Military history


The Japanese onslaught on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor at 7:30 A.M. (local time) on Sunday, December 7, 1941, caught Berlin as completely by surprise as it did Washington. Though Hitler had made an oral promise to Matsuoka that Germany would join Japan in a war against the United States and Ribbentrop had made another to Ambassador Oshima, the assurance had not yet been signed and the Japanese had not breathed a word to the Germans about Pearl Harbor.* Besides, at this moment, Hitler was fully occupied trying to rally his faltering generals and retreating troops in Russia.

Night had fallen in Berlin when the foreign-broadcast monitoring service first picked up the news of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. When an official of the Foreign Office Press Department telephoned Ribbentrop the world-shaking news he at first refused to believe it and was extremely angry at being disturbed. The report was “probably a propaganda trick of the enemy,” he said, and ordered that he be left undisturbed until morning.38 So probably Ribbentrop, for once, told the truth when he testified on the stand at Nuremberg that “this attack came as a complete surprise to us. We had considered the possibility of Japan’s attacking Singapore or perhaps Hong Kong, but we never considered an attack on the United States as being to our advantage.”39 However, contrary to what he told the tribunal, he was exceedingly happy about it. Or so he struck Ciano.

A night telephone call from Ribbentrop [Ciano began his diary on December 8]. He is joyful over the Japanese attack on the United States. He is so happy, in fact, that I can’t but congratulate him, even though I am not so sure about the advantage … Mussolini was [also] happy. For a long time now he has been in favor of clarifying the position between America and the Axis.

At 1 P.M. on Monday, December 8, General Oshima went to the Wilhelmstrasse to get Ribbentrop to clarify Germany’s position. He demanded a formal declaration of war on the United States “at once.”

Ribbentrop replied [Oshima radioed Tokyo] that Hitler was then in the midst of a conference at general headquarters discussing how the formalities of declaring war could be carried out so as to make a good impression on the German people, and that he would transmit your wish to him at once and do whatever he was able to have it carried out promptly.

The Nazi Foreign Minister also informed the ambassador, according to the latter’s message to Tokyo, that on that very morning of the eighth “Hitler issued orders to the German Navy to attack American ships whenever and wherever they may meet them.”40 But the dictator stalled on a declaration of war.

The Fuehrer, according to the notation in his daily calendar book, hurried back to Berlin on the night of December 8, arriving there at 11 o’clock the next morning. Ribbentrop claimed at Nuremberg that he pointed out to the Leader that Germany did not necessarily have to declare war on America under the terms of the Tripartite Pact, since Japan was obviously the aggressor.

The text of the Tripartite Pact bound us to assist Japan only in case of an attack against Japan herself. I went to see the Fuehrer, explained the legal aspect of the situation and told him that, although we welcomed a new ally against England, it meant we had a new opponent to deal with as well … if we declared war on the United States.

I told him that according to the stipulation of the Three-Power Pact, since Japan had attacked, we would not have to declare war, formally. The Fuehrer thought this matter over quite a while and then he gave me a very clear decision. “If we don’t stand on the side of Japan,” he said, “the Pact is politically dead. But that is not the main reason. The chief reason is that the United States already is shooting against our ships. They have been a forceful factor in this war and through their actions have already created a situation of war.”

The Fuehrer was of the opinion at that moment that it was quite evident that the United States would now make war against Germany. Therefore he ordered me to hand over the passports to the American representative.42

This was a decision that Roosevelt and Hull in Washington had been confidently waiting for. There had been some pressure on them to have Congress declare war on Germany and Italy on December 8 when that step was taken against Japan. But they had decided to wait. The bombing atPearl Harbor had taken them off one hook and certain information in their possession led them to believe that the headstrong Nazi dictator would take them off a second hook.* They had pondered the intercepted message of Ambassador Oshima from Berlin to Tokyo on November 29* in which Ribbentrop had assured the Japanese that Germany would join Japan if she became “engaged” in a war against the United States. There was nothing in that assurance which made German aid conditional upon who was the aggressor. It was a blank check and the Americans had no doubt that the Japanese were now clamoring in Berlin that it be honored.

