Home / Articles / Seventy-five Years Ago: Remembering Pearl Harbor and a World at War
The U.S. Navy battleships USS West Virginia (BB-48) (sunken at left) and USS Tennessee (BB-43) shrouded in smoke following the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor. (Source: National Archives and Records Administration)
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.
This essay draws on Maurer’s lecture on Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin and the Origins of the Grand Alliance, delivered as part of the Stanley and Arlene Ginsburg Family Lectures, October 2016. The video can be found here:
The seventy-fifth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor offers an opportunity to look back on the world-changing events of 1941. In that year, the United States was shocked into playing the role of a global superpower. This role was not one the American people sought to play. The wars then being waged in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia were conflicts that the American people wanted to avoid having to fight. These conflicts were other peoples’ wars, fought oceans away, in which many Americans believed the United States had no vital stakes at risk. The American people hoped to live in peace in the New World, a geostrategic safe haven in the Western Hemisphere, free from the hatreds and dangerous struggles that gripped the Old World of Europe and Asia. To many Americans, the United States would have a compelling national security interest in drawing the sword and fighting—a clear and present danger—only if some predatory foreign great power threatened the Western Hemisphere and the safety of the homeland.
In December 1941, the choice of whether the American people would fight or not was taken away from them when the rulers of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany took matters into their own hands and struck the United States. Americans did not choose to fight: war was chosen for them. Nowadays, as we like to say in our flippant way, the enemy got a vote in determining our destiny. Not for the last time did an adversary shock the American people out of their complacency. Looking back on the momentous year of 1941 provides an opportunity to reflect on America’s place in the world, along with the dangers confronting it, both then and now.
At the beginning of 1941, Great Britain and its empire were fighting alone against Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. The previous year, the Nazi war machine scored a stunning series of victories, bringing about the conquest Western Europe. Most stunning of all was Germany’s rapid defeat of France during the spring of 1940. This strategic catastrophe might have spelled Britain’s defeat as well had it not been for the leadership of Winston Churchill, who rallied the British people to make a heroic stand against Nazi aggression and turned back a German air assault on their homeland. This victory in the Battle of Britain was the first major reverse inflicted on Nazi Germany and Hitler’s ambitions for global hegemony. Heroism, however, came at a heavy cost in loss of life and suffering: almost 25,000 British civilians—people of all walks of life—were killed on account of the German Air Force’s bombing of Britain’s cities. To put this suffering by Britain into perspective, the civilian loss of life inflicted on Britain during 1940 amounted to the rough equivalent of seven September 11 attacks! While the loss of life and urban damage was immense, the British people did not falter under this weight of attack. Churchill called this heroic stand Britain’s finest hour. Indeed, it was a finest hour of a people who refused to give up and fought back even in the face of terror attacks on their homeland.
While this time of testing aroused the passions of the British people, sober strategic calculation also lay behind the decision by Churchill and Britain’s leaders to fight on. Churchill and the British military chiefs knew that Britain and its empire could not bring about the complete defeat of Nazi Germany without powerful allies. Britain’s military leaders warned Churchill that unless the “United States of America is willing to give us full economic and financial support, without which we do not think we could continue the war with any chance of success.” (This emphasis appears in the original strategic assessment written by the British chiefs of staff.) In his strategic calculations, Churchill took a risk in counting on the United States being willing to assist Britain in this struggle. There was nothing inevitable about the United States offering this assistance. An isolationist America might have turned its back on Britain, leading to the horrific outcome of Europe’s domination by the Nazis.
Churchill was fortunate that Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected to an unprecedented third term as president, wanted to extend the maximum assistance to Britain permitted within the constraints imposed by the pace of American rearmament and by a deeply troubled, divided public opinion. Roosevelt agreed that the menace of Nazi Germany must be destroyed if the United States was to find enduring security and a better state of peace. He rejected the foreign policy and strategic advice offered by advisers—such as, Joseph Kennedy, the American ambassador in Britain—who advocated a strategy of hemispheric defense. Instead, Roosevelt moved to enact Lend Lease legislation that made it far easier for Britain to acquire American resources to wage war. Churchill called Lend Lease the most unsordid act. In stirring rhetoric, Churchill proclaimed: “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down.” He promised to “finish the job” of defeating Germany if the United States would give Britain the tools. This American assistance certainly helped Britain to rearm and increase its military strength during 1941. That the United States provided support was of critical importance in the British decision to continue the struggle against Nazi Germany.
