Why Did the Japanese Join Nazi Germany During WWII Given Nazi Ideology?
The Nazis weren’t exactly shy about the fact that they didn’t really care for individuals of a race other than the one they idealized. Further, the Japanese seemingly had no problem with peoples like the Jews, even going so far as in WWII taking in Jewish refugees from German occupied lands. Further, unlike Germany’s European allies during WWII, when the Nazis attempted to pressure Japan to join in on their anti-Jewish activities, the Japanese government not only didn’t listen, but even had official policy in place explicitly prohibited expelling any Jew from Japan or territories they occupied- a policy they maintained throughout the war, even as Jews who escaped from Nazi occupied regions continued to flood in to Japanese territories. Japanese Diplomat Yōsuke Matsuoka summed up, “I am the man responsible for the alliance with Hitler, but nowhere have I promised that we would carry out his anti-Semitic policies in Japan. This is not simply my personal opinion, it is the opinion of Japan, and I have no compunction about announcing it to the world.”
Given all of this, it seems rather odd that Japan and Nazi Germany should sign a series of agreements with one another culminating in the famed Tripartite Pact in 1940, which ultimately allied most famously Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan, but also eventually the likes of such countries as Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and, for two whole days, Yugoslavia, all into the so-called coalition of Axis Powers. (More on the interesting reason Yugoslavia’s joining only lasted 2 days in the Bonus Facts later on.)
So why did Japan join up with the Nazis? And for that matter, why did the Nazis want to join Japan not only so far away from their own country, but also populated by non-Aryans who not only couldn’t have cared less about Nazi ideology, but actually pretty fundamentally disagreed with it?
Before we get into that, as a point of clarification, despite popular perception, it’s a major stretch to say that Japan and Germany were actually allies in anything but the most surface level sense. In fact, outside of Hitler’s eventual declaration of war against the United States shortly after Japan attacked the U.S., the two sides didn’t really do much of anything of any use to support the other. Japan even refused to offer so much as economic concessions to Germany until 1943, with initial rejections stemming from that Japan felt it would hurt their then negotiations with the U.S. in the early part of the war if they supported Germany in this way. This was more or less par for the course with the so-called alliance between the two nations which really wasn’t much of one. Or, at least, not anywhere close to the extent of the Allies, who, true to their name, on the whole actively coordinated their war efforts against their shared enemies. In contrast, Germany and Japan particularly more or less fought two separate wars and even in times when they would have been well served to try to work together, as you’ll soon see, they ended up not only not, but not even bothering to inform one another of their plans which could drastically affect the other.
That out of the way, let’s dive into the particulars of how and why these two nations chose to, at least on the surface, join together, and how this ultimately ensured both of their defeats during WWII.
To begin with, official German and Japanese relations were first established all the way back in 1861, before the German Empire technically existed, thanks to the Prussians, who helped form the German Empire about a decade later. The Prussians and the subsequent German Empire, among other Western influences, played a critical role in the extremely rapid modernization of Japan after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. In fact, pertinent to the topic at hand, one of Germany’s greatest contributions to Japan was helping them modernize their military, with one of the German Empire representatives, Prussian General Jacob Meckel’s, efforts from 1885-1888 even so appreciated at the Army War College in Japan that they made a bronze statue of him. Not only that, but his doctrines, adopted by General Nogi Maresuke, are credited with helping Japan win the First Sino-Japanese War.
By WWI, however, owing to Japan not exactly liking how various western countries, including Germany, were encroaching on Asian interests, the two countries became explicit enemies, with Japan declaring war on Germany in 1914. Things got even more spicy directly after the war when many of Germany’s former Asian possessions were granted to Japan.
By the mid-1920s the two nations’ relationship started to improve, however, and perhaps most critically, for various reasons, about 80% of Japanese students studying abroad, many of whom were children of Japanese elite, chose German universities to study at. Also of note on this, many of the later key leaders of the movement to try to unite Asia under Japanese rule studied in Germany.
Relations were further improved with the signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936, which was a pact between the two nations (and later Italy, Spain, and Hungary) to, at least publicly even if nothing much came of it, counter the threat the Soviet Union and communism posed to the respective nations.
It was at this point things began heating up, thanks to the combination of the Soviet Union threat and the shared goals for expansion the respective nations held, which very effectively alienated them from many of the other nations of the world, and helped align their interests in their respective regions. (Note, Italy’s plans and similar aggressive expansion at the time also alienated many nations of the world against them, such as in 1936 after Italy invaded Ethiopia, resulting in the United Nations imposing sanctions on them, in all helping to drive themselves, Germany, and Japan together, despite not really having common goals exactly.)
