Adolf Hitler did not wait long to commit his first strategic blunder (very probably the worst military error of the entire war). On 11 December 1941, four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States declaration of war against the Japanese Empire, he declared war against the United States.
On December 8, Japanese Ambassador Oshima went to German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop to request a formal declaration of war against America. Von Ribbentrop stalled for time; he knew that Germany was under no obligation to do this under the terms of the Tripartite Pact (a defensive military alliance between Germany, Italy and Japan signed on September 27th, 1940).
For a very simple reason – the abovementioned Pact (see Appendix) required Germany to provide Japan with military assistance only if Japan was attacked, but not if Japan was the aggressor (which now was the case). And even then did not explicitly require Germany to declare war on the attacking power, but only to provide “military assistance” – a deliberately highly vague term.
Von Ribbentrop (correctly) feared that the addition of another antagonist, the United States, would overwhelm the German war effort. But Hitler thought otherwise.
So On December 11, 1941, American Chargé d’Affaires Leland B. Morris, the highest ranking American diplomat in Germany, was summoned to Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop’s office where Ribbentrop read Morris the formal declaration of war (see Appendix).
Now why on Earth would Adolf Hitler commit such an enormous blunder – the blunder that very probably made a decisive contribution to his defeat in World War II and ultimately led to the demise of his party, his state and to his suicide in the Führerbunker?
The most important reason was Hitler’s sincere (and incorrect) belief that in a very short time (possibly in a matter of days) the USA would declare war on Germany anyway – and wanted to start the seemingly inevitable war on his own terms.
Indeed, the USA was already fighting the de-facto naval war with the USA – US destroyers escorting American supply vessels bound for the UK were already attacking German U-Boats.
On September 11, 1941, Roosevelt publicly declared that he had ordered the American Navy and Air Force to shoot on sight at any German war vessel. In his speech of October 27, 1941, he once more expressly affirmed that this order was in force – and was diligently carried out.
The Destroyers for Bases Agreement, Lend-Lease agreement (which in the fall of 1941 was extended to the Soviet Union), the Atlantic Charter, the hand-over of military control of Iceland from the United Kingdom to the United States, the extension of the Pan-American Security Zone, and many other results of the special relationship between the USA and Great Britain – all of that made the formed a “shadow belligerent” involved in the World War II on the British side (and thus a de-facto adversary of Nazi Germany).
Hitler believed that all that his U-boat captains needed to all but completely cut off British supply lines (and thus force His Majesty’s Government to sue for peace) was to give them the maximum operational freedom possible. And the official declaration of war on the United States, obviously, gave them that freedom.
His ignorance about military and industrial capability of the United States – as well as its determination and willpower to successfully fight the war on two fronts also played a part.
Apparently, he was never aware of the prophetic evaluation of the attack on Pearl Harbor by no other than Isoroku Yamamoto – Marshal Admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy and the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet (who planned and commanded this attack):
“All we did was to wake up a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve”
Unbelievably, neither Adolf Hitler nor other top Nazis ever considered American entry into the Great War the key reason for the defeat of Central Powers (and Germany). They were too much invested into the “stab-in-the-back” theory which severely clouded their judgement and led to completely wrong expectations and forecasts.
Finally, Hitler’s deeply-held racial prejudices made him see the US as a decadent bourgeois democracy filled with people of mixed race, a population heavily under the influence of Jews and “Negroes”, with no history of authoritarian discipline to control and direct them, interested only in luxury and living the “good life” while dancing, drinking and enjoying decadent and immoral music.
Such a country, in Hitler’s mind, would never be willing to make the economic and human sacrifices necessary to make a significant (let alone decisive) contribution to the Allied efforts on the battlefield.
He consistently underestimated the American power and overestimated the Japanese one. He perceived Japan as much stronger than it actually was and the United States as much weaker than they actually were.
And, finally, there was a powerful (probably, very powerful) emotional reason. Totally unexpected Soviet counteroffensive effectively put an end to German blitzkrieg and delivered the first and quite painful defeat (from both military and psychological perspectives) to German Wehrmacht and personally to Adolf Hitler.
