Military history

25. THE TURN OF THE UNITED STATES

ADOLF HITLER’S reckless promise to Japan had been made during a series of talks in Berlin with Yosuke Matsuoka, the pro-Axis Japanese Foreign Minister, in the spring of 1941 just before the German attack on Russia. The captured German minutes of the meetings enable us to trace the development of another one of Hitler’s monumental miscalculations. They and other Nazi documents of the period show the Fuehrer too ignorant, Goering too arrogant and Ribbentrop too stupid to comprehend the potential military strength of the United States—a blunder which had been made in Germany during the First World War by Wilhelm II, Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

There was a basic contradiction from the beginning in Hitler’s policy toward America. Though he had only contempt for her military prowess he endeavored during the first two years of the conflict to keep her out of the war. This, as we have seen, was the main task of the German Embassy in Washington, which went to great lengths, including the bribing of Congressmen, attempting to subsidize writers and aiding the America First Committee, to support the American isolationists and thus help to keep America from joining Germany’s enemies in the war.

That the United States, as long as it was led by President Roosevelt, stood in the way of Hitler’s grandiose plans for world conquest and the dividing up of the planet among the Tripartite powers the Nazi dictator fully understood, as his various private utterances make clear. The American Republic, he saw, would have to be dealt with eventually and, as he said, “severely.” But one nation at a time. That had been the secret of his successful strategy thus far. The turn of America would come, but only after Great Britain and the Soviet Union had been struck down. Then, with the aid of Japan and Italy, he would deal with the upstart Americans, who, isolated and alone, would easily succumb to the power of the victorious Axis.

Japan was the key to Hitler’s efforts to keep America out of the war until Germany was ready to take her on. Japan, as Ribbentrop pointed out to Mussolini on March 11, 1940, possessed the counterweight to the United States which would prevent the Americans from trying to intervene in Europe against Germany as they had in the first war.1

In their wartime dealings with the Japanese, Hitler and Ribbentrop at first stressed the importance of not provoking the United States to abandon her neutrality. By the beginning of 1941 they were exceedingly anxious to draw Japan into the war, not against America, not even against Russia, which they were shortly to attack, but against Britain, which had refused to give in even when apparently beaten. Early in 1941 German pressure on Japan was stepped up. On February 23, Ribbentrop received at his stolen estate at Fuschl, near Salzburg, the fiery and hot-tempered Japanese ambassador, General Hiroshi Oshima, who had often impressed this observer as more Nazi than the Nazis. Though the war, Ribbentrop told his guest, was already won, Japan should come in “as soon as possible—in its own interest,” and seize Britain’s empire in Asia.

A surprise intervention by Japan [he continued] was bound to keep America out of the war. America, which at present is not armed and would hesitate to expose her Navy to any risks west of Hawaii, could do this even less in such a case. If Japan would otherwise respect the American interests, there would not even be the possibility for Roosevelt to use the argument of lost prestige to make war plausible to the Americans. It was very unlikely that America would declare war if it had to stand by while Japan took the Philippines.

But even if the United States did get involved, Ribbentrop declared, “this would not endanger the final victory of the countries of the Three-Power Pact.” The Japanese fleet would easily defeat the American fleet and the war would be brought rapidly to an end with the fall of both Britain and America. This was heady stuff for the fire-eating Japanese envoy and Ribbentrop poured it on. He advised the Japanese to be firm and “use plain language” in their current negotiations in Washington.

Only if the U.S. realized that they were confronting firm determination would they hold back. The people in the U.S…. were not willing to sacrifice their sons, and therefore were against any entry into the war. The American people felt instinctively that they were being drawn into war for no reason by Roosevelt and the Jewish wire-pullers. Therefore our policies with the U.S. should be plain and firm …

The Nazi Foreign Minister had one warning to give, the one that had failed so dismally with Franco.