As American Ambassador to Japan Joseph C Grew stated in 1937, “If the present triangular combination is analyzed, it becomes immediately apparent that not only is the group not merely anticommunist, but that its policies and practices equally run counter to those of the so-called democratic powers. Thus it can be seen that the question resolves itself into the simple fact that it is a combination of those states which are bent upon upsetting the status quo as opposed to those states which wish to preserve the status quo, or, more simply, of the ‘have- nots’ against the ‘haves,’ and that anti-communism is merely the banner under which the ‘have-nots’ are rallying…”
As for this desire for expansion, as stated there, at the time, much like the relatively young German Empire, Japan was interested in moving away from the so-called “have-not” nation status to “have”. During the Age of Discovery, many nations like Britain and France had taken advantage and expanded their empires throughout the globe, something both Japan and Germany had missed out on- Japan because of its isolationism, and the German Empire because it didn’t exist until 1871 and its first bout of expansion after not just ended with WWI, but much of their advancements on this front were taken away in the aftermath.
On the Japanese side, given the rapid industrialization of Japan in the preceding century, Japan found itself in a situation of being a heavily industrialized nation that also had very little in the way of many of the resources needed to supply that industrialization engine. Thus, they had to rely on other nations to get them. For example, leading up to WWII, approximately 80% of Japan’s oil supplies came from the United States and another 14% from other nations, allowing the U.S. to exert significant influence over Japan if it so wanted at any time. Matters weren’t exactly greatly improved when looking at things like access to coal, rubber, iron, and other such staple resources.
Thus, the Japanese were interested in copying the British, French, U.S. and other such nations in expanding their influence beyond their borders. They further felt that the Western expansion into various Asian nations was something of an affront that they could not allow to stand. Putting two and two together, the Japanese leaders felt an expansion would allow the Japanese Empire to become more self-sufficient and, in the process, remove Western influence from Asian nations, installing their own nation as the head here, naturally.
This was not, in many ways, that different from Germany’s own stated goals, seeking to expand their borders owing to the supposed living space problem, with Hitler stating, “We are overpopulated and cannot feed ourselves from our own resources”. Previous efforts on the German front of expansion before WWI had seen Japan and Germany somewhat at odds, both wanting to expand into the same areas in East Asia. This time, however, Germany wanted Europe, and was happy to leave Asia to the Japanese.
On top of all this, as previously alluded to, both nations had a vested interest in ceasing the spread of communism with the Soviet Union so relatively close, and bordering nations Germany and Japan would both have liked to add to their future empires.
On that note, if it were not for that anti-Soviet stance so staunchly held by the Germans and their long term plans to attack the Soviets, WWII and the subsequent Cold War may have gone extremely differently. You see, a little talked about thing today is that the original Tripartite Pact came close to being a Quadpartite Pact. On this one, shortly before the Tripartite Pact was signed by Japan, Germany, and Italy, a fourth major power expressed their desire to join the fun, even making very favorable concessions to Germany, as well as rather sizable economic offerings. In perhaps one of the biggest blunders of the war, Germany didn’t even bother to reply to the Soviet proposal to join, as Germany had already planned to invade, despite about a year before Germany signing the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with the Soviets. This Pact in a nutshell was the two nations agreeing not to attack one another or aid an enemy of the other, as well as, in secret, defining various borders for the two nations in regions in between should either side, you know, just so happen to totally by coincidence go to war in the area at some point maybe…
Had the Soviets been accepted into the Tripartite pact, it would have not only allowed Germany to focus their full might against the British with their backs covered, but also given Germany better access to supplies both from the Soviets and connecting over to their ally in Japan. On this one, perhaps allowing these Axis powers to eventually truly work together in the ways the Allies did, instead of just being an alliance mostly on paper when it came to the Japanese and Germans.
In any event, even though many of the German Empire and Japan’s overarching goals for their nations aligned, and their immediate plans didn’t conflict with each other in any way, this still doesn’t say why they actually, at least on paper, decided to publicly join forces. After all, as just alluded to, given the vast distance separating them, there was little hope that the two sides would benefit directly in the form of joining forces or even resources. And that is, again, not to mention the whole fact that the Nazis weren’t shy about noting any other race outside of Aryan was inferior in their view.
As to that latter point, in true Nazi fashion, when reality conflicted with their stated ideologies and beliefs, they simply came up with their own version of reality to accommodate, from SS head Heinrich Himmler not himself meeting his own racial background requirements for all SS members not named Heinrich Himmler, to not just talking up the non-Aryan Japanese, but explicitly declaring them honorary Aryans- an expression that more or less meant that even though you aren’t Aryan, we will consider and treat you as such.
