On December 7, 1941, Imperial Japanese naval air forces attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Unless your primary and secondary school education was completely deficient, you should already be well aware of this fact.
The Reader’s Digest narrative of the event tells us that the surprise attack brought the previously reluctant U.S. of A. into World War II. The tinfoil hat narrative also suggests that President Roosevelt and his top brass were aware of the Japanese plan and did nothing, believing the attack would finally get the United States into the war.
The theory that FDR allowed the attack to happen in order to go to war with Nazi Germany to help his buddy Churchill is almost accepted as fact these days. Certain right wing sources embellish it to suggest that Roosevelt and George C. Marshall, two “known” communists in their eyes, really wanted into the war to help their good pal Joe Stalin.
There’s only one problem with any version of this theory. It’s bullshit.
That FDR wanted the U.S. to join the war against Nazi Germany is well established. He had been gently nudging the country’s foreign policy that way for the last year, over the concerted opposition of isolationist politicians, so the conspiracy theory seems superficially credible.
But if that was Roosevelt’s plan, it was a stupid plan that should not have worked.
What most people forget these days is that from December 8 through December 10 of that year, The U.S. was only at war with the Empire of Japan. On December 11, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy declared war on the United States, finally getting Roosevelt into the war he wanted to fight.
And Hitler’s declaration of war came over the strenuous (but probably silent) objections of his top advisors. He was not under any treaty obligation to declare war, since the Japanese had been the aggressors. And his advisors were correct. After unwisely starting a war with the Soviet Union and its nearly bottomless supply of manpower, the Fuhrer gave the Brits and Soviets another ally, this one with a bottomless supply of natural resources and industrial capacity far beyond Hitler’s reach to capture or bomb.
In other words, Roosevelt’s alleged plan depended on Hitler being a complete idiot. In December of 1941, with the advance on Moscow just beaten back, Hitler’s idiocy was still mostly a rumor, and it was his declaration of war on the United States that confirmed it. Roosevelt would have no way to know that Hitler would cooperate in his plan. And since the United State getting into the war was not in Hitler’s interests at all, Roosevelt had every reason to believe that the Fuhrer would not play his part in the grand conspiracy.
Also, rather than get the United States into the war Roosevelt wanted, the attack on Pearl Harbor got us into a war with Japan that he didn’t want. And had Hitler not been so cooperative, the job of getting the country into the war in Europe would have gone from difficult to almost impossible.
In the early days of the war, sentiment ran vastly in favor of “getting the Japs first,” since they had attacked Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt and Churchill’s “Germany first” strategy was far from universally popular (and never really followed by the U.S. until the D-Day invasions of 1944).
Had the U.S. found itself only at war with Imperial Japan, convincing the American people to enter a “second” war against Germany would have been a tough sell. Germany would have been seen as London and Moscow’s problem. We had to lick Tokyo.
So we would have gone to war with Japan, leaving Europe to Britain and the Soviets. It’s impossible to predict what would have happened, but I suspect that first several months of the war in the Pacific, up through the Battle of Midway, would have been very close to what actually happened. After that, without the war in Europe to distract American plans, the counter offensive against Japan would have occurred on an accelerated timetable. It would not have been a whole lot faster, since the historic timetable also depended on the United States ramping up its war production.
Also, without a war with Germany, concerns about the Germans developing an atomic bomb would have seemed less urgent, and the Manhattan project would have been scaled back, given a much lower priority, or never happened at all. Whichever the case, it’s unlikely that the U.S. would have had an atomic bomb ready to use against Japan by the end of that war. Therefore, the invasion of Japan we avoided in reality would have been necessary. The consequences for Japan would probably have been devastating. People who are appalled by the use of the bomb against Japan should consider the impact of a million or more revenge-minded GIs rampaging across the home islands.
The altered course of the European war would have depended greatly on the fate of “Lend Lease.” Giving vast mounds of the U.S. war materiel to Great Britain and the USSR largely on credit was not universally popular in the States, and if we had found ourselves at war alone with Japan, it would have been even less so. It might even have been politically impossible for Roosevelt to keep the program intact as is, making very likely the program would have been cut back or scrapped entirely.
Without Lend Lease, I suspect that the United Kingdom might have successfully beaten Rommel’s forces in North Africa, but would probably not have had the manpower or wherewithal to undertake offensive actions against Sicily and Italy. With Lend Lease at least partially intact, I’d like to think that Great Britain would have been able to invade Sicily and Italy, and perhaps knock Mussolini out of the war.
Under neither scenario is there a cross-channel invasion of France. That was mostly an American initiative that Churchill did not favor. Without the U.S. actively in the war, I can’t see the UK having the manpower, materiel, and national will at that stage to successfully invade the continent. The war in Western Europe would probably have ended in a negotiated peace, with Germany still in control of the continent.
In the East, I believe the existence of Lend Lease would only impact the length of the war. Ultimately, the vast landmass and manpower of the Soviet Union would have worn down the German invaders. The Red Army would have at least beaten the Nazis back to the original Soviet frontier. With less of a war in the West, however, Germany resistance would have stiffened, stalling the counter attack. With or without Lend Lease, the war in the East also ends in a negotiated peace with Nazi Germany.
This post-war Europe looks much different than the one we have. France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Greece, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary are all Nazi puppet states. Czechoslovakia and Austria are permanently absorbed into Germany. Britain, broke and its manpower spent, has to toe a very careful line with Berlin.
The Soviet Union is probably worse off than it actually was at the end of the war, having had no help in beating back the Nazis. Whatever victory it achieved was probably at greater costs than in reality, and its ability to project its power worldwide is less than historically true. Possibly the USSR turns inward to licks its wounds. On the other hand, there is probably even more hostility toward the U.S., since we never got into the war with Hitler, and possibly even cut off Lend Lease.
Perhaps most significant, the millions of descendants of Holocaust survivors living today are never born. It’s likely the world suspects that something monstrous happened to European Jews but the exact details would be sketchy for a long time to come.
In Asia and the Pacific, the lack of a Grand Alliance means that the Soviets probably don’t commit to enter the war against Japan, which means no such country as North Korea, and no Korean war.
The continued Nazi domination of France probably means no attempt to reclaim its colony in Indochina, and the lack of Soviet presence in Asia means no communist insurgency against the non-existent colonial power. In other words, there’s also no Vietnam War.
I believe the United States emerges from the war much as it did in reality, strong and prosperous, but forced by circumstance to get along with the Nazi reality in Europe. But we do so as the predominant power in Asia and the Pacific. Our chief theater of post-war conflict is probably China. It’s impossible to know what all this means for that country. If the Soviets emerged from the war a lot weaker than they really did, it’s possible the communist victory in China is less than absolute or their civil war just drags on and on.
This is the world that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor should have created, had Adolf Hitler had an ounce of common sense. Fortunately for the world, he didn’t, and he gave Franklin Roosevelt the greatest early Christmas gift a maniacal dictator could give the world, the seeds of his own destruction.