tibet and Mongolia) China were all empires. Together, they held, by my count, more than 600 million people—more than a quarter of the world—in colonial bondage.
This fact wasn’t incidental; empire was central to the causes and course of the war. Yet the colonial dimensions of World War II aren’t usually stressed. The most popular books and films present it as Churchill did, as a dramatic confrontation between liberty-loving nations and merciless tyrants. In the United States, it’s remembered still as the “good war,” the vanquishing of evil by the Greatest Generation.
That understanding works—sort of—when war stories focus on Adolf Hitler’s invasions of sovereign states in Europe. It falters, however, when they center on the Pacific. There, the Japanese targeted colonies, seizing them under the banner of “Asia for the Asiatics.” The Allies beat Japan back, but only to return Burma to the British and Indonesia to the Dutch—Asia for the Europeans.
The Pacific clash over colonies reveals a greater truth about the Second World War. Or such is the contention of Richard Overy, one of the conflict’s most distinguished historians. After writing some 20 books about the war, focused mainly on Europe, Overy has widened his scope. His new book, Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, 1931–1945, 1,000 pages long, refuses to treat the Pacific as “an appendix,” as histories often do. Rather, it sees World War II as a truly “global event.”
In that light, one thing becomes clear. Whatever else the Second World War was about, it was, on both sides, a war for empire.
What impelled Germany, Japan, and Italy on their conquering missions? Given how reckless and ruinous their belligerence was, pathologizing it is easy. Madness clearly abounded in the high command, but three countries going insane in the same way at the same time isn’t exactly a satisfying explanation. A better one, Overy suggests, lies further in the past.
The 19th century had seen a “veritable steeplechase for colonial acquisitions,” as Italy’s foreign ministry described it. Britain won that race, with other countries that would eventually join the Allies taking secondary prizes. The Axis powers, late out of the gate, got the leftovers. Worse, the winners locked the losers out, rebuffing Japan’s attempts to join the great powers’ club and stripping Germany of its meager overseas holdings after World War I. Going into the 1930s, the Allies held 15 times more colonial acreage than the Axis states did.
Japan, Germany, and Italy were rising economies without large empires. Was that a problem? Today, it wouldn’t be; 21st-century countries don’t require colonies to prosper. But different rules applied in the first half of the 20th century. Then, industrial powers depended on raw materials from far-off lands. And without colonies, they had every reason to worry about ready availability. Hitler never forgot the World War I blockade that largely cut Germany off from such materials as rubber and nitrates and caused widespread hunger. The global Depression, which shrunk international trade by two-thirds from 1929 to 1932, threatened a new form of blockade.
As cross-border trade collapsed, rich countries subsisted off whatever was within their borders. The British and French could lean on their empires. But the Germans? They were a “people without space,” as the title of a popular novel had it. Hence Hitler’s fixation on Lebensraum and the parallel Italian search for spazio vitale—both terms translate as “living space.” The Japanese complained of “ABCD encirclement,” meaning that their access to such vital resources as oil and rubber was hemmed in by the Americans, British, Chinese, and Dutch.
The war, Overy argues, didn’t pit peaceful nation-states against violent thugs. It’s better understood as a conflict between incumbent and insurgent imperialists. The British, French, and United States preferred peace because they were satisfied with the status quo. “We have got most of the world already, or the best parts of it,” observed the head of Britain’s navy in 1934. “We only want to keep what we have got and prevent others from taking it away from us.” The Japanese, Germans, and Italians, by contrast, sought a violent redivision of the spoils.
On the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese government blamed the war on the Anglophone powers’ “selfish desire for world conquest.”
Taking a global view leads to a different picture of the war. For example, when did it begin? Most English speakers would say 1939, with Germany’s invasion of Poland. But by then Japan had already been at continuous war with China for two years and had violently conquered Beijing, Shanghai, and the Chinese capital of Nanjing. (China recently mandated that its textbooks use an even earlier start year for its war with Japan: 1931, when the Japanese invaded Manchuria.) Only by sidelining Asia can you claim that the Second World War ran from 1939 to 1945.
Japan started the fighting, and Japan made the war a “world” event. Until 1941, the regional conflicts on the Asian mainland and in Europe and the Mediterranean were largely disconnected. Japan fused them together on December 7/8, 1941, when it attacked the British empire in Asia. Yanking on Britain’s colonies, Japan pulled the great power into the Pacific War. That’s also how the United States got dragged in; for all its self-congratulation about standing up to fascism, the country declared war only when another country tried to take its territories.