Hitler would even go so far as to publicly state admiration for the Chinese and Japanese, noting, “Pride in one’s own race – and that does not imply contempt for other races – is also a normal and healthy sentiment. I have never regarded the Chinese or the Japanese as being inferior to ourselves. They belong to ancient civilizations, and I admit freely that their past history is superior to our own. They have the right to be proud of their past, just as we have the right to be proud of the civilization to which we belong. Indeed, I believe the more steadfast the Chinese and the Japanese remain in their pride of race, the easier I shall find it to get on with them.”
That said, he would also state, “If we were to divide mankind into three groups, the founders of culture, the bearers of culture, the destroyers of culture, only the Aryan could be considered as the representative of the first group. From him originate the foundations and walls of all human creation, and only the outward form and color are determined by the changing traits of character of the various peoples… In a few decades, for example, the entire east of Asia will possess a culture whose ultimate foundation will be Hellenic spirit and Germanic technology, just as much as in Europe. Only the outward form—in part at least—will bear the features of Asiatic character… If beginning today all further Aryan influence on Japan should stop, assuming that Europe and America should perish, Japan’s present rise in science and technology might continue for a short time; but even in a few years the well would dry up, the Japanese special character would gain, but the present culture would freeze and sink back into the slumber from which it was awakened seven decades ago by the wave of Aryan culture…”
So this was Hitler’s mental gymnastics for being able to buddy up with the Japanese while supposedly still keeping to Nazi ideology. What about from the Japanese perspective?
In the general case, as noted by Carnegie Mellon’s Ricky Law, author of Transnational Nazism, Ideology and Culture in German-Japanese Relations, 1919-1936, “I found that even before the governments of Japan and Germany founded an alliance in 1936, intellectuals and commentators were publishing material that put the other country in a positive light… Japanese intellectuals proactively reshaped Germany’s ideals for Japanese consumption of Hitler and Nazism, keeping what they liked and removing what they didn’t like.”
On that note, even though the Nazi Holocaust was well known and well reported throughout most regions of the world during WWII as we’ve previously covered, Japan was an exception, specifically suppressing any talk of German atrocities on this front. On their end, Germany did the same for Japan, suppressing any news of the so-called Asian Holocaust that saw Japan massacre somewhere between 3-30 million people in the process of supposedly “liberating” Asian nations. They also during this time conducted truly horrific human experimentation on the peoples they conquered, and basically committed atrocities very similar in a lot of ways to the more well known holocaust on the German side.
For example, enter Nazi Party member John Heinrich Rabe who found himself stationed in Nanjing, China in 1937 when the Japanese conquered it.
Now, on this little story, I think we can all agree that when the Nazi comes across looking like the good guy, the other side should maybe be pausing and saying to one another- “Hans… Are we the baddies?” In this one, the Nazi Rabe is credited with almost single handedly saving the lives of tens of thousands of Chinese civilians thanks to his tireless efforts during the Nanjing Massacre which saw the Japanese forces slaughter between 50,000-300,000 Chinese civilians, and wanting access to the 250,000 or so more Rabe had saw to it were somewhat protected from all the raping and murdering.
Going back to the story at hand at how both sides were happy to cover up each other’s atrocities with the public, Rabe returned to Germany after the massacre with documentation of the mass murder, rape, beatings, etc., including photographs and film footage. He then began lecturing about all this publicly, as well as attempting to get Hitler to pressure Japan to stop such appalling acts in China. As you might expect, this all not only fell on deaf ears, but saw Rabe promptly arrested by the Gestapo. The company Siemens AG stepped in and managed to secure his release, but he was forbidden from speaking of this again. We will have more on the fascinating and rather tragic tale of John Rabe in an upcoming video on our sister channel Highlight History.
But to sum up here, in essence, both sides just reshaped the discourse about one another to fit their needs and make the other side look good. And the brass between the two nations seemed little inclined to be bothered that each side had some pretty fundamentally differing ideological views.
All that background out of the way, this all brings us back to why the Japanese and German Empires would want to sign the Tripartite Pact.
While nothing is black and white and there are numerous things that went into it, including, as noted, the threat the Soviets still held for both nation’s plans despite other pacts leading up to the Tripartite Pact somewhat neutralizing that threat, in short, the United States had become a major problem. Germany and Japan both were looking for a way to keep the U.S. out of their respective conflicts as much as possible, and wanted this pact to attempt to encourage this. Of note on this, the Tripartite Pact was specifically worded to say that the signing nations would not be required to come to the other’s aid unless they were attacked by some nation that the respective nations weren’t currently already at war with. In other words, while not explicitly named, it’s pretty clear this Pact was directed squarely at the United States in a thinly veiled attempt to keep them from joining any of the war efforts on the other side. At the time, Germany was facing a stalemate with Britain and planning to invade the Soviets, despite their little truce, and didn’t want the U.S. entering the fray on the side of Britain to tip the balance. As for Japan, it was already dealing with a U.S. whose people maybe had no interest in entering a war, but whose President very much did want to, and wasn’t shy about speaking out against Japan’s rather brutal expansion into China and the insane atrocities they committed in doing this.
