The Five Days That Made Pearl Harbours As a Key For the Worldwide War

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The Five Days That Made Pearl Harbours As a Key For the Worldwide War

The Five Days That Made Pearl Harbours As a Key For the Worldwide War

The riddle surrounding the Pearl Harbor attack

The dominant narrative holds that Japan’s surprise attack led inexorably to the outbreak of a truly global conflict. In this view, American opposition to involvement in the Pacific and Euro­pean wars melted away on December 7, 1941. As the stridency anti-interventionist Senator Arthur Vandenberg subsequently claimed in an oft-quoted remark: “That day ended isolationism for any realist.” 1It is assumed that the United States’ entry into the war against Ger­many was inevitable from the moment Japan struck Pearl Harbor. This perspective has been encouraged by no less a witness than Win­ston Churchill himself, who later spoke of having “slept the sleep of the saved and thankful” after hearing the news of Japan’s attack In his memoirs, he would declare that “now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and into the death. So we had won after all!” 2

Yet at the time, Churchill did not regard America’s full-scale entry into the war against Germany as a foregone conclusion. Nor was he alone. Across the world, politicians and military leaders tried to fathom what had happened in Hawaii and where it might lead. It would take almost one hundred hours from Pearl Harbor for the situation to resolve itself, five agonizing days in which the fate of the world hung in the balance. In the end, it was Hitler who declared war on the United States on December 11, rather than the other way around. Among those who do remember this order of events, the declaration is considered an inexplicable strategic blunder by Hitler, sealing the fate of his regime. But in reality, Hitler’s declaration of war was a calculated gamble, driven by his geopolitical calculations, his assessment of the balance of workforce and materiel, and, above all, his obsession with the United States and its global influence. 

The standard road to the second World War and Manchurian crisis explains that Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 strained relations with the United States, a situation aggravated by the empire’s invasion of China in 1937, and then brought to a breaking point in 1941 by Japan’s advance into southern Indo­china. The Roosevelt administration froze Japan’s assets and placed a total embargo on oil. Japan’s leaders, unable to find common ground with the United States, launched a surprise attack oil Pearl Harbor. But if Japanese expansion into southern Indochina and the subsequent oil ban provided the initial spark of the Pacific War. Why did the Unit­ed States resort to freezing assets and embargoing oil?

That the Manchurian crisis acted as a powerful ideological catalyst and coagulant in Japanese flunking can be deduced by comparing Kawakami’s spirited piece above on Japan’s mission with a commentary he wrote ten years prior, during the Washington Conference:

All the Powers have bound themselves by agreements or resolutions not to return to the old practice of spheres of influence or special interests [in Chi­na]. This change is no shadowy thing, as it is accurate. Twenty years ago, the Powers were talking only about China. Today they are talking about what they can give her. That indicates vast moral progress.

Thus, what was once the “vast moral progress” of liberal self-denial now required Japan’s civilizing intervention.

Eventually, Pan-Asianist-inspired “special responsibilities” developed into the principal justification for Japanese expansionism in the decade fol­lowing the Manchurian crisis.

Though Manchuria was a Chinese Territory controlled by warlords loyal (in name if not in the realm) to China’s nationalist government, thousands of Japanese soldiers were stationed there under the terms of an earlier treaty. This enabled Japanese forces to overrun the area quickly. Within weeks of the Manchurian Incident, they controlled the southern part of Manchuria, with the north following by early 1932.

This was no imperial invasion, the Japanese claimed. Instead, it was a response to the cries for help coming from the people of Manchuria, who were suffering under the warlord’s iron-fisted rule. Japan merely wanted to help oppressed people establish an independent state to liberate them from the maelstrom of corruption that enveloped China.

Japan even had a name for this new state: Manchukuo. or “land of the Manchus. To add luster to their vision, they recruited the most famous Manchu around – China’s last emperor, Puyi, to lead it.

This whereby we have argued that the conventional chronology of WWII as from 1939–45 is no longer helpful. The war must be understood as a international event since the Asian and Pacific theatres were as important as the European ones, and possibly more so in their consequences.

The declaration of war in September 1939 utterly altered the nature of the confrontations of the 1930s. Hitler saw his war with Poland as a limited war for German living space justified, in his eyes, by the prior existence of large European empires that had been won not very long before at the point of the sword. When he made a ‘peace offer’ to the democracies on 6 October, a week after the Polish surrender, he jibed at states that accused him of wanting world power for taking a few hundred thousand square kilometers of land when they ruled 40 million worldwide. On the other hand, Britain and France saw the conflict as a struggle against the new wave of violent empire-building, and even though they were not yet at war with Italy and Japan, their view of the crisis was genuinely global. They had to hope that war with Germany would not encourage either of the other two states to take advantage of their distraction in Europe, just as they had to expect that the Soviet Union would not take advantage of its Pact with Germany to exert its pressure on their overstretched empires. At the same time, they looked for moral support from the United States and the active provision of men, money, and supplies from their empires. The future shape of the Second World War was determined not by German ambition in Eastern Europe, which had triggered the conflict, but by the Anglo-French declaration on 3 September. From the German perspective, the war had been forced on Germany by external forces. In a broadcast to the German people the following day, Hitler blamed not the democracies for the state of war that Germany now faced but the ‘Jewish-democratic international enemy’ who had harried them into fighting. For Hitler, the war was now to be two wars: one against the imperial enemies of the Reich, one against the Jews.

