Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbor and Germany’s March to Global War by Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman

There were many hinge moments in the Second World War: Hitler’s decision to invade Russia in 1941, the Battles of Midway and Stalingrad in 1942 and D-Day in 1944. Yet none was more pivotal than the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which brought the United States into the war and ultimately doomed the Axis powers to defeat.

The assumption is that the US was bound to fight Germany from the moment Japan launched its pre-emptive strike. In fact, insist the authors of this well-written and highly original study, that was never a given and it was Hitler’s fateful decision on December 11 to declare war on America, rather than the other way around, that was the true turning point in the war.

To understand why he did it, and what the alternatives might have been, the book examines in detail the five days that separated the Japanese attack and the German response. “This interval,” they argue, “was the crucible for a new global alignment that would dramatically alter the course of the conflict and reverberate far beyond the war, with implications we still feel today.”

It’s an impressive claim that, if true, would force historians to regard December 11 and not December 7 as the key date of the war. But is it convincing?

Revisionist History

One benefit of such a tightly focused analysis is that it reminds us that contingency is ever-present in our history and traditional narratives are often written with the benefit of hindsight. In his memoirs, Winston Churchill claimed that on hearing about Pearl Harbor he knew “the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death”, and that “we had won after all!”

Yet at the time he did not appear to regard America’s entry into the war against Germany “as a foregone conclusion” and nor was he alone. Across the world, “politicians and military leaders tried to fathom what had happened in Hawaii and where it might lead”. They included President Roosevelt, who was acutely aware that the powerful isolationist lobby in Congress would have preferred a war against Japan alone.

Ultimately, say Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman, “it was Hitler who let Roosevelt, the American interventionists, and the Allies off the hook”. The question is why?

The authors argue that it was Hitler’s decision on December 11 to declare war on America, rather than the other way around, that was the true turning point in the war.

Until now, most historians have depicted Hitler’s decision as an inexplicable blunder. Not so, argue Simms and Laderman, historians respectively at Cambridge and King’s College London. For the German dictator it was a moment of “murderous clarity”. Convinced that the US president, international “plutocratic” capitalism and “world Jewry” were together bent on his destruction, he chose to take the initiative while the Axis was still in the ascendant.

For Hitler, Jews were not only responsible for Roosevelt’s actions, “but potentially a weapon that could be used against him”. For three years, the Nazis had held European Jewry hostage to secure the good behavior of Americans. That tactic had failed and the Jews would pay the price. “Declaring war on the United States,” they write, “was the culmination of Hitler’s career, both ideologically and strategically.”

Hitler delivers a speech at the Kroll Opera House, declaring war on the United States, December 11, 1941.

This is going too far. We know — and the authors acknowledge — that Hitler had hoped to avoid war in 1939 with Britain, an “Anglo-Saxon” power he felt a sense of racial kinship toward. His true ideological enemies, on the other hand, were the Bolsheviks and the Jews. It therefore made complete sense for him to attack the Soviet Union, thus allowing him to kill two birds with one stone.

A war against “Anglo-Saxon” America, on the other hand, was a significant gamble, not least because the expected rapid victory over Russia had not transpired. There had also been setbacks in North and East Africa. “By the end of November 1941,” Simms and Laderman write, “the Axis’s strategic failure had become manifest. Militarily, the Third Reich was stalemated.”

By that date, Japan had also been backed into a corner by an American trade embargo. Its solution was a surprise attack on the US fleet at Pearl Harbor, and Hitler supported that strategy because he hoped that America’s war with Japan would starve Britain and Soviet Russia of vital military supplies. This was certainly Churchill’s primary concern when he heard the news from Hawaii, and the chief reason he proposed an immediate visit to Washington DC to prevent that from happening.

Roosevelt’s response was to delay the visit until the picture was clearer. He suspected the Japanese were acting in concert with the Germans, and expected the possibility of war with all the Axis powers. Yet he was also mindful that isolationist politicians would not support a declaration of war against Germany. In his famous speech to Congress about Pearl Harbor — “a date that will live in infamy” — he noted that “a state of war” now existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire, but made no mention of the other Axis powers.

“Declaring war on the US was the culmination of Hitler’s career, both ideologically and strategically.”

By unfolding the story in real time, the authors are able to emphasise the contingency of the decision-making process. The drawback of this constantly shifting narrative — across cities and even continents — is that the reader is often left confused, even seasick from the back and forth.

There are, however, some telling anecdotes. Asked by Goebbels why he was so pleased by Japan’s pre-emptive strike, Hitler replied: “A boxer who saves his most crushing blows for the fifth or sixth round can experience what Max Schmeling experienced in his last encounter with Joe Louis, which is that he is knocked out in the first round.”

What, then, of the alternative scenarios had Hitler not declared war on America? US Congress and public opinion might have forced Roosevelt “to concentrate on defeating the Japanese”, thus depriving Britain and Russia of resources and possibly altering the course of war in Europe. The fate of Europe’s Jews, too, might have been very different, argue the authors, if Hitler had stayed his hand. “Most European Jews were still alive,” they write, “and Hitler’s plans for them were closely connected to his relationship with the United States.”

This is too speculative even for Simms and Laderman who concede, a few paragraphs later, that “the future was not actually as open as it seemed on December 6, 1941”. They add: “Hitler believed that war with the United States was inevitable, and he had promised the Japanese that he would support them. Thanks to their intelligence reports, Churchill and Roosevelt strongly suspected this. Likewise Stalin knew that the Japanese were not planning to attack him in the east. But neither the two Western leaders nor the Soviet dictator could be entirely sure.”

That is true. But even without Hitler’s declaration of war on December 11, 1941 — a day the authors describe as “arguably the most important twenty-four hours in history” — Roosevelt would have continued to back Britain and Russia until a state of war with Germany became inevitable. It was simply a matter of time.

Saul David is a U.K.-based military historian and writer