Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbor and Germany’s March to Global War
By Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman.
Basic Books, 2021.
Hardcover, 528 pages, $35.

Reviewed by John Rossi.

Among the many questions concerning World War II that have fascinated and puzzled historians is why Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States just four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He had no foreknowledge of the Japanese attack and he was not obligated to declare war under the terms of the Tripartite Pact he had signed with Japan and Italy in September 1940. The authors of Hitler’s American Gamble seek to uncover the rationale behind what they describe as “Hitler’s greatest strategic error.” 

Simms and Laderman’s book is the most detailed examination of this key turning point in the history of World War II. In four hundred pages they trace day by day, hour by hour and in some cases minute by minute the unfolding rationale behind Hitler’s decision to declare war on the United States.

Even before Pearl Harbor, Hitler believed that war with the United States was inevitable given American material support for Great Britain and the Soviet Union. He had long been fascinated by some aspects of American life and culture: the Hollywood film industry, its massive size, and the potential of its industrial production while at the same time regarding America as a mongrel nation controlled by Jews and plutocrats. His Luftwaffe aid, Nicolaus von Below, believed that what he called “Hitler’s foreign-political dilettantism” would cost Germany in the long run. None of that mattered because by 1941 Hitler believed that America’s aid to Great Britain and the Soviet Union already constituted a state of war with the United States.

The Japanese attack on the United States created a genuine World War but it also raised serious questions for all the major participants. For Great Britain, the attack might lead the United States to concentrate on the war in the Pacific thus costing them valuable aid that they drew from America’s Lend Lease program. Stalin was relieved that the Japanese did not attack him in the East so he could concentrate all resources in defending the Soviet Union from the Germans. President Roosevelt’s concern was that the attack had so aroused anger at the Japanese that public opinion would force him to place America’s main effort on the Pacific theatre. He was hopeful that Hitler would solve this problem for him by declaring war on the United States and was relieved when he did so.

Although ignorant of the Japanese attack, Hitler also was elated. He believed that Germany would be victorious because as he said he now had an ally who had never lost a war. He also believed that American anger at Japan would lead them to concentrate their main effort in the Pacific.

Simms and Laderman follow the arguments on this topic in detail. In the process, they highlight how complex the events of the four days leading up to Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States were. They note how the Americans and the British seriously underestimated the Japanese,with racism playing a key part. Churchill had a low opinion of the Japanese, calling them “the wops of the Far East,” a view he would soon come to regret after the Japanese sinking of two of England’s best warships, Repulse and Prince of Wales, just three days after Pearl Harbor and the Japanese conquest of Singapore two months later.

Racism showed up in America’s reaction to the Japanese attack. Some American observers believed that the Japanese were short of stature with poor eyesight and thus incapable of undertaking such a complex attack on Pearl Harbor. Some high level American and British military and political figures even believed that German pilots, not Japanese, led the attack on the Hawaiian Islands. Many people in America and Great Britain believed that Hitler had ordered the Japanese attack on the United States.

Race even entered Japanese thinking. Some political and military figures feared that Germany might enter the war on the side of the United States in defense of the white race, an argument the well-known British historian A.J.P. Taylor makes in the Oxford History of England volume, England 1914-1945.

A major point that Simms and Laderman make is that the issue of the destruction of the Jewish community in Europe somehow was linked to Hitler’s policy toward the United States. The murder of Jews in the East began with the attack on Poland and intensified following the German invasion of the Soviet Union. But the authors argue the Jews of Western and Central Europe were held hostage by Hitler as a way of constraining Roosevelt’s actions during the early stages of the war. However, they admit that there was no evidence that the situation was understood in that light in America.

The authors insist that Pearl Harbor did not put an end to isolationism in America. There was strong sentiment in isolationist circles to concentrate on Japan and limit aid to Britain and the Soviet Union. Hitler’s declaration of war, the authors argue, undermined the isolationist case once and for all.

Simms and Laderman’s study is clearly written and shows a broad grasp of the diplomatic complexities of the Pearl Harbor crisis. The volume is well documented with over eighty pages of footnotes. There is unfortunately no bibliography, but an examination of the footnotes reveals a mastery of the key sources for the Pearl Harbor crisis. One may quibble over a few minor mistakes and a couple of exaggerations (i.e. Harold Nicolson was not a Conservative MP but a member of the National Labor Party). But despite these criticisms, Simms and Laderman have written the definitive study of the four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

John Rossi is Professor Emeritus of History at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

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