The Axis aggressors had not intended the absolute terms in which total war was defined in the 1930s. They began their imperial projects to seize territory in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Their ambitions were regional, and their justification for conquest rested on the assumption that they were each denied by the existing structure of world power a just share in the world’s resources, and – in particular – adequate territory. Justice in this sense derived from a prior assumption that there were peoples fitted for empire because of their racial and cultural superiority, and peoples included only to be colonized, a view legitimated by the recent history of European expansion. The global order in the 1930s was regarded as illegitimate because it was designed to limit these claims; the wars of imperial conquest, from Manchuria in 1931 to Poland in 1939, promised to correct the injustice of denying vigorous peoples an outlet to empire and fairer access to the world’s natural resources. The Three Power Pact was signed between the three Axis states in September 1940, assigning each a new imperial order in Europe, the Mediterranean basin. East Asia declared that a feeling of lasting peace would be possible only once every nation in the world (that is, every ‘advanced’ nation) ‘shall receive the space to which it is entitled,’ suggesting that the new order should be based on a firmer sense of international justice. As one Japanese official complained, why was it morally acceptable for Britain to dominate India but not for Japan to dominate China? 

Pursuing new regional empires was hesitant and improvised, not least because all three Axis states understood that their justification for aggressive expansion was unlikely to be endorsed by the wider world community. By the time war broke out in September 1939, the West had formed the view that Axis aggression was part of a larger plan to dominate the world, and the idea that the Axis were embarked on a global conspiracy of conquest became enshrined in the Allies’ perception of the enemy down to the post-war trials of the major war criminals, in which conspiracy to aggressive wage war was a principal charge. The claim that the Axis, particularly Hitler’s Germany, sought ‘world domination was never clearly defined, but it was used as a rhetorical tool to maximize the menace posed by the aggressor states. In reality, there was no coherent plan or deliberate conspiracy to achieve world domination. However, it might be defined. Indeed, the Axis states saw the situation as the complete reverse. When their regional imperial ambitions were finally challenged by war in Asia and the Pacific from 1937 onwards and in Europe from 1939, they found that their justification for war had to be reconfigured as total wars of self-defense against the implacable hostility and naked self-interest of states that already enjoyed the fruits of empire, or abundant land and resources. In Germany, aggression against Poland was overshadowed by the British and French declaration of war, which was regarded as a renewed attempt to ‘encircle’ Germany and stifle its legitimate claims to imperial parity. The popular view in September 1939, recalled a young German, was that ‘we had been attacked and we had to defend ourselves, and it was the Western powers who were engaged in a conspiracy, not Germany. Defense of the German core against its enemies became the overriding moral obligation on the German people, inverting the injustice of German aggression into a just war for national survival.

The turning point came as a result of the Pearl Harbor but the key is that came only after five additional days.

The world that emerged on December 12, 1941, was not inevitable a week earlier, nor immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack. Be­fore December 1941, Asia and Europe were the scenes of cataclysmic conflicts, but these struggles raged across the Eurasian landmass and on the surrounding oceans. Between the Pearl Harbor attack and Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States, five days passed during which the future of those disconnected struggles was decided, and every significant power was forced to commit to one of two camps.3 This interval was the crucible for a new global alignment that would dramatically alter the course of deadly conflict and reverberate far beyond the war.

Churchill’s actions and comments during this pivotal period demon­strate unease and anxiety more than triumphal relief. Immediately upon hearing news of Pearl Harbor, Churchill made urgent plans to travel to Washington. As he informed King George VI, he was desperate to ensure that the influx of aid from the United States, on which Britain’s fighting capacity depended, “does not suffer more than is, I fear, inevi­table.” 4 His fears were exacerbated when, on the night of December 7, the US Army and Navy stopped all defense aid shipments to foreign governments to ensure that sufficient supplies were available for Amer­ica’s war in the Pacific. From Washington, the British ambassador, Lord Halifax, warned Churchill that Roosevelt was reluctant to agree to his visit. The American public, Halifax said, was now focused on Japan. Worse, many Americans remained unconvinced that the United States needed to entangle itself in an additional conflict with the German Reich. Indeed, Senator Vandenberg himself wrote in his diary on December 8 that although he and his fellow “non-interventionists” were now ready to “go along” with the war against Japan, they remained wedded to “our be- life.”- They showed little sign of embracing a wider war.

