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Momentous decisions

Authors dive into the logic behind life-and-death World War II choices

Momentous decisions
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“I don’t know much about the Lend-Lease bill,” quipped Gracie Allen in 1941, “but if we owe it we should pay it.”

The joke played into Allen’s ditzy routine because the Lend-Lease program, of course, involved the United States providing military aid to the nations fighting Germany and Italy, not taking on a debt. Lend-Lease at the time was controversial in Congress but of grave importance for British and Soviet efforts to stave off the Nazi onslaught.

One event in late 1941 threatened that lifeline: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbor and Germany’s March to Global War, by Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman, gives an almost hour-by-hour account of the world stage in the days between the Pearl Harbor attack and the German declaration of war on the United States on Dec. 11, 1941, and what emerges is how much Lend-Lease was at the forefront of the minds of leaders on both sides.

Winston Churchill, relieved that he wouldn’t be facing a Japanese enemy alone, was still much more concerned in the days following Pearl Harbor than he later let on. His great worry was that the damage done at Pearl Harbor would force the United States to deploy resources meant for Lend-Lease to the Pacific theater. He wanted to make an immediate trip to Washington to plead his case to Roosevelt face-to-face.

Franklin Roosevelt still saw Germany as the main threat in the world. He wanted to keep Lend-Lease alive but was worried about domestic politics. If Churchill visited Washington and Lend-Lease continued, it might look like he was bowing to British pressure at a time when the country was focused on Japan. His isolationist opponents, such as Sen. Burton Wheeler, were making the case for the United States to shift resources from the European war to the fight in the Pacific.

Joseph Stalin was also worried about the implications of Pearl Harbor for Lend-Lease, and about American pressure to declare war on Japan. The last thing he needed was a two-front war while his army was fighting for its life (but starting to make gains) against the Germans.

Adolf Hitler also had American war production in the front of his mind. He had hoped for a Japanese attack on the United States as a way to divert U.S. resources away from Europe and North Africa, and he had promised to declare war on the United States if the Japanese did attack. He was overjoyed by Pearl Harbor.

Simms and Laderman skillfully weave together a narrative that shows the logic behind these leaders’ actions. As Simms and Laderman detail, Hitler was a gambler who knew full well the importance of American industrial power. He, providentially, made a bad bet.

IN THE YEARS BEFORE World War II, a group of officers in the U.S. Army Air Corps (the independent Air Force was still years away) began developing a doctrine of high-altitude daylight precision bombing at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Ala. Malcolm Gladwell argues in The Bomber Mafia that bombing doctrine was a matter of morality to these men.

The book’s subtitle is A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War, and the “dream” was that by using a new bombsight and emerging bombing methods they could attack an enemy’s key industrial and transportation “choke points.” This, they believed, would so hamper the enemy’s ability to fight that the United States could win a war while avoiding the hellish trench warfare of World War I. The area bombing (or “morale” bombing) tactics of the Germans and the British were anathema to them.

With a conversational writing style, Gladwell shows how the challenges, and temptations, of World War II led to this doctrine’s demise, to the sacking of one of its true believers, Gen. Haywood Hansell, and to the firebombing of Japanese cities under Gen. Curtis LeMay.

Timothy Lamer

Tim is executive editor of WORLD Commentary. He previously worked for the Media Research Center in Alexandria, Va. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Weekly Standard.


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