Myth: It started in 1939
Most history books tell us that World War II began on September 1, 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland. Hell, some Americans probably think the war started on December 7, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
However, many historians suggest earlier starting points including the Soviet-Japanese fighting in Mongolia in May 1939, the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, and even the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.
But, a war’s victors are always the ones who later write its history. And so the world powers on the winning side of World War II ultimately pegged the start of the war as the moment when they got involved.
Myth: Pearl Harbor was a surprise sneak attack
While the timeline is complicated and the evidence is fuzzy, it does seem to be true that the Japanese intentionally launched the attack without a formal declaration of war, but to call the attack a “surprise” is a mischaracterization.
Tensions between the U.S. and Japan had been high for well over a decade before Pearl Harbor, with the U.S. even drawing up an official war plan for action against Japan way back in 1924. Thirteen years later, the Japanese even bombed an American ship in China.
By the time negotiations began between the two countries in 1941, everyone knew things were nearing the breaking point — even those outside of the corridors of power. A Gallup poll taken in 1941, before Pearl Harbor, showed that 52 percent of Americans expected war with Japan while just 27 percent did not.
Myth: American forces were filled with eager volunteers
A large part of the naive yet persistent American notion that World War II was “the good war” is the idea that countless young American men volunteered to fight because they simply knew that it was the right thing to do.
However, consider the following: During World War II, two-thirds of U.S. forces were drafted, not enlisted. Yet during the Vietnam War — the ugly, evil twin to World War II’s “good war” — two-thirds of U.S. forces were enlisted, not drafted.