On top of this, for the Germans, Japanese expansion into certain regions of Asia also would help tie down British forces and resources there. Further once Japan was successful, this would potentially open up supplies from those regions to Germany from their Japanese ally. Likewise from the Japanese side, with Germany doing its thing over in Europe, Britain would be too occupied to do much about their actions against British territories in the region.
Thus, in essence, this Pact was a warning to the U.S. to stay out of their respective conflicts, and otherwise an opportunistic joining, rather than one in which the two sides intended to support one another more directly from a military or resources standpoint.
That said, Japan and Germany did have some token exchanges and little attempts to work together, such as Germany sending Japan one of its subs to take a look at and attempt to benefit from the design of. Unfortunately for Japan, they found it too complicated to replicate at the time, so little benefit came from this. Many other similar exchanges of technology and limited resources also occurred, but in all of these cases the effect was almost entirely useless to either side.
On top of this, neither side really trusted the other very much, which perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise given the last Pact they signed against communism saw Germany, without bothering to inform their ally the Japanese, sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with the Soviets. Ultimately Japan had their own trick to play on the Germans, negotiating the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact in April of 1941, agreeing not to attack the Soviets… Only to see the Japanese once again blindsided by their ally when Germany went the other way and decided to attack the Soviets two months later in June of 1941.
Showing how little interest the two nations had of actually working together, after Germany attacked the Soviets, they began continually hinting that Germany would greatly appreciate it if Japan wouldn’t mind being a good ally and switching efforts and attacking the Soviets as well. For example, Hitler stated to Japanese ambassador Hiroshi Ōshima in 1941, “It would, of course, be up to Japan to act as it saw fit, but Japan’s cooperation in the fight against the Soviet Union would be welcomed if the [Japanese] advance to the south should run into difficulty because of supply and equipment.”
Unfortunately for the Germans, when Japan had previously attempted to expand into the Soviet Union and protected states they were pretty brutally beaten back in a series of border conflicts, most devastatingly at the Battle of Khalkin Gol in 1939. This cooled Japan’s interest in any further expansion in that region. Thus, in the end, Japan made it very clear they would not go to war with the Soviet Union unless Germany had more or less already won the war against them.
That said, Stalin wasn’t banking on this continuing and thus had to divide his forces to protect against Japan just in case. However, things took a drastic change in September of 1941 when Soviet spy Richard Sorge, fronting as a German journalist working for German ambassador to Tokyo, Eugen Ott, sent a message that Japan absolutely would not attack the USSR unless first attacked, allowing a couple dozen Soviet divisions in Siberia to be redistributed to the German side of the conflict and turning the tide of that war there. Unfortunately for Sorge, however, within a month of sending this message, he was unmasked and eventually executed.
So that was the complete lack of coordination, or even really communicating plans at all, when it came to the Soviets. On the other end of things with the U.S., Japan did at least inform the Germans of their plan to go to war with the United States, though only giving them a heads up mere days before the attack and not giving any specifics whatsoever on how or when they’d do this.
On this note, you might now be wondering what on earth the Japanese were thinking trying to bring a nation into a war the Japanese military brass knew well they had zero chance of winning a protracted conflict against, and could further completely shift the balance of the war for their European allies.
And just for reference here for what it’s worth, the gross domestic product of the U.S. was 17% higher than all the Axis nations combined when the U.S. entered the war. On top of that, neither Germany nor Japan had any hope of actually attacking the U.S. mainland directly in any meaningful way. Further, as alluded to, at the time there was extremely strong support in the United States for isolationism following WWI, which resulted in the passing of various neutrality acts in the 1930s to help keep the U.S. out of any foreign conflicts. These were initially only slightly undone in 1939 with the passing of certain acts like the one allowing the U.S. to supply arms to Britain and France, so long as they paid for them and also came and picked them up in their own ships. And then following this up in 1940 with trading 50 U.S. Destroyers to the British in exchange for various land rights in British held regions, which technically violated the Neutrality Acts, but Roosevelt got away with it anyway. Then followed that up with the March of 1941 Lend-Lease Act, which allowed the U.S. to give supplies and equipment to Allied nations for free, in total about $50.1 billion (about $700 billion worth today).