The December 1941 attacks are the subject of considerable mystification in the United States. Here, the episode is remembered as “Pearl Harbor” and placed on December 7, 1941, which Roosevelt indelibly called “a date which will live in infamy.” But while Roosevelt’s speech focused on the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in the territory of Hawaii, that was far from the only target. As Roosevelt acknowledged in a less-noted part of the speech, the Japanese swept over the Anglophone holdings in the Pacific. They attacked within hours not only Hawaii but the U.S. possessions of Guam, the Philippines, Midway, and Wake Island and the British ones of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
Only in Hawaii and Midway did the vagaries of the international date line place the event on December 7. Everywhere else, the infamous date was December 8. By confining the time to December 7 and the place to Pearl Harbor, Americans miss the significance of the event. It wasn’t merely an attempt to sink battleships; it was a blitzkrieg dash for British and U.S. colonies. And—this is another thing the Pearl Harbor framing misses—it succeeded. Though the Japanese never conquered Hawaii or Midway, they took all the other targets, soon adding British Burma, Australia’s territories of New Guinea and Papua, nearly all of the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia), the western tip of Alaska, and a constellation of colonized Pacific islands.
In the Pacific, the war was transparently a fight for empire. In Europe, Overy argues, it wasn’t all that different. “What India was for England the spaces of the East will be for us,” Hitler once remarked. Shifting analogies, he also noted that Germans should “look upon the natives as Redskins.” If Germany couldn’t easily reach distant territories in Asia or Africa, it could carve colonial space out of Eastern Europe.
The aim of these land grabs was resources, and the Axis states plundered their conquered territories. Millions of Asians starved as Japan impounded food—the Indonesians and Vietnamese both suffered famines. Germany plundered, too, targeting Jews but not limiting its depredations to them. Its scheme to feed itself with confiscated Soviet grain, the unfathomably cruel “Hunger Plan,” was carried out with the understanding that, if successful, it might kill 30 million. “Starvation and colonization were German policy,” the historian Timothy Snyder has written, “discussed, agreed, formulated, distributed, and understood.”
But were such policies effective? Ultimately not, Overy argues. It was hard to invade a country, subjugate it, return it swiftly to full productivity, and carry off its goods—all while fighting a war. The extreme violence that characterized life in the Axis empires can be partly explained by the occupiers’ desperate attempts to extract resources that were simply not forthcoming.
Meanwhile, the Allies still had much territory to draw on. Britain could marshal 2.7 million troops from India alone. The United States’ continental expanse—won in the 19th century via wars, purchases, and Indigenous dispossession—held nearly 60 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves. The Germans and Italians were running out of fuel in North Africa while the Americans were shipping tanks there from Detroit. U.S. supplies coursed through a global circulatory system of bases, many of them in Allied colonies, that stretched through the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.
By wresting Pacific islands away from Japan, the United States managed in 1945 to anchor its network within striking distance of Japan’s home islands, which it bombed thoroughly. And when the Japanese empire fell, the Allies rushed to reclaim their lost colonies.
Allied leaders didn’t dwell on the contradictions between fighting for freedom and fighting for colonies. In fact, they didn’t always see them. Empire had been “one vast machine for the defense of liberty,” Britain’s colonial secretary proclaimed, audaciously, at the war’s end.
Things looked different from the colonized world. Overy focuses on the imperialist rulers rather than their subjects—Britain and Japan, in other words, not Burma and the Philippines. Yet the glimpses he gives of colonial life confirm Mohandas Gandhi’s warning to Roosevelt that, in the territories, Allied boasts of protecting freedom and democracy rang “hollow.”
Gandhi’s country, India, entered the European conflict in 1939 not out of any popular desire to quash Nazism but because its British viceroy had declared war on its behalf. Many of Gandhi’s fellow nationalists quit their governmental posts in protest, but to little effect. London requisitioned troops and supplies from its colony, paid for with IOUs, to be redeemed after the war. The economic drain on India, already poor, caused a crisis.
Conditions grew dire in Bengal, an Indian province near the edge of Japan’s empire. There, colonial authorities confiscated food, evacuated villages, and destroyed tens of thousands of boats for fear that Japanese invaders might get them. Yet this also removed local sources of support and encouraged panicked hoarding; many Bengalis went hungry.
The British, of course, took hunger seriously. The government in London was “awash with nutritionists,” the historian James Vernon has written. War meant scarcity, but officials assiduously researched public needs, paying special attention to vulnerable groups, and rationed food thoughtfully and fairly. Churchill was resolute: “Nothing must interfere with the supplies necessary to maintain the stamina and resolution of the people of this country.”
