Brendan Simms & Charlie Laderman,
Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbor and Germany’s March to Global War
Why did Adolph Hitler declare war on the United States, the world’s mightiest industrial power, on December 11, 1941, four days after a surprise Japanese attack had obliterated the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7th? That question has puzzled many historians in the decades since December 1941. It is also the question that Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman, history professors at Cambridge University and King’s College London, respectively, wrestle with throughout Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbor and Germany’s March to Global War.
The two authors challenge what they term the “dominant narrative” that considers Hitler’s declaration an “inexplicable strategic blunder” (p.x). Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, an official in the administration of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, for instance, characterized the declaration as “totally irrational” (p.356). Both at the time and in the years hence, many have considered the declaration little more than the impulsive outburst of megalomaniac dictator with illusions of controlling ever larger swaths of the planet.
Simms and Laderman proffer convincing reasons to reconsider the dominant narrative. They readily admit that Hitler’s declaration of war was a “strategic blunder,” yet in their interpretation it is fully explicable in rational terms. Hitler was convinced that war with the United States was inevitable. In his mind, Nazi Germany was already at war unofficially with the United States, which through its Lend Lease program was openly assisting Great Britain and the Soviet Union, which the Nazis had invaded in June 1941. Given his conviction that war with the United States was inevitable, the Führer made a “deliberate gamble” (p.x) to strike America first.
Hitler declared war on the United States “out of fear that, if he did not, the United States would overwhelm Germany at a time of its choosing” (p.359), the authors write. Hitler anticipated that for the foreseeable future after the Pearl Harbor attacks the United States would be distracted by the conflict in the Pacific and kept from interfering in the European theatre. He was driven by “his geopolitical calculations, his assessment of the balance of manpower and matériel, and, above all, his obsession with the United States and its global influence” (p.x). The authors describe this strategy as a “catastrophically mistaken one, as it turned out, but one that made sense to him given the information available and the lens through which he interpreted that knowledge” (p.x).
Between December 7th and 11th, the world’s attention was focused at least as much on American president Roosevelt as on Hitler. The day after the attacks, Monday, December 8, 1941, the United States Congress by a nearly unanimous vote granted Roosevelt’s request for a declaration of war against Japan. But Roosevelt did not mention either Germany or its European ally Italy in his famous “day of infamy” address to Congress, leaving unanswered the question whether the United States would join the on-going European conflict.
Roosevelt had long considered Nazi Germany a far greater threat than Japan to the United States, and to democracy and world stability. But even after the Japanese attack, large portions of the public and the Congress remained isolationist, unwilling to support American involvement in a European war, and Roosevelt was reluctant to take the country into a war without strong public support. As the world learned on Thursday, December 11th, Hitler, not Roosevelt, made the next move.
By all accounts, Hitler had no advance knowledge when or where the Japanese would strike and was genuinely “surprised” and “ecstatic” (p.127) once he received word of the Pearl Harbor attack. But until he delivered an address before party faithful at the Reichstag in Berlin on December 11th, no one other than his closest confidants knew how he planned to react to the attack. In what the authors consider the most important speech of Hitler’s career, both ideologically and strategically, the Führer returned to themes and obsessions that had dominated his thinking for over twenty years: the “supposed power of international Jewry, the evil of plutocracy, the hostility of Roosevelt, the centrality of race and space” (p.280). He then went on to announce that Germany would join its allies, Japan and Italy, in waging a war that he maintained had been forced upon them by the United States and Great Britain.
Simms and Laderman contend that Hitler’s declaration of war on December 11th makes that day “arguably the most important twenty-four hours in history” (p.354). On the morning of the 11th, they write, the Asian and European conflicts were “essentially siloed in their separate theaters” (p.x). Later that day Hitler instantly transformed the conflicts into a fully conjoined world war, in which the United States would “deploy its preeminent economic power to create the most powerful military machine in global history” (p.398). More than Pearl Harbor, Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States “created a new global strategic reality and, ultimately, a new world” (p.357).
After an extensive and useful introductory background chapter, Simms and Laderman develop these macro points through an intense micro account of the five-day period, from December 7 to December 11, with each day meriting separate chapter. Each chapter moves seamlessly between the actions and reactions of the major protagonists of the drama, often on an hour-by-hour and even minute-by-minute basis. In addition to Germany and the United States, the protagonists include Japan, the catalyst for the drama; Great Britain, which declared war on Japan a few hours prior to the United States; the Soviet Union, which the United States and Britain encouraged to join the war in the Pacific against Japan; Italy, Germany’s underperforming ally; and China, already fighting Japan. There is also a final chapter, an epilogue entitled “The World of December 12, 1941.”
