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3 November 2021updated 05 May 2022 12:01pm

What Hitler’s war with America reveals about today’s great power rivalries

The tinderbox of 1941 shows that the risk of armed conflict between China and the US is real.

By Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman

Amid an unprecedented global crisis, a British naval squadron sets out for the Indo-Pacific. Facing a rising Asian power, the force is designed to demonstrate Britain’s commitment to deterring aggression and upholding regional order. But British policymakers are fearful. In particular, they are unsure whether they will receive support from the world’s most powerful nation, the United States, if the status quo is challenged. A resurgence of American isolationism is fuelling concerns that it cannot be relied on in a crisis. If war erupts in Asia, will the US intervene or stand aloof? As tensions rise, there is a growing feeling among politicians, generals and the wider public that the world is on the brink.

This is not the background to the current operational deployment of the Royal Navy’s UK Carrier Strike Group 21 to the Indo-Pacific region. It is the state of the world 80 years ago, in the autumn of 1941, when Britain, seeking to deter a Japanese attack on its colonies and those of the allied Dutch East Indies, dispatched the battle cruiser Repulse and the battleship Prince of Wales on a fateful mission to east Asian waters.

By that time, war had already changed much of the world beyond recognition. Nazi Germany occupied most of the European continent, while in Asia, the Second Sino-Japanese War had turned China into a battleground. But these conflicts were not yet inextricably linked. Above all, the world’s leading industrial power, the United States, was still formally at peace. The outcome of these two conflicts, and the future of the world, seemed open.

Today, we are entering another period of profound geopolitical uncertainty. That is not to say that our time and that of the autumn of 1941 are directly analogous. While there is growing competition between the world’s pre-eminent democratic states and the principal authoritarian power, China, the world is by no means destined for another great-power war. But some of the dilemmas that democratic – and undemocratic – statesmen faced in 1941 are comparable and enduring. And now, with international relations again in a state of flux, politicians and strategists would benefit from revisiting that pivotal period in the 20th century to help avoid a catastrophic conflict.

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The most critical questions in late 1941 concerned the global role of the United States. Whether the US entered the war as an open combatant, in Europe, Asia, both or neither was the issue on which the entire conflict hinged.

For the two greatest challengers in the international system, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the world was skewed against them and in favour of the “Anglo-Saxon” and “plutocratic” powers, the British empire and the United States. The established world, they felt, was determined to deny what Hitler called the “have-nots” their rightful place in the sun. It was for this reason that he had embarked on eastern expansion, sparking a war with Britain and then the Soviet Union. Japan had yet to make its move, but its attempts to break out of Western tutelage had been met, Tokyo felt, with obstruction and most recently with a punishing scrap-metal and oil embargo. With German forces bogged down in the east as the Russian winter closed in, Britain still defiant, and the Japanese war machine threatening to grind to a halt, the leaderships in Berlin and Tokyo felt they were running out of time.

It was becoming increasingly clear to Hitler that Franklin D Roosevelt was emerging as his most formidable foe. In August 1941 Winston Churchill and the US president had announced in the Atlantic Charter that they looked forward to a world after the defeat of Nazism. Hitler was now convinced that the president was in effect at war with him and that direct American intervention was only a matter of time. He was painfully aware of the extent of US industrial power, some of which was already deployed against him through Lend-Lease shipments to Britain and the Soviet Union.

But in London, Churchill’s mood was anxious. After he became prime minister, his strategy had been based on holding out long enough against Germany and Italy until, as he put it in 1940, “in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old”. Yet, by late 1941, Roosevelt seemed no closer to an American declaration of war and, as Churchill informed the president’s principal adviser, Harry Hopkins, this was causing “depression through cabinet and other informed circles here”. More ominously, if Japan attacked the British empire in Asia – while scrupulously avoiding action against the United States – then Britain would find itself in a two-front war with little prospect of US intervention.