President Franklin Roosevelt was well aware of the national mood. Roosevelt had spent more than a year carefully educating his fellow countrymen about the threat posed by Hitler’s Germany. He had es­tablished the United States as the “arsenal of democracy,” providing as much aid as was politically feasible to the Allied nations fighting Hider. While Roosevelt prioritized Europe, he had evinced comparatively less concern about Japanese ambitions in the Pacific. But now, on December 7, 1941, the United States found itself at war not with Nazi Germany, against whom Roosevelt had devoted so many American resources, but with Imperial Japan. An immediate declaration of war on Hitler was a tremendous political risk when the nation’s attention and anger were directed against Japan.

Cables from Berlin to Tokyo, intercepted and decoded by US intel­ligence, suggested that Germany would join any war that Japan fought against the United States. Still, Hitler’s behavior was not so easy to pre­dict. As Roosevelt’s speechwriter Robert Sherwood later noted, the Na­zis “was in honor bound by their pledges to the Japanese, but they had not previously shown much inclination to let such bourgeois-democratic considerations interfere with their concepts. On self-interest.”

Japan’s leadership was no more certain that Hitler would keep his word. Emperor Hirohito and other members of the Japanese elite had repeatedly expressed their fear that Hitler, who had previously described the Japanese as a second-class race, would reconcile with the other “white powers,” – the “Anglo-Saxon” United States and British Empire, leaving Japan to fight alone.7 There was indeed considerable ambivalence in Berlin about helping to bring down the so-called white British Empire, even though Hitler had increasingly reshaped himself as the defender of those he termed the global “have-nots” against dying Anglo-Saxon “haves” as breaking war progressed. Moreover, Hitler was being advised that, as japan had initiated the conflict with the United States, Germany was under no obligation to support its ally by joining in a declaration of war. German diplomats made their leader aware that Roosevelt was determined to avoid simul­taneous hostilities in the Pacific and Atlantic and had no intention of is­suing a declaration against Germany. If Germany avoided a formal state of war with the United States, died, with America’s attention fixed on Japan, Britain might be deprived of any further meaningful support from Washington and left isolated against the Axis powers in the Atlantic. Keeping the struggles separate might well give Germany the advantage against the dying British and the Soviets.

In Moscow, Pearl Harbor came when the ride of war with Germany seemed to be aiming. Stalin’s master spy in Tokyo, Richard Sorge (WHO recognized that Hitler’s invasion of the USSR was a major blunder for the Nazis), had previously reported that the Japanese intended to strike against the Anglo-Americans and the Soviet Union. The arrack vindicated Stalin’s decision to move much of the Far Eastern army west to deal with the Germans. Yet Pearl Harbor triggered profound anxiety in the Kremlin first because it brought American pressure to declare war on Japan and thus plunge the Soviet Union into a two-front war af­ter all. Second, because the new needs of the US armed forces, and those of the embattled British Empire in Asia, threatened to reduce the flow of vital military aid to the Soviet Union.

The world, then, held its breath. After Pearl Harbor was captured by dying American diplo­mat George Kennan, the global sense of confusion and unpredictability, then stationed at the US embassy in Berlin, with all communication lines now cut by the Nazis, Kennan and his colleagues could only speculate whether a US-German war was imminent, debating among themselves whether to burn their diplomatic codes and declassi­fied files lest they fall into enemy hands. As Kennan later recalled, “We lived in excruciating uncertainty.” 6

On December 11, 1941, it was Hitler who let Roosevelt, the American interventionists, and the Allies off the hook. His declaration of war on the United States turned two potentially separate conflicts into a real-world war. For almost every other prominent world leader, the Pearl Har­bor attack initially brought confusion. For Hitler, it was a moment of “murderous clarity.” 9 The terrible consequences were felt not only by combatants and the civilian population the world over but also by Eu­ropean Jews. The Nazi dictator was convinced that the US president, international “plutocratic” capitalism, and “world Jewry” were together bent on his destruction. For Hitler, Jews were not only responsible for the actions of Roosevelt but potentially a weapon that could be used against him. For three years, Hitler had explicitly held European Jewry hostage to secure the excellent behavior of the Americans. Inspired by his conspiratorial view of worldwide Jewish influence, Hitler believed that the threat of further violence against European, especially central and western European, Jews would deter their supposed agent, President Roosevelt, from intervening directly in the European war.