It was honored, but only after the Nazi warlord again hesitated. He had convoked the Reichstag to meet on December 9, the day of his arrival in Berlin, but he postponed it for two days, until the eleventh. Apparently, as Ribbentrop later reported, he had made up his mind. He was fed up with the attacks made by Roosevelt on him and on Nazism; his patience was exhausted by the warlike acts of the U.S. Navy against German U-boats in the Atlantic, about which Raeder had continually nagged him for nearly a year. He had a growing hatred for America and Americans and, what was worse for him in the long run, a growing tendency to disastrously underestimate the potential strength of the United States.

At the same time he grossly overestimated Japan’s military power. In fact, he seems to have believed that once the Japanese, whose Navy he believed to be the most powerful in the world, had disposed of the British and Americans in the Pacific, they would turn on Russia and thus help him finish his great conquest in the East. He actually told some of his followers a few months later that he thought Japan’s entry into the war had been “of exceptional value to us, if only because of the date chosen.”

It was, in effect, at the moment when the surprises of the Russian winter were pressing most heavily on the morale of our people, and when everybody in Germany was oppressed by the certainty that sooner or later the United States would come into the conflict. Japanese intervention therefore was, from our point of view, most opportune.43

There is also no doubt that Japan’s sneaky and mighty blow against the American fleet at Pearl Harbor kindled his admiration—and all the more so because it was the kind of “surprise” he had been so proud of pulling off so often himself. He expressed this to Ambassador Oshima on December 14 when he awarded him the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the German Eagle in gold:

You gave the right declaration of war! This method is the only proper one.

It corresponded, he said, to his “own system.”

That is, to negotiate as long as possible. But if one sees that the other is interested only in putting one off, in shaming and humiliating one, and is not willing to come to an agreement, then one should strike—indeed, as hard as possible—and not waste time declaring war. It was heartwarming to him to hear of the first operations of the Japanese. He himself negotiated with infinite patience at times, for example, with Poland and also with Russia. When he then realized that the other did not want to come to an agreement, he struck suddenly and without formalities. He would continue to go this way in the future.44

There was one other reason for Hitler’s deciding in such haste to add the United States to the formidable list of his enemies. Dr. Schmidt, who was in and out of the Chancellery and Foreign Office that week, put his finger on it: “I got the impression,” he later wrote, “that, with his inveterate desire for prestige, Hitler, who was expecting an American declaration of war, wanted to get his declaration in first.”45 The Nazi warlord confirmed this in his speech to the Reichstag on December 11.

“We will always strike first,” he told the cheering deputies. “We will always deal the first blow!”

Indeed, Berlin was so fearful on December 10 that America might declare war first that Ribbentrop sternly admonished Thomsen, the German chargé in Washington, about committing any indiscretion which might tip off the State Department to what Hitler planned to do on the following day. In a long radiogram on the tenth the Nazi Foreign Minister filed the text of the declaration he would make in Berlin to the U.S. chargé d’affaires at precisely 2:30 P.M. on December 11. Thomsen was instructed to call on Hull exactly one hour later, at 3:30 P.M. (Berlin time), hand the Secretary of State a copy of the declaration, ask for his passport and turn over Germany’s diplomatic representation to Switzerland. At the end of the message Ribbentrop warned Thomsen not to have any contact with the State Department before delivering his note. “We wish to avoid under all circumstances,” the warning said, “that the Government there beats us to such a step.”

Whatever hesitations led Hitler to postpone the Reichstag session by two days, it is evident from the captured exchange of messages between the Wilhelmstrasse and the German Embassy in Washington, and from other Foreign Office papers, that the Fuehrer actually made his fateful decision to declare war on the United States on December 9, the day he arrived in the capital from headquarters on the Russian front. The Nazi dictator appears to have wanted the two extra days not for further reflection but to prepare carefully his Reichstag speech so that it would make the proper impression on the German people, of whose memories of America’s decisive role in the First World War Hitler was quite aware.

Hans Dieckhoff, who was still officially the German ambassador to the United States but who had been cooling his heels in the Wilhelmstrasse ever since both countries withdrew their chief envoys in the autumn of 1938, was put to work on December 9 to draw up a long list of Roosevelt’s anti-German activities for the Fuehrer’s Reichstag address.*

Also on December 9 Thomsen in Washington was instructed to burn his secret codes and confidential papers. “Measures carried out as ordered,” he flashed to Berlin at 11:30 A.M. on that day. For the first time he became aware of what was going on in Berlin and during the evening tipped the Wilhelmstrasse that apparently the American government knew too. “Believed here,” he said, “that within twenty-four hours Germany will declare war on the United States or at least break off diplomatic relations.”

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