[See also: Afghanistan shows the American dream of remaking the world is over]

In Washington, DC, Roosevelt also found himself in a very awkward situation. His rhetorical campaign to convince the American people that Hitler’s Germany was their main enemy had secured support for his policy of aiding Britain, including the supply of war materiel under the Lend-Lease programme. But Roosevelt had not persuaded them that direct American entry into the war was necessary. In late November 1941, a Gallup opinion poll – then the most accurate means of measuring public sentiment – showed that only a quarter of Americans favoured Congress passing a resolution that declared the existence of a US-German war. Isolationism remained a powerful force.

At the same time, Roosevelt learned through US intelligence that Japan was moving to expand its military operations in the Pacific. But they were in the dark as to where, when or against whom it would strike. If Japan avoided attacking the US directly, Roosevelt would struggle to convince Americans to come to Britain’s aid.

Hitler was also concerned that Japan might not attack the United States. Keeping a substantial proportion of American resources tied down in the Pacific, and away from the European theatre, had become increasingly important to him. Even if Japan did fight, Hitler was concerned that if it did so unaided, it might be defeated quickly, leaving him even more exposed. Hitler therefore promised to support the Japanese if they attacked the US, although he was not treaty-bound to do so.

The Japanese could not be sure that Hitler would keep faith, however. “There are many people,” the note-taker at one of the autumn 1941 imperial conferences wrote, “who believe that Germany cannot be trusted.” One of Emperor Hirohito’s closest advisers reminded the other Japanese leaders that Hitler had once described the Japanese as a “second-class race”, and expressed fear that if Japan attacked the US, “there would be an agreement between Germany, the United States and Britain to leave Japan behind”.

Despite these concerns, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were coming closer together. Both leaderships thought that time was short. Hitler believed he had only a narrow window to pre-empt the United States and the government in Tokyo worried that the oil embargo would soon in effect paralyse its navy and industry. As the Japanese leader General Tojo said, it was time to “close one’s eyes and jump”.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 did not resolve Roosevelt or Churchill’s dilemmas, at least not at first. The president was still in a difficult situation, perhaps a worse one. Pearl Harbor united the country, to be sure, but against Japan, not Germany. It certainly did not, as the stridently anti- interventionist senator Arthur Vandenberg later claimed, “end isolationism for any realist”. The founder of the isolationist America First Committee, R Douglas Stuart Jr, sent a circular shortly after the Japanese attack to all chapter chairmen stating that “the facts and arguments against intervention in Europe remain the same as they were before the Japanese issue arose”.

Roosevelt was now vulnerable to the charge that he had given equipment needed in the Pacific to Churchill and Stalin. How much of the US navy, Charles Lindbergh, the leading America First spokesman and pioneering aviator, asked pointedly after Pearl Harbor, “has been sent to the Atlantic to aid Britain?” Indeed, some non-interventionists argued that Roosevelt’s meddling in Europe, particularly the defence aid that he had provided to the Allies, had left the United States even more exposed in east Asia.

Worse still, the war with Japan meant that Roosevelt had urgently to review Lend-Lease shipments to the British and Soviets. With the Japanese dominating the Pacific and US outposts at their mercy, the US army and navy were determined to get hold of as many aircraft, tanks and ships, and as much ammunition as possible. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Lend-Lease was suspended.

Nor did Pearl Harbor resolve Churchill’s dilemma. To be sure, he was not facing the Japanese alone but he did fear the impact on Lend-Lease, particularly if Hitler avoided a declaration of war on the US. Soon after the Japanese attack, Churchill wrote to George VI: “We have to be careful that our share of munitions and other aid which we are receiving from the United States does not suffer more than is, I fear, inevitable.”

[See also: France and the UK must renew the Entente Cordiale to save the West]

Moreover, the military situation in the Far East deteriorated rapidly. The British empire was under heavy attack in Hong Kong and Malaya, and three days after Pearl Harbor the Prince of Wales and Repulse, the deterrent that had failed to deter, were sunk by Japanese aircraft with huge loss of life.

It was Hitler who finally resolved the tension. He was determined to keep his promise to Tokyo, not least because he could not afford to see his ally defeated, allowing Roosevelt to devote all his energies to fighting Germany. His expectation, as he told his advisers, was that the United States would for the foreseeable future be distracted by Japan.