Of course, Hitler’s genocidal ambitions had already been barbarically and brutally demonstrated well before December 1941. The murders of at least a million, mainly Soviet Jews, were proof of his long-standing intentions. But as 1941 came to an end, millions of western and central European Jews were still alive, if in great peril. Nazi leaders had dis­cussed their systematic destruction for some time. However, the timing and technical details were still not agreed upon, and, most important, the Fiihrer himself had not yet communicated a final decision to the parry leader­ship. Following his declaration of war on the United States, Hitler would tie-die the fate of surviving European Jewry inextricably to the collapse of US-German relations. When he declared war on the United States, he also pronounced n sentence of death on the Jews of western and central Europe. In 1939, Hider delivered his infamous warning that the consequences of a world at war would be the annihilation of the Jews. In the subsequent two years, he had repeatedly invoked dies “prophecy,” which was by its vert’ nature, for someone with his radically anti-Semitic worldview, ultimately a self-fulfilling one. But it was only after his decla­ration of war on the United States on December 11, 1941, that he would move to realize this apocalyptic vision fully.

Japanese attack. USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor:

If for Hitler the was cast, things were still very much uncertain in Washington and London. At the start of December, history seemed open, and this sense of uncertainty persisted in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Yet over time, the participants would remem­ber rfieir experiences shaped by the outcome. Memories and stories came to reflect the ultimate, decisive defeat of the Axis nations.10 This tension between determinacy and contingency is what makes these five days in December so dramatic, and why we must unpick the days, hours, and minutes to turn back the clock and get closer to the truth of these moments as they were lived.

Powerful narratives like Churchill’s “sleep of the saved” have dis­torted our memory of this period, but history was being rewritten before 1941 was even over. Days mattered. For example, Roosevelt’s trusted pollster Hadley Cantril, whom the president relied on to gauge pub­lic opinion before embarking on any significant policy decisions, would also contribute to the impression that an American declaration of war against Germany was inevitable soon as the Pearl Harbor attack occurred. In his survey of American public opinion around World War II, Cantril would reproduce a poll, ostensibly from December 10, 1941, in which an overwhelming 90 percent of respondents were in favor of Roosevelt asking Congress for a declaration of war on Germany as well as Japan.” Historians have pointed to this poll as evidence that American public opinion was settled on the question of war with Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Pearl Harbor assault and that a declaration of war by Roosevelt was imminent, irrespective of what Hitler did,12 Yet Cantril’s account of the poll’s date was misleading. The poll question was finalized on December 10, but it was not put to Americans until two days later. That is, the question was asked on the day after Hitler declared war on the United States. A resounding affirmative response was, therefore, unsurprising. Those Americans polled on this question between Decem­ber 12 and 17 were, in effect, simply validating what their government had already done in answering Hitler’s declaration of war on December 11 with a reciprocal American representation that same day.13

Pearl Harbor and beyond

The United States was not at war with the European Axis in the four days following Pearl Harbor. Still, Chiang Kai-shek, delighted at America’s enforced entry into the Asian conflict, declared war on the Axis at once. On 11 December, Hitler left the crisis in Russia to address the German parliament with a declaration of war on the United States, followed the same day by Mussolini. To show his solidarity, Hitler told von Ribbentrop to sign a German–Japanese Agreement on Combined War Strategy, which remained in practice a hollow declaration of intent since Germany gave almost no strategic or military assistance to Japan’s war in Asia. Nevertheless, in Germany and Japan, the news of Pearl Harbor – and the subsequent string of Japanese victories in the southern advance – aroused immediate public enthusiasm, despite the apparent risks. Crowds gathered outside the imperial palace in Tokyo to thank the emperor for his divine guidance.15 German Secret Police reports showed that the German population accepted war with the United States – ‘the only possible answer’ – and assumed that Japanese victories would divert America to the Pacific, reduce Lend-Lease aid to Britain, weaken the British and Soviet war effort and shorten the war. As the victories mounted, in contrast to the dire news from Russia, Goebbels decided to introduce each radio announcement with a fanfare for Japan.16 The German navy also welcomed the war against a state which would soon wield by far the largest navy in the world. In a meeting with Hitler the day after the declaration of war, Grand Admiral Raeder assured him that the British would be left stranded by the United States as it diverted all its effort to the Pacific war.17

