Hitler’s Greatest Mistake
In early 1941, the U.S. Congress debated the passage of a landmark bill, one that would enable Britain to purchase £3 billion worth of arms from America. At the time, Britain was confronted with a financial and military crisis, encapsulated by Ambassador Lord Lothian’s famous, although probably fictitious, declaration to American reporters: “Well boys, Britain’s broke: it’s your money we want!” President Franklin Roosevelt had devised an ingenious plan to circumvent the web of neutrality legislation erected by congressional anti-interventionists to prevent the U.S. becoming embroiled in the war. This enabled the administration to lend Britain supplies while deferring payment. Winston Churchill later celebrated the Lend-Lease Bill as the “most unsordid act in the whole of recorded history” but it was certainly not an act of disinterested charity.
Roosevelt presented the legislation as an “Act Further to promote the Defense of the United States.” Aware that the overwhelming majority of Americans were opposed to committing U.S. troops overseas, he regarded the Act as a vital contribution to defeating Nazi Germany without American military intervention. He subsequently extended Lend-Lease aid to other nations fighting the Axis powers. Even as tensions rose with Japan, Roosevelt and his military aides continued to regard Germany as the principal threat to the U.S. But when the situation in the Pacific deteriorated in the latter half of 1941, the Roosevelt administration and, more acutely, the recipients of Lend-Lease aid in the struggle against Hitler, were confronted with a potential dilemma: What would happen if the U.S. found itself at war with Japan but not Germany? Would America’s attention and, more importantly, its resources be focused on the Pacific rather than the Atlantic?
The passage of the Lend-Lease Bill was a political triumph for Churchill. Ever since assuming the premiership in 1940, his strategy had been based on holding out long enough against Hitler and Mussolini until, as he phrased it in his famous “Fight Them on the Beaches” speech, “in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” While Congress was debating the Bill, Churchill urged Roosevelt to put his “confidence in us … Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.” The ultimate passage of Lend-Lease in early March helped Britain stave off bankruptcy and secured the weapons needed to carry on the fight against Nazism. Churchill publicly lauded it as a second Magna Carta. Even in private, he assured King George VI that it would allow Britain to “carry on and win the war.” Yet Churchill knew that, while Lend-Lease was essential to keep Britain’s war effort going, it was really a holding operation and only a full-scale US intervention could ensure ultimate victory.
By early December 1941, however, Roosevelt seemed no closer to bringing the U.S. into the war and, as Churchill informed the President’s principal advisor, Harry Hopkins, this was causing “depression through Cabinet and other informed circles here.” More ominously, Japan’s growing aggressiveness in the Pacific threatened to put Britain in an even graver position. If Japan attacked the British Empire in Asia – while scrupulously avoiding action against the U.S. – then Britain would find itself in a two-front war, alone except for the U.S.S.R., then fighting desperately to prevent Hitler capturing Moscow.
On the night of December 7th, Churchill initially responded to the news of the devastating Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor with excitement, which he heard on the radio from a BBC newscaster, while at dinner with the president’s Lend-Lease co-ordinator, Averell Harriman, and the U.S. Ambassador John G. Winant. He immediately called Roosevelt, who confirmed the news and told him: “We are in the same boat now.” But it soon became apparent that the U.S. and Britain were together in the Pacific but not necessarily in the Atlantic. Britain had avoided the worst-case scenario – fighting Japan and Germany across two oceans without the U.S. But the fear now loomed that Washington would focus entirely on Japan, devoting its resources to its own war, and leaving Britain to face Hitler unaided. As a result, Churchill’s sleep that night was far less restful than he later claimed.
In Washington, amidst the horror and confusion as reports filtered in from the Pacific, Roosevelt told his wife, Eleanor, that he “never wanted to fight this war on two fronts … we haven’t got the Navy to fight in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.” Roosevelt had spent more than a year carefully educating his fellow countrymen about the threat posed by Hitler’s Germany. The president had established the U.S. as the “Arsenal of Democracy,” providing as much aid as was politically feasible to the Allied nations fighting Hitler, while evincing comparably less concern about Japan’s ambitions in the Pacific. Now, the U.S. found itself at war with Japan but not Nazi Germany. While cables from Berlin to Tokyo, intercepted and decoded by U.S. intelligence, suggested that Germany would join any war that Japan fought against the United States, could Roosevelt be certain how Hitler would respond? As Roosevelt’s speech writer, Robert Sherwood, later noted, the Nazis “were in honour bound by their pledges to the Japanese, but they had not previously shown much inclination to let such bourgeois-democratic considerations interfere with their own concepts on self-interest.”