On 11 December 1941, Hitler declared war on the United States. The Führer framed the struggle as a “battle for the defence and therefore the preservation of the freedom” of Japan and the German Reich against Roosevelt’s “ever greater expansion of a policy intended to achieve an unlimited world domination”. It was, Hitler claimed, the revolt of the “have-nots” against “the American president and his plutocratic clique”.

We know how all this ended. By the autumn of 1945, the world had been partitioned, but not in the way the Axis alliance of December 1941 had envisaged. Germany had been vanquished and divided into four zones of occupation. In Asia, Imperial Japan had been crushed and many of its cities obliterated. If the Germans and Japanese had previously reckoned themselves leaders of the global have-nots, then the little they did have had now been taken from them. The Axis powers had made the most catastrophic miscalculation in history.

The international picture today is in many ways very different from 1941. Almost all conflicts are now civil wars. They are not all-out wars between the world’s most powerful states for control of the globe’s most geopolitically pivotal regions. As a result, the prevailing political and public sentiment across the democratic world remains the same as it has been since the end of the Cold War – that in an economically interconnected and globalised world, the major powers recognise that any material benefits from going to war with each other are illusory. In any case, the existence of nuclear weapons, and the possibility of mutual destruction, would act as the ultimate deterrent.

But over the past decade, warnings have grown that the rise of China and relative decline of the US is increasing the possibility of a great-power war. The dominant argument was that as the burgeoning Chinese power approached the level of the diminished American hegemon, it would seek to overturn the existing order. This would lead t›o growing antagonism between the two states, increased brinkmanship and war.

Show of pride: military helicopters carrying Taiwan flags conduct a fly-by rehearsal ahead of National Day celebrations in Taipei, Taiwan, in October 2021. Photo by Daniel Ceng Shou-Yi/ZUMA Press Wire

The US and China would be supposedly following a long historical tradition, what the Harvard scholar Graham Allison has termed the “Thucydides Trap”. The ancient Athenian historian observed that what made the Peloponnesian War “inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta”, and Allison pointed to 12 other historical cases, including the US and Japan in 1941, where a similar “power transition” produced war.

Allison’s warning that the US and China were also “destined for war” unless they could escape from this trap brought his thesis to the attention of leaders in Washington, DC and Beijing. Xi Jinping even referred to the Thucydides Trap to argue that the US must accommodate itself to China’s ascent. The message seemed clear – if the US resisted its replacement by the new hegemon then it risked a cataclysmic conflict.

Yet as the leading American strategic thinkers Hal Brands and Michael Beckley recently argued, a fixation with the “Thucydidean cliché” risks blinding us to the true reasons why it is the aspirant powers, rather than the established ones, that have so often initiated the most destructive wars. This myopia threatens to enmesh us instead in a far more dangerous and historically potent “peaking power trap”, where the overly ambitious pretender starts a war instead of reconciling itself to its subordinate position in the international order. Would-be hegemons become most violent when they sense that their window of opportunity is closing. That is what happened in 1941.

We may be close to such a moment. China feels increasingly embattled. It is suffering from internal socio-economic tensions that it may be tempted to “export” through external activism. Its natural resources are dwindling, and it imports more energy and food than any other state. Economic growth has halved, with some informed analysts putting it as low as 2 per cent. China’s national debt was about 300 per cent of GDP, even prior to the pandemic. The increasingly autocratic rule of Xi threatens further to undermine prosperity by reducing room for innovation and deterring foreign investment.

But the Chinese Communist Party’s biggest anxiety is the marked deterioration in the strategic situation beyond its borders. Its continued violations of human rights, culpability for the spread of Covid-19 and belligerence towards its neighbours have encouraged a broad coalition to unite against it. Around the South China Sea, states are strengthening their naval and air forces to guard against Chinese encroachment. In Tokyo, Japan has abandoned its self- imposed defence spending constraints in response to the Chinese challenge, while New Delhi’s stance has hardened after the deadly border clashes last year.