In the eyes of Germany’s leaders, Lend Lease provided a definite sign of the increasing American commitment to defend Britain. It was American assistance that was keeping Britain in the war against Germany. Hitler and German government leaders also saw in American actions a confirmation of their extremist ideological views about the United States. In their warped worldview, American actions were directed from behind the scenes by a plutocratic conspiracy of Jewish leaders, who guided Roosevelt and fomented public hostility toward Nazi Germany. The German embassy in Washington reported that Lend Lease “stems from the pens of the leading Jewish confidants of the President. . . . With the passage of the law the Jewish worldview will therefore have firmly asserted itself in the United States.” To Hitler, the United States stood a sworn enemy, thwarting Germany’s ability to beat down British resistance and his superpower ambitions.
Stymied by renewed British strength and resistance, Hitler looked eastward, toward the Soviet Union, taking the fateful decision to attack Stalin, his erstwhile coalition partner. Why would Hitler even consider attacking Stalin, with whom he had a favorable partnership in the two countries’ non-aggression pact? First, Hitler could see no plausible strategy to bring about a quick defeat of a Britain led by Winston Churchill. A direct invasion of the British home islands was out of the question because of Britain’s renewed strength and the difficulties of conducting a crossing of the English Channel. Second, the United States was rearming and before long would be able to translate its economic strength into military might. Eventually, the coalition bloc of the British Empire and the United States would mobilize superior resources to that of Germany. Hitler estimated that he had at least another year before the United States would be armed and ready to enter the war against Germany. Third, Nazi Germany could use the window of opportunity caused by American military weakness to throw its main weight against the Soviet Union, crushing the Red Army and conquering large swaths of its territory. These conquests would give Germany the resources—food, oil, coal, industry, slave labor—to fight a protracted war against Anglo-America. This window to defeat the Soviet Union, in Hitler’s view, would soon close. He needed to strike and win big in 1941. The German army’s leadership concurred with Hitler’s strategic assessment, believing that Germany could rapidly achieve the Nazi goals of conquest and exploitation in the East.
The German assault on the Soviet Union did achieve great initial success. The German offensive strike that began on June 22, 1941 caught the Soviet armed forces by surprise. German armored forces cut through Soviet defensive lines, encircling and destroying Red Army units, capturing large numbers of prisoners. The German Air Force gained air superiority by destroying Soviet aircraft on the ground. While Soviet soldiers fought hard, they could not contain the rapidly advancing German forces. The Soviet Union was in a desperate fight to stave off the Nazi onslaught before it reached the major cities of Leningrad and Moscow and conquered the resources of the Ukraine, Don River basin, and the Caucasus.
In Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, Churchill and Roosevelt saw an opportunity to forge the Grand Alliance that could defeat Nazi Germany. Both Churchill and Roosevelt moved quickly to align themselves as partners with the Soviet Union. In a famous speech, Churchill broadcast British resolve to help the Soviet Union. As the war progressed, American and British aid would grow in importance, improving the ability of the Soviet Union to fight effectively against the Nazi invaders.
In August 1941—with the Soviet Union battling for its life; with Britain fighting in the Atlantic, in the air over Europe, and in Middle East; and with Nationalist China engaged in a brutal protracted war against Japan in Asia—Churchill and Roosevelt held a summit meeting off the coast of Newfoundland to discuss strategy and war aims. One result of this summit was the drafting and publication of the Atlantic Charter. In this remarkable document, Churchill and Roosevelt publicly called for the rollback of Nazi Germany’s conquests, the destruction of Hitler’s regime, and the disarmament of aggressor states. A later generation would call these aims regime change. Even before entering the war, then, the United States had provided a public declaration of war aims that would provide the basis for a new international order and an enduring peace.
Fearful that the Soviet Union’s resistance might collapse, Roosevelt and Churchill had to consider what to do next, how the war might be won even if the Red Army suffered defeat. That the war must be won—and that winning meant the extirpation of the Nazi regime—was always first in their minds. They refused to consider the alternative of negotiating a peace with the Nazi regime. There could be no lasting peace with Hitler in command of a powerful Germanic empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals. If the Red Army suffered further defeats on the battlefield, leading to a breakdown of the Soviet Union’s ability to offer a credible conventional military resistance in European Russia, then the war would take a much more dangerous turn. In the autumn of 1941, as a renewed German offensive reached toward Moscow, this awful scenario seemed to be coming to pass.
