Evan Mawdsley. December 1941: Twelve Days That Began a World War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. 360 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-15445-0.
Reviewed by J. Garry Clifford (University of Connecticut)
Published on H-Diplo (June, 2012)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
A Dozen Days That Shook the World
In this deeply researched and well-written book, Evan Mawdsley reconstructs the climactic twelve days in December 1941 that became the key turning point of World War II. In day-to-day detail, he shows how the disparate fighting in the Far East, the Atlantic, North Africa, and the Soviet Union suddenly fused together into a truly global war.
On December 1, Emperor Hirohito approved final Japanese war plans to attack Britain and the United States. Within the next few days, British forces in Libya pushed General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps back toward Tobr`uk, while London also reinforced Singapore with the arrival of two capital ships, the Repulse and Prince of Wales. The Red Army’s first successful counterattack against exhausted German forces west of Moscow came on December 6, followed a day later by Japan’s successful surprise assault on Pearl Harbor and its invasion of Malaya. By December 12, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had rallied stunned Americans with his “Day of Infamy” speech, Germany and Italy had foolishly and obligingly declared war against the United States, and Adolf Hitler outlined to his inner circle his secret plans for exterminating Europe’s Jews. As the twelve-day period ended, the British prime minister, Winston S. Churchill, invited himself to spend Christmas in Washington, while Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden traveled to Moscow to discuss wartime cooperation and postwar plans with Premier Joseph Stalin. In Mawdsley’s artful retelling, these twelve days began a “new war,” in Churchill’s phrase, that would spell defeat for the Axis powers, end European empires in Asia, and give rise to the bipolar Soviet-American Cold War over the next half century.
Moving deftly from London to Berlin to Tokyo to Rome to Moscow to Singapore to Manila to Washington and to other distant locales, Mawdsley reviews the unfolding events largely through the eyes and decisions of the principal leaders--Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, and Japan’s embattled warlords--none of whom could anticipate the eventual outcome. The Japanese may have come the closest to sensing the future, even as they launched their high-risk operations against Hawaii and Malaya, convinced that Washington’s trade embargo “threatened the very existence of our empire,” as Premier Tojo Hideki put it, and thus justified a gamble that might result in national suicide (p. 11). Noting that the Germans had “never pressed Tokyo for a direct attack on America,” Mawdsley points to the irony of Hitler’s jubilation when news of Pearl Harbor reached him in his East Prussia headquarters on the evening of December 7 (p. 22). Having just returned from overseeing Wehrmacht operations in Russia and erroneously thinking that a Pacific war would prevent Americans from concentrating on a Europe First strategy, the German dictator denounced the “Anglo-Saxon Jewish-capitalist world,” called President Roosevelt a liar and aggressor, and gratuitously declared war on the United States before a cheering Reichstag on December 11 (p. 252).
Back in Washington, Roosevelt had promised the British as early as December 1 that if Japan moved against Malaya or the Dutch East Indies “we should obviously all be together,” even though he would need a few days “to get things into political shape here” (p. 73). Despite the debacle at Pearl Harbor, which Mawdsley attributes as much to misperceptions and mishandling in Washington as to unpreparedness in Honolulu, Roosevelt followed up his “Day of Infamy” speech with a stirring “Fireside Chat” where he proclaimed that “there is no such thing as security for any nation--or any individual--in a world ruled by the principles of gangsterism” (p. 226). After inferring from “Magic” intercepts that Hitler intended to declare war, the president waited two more days for Hitler to act before announcing that “the long known and the long expected has taken place,” whereupon Congress voted for war against Germany and Italy with only one abstention (p. 253). In Mawdsley’s words, Roosevelt had begun what Henry Luce called “the American Century” with all its global commitments (p. 215).
As for Churchill, who famously “slept the sleep of the saved and thankful” the night he was told about Pearl Harbor, the prime minister had to face “the full horror” of losing the Repulse and Prince of Wales to Japanese torpedo planes off the Malayan coast two days later (pp. 177, 238). In what Mawdsley calls an example of “mirror imaging,” Churchill dispatched the two doomed warships to Singapore in the mistaken expectation that they would mimic the German battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz by tying down enemy units and forcing “the already overstretched Japanese to think twice about further mischief” (pp. 81, 83). When the deterrent became the target for destruction, as did the U.S. Pacific fleet in Oahu, it opened the way for Japan’s conquests from Singapore to the Solomon Islands over the next six months. Notwithstanding subsequent counteroffensives in the Pacific and Burma in 1942-43, Japan’s thrust southward “had a permanent effect. European colonial power was never effectively restored” (p. 284).
Mawdsley also elucidates key parts of the story through the observations of lesser players, especially those who kept diaries, such as Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels who dutifully recorded the sinister link between Hitler’s decision for war against America and “the destruction of the Jews [that] must be its necessary consequence” (p. 263). The Wannsee Conference in January 1942 would flesh out the details of the looming Holocaust. Another perceptive diarist was Britain’s ambassador to Washington, Lord Halifax (E. F. L. Wood), who lost a bet to his wife when the “Japanese balloon” went up earlier than he had predicted (p. 120). The one scenario that might give the Japanese “cause for pause,” Halifax noted on December 3, was “if things are really going [bad] against the Germans in Russia” (p. 92). Unfortunately, U.S. diplomats had rejected any eleventh hour modus vivendi that might have continued negotiations for another month, and General Georgii Zhukov’s successful counterattack came too late for Tokyo’s leaders to take notice.