However, despite all of this, U.S. citizens on the whole, along with many within the government, still had little interest in involving itself in the conflict with the Axis, even in these ways, let alone more directly by sending their sons to go fight.
Thus, both Japan and Germany’s decision making paradigms seem extremely questionable here. And, indeed, ultimately their choices were catastrophic for their respective wars by deliberately waking the sleeping giant.
So why did Japan attack the United States?
In short, the United States forced them to.
You see, once the Japanese efforts were mostly rebuffed on the Northern Expansion front by the Soviets, this left southern expansion, something they ultimately had to do because of the United States’ actions leading up to Pearl Harbor.
Going back a bit, the Japanese aggression into the likes of China and French Indochina and the atrocities the Japanese committed in those regions, had seen the U.S., despite supposedly not wanting to be involved in foreign matters, nonetheless spearhead a series of progressively more harsh embargoes on Japan, ultimately cutting Japan off from needed supplies of oil, iron, rubber, steel, etc. For reference here at the time, as mentioned before, 94% of Japan’s oil supplies were importanted, and about 80% of that coming from the United States. After the embargo, it was noted by officials within the Imperial Japanese Navy that at that point they had perhaps as little as 6 months of campaigning before their ships would be dead in the water from lack of needed fuel. Thus, at that point forcing Japan to concede to whatever demands the U.S. wanted to place on them to lift the embargo.
They, thus, then had three choices. First, negotiate a treaty with the U.S. to get them to lift the embargo. Second, try again against the Soviets to capture those regions to get the resources they needed (and in this one support their ally in Germany). Or third attack South, but into certain regions that were more or less protected by the U.S., and thus in their view would likely see the U.S. declare war on them as a result.
As for option #1 of negotiating a treaty with the U.S. to resolve this, they actually tried exceptionally hard at this leading all the way up to mere hours before attacking Pearl Harbor. However, no such deal could be reached. That said, they did get pretty far along here, with Japan noting they would agree to withdraw from French Indochina and not attack any regions of Southeast Asia, so long as all aid to China was lifted from Britain, the U.S., and the Netherlands, and sanctions against Japan were likewise lifted. In essence, Japan was willing to give up most of their expansion plans and territories, but wanted to keep what they had captured of China and make war efforts there a little easier for themselves. The U.S., however, rejected this proposal, requiring all Japan had offered, plus also that Japan would withdraw from China and sign non-aggression pacts with the various Pacific states. Essentially, the U.S. stating, “Retreat back into your own country and abandon all plans of a true Japanese Empire and self sufficiency, as well as abandon plans to liberate Asia from Western influence like ourselves.” In so doing, this would also once again make Japan subservient to the U.S. and other nations because of the needed industrial supplies from them that Japan had no other access to.
As you can imagine, given the U.S. wasn’t really conceding anything, this was a non-starter for the Japanese leaders. Something that it seems is exactly what the U.S. officials were hoping for- to provoke Japan into conflict and thus, hopefully allow the U.S. to enter the war against Japan’s supposed ally, Germany.
As for option #2 of attacking North against the Soviets, again, this was deemed too risky given they had no real way to counter the Soviet tanks and, as mentioned, had been defeated so resoundingly there on this front in their previous attempt.
This left option #3: before their oil and other supplies ran out, expand south into the Dutch East Indies, British Malaya, the Philippeans, and elsewhere to acquire the resources they needed while also accomplishing the goal of beginning to establish the Japanese Empire and liberating these regions from Western influence.
The problem here, again, was that to do so, they were convinced would cause the U.S. to declare war on them, with Japan then in a rather precarious position of not yet being fortified in the regions they were planning on taking right when the U.S.’s Pacific Fleet would presumably quickly attack.
Or, at least, they assumed they would. As you might expect given wide support for isolationism at the time in the U.S., historians debate whether the U.S. actually would have or not had Japan just gone ahead and done it without attacking the U.S. directly.
On all this, President Roosevelt explicitly stated the U.S. would not have… except he also believed that over the course of their activities in the region, the Japanese would make a mistake that he could leverage to drag the U.S. into war with Japan, and then Germany. As noted by Pacific Fleet Admiral James O. Richardson when he asked Roosevelt if the U.S. would be going to war with Japan. He states Roosevelt responded, “if the Japanese attacked Thailand, or the Kra Peninsula, or the Dutch East Indies we would not enter the war, that if they even attacked the Philippines (note here, the Philippines at the time were an American protectorate) he doubted whether we would enter the war, but that [the Japanese] could not always avoid making mistakes and that as the war continued and that area of operations expanded sooner or later they would make a mistake and we would enter the war.”