It was in this dangerous environment that Roosevelt and Churchill made the fateful decision to develop nuclear weapons. The British had given close study to the problem of acquiring nuclear weapons. The conclusion reached by a British scientific team, contained in a famous study known as the MAUD report, was “that the scheme for a uranium bomb is practicable and likely to lead to decisive results in the war.” In the view of the British scientists, the material for a nuclear weapon might be ready by the end of 1943. The British assessment was stark: “no nation would care to risk being caught without a weapon of such decisive possibilities.” American scientific leaders concurred. After receiving a briefing on nuclear weapons development, Roosevelt gave an immediate go-ahead for a major research and development effort. He also reached out to Churchill, proposing that Britain and the United States should pool their resources and work together in developing these weapons. Churchill concurred. Nuclear weapons would provide an ultimate offset strategy if Soviet resistance faltered and a Nazi super-state emerged on the continent of Europe.
The ability of the Soviet Union to fight on also required that brakes be put on Japanese aggression in Asia. Beginning in 1937, Japan initiated a major regional war against Nationalist China. Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader, refused to give up against Japanese aggression, despite the repeated beatings inflicted on Chinese armies. It was essential that Japan’s ambitions in Asia be contained, or else the balance of power would tilt even further in favor of Nazi Germany in Europe. In particular, Britain and United States wanted to deter the militarists in charge of Imperial Japan from striking north against the Soviet Union in northeast Asia. Some of Japan’s leaders actually wanted to pursue this course of action, to gang up with Nazi Germany to defeat the Soviet Union. The diplomatic and economic pressure put on Japan by the United States, along with a steady buildup of American and British forces in the Pacific, was meant to dissuade Tokyo from embarking on further aggressive wars. In a global war, what happened in Asia could have a huge bearing on outcomes in Europe.
This hardline stance against Japan, however, failed to lead to a negotiated settlement with Tokyo. While American and British actions did have the desired effect of forestalling a Japanese attack on the Soviet Union, Japan’s rulers instead attacked Britain and United States. The militarist leaders of Japan were not going to be denied their bigger war. Rather than find a diplomatic way out of the brutal quagmire that they had gotten themselves into by fighting Nationalist China, Japan’s rulers in their folly could only think about escalating the contest in their quest to dominate Asia. If they could not have a war with the Soviet Union, then they were going to attack Britain and the United States. The militarists’ quest for empire, the creation of a Greater East Asia Co-prosperity sphere, would ultimately lead to the destruction of the Japanese Empire and the first use of nuclear weapons.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor shocked the American people, but did not break their will. This defeat instead galvanized them to bring the power of the United States to bear against the aggressor regimes. President Roosevelt would call December 7, 1941 a day that will live in infamy. Despite the heavy losses inflicted by the Japanese surprise attack, the president predicted that the United States would gain the inevitable triumph in the struggle forced upon the American people.
The Japanese attack also had an immediate effect on Hitler, who moved quickly to support his Japanese ally by declaring war on the United States. Hitler applauded the actions of the Japanese government by breaking off negotiations with Roosevelt—whom he labeled “this lying man” who had treated with Japan in a “dishonorable manner”—and launching a surprise attack. He believed that Japanese military successes would tie down substantial American and British resources in the Pacific. In fending off the Japanese onslaught, the United States would be in no position to carry out major offensive operations in Europe in the near future. Nazi Germany would thus be able to continue making its main effort in the war against the Soviet Union. Hitler had, then, another chance to break down Soviet resistance by German offensive operations during 1942. The war in Asia was shaping the strategic contours of the war in Europe.
In addition to these strategic calculations, Hitler brought to decision making his extremist ideological agenda in taking the step of declaring war on the United States. On December 11, 1941, in a speech asking his rubberstamp Reichstag to declare war on the United States, Hitler gave full rein to his extremist worldview. Hitler told the Nazi faithful: “We know what force stands behind Roosevelt. It is the eternal Jew.” Roosevelt, in Hitler’s estimation, was the puppet of a malevolent conspiracy, compelled to make war on and destroy Nazi Germany. “Roosevelt was strengthened in this resolve for war by the Jews surrounding him,” Hitler asserted. “The full diabolical meanness of Jewry rallied round this man, and he stretched out his hands.” In Hitler’s mind, Roosevelt was the warmonger, dedicated to starting a global conflict, doing so at that the behest of his Jewish overlords. To Hitler and the Nazis, the United States under Roosevelt was the great violator of international law and fomenter of war, seeking global hegemony.