Yet by “this country,” Churchill meant the British Isles. There, the state’s nutritional planning was so successful that diets improved despite the shortages. In Bengal, by contrast, British officials did shockingly little to stop the deprivation they’d created from tipping into starvation. They insisted on letting the market operate freely, and they watched rice flow out of Bengal and people drop dead of hunger. Overy devotes only a paragraph to the resulting famine but registers its enormous death toll, which he places at 2.7 million to 3 million. Pressed to send aid, the war cabinet in London refused. Churchill blamed Indians for “breeding like rabbits.”
Gandhi and the leaders of his party, the Indian National Congress, vigorously protested the government’s famine-inducing policy of confiscation and, days after, threatened mass civil disobedience if India wasn’t freed. Churchill was apoplectic. “We will not let the Hottentots by popular vote throw the white people into the sea” was his view. The British arrested the National Congress leadership, including Gandhi. By the end of 1943, almost 92,000 were behind bars.
“We resist British Imperialism no less than Nazism,” Gandhi wrote to Hitler. “If there is a difference, it is in degree.” If there is a difference. W. E. B. Du Bois, a leading African American thinker, was also unsure he saw much of one. “There was no Nazi atrocity,” he wrote after the war, “which the Christian civilization of Europe had not long been practicing against colored folk in all parts of the world in the name of and for the defense of a Superior Race.”
Following this logic to its conclusion, the Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose escaped British house arrest in Bengal and fled to Hitler’s Germany. Bose recruited thousands of captured Indians to fight with the Wehrmacht and then, moving to the Japanese empire, helped raise an Indian expatriate army to attack British India. For Bose, this wasn’t an invasion but a liberation.
Bose’s freedom fighters met swift defeat. Yet their cause resounded. Throughout Asia, empire was collapsing. Weapons, once tightly controlled, spread widely during the fighting. And Japan, with its loud rhetoric about ending foreign rule, poured gas on the fire. The sight of whites ousted and Asians taking their place was one that colonized people couldn’t easily unsee.
The Allies vanquished the Axis powers but, as Overy notes, the battles didn’t stop. Reclaiming Allied colonies required more than dispatching rival colonizers. It also meant confronting the colonized, who were armed and loath to return to the old ways. In just the month after Japan announced its surrender, Indonesia and Vietnam declared independence and Malaya was in revolt.
The British, Dutch, and French fought bloody rearguard actions to hold their possessions (“Shoot before you are shot at and don’t trust anyone black!” Dutch soldiers were instructed), but ultimately they lost those battles. In 1940, nearly one out of every three individuals on the planet was colonized. By 1965, barely one in 50 was.
Few would count the French war in Vietnam (or the U.S. one that immediately followed) as part of the Second World War. Yet why not? The story ends in 1945 thanks only to the focus on Europe and the democracy-versus-totalitarianism framing, which crops empire out of the picture.
Ignoring empire also turns the Second World War into a moral triumph. That’s comforting for the winners, but perhaps too much so. Whereas Germany and Japan developed serious peace movements after 1945, the Allied powers, and particularly the United States, kept their war footing. Though the U.S. never declared war again after defeating Japan, the scholar David Vine calculates that there have been only two years since—1977 and 1979—when American forces weren’t invading or fighting in some foreign country.
The violence has flowed from Cambodia to Congo, and often with World War II as the model. First the “free world” fought the “totalitarian” foes in the Cold War, then came the “axis of evil” and “Islamofascism.” “Each succeeding conflict,” the West Point professor Elizabeth Samet writes in her recent book, Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness, “has led to the reprise and reinvention of the Good War’s mythology to justify or otherwise explain uses of American power.” Convinced of the inherent goodness of the war, U.S. leaders have sought to refight it in new guises again and again.
They might have been better off seeing the war through Gandhi’s eyes rather than Churchill’s: as a battle over territory, not an Armageddon-style showdown between good and evil. They might have then remembered it as more like the First World War, a lethal collision of self-interested rivals. That earlier war taught even its victors to be suspicious of militaristic moralizing. But by restricting their attention to Europe and taking a regional view of a global war, the Western victors in the Second World War avoided that lesson.
This article appears in the May 2022 print edition with the headline “Change the Map, Change the Moral.”
*Lead image: Illustration by John Whitlock. Sources: Keystone-France / Getty; Pictures From History / Universal Images Group / Getty; Hulton Archive / Getty; U.S. Navy / FPG / Getty; Corbis / Getty; Bettmann / Getty; Michael Ochs Archives / Getty; Pictures From History / Universal Images Group / Getty; Bettmann / Getty