World War II involved at least seven important and complex political figures. The Allied leaders were composed of president Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States, premier Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, prime minister Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom, generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek of China, and general Charles de Gaulle of France. The Axis leaders were composed of dictator Adolf Hitler of Germany, prime minister Hideki Tojo of Japan, and dictator Benito Mussolini of Italy.
Franklin D. Roosevelt had been president of the United States for almost nine years when the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Having led the nation through the Great Depression, Roosevelt was a popular leader who, according to author Conrad Black of “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom” (2003), saw the winds of war in Europe blowing early. In fact, Black wrote that Roosevelt intentionally sought an unprecedented third term in 1940 because he predicted that America would eventually be involved in the war. He had long feared the rise of both Nazi Germany and imperialist Japan in the 1930s.
Roosevelt’s role in the war was vital. Because of America’s geopolitical isolation from the European dramas of the 1920s and 1930s, Roosevelt was in a unique position to play peacemaker between virulent anti-Communist Winston Churchill, prime minister of Britain who had advocated military aid to fight the Communists in the Russian Civil War of 1917-1921, and staunch Communist Joseph Stalin, the militaristic dictator of the Communist USSR. Additionally, Roosevelt was needed to play peacemaker in regard to the milieu of Free French leaders vying for power after November 1942, when the U.S. and Britain began to liberate French territory from the Germans.
Roosevelt’s role as negotiator and peacemaker was stressful and intricate. He wanted to avoid Soviet domination of eastern Europe after the defeat of Germany and simultaneously allow the collapse of the British Empire, which he had long viewed as oppressive. Roosevelt wanted to restore France to its previous status as a world power…but not too powerful. Finally, Roosevelt wanted Germany to be defeated but left with dignity and an ability to rebuilt after Hitler. This stood in stark contrast to the views of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, who wanted Germany left powerless. Free French leader Charles de Gaulle also wanted Germany left weak. Roosevelt helped lead a series of complex conferences of Allied leaders, both in regard to the war in Europe and the war in the Pacific, to negotiate comprehensive policy.
Winston Churchill had an important role early in the war. While Roosevelt became the de facto leader of the pair after November 1942, when the U.S. entered ground fighting against the Germans in North Africa, Churchill had the difficult task of facing Nazi Germany and fascist Italy alone for an entire year. After France fell in June 1940 it was an entire year before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, leading Britain alone to fight the Nazis.
Under Churchill’s leadership the Brits successfully evacuated at Dunkirk, saving their own army and a healthy number of Frenchmen, withstood the bombing of the Blitz, and fought the Germans and Italians in Greece and in North Africa. Though the United States brought much more manpower and industrial capability to the war in Europe, Britain’s contributions throughout were tremendous. Given Britain’s limited population, it certainly punched above its weight during the war.
Soviet premier Joseph Stalin brought to the war as much maniacal zeal and disregard for cost as his foe, Adolf Hitler. When the USSR was invaded on June 22, 1941, the Soviet leader initially suffered a nervous breakdown but quickly recovered, becoming an iron-backed wartime leader. Though he initially attempted to micromanage, he eventually came to respect the strategies of his top generals.
Despite both Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s distrust of Communism and dislike of Soviet plans for a defeated Germany, the fact that the Soviet Union handled the vast majority of the ground fighting during the Allies’ war in Europe meant that Stalin’s goals became law. In the end, Britain lost global influence after World War II while the U.S. and the Soviet Union gained tremendous influence, the U.S. as a benevolent diplomat and the USSR as a victorious occupier.
Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek was the Nationalist leader of China and had, since 1937, been engaged in a losing war with Imperial Japan, making him the first Allied leader to fight an Axis power (though Japan would not officially join the Axis until 1940). While Japan made quick gain in its war against China, China’s vast geography and population of 400 million people made it an unconquerable foe, with almost a million Japanese troops quickly being tied down without enough power to secure lasting victory.
Chiang Kai-Shek sucessfully moved China’s leadership to Chongqing, in the interior of the country, safe from Japanese armies. Though Chiang’s wartime record is extremely weak, with American military commanders deeming the generalissimo inept and difficult to deal with, China’s contribution to tying down Japan’s vaunted military and helping the U.S. win the war in the Pacific is vital to world history.
Standing 6’5″ tall, French general Charles de Gaulle was an imposing figure. Though unable to stop France from being overrun by Germany in a mere six weeks in 1940, de Gaulle became the leader of the Free French in late 1942 as Roosevelt and Churchill agreed that he was the best hope of re-establishing a powerful France. Known for being difficult to deal with, de Gaulle nevetheless played an important role during and after the
liberation of France in 1944, helping end Germany’s final grip on central Europe.
German dictator Adolf Hitler was democratically elected in 1932, with a power-sharing deal by ailing president Paul von Hindenburg quickly setting up the World War I veteran to seize ultimate power. Hitler quickly set out to re-militarize Germany, which was greatly weakened by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. This re-armament and re-militarization put Germany’s economy back on track, making Germany a world power by 1939. On September 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland, emboldened by Hitler’s diplomatic victory over France and Britain in 1938’s Munich Conference, which allowed Germany to occupy part of Czechoslovakia unopposed. This invasion of Poland sparked World War II in Europe.
Hitler quickly became a micromanager of military strategy, with blunders leading to reversals on the Eastern Front. With Soviet troops closing in on Berlin and his Fuhrerbunker, Hitler committed suicide along with his new wife, Eva von Braun, in his underground bunker.
Japanese prime minister and former army officer Hideki Tojo was a militaristic leader who helped plan Japan’s December 1941 offensive, including the strike on Pearl Harbor. Tojo was the face of WWII Japan, though he was far from a strategic genius. Unable to stop the United States’ successful island hopping campaigns that brought U.S. planes and ships ever closer to the main Japanese islands, Tojo was removed as prime minister in 1944. He was executed after the war after trying unsuccessfully to commit suicide.
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, known as “Il Duce,” was the first Axis leader to come to power, rising to prime minister in 1922. By 1925 he was a de facto dictator. The pioneer of fascism, Mussolini later helped a rookie Adolf Hitler become a respected and feared European political figure during the mid-1930s. Though an important political figure in Europe, Italy’s obsolete military and weak economy prevented Mussolini from exercising the power he wished. Italy and Mussolini earned the ire of much of the world with its invasion of Ethiopia and Mussolini’s proclaimed goal of making the Mediterranean an “Italian lake.”
When World War II began Mussolini supporter Hitler, but quickly discovered that his obsolete military was no match for either the British in Greece and North Africa or the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. Mussolini was arrested in 1943 when Italy secretly surrendered to the Allies in a deal full of political intrigue. Shortly after his arrest, Mussolini was rescued by German commandos and Hitler re-installed Mussolini as leader of Italy, with fascist Italy known as the Italian Social Republic. However, within this Italian Social Republic, also known as the Salo Republic, Mussolini was little more than an errand boy for Adolf Hitler. Mussolini was killed by partisans in 1945 as World War II ended.