Who still was manic depressive (bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition even if treated properly – and Hitler’s was not). Consequently, it immediately threw The Führer to the very bottom of a very deep, very dark and very painful depression pit. To get out of this pit, he desperately needed a very powerful emotional jolt.
Like declaring war on the United States.
Adolf Hitler was wrong in all his perceptions and predictions. During the Great War (the lessons of which Nazis apparently never learned), Americans proved to be courageous, dedicated and well-trained soldiers led by highly competent and able commanders.
Thus proving beyond the reasonable doubt that it was nature, not nurture; culture, not race and “software”, not “hardware” that counted. Americans of all races and nationalities demonstrated identical skills, courage, fighting spirit and competence thus powerfully repudiating scientifically wrong and genuinely insane “racial theory” of the Nazis.
This common (and superior) culture united the whole nation and focused all of its energy, intellect, enormous human and material resources, industrial and agricultural capacity, creativity – everything squarely on but one objective – winning the war. And thus defeating (and destroying) all their enemies – the Germans, the Japanese, the Italians, everyone.
Americans proved themselves to be not only brave, skillful and efficient soldiers, officers and generals but no less efficient, creative and dedicated entrepreneurs, workers and managers – both in business and in government.
In record time they designed, tested and deployed weapons and military equipment that was either superior to their German counterparts (bomber and fighter aircraft, automobiles, rifles, submachine guns, etc.) or good enough to do the job (Sherman tank, armored personnel carriers, etc.). In other words, to achieve victories on the battlefield – and ultimately in the whole war.
In a record time they transformed their economy into an extremely powerful military-industrial complex thus making it a genuine “arsenal of democracy” (i.e. of the Allies in the “anti-Hitler coalition”).
The United States produced weapons, ammunition, foodstuffs, clothing and military equipment (and merchant ships to transport them) in such quantities that even completely unopposed, German U-boats could sink only an insignificant portion of them.
But they were opposed. Ruthlessly and skillfully opposed. Escort ships (especially escort carriers) and long-range anti-submarine aircraft ultimately won the Battle of the Atlantic (highly overrated in its impact on World War II, but still a long and vicious sea war).
Destruction of German infrastructure by American strategic bombers (escorted by long-range fighters) was a major – and probably decisive – contribution to the Allied victory in World War II.
As were, obviously, American troops and weapons that played the dominant role in Operation Overlord and subsequent genuine liberation of Western Europe.
And all of the above would not have happened had Hitler not declared war on the United States. Contrary to his deep and sincere belief, the majority of the American were so firmly set against entering the war in Europe that even such a hawk as Roosevelt would not have been able to convince them otherwise.
For a very simple reason – in terms of loss of lives of American servicemen (which was always and still is a decisive factor for American public) was a far, far bloodier endeavor than the war in the Pacific.
John Kenneth Galbraith (then an economist in the federal government service and one of Roosevelt’s economic advisors) recalled:
“When Pearl Harbor happened, we were desperate. … We were all in agony. The mood of the American people was obvious – they were determined that the Japanese had to be punished. We could have been forced to concentrate all our efforts on the Pacific, unable from then on to give more than purely peripheral help to Britain. It was truly astounding when Hitler declared war on us three days later [and thus solved all our problems for us]. I cannot tell you our feelings of triumph. It was a totally irrational thing for him to do, and I think it saved Europe.”
And, finally, fighting German U-boats and sending lend-lease supplies (even in huge quantities) is very different in scope and impact than a full-scale involvement in the European war.
Hitler’s declaration of war came as a great relief to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who feared the possibility of two parallel but disconnected wars – the UK and Soviet Union versus Germany in Europe, and the US and the British Empire versus Japan in the Far East and the Pacific.
With Nazi Germany’s declaration against the United States in effect, American assistance for Britain in both theaters of war as a full ally was assured. It also radically simplified matters for the American government (as fighting the war de-jure is far more convenient than doing it only de-facto).
So yes, declaring war on the United States (made by Adolf Hitler, apparently offhand, almost without consultation with anyone) was a colossal strategic blunder. Not the first one and definitely not the last. More were to come. Much more.