Hitler’s American Gamble, by Brendan Simms & Charlie Laderman

Cormac Quinn

This book covers those few days in the wake of Pearl Harbor that would change the course of WW2.
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With so many books written on the Second World War you’d be hard pressed to find one that does not ask a question that has already been answered and debated at length, but Hitler’s American Gamble is one such book.

Why on earth would Japan and Germany dare to declare war on America, who were clearly the world’s industrial superpower – surely this was insanity?

Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman’s collaborative work is as gripping as it is well researched. A compiling hour-by-hour epic account of world domination. They brilliantly combine personal insights of world leaders, letters from the front and the views of the man on the street to dramatise a momentous week that shaped the modern world as we know it today.

Spanning 6-12th December 1941, from the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States, they devote a chapter to each day, but the narrative is anything but formulaic. These two historians enthral the reader through the global twists and turns from the vast seas of the Pacific, to the sand dunes of North Africa and bitter cold battlefields of Russia.

As we know, the narrative on past wars is usually monopolised by the victors but Simms and Laderman are careful to give equal space, explaining how Hitler saw the war as a clash between the haves (in his view Anglo-Saxons and Jewish plutocracy) and have nots (led by the German Reich) and why the Japanese felt trapped by the slow strangulation of US sanctions.

They capture the despair of Churchill, the paranoia of Hitler, the leap of faith by the Japanese and dilemmas faced by Roosevelt. Through the journey the reader begins to understand why certain decisions that with hindsight seem crazy, in fact had basis in rationale.

The sheer audacity of the initial Japanese surprise attack of Pearl Harbor and their sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse are compelling retold – confounding the antiquated and frankly racist views previously held by the Anglo-Saxon world. With US navy secretary Knox having assured Roosevelt before the attack that the US could lick the Japs in two weeks and Churchill boasting that the Japanese would “fold up like the Italians”. Even after the initial attacks, there was still a conviction that the Germans must have directed actions and taken part in the opening operations.

While Churchill was clear that “if Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons”, Roosevelt remained ultra-cautious due to strong anti-interventionist sentiment, leaving Hitler to finally pull the trigger among much pomp and ceremony in the Reichstag on 11th December 1941.

Before this pivotal moment, you are gripped and left to reflect on a set of potential Sliding Doors scenarios that could have played out if leaders had made slightly different decisions – some of which would have almost certainly spelt disaster for Britain and the Soviet Union.

The book also painfully sets out of the initial stages of the Jewish holocaust and how they were unwittingly used as geo-political hostages by Hitler, whose gruesome fate was sealed once war was formally declared.

It is not that some of the points in this book are a revelation. Indeed, many facts covered are well-known to most historians, but what Hitler’s American Gamble does is to challenge some of our long-standing narratives on the outcomes of the Second World War.

Simms and Laderman have created a truly thought-provoking book, which unexpectedly for me shed new light on a period of history that I thought had all angles covered.

Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbor and the German March to Global War, by Brendan Simms & Charlie Laderman is out now.

Cormac Quinn is a diplomat working at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office on international development, having served overseas in Africa and the Middle East; he has previously worked for the EU.

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