At a conference, held by Roosevelt with his leading military and diplomatic advisors on the night of the 7th, there was clear consensus that “in the last analysis the enemy [is] Hitler” and conflict with Japan might also lead to war with Germany. But Roosevelt rejected the counsel of Secretary of War Henry Stimson to include Germany in his declaration of war against Japan. The president remained acutely conscious of the large swathe of anti-war sentiment in the country.
The most influential anti-interventionist organisation in the country, the America First committee, issued a statement committing itself to full support of the war effort against Japan but pointedly made no reference to its attitude in connection with the war in Europe. Furthermore, a circular sent by the Committee’s founder to all chapter chairmen stated that “the facts and arguments against intervention in Europe remain the same as they were before the Japanese issue arose,” and informed them that the National Committee would meet in Chicago that Thursday, December 11th, to decide its policy. Clearly, the later historical interpretation that Pearl Harbor led to the instant collapse of isolationism was not yet apparent. Moreover, the U.S. Army and Navy shared Roosevelt’s fear that the U.S. lacked the resources to fight a two-front war and, as a result, immediately suspended the transfer of Lend-Lease aid to Europe.
Immediately upon hearing news of Pearl Harbor, Churchill began making urgent plans to travel to Washington. As he informed the King, he was desperate to ensure that the influx of American aid, on which Britain’s fighting capacity depended, “does not suffer more than is, I fear, inevitable.” His fears were heightened when he received news of the Lend-Lease embargo. From Washington, Britain’s Ambassador, Lord Halifax, warned Churchill that Roosevelt was reluctant to accept his visit as the American public was focused on Japan and a significant number of Americans remained unconvinced about conflict with Germany too.
7th December was also that day that a new Soviet Ambassador Maxim Litvinov arrived in Washington. In a lunchtime meeting with Joseph E. Davies, an advisor to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Litvinov stated that he personally felt U.S. intervention was probably too late to make a difference to the war with Hitler.
Of greater concern to Litvinov was the belief that the American war in the Pacific would prevent the delivery of vital Lend-Lease supplies. Although the offer of Lend-Lease aid had been extended to the Soviets after Hitler’s invasion, the set-up had been slow and protracted, not helped by Congressional opposition and the scepticism of the U.S. military attaché in Moscow who was convinced that the Soviet forces were in danger of imminent collapse. Consequently, most of the initial supply of Lend-Lease allocations came through Britain, much of it from the aircrafts and tanks that London received from the U.S. These tanks were crucial to the defence of Moscow, making up 30-40% of the heavy and medium tank strength of the Soviets in those critical battles.
The news of Pearl Harbor also triggered intense anxiety in the Soviet Union itself. While Stalin was relieved that the Japanese had not attacked him, the Soviet dictator was anxious about the diversion of British and American resources, not least because territorial losses, enemy action and the disruption caused by the evacuation programme had slashed domestic production. Lend-Lease supplies would be vital when the Nazi offensive on Moscow resumed, and there was a real danger that they would not be forthcoming.
British and Soviet observers, therefore, anxiously awaited developments as Roosevelt travelled to Congress on the 8th to request an American declaration of war against Japan. His speech made no mention of Germany and Italy. The president recognised that, despite Pearl Harbor, there was still considerable opposition to the U.S. again dispatching its young men to die in a European war and this explained his decision to refrain from including any of the other Axis powers in his speech. One of the leading dissenters, former President Herbert Hoover, confirmed the accuracy of Roosevelt’s analysis in a letter that day to leading anti-interventionist Senator Robert Taft: “I thought the President was very wise in limiting his declaration of war to Japan. I know he was strongly urged to declare it on the whole world. I am in hopes that we can even yet limit the area of the war.”
Nevertheless, eager to redirect public opinion back to the principal enemy, Roosevelt released a statement to the Press: “Obviously Germany did all it could to push Japan into the war as it hoped that such a conflict would put an end to the Lend-Lease program.” The administration was aware that German propaganda was gleefully claiming that war in the Pacific would deprive Britain of Lend-Lease supplies. As a result, the Roosevelt administration informed the press that “the Lend-Lease program is and will continue in full operation,” but did not mention that distribution had, in fact, been suspended the night before.