There has never been much doubt that the declaration of war on the United States was a strategic misjudgment of catastrophic proportions. For all three states, already engaged in draining and costly campaigns against China, the Soviet Union, and the British Empire, the addition of war with the world’s largest economy was scarcely a rational choice. Indeed, leaders in both Japan and Germany had hoped to avoid it. The decision was assisted by derogatory views of the capacity or willingness of the United States to wage a significant war given its relative military unpreparedness and the long history of isolationism. On the day of the declaration, Hitler told his lunch guests that American officers were mere ‘businessmen in uniform,’ not real soldiers. A few days later, he asserted that American industry was ‘overestimated.’ 18 Yet a sleeping colossus is still a colossus. The declarations of war have to be understood in less than rational terms. For Japanese leaders, the conflict was justified as an unavoidable war of self-defense against encircling Western powers and included war against Britain and the Netherlands. The West schemed, General Tōjō claimed, to turn the country into ‘the “little Japan” of before,’ ending 2,600 years of imperial glory. Japanese leaders saw Japan’s war as a sacred mission to eject the individualist and materialist culture of the West and build a family of Asian nations under the ‘father emperor, the traditional aim of Hakko ichiu (‘the eight corners of the world under one roof’). Against the rational calculation of odds was the belief that the spirits of dead emperors and fallen soldiers would safeguard an empire that had never suffered defeat. Early victories were attributed to Japan’s ‘spiritual power’ and the protection of ‘imperial ancestors,’ later defeating a ‘lack of true patriotism. In these terms, the Japanese declaration of war was not just a product of risky geopolitical calculation but reflected a cultural outlook profoundly different from that of the Western enemy.19

For Hitler, war with America made explicit what was in his view an undeclared war already pursued from Washington through Lend-Lease aid to Britain and the Soviet Union, assistance in the war at sea, and the freezing of all German economic assets. Hitler had long expected that the new German Empire would find itself at war with the United States one day. A formal state of war greatly simplified the Atlantic battle once submarine captains no longer suffered, so he told the Japanese ambassador the ‘psychological fatigue of trying to distinguish between American and British shipping.’ 20 In the weeks following the declaration, German U-boats were sent west for Operation ‘Paukenschlag’ (‘Drumbeat’). They prowled along the American coastline, sinking ships still not sailing in convoy or with air protection. In the first four months of 1942, 2.6 million tons of Allied shipping was sunk, more than in the whole of 1941.21 But beneath the argument that a state of war merely gave formal status to a hitherto undeclared conflict, there lay a more menacing conspiracy theory. In Hitler’s distorted view of reality, American hostility to Germany was provoked by world Jewry. One of Hitler’s interpreters noted down his views: ‘America equals Jews everywhere, Jews in literature, Jews in politics, Jews in commerce and industry and a completely Jewified president at the top.’ 22 In the National Socialist version of the world, Roosevelt was a Jewish lackey who drove on the Jews in London and Moscow to continue the war. On 12 December, Hitler convened a secret meeting with Party leaders to explain that the Jews had engineered conflict with the United States and the prophecy he had made in January 1939 to annihilate the Jews if Germany were ever dragged into global war would now be realized. Joseph Goebbels, who was present as gauleiter of Berlin, noted the following day in his diary: ‘The World War is here, the extermination of the Jews must be the necessary consequence.’ 23 Although historians have hesitated to see the meeting as the categorical starting point for the genocide (since hundreds of thousands had already been murdered in the conquered Eastern territories at the hands of security forces and the army), the link Hitler created between world war and Jewish complicity made the declaration of war a rational reckoning for him, rather than the irrational gamble it otherwise appears to be. 

Japan’s leaders understood that war with the United States was far from ideal. Still, it also ended another confusing stage of undeclared war. The United States restricted Japanese access to critical industrial resources, including oil, and supplied aid and finance to Japan’s Chinese enemy. The decision had much in common with Hitler’s claim that the British enemy could only be defeated by attacking a more prominent and potentially more powerful opponent: fighting the United States (and the British Empire), it was argued, would help somehow to resolve the conflict in China. In both cases, it was evident that further warfare could not be conducted successfully without access to additional material resources, whether in Ukraine or South East Asia. After ten years of imperial expansion, Japan saw Eastern Asia in much the United States viewed the Western Hemisphere – like its natural area of domination that other powers ought to respect. Japanese leaders found it hard to understand why the current situation should not be accepted as an accomplished fact, and negotiations with the United States had begun from the basis that Japan had a legitimate claim to be the leader of a new Asian order, not from any sense that Japanese expansion was a violation of international norms. In January 1941, Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yōsuke publicly rebuked the United States for failing to make an effort to grasp the nature of Japan’s role in Asia, which was to ‘forestall the destruction of civilization’ and establish a just peace.24 American intransigence was interpreted as an international conspiracy to stifle and extinguish Japan’s national existence. Unsurprisingly, there was almost no common ground between the two sides when the Japanese made efforts in 1941 to find a modus vivendi with the United States that would allow them to resolve the China war on their terms and, at the same time, gain secure access to the strategic resources needed to sustain the empire. 

