The dates December 5 through the 7th, 1941 mark the parameters of the most consequential week of the 20th century or perhaps any other time in history. It was during that week that the Soviet Union began a major counter offensive against the Nazis who were threatening Moscow, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Hitler declared war on the United States. It was a perilous time for the British who had endured Dunkirk, the Luftwaffe’s blitz over London and other cities, fears of Japanese attacks against British held territories in Asia, and Churchill’s fear that the only thing that could save his island empire – the entrance of the United States into the war against Germany would not occur as Washington would now focus on Japan after Pearl Harbor. The event that saved the British was the Nazi dictator’s declaration of war against the United States, an act that should be difficult to understand since Germany was already fighting a devastating two front war.
Historians have questioned for decades why Hitler would take on the United States when Germany faced so many obstacles. The German alliance with Japan was defensive predicated on an attack on Japan which the events of December 7th made obsolete. In analyzing Hitler’s decision making historians fall into two camps. The first, Hitler was a nihilist who was driven by an egoistic personality in making numerous irrational decisions. The second school of thought has ferreted out a semblance of strategic calculations in his decision making. In his latest book, British historian Brendan Simms and his co-author Charlie Laderman entitled, HITLER’S AMERICAN GAMBLE: PEARL HARBOR AND GERMANY’S MARCH TO WAR support the latter analysis which is consistent with Simms’s 2019 biography of Hitler when he argued that Hitler was well aware of American power and war with the United States was inevitable therefore his decision was pre-emptive.
Whichever argument one accepts it is clear that Simms and Laderman have made a compelling case in analyzing Hitler’s thought process the first part of December 1941 which led him to declare war on America. Along with this analysis, the authors dig deeply into the state of the war as of early December, the realpolitik practiced by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and the key role played by the Japanese government.
The authors have written a detailed description of the uncertainty that existed between December 5-12, 1941. It seems as if the reader is present as decisions are made by the main participants hour by hour. The blow by blow account is incisive and the results of Hitler’s decision to declare war on the United states would launch a global war. The authors make a compelling case that before the onset of war the Japanese government did not trust Hitler as they feared the Nazi dictator would seize Vichy French colonies in Southeast Asia. Simms and Laderman provide an accurate appraisal of the background history leading to December 7th. They raise interesting points, many of which have been written about by previous historians.
Lend Lease plays a significant role in the thinking of all the participants leading up to and after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The authors are clear and correct when they argue that the American aid policy infuriated Hitler. For the Fuhrer it reinforced the connection in his mind that capitalism, Jews, and American policy were all part of a conspiracy against Germany. From Hitler’s perspective American actions were driving Germany towards war against the United States. For example, in March 1941 the American navy began to protect British convoys across the Atlantic. In addition, the U.S. would expand its defensive zone all the way to Greenland and reinforce its Atlantic Fleet. Lend Lease also played a key role in Hitler’s thinking even after December 7th. The authors spend a great deal of time discussing how Churchill and Roosevelt believed that the Nazis pressured the Japanese to attack developing the hope that the Japanese attack would force an American declaration of war against Tokyo and forcing Washington to reduce its aid to England and the Soviet Union because of its own needs in the Pacific. Hitler was under no illusion concerning US military production, but he would come to believe that the Nazis should strike before the American military-industrial complex could reach maximum production.
As Hitler contemplated declaring war against the United States, Churchill and the British government desperate for continued Lend Lease worried that the aid would be reduced because of US needs in East Asia. Churchill was especially concerned because of the ongoing fighting in North Africa and the threat to the Suez Canal. In fact, the authors point out that aid was stopped for a brief period as disagreement arose between Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Lend Lease administrator Edward Stettinius.
From the Japanese perspective they were unsure if they could rely on a German declaration of war. The authors mine the commentary of Japanese leaders particularly Foreign Minister Shigenari Togo who did not trust that Germany would join the war against the United States.
Roosevelt was concerned about America Firsters and isolationists in Congress. Both groups were willing to fight the Japanese but were against involvement in Europe as they refused to fight for what they perceived to be British colonial interests. FDR walked a fine line and refused to meet with Churchill after December 7th as to not exacerbate domestic opposition. Hitler’s declaration made it easier for Roosevelt to declare war on Germany and overcome isolationist opposition.
(The sinking of the British battleships Repulse and The Prince of Wales December 10, 1941)
The coming Holocaust against European Jewry played a role in Hitler’s strategy. The Nazi dictator saw the Jews of Europe as hostages to keep FDR from taking further action against Germany. It did not stop the murderous horror taking place in eastern Europe but as long as the US did not enter the war the fate of western European Jewry would be postponed. However, the authors argue effectively argue that once Hitler declared war against the United States, in his mind they were no longer a bargaining chip in dealing with Washington. He was now free to conduct his Final Solution against western and central European Jews.
The authors astutely point out the role of racism in the war. John W. Dower’s amazing study, WAR WITHOUT MERCY: RACE AND POWER IN THE PACIFIC WAR is the best study of the issue arguing that war in the Pacific was a racial war. For Simms and Laderman the decision making process on the part of Anglo-American military planners was greatly influenced by their low opinion of Japanese military capability. Leadership on both sides of the Atlantic could not fathom the idea that the Japanese had the ability to launch intricate attacks such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, Malaya, the Philippines, Guam, Singapore, Southeast Asia at the same time. This type of thinking also resulted in disaster for the Royal Navy as Japanese bombers destroyed Force Z that included the sinking of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales.
Simms and Laderman do an excellent job delving into the calculations of the major participants in the coming war. The significant issues apart from Hitler’s decision as to whether he should declare war on the United States included whether Stalin should declare war on Japan? How would England and the Soviet Union make up for the shortfall of Lend Lease aid in the immediate future? How would FDR overcome domestic opposition to US participation in the European War and so on?
The authors also do an admirable job integrating the opinions of people across the globe concerning the implications for Japanese actions in the Pacific. People as diverse as the former mayor of Cologne Konrad Adenauer (and future German leader after WWII) to everyday citizens on the streets of Berlin, London, Leningrad, intellectuals in Poland tosoldiers on the eastern front. For all the key was what would Hitler do – would he declare war on the United States and unleash a global war as Mussolini had warned or would he allow Japan to take on the American colossus themselves.
Overall, Simms and Laderman have written a thought provoking book that breaks down the December 5-12th 1941 period for three-fourths of their narrative that includes an important introduction that sets the scene for Hitler’s decisions and the implications that the decisions would have for the future of the war which would not end until August 1945.