In Britain, panic ensued as the suspension of Lend-Lease material became apparent. The U.S. Lend-Lease administrator, Edward Stettinius, reported that shipments had been virtually stopped, ships were being held at the docks, and goods in transit were now backed up, under orders from the Army and Navy. This “complete embargo” caused an “embarrassing situation” for U.S. officials, as the UK government pleaded for desperately needed materials. British officials told their American counterparts that aid was desperately needed for their campaign against the Axis in North Africa and delay in releasing the supplies could prove disastrous.
The possible consequences for the Soviets, when their resources were so stretched, was even more dire. The mood in the Kremlin was tense. Stalin was under strong American pressure to declare war on Japan, which would make Roosevelt’s task of selling continued support to the Soviets much easier. The dictator refused on the grounds that the conflict with Hitler was absorbing all of his resources, including most of the men and equipment formerly stationed in the east. Moreover, he added with remarkable chutzpah given the recent record of Soviet aggression, that he did “not consider it possible to take the initiative in violating the pact, for we ourselves have always condemned governments that violated treaties.” Stalin even refused a military demonstration on the border to distract Tokyo, because he feared that this would provoke a Japanese pre-emptive strike.
Stalin had the stronger nerves. On December 9th after Litvinov refused to issue a joint communique, probably for fear of antagonising Japan, the Americans caved in. They announced that despite the demands of the Pacific War, the U.S. was committed to “continue to carry out its program of aid to the Soviet Union.” Amidst all the uncertainty, it was the embattled Soviet dictator who was the first to achieve a positive clarification of his position.
On the morning of December 11th, a visibly exhausted Churchill delivered a weary address to the Commons. He reviewed the British position and conveyed the extent of the disaster in East Asia, after the Japanese sinking of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales the previous day, but concluded on a hopeful note that Britain’s war effort would be bolstered by a flow of American “munitions and aid of every kind [that] will vastly exceed anything that had been expected on the peace-time basis that had ruled up to the present.” Yet, at the same time, Harriman was reporting to Washington that the supplies which Britain desperately needed for the North African campaign were still being “held up” and urged them to be released urgently to prevent disaster. Despite Churchill’s bravado, his government remained fearful that American aid would continue to dwindle and that this would have dire consequences for the war against Hitler.
Shortly after Churchill finished addressing Parliament, at 8 am in Washington, the German chargé d’affaires, Hans Thomsen, arrived at the State Department to deliver a message but Secretary Hull refused to receive him. It was not until 9:30 am that the head of the European Division of the U.S. State Department received the German message, which declared that they had reached the end of their tether and a formal state of war was now declared. The U.S. chargé d’affaires in Berlin, Leland Morris, received the same message, shortly before Hitler publicly declared war in an address to the Reichstag.
At 12:30pm, Washington time, Roosevelt responded with a message to Congress and a simultaneous press release, declaring that the “long known and long expected has thus taken place,” and urged Americans to rise to this unprecedented “challenge to life, liberty and civilization.” After five days of apprehension and uncertainty, Hitler had followed Japan in solving Roosevelt’s “sorest problems.” It was only with Germany’s declaration of war that the anti-interventionist resistance was finally broken. Meeting in Chicago at 12 noon local time, just half an hour after Roosevelt responded to Hitler’s gambit, the America First Committee dissolved itself, issuing a final salvo that “their principles were right” and, if followed, “war could have been avoided” but the German declaration had now settled that debate.
Inside the White House, Roosevelt’s advisers breathed a huge sigh of relief. According to the president’s economic advisor, John Kenneth Galbraith: “When Pearl Harbor happened, we were desperate … we were all in agony,” as the public mood meant the administration would be “forced to concentrate all our efforts on the Pacific, unable from then on to give more than purely peripheral help to Britain.” To the amazement of the president and his advisers, Hitler made the “truly astounding” and “totally irrational” decision to declare war on the United States. Galbraith recalled an indescribable “feeling of triumph” upon hearing the news from Berlin: “I think it saved Europe.”
Charlie Laderman is the author, along with Brendan Simms, of Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbor and the German March to Global War. He is the author of Sharing the Burden: The Armenian Question, Humanitarian Intervention and Anglo-American Visions of Global Order which was shortlisted for the Royal Historical Society’s Whitfield Prize.
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