Thus, if true, had the Japanese just went ahead and pushed south without directly involving the U.S., this is yet another point in WWII, much like when the Germans didn’t let the Soviets join the Tripartite Pact, where things may have gone extremely differently both in the war in Europe and the Pacific had one decision been different.
But, rightly or wrongly, the Japanese were convinced the U.S. would declare war on them the second they attacked the Philippines and other nations in the region. Something they had to do before they ran out of oil and other supplies because of U.S. embargoes against Japan.
So what to do about it, especially when they knew they couldn’t win a war against the United States?
How about sink the Pacific Fleet in a surprise attack, thus temporarily crippling the U.S.’ ability to retaliate while Japan simultaneously performed their own little Blitzkrieg, taking every nation they needed for the supplies and self sufficiency they wanted (which is exactly what they did, for example attacking the Philippines the next day after Pearl Harbor). They then would dig themselves in, such that it would require a massive effort by the United State to get them out. Something they knew the U.S. could do, but Japanese leaders felt that the U.S. would have no interest in such an effort given their general aversion to conflicts so far away. At that point, now from a much stronger negotiating position, and dealing with a nation that wouldn’t really want to continue the war, the Japanese could simply negotiate a truce with the United States that favored Japanese interests.
…Obviously all of this ended up being a huge miscalculation on the Japanese military brass’ part on the reaction of Americans to the attack. This all wasn’t helped via Roosevelt’s speech about it, playing up the supposed alliance and coordinated efforts between Germany and Japan, further bolstering sentiment for the U.S. to enter the war against Germany in support of the British Empire. With Roosevelt stating, “The course that Japan has followed for the past ten years in Asia has paralleled the course of Hitler and Mussolini in Europe and in Africa. Today, it has become far more than a parallel. It is actual collaboration so well calculated that all the continents of the world, and all the oceans, are now considered by the Axis strategists as one gigantic battlefield… In these past few years—and, most violently, in the past three days—we have learned a terrible lesson. It is our obligation to our dead—it is our sacred obligation to their children and to our children—that we must never forget what we have learned. And what we all have learned is this: There is no such thing as security for any Nation—or any individual—in a world ruled by the principles of gangsterism… We are now in the midst of a war, not for conquest, not for vengeance, but for a world in which this Nation, and all that this Nation represents, will be safe for our children. We expect to eliminate the danger from Japan, but it would serve us ill if we accomplished that and found that the rest of the world was dominated by Hitler and Mussolini.”
Speaking of Hitler, he went ahead and did Roosevelt a massive favor by almost immediately after Japan attacked, also declaring war on the United States in support of his Japanese allies- not just assuring the U.S. would go to war with Germany, but also increasing public perception that the attack had somehow been coordinated and that the two nations were allies in more than just name- The second massive blunder in a week by the Axis powers. As historian Max Hastings notes, “Four days after Pearl Harbor, [Hitler] made the folly of the strike comprehensive by declaring war on the United States, relieving Roosevelt from a serious uncertainty about whether Congress would agree to fight Germany.”
As for the German side of things, let’s just say this all perhaps showed why plans to assassinate Hitler at one point were canceled because he was such an incompetent general that the war was sure to end with Allied victory if he was left in charge. Or as Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashit had stated of Hitler, “He may be a great orator on a platform, but standing behind his desk listening, he seems much more like a clerk.”
On this note, Hitler’s reaction to the surprise news of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was apparently, “We can’t lose the war at all. We now have an ally which has never been conquered in 3,000 years!” He also stated of the Japanese’ strategy of a surprise attack, “You gave the right declaration of war. This method is the only proper one. Japan pursued it formerly and it corresponds with 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 as hard as possible, and not waste time declaring war.”
Now, in a very slight defense of Hitler’s decision here to declare war on the U.S. instead of just waiting it out and see what happened, he had technically verbally promised Japan he would before the attack… It should also be noted here that leading up to the attack, Japan had spearheaded an amendment to the Tripartite Pact wherein if any nation should not just be attacked by, but attack the United States, the other nations would be obligated to also go to war with the U.S. However, this amendment was not able to be completed before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Also noteworthy here, it would seem there were efforts in the amending of the Pact to oblige Japan to go to war with the USSR, but this was resoundingly rejected by Japan, with one communique from Japan to Berlin in December of 1941 stating, “In case Germany demands that we participate in the war against the Soviet Union, we will respond that we do not intend to join the war for the time being. If this should lead to a situation whereby Germany will delay her entry into the war against the United States, it cannot be helped.”