Ironically enough, the concern of Roosevelt and his military leaders was focused much more on the European conflict than on the Pacific. In his speeches during 1941, the president referred to Hitler and Germany 152 times. Still, to Japan only 5.25 It was assumed that Japan could be deterred by evidence of American naval power (in May 1940, Roosevelt ordered the Pacific Fleet to stay permanently at Pearl Harbor following ocean maneuvers) and by economic pressure on a state heavily reliant on American supplies of metals and oil. As early as 1938, Roosevelt had called for a moral embargo of oil, steel, aircraft, and finance for Japan, while money was made available for pre-emptive purchasing of materials needed by Japanese industry.26 In January 1940, the 1911 Commercial Treaty with Japan was abrogated. Following Japanese entry into French northern Indochina in summer 1940, the Export Control Act introduced formal restrictions on a range of strategic materials for Japan, including aviation fuel, scrap iron and steel, iron ore, copper, and oil-refining equipment. A year later, after southern Indochina was occupied, Japanese assets were frozen. On 1 August, Roosevelt ordered that Japan apply for federal licenses for all oil products, although he did not want all applications rejected in case that pushed Japan too far. Japan was expected to be cowed by the pending economic crisis provoked by American firmness. However, the American ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, warned Washington that ‘-threat the Japanese are mere to increase their determination.’ 27 The complete dislocation of Japan’s economic situation indeed accelerated the shift to more radical solutions. 

During 1941 the Japanese political and military leaders argued out the merits of trying to solve the China crisis by diplomacy or by further warfare against Britain and the United States, a situation that they had hoped to avoid. Like Hitler’s decision to attack the Soviet Union, Japanese leaders arrived incrementally when war seemed necessary and unavoidable. American politicians failed to understand the impact the four years of the China war had had on Japan. Japanese society was now geared for total war, with shrinking supplies of goods and food for the civilian population, heavy financial obligations, and popular culture of sacrifice and austerity.27b

On 9 August, following the American oil restrictions, which threatened to cut three-quarters of Japan’s oil imports, army plans were approved for a war.

At an imperial conference on 5 November, the emperor was informed in the passive voice that war could not be avoided if the final gambit failed. The Cabinet and military staff saw war as something forced on them, not something they had chosen. Tōjō authorized two plans to be presented to Washington: Plan A promised immediate withdrawal from Indochina and from China (except Hainan, the northern territories, and Manchukuo) within two years, but expected a range of concessions on restoring trade, closing off aid to China, and American agreement not to intervene in Japanese–Chinese relations; Plan B was a more modest proposal to promise no further aggression if the United States pledged to end the trade embargo and repudiate any role in China.28 

The ambassador, Nomura Kichisaburō, presented both plans to Washington and a veteran diplomat, Kurusu Saburo. The plans were little more than wishful thinking by November 1941, but the Japanese took them seriously as a compromise offer. On 22 November, American radio interception of Japanese diplomatic traffic (codenamed ‘Magic’) read the message sent to the Japanese negotiators insisting that 29 November was the final deadline for a political agreement: ‘This time we mean it, that the deadline absolutely cannot be changed. After that, things are automatically going to happen.’ 29 The American military were on full alert from late November throughout the Pacific region, but where the Japanese strike would come remained unclear. 

Roosevelt was not opposed to some form of compromise if it kept the peace in the Pacific and met American interests. Still, his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, who conducted the negotiations with Japan, was resolutely against any agreement that left any part of China in Japan’s hands.

The plan to launch a surprise raid on Pearl Harbor went back to the end of 1940 when navy leaders began serious preparation for a southward advance, but it had been a topic in Japanese naval circles since the 1920s.30 The details were worked out by Kuroshima Kameto, the eccentric staff officer to the fleet commander, Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, who would lock himself naked in a darkened room for days to think out planning solutions.31

The attack on 7 December achieved more than Yamamoto had hoped, but with more experience and better tactics, the raid could have achieved much more. The attack did kill or maim Americans: a total of 2,403 dead and 1,178 injured. Roosevelt was relieved of the problem of persuading a divided American public to join the war.

Photograph of Battleship Row taken from a Japanese plane at the beginning of the attack:

Only a few days before Pearl Harbor, he told his confidant, Harry Hopkins, that he could not bring himself to declare war: ‘We are a democracy and a peaceful people. But we have a good record.’ 32 The Japanese attack galvanized American opinion and ended the years of debate between isolationists and interventionists. He was defeating Japan at all costs, united Americans of every opinion. For the British Empire, also now threatened by Japanese aggression, the American fury at Japan threatened to undermine any chance of a commitment to join the war in Europe until German and Italian action relieved Roosevelt once again of the prospect of convincing the American public to fight the European Axis as well. To secure a common strategy, Churchill led a delegation to Washington on 22 December. In three weeks of discussions codenamed ‘Arcadia,’ the British delegates tried to secure American commitment to their view of the war. A tentative agreement had already been reached earlier in March 1941 in informal military staff talks that Europe was their joint priority. In the first meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt at Placentia Bay in Newfoundland in August 1941, the ‘Atlantic Charter’ was drafted in which defeat of ‘Nazi Germany’ was defined as the key to a new world order. 

