Fateful Choices, by Ian Kershaw: Japan, Germany, USA (updated 2019)

Fateful Choices, by Ian Kershaw: Japan, Germany, USA (updated 2019)

Fate­ful Choic­es: Ten Deci­sions that Changed the World, 1940-1941, by Ian Ker­shaw. New York: Pen­guin, 600 pp., $35. At a time when Churchill’s war lead­er­ship is vil­i­fied in lop­sided paeans to Roo­sevelt, Sir Ian’s clas­sic World War II study reminds us that FDR wasn’t per­fect either.

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

“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.


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 take on 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 in Europe.

Hull Reconsidered

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 Indochi­na, renounce extrater­ri­to­r­i­al rights and con­ces­sions dat­ing back to the turn of the cen­tu­ry, fol­low­ing the Box­er Rebel­lion, to rec­og­nize no 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. Also, 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 han­dled say Chi­na like Roo­sevelt and Hull han­dled the Japan­ese, and end­ed up get­ting into a war, there would be a full-scale outcry.

Hitler’s declaration of war

Ker­shaw care­ful­ly exam­ines Hitler’s deci­sion to declare war on Amer­i­ca four days after Pearl Har­bor. He reviews Hitler’s pro­nounce­ments and thoughts on the “Amer­i­can Union” from his ear­li­est speech­es. The West­ern Hemi­sphere nev­er seri­ous­ly fig­ured in Hitler’s plans (despite the now-famous British forgery of a Ger­man map carv­ing up South America).

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 fin­ish off Britain with his full forces. By 1943, Hitler said, America’s mighty engine of indus­try would be ful­ly engaged. 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, Ker­shaw argues, played no 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 com­mit­ments?) Pearl Har­bor infu­ri­at­ed the Amer­i­cans. Absent a Ger­man dec­la­ra­tion, Ker­shaw sug­gests, Con­gress might not have declared 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.” Roo­sevelt would have pre­ferred to put off that vis­it, lest Con­gress get the idea that Churchill was exert­ing undue influ­ence on Admin­is­tra­tion policy.

Explaining the inexplicable

In declar­ing war, Hitler took lit­tle mil­i­tary advice oth­er than that of Raed­er. Yet even the Navy chief admit­ted that in Decem­ber 1941 not one U-boat was any­where near the Unit­ed States. The Ger­man dec­la­ra­tion aston­ished even syco­phants like Goebbels. 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? 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…doomed from the very out­set to fail­ure” (430).

Irrational rationales

“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. He couldn’t afford such a mighty ene­my until the Rus­sians were sub­dued. If Amer­i­ca was involved, he sur­mised Ger­many would lose. Then…to war he goes.

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

See also: “Pearl Har­bor +75: All in the Same Boat. Still.”

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