December, 1941: Axis Declaration of War on the United States Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

On December 11, 1941, four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the governments of Germany and Italy issued declarations of war against the United States of America. Although both the Germans and the Italians had pledged Japan their aid in the event of a conflict between Japan and the United States, their declarations cited President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s anti-Axis attitude and hostile U.S. actions as reasons for their decision to declare war. In response, Congress passed two joint resolutions affirming a state of war against Germany and Italy. With these events, the war in Europe and the war in the Far East merged to become World War II.

On December 11, 1941, four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the governments of Germany and Italy issued declarations of war against the United States of America. Although both the Germans and the Italians had pledged Japan their aid in the event of a conflict between Japan and the United States, their declarations cited President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s anti-Axis attitude and hostile U.S. actions as reasons for their decision to declare war. In response, Congress passed two joint resolutions affirming a state of war against Germany and Italy. With these events, the war in Europe and the war in the Far East merged to become World War II.

American Neutrality

That the United States would become involved in a war in Europe seemed highly unlikely from 1936 to 1940, because during these years, the U.S. government and people were strongly isolationist. Moreover, Nazi Germany was preoccupied in Europe and not primarily interested in the Western Hemisphere. Although most Americans were opposed to Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, the United States government did no more than invoke the first Neutrality Act, which included an arms embargo designed to weaken Italy. By 1936, it became clear that Germany and Italy were bent on territorial revisions. The Rome-Berlin Axis was formed in 1936, and Japan joined Germany and Italy in the Anti- Comintern Pact in 1937. In response, the United States government extended the Neutrality Act in 1937.

Despite their desire to stay out of war, President Roosevelt and his advisers grew increasingly concerned about the dangers of foreign aggression and human rights violations in both Europe and the Far East during the last years of the 1930’s. In November, 1938, Roosevelt responded to the German riots against Jews during Kristallnacht (literally, “night of broken glass”) by replacing the U.S. ambassador in Berlin with a chargé d’affaires; in April, 1939, the president sent letters to Adolf Hitler and Mussolini asking for assurances that they would refrain from aggression and suggesting discussions on armaments reductions. Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, increased the Roosevelt administration’s belief that Germany posed a real threat to U.S. security.

France’s Fall

The year 1940 marked a turning point in U.S. foreign policy. The fall of France seriously alerted people in the United States to the might of Nazi Germany, while England’s dogged resistance to Hitler, exemplified in the Battle of Britain, resulted in increased U.S. aid to the English. During the last six months of 1940, the United States responded to the German Blitzkrieg in Europe with billions of dollars for defense, destroyers for England, and the first peacetime Selective Service Act in U.S. history. In addition, Roosevelt, after winning an unprecedented third term in office in November, 1940, proclaimed the United States “the great arsenal of democracy” and announced his intention to secure congressional approval of a Lend-Lease Act to aid all countries fighting to preserve freedom.

Benito Mussolini (left) and Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1940. (National Archives)

German troops marching through Warsaw shortly after invading Poland in September, 1939. (National Archives)

During 1941, the United States inched ever closer to war with Germany. In January, the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. armed forces met with their British counterparts and discussed how to coordinate military actions in the event of U.S. entry into the war. It was decided that the defeat of Germany should be given top priority. On March 11, the U.S. Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, authorizing Roosevelt to provide arms, equipment, and supplies to “any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.” In a speech on May 27, Roosevelt stressed the German danger to the Western Hemisphere and declared a state of national emergency. In August, Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston S. Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter against the Axis Powers. Serious naval incidents occurred in September and October, when German submarines torpedoed the U.S. destroyer Greer and sank the Reuben James. In November, the president extended lend-lease to the Soviet Union, which had been attacked by Germany on June 22, while Congress modified the Neutrality Act to permit the arming of U.S. merchant ships. It is clear that by the fall of 1941, Roosevelt believed Germany was bent on world domination, was a great threat to the Western Hemisphere, and that war was a strong possibility.

German Intentions

In spite of the increased U.S. presence in the European conflict, the ultimate initiative for war lay with Germany and its ally Japan. By 1941, Hitler, who had first mentioned the possibility of a conflict with the United States in his 1928 unpublished sequel to Mein Kampf (1925–1927), clearly intended to wage war against the United States at some undetermined point in the future. Hitler believed the United States was culturally and racially decadent and underestimated its industrial capacity and willingness and ability to fight a war. In this connection, he was impressed by the strength of U.S. isolationism. Thus, unlike many German diplomats, Hitler failed to grasp the implications of U.S. power. Hitler’s contempt for the United States turned to hostility when Roosevelt expressed his opposition to Nazi totalitarianism and aided Great Britain and the Soviet Union.

Despite Hitler’s intention to fight, Germany developed no military plans. The Nazi dictator wanted to postpone war with Washington until Germany could construct a navy large enough to win what would certainly be a naval conflict. Consequently, Hitler ordered the German navy to avoid any incidents with U.S. ships in the Atlantic that might bring on war sooner than desired. Nevertheless, incidents did occur, the result being that an undeclared, limited naval war between the United States and Germany existed by the autumn of 1941.

Germany’s caution in the Atlantic was offset by a reckless support of Japanese ambitions in the Far East. Hoping that the Japanese would exacerbate Great Britain’s already difficult position and help check the United States commitment to Europe, Hitler began in 1940 to urge Tokyo to expand into southeast Asia. To encourage the Japanese, the Nazi dictator and Mussolini entered into a defense mutual assistance agreement, the Tripartite Pact, with Japan on September 27, 1940. Six months later, on April 4, 1941, the Nazi dictator went further, assuring Japan of his full support in the event of a Japanese-American war, no matter who was the aggressor.

Pearl Harbor

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came as a surprise to both Hitler and Mussolini. Believing that Japan would weaken the British, Soviet, and U.S. war efforts, the Nazi dictator decided the time had come for war with the United States. Hitler took the initiative for this conflict, ordering all-out submarine attacks on U.S. ships and, along with his Italian ally, declaring war on the United States.

In declaring war on the United States at a time when Axis military forces found themselves bogged down in the Soviet Union and under attack by the British in North Africa, Hitler and Mussolini may have made the worst blunder of their careers. When the Nazi dictator said that his declaration of war on the United States would be “decisive not only for the history of Germany, but for the whole of Europe and indeed for the world,” he was right. With their declaration of war, Germany and Italy not only unleashed a global war but also went a long way toward guaranteeing their own ultimate defeat and the postwar superpower ascendancy of the United States.

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