Seemed like a good idea at the time

Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbour and Germany’s March to Global War
By Brendan Sims and Charlie Laderman
Basic Books, 510 pages

It is a puzzling landmark in the history of World War Two: why did Hitler declare war on the US, thereby drawing America directly into the conflict in Europe, soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour? This comprehensively researched book, by two academics specialising in military history, tackles the question. They delve deeply into the thinking of all the major participants, drawing on memoirs, government documents, correspondence, and media reports.

The book cannot be classed as revisionist history, as not much about the crucial decision has been written. Most historians have put it down to Hitler going off on another unhinged jaunt and left it at that. But to Sims and Laderman this is not a sufficient answer. Crazy is not the same thing as stupid.

A crucial point here is the role played by the US Lend-Lease program, which supplied desperately needed food, fuel and war material to Britain and Russia in the years before Pearl Harbour. Churchill had (privately) declared his strategy to win the war by “dragging the Americans in” but it was proving much more difficult to do than say. However supportive Roosevelt might have personally been to Churchill he was keenly aware of the strong isolationist streak in the public and Congress. Indeed, he was stretching the limits of his authority with the Lend-Lease program, maintaining support only by emphasising that the US was extracting benefits from Britain. Even when German submarines began to sink US supply ships there was not much change in sentiment.

The isolationist view underwent an overnight metamorphosis with the attack on Pearl Harbour. Many Americans wanted to focus on Japan, ignoring Europe. Some Lend-Lease supplies were diverted to the US military, and there was a real danger that British resistance and Russian battlefield efforts would flounder. But Roosevelt was generally able to hold the line, partly by arguing that the Nazis were pulling Japan’s strings. He would have known that this was not true, as the US had broken the codes to German diplomatic communications, but Roosevelt was never one to worry about the details.

In fact, Hitler and his circle were surprised when Pearl Harbour happened. But they were not displeased, especially when the Japanese rode over British forces in Asia. The thinking was that if the British had to direct more forces to Asia, and the US had to wind back support for its allies, then this was good for the Reich.

Logical enough, but it does not explain why Hitler took the extra step of declaring war on the US (he had told Japan that he would but the promise could easily have been pushed aside). Sims and Laderman examine his statements and thinking, coming back to his view that Roosevelt was controlled by a far-reaching conspiracy of Jews and financiers. Ludicrous, of course, but it shows that his thinking was all of a piece. Given this, he believed that eventually the US would declare war on Germany, so it would be to his advantage to take the initiative.

Sims and Laderman note that Hitler had no real plan to fight the Americans, and knew that over the long term the US could simply out-produce everyone else. There was a hope that the Japanese could consolidate their gains in Asia and the Pacific and eventually force a peace with ‘spheres of influence’, and that Germany could do the same in Europe. But there was no significant co-operation between the Reich and Japan, beyond agreements signed mainly for propaganda purposes.

There were many balls in the air. What if Russia attacked Japan (or Japan attacked Russia), dividing Russia’s forces and draining strength from the battle with Germany? What if Vichy France finally declared itself on the Nazi side? What if the Japanese took Hawaii, limiting the US to the mainland? All these things were possibilities at the time. But when the Japanese were defeated at the Battle of Midway, it was clear that not only were the Americans going to win in the Pacific but they had the industrial capacity to support all the other anti-Axis forces as well.

Sims and Laderman acknowledge that it could all been very different. What if the Japanese had attacked only the British forces in Asia, so that America remained (largely) neutral? What if the isolationist forces in the US had successfully curtailed the Lend-Lease program? What if the Russian push had faltered, resulting in a prolonged stalemate? What if … what if … this game can be played in many different ways, but the point is that it only came to one ending.

In hindsight, it looks inevitable, and the authors marshal so much research material that their conclusions are hard to deny. The key question of why Hitler declared war on the US has a straightforward answer: because that was where his chain of logic, perverted as it was, led him. Strategically, there was a narrow window of opportunity to build a new system of blocs, dividing the world into quasi-empires. But the moment passed, and the rest is history.

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