By Stephen Frater
Four days after Pearl Harbor, in arguably the most insane and pivotal decision in history, Adolf Hitler needlessly declared war on the United States.
December 7, 1941, a distracted Hitler was at “Wolf’s Lair” his gloomy, dank Eastern Front field headquarters in Prussia, absorbing the reality that his Russian campaign, launched with stunning success and fanfare less than six months earlier, had permanently stalled within sight of Moscow, a mere five miles from the Kremlin’s Onion Domes—on December 2.
German soldiers lacked winter clothing and equipment since Hitler had promised a quick summer and early autumn victory over the Red Army. The temperature on the Eastern Front plummeted to thirty degrees below zero. Hitler’s tanks and trucks were immobilized by snow and motor oil as thick as caramel. Hundreds of thousands of “lucky” Axis soldiers were debilitated by frostbite requiring drastic amputations, while others simply froze to death.
For Hitler, the unthinkable had happened; the hitherto-unstoppable Wehrmacht had for the first time, been turned back from a strategic objective while suffering three-quarters of a million casualties at the hands of “General Winter,” the local nickname for Russia’s ultimate protector since the time of Napoleon.
Hitler had received no advance notice from the Japanese about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although he and his Foreign Minister Ribbentrop had verbally indicated a willingness to join Japan in war against America however it broke out, Hitler had absolutely no formal treaty obligation to declare war on the United States. Such a treaty had in fact been drafted and circulated in the weeks prior to Pearl Harbor, but it remained unsigned. Not that a treaty with Hitler was worth the paper it was written on, as former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Josef Stalin had already discovered.
The news about the Eastern Front disaster pouring into the Wolf’s Lair that Pearl Harbor Sunday was catastrophic and the German people had yet to be informed that their Fuehrer had grossly miscalculated with the lives of their sons, brothers and fathers, who were dying like flies.
In Washington, Roosevelt faced a dilemma. American fury was focused on Japan, not Germany. The nation, finally shaken from its isolationist torpor, was instantly united and longed to avenge the Japanese sneak attack in the Pacific.
Roosevelt, unlike the vast majority of his countrymen, had seen from the outset that Western democracy and Hitler’s Third Reich were destined to be mortal enemies. Yet polls taken in July 1940, ten months after WWII began in Europe, showed only eight percent of Americans supported war against Germany; in the weeks prior to Pearl Harbor, another poll confirmed what Roosevelt already knew; almost three- quarters of Americans remained opposed to another war with Germany. The nation of immigrants, with German-Americans representing a full fifth of the population, hoped and prayed they’d left thorny Old World rivalries and grudges behind, and were focused on surviving the Great Depression and someday securing their personal patch of grass in the vast fields of opportunity that America offered.
Since the European war erupted over two years before, when Hitler invaded Poland in September of 1939, Roosevelt had been forced to resort to blatant yet, in retrospect, forgivable and essential lies about the United States’ likely entry into the war against Hitler, so as to secure his unprecedented third term in 1940.
Hitler, whom FDR loathed, had to be crushed at any and all costs, especially since the Reich, having absorbed most of France and Scandinavia, along with the Low Countries, then had a total population greater than that of the United States. For FDR, wiping the amoral blemish of Nazism off the face of the globe was the imperative trumping all others, despite the humiliation inflicted by the Japanese.
FDR, the genial handicapped aristocrat with the common touch, the Hudson Valley gentleman farmer, the Wall Street lawyer, bon vivant and stamp collector, knew his country’s industrial capacities were all that stood between freedom and global fascist tyranny. His political and military foes underestimated him to their mortal peril. In addition to steel leg braces, he also had a steely will and spine. Most of all, FDR possessed a well cloaked guile; the treacherous cunning and skillful deceit of a seasoned, ruthless street fighter which he disguised to his advantage.
Yet, due to Hitler’s sheer madness and strategic incompetence compared to heavyweights Roosevelt, Churchill and even Stalin, “Roosevelt need not have worried that it would require further ingenuity on his part to go to war directly with Germany,” observed Conrad Black in his magisterial 2003 biography of FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion Of Freedom.
Hitler foolishly believed that the Japanese attack on America, and on British possessions in the Far East, would divert Allied military assets from the European Theater, which it may have done to some greater degree, if he had either kept his mouth shut or at least demanded Japan attack the Soviet Union in return for his declaration of war on America. He did neither, but rather was delighted that the unexpected news of the attack would divert unwelcome attention from the running sore that the Eastern Front had become.
In a speech to the Reichstag, planned for December 10, but delayed for a day while German and Italian Embassies inWashingtonburned their cables in preparation for war, he hastily added “a diatribe against Roosevelt, and a declaration of war on theUnited States.”
In Hitler’s frenzied and deranged address, he claimed Roosevelt was “’the main culprit of this war,’ and that he was a stooge for the ‘entire satanic insidiousness’ and ‘diabolical evil’ of the Jews.’”
In his megalomania, on December 11, 1941, Hitler handed the paralyzed Roosevelt the greatest of all gifts, the freedom to move, and to fight in Europe. Although Roosevelt was physically immobilized by polio and had been nearly politically immobilized by widespread isolationist tendencies compounded by economic malaise at home, he was never paralyzed, blinkered, or bluffed by Hitler and thanks to the towering ineptitude and miscalculation of the Fuehrer, Roosevelt now had the will, the means and finally the ability, to eliminate Nazism and with it all traces of Hitler, root and branch, across the globe.
Perhaps the sublime irony of Hitler’s titanic miscalculation in declaring war on the United States following Pearl Harbor was that although Japan attacked America first, Hitler’s political and personal destruction became the over-arching priority for the Allies once total war was unleashed by the Fuehrer.
While Germany’s mad-dog head of state would lie dead, a suicide, in the rubble of his Berlin Chancellery within 41 months of Pearl Harbor, Japan’s head of state, Emperor Hirohito, would die serenely on the grounds of his untouched Tokyo palace, exactly 47 years and one month to the day after Pearl Harbor on January 7, 1989.
STEPHEN FRATER is a former New York Times Regional Media Group staff writer and columnist, author of Hell Above Earth: The Incredible True Story of an American WWII Bomber Commander and the Copilot Ordered to Kill Him, and Writer in Residence at the University of Rhode Island. For more information about Stephen Frater and his work, visit his web site, www.stephenfrater.com.