If Germany should ever weaken, Japan would find itself confronted by a world coalition within a short time. We were all in the same boat. The fate of both countries was being determined now for centuries to come … A defeat of Germany would also mean the end of the Japanese imperialist idea.2

To acquaint his military commanders and the top men in the Foreign Office with his new Japanese policy, Hitler issued on March 5, 1941, a top-secret directive entitled “Basic Order No. 24 Regarding Collaboration with Japan.”3

It must be the aim of the collaboration based on the Three-Power Pact to induce Japan as soon as possible to take active measures in the Far East. Strong British forces will thereby be tied down, and the center of gravity of the interests of the United States will be diverted to thePacific …

The common aim of the conduct of war is to be stressed as forcing England to her knees quickly and thereby keeping the United States out of the war.

The seizure of Singapore as the key British position in the Far East would mean a decisive success for the entire conduct of war of the Three Powers.*

Hitler also urged the Japanese seizure of other British naval bases and even American bases “if the entry of the United States into the war cannot be prevented.” He concluded by ordering that “the Japanese must not be given any intimation of the Barbarossa operation.” The Japanese ally, like the Italian ally, was to be used to further German ambitions, but neither government would be taken into the Fuehrer’s confidence regarding his intention to attack Russia.

A fortnight later, on March 18, at a conference with Hitler, Keitel and Jodl, Admiral Raeder strongly urged that Japan be pressed to attack Singapore. The opportunity would never again be so favorable, Raeder explained, what with “the whole English fleet contained, the unpreparedness of the U.S.A. for war against Japan and the inferiority of the U.S. fleet compared to the Japanese.” The capture of Singapore, the Admiral said, would “solve all the other Asiatic questions regarding the U.S.A. and England” and would of course enable Japan to avoid war with America, if she wished. There was only one hitch, the Admiral opined, and mention of it must have made Hitler frown. According to naval intelligence, Raeder warned, Japan would move against the British in Southeast Asia only “if Germany proceeds to land in England.” There is no record in the Navy minutes of this meeting indicating what reply Hitler made to this remark. Raeder certainly knew that the Supreme Commander had neither plans nor hopes for a landing in England this year. Raeder said something else that the Fuehrer did not respond to. He “recommended” that Matsuoka “be advised regarding the designs on Russia.”4

The Japanese Foreign Minister was now on his way to Berlin via Siberia and Moscow, uttering bellicose pro-Axis statements, as Secretary of State Hull put it, along the route. His arrival in the German capital on March 26 came at an awkward moment for Hitler, for that night the pro-German Yugoslav government was overthrown in the Belgrade coup and the Fuehrer was so busy improvising plans to crush the obstreperous Balkan country that he had to postpone seeing the Japanese visitor until the afternoon of the twenty-seventh.

Ribbentrop saw him in the morning, playing over, so to speak, the old gramophone records reserved for such guests on such occasions, though managing to be even more fatuous than usual and not allowing the dapper little Matsuoka to get in a word. The lengthy confidential minutes drawn up by Dr. Schmidt (and now among the captured Foreign Office papers) leave no doubt of that.5 “The war has already been definitely won by the Axis,” Ribbentrop announced, “and it is only a question of time before England admits it.” In the next breath he was urging a “quick attack uponSingapore” because it would be “a very decisive factor in the speedy overthrow of England.” In the face of such a contradiction the diminutive Japanese visitor did not bat an eye. “He sat there inscrutably,” Schmidt later remembered, “in no way revealing how these curious remarks impressed him.”6

As to America—

There was no doubt [Ribbentrop said] that the British would long since have abandoned the war if Roosevelt had not always given Churchill new hope … The Three-Power Pact had above all had the goal of frightening America … and of keeping it out of the war … America had to be prevented by all possible means from taking an active part in the war and from making its aid to England too effective … The capture of Singapore would perhaps be most likely to keep America out of the war because the United States could scarcely risk sending its fleet into Japanese waters … Roosevelt would be in a very difficult position …

Though Hitler had laid it down that Matsuoka must not be told about the impending German attack on Russia—a necessary precaution to keep the news from leaking out, but nevertheless, as we shall see, one that would have disastrous consequences for Germany—Ribbentrop did drop several broad hints. Relations with the Soviet Union, he told his visitor, were correct but not very friendly. Moreover, should Russia threaten Germany, “the Fuehrer would crush Russia.” The Fuehrer was convinced, he added, that if it came to war “there would be in a few months no more Russia.”

