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Guide World War II: Causes, Campaigns, Personalities & Legacy

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Early control centers aboard ships and aircraft pioneered the networked, interactive computing that is so central to our lives today.

Radar allowed nations to track incoming air attacks, guided bombers to their targets, and directed anti-aircraft guns toward airplanes flying high above. By constructing complex pieces of electronic equipment that had to be small, rugged, and reliable, radar engineering also set the foundations for modern electronics, especially television.

The military found other uses for radar. Meteorologists, for example, could track storms with this new technology—a crucial skill to have when planning major military operations like D-Day. These new fuses would explode when they neared their targets. By the end of the war, proximity fuses had became a critical component in many anti-aircraft shells. World War II also saw advances in medical technology. While penicillin itself is still used today, it was also the precursor to the antibiotics that we take today to keep simple infections from becoming life-threatening illnesses.

Medicines against tropical diseases like malaria also became critical for the United States to fight in tropical climates like the South Pacific. The science and technology of blood transfusions were also perfected during World War II, as was aviation medicine, which allowed people including us to fly safely at high altitudes for long periods.

Studies of night vision, supplemental oxygen, even crash helmets and safety belts emerged from aviation medicine. New materials and new uses for old materials appeared as well. Companies manufacturing consumer goods such as silverware converted to manufacture military goods such as surgical instruments. Automobile factories re-tooled to make tanks and airplanes. These industrial modifications required rapid and creative engineering, transportation, and communications solutions.

Consumers had to conserve, or just do with out. The 3M company felt compelled to run advertisements apologizing to homemakers for the scarcity of Scotch tape in stores across the country; available supplies of the product had been diverted to the front for the war effort. New materials emerged to fill these voids; many had been invented just before the war but found wide use during World War II: plastic wrap trademarked as Saran wrap became a substitute for aluminum foil for covering food and was used for covering guns during shipping ; cardboard milk and juice containers replaced glass bottles; acrylic sheets were molded into bomber noses and fighter-plane canopies; plywood emerged as a substitute for scarce metals, for everything from the hulls of PT boats to aircraft wings.

The science of nutrition expanded greatly during WWII. In the United States, scientists worked to identify which vitamins and minerals were most essential to a healthy body and in what amounts.

World War 2 left toxic legacy of ill health and depression

Studies were conducted to determine how many calories were burned doing various activities. Proper food preparation, storage and handling, and preservation became a top priority for the military. Meeting these challenges meant working first in the laboratory before working in the kitchen. The development of the D-ration provides a great example. A three-portion package of these bars would provide a soldier with 1, calories of energy.

Seeing Through the Clouds and Beyond

By the end of the war, millions of these rations had been produced in the United States and delivered around the world, along with billions of other rations for the military. In a pioneering effort, the United States mobilized a massive cadre of scientists, engineers, and industrial plants. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was surrounded by 59, acres of farmland and wilderness. The workers here separated out uranium for the bomb. In Hanford, Washington, the city was chosen for its , acres of isolated land bordering the Columbia River.

Here workers created the new element plutonium.

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Atomic weapons are so complicated, in terms of the physics, and so difficult to build, in terms of the technology, that two different types of weapons were built, to increase the chances of getting at least one of them right. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a uranium-type bomb, and the one dropped on Nagasaki used plutonium.

Scientists in Nazi Germany were working on an atomic bomb as well. But without the huge commitment of resources that the American government offered its scientists, they barely got out of the starting gate. The Atomic Bomb was like radar in that a small number of devices could make a major impact on military operations, so the new invention could have an effect before going into full scale mass production.

By contrast, most conventional weapons took so long to mass produce that if they were not at least on the drawing board when the war started they often arrived too late to impact the war. It is notable, however, that the speed with which new weapons systems came on-line, from the drawing board to the factory floor to the battlefield had never before been seen. Again, as in earlier eras, perhaps the most profound impacts of World War II were as much great ideas as they were pieces of hardware. Before the war, scientists were professors who ran small laboratories with students, with small amounts of money.

Before the war scientists were looking into fundamental principles of the natural world, without much regard for practical applications, and they rarely attracted the attention of national governments.


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During World War II, science became mobilized on a grand scale; many of these professors and their students dropped everything to work on war-related challenges and initiative. Numerous other laboratories focused on everything from electronics to medical research to psychological testing.

World War II and Popular Culture

Scientists became advisors to presidents on the most pressing issues of national and foreign policy. Ever since World War II, the American government has mobilized science, mathematics, and engineering on a vast scale, whether in large government laboratories, by funding research in universities, or by purchasing high-tech products from companies in industry. A classic problem was hunting Nazi submarines in the Atlantic Ocean that were sinking Allied ships.

You only have so many airplanes, and they can only fly for so many miles before they need to refuel.

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What is the best way to organize the search patterns for these airplanes to have the most likelihood of finding these submarines? Mathematicians got hold of this problem and formulated in mathematical terms, using statistics and probability, which were then solvable for optimal solutions.

It was not just scientists, mathematicians, and engineers that utilized math and science during WWII. Average soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines were regularly called upon to use math and science skills, often newly learned, to accomplish their missions. Taking measurements for firing artillery weapons, reading maps and compasses, determining air speeds and altitudes, setting timers on fuses, these tasks and countless others required a fundamental understanding of many math and science rules.

Neither side had an interest in recalling what China did. On the Chinese side, after when the civil war was over, the Nationalists had been exiled to Taiwan, and Mao was victorious on the mainland, you had essentially a virgin history in the mainland of China—that the only people who had made a contribution to fighting and defeating the Japanese were the Chinese communists. The contribution that had actually been made by the much larger Nationalist army was essentially either dismissed or wiped out of the official history that was taught in China itself.

You have to remember that in the West, we very quickly forgot about that wartime contribution as well. But what was forgotten was the leader, through a whole swath of decisions, many of them very problematic and difficult, had nonetheless kept China in the war against Japan. First of all, on his own for about four and half years, and then of course as part of the very difficult alliance with the West for another four years after that. One thing that came out in your book that was surprising to me is the idea that China as a geographical construct, at least modern China as a geographical construct, seems to have arisen out of the war.

Their west was not considered part of the main area.


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  • Is that a correct reading? And the answer, well one of the answers, is geography.

    In progress at UNHQ

    It happens for a variety of reasons. It has to finally eliminate one of the big problems of the era, which was the warlordism—the different military leaders who control different parts of China at that stage. Some of them have been done away with in a pretty brutal manner. And as a result, at the end of the war, even though China was smashed beyond recognition in many ways and of course was about to launch into a civil war, the problem that existed between the late 19th century and the outbreak of World War II, which was the splitting up into different warlord regions, was mostly resolved by the fact that the government had had to retreat into the interior and consolidate its rule during that period.

    Do you see the same dynamic happening here? Yes, and partly for the same reasons. And the big difference is that for the first time, people are allowed to look at the Nationalist, the Guomindang [or Kuomintang ] side of the experience. This is a trend that has emerged within China itself. In the Eastern bloc, the Great Patriotic War is always an important cultural touchstone.

    Basically, although it was distortive propaganda reasons in many ways, Stalin, Khrushchev, and his successors did use the patriotic war where the Soviets fight back against the Nazis as a key patriotic narrative. It was a relatively minor part of the way in which patriotism was constructed.

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    Why was that? Well, there are a variety reasons, but the Cold War is really the major one. They had to keep the population whipped up in a fever of fear against the possibility that the invaders might come back from Taiwan and essentially start World War III. In contrast, Japan was not a near defeated enemy, but one with which the Chinese Communists actually wanted to try and get closer.