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The military leadership of Japan wanted to control China, and it launched an invasion of that country in 1937. The Japanese sank a U.S. gunboat on a Chinese river, apologized, and the Americans forgave them. In 1936, Japan became a formal ally of Nazi Germany and Italy in the Anti-Comintern pact.

Meanwhile in Europe, Adolf Hitler gobbled up territory from countries on both sides of Germany. At first, his moves were tentative. When Hitler's troops marched into the demilitarized Rhineland region of Germany in 1936, they had orders to turn right around and go home if anybody stood up to them. Nobody did.

In March of 1938, Germany took over Austria without a fight. At the Munich Conference (1938) in September of that year, England and France agreed to let Hitler take over the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia. This sellout by the democracies only bought peace for a few months. Negotiating with Hitler was like trying to stop a wolf by throwing meat at it. In August of 1939, anti-Communist Hitler stunned the world by signing a treaty — a nonaggression pact — with Joseph Stalin, leader of the big Communist Soviet Union. One week later, Hitler invaded Poland and the Soviets marched in from the east.

Britain and France take a stand

Finally England and France had had enough; they declared war on Germany, and the greatest conflict in history was under way. After several months of preparation, Hitler's well-organized forces swept across Holland and Belgium into France. By the summer of 1940, Hitler and his Italian buddy Mussolini controlled most of Europe except for the home islands of Britain 35 miles across the English Channel.

Hitler pounded Britain with planes to destroy the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and prepare the islands for German invasion. In the Battle of Britain (1940), the RAF, down to its last few planes, heroically defended the island nation. As the bombs fell, bulldog Prime Minister Winston Churchill told the British people to conduct themselves so that if Britain "lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.'" It was.

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