The U.S. Government Wins a Two-Front War

Conventional wisdom, rightly so, holds that it’s foolish to fight a two-front war. Case in point: Germany in World War II.

Hitler’s destructive, deadly, and insane decision (among myriad other murderous choices by the Fuhrer) for Nazi Germany to invade the Soviet Union in 1940 led to the downfall of the Third Reich. In the two-front war that resulted, the Third Reich was squeezed in a vise by the Russians on the Eastern Front and by the Americans, British, and Canadians on the Western Front.

But here’s the thing: The United States also battled on two fronts in World War II. The U.S. fought Japan in the Pacific Theater and Germany and Italy in the Atlantic Theater.

And the U.S. won.

Why? Because of a well-organized and well-funded war effort led by the U.S. federal government.

In spearheading the war effort, the federal government, led by President Franklin Roosevelt, spent $296 billion in 1945, its final year of spending on the war. That’s $4.1 trillion in today’s dollars, or about seven times the Pentagon’s total budget in 2015. This kind of massive spending funded the war machines and the soldiers, sailors, and Marines who defeated the Axis powers.

It was not easy. The U.S. suffered humiliating early defeats at Pearl Harbor and the Philippines in the Pacific and against German General Erwin Rommel in North Africa. But the generals and admirals, many of whom graduated from the federal government’s military academies, learned quickly. In the Pacific, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, an Annapolis graduate, orchestrated the island-hopping strategy that eventually defeated Japan. In the Atlantic, General Dwight Eisenhower, a West Point graduate, honed his craft against Rommel in the desert and then led the massive D-Day Invasion in Normandy.

The U.S. had officers well-trained in its military academies, but the U.S. military also had an overwhelming materiel advantage. For instance, the U.S., with the support of private shipyards, built more than 160 aircraft carriers in the four years of the war; the Navy started with just seven carriers. The U.S., aided by Ford, Chrysler, Caterpillar and other manufacturers, built almost 70,000 Sherman and other medium tanks during the war. And the U.S. manufactured about 300,000 military planes, including the Boeing B-29, the Grumman F4F Wildcat, and the Republic Aviation P-47 Thunderbolt. Note also that the federal government commissioned the Manhattan Project, which outraced Germany to the construction of an atomic bomb.

The war effort led by the U.S. federal government was not perfect. The slang of the era (e.g., FUBAR and SNAFU); the literature spawned by the war (Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five); and the existence of the Senate’s “Truman Committee” to stave off war profiteering make it clear that the war effort was complex and experienced failures.

But it’s also certain that the federal government marshaled and funded the largest and most powerful fighting (and manufacturing) force the world has ever known — and won a two-front war.

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