A similarly well-placed witness was the commander of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, Admiral Thomas H. Hart, who fulminated into his diary after meeting with his British counterpart in Singapore on December 6: “my Government has assured the British of armed support in any one of four contingencies.... And not a word to me about it” (p. 156). Unwilling to approach Congress until shots were fired, President Roosevelt had made commitments to London via Lord Halifax without alerting his military chain of command to the specifics. Thus did Hart, his army counterpart General Douglas MacArthur, and the commanders at Pearl Harbor do their best to improvise in the absence of complete information. Mawdsley even suggests that, however “arrogant, blinkered and ignorant of aviation” MacArthur may have been, he was “not to blame” for U.S. bombers in the Philippines being destroyed on the ground several hours after Pearl Harbor. Instead, Mawdsley faults “the men in Washington,” including “to some extent the President himself,” for pursuing “a half-baked strategy which provided the Philippines with aircraft but inadequate bases” (p. 194). Nonetheless, despite all the blunders accompanying the outbreak of war in the Pacific, Halifax mused in his diary: “I can’t imagine any way in which they [the Japanese] could have acted so as to more completely rally ... and infuriate American opinion” (p. 176).
As the author of a previous book, Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet Struggle, 1941-1945 (2005), Mawdsley is sure-footed in analyzing developments on the eastern front. He recounts Hitler’s frenetic efforts at micromanaging German forces in front of Moscow, especially his counterproductive orders to “stand fast” with “fanatical resistance” (p. 271). In contrast, Mawdsley credits Stalin with keeping his nerve, for overseeing the battle without obtrusively interfering with his commanders, and especially for making “the ultimate decision about whether to fight for the Soviet capital” (p. 97). He also highlights Stalin’s diplomatic skills, namely, for signing a Declaration of Friendship and Mutual Assistance with the Polish Government-in-Exile on December 5 and then for his famous statement to a visiting Eden that he preferred “practical arithmetic” to “algebra” by arguing for a treaty of alliance that would recognize the Soviet Union’s 1940 boundaries in any postwar settlement (p. 275). Like Churchill and Roosevelt, however, Stalin underestimated their new enemy, telling his visitors that the Japanese must have been operating German aircraft in delivering “such telling blows against the British Navy in the Far East” and predicting that Japan “must fail within a few months” because its troops were “worn out” (p. 275). Because the Soviet leader did avoid any commitment to entering the Pacific war, the new Allies would henceforth fight “two separate wars” within the larger global conflict and “we shall suffer as the result,” as Britain’s ambassador to Moscow predicted (p. 278).
In Mawdsley’s superlative book, this reviewer did note a few minor errors in his treatment of American policies. He confuses, for example, the military backgrounds of Roosevelt’s Republican cabinet officers, Henry L. Stimson and Frank Knox, saying that the seventy-four-year-old Stimson had served in the Spanish-American War when it was the Rough Rider Knox who had fought alongside Teddy Roosevelt in 1898; Roosevelt’s secretary of war earned his title of “Colonel” Stimson as an artillery officer in World War I. Mawdsley also misidentifies the “powerful Democrat” from Texas as John, not Tom Connally (p. 178). These slips do not distort an otherwise accurate picture of the political crosscurrents that the president had to navigate as he inched toward war. In this regard, however, Mawdsley oversimplifies what he calls Roosevelt’s “most remarkable wobble,” namely, the notorious 203-202 vote in the House of Representatives in August 1941 that barely passed “the renewal of the one-year ‘selective service’ conscription system” (p. 66). In fact, that legislation did not “renew” the draft itself, which was mandated by law to continue through 1945, but instead extended the one-year period of service to all trainees by an additional eighteen months. With Roosevelt failing to explain the urgent need for longer service and then slipping out of Washington during the House vote to confer ceremoniously with Churchill aboard the ill-fated Prince of Wales off Newfoundland, many representatives balked at breaking the implied promise of one year of training when Congress had enacted the Selective Service Act in September 1940. Indeed, the one-vote margin bore the maneuver mark of all such close votes, whereby everybody kept tally as the vote proceeded and individuals in delicately balanced districts were able to vote nay and yet see a measure that they fundamentally supported obtain enough votes to pass. If the vote for an eighteen-month extension had failed, a compromise on twelve months would have passed within a few days. Not even the most inveterate isolationists wanted to disband the U.S. Army just months before Pearl Harbor.
In short, this is international history at its finest, a panoramic rendering of a watershed moment in world history. It will be required reading for anyone interested in World War II.
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J. Garry Clifford. Review of Mawdsley, Evan, December 1941: Twelve Days That Began a World War.
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