When Did World War II Begin?

Benjamin R. Beede, January 2007

To the Editor:

In a letter to the editor in the November 2006 Perspectives, Jonathan Reed Winkler took issue with Haberman and Shubert for asserting "World War I was not a 'world war'" in their September 2006 Perspectives article ("American Exceptionalism and the Teaching of European History"). My agreement with Winkler is not my concern here, however. Winkler's letter simply reminded me of a possible question about World War II, specifically about the tradition of dating its start from September 1, 1939. It seems to me that a debate should be initiated about the appropriateness of the 1939 date. One can argue that viewing World War II as a European war that eventually engulfed virtually the entire globe is a striking example of Eurocentricism. Dating World War II from July 7, 1937, the beginning of the war between China and Japan, seems to be a viable alternative approach. Ignoring the fact that two major participants in "World War II" had been at war for over two years before the invasion of Poland relegates the "Pacific War" to the status of a secondary event. The Soviet Union, moreover, gave some military assistance to China in these years and engaged in sporadic, but sometimes very heavy, fighting with Japan, with lesser border "incidents" occurring throughout the years 1941 to 1945. Skeptics about dating World War II from 1937 rather than 1939 might ask whether 1931 (the Japanese invasion of Manchuria) or 1936 (the beginning of the Spanish Civil War) would not be other, possibly more appropriate, dates. In respect to Manchuria, it is my impression that at least some specialists have raised questions about continuity between events in 1931 and 1937. The problem with the Spanish Civil War seems to me to be that Spain was a "nonbelligerent" between 1939 and 1945, despite its support for the Axis. Although these conflicts obviously were related to World War II, they did not merge into the events from 1939 to 1945 as directly as the Sino-Japanese War. I am not the first person to raise the question of dating World War II from 1937. Some references to the matter can be found, but more attention could usefully be given to the issue.

—Benjamin R. Beede, Rutgers University Libraries Emeritus