As of 1939, the world population stood at around 2.3 billion people, with significant differences between nations. Manpower, essential for military mobilization, would prove pivotal in determining the war’s outcome, but it was just one facet of how the alignment of nations influenced World War II. Other vital resources, including oil, aluminum, and food, were also affected by the alliances forged during this period, as were the industrial and economic capacities of these aligned nations.
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Table of Contents
Alignment in WWII
In the years leading up to World War II, the alignment of nations was marked by the emergence of two major opposing blocs: the Allies and the Axis. The Allied nations, led by the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union, stood in stark opposition to the Axis nations, led by Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan. These alliances were instrumental in shaping the course and outcomes of the war, as they defined the geopolitical landscape of the conflict and determined the strength of each side and in determining the course and outcomes of the war.
In 1939 the global population at that time reached approximately 2.3 billion people, but this distribution was far from uniform among nations and was heavily skewed in favor of the Allied nations.
The Allies, consisting of major players such as the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, India, and China, collectively represented a substantial portion of the world’s population. In fact, the population of nations aligned with the Allies accounted for a staggering 1.4 billion people, comprising 61% of the global population.
Conversely, the Axis nations, led by Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan, though formidable militarily, did not enjoy the same demographic advantage. The population of Axis-aligned nations stood at a mere 0.3 billion people, constituting just 14% of the world’s population.
Meanwhile, the remaining neutral countries accounted for approximately 2.9 billion people or 13% of the world’s population.
Oil, a critical resource for military operations, played a significant role in World War II. The Axis nations, particularly Nazi Germany and Japan, faced severe challenges in securing access to oil reserves. Germany’s efforts to conquer the Soviet Union were, in part, driven by the desire to access Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus region.
Conversely, the Allied Powers, including the United States, held a substantial advantage in oil production, with the U.S. alone producing over half of the world’s oil supply during the war. This oil abundance provided a crucial strategic advantage to the Allies and contributed to their ultimate victory.
In 1940 the US and USSR combined produced 212,357 metric tons of crude oil. Whereas Romania and Indonesia, the major axis sources of crude oil, produced 13,703 metric tons. This 15 to 1 ratio meant the Allied powers could more easily mechanize.
Aluminum, a vital material for aircraft and military equipment production, was another resource influencing the war’s outcome due to the alignment of nations during World War II. The United States and Canada were major producers of aluminum, supplying both their own military forces and Allied nations. In a significant prelude to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. troops arrived in Dutch Guiana to protect bauxite mines, providing the U.S. with 65% of its imported bauxite.
The USSR was self-sufficient. The United Kingdom although deficient within its border had decades-old supply sources.
In contrast, the Axis nations faced significant shortages of aluminum, which hindered their ability to manufacture aircraft and other essential wartime materials. Germany accessed bauxite ore from Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Romania, but the logistical challenges of transporting the ore to production facilities with a reliable electrical supply proved daunting. Nazi rail systems were already overburdened, and ore transportation only compounded that problem.
Japan, without a domestic source of bauxite, faced a substantial challenge during World War II and heavily relied on imports, with 90% of its aluminum ingots in 1941 originating from bauxite imported from the Dutch East Indies. This dependency on overseas bauxite posed significant logistical challenges for Japan.
By September of 1939, Japan boasted a formidable maritime presence, with a fleet of 1,180 vessels exceeding 1,000 gross tons, according to data from the Maritime Commission of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Only the British Empire and the United States could boast larger merchant fleets at the time. Notably, Japanese shipyards had yet to reach their zenith in terms of wartime production, foreshadowing the significant expansion of naval assets that would soon follow.
However, the toll of World War II took a severe toll on Japan’s maritime strength. Over the course of forty-four months of active participation in the conflict, the Empire of Japan suffered the loss of a staggering 2,346 merchant ships. Virtually all vessels exceeding 1,000 tons in size were either sunk or incapacitated, highlighting the immense challenges Japan faced in maintaining its maritime supply lines and demonstrating the devastating impact of the war on its merchant fleet.
This disparity in aluminum resources further tipped the scales in favor of the Allied-aligned nations.
Industrial and Economic Capacities
The industrial capacity of nations played a pivotal role in determining the course of World War II. Allied-aligned nations, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the Soviet Union, possessed robust industrial bases that allowed for the mass production of weapons, vehicles, and other essential war materials. The Axis-aligned nations, while initially demonstrating impressive industrial capabilities, struggled to match the sustained output of the Allies. The Allies’ superior industrial capacity played a crucial role in the eventual defeat of the Axis Powers.
Utilizing industrial capacity indices documented by Gropman (1). Taking the United States’ prewar productivity in terms of production per man-hour as the standard and giving it a value of 100, the following indicates the relative productivity of Allied nations versus Axis nations. Pre-war (1935-38) found the Allied nations stood at 243 and the Axis 66. At the height of the war, 1944, the Allied nations stood at 237 and the Axis nations 65.
(1) Gropman, Alan L. “Mobilizing U.S. Industry In World War II: Myth And Reality.” Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, 1996, Washington, DC, Page 135, https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/23588/mcnair50.pdf
Economic strength was also a decisive factor in World War II, as nations with robust economies could sustain the financial burden of a protracted conflict. The economic capacity of Allied-aligned nations, particularly the United States, dwarfed that of the Axis-aligned nations. From the pre-war years and through 1943 the Allied nations maintained about a 2:1 GDP ratio advantage over their Axis counterparts. In 1944 the ratio ticked up to nearly a 3:1 advantage and in 1945 it soared to a 5:1 ratio advantage.
The U.S., with its booming economy, was able to finance the war effort not only for itself but also for its Allies through programs like the Lend-Lease Act. Conversely, Axis-aligned nations grappled with significant economic challenges, including inflation and resource shortages, which eroded their war efforts. The economic disparities between the two blocs contributed significantly to the Allied victory in World War II.
World Population by Country by Alignment – 1939 Data
This listing of 151 countries shows the 1939 population as well as the eventual country wartime alliance or neutrality.
To download the data shown below from which the graph was developed click on the icon below corresponding to you desired format. Note: to ensure all data is downloaded choose the ‘All’ selection in the Show Entries dropdown list. Otherwise only the data visible on the screen will download.
Source: Wikipedia, “List of countries by population in 1939”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population_in_1939, Date accessed June 25, 2022
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