Today’s post was written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives in College Park.
An excellent source for answering the questions posed in the title of this post, and other military questions, is the records of the Office of the Adjutant General (Record Group 407). Specifically, to answer the official designation question, I went to Files AG 000.4 Naming of Wars (1 Aug 45) and AG 055 World War II 3-1-45 — 12-31-45 within Entry 363A, Army AG Decimal File, 1940-1945 (NAID 895294). Below is the information I located that answered the questions posed.
During the summer of 1945 the War Department determined that it needed to expeditiously come up with an official name for the war the United States was fighting at the time. The Operations Division of the War Department was tasked with making a recommendation regarding a name designation for the war. After undertaking some research and consulting with other elements of the War Department, Brigadier General Thomas North, Chief, Current Group, writing for the Acting Assistant Chief of Staff, Operations Division, War Department, on August 1, 1945, wrote to the commanding generals of the Army Service Forces, the Army Ground Forces, and the Army Air Force, regarding the “Official Designation of Present War.” He mentioned that in official documents, Acts of Congress, publications and in current usage various names and designations had been applied to hostilities which began December 7, 1941. He pointed out that in communications and records of various committees of the Congress, reference had been made to “‘the wars in which the United States is presently engaged.’” He noted:
By letter dated 31 July 1919, President Wilson recommended that the war against the Central Powers be named ‘The World War.’ By General Orders No. 115, dated 7 October 1919, War Department directed: ‘The war against the Central Powers of Europe, in which the United States has taken part, will hereafter be designated in all official communications and publications as ‘The World War.’
General North suggested that as a matter of simplicity, and to ensure uniform terminology, it was desirable to have an officially designated name for the present war covering all theaters and the entire period of hostilities. He observed that the Bureau of Public Relations, after analysis of records of publications and radio usage, stated that the term “World War II” had been accepted by common usage. He added that the term “World War II” to designate the present hostilities had been used in at least seven public laws. Therefore, the Operations Division recommended that the term “World War II” be announced in General Orders to designate the war in which United States forces had participated since December 7, 1941. He requested the recipients’ comments. All three recipients concurred with the term World War II.
After obtaining the concurrences of Army Service Forces, the Army Ground Forces, and the Army Air Force, the Current Group, Operations Division, War Department, on August 19 wrote the War Department’s G-1, G-2, G-3, and G-4 for their concurrence. They concurred, with G-1, suggesting the proposal should be coordinated with the Navy Department and G-2 suggesting that the matter be presented by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the president as a recommendation that he officially announce the designation as “World War II.” Then more concurrences were sought regarding the G-1 and G-2 suggestions.
Finally, on August 31, the Assistant Chief of Staff, Operations Division, War Department, wrote the Army Chief of Staff and the Secretary of War, asking for the approval of the former and the signature of the latter to enclosed draft letters to the Secretary of the Navy and a joint letter to the President. In this communication Lt. Gen. J. E. Hull, provided the basic background as had been written by General North on August 1. Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War, wrote the Secretary of the Navy on September 5 with background information regarding the term World War II and the desire for its official recognition by the President. Stimson enclosed a letter which he had prepared for their signatures addressed to the President recommending that the term “World War II” be the officially designated for the present war covering all theaters and the entire period of hostilities, with the further recommendation that the title “World War II” be published in the Federal Register as the official name of the present war. Stimson indicated to Secretary Forrestal that he had already signed the enclosed letter and recommended that if he concurred, the joint letter be sent to the President for approval.
A little over a week later, on September 10, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal wrote President Truman:
President Wilson, under date of July 31, 1919, addressed a letter to Secretary of War Baker which read, in part, as follows:
It is hard to find a satisfactory ‘official’ name for the war, but the best, I think, that has been suggested is ‘The World War’, and I hope that your judgment will concur.
Subsequently, under date of October 7, 1919, War Department General orders No. 115 directed:
The war against the Central Powers of Europe, in which the United States has taken part, will hereafter be designated in all official communications and publications as ‘The World War.’
As a matter of simplicity and to insure uniform terminology, it is recommended that ‘World War II’ be the officially designated name for the present war covering all theaters and the entire period of hostilities.
The term ‘World War II’ has been used in at least seven public laws to designate this period of hostilities. Analysis of publications and radio programs indicates that this term has been accepted by common usage.
If this recommended is approved it is further recommended that the title ‘World War II’ be published in the Federal Register as the official name of the present war.
At the bottom on this communication, President Truman, signed Approved, Sept. 11, 1945, Harry Truman.
Three days later, on September 14, Brig. Gen. Thomas North, Chief, Current Group, Operations Division of the War Department wrote The Adjutant General that the Secretary of War directed “that information substantially as follows be published in a War Department General Order:
Official Designation of the Present War
The war in which the United States has been engaged since 8 December 1941 will hereafter be designated in all official communications and publications as ‘World War II.’”
General North added that the Secretary of War directed that a letter “substantially as follows be forwarded to Mr. B. R. Kennedy, Director, Division of the Federal Register, National Archives, Washington, 25, D.C. (Attention: Mr. Eberhart):
The President on 11 September 1945 approved the enclosed letter of 10 September 1945 signed jointly by the Secretaries of War and the navy recommending that the term ‘World War II’ be officially designated as the name for the present war covering all theaters and the entire period of hostilities. Further, it was recommended that the title ‘World War II’ be published in the Federal Register as the official name of the present war.
It is requested that the Director, Division of the Federal Register, comply with the latter recommendation and advise the Adjutant General when the action is accomplished.
General North enclosed the original letter signed by the Secretaries of War and the Navy and approved by the President, together with three certified copies, and asked they be forwarded as enclosures to the communication to the Division of the Federal Register.
As instructed, Maj. Gen. Edward F. Witsell, Acting the Adjutant General, wrote the Director, Division of the Federal Register on September 17 with the request for publication, enclosing the letter cited above. It was published (see 10 Federal Register 1188).
Paragraph No. I of War Department General Orders No. 80, dated September 19, 1945, provided “The war in which the United States has been engaged since 8 December 1941 will hereafter be designated in all official communications and publications as ‘World War II.’”
3 thoughts on “How and When Did World War II Officially Become World War II?”
Thank God they were able to think up a name for World War II and it only took them 4 years. And we thought that we had a monopoly in our time of incompetent people in government.
Many people throughout history have risen to the level of their incompetence in various government positions.
It’s called “the Peter Principle”.
Superciliousness aside, until the global war entered its truly terminal phase determining an official designation apparently wasn’t exactly a high priority. There were a few other things to worry about. Date that Brigadier General North wrote to the various commanding generals regarding the “Official Designation of Present War”: August 1, 1945. Date of War Department General Order 80: September 19, 1945. Duration: 49 days, or 3 years, 7 months and 24 days shy of four years.
I am interested to know to competing naming options which were not ultimately chosen. How was the war known colloquially before this official designation?
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