Fateful Choices: Japan, Germany, USA

Fateful Choices: Japan, Germany, USA

Updat­ed 20 Jan­u­ary 2015.

A recent arti­cle sug­gests that Japan’s deci­sion to sur­ren­der in 1945 was by no means unan­i­mous. A few years ago, Ian Ker­shaw said the same thing about Japan’s deci­sion to go to war in the first place….

“What a sto­ry! Think of all these people—decent, edu­cat­ed, the sto­ry of the past laid out before them—What to avoid—what to do etc.—patriotic, loy­al, clean—trying their utmost—What a ghast­ly mud­dle they made of it! Unteach­able from infan­cy to tomb—There is the first and main char­ac­ter­is­tic of mankind.”

—Churchill to Lord Beaver­brook, 21 May 1928.

bacKershawFate­ful Choic­es: Ten Deci­sions that Changed the World, 1940-1941, by Ian Ker­shaw. New York: Pen­guin, 600 pp., $35.


Ian Ker­shaw, whose two-vol­ume biog­ra­phy of Hitler is high­ly acclaimed, has writ­ten a fas­ci­nat­ing book on what Churchill might call the “ten cli­mac­ter­ics” of World War II: Britain’s deci­sion to fight on in May 1940; Mussolini’s deci­sion to attack Greece; Stalin’s deci­sion to trust Hitler; Japan’s deci­sions to expand south­ward and to go to war with the Unit­ed States; Roosevelt’s deci­sions to help Britain and to wage unde­clared war against Ger­many; Hitler’s deci­sions to attack Rus­sia, to declare war on the USA and to com­mit geno­cide.

The most grip­ping chap­ters are those that explain the inex­plic­a­ble: Japan’s deci­sion to go to war with the Unit­ed States, a war both the Emper­or and Prime Min­is­ter expect­ed they would prob­a­bly lose; and Hitler’s deci­sion, four days after Pearl Har­bor, to declare war on the Unit­ed States: an ene­my he could not strike at, but which could soon strike at him.

Ker­shaw offers a revi­sion­ist view of Hide­ki Tojo, the Army chief turned Prime Min­is­ter, often cast as a blood­thirsty aggres­sor. Though a hard-lin­er as head of the Army, once become Prime Min­is­ter in Octo­ber 1941, Tojo want­ed an accom­mo­da­tion as much as the Emper­or (maybe because of the Emper­or, whom he wor­shipped as divine).

By send­ing a high-lev­el diplo­mat, Saburo Kurusu, to sup­port Ambass­sador Kichis­aburō Nomu­ra in Wash­ing­ton, Tojo and his for­eign min­is­ter, Shigenori Togo, sig­nalled a seri­ous desire for  a set­tle­ment with the Amer­i­cans. (After Japan’s Tri­par­tite Pact with Ger­many and Italy in Sep­tem­ber 1940, Roo­sevelt had embar­goed iron and scrap met­al; with Japan’s inva­sion of Indo-Chi­na in July 1941, FDR froze Japan­ese assets in the U.S. and embar­goed oil shipments—in those days the USA was a net oil exporter.)

I had no deep prej­u­dices toward Cordell Hull until I read this book, but Ker­shaw paints Roosevelt’s Sec­re­tary of State the way Churchill alleged­ly paint­ed John Fos­ter Dulles: “He is the only bull I know who car­ries his chi­na shop with him.”

As the clock ticked in late 1941, Hull frus­trat­ed nego­ti­a­tions at every turn. He right­ly reject­ed the Japan­ese “Plan A,” amount­ing basi­cal­ly to let­ting Japan run amok in East Asia. Then he seemed to accept, but final­ly reject­ed, “Plan B,” which offered a pull­back of Japan­ese forces from Indo-Chi­na and an agree­ment to vacate Chi­na “at an agreed future date.”

Nor was Roo­sevelt con­sis­tent: “While Hull and the State Depart­ment damp­ened prospects of an accom­mo­da­tion, the Pres­i­dent him­self appeared still open to the pos­si­b­li­ty of one” (367). In his vac­il­lat­ing, don’t-tell-them-everything-you’re-thinking approach, he ran hot and cold on request­ed meet­ings with Japan’s for­eign min­is­ter or Emper­or. First FDR would hint that he want­ed a “modus viven­di”; then he would play hard­ball, refus­ing to con­sid­er any terms by which he would nor­mal­ize rela­tions.

Final­ly Hull, with­out con­sult­ing either the mil­i­tary or unof­fi­cial allies like Britain (which might have had some use­ful warn­ings about pil­ing up new ene­mies) replied with his “Ten Points,” includ­ing all pre­vi­ous demands and some new ones. In exchange for nor­mal­ized rela­tions Japan was required “to with­draw from Chi­na and Indo-Chi­na, renounce her extrater­ri­to­r­i­al rights and con­ces­sions dat­ing back to the turn of the cen­tu­ry, fol­low­ing the Box­er Rebel­lion, to rec­og­nize no oth­er Chi­nese gov­ern­ment but that of Chi­ang Kai-shek, and effec­tive­ly to abro­gate the Tri­par­tite Pact” with Ger­many and Italy (369). Those were terms no Japan­ese gov­ern­ment could accept. Worse, Hull was unclear as to whether he also demand­ed Japan’s exit from Manchuria, where it had estab­lished the pup­pet state of Manchukuo in 1931. In fact he did not—but he didn’t both­er to make this clear.

Too late FDR real­ized, “this means war”; he did not know Pearl Har­bor would be a tar­get, but he must have known he had backed Japan into a cor­ner. Call me a cyn­ic and you’ll be right: but if a mod­ern Pres­i­dent and his Sec­re­tary of State had han­dled the Ira­ni­ans like Roo­sevelt and Hull han­dled the Japan­ese, and end­ed up get­ting bombed for their pains, there would be a full-scale out­cry and a Con­gres­sion­al inves­ti­ga­tion.

