HITLER’S AMERICAN GAMBLE
Pearl Harbor and Germany’s March to Global War
By Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman
The world probably changed more between Dec. 5 and Dec. 12, 1941, than in any other week in history.
In early December German forces stood close to Moscow, and it seemed the Soviet capital would soon fall. Japan was at war in China but retained diplomatic relations with other world powers. The United States, despite the new Lend-Lease program, was as far from entering the military conflict as ever — so much so that Winston Churchill was starting to despair that America’s military power would never come to his hard-pressed country’s aid. Churchill knew that “dragging the United States in,” as he put it, was Britain’s only possible path to victory.
And then, on Dec. 5, the Soviets opened an enormous counteroffensive in front of Moscow that grew into a mortal threat to the exhausted German forces. On the evening of Dec. 7, as the British historians Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman tell us in “Hitler’s American Gamble,” their absorbing new book, Churchill was in such a funk that he sat slumped in his chair ignoring the news broadcast of a Japanese assault on an American naval base in the Pacific.
Churchill’s consuming worry was that Japan would attack British-held territories in Asia, giving Britain new fronts and a new skillful and determined enemy, while the United States remained on the sidelines. Even Pearl Harbor did not leave Churchill as relieved as he later claimed: It raised the danger that the United States might pull out of Lend-Lease and direct all its energies toward Japan, leaving the British more stretched than before.
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For four tense days, dramatically chronicled here, it was far from certain that Franklin Roosevelt would lead the United States into war against Germany. It took Hitler to do that. On Dec. 11, in a speech before Germany’s Reichstag, Hitler announced his declaration of war on the United States. With this step, he chose a war that his country, already mired in the Soviet Union, could never win.
Why would he do this? Historians have generally fallen into two camps on this question. Some think Hitler was just nihilistic and irrational, welcoming the destruction into which he was rushing. Others find at least some semblance of strategic calculation in his decision.
Simms and Laderman fall into the second camp. In their telling — consistent with the theme of Simms’s truly original 2019 biography of Hitler — the Führer was well aware of American power, indeed obsessed by it. He was also sure that the United States would enter the war against him sooner or later. He thought the only solution was pre-emptive: to get control of enough oil and food from the Soviet Union to enable Germany to hold its own against Anglo-America in a long war.
Hitler may have believed that the Japanese would distract America long enough for him to reach his goal, and so he wanted to encourage Tokyo by adding his support. In any case, the only alternative he saw to immediate war on the United States was slow but certain strangulation at Anglo-American hands. With a nod to an epigram from A. J. P. Taylor, Simms and Laderman offer this summation: “Hitler committed suicide for fear of dying.”
The greatest strength of Simms and Laderman’s book is its success in accomplishing something supremely difficult: It reminds us how contingent even the most significant historical events can be, how many other possibilities lurked beyond the familiar ones that actually happened — and how even the greatest leaders often have only a shaky grasp of what is happening.
Early December 1941 is the moment of the war in which plausible alternate scenarios seemed to loom the largest. What if Vichy France and Fascist Italy had drawn closer together in a “Latin front,” as they were discussing at the time? What if the Japanese had attacked the British in Malaya and Singapore but not attacked the United States? What if the German who spied for the Soviet Union in Tokyo, Richard Sorge, had not supplied his masters with accurate information on Japanese plans, allowing Stalin to move 20 divisions from the east and redeploy them to Moscow for the shattering counterattack of Dec. 5?
The other thing the book does effectively is to pay careful attention to how the timing of events played out around the world, especially in the pattern of reactions to Pearl Harbor. We see Hitler getting news of the attack late in the evening from his press chief, who heard it from a Reuters broadcast, just as we see Churchill only slowly grasping what he was hearing on the radio. Simms and Laderman give us a visceral sense of these events as they unfolded, in real time, with historical actors not always quite sure what was happening — a dimension of history that is both crucial and fiendishly difficult to recover.
By Dec. 12, 1941, the world was transformed. One of the last surprises in this book is how many world leaders saw accurately from that moment how the future would unfold. “I feel a really miserable defeat coming,” said the recently resigned Japanese prime minister, Prince Konoye. In January 1942, Hitler admitted to the Japanese ambassador Hiroshi Oshima that he was “not yet sure” how he could defeat the United States. “The accession of the United States makes amends for all,” Churchill told his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, “and with time and patience will give certain victory.” They were all correct.