Much of the Western world is rallying behind the US as it steps up its containment of China. The recent Aukus nuclear submarine agreement between Washington, DC, London and Canberra, and the “Quad” partnership of the US, India, Japan and Australia, are directed against China. Like Tokyo and Berlin 80 years earlier, Beijing feels increasingly boxed in and believes its aspirations as a great power are being stymied.

[See also: As China stumbles, the West must ask: what if its rise is not inevitable?]

There are also several supply chain problems, aggravated by geopolitical tension. If Japan was short of oil in 1941, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) today lacks semiconductors. As China’s vice-premier, Liu He, told his nation’s leading scientists in May, “China’s aspiration to become a true technological rival to the US faces a foundational challenge: the country doesn’t control the semiconductors that are the building blocks for everything from smartphones to automated cars.”

Securing this technology is “a matter of survival” for China. Even more galling for China, the nation that has become the predominant producer of semiconductors is one that Beijing regards as a recalcitrant province: Taiwan. With Taiwanese-developed chips already feeding into US technology, manufacturing and almost every contemporary weapon system, Beijing believes that the US is using Taiwan not only to aggrandise its own power but also to keep China down. American sanctions have caused the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest contract chipmaker, to stop doing business with Huawei, denying it access to the most advanced chips.

This strategic vulnerability has only increased Chinese resentment about Taiwan’s status. Beijing has long regarded reabsorption of the islands as the essential precondition for securing its sphere of influence. Signs are growing that the PRC may soon feel compelled to move against Taiwan. Experts consider war far more likely than most people realise. In March, the then commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command testified in an open congressional hearing that he feared the PRC would launch an assault on Taiwan within six years.

The danger will come if China senses that it is running out of time to capitalise on its existing economic strength and military power to establish its regional dominance. Taipei has responded to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive posture by ramping up its military spending, in concert with Washington, DC. But it will be almost a decade before the US and Taiwan militaries are sufficiently modernised to redress the local balance of power. As the 2020s drag on, Beijing might reason that it will never have a better opportunity to act.

As in 1941, there is a sense of uncertainty. On the one hand, the lack of transparency in the Chinese political system could easily lead American policymakers to underestimate bureaucratic forces within China or pressure from a jingoistic public for war. On the other hand, while there is increasing bipartisan agreement in Washington, DC on the need to combat China, the official US stance on Taiwan remains deliberately ambiguous. For 40 years, this has worked because China could not be certain how the US would react to an attack, and Taiwan could not know for sure that if it declared formal independence that the US would back it. That ambivalent equilibrium is now coming under severe strain.

President Biden has erroneously suggested that the US is bound by treaty to defend Taiwan. This is a strong hint that the Biden administration would respond to any Chinese move with force, but there is no certainty. On the Republican side, the Trump administration markedly stepped up defence support for Taiwan, but the former president and his supporters have long expressed scepticism about the value of America’s alliances and have consistently questioned whether it is in the US national interest to defend the self-determination of others.

Nobody knows whether the US would respond over Taiwan or, if it did, whether its allies, including the United Kingdom, would be honour-bound to follow suit. In September Britain sent a warship through the Taiwan Strait for the first time since 2008, championing its commitment to freedom of navigation in the waters. China’s hawkish Global Times has warned London that if its warships “behave as the US military does in the South China Sea” then it “will face a confrontation from China”.

Could Carrier Strike Group 21 be drawn into a similar fate to the one that met Prince of Wales and Repulse in late 1941?

Historical analogies are always imperfect tools for understanding contemporary affairs, often with as many differences as there are similarities between the past and the present. There is much that remains unknown and uncertain about China’s trajectory. The value of the 1941 analogy is that it should remind policymakers how fluid geopolitics can be, how quickly apparently tractable situations can be brought to the brink and how belligerent a nation can turn if it perceives its historic window of opportunity is closing.

Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman are the authors of “Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbor and Germany’s March to Global War” (Allen Lane)

[See also: How the fall of the Soviet Union still haunts Ukraine]

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This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained