December 1941 was the critical month of World War II

By Cody Carlson, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Dec. 7, 2011 at 10:11 a.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY -- It was 70 years ago this December that the fate of the world was decided.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 1941, a Japanese fleet of 408 aircraft launched from six aircraft carriers and rained a deadly fire upon the United States Pacific fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The result of this massacre was nearly 3,000 Americans dead, four battleships sunk, several other craft either destroyed or heavily damaged, and the apparent invincibility of an ascendant Japanese Empire.

The decision of the Japanese military leadership to take on the United States was only part of a larger plan to ensure economic autarky for the empire. Since 1941 Japanese forces had been engaged in an aggressive war in China, a war which acted as a drain on Japan's resources and continued military potential. Wishing to end the brutal conflict in China, the United States and other Western powers began an economic embargo of war materials to Japan.

In this Dec. 7, 1941 file photo, the battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over into the sea during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
In this Dec. 7, 1941 file photo, the battleship USS Arizona belches smoke as it topples over into the sea during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Even as their diplomats negotiated in Washington, the Japanese military leaders' hatred for what they had dubbed the ABCD powers (America, Britain, China, and the Dutch) only metastasized.

With Holland overrun by the Nazis in 1940, the Dutch East Indies offered a tempting prize. On these islands Japan could satisfy its need for rubber, tin, oil, and various other commodities that would establish permanent economic independence for the empire.

The Japanese plan was simple: Knock out the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor and its bases in the Philippines, destroy British power at Singapore and Hong Kong, and then Japan would have a free hand in the South Pacific. Japan would also conquer and fortify islands throughout the mid-Pacific, creating a defense perimeter against any future American assault.

“The attack against Hawaii was a sideshow meant to cripple America's ability to blunt Japan's all-important thrust to the South,” wrote historian James Bradley in his book “Flyboys.”

The Americans would not be happy with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, Japan's military leaders knew, but resistance was not expected to be great. The Americans would soon realize the impossibility of striking back. In 1941 no American bomber could reach the Japanese home islands, and it was well understood that Americans were only interested in making money. War was bad for business.

After a few months of futile fighting at the edge of the defense perimeter the Americans would sit down at the negotiating table. Japan would concede several of its conquests, allow the Americans to save face, and the Japanese Empire would be a world power, free to complete the conquest of China and the development of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

“But there were no follow up plans,” wrote Bradley of the Japanese strategy, “just a 'hypothesis' that Japan would later answer enemy responses with brilliant counterthrusts."

In this Dec. 7, 1941 file photo, the destroyer USS Shaw explodes after being hit by bombs during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
In this Dec. 7, 1941 file photo, the destroyer USS Shaw explodes after being hit by bombs during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

Just as critical those first few weeks in December 1941, events were playing out in Russia. Adolf Hitler's Wehrmacht had been stopped before Moscow in the face of a stiff Soviet resistance. This was the first time in over two years that a foreign capital did not fall to a determined German Army. For the first time, the Nazis had been stopped.

While still at war with Britain in the west, the Battle of Moscow was the culmination of Hitler's plan to conquer the Soviet Union. He had launched Operation Barbarossa (Redbeard) in June 1941 with the aim of acquiring Russia and the Ukraine's huge agricultural areas.

Mass starvation in Germany during World War I had prompted Hitler to seek autarky for Germany as well, and for him this meant a larger agricultural base, as well as access to the myriad resources of the Soviet Union.

Hitler did not expect the Slavic 'sub-humans' to put up much of a fight.

In his book "The Great Battle," historian and journalist Andrew Nagorski wrote: “The battle for Moscow was arguably the most important battle of World War II and inarguably the largest battle between two armies of all time...Yet Moscow survived, even if just barely, and that was enough to make all the difference.”

Both Japan and Germany's imperial ambitions met with unexpected consequences beginning in December 1941. Though gaining a tactical victory at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese strategic plan soon proved deeply flawed. The Americans did not give up as quickly as the Japanese believed they would. Rather, the United States soon showed its gifts for logistics, improvisation, and a determination to see the war through to victory.

“In a very special way Pearl Harbor became the turning point of the world struggle,” wrote historian Gordon W. Prange in his seminal book, “At Dawn We Slept.” “Pearl Harbor ensured that American strength would be concentrated into an arrow point of resolution, that the entire nation would stand as one man and woman behind the men at the front.”

National Parks Historian Daniel Martinez, right, lowers an urn with the ashes of Pearl Harbor survivor Lee Soucy to Navy divers during Soucy's internment ceremony, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011 in Honolulu.
National Parks Historian Daniel Martinez, right, lowers an urn with the ashes of Pearl Harbor survivor Lee Soucy to Navy divers during Soucy's internment ceremony, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011 in Honolulu.

Despite Japanese propaganda, the U.S. bombed Tokyo in April 1942, and two months later destroyed four Japanese aircraft carriers — the backbone of the imperial fleet — at Midway. The Japanese strategic plan had fallen apart and for the rest of the war they never adopted a new one.

In Europe, the Red Army launched its counter-attack on Dec. 5, 1941, a move that the Germans were completely unprepared for. Already reeling from a lack of warm winter gear, food and supplies, the Germans now were being pushed back. Only Hitler's iron order not to retreat saved his army from almost certain destruction on the Eastern Front that year.

On Dec. 11, 1941, without any treaty obligation to his Japanese ally to do so, Hitler declared war upon the United States, expanding the conflict to a true world war. Though it would be over a year before the American and German armies fought their first battles against in each other in North Africa, the die was cast. Russia became a bleeding ulcer for the Wehrmacht, forever sucking in more and more men and resources and giving nothing in return. Eight out of every 10 Germans that died in World War II was killed by a Soviet.

When one considers World War II as a whole, the inescapable conclusion is that December 1941 was the critical month both in Europe and in the Pacific. It not only brought America into the war as a belligerent, it shattered Hitler's hopes for an easy victory in Russia, as well as destroying the myth of the invincible Wehrmacht.

Cody K. Carlson holds an MA in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular "History Challenge" iPhone/iPad apps. ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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