At the December summit, Churchill secured an assurance from Roosevelt, despite the strong reservations of the American navy, that Europe remained the priority. The two sides also took the unusual, indeed unique, step in the war of pooling their strategic discussions in a common forum, the Combined Chiefs of Staff, together with combined boards for shipping, munitions output, and intelligence.33 There nevertheless remained significant divergences. Roosevelt and his military staff were not attracted to the idea of simply following British plans for what the many Anglophobes around the president viewed as an ‘empire war.’ The initial priority was to prevent a Soviet defeat. ‘Nothing could be worse than to have Russia collapse,’ he told his treasury secretary. ‘I would rather lose New Zealand, Australia, anything else than have Russia collapse’, a view that sat uneasily with Britain’s empire interests.34

The geopolitical transformation of the region in only a matter of weeks produced a fundamental shift in the relationship between the United States and its imperial ally. The surrender of Singapore with a few days’ fighting was contrasted unflatteringly with the courageous defense of the Bataan Peninsula. The rapid collapse of British Empire defence in Asia was added to the many failures of Britain’s war effort and confirmed the American military, and much of the American public, in their desire not to be drawn into a strategy of rescuing an empire that had spent two years failing to save itself.35 Roosevelt and his advisers moved swiftly to articulate a global approach to compensate for Britain’s debilitated world role, along lines already widely discussed in Washington. The Johns Hopkins geographer Isaiah Bowman, a key influence on Roosevelt’s negative attitude to empire, assumed that the time had come when the United States had ‘to make a sudden shift into a new world order’ after years of being ‘. Tentative, timid, doubtful.’ In May 1942, Norman Davis, chair of the United States Council on Foreign Relations, concluded that ‘The British Empire as it existed in the past will never reappear,’ and added, ‘the United States may have to take its place.’ 36


1. Arthur H. Vandenbcrg Jr., cd., The Private Papers of Senator Vandenberg (Lon­don, 1953), L For recent, important accounts that include similar statements, see Doris Kearns Goodwin’s remark that ‘isolationism collapsed overnight,1’ in her No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Howe Front in World War SI (New York, 1994), 295; Robert Kagans comment that “long-held assumptions about American security in a troubled world collapsed in a single day” in his “Superpow­ers Don’t Get to Retire,” New Republic, May 26, 2014; and, in the same vein, Marc Wortman describes Pearl Harbor as ending the debate on isolationism in his 1941: Fighting the Shadow War, how Britain and America Came Together for factory (Lon­don, 2017), 335-336.

2. Winston Churchill, The Second World War, vol 3, The Grand Alliance (London, 1950), 539.

3. Our watershed is eighteen months later than that proposed by David Reyn­olds, “1940: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century?,” International Affairs 66 (1990): 325-350.

4. Winston Churchill to King George VI, Churchill Papers 20/20, December 8, 1941, in The Churchill War Papas, voL 3, The Ever-Widening War, 1941, Martin Gilbert (London, 2000), 1585.

5. Vandenbcrg, Private Papers of Senator Vandenberg, 16.

6. Robert Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History (New York, 1950), 44

7. Eri Hottj, Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy (New York, 2013), 277.

8. George E Ken nan, Memoirs, vol. 1,1925-1950 (Boston, 1967), 134-136.

9. Laurence Rees, “Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s Devastating Conclusions: Why December 1941 Was the Most Important Month of the Second World War,” De­cember 11, 2019, History Extra, www, his t o ry ex t ra, coi n/period/scon d – war Id – w a r /pearl-harbor-hitler-america-most-important-decisive-month-ww2/.

10. This is a “cognitive trap” that humans, in general, are susceptible to, as demonstrated by the psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. See Daniel Kahneman, “The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory,” February 2010, TED video, 19:50, www, Iks/da n icl_kahneman thc riddIe of expcricncc vs _memory?Ianguage=cn; and Daniel Kahneman, “How do Memories Become Ex­perience?” May 24, 2013* TED Radio Hour, /how-do-experiences-l>econic-mcniorics.

11. Hadley Cantril, ed., Public Opinion, 1935-46 (Princeton, NJ, 1951), 1173.

12. For examples, see Richard F. Hill, Hi tie/ Attach Pearl Harbor: IVJjy the United Stares Declared War on Germany (London, 2002), 209; John M. Schuessler, ‘The De­ception Dividend: FDR’s Undeclared War,” International Security 34, no. 4 (Spring 2010): 162; and Marc Trachtenberg, The Craft of International History: A Guide to Method (Princeton, NJ, 2006), 127.

13. Gallup Organization, Gallup Poll # 1941 -0255: World War II/Employincnt, Question 7 [USGALLUR41-255.Q03] (Cornell University, Ithaca, NY: Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, 1941). We arc grateful to the Roper Centers data archivist, Kathleen Joyce Weldon, for verifying this dataset and confirming this discrepancy.

