In every country and government type, there is always one person at the political top who makes the key decisions and determines the national policy, or leads to it - the national leader. This essay lists the national leaders of the countries which participated in World War 2.
Some of these leaders were clearly the aggressors, while others led the war against aggression. Some leaders succeeded, while others failed to stand against stronger powers. Some leaders were caught in the middle between stronger countries and were forced to take a side, while others were able to remain neutral and save their nations from the war.
The aggressors Adolf Hitler - Nazi dictator of Germany (1933-45), planned and started World War 2, committed suicide at the end of the war.
General Hideki Tojo - Prime minister of Japan (October 1941 - July 1944). With a long militarist tradition, Japan became extremely militarist and aggressive in the 1930s and was practically governed by military leaders. Tojo, an aggressive army General, became minister of war in July 1941 and prime minister in October 1941. After a short attempt to improve relations with the US failed, he ordered to go to war and attack Pearl Harbor in December 1941. He gradually took more ministerial roles, and in Feb. 1944 also made himself the commander in chief, like Adolf Hitler did. When he realized that Japan was going to lose the war he resigned. The military continued to control Japan until the end of World War 2, which came when the Emperor Hirohito which was until then passive, ordered to surrender in order to prevent further inevitable destruction of Japan. After the war Tojo was executed for his responsibility to Japan's war crimes.
Benito Mussolini, was the prime minister of Italy (1922-1943). A former journalist, he went to politics and formed the Fascist party, whose ideology, Fascism, called for a one-party state, total obedience, patriotic nationalism, and aggressive militarism. The ideology and its implementation in Mussolini's Italy influenced Adolf Hitler's own ideology, Nazism, which was a combination of Fascism with extreme racism. Initially Mussolini led a right-wing coalition, but later Italy became a one party state. His treatment of unemployment made Mussolini popular, but the military aggression of Fascism led to its failure. Mussolini was eager to demonstrate the "strength" of his regime by invading weaker neighbors. In 1935 he invaded and occupied the peaceful Ethiopia from Italy's nearby colony in East Africa. In 1936, the two Fascist dictators, Hitler and Mussolini, signed an alliance. In 1939 he invaded and occupied his small neighbor Albania, and Mussolini then enhanced his alliance with Hitler to a full military alliance. Mussolini knew that his military was not very effective, but when the Germans defeated the French and British forces in mid 1940 he thought it was safe enough for him to attack Britain and the collapsing France too and declared war, and in October 1940 he also invaded Greece, and was repelled. Mussolini had a million soldiers in Libya, and he sent them to attack the small British force in Egypt. The Italian Navy and Air Force attacked British ports and shipping in the Mediterranean, from Gibraltar in the West to Haifa (Israel) in the East. Despite its numerical strength and the fact that British forces in the Mediterranean were greatly outnumbered and very stretched, the Italian military could not defeat them anywhere, and was severely beaten by the British, and simply had to call for the help of the much more capable Germans. Even with German help, the British forces only lost their positions in Greece and kept fighting fiercely from their island bases in Malta, Gibraltar, and in North Africa. Mussolini's Italy became a German puppet, and even sent troops to participate in Germany's invasion of Russia. Eventually, British and American forces eliminated the Italian and German forces in North Africa and followed in July 1943 with an invasion of Sicily in South Italy. It was clear that Italy was losing the war, so several days after the invasion Mussolini was replaced and arrested in a remote mountain castle. Hitler sent commandos to rescue his friend from captivity. In April 1945, when German defence in North Italy collapsed, Mussolini was captured by Italian partisans and executed .
The defenders Winston Churchill kept warning of the Nazi danger in pre-war years. He was elected prime minister of Great Britain after the total collapse of the appeasement policy of his predecessor Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain failed to understand that aggressors like Hitler can not be appeased. Churchill became prime minister on May 10, 1940, at the same day when the German Blitzkrieg invasion of France began. After the quick collapse of the French military, Britain itself was under a threat of a German amphibious invasion, and was attacked by the full force of the German Luftwaffe. It was also under a maritime siege by the German U-boat submarines. At these very difficult and dangerous times, Churchill, "the British Lion", excelled as a wartime leader. His fighting spirit raised the morale of the British people. He also forged a strong alliance with the US. Churchill is one of the main World War 2 leaders, and one of the most prominent national leaders in history.
Joseph Stalin was the very brutal Communist dictator of Russia (1928-1953). In the years before World War 2 Stalin murdered or imprisoned almost all of Russia's senior military officers, and millions of other Russian citizens, in a paranoid and unprecedented wave of political terror. This clearly weakened Russia and further encouraged Hitler to attack it. The pre-war pacifist strategy, military weakness, and anti-Communism of Britain and France led Stalin in August 1939 to decide that making a deal with Hitler is a better way to protect Russia from Hitler than making an alliance with Britain and France against him. As part of the deal Russia invaded half of Poland after Hitler started World War 2 by invading Poland. In June 1941, after conquering the rest of Europe, Hitler did what he promised for 18 years and invaded Russia. In addition to the great weakness caused by the absence of experienced senior officers because of Stalin's political murders, Stalin further damaged the Russian military's ability to fight by first obsessively ignoring all the intelligence warnings of the incoming German invasion, and later by obsessively enforcing a rigid and very wasteful defensive strategy which helped the German military to achieve tremendous victories in the summer of 1941 and brought the Germans all the way to Moscow. Only then Stalin realized that he must allow his Generals to fight the war more professionally, not obsessively. He made the brilliant General Zhukov his top military advisor and also sent him to command the forces directly in key battles. This finally allowed the huge Russian military to exploit its full potential and succeed. After the war ended, Stalin's horrible political terror quickly returned and continued until his death.
Anecdote: In 1975-2003 the brutal Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used Stalin as his role model of "a successful dictator". Saddam said he read many books about Stalin and learned from them.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president of the United States of America (1933-1945) initially followed a very strong political demand to remain neutral and isolate the country from foreign wars, but he realized that the Nazi aggression was a global threat and the total opposite to the values of democracy and freedom, and persuaded the Congress to allow selling weapons to Britain and France, later declaring that the US will become the "arsenal of democracy". In May 1941, when German expansion and its attacks on British shipping to the US increased, he declared a state of national emergency, and realistically assumed that US forces will eventually have to participate in fighting against Nazi Germany. When Germany invaded Russia, he extended the military aid to Russia too, and enormous amounts of American military equipment and material were transferred to Russia during the war, allowing the Russian military industry to focus on mass production of the main weapon systems and ammunition.
Despite the strong sympathy of the American public in support of Britain and against Nazism, only an attack on the US could persuade the American public to go to war. The attack eventually came from the opposite direction when Japan surprise attacked the US naval and air bases in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 7, 1941. The destructive surprise attack ended American isolationism and the US joined the war and allied with Britain and Russia to defeat the aggressors Axis of Nazi Germany, militarist Japan, and Fascist Italy. The mighty American industry went into full war production effort which dwarfed those of both allies and enemies, allowing the relatively small US military forces to rapidly grow to a mighty force, and defeat Japan and help Britain and Russia defeat Germany and Italy. President Roosevelt died in April 1945, shortly before the end of the war, and was succeeded by vice president Harry S. Truman.