Hitler’s American Gamble is the “first study to investigate this critical period in such extensive detail” (p.xvi), Simms and Laderman claim. They seek to recreate the “uncertainty of these five crucial days in global history” (p.xvi) — among the 20th century’s “most fraught” yet “least understood” (p.ix) moments — to get “closer to the truth of these moments as they were lived” (p.xiv). How Hitler and Roosevelt might react to the Pearl Harbor attacks constitutes the main dramatic thread running through the granular day-by-day narrative, but hardly the only one.
Germany, Italy and Japan, known as the Axis powers, were working feverishly during the five-day period to finalize the terms of an agreement designed to formalize verbal commitments Hitler had made earlier in the year to Japanese diplomats that Nazi Germany would “intervene immediately” (p.35) should Japan find itself at war with the United States. Japan did not fully trust Hitler and was anxious to hold the Führer to his verbal commitment. On the Allied side, both Britain and the Soviet Union were deeply concerned about interruptions to their receipt of armaments, equipment, and materials from the United States under the Lend-Lease program as the United States turned its attention away from Europe to focus on Japan and the Pacific.
Stepping back from the day-to-day recounting of events and looking at the five-day narrative as a whole, the most striking theme of Hitler’s American Gamble is the degree to which different forms of racism infected the views and moves of all major actors. Hitler’s omnipresent anti-Semitism stands out, a far more central factor in his decision to declare war on the United States than is commonly realized. But the authors detail flagrant racism on all sides of the conflict.
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The agreement which German, Italian and Japanese diplomats were working on during the five-day period was intended to update the defensive Tripartite Pact of September 1940, in which the three powers had agreed to support the others militarily if they were attacked by a “power at present not involved in the European War or in the Japanese-Chinese conflict” (p.23), commonly understood to mean the United States. The updated agreement went beyond the defensive terms of the Tripartite Pact. The three Axis powers agreed to wage war against the British Empire and the United States to a successful conclusion. They also promised not to enter into separate peace negotiations without the agreement of the other two and committed to “collaborate closely after the end of the war for the purpose of establishing a just new order” (p.323).
The German language version of the updated agreement was signed by the three parties at 11:00 am on Thursday, December 11th, the day of Hitler’s Reichstag speech, with the Japanese and Italian versions not signed until after the speech. Hitler referred to the agreement in his speech, an indication that his commitment to Japan played a significant role in his decision to declare war on the United States.
The agreement reflected the Axis powers’ shared hatred and resentment of the “Anglo-Saxons,” as they called the United States and Great Britain, and what they termed the Anglo-Saxon “plutocratic” capitalist system, which in their view controlled the world. The Axis countries considered themselves the world’s “have nots,” living at the mercy of the Anglo-Saxon “haves,” who were “denying Berlin, Rome, and Tokyo – the three have-nots – their rightful place at the world table” (p.15), as Simms and Laderman put it. Hitler claimed that he had been a “have-not all my life,” a dig at Roosevelt’s patrician origins, and that he was acting as the world’s “representative of the have-nots” (p.27). The Pearl Harbor attack was interpreted in the Axis countries as part of a “wider struggle of the have-nots against the Western haves, and of the Japanese and German peoples against the Anglo-Saxons” (p.170).
Another crucial part of the five-day drama for which the authors provide regular updates is how badly the war was going for Germany on its Eastern Front during that week. Nazi Germany had broken a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in June 1941 – “Hitler’s Soviet Gamble” – and invaded the country, making stunning initial advances through Ukraine and Western Russia in the summer of 1941. But by early December 1941, the German incursion that was headed to Moscow had ground to a halt. With the Soviet army clearly on a roll, a “seismic change in the course of the war lay directly ahead” (p.83). Much of the bad news apparently did not make it to Hitler. Only in the aftermath of his momentous Reichstag address did the Führer became aware of how bleak the situation actually was in the Soviet Union.
The Soviet successes in the late fall 1941 were due in no small part to the Lend-Lease program, which Hitler considered his proof that the United States was already at war with Germany. The program, which had officially gone into effect in May 1941, allowed the United States to remain formally non-belligerent while supporting both Britain and the Soviet Union in their war efforts. The United States was already behind in its commitments under the program in early December when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor.
While American officials tried to assure both Britain and the Soviet Union that the flow of supplies under Lend-Lease would continue unabated after the attacks, the reality was that the United States had shifted from the “arsenal of democracy” to a “besieged wartime belligerent with its own vital munitions needs” (p.296). Immediately after Pearl Harbor, some adjustments were made to previously agreed-upon schedules, with allocations for a short time made on an ad-hoc, day-by-day basis. But by the end the week, it was clear that Lend-Lease would “not only continue but be greatly expanded” (p.379).
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If Hitler’s decision to strike the United States preemptively has some indicia of rationality, given the lens through which he interpreted information, as the authors contend, that lens was grotesquely distorted by his anti-Semitism. In Hitler’s twisted mind, “world Jewry” and “international Jewish finance” were Germany’s implacable enemies, pulling the strings of the plutocratic Anglo-Saxon capitalist system. Political leaders like Roosevelt and Churchill were essentially puppets of Jewish financiers, making European Jews bargaining chips which Hitler thought he could use against Roosevelt.
