In the fourth part in our series Countdown to Global War, Evan Mawdsley, author of December 1941 discusses the pivotal events which took place seventy years ago today. Mawdsley puts the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in global context, focusing on crucial events in Asia and Europe that also took place surrounding December 7, the ‘Day of Infamy’.
Article by Evan Mawdsley
One of the most dramatic moments in American history occurred seventy years ago today. While diplomats were still negotiating in Washington, without a Japanese declaration of war, an aircraft-carrier fleet appeared out of the empty North Pacific and dealt a terrible blow to American forces at Hawaii. Most of the battleships of the US Pacific Fleet were put out of action, many warplanes were destroyed on the ground, and thousands of American sailors and soldiers were killed. On the following day, in a short speech to Congress requesting a declaration of war on Japan, President Roosevelt described 7 December as a ‘date of infamy’.
‘Pearl Harbor’ was not just an American event, nor was it the key development that occurred at the end of the first week of December 1941; the attack needs to be seen in a global context. The raid did indeed bring the US into World War II, but the Japanese navy had no interest in Hawaii, and its forces would never return there. Three other happenings of vital importance occurred over a four-day period. Two occurred before the Pearl Harbor attack, and one afterwards: the beginning of the German defeat at Moscow (6 December), the Japanese attack on the British Empire in Malaya (7 December), and Adolf Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States (11 December).
The attack on the British in Malaya was closer to the heart of Japanese policy than Pearl Harbor. It actually began about thirty minutes earlier, when transport ships landed a Japanese regiment at Kota Bahru in northern Malaya, its task to neutralise the RAF base there. Two or three hours later a larger body of Japanese troops began to come ashore in the southern part of neutral Thailand, which was to be the jumping-off point for the main offensive, down the west coast of Malaya. The ‘Hawaiian operation’ was part of vast pan-Pacific campaign, its intention being to prevent the US Navy from interfering with the Japanese advance into Southeast Asia, the so-called ‘Southern operation’. The long-term impact of that advance, the fall of Singapore and the collapse of the British and Dutch empires in Asia, was of global significance.
The link between General Zhukov’s counter-attack at Moscow and the Pearl Harbor is less clear, although the two events occurred over the same weekend. The Japanese effectively decided in October 1941 to launch their ‘Southern operation’. This was a time when the USSR seemed near defeat, with little likelihood that the Red Army could pose a future threat to Japan in the north. It was by chance that the pivotal battle on the Russian front began virtually at the same moment the Japanese were mounting their strikes against Malaya and Hawaii. Whatever the circumstances, the German defeat would be at least as significant as Pearl Harbor. Moscow would be the first major setback of the Wehrmacht, a battle that marked the failure of Hitler’s plans to knock Russia out of the war quickly in a Blitzkrieg campaign. Germany could not win a protracted war; the Red Army would survive, and it would eventually break the back of the Wehrmacht.
Hitler’s declaration of war on the US was in one sense a straightforward response to the attack by Japan, to which Germany and Italy were linked by the Tripartite Pact of September 1940. Hitler was, however, no believer in the sanctity of treaties, and the pact did not oblige Germany go to war if Japan attacked the US, rather than vice versa. One element in the Führer’s momentous decision may well have been developments on the Russian Front. The evidence is that Hitler, by the end of November, had accepted that Germany would join in if Japan became involved in a war with America under any circumstances. Foreign Minister Ribbentrop told the Japanese ambassador as much on the 28th, and he would not have done so without the Führer’s approval.
On the evening of 4 December, after the Japanese had secretly revealed that war was likely in the near future, Hitler approved giving full support to this offensive against Britain and America. At this point – two days before Zhukov’s attack – there was no evidence at German military headquarters that there was a major threat in Russia. Even on 11 December, when Hitler made his speech to the Reichstag announcing war with America, the position in front of Moscow was not yet perceived as disastrous (although it would be seen as such before another week had passed). What is true is that Hitler was already, in November, gravely embarrassed by the failure to end the Russian war in the 1941 campaigning season. The declaration of war on Japan was a way for him, and for the Axis as a whole, to regain the initiative.
However, by linking Germany to Japan’s perfidious attack he unified the American population behind a global war not just with Japan, but also with the Third Reich.
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.