Yet Hitler did it anyway. So, why? What was Hitler’s more detailed reasoning for being excited Japan had brought arguably the most dangerous country not already in the war into the conflict?
To begin with, Nazi politician Joseph Goebbels wrote of Hitler’s thoughts at the time, “We are now to a certain extent protected on our flanks. The United States will probably no longer make aircraft, weapons, and transport available to England so carelessly, as it can be assumed that they will need these for their own war against Japan.”
To be fair, this may have been what actually happened had, you know, Hitler not declared war on the United States.
In his speech announcing this historically catastrophic decision, on December 11, 1941, he also doubled down on antagonizing his new enemy, taking pot shots at the U.S. and President Roosevelt, stating, “I will pass over the insulting attacks made by this so-called President against me. That he calls me a gangster is uninteresting. After all, this expression was not coined in Europe, but in America, no doubt because such gangsters are lacking here…. National Socialism came to power in Germany in the same year as Roosevelt was elected President…While an unprecedented revival of economic life, culture and art took place in Germany under National Socialist leadership, President Roosevelt did not succeed in bringing about even the slightest improvement in his own country…. A threatening [political] opposition was gathering over the head of this man. He guessed that the only salvation for him lay in diverting public attention from home to foreign policy…He was strengthened in this by the Jews around him…The full diabolical meanness of Jewry rallied around this man and he stretched out his hands. Thus began the increasing efforts of the American President to create conflicts…For years this man harbored one desire – that a conflict should break out somewhere in the world…. The fact that the Japanese Government, which has been negotiating for years with this man, has at last become tired of being mocked by him in such an unworthy way fills us all, the German people and, I think, all other decent people in the world, with deep satisfaction…”
It was also noted that Hitler was happy that he could now actually have his U-boats openly attack U.S. shipping lines that were supporting the Allies at the time. And he assumed that with the conflict in the Pacific, the U.S. would have their hands full with much of their Navy there, further making such supply lines on the European front vulnerable.
While these were certainly pros from the German front, there were also a massive amount of very obvious cons that he didn’t seem to factor in at all. Such as the substantial influx of U.S. troops he’d soon have to meet on the battlefield. On this one, he appears to have simply been delusional, noting, U.S. soldiers were unlikely to fight nearly to the level of German owing to being comprised of a “mongreloid” mix of races. Not only this, he felt that it would take several years for the U.S. to adequately ramp up their armaments once they were directed at Germany instead of Japan, at which point the war in Europe would be over.
What he apparently was unaware of was that for some time Roosevelt and co. had already long been preparing for war on the armament side, and on top of that, in large part thanks to Hitler declaring war on the U.S., it would not be Japan the U.S. would be too bothered with, with Roosevelt devoting a whopping 90% of U.S. forces to supporting their British ally directly in Europe, with Japan something of an afterthought at first despite it having been Japan who’d attacked the United States.
On top of this, despite Japanese assertions to the contrary, Hitler apparently was also under the impression that if Germany declared war on the U.S. and supported Japan in this way, Japan would change its mind and aid Germany against the Soviets, something that not only didn’t happen, but also Japan didn’t even bother interfering with U.S. sourced supplies being funneled through the port of Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan in support of Soviet efforts against Germany. Something that rather pissed Hitler off as you might expect given Japan was right there and in a great position to cut off this vital supply line.
We should also note of these supposed allies in Japan and Germany, at this point of the war, both sides were exaggerating or outright lying to one another about their respective statuses in their two wars, with Hitler exclaiming in March of 1943, “They lie right to your face and in the end all their depictions are calculated on something which turns out to be a deceit afterwards!”
Of course, the Germans weren’t any better and at the time of Japan’s attack on the U.S., they seem to have generally been under the impression based on German comuniques that Germany was very close to wrapping up the war in Europe and the conflict with the Soviets.
Going back to Japan and their own blunder on all this, perhaps not adequately understanding American culture, and the classic modern day “These colors don’t run” / “America, F- Ya!” type attitudes, as noted while they had hoped the attack at Pearl Harbor would drive the U.S. citizens to even more advocate for isolating and withdrawing from these conflicts so far away, in reality their attack had more or less completely gotten rid of the American apathy towards the wars happening in the world at the time, undoing the isolationism that the U.S. had embraced post WWI. On top of this, because of the attack, which was perceived publicly as unprovoked even though the reality was Roosevelt and co. had been doing everything in their power to provoke Japan, the U.S. populace now had zero interest in negotiating a treaty with Japan. The American people wanted those deaths and the supposed unprovoked attack avenged, and weren’t going to stop until Japan was crushed.