“Inspired by his conspiratorial view of worldwide Jewish influence,” the authors write, Hitler believed that the “threat of further violence against European – especially central and western European – Jews would deter their supposed agent, Roosevelt, from intervening directly in the European war” (p.xiii). Throughout the autumn of 1941, Hitler had made the connections between US policy and the fate of European Jewry increasingly explicit. But if Hitler thought that threatening European Jewry with destruction would deter American intervention, there is “no evidence that the situation was understood in these terms in Washington” (p.56), the authors note.
Jews lost their value as bargaining chips once Germany declared war on the United States. The authors characterize the declaration as a death sentence for the Jews of western and central Europe. Whether the entry of the United States into the war was the “decisive factor or merely an accelerant” (p.362), Hitler’s war of annihilation against western and central European Jewry entered a new and more deadly phase after December 11, 1941. In the authors’ view, the systematic murder of European Jews in the months and years after December 11th was “primarily, though not exclusively, driven by Hitler’s anti-Semitic antagonism toward the ‘plutocratic’ powers” (p.387).
But the authors also emphasize repeatedly how far along the deadly war of annihilation of European Jewry already was during the five-day period. On Monday, December 8th, the first Jews were gassed to death at a camp in Poland. Wednesday the 10th brought an effective end to the Crimean Jewish community. During the week, Jews in Latvia were systematically murdered, and a train from Dusseldorf loaded with Jews headed east, one of the earliest deportations of German Jews. The infamous Wannsee conference, where top Nazi leadership decided upon an official policy of extermination of European Jews, was originally scheduled for this five-day period but was postponed because of Hitler’s Reichstag address and took place one month later, in January 1942.
On the Allied side, the authors emphasize repeatedly how Anglo-American policy makers viewed Japan through a lens of deeply engrained racial bias, leading to a “systematic underestimation of Japanese capabilities” (p.43). Reflecting “underlying racist assumptions,” there was widespread reluctance to believe that the Japanese could “build and deploy sophisticated weaponry, and there was widespread skepticism about their fighting qualities” (p.43). This led to recurring assertions that Japan had attacked the United States at Hitler’s request, acting as his “cat’s-paw in Asia” (p.209). The suggestion that “German planes, and even Nazi pilots, had led the Japanese assault” was an indication of the “long-standing racially charged insinuations that the Japanese were incapable of perpetrating such sophisticated operations” (p.209).
President Roosevelt himself, the authors indicate, did not “credit the Japanese with agency of their own” (p.358). If Hitler saw Roosevelt as the agent of the Jews, the American president “portrayed the Japanese as a mere instrument of Hitler” (p.69). Roosevelt told his cabinet, hastily convened on the evening of the attacks, that the Japanese had responded to “pressure from Berlin” to “divert the American mind, and the British mind from the European field.” (p.153). In a nationally broadcast “fireside chat” on Wednesday, December 10th, Roosevelt, trying to focus the country on the danger which Nazi Germany posed, accused Germany of “instructing Tokyo to attack the United States in order to share the spoils of war” (p.262).
Much like the “Anglo-Saxons,” Hitler considered the Japanese a “second class race.” But for a white racist he nonetheless entertained a “remarkably positive” (p.9) view of Japan. His admiration for Japan’s militancy in the Pacific led him to term the Japanese the “Prussians of the Far East” (p.229). In Japan, the conflict was widely perceived as a “war with white people” (p.365)
Challenging white imperial rule in East Asia, the Japanese appealed to the “racial solidarity of the rest of the world and to the anti-colonialism of the Indian and Asian nationalists resisting Western imperialism” (p.365), the authors write. But after Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States, out of deference to their European allies, Japanese journalists and intellectuals were instructed to drop references to “whites” and the “yellow race,” and write instead of “Britain and America” or, simply, the “Anglo-Saxons.” The Japanese also launched what they called “Negro Propaganda Operations” to exploit historical discrimination in the United States against African Americans.
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In their deeply researched and lucidly written work, Simms and Laderman demonstrate that Hitler lost his American gamble in no small measure because of Roosevelt’s restraint after the Pearl Harbor attacks. Hitler’s declaration of war on Thursday, December 11th solved Roosevelt’s most urgent problem, how to unite the country in combatting Nazi Germany. By plunging his country into an “unwinnable war against the greatest industrial power on earth,” the authors write, Hitler landed “exactly where he did not want to be” (p.358) and exactly where Roosevelt wanted him. Although the United States had “long stood on the cusp of world power,” it was Hitler’s declaration, the authors conclude, that “supplied the final push” (p.398).
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
March 13, 2023