In the wake of America’s forced entry into the war, Churchill traveled across the Atlantic to meet again with Roosevelt to hold high-level, face-to-face discussions about policy and strategy. As part of Churchill’s visit to Washington, he gave a speech before a joint session of Congress about the war on the day after Christmas. In the speech, Churchill reminded the assembled members of Congress that his mother was American. Putting his memorable humor on display, he quipped: “By the way I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own.” In a more serious vein, Churchill made the case that the coalition formed against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan would ultimately win the war, achieving the aims spelled out in the Atlantic Charter. He closed with the inspiring words: “The United States, united as never before, has drawn the sword for freedom and cast away the scabbard.”
What can we take away from studying the events of 1941? How can we apply the history of this momentous year to understanding our own times and America’s predicament in the world today?
One take-away is to remember the decisive role the United States plays in providing international stability and security. When the United States was disarmed, refusing to offer security guarantees to other countries facing armed aggression, the world faced great danger. By the time Pearl Harbor occurred, China had suffered through four years of Japanese aggression. In Europe, the French Republic went down to defeat before it could receive meaningful assistance from the United States. The defeat of France made the world a much more dangerous place for the American people. Britain also faced a hideous plight, fighting alone in a desperate struggle for survival and suffering fearful losses. Meanwhile, Soviet Russia incurred enormous losses in people and territory. Stalin’s ability to continue offering effective conventional resistance was put in grave jeopardy. Just imagine a world in which the United States had retreated into hemispheric defense during the Second World War and not provided support to those fighting against the aggression of the Axis powers. That nightmare scenario was averted because President Roosevelt understood that an isolated America would end up being a beleaguered America in a state of siege. Only by getting out of the cocoon of the Western Hemisphere could the United States play a part in preserving these important coalition partners. This lesson is surely an important one: American security means helping other countries fighting to defend themselves against common dangers.
Today, Americans seem so concerned about strategic over-extension that they want to limit as far as possible military commitments by the United States to other countries. Playing the role of an offshore balancer, we are told, provides a way to avoid overextension and limit risk to America’s position in the world. The reality is that the United States might readily fall into strategic folly by withdrawing too much from the world. The risks associated with a strategy of offshore balancing and restraint is greater than what it appears on surface. Maintaining international partnerships, based on shared interests in thwarting common dangers, is surely the wiser course of action.
American decision makers must always take a global strategic perspective, understanding the importance of a coherent strategy to balance commitments and resources among various regions around the globe. Churchill and Roosevelt had an understanding that strategic outcomes in Europe were shaped in part by events in Asia and the Middle East. The same is true today. What happens in one region of the globe has an impact on others. Working with partners is essential to forming a global strategy for the common good.
The incoming administration should thus set at the top of its foreign policy agenda a reinvigoration of America’s alliance relationships. By reaching out to partners in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, Washington can strengthen its position on the world stage. At the same time, it is important that our partners understand that meeting common challenges requires their commitment to upholding an open international order. Shared values and interests require a sharing of burdens. American allies in Europe and Asia can do more to maintain an enduring peace based on shared values and strength.
Another take-away is the importance of harnessing science and technology, developing new strategic concepts, to offset the military capabilities of adversaries. Whether Americans like it or not, the United States must increase spending on defense if we intend to stay ahead of adversaries who want to create a new global order based on a different set of rules and norms. Budget projections offered up by the outgoing Obama administration that called for defense spending to fall into the range of two percent of gross domestic product would recreate the conditions of the late 1930s. No one should want a return to that grisly era. Those projected trends must be reversed. Higher defense spending, along with revitalizing coalition partnerships, is a strategic requirement to preserve the peace. Increasing the end strength of the American armed services, recapitalizing the force and rebuilding the nuclear deterrent are needed to underwrite a global strategy. American military weakness opens windows of opportunity for aggression by states and movements that seek to use violence to achieve expansionist aims. By taking heed of this cautionary tale of seventy-five year ago, the American people can act to avoid a replay of those dangerous times.