Matsuoka, says Schmidt, blinked at this and looked alarmed, whereupon Ribbentrop hastened to assure him that he did not believe that “Stalin would pursue an unwise policy.” At this juncture, says Schmidt, Ribbentrop was called away by Hitler to discuss the Yugoslav crisis and failed even to return for the official lunch which he was supposed to tender the distinguished visitor.

In the afternoon Hitler, having determined to smash another country (Yugoslavia), worked on the Japanese Foreign Minister. “England has already lost the war,” he began. “It is only a matter of having the intelligence to admit it.” Still, the British were grasping at two straws: Russia and America. Toward the Soviet Union Hitler was more circumspect than Ribbentrop had been. He did not believe, he said, that the danger of a war with Russia would arise. After all, Germany had some 160 to 170 divisions “for defense against Russia.” As to the United States:

America was confronted by three possibilities: she could arm herself, she could assist England, or she could wage war on another front. If she helped England she could not arm herself. If she abandoned England the latter would be destroyed and America would then find herself fighting the powers of the Three-Power Pact alone. In no case, however, could America wage war on another front.

Therefore, the Fuehrer concluded, “never in the human imagination” could there be a better opportunity for the Japanese to strike in the Pacific than now. “Such a moment,” he said, laying it on as thickly as he could, “would never return. It was unique in history.” Matsuoka agreed, but reminded Hitler that unfortunately he “did not control Japan. At the moment he could make no pledge on behalf of the Japanese Empire that it would take action.”

But Hitler, being absolute dictator, could make a pledge and he made it to Japan—quite casually and without being asked to—on April 4, after Matsuoka had returned to Berlin from seeing Mussolini.* This second meeting took place on the eve of the Nazi attack on two more innocent countries, Yugoslavia and Greece, and the Fuehrer, thirsting for further easy conquests and for revenge on Belgrade, was in one of his warlike moods. While he considered war with the United States “undesirable,” he said, he had “already included it in his calculations.” But he did not think much of America’s military power.

Germany had made her preparations so that no American could land in Europe. Germany would wage a vigorous war against America with U-boats and the Luftwaffe, and with her greater experience … would be more than a match for America, entirely apart from the fact that German soldiers were, obviously, far superior to the Americans.

   This boast led him to make the fateful pledge. Schmidt recorded it in his minutes:

If Japan got into a conflict with the United States, Germany on her part would take the necessary steps at once.

From Schmidt’s notes it is evident that Matsuoka did not quite grasp the significance of what the Fuehrer was promising, so Hitler said it again.

Germany, as he had said, would promptly take part in case of a conflict between Japan and America.*

Hitler paid dearly not only for this assurance, so casually given, but for his deceit in not telling the Japanese about his intention to attack Russia as soon as the Balkans were occupied. Somewhat coyly Matsuoka had asked Ribbentrop during a talk on March 28 whether on his return trip he “should remain in Moscow in order to negotiate with the Russians on the Nonaggression Pact or the Treaty of Neutrality.” The dull-witted Nazi Foreign Minister had replied smugly that Matsuoka “if possible should not bring up the question in Moscow since it probably would not altogether fit into the framework of the present situation.” He did not quite grasp the significance of what was up. But by the next day it had penetrated his wooden mind and he began the conversations that day by referring to it. First of all he threw in, as casually as Hitler would do on April 4, a German guarantee that if Russia attacked Japan “Germany would strike immediately.” He wanted to give this assurance, he said, “so that Japan could push southward toward Singapore without fear of any complications with Russia.” When Matsuoka finally admitted that while in Moscow on his way to Berlin he himself had proposed a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union and hinted that the Russians were favorably inclined toward it, Ribbentrop’s mind again became somewhat of a blank. He merely advised that Matsuoka handle the problem in a “superficial way.”

