December 1941 by historian Evan Mawdsley is an account of twelve days when interlinked events—including the Battle of Moscow, the Pearl Harbor raid and Hitler’s declaration of war on America—decided the outcome of a war and changed the course of a century. In a new three-part series on this blog, the author presents a Countdown to Global War, talking us through the key events leading up to the pivotal events of December 1941. Today he recounts the formation of the Tōjō government in Tokyo, which happened 70 years ago today.
Article by Evan Mawdsley
Fast approaching is the seventieth anniversary of the start of the first genuine ‘world’ war- in December 2011. On 7 December 1941 regional conflicts burning in Asia and Europe merged into a global conflagration, with enormous effects on the remainder of the century. Japan attacked Britain and the United States in Asia, and Germany and Italy declared war on the USA. Seventy years ago was also the decisive moment of the ‘European’ war. Hitler’s all-conquering Wehrmacht suffered its first major defeat, when the Red Army drove it back from the gates of Moscow. The Blitzkrieg era was over, and the USSR began to emerge as a super-power.
The period of mid October 1941 was an essential step both to the opening of the Pacific war and to the turn of the tide at Moscow; it was a time of political change in Japan and a low point of Russian fortunes. On Saturday, 18 October – seven weeks before the Japanese surprise attacks in Malaya and Hawaii – a new cabinet was formed in Tokyo. The government of Prince Konoe had resigned two days earlier; replacing Konoe as the Emperor’s Prime Minister was now General Tōjō Hideki, formerly the War Minister.
Prince Konoe’s resignation on the 16th had coincided with dramatic events in Russia: on that day Moscow was put under martial law. The diplomatic corps had evacuated Stalin’s capital the day before, ordered to make for the relative safety of Kuibyshev, 540 miles to the east on the Volga River. Most of the Soviet government apparatus left for the east at the same time. The cause of this unprecedented crisis was the advance march of the German Army, which two weeks earlier had launched a surprise attack towards Moscow, Operation ‘Typhoon’. The line of Soviet armies covering the western approaches to the capital had been destroyed or trapped in the following two weeks, in the Battle of Viaz’ma-Briansk. As many as a million Soviet soldiers were killed or taken prisoner. At a news conference on 9 October the Reich Press Chief went so far as to announce victory in the Russian war; the Nazi party newspaper carried a headline announcing ‘The Military End of Bolshevism’.
Leaders in London and Washington had to consider what to make of this conjunction of events, the terrible Russian defeats and the appearance of a new army-dominated Japanese government. The Konoe cabinet had followed an increasingly aggressive policy, but at least it had been civilian-led and had attempted diplomatic negotiations. The governments in London and Washington correctly understood that the arrival of an ‘extremist’ cabinet under Tōjō was potentially even more dangerous. But for them it was not British or American interests in the Far East that were under threat; the danger was that Tokyo might follow the path of least resistance and invade the USSR. On Churchill’s personal initiative a task force – including the new battleship Prince of Wales – was ordered to the Pacific, in the hope that its presence would deter the Japanese from moving against Russia. The United States, for its part, accelerated the movement of heavy bombers to the Philippines.
In reality Washington and London faced a much more direct threat. While the politicians and diplomats in Tokyo pondered various solutions to their impasse with the West the Japanese armed force had moved independently and determined towards war. Imperial General Headquarters had spent months preparing and testing, in ‘map manoeuvres’, an assault on the possessions of the British, the Americans and the Dutch; this was to be known as the ‘Southern Operation’. The coming to power of General Tōjō ended any reservations at the highest level. The Japanese government, after months of wavering on the edge of armed confrontation, would in the next few weeks take the decision to plunge their country headlong into war with the wealthiest world powers.
Even before those decisions, the date of 18 October was already a momentous one for Japanese war planning. On that day a staff officer arrived at naval headquarters in Tokyo with an ultimatum from the C-in-C of the main sea-going command, the ‘Combined Fleet’. Admiral Yamamoto demanded that war with the Western powers, if and when it came, would open with a high-risk attack on the US Fleet at Pearl Harbor. This ‘Hawaiian Operation’ was to go ahead as planned by the Combined Fleet staff, with no diversion of aircraft-carrier strength to support the ‘Southern Operation’. If this demand were not met Yamamoto and his staff would resign. Given this threat, and the fall of the Konoe cabinet two days before, the naval authorities saw no choice but to agree.
If Japan was to fight the Western powers the war would open with a mass surprise attack on American soil.
Evan Mawdsley is honorary professorial research fellow, School of Humanities, University of Glasgow. His many books include World War II: A New History; Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet Struggle, 1941-1945; and The Russian Civil War. He lives in Glasgow.
His latest book, December 1941, is available now from Yale University Press.