Timeline of the 1940s: The War Years

World War II Dominates the Decade

The 1940s tower over every other decade of the 20th century as the most full of sorrow, patriotism and ultimately, hope and the beginning of a new era of American dominance on the world stage. This decade, commonly called "the war years," is synonymous with World War II.  This decade left an indelible mark on all but the youngest of Americans that lasted for the rest of their lives; those who were young and were in the military were dubbed "The Greatest Generation" by former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, and the moniker stuck.

Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, and the war dominated Europe from that moment until the Nazis surrendered. The United States was drawn into World War II with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and was then involved in both the European and Pacific theaters until peace came in May 1945 in Europe and August of that year in the Pacific.

01
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1940

Auschwitz II - Birkenau
Auschwitz II -- Birkenau. (Photo by Massimo Pizzotti / Getty Images)

The first year of the 1940s was jam-packed with war-related news.  The Germans opened the Auschwitz concentration camp, the  Battle of Britain raged, with Nazi bombings of military bases and London, known as the Blitz. Britain's Royal Air Force was ultimately victorious in its defense of the U.K. Also in 1940, in a devastating setback, Britain had to retreat from France in the  Dunkirk evacuation.

Other war-related events in 1940 include the Katyn Forest massacre of Polish prisoners of war by the Soviet Army and the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto.

In non-war news, the cartoon character Bugs Bunny made his debut in “A Wild Hare”; President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented third term; Stone Age cave paintings were discovered at Lascaux, France; the Russian Revolution leader Leon Trotsky was assassinated; and last, stockings made of nylon rather than silk hit the market because silk was needed for the war effort.

 

02
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1941

Mt. Rushmore
Mount Rushmore was finished in 1941. Underwood Archives / Getty Images

By far the biggest event for Americans in 1941 was the ​Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, a day that would indeed live in infamy.

Other major war-related news included the signing of the Atlantic Charter; the Babi Yar Massacre; the sinking of the HMS Hood by the German Battleship Bismarck; the passage of the Lend-Lease Act; the Nazis began Operation Barbarossa, code name for the invasion of the Soviet Union; the Siege of Leningrad; and the first killings of adults and children with disabilities by the Nazis began.

 

In lighter news, the comic "Captain America" made its debut, as did Cheerios cereal, M&Ms and the Jeep.

Joe DiMaggio began his 56-game hitting streak and Mount Rushmore was completed.

In an event that was to lead to yet another war for the U.S. years later, Ho Chi Minh founded the Communist Viet Minh in Vietnam

 

 

 

03
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1942

Anne Frank
Anne Frank. Anne Frank House

In 1942, World War II continued to dominate the news: Anne Frank went into hiding,  the Bataan Death March occurred, as did the Battles of Midway and Stalingrad. Japanese-Americans were interred in camps and the Manhattan Project began.

There was one enduring event: the T-shirt made its debut.

 

04
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1943

Katy Forest Massacre
On April, 1943, mass graves containing the remains of 4,400 Polish military officers who had been killed by the Soviet secret police were discovered. PhotoQuest / Getty Images

 The year 1943 saw the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the killing of French Resistance leader Jean Moulin. Italy joined the Allies, and the grave of the Katyn Forest Massacre was found.

 

 

05
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1944

D-Day
Troops landing in Normandy on D-Day. Keystone / Getty Images

June 6, 1944, was momentous: D-Day, when the Allies landed in Normandy on the way to liberate Europe from the Nazis.​

 Adolf Hitler escaped an assassination attempt, and the first German V1 and V2 rockets were fired.

Ballpoint pens went on sale in 1944, which eventually completely overtook fountain pens as the writing instrument of choice. 

 

 

06
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1945

ENIAC
Computer operators program ENIAC, the first electronic digital computer. © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Image

World War II ended in Europe and the Pacific in 1945, and those two events dominated this year. 

Leading up to the end of the war, there was the firebombing of Dresden and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States. Hitler committed suicide, the Germans and the Japanese surrendered

The Yalta Conference brought together the Soviet Union's Josef Stalin, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill; FDR died just before the war ended in Europe; a firestorm consumed Tokyo; and Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jewish lives, was arrested and never seen again.

The Nuremberg trials began, the United Nations was founded, and Korea was divided into North and South Korea.

In the inventions department, the first computer was built, the microwave was invented, and slinky toys made their first appearance.

 

 

 

07
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1946

Atomic Bomb test
A mushroom cloud forms after the initial atomic bomb test explosion off the coast of Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands. Keystone / Getty Images

With World War II over, the news lightened up considerably in 1946. Bikinis made their debut on beaches everywhere, and Dr. Spock's "The Common Book of Baby and Child Care" was published, just in time for the start of the Baby Boom. The landmark holiday movie "It's a Wonderful Life" had its premiere.

Las Vegas began its transformation into the gambling capital of the U.S. with the building of the Flamingo Hotel, UNICEF was founded, Juan Peron became president of Argentina, nuclear test began at Bikini Atoll began, and Winston Churchill gave his "Iron Curtain" speech.

In some of the year's worst news, the King David Hotel in Jersusalem was bombed, and Jews were massacred in the post-Holocaust Kielce Pogrom in Poland. ​

 

 

08
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1947

Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

In 1947, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, and the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African-American baseball player in the Major Leagues.

The Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe took effect, and Jewish refugees aboard the Exodus were turned back by the British.

What new product was introduced in 1947? Polaroid cameras, just in time for all those baby shots.

 

09
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1948

Gandhi assasination
The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Imagno / Getty Images

The year 1948 witnessed the Berlin Airlift, the assassination of India's Mahatma Gandhi, the formulation of the "Big Bang" theory, the founding of Israel and the beginning of apartheid in South Africa. Despite headlines saying "Dewey Defeats Truman," Harry Truman was elected president.

 

10
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1949

Mao Zedong
Mao Tse-tung led the Red Army on its epic Long March and overthrew the Nationalist Chinese dictator Chiang Kai-Shek in 1949. The Print Collector / Print Collector / Getty Images

In 1949, NATO was established, the Soviet Union developed the atomic bomb, and China became communist.

The year also witnessed the first non-stop flight around the world, and George Orwell's landmark "Nineteen Eighty-Four" was published.