But as soon as the Nipponese Foreign Minister was back in Moscow on his trip home, he signed a treaty of neutrality with Stalin which, as Ambassador von der Schulenburg, who foresaw its consequences, wired Berlin, provided for each country to remain neutral in case the other got involved in the war. This was one treaty—it was signed on April 13—which Japan honored to the very last despite subsequent German exhortations that she disregard it. For before the summer of 1941 was out the Nazis would be begging the Japanese to attack not Singapore or Manila butVladivostok!

At first, however, Hitler did not grasp the significance of the Russo–Japanese Neutrality Pact. On April 20 he told Admiral Raeder, who inquired about it, that it had been made “with Germany’s acquiescence” and that he welcomed it “because Japan is now restrained from taking action against Vladivostok and should be induced to attack Singapore instead.”*7 At this stage Hitler was confident Germany could destroy Russia during the summer. He did not want Japan to share in this mighty feat any more than he had desired that Italy should share in the conquest of France. And he was absolutely confident that Japanese help would not be needed. Ribbentrop, echoing his master’s thoughts, had told Matsuoka on March 29 that if Russia forced Germany “to strike” he would “consider it proper if the Japanese Army were prevented from attacking Russia.”

But the views of Hitler and Ribbentrop on this matter changed very suddenly and quite drastically scarcely three months later. Six days after the Nazi armies were flung into Russia, on June 28, 1941, Ribbentrop was cabling the German ambassador in Tokyo, General Eugen Ott, to do everything he could to get the Japanese to promptly attack Soviet Russia in the rear. Ott was advised to appeal to the Japanese appetite for spoils and also to argue that this was the best way of keeping America neutral.

It may be expected [Ribbentrop explained] that the rapid defeat of Soviet Russia—especially should Japan take action in the East—will prove the best argument to convince the United States of the utter futility of entering the war on the side of a Great Britain entirely isolated and confronted by the most powerful alliance in the world.8

Matsuoka was in favor of immediately turning on Russia, but his views were not accepted by the government in Tokyo, whose attitude seemed to be that if the Germans were rapidly defeating the Russians, as they claimed, they needed no help from the Japanese. However, Tokyo was not so sure about a lightning Nazi victory and this was the real reason for its stand.

But Ribbentrop persisted. On July 10, when the German offensive in Russia was really beginning to roll and even Halder, as we have seen, thought that victory already had been won, the Nazi Foreign Minister got off from his special train on the Eastern front a new and stronger cable to his ambassador in Tokyo.

Since Russia, as reported by the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, is in effect close to collapse … it is simply impossible that Japan does not solve the matter of Vladivostok and the Siberian area as soon as her military preparations are completed …

I ask you to employ all available means in further insisting upon Japan’s entry into the war against Russia at the soonest possible date … The sooner this entry is effected, the better it is. The natural objective still remains that we and Japan join hands on the Trans-Siberian railroad before winter starts.9

Such a giddy prospect did not turn the head of even the militaristic Japanese government. Four days later Ambassador Ott replied that he was doing his best to persuade the Japanese to attack Russia as soon as possible, that Matsuoka was all for it, but that he, Ott, had to fight against “great obstacles” in the Tokyo cabinet.10 As a matter of fact the fire-eating Matsuoka was soon forced out of the cabinet. With his departure, Germany lost, for the time being, its best friend, and though, as we shall see, closer relations were later restored between Berlin and Tokyo they never became close enough to convince the Japanese of the wisdom of helping Germany in the war against Russia. Once more Hitler had been bested at his own game by a wily ally.*

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