14. Hitler’s decision to declare war on the Linked States was, in the words of Martin Gilbert, “arguably his single greatest mistake of the war” (Descent into Bar­barism: Tie History of the 20th Century, 1933-19SI [London, 1998], 408). Yet the reasons why Hitler made such a monumental error have largely remained a mystery to historians, and the period between December 7 and 11 has been little studied. Ian Kershaws absorbing and stimulating Fatefid Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World (London, 2007), is mainly on the long lead-up, concentrating on the pe­riod before September 1941 rather than the December days themselves. It is also avowedly deterministic, suggesting at the end that America’s entry into die war against Nazi Germany was inevitable even without Hitlers declaration, something we dispute.

15. Eri Hotta, Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy (New York, 2013), 6–7. 

16. Hans Boberach (ed.), Meldungen aus dem Reich: Die geheimen Lageberichte des Sicherheitsdienst der SS 1938–1945 (Herrsching, 1984), viii, 3073, report for 11 Dec. 1941; ix, 3101–2, report for 19 Dec. 1941; Will Boelcke (ed.), The Secret Conferences of Dr. Goebbels 1939–1941 (London, 1967), 194, conference of 18 Dec. 1941.

17. Fuehrer Conferences on Naval Affairs, 245, Report by the C-in-C Navy to the Fuehrer, 12 Dec. 1941.

18. Eberle and Uhl, The Hitler Book, 79.

19. Ben-Ami Shillony, Politics and Culture in Wartime Japan (Oxford, 1981), 134–6, 142–5; Nicholas Tarling, A Sudden Rampage: Japan’s Occupation of Southeast Asia 1941–1945 (London, 2001), 127–8.

20. Boyd, Hitler’s Japanese Confidant, 44.

21. Friedrich Ruge, Der Seekrieg: The German Navy’s Story 1939–1945 (Annapolis, Md, 1957), 252–5.

22. Dollmann, With Hitler and Mussolini, 204. This is the argument presented in Tobias Jersak, ‘Die Interaktion von Kriegsverlauf und Judenvernichtung: ein Blick auf Hitlers Strategie im Spätsommer 1941’, Historisches Zeitschrift, 268 (1999), 345–60.

23. Christian Gerlach, ‘The Wannsee Conference, the fate of the German Jews, and Hitler’s decision in principle to exterminate all European Jews’, Journal of Modern History, 70 (1998), 784–5. For the meeting on 12 December see Martin Moll, ‘Steuerungsinstrument im “Ämterchaos”? Die Tagungen der Reichs und Gauleiter der NSDAP’, Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte, 49 (2001), 240–43.

24. Tolischus, Tokyo Record, 30, citing speech to the Diet, 20 Jan. 1941.

25. Sean Casey, Cautious Crusade: Franklin D. Roosevelt, American Public Opinion and the War against Nazi Germany (New York, 2001), 39.

26. Jonathan Marshall, To Have and Have Not: Southeast Asian Raw Materials and the Origins of the Pacific War (Berkeley, Calif., 1995), 36–41; Sidney Pash, ‘Containment, rollback, and the origins of the Pacific War, 1933–1941’, in Kurt Piehler and Sidney Pash (eds.), The United States and the Second World War: New Perspectives on Diplomacy, War and the Home Front (New York, 2010), 43–4.

27. Pash, ‘Containment, rollback’, 46–51; Sarah Paine, The Wars for Asia 1911–1949 (Cambridge, 2012), 175–82; Tarling, A Sudden Rampage, 71–3. Grew quotation in Joseph Grew, Ten Years in Japan (London, 1944), 257.

28. Pash, ‘Containment, rollback’, 53–5, 57–8; Marshall, To Have and Have Not, 147–50. 

29. Marshall, To Have and Have Not, 163.

30. Alan Zimm, Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions (Philadelphia, Pa, 2011), 15. 

31. Hotta, Japan 1941, 234–5; Chapman, ‘Imperial Japanese Navy’, 166.

32. David Roll, The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler (Oxford, 2015), 158. 

33. Andrew Buchanan, American Grand Strategy in the Mediterranean during World War II (Cambridge, 2014), 23–4, 31–2; Mark Stoler, Allies in War: Britain and America against the Axis Powers (London, 2005), 42–5.

34. Debi Unger and Irwin Unger, George Marshall: A Biography (New York, 2014), 148–9

35. Horne, Race War, 217–18. 

36. Neil Smith, American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization (Berkeley, Calif., 2004), 349–50; William Roger Louis, Imperialism at Bay: The United States and the Decolonization of the British Empire 1941–1945 (Oxford, 1977), 173–6.

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