* * *

Ker­shaw also fas­ci­nates on Hitler’s deci­sion to declare war on Amer­i­ca four days after Pearl Harbor—one of the most inex­plic­a­ble acts of the war. Care­ful­ly he reviews Hitler’s pro­nounce­ments and thoughts on the “Amer­i­can Union” from his ear­li­est speech­es in 1919. He con­cludes that the West­ern Hemi­sphere nev­er seri­ous­ly fig­ured in Hitler’s plans (despite the now-famous forgery of a Ger­man map carv­ing up South America)—except as some long-dis­tant final con­fronta­tion which might have to be under­tak­en by a sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of Nazis.

Hitler thought the “Euro­pean arma­ments indus­try was greater than the Amer­i­can. He had expe­ri­enced Amer­i­can sol­diers in the First World War [and believed] the Ger­mans were far supe­ri­or” (405). But longer term, he real­ized that Ger­many was on bor­rowed time. He knew when he invad­ed Rus­sia that he must win quick­ly, com­pel Stalin’s sur­ren­der, and then turn on Britain with his full forces. By 1943, Hitler said, the mighty engine of Amer­i­can indus­try would be engaged on behalf of Britain and the Sovi­ets, and any hope in Ger­many for Euro­pean mas­tery would be end­ed. Thus the Fuehrer warned his trig­ger-hap­py naval chief, Admi­ral Raed­er, to avoid provo­ca­tions in the Atlantic, even after Roo­sevelt had occu­pied Ice­land and expand­ed the Atlantic secu­ri­ty zone far to the east.

Why then did Hitler declare war after Pearl Har­bor? Log­ic did not play much of a part. The Tri­par­tite Pact (Hitler’s stat­ed rea­son) required Ger­many to declare war only if Japan had been attacked. The idea that he went to war to “ful­fill a com­mit­ment” to Japan seems far-fetched. (When did Hitler hon­or any com­mit­ments?) So infu­ri­at­ed were the Amer­i­cans over Pearl Har­bor that absent a Ger­man dec­la­ra­tion, Roo­sevelt might not have asked for (or if he asked might not have obtained) a U.S. dec­la­ra­tion of war on Ger­many. Churchill’s rush vis­it to Wash­ing­ton after Pearl Har­bor was pred­i­cat­ed on his anx­i­ety that Amer­i­ca should adopt a pol­i­cy of “Ger­many first.”

In declar­ing war, Hitler took lit­tle mil­i­tary advice oth­er than that of Raed­er, and even the Navy chief admit­ted that in Decem­ber 1941 not one U-boat was any­where near the Unit­ed States. Aston­ish­ment at the move was expressed even by syco­phants like Goebbels, and many expe­ri­enced sol­diers pri­vate­ly (very pri­vate­ly) con­fessed they saw doom in Hitler’s act (383).

Why did Hitler do it? The answer, it seems, was a “shrug.” Hitler knew that soon­er or lat­er Ger­many would have to con­front the Amer­i­cans. Why not now? That was all it amount­ed to: a shrug. It proved fatal.

Despite his dis­dain of the Amer­i­cans, Ker­shaw notes, Hitler by autumn 1941 had “con­tem­plat­ed for the first time the pos­si­bil­i­ty of defeat,” say­ing “that if in the end the Ger­man peo­ple should not prove strong enough, then Ger­many deserved to go under and be destroyed by the stronger pow­er.” (This reminds us of Hitler’s “scorched earth” orders to Speer as the Rus­sians advanced on Berlin in 1945.) Ker­shaw sees Hitler’s war dec­la­ra­tion as reveal­ing: “Beneath the veneer, Hitler seems to have rec­og­nized that his chances of total vic­to­ry had by now all but evaporated…It was a char­ac­ter­is­tic attempt to wrest back the ini­tia­tive through a bold move. But for the first time it was a move doomed from the very out­set to fail­ure” (430).

7 December 1941. Japanese Caption: "Full view of Ford Island gasping under the attack of our Sea Eagles. This distant view of Ford Island immediately after the attack of our assault force shows the enemy capital ships lined up on the opposite side of the Island. in the foreground is the cruiser fleet, including the battleship UTAH. The enemy ships around the island have all become tempting targets for our Sea Eagles. In the upper right clearly appear the outlines of two of our Sea Eagles who are carrying out a daring low-level attack, reminiscent of the performance of the Gods." (Wikimedia Commons)
The attack on Pearl Har­bor, 7 Decem­ber 1941. The cap­tion of this cap­tured Japan­ese pho­to­graph reads: “Full view of Ford Island gasp­ing under the attack of our Sea Eagles…reminiscent of the per­for­mance of the Gods.” (Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

* * *

“What a sto­ry!” Japan is of two minds about going to war. The Unit­ed States is also of two minds—or is she? Between Roo­sevelt and Hull, it is hard to tell. Emper­or Hiro­hi­to and his entire cab­i­net believe that if they go to war, they will prob­a­bly lose. So…to war they go!

Hitler through Decem­ber 1941 prac­tices unchar­ac­ter­is­tic restraint in not pro­vok­ing the Amer­i­cans, know­ing cor­rect­ly that he can­not afford such a mighty ene­my until the Rus­sians are sub­dued. He knows if Amer­i­ca gets involved, Ger­many will prob­a­bly lose. So…to war he goes!

Fate­ful Choic­es is an reveal­ing com­men­tary on the occa­sion­al (one hopes) irra­tional­i­ty of high-lev­el deci­sion­mak­ing: a book which ought to be read by our lead­ers (present and future), before they do some­thing stu­pid. Again. 

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