Not all of the Japanese military leaders had been so deluded, however. For example, Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, in charge of the entire combined Japanese fleet, was not shy about his opposition to the original signing of the Tripartite Pact because of it not so subtly being directed at the United States. He stated of this on October 14, 1940, “To fight the United States is like fighting the whole world. But it has been decided. So I will fight the best I can. Doubtless I shall die on board Nagato. Meanwhile, Tokyo will be burnt to the ground three times. Konoe and others will be torn to pieces by the revengeful people….” He also would state after the fact, “Unlike the pre-Tripartite days, great determination is required to make certain that we avoid the danger of going to war.”
He further stated, seemingly understanding his potential enemy in a way other leaders in Japan did not, “Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it would not be enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. I wonder if our politicians [who speak so lightly of a Japanese-American war] have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.”
Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t listened to, and was even in charge of the attack on Pearl Harbor that would bring about the result he feared.
And if you’re wondering here, he was not killed aboard his flagship as he predicted, but rather when the U.S. intercepted an encrypted transmission outlining Yamamoto’s plans to tour around the South Pacific inspecting his forces, and were thus able to shoot down his plane. Perhaps not such a bad death for a man who stated, “To die for Emperor and Nation is the highest hope of a military man. After a brave hard fight the blossoms are scattered on the fighting field… One man’s life or death is a matter of no importance. All that matters is the Empire. As Confucius said, “They may crush cinnabar, yet they do not take away its color; one may burn a fragrant herb, yet it will not destroy the scent.” They may destroy my body, yet they will not take away my will.”
In the end, thanks to Pearl Harbor, a drawn out war with the U.S., something the Japanese military brass had known they’d lose quite handily if it happened, is exactly what happened. And while nobody in Japan could have anticipated the end result of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the overall outcome was inevitable from the start given the U.S. had no interest in a treaty.
Making the move even more mind boggling, as Japanese commanders had noted of the attack on Pearl Harbor in the first place, it would only be a mild delaying measure, and given the shallow waters they knew well it was likely that the ships sunk there would be relatively quickly repaired and put back into service, which is exactly what happened with 6 of the 8 ships that found themselves on the bottom of the sea after the attack.
In short, not a great plan, though at least was more defensible given the known information at the time and needs of Japan than, say, Hitler’s decision to bring the United States into the war on the European side.
But in the end, going back to Japan and Germany’s supposed alliance, and why they both entered into it, while they did technically have an alliance on paper, it was exceptionally loose. And in practice, they were two nations fighting two separate wars at the same time. Both nations, however, were intent on attempting to mimic the imperial expansion of certain Western nations to become one of the “have” nations, instead of “have-nots”. Most importantly allowing their nations to have direct access to resources they otherwise depended on other nations for. And, for a little while at least, the appearance of an alliance between them for various reasons benefited both. So they publicly allied, even if they never actually did much to support one another in any practical way, nor otherwise ideologically aligned much with, again, the Japanese very explicitly choosing to deny requests from their German allies to join in the holocaust…
Of course, as mentioned, the Japanese committed their own series of atrocities during their war in the so-called Asian Holocaust, which is rarely discussed today despite 3-30 million people being massacred in the regions Japan was, in their view, “liberating”… But that’s a story for another day.
If you’re wondering why only two days for Yugoslavia to have joined in the Tripartite Pact… It’s insanely complicated. But in an overly simplified nutshell, the government at the time was in a rather tricky situation with no real ability to fend off the Germans and the British very explicitly offering no help. But, funny enough, the British more or less demanding the country go to war with Germany anyway. After a whole lot of negotiating, the Yugoslavian leaders felt the Germans were offering the better deal as they weren’t really asking for anything other than for Yugoslavia to publicly join up, but otherwise not only not requiring any military aid from Yugoslavia, but even accepting Yugoslavia’s terms to not allow any military transport or presence of Axis power troops in their country. Unfortunately for the leaders of the country, while this all may have made sense from a practical standpoint to preserve the country’s sovereignty and more or less keep them out of the war, from an ideological standpoint, the people were rather upset with the decision and so revolted, with the British doing their part to encourage all this. And almost immediately, with the help of the British, the people overthrew their government, with such slogans as “Better the grave than a slave, better a war than the pact…” Funny enough, almost immediately after this and the new government’s rejection of the treaty, Hitler decided to grant the demands of that chant, within a week going to war with the country, and within 3 weeks conquering it, putting many in the grave and making the others “slaves” anyway. For a massively more detailed explanation of all of this, do check out the absolute bar-none best scriptless monologuer on YouTube, the Great LindyBeige’s, hour and a half long video- Yugoslavia in World War Two- A Tale of Resistance, Collaboration, and Betrayal.Expand for References
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