December 1941: Twelve Days that Began a World War

December 1941: Twelve Days that Began a World War

by Evan Mawdsley


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An account of twelve pivotal days in 1941, when a chain of interlinked events changed world history

In far-flung locations around the globe, an unparalleled sequence of international events took place between December 1 and December 12, 1941. In this riveting book, historian Evan Mawdsley explores how the story unfolded. He demonstrates how these dramatic events marked a turning point not only in the course of World War II but also in the direction of the entire century.

On Monday, December 1, 1941, the Japanese government made its final decision to attack Britain and America. In the following days, the Red Army launched a counterthrust in Moscow while the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and invaded Malaya. By December 12, Hitler had declared war on the United States, the collapse of British forces in Malaya had begun, and Hitler had secretly laid out his policy of genocide. Churchill was leaving London to meet Roosevelt as Anthony Eden arrived in Russia to discuss the postwar world with Stalin. Combined, these occurrences brought about a "new war," as Churchill put it, with Japan and America deeply involved and Russia resurgent. This book, a truly international history, examines the momentous happenings of December 1941 from a variety of perspectives. It shows that their significance is clearly understood only when they are viewed together.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300187878
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 11/13/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Evan Mawdsley is honorary professorial research fellow, School of Humanities, University of Glasgow. His many books include World War II: A New History; Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet Struggle, 1941–1945; and The Russian Civil War. He lives in Glasgow.

Read an Excerpt


Twelve Days that Began a World War
By Evan Mawdsley


Copyright © 2011 Evan Mawdsley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-15445-0

Chapter One


Japan, Germany and the Coming World War

At the moment our Empire stands at the threshold of glory or oblivion. General Tojo Hideki

It is extremely unfortunate that Chancellor Hitler is not in the city, which makes it impossible to contact him.... As far as the German authorities are concerned, we understand Japan's desire for haste. Therefore I will do my best to secure as early an interview as possible. Joachim von Ribbentrop to Ambassador Oshima


The Imperial Conference of 1 December was a starting point, not a turning point. The nineteen solemn men who gathered in the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo for two hours on that Monday afternoon met to ratify decisions made weeks and months earlier – and to light a very short fuse. Their empire was already at war; the Japanese Army had been fighting a full-scale conflict in China for four years. The leaders of Japan now planned another campaign, covering a vast new territory, and taking on stronger and more fearsome enemies from Europe and America. They had made all but the final preparations. Ambassadors abroad had been put on alert. Ships and troops had been readied and on the move for weeks. The Imperial Japanese Army and the Imperial Japanese Navy were set to take up their final attack positions, and to strike.

The statesmen and generals faced one another behind two long tables. The Emperor sat, silent throughout, on a raised seat before a gold screen. Tojo Hideki, whom the Emperor had accepted as Prime Minister six weeks earlier, opened the solemn event. He was an efficient, incisive, 'political' general who did not suffer fools gladly; his army nickname was kamisori ('the razor'). The future subject of a thousand grotesque caricatures, Tojo was a man of mild appearance despite the military man's shaved scalp; he wore horn-rimmed spectacles and had a generous moustache. He reminded his listeners that on 5 November the previous Imperial Conference had resolved to follow a 'two-track' policy. Japan would prepare for war, but continue talks with the Americans in Washington. These negotiations, he noted – not without some inner satisfaction – had failed to bring the desired results: 'Under the circumstances, our empire has no alternative but to begin war against the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands in order to resolve the present crisis and assure survival.'

Five officials then reported on the Empire's readiness. Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori will feature more than once in our story, because of his correspondence with Japan's embassies. Togo was a grey-haired, distinguished, professional diplomat. A German speaker with a German wife, he had been Ambassador in Berlin in 1937–38. At the meeting on 1 December he outlined in more detail the course of the talks with the Americans. He repeated Tojo's judgement that the final response of US Secretary of State Cordell Hull, made five days earlier, had been unacceptable. Admiral Nagano Osami, the Chief of the Naval General Staff, spoke for both the Army and Navy. He reported that Japan's forces had carried through the required preparations for offensive war: 'We are now in a position to begin these operations, according to predetermined plans, as soon as we receive the Imperial command to resort to force.' America, Britain and the Netherlands had improved their defences in recent months, Nagano explained. 'However, we judge that their present state of preparedness is not greatly different from what we had anticipated; and hence we are convinced that it will present no hindrance to our launching military and naval operations'. Tojo himself then described Japanese public opinion, which he deemed ready to accept the challenge of extended war – extended beyond the four-year conflict with China – and he reported that preparations had been made to deal with any dissidents. The Finance Minister stated that the fiscal capacity of the empire was sufficient to support a war against Britain and the United States 'for any number of years', despite challenges. Finally, the Minister of Agriculture gave similar assurances about food supply.

The five presentations were followed by some questions by Hara Yoshimichi, the President of the Privy Council. Hara listened and spoke on behalf of the Emperor. The responses given to him were reassuring, and Hara declared his conviction that war was unavoidable.

General Tojo brought the Conference to a conclusion:

At the moment our Empire stands at the threshold of glory or oblivion. We tremble with fear in the presence of His Majesty. We subjects are keenly aware of the great responsibility we must assume from this point on. Once His Majesty reaches a decision to commence hostilities, we will all strive to repay our obligations to him, bring the Government and the military ever closer together, resolved that the nation united will go on to victory, make an all-out effort to achieve our war aims, and [set] His Majesty's mind at ease.

The man who sat before the gilded screen remained silent but content. The Chief of the Army General Staff, General Sugiyama Hajime, made a note in his diary: 'The Emperor nodded in agreement to each explanation that was made and displayed not the slightest anxiety. He seemed to be in a good mood. We were filled with awe.'

* * *

What had led Japan to the brink of war with Britain and America? Underlying causes were the excessive role of the Japanese military and radical nationalists, and the dominance, even in mainstream civilian political life, of authoritarian nationalism. Looming in the background was the costly four-year war in China, begun in 1937 and still nowhere near a satisfactory end. In Tokyo's view the conflict's resolution was blocked by the unreasonable support of America and Britain for the government of Chiang Kai-shek.

Then Hitler's victories in Europe, during the summer of 1940, created a radically changed, and unexpected, state of affairs. The German Wehrmacht had defeated and occupied France and the Netherlands, a stunning victory with reverberations in Southeast Asia; French Indochina and the resource-rich Dutch East Indies were now cut off and defenceless. Even Britain was in no position to protect its faraway possessions; the United Kingdom was under threat of invasion, and Italy had opened a new Mediterranean front. Japanese nationalists and militarists now believed that they lived in a changing world where the old European imperialist powers were being replaced by a 'New Order' (a term widely used in Japan). Japan would secure its own place as a great world power by securing control – directly or indirectly – over the economic wealth of Southeast Asia.

Japan's relations with America were more complex. Unlike Britain or the Netherlands, the presence of the United States in the Far East was limited. The main US possessions were the Philippine Islands, which Washington had announced would be made independent in the late 1940s, and which in any event were of no great economic interest to Japan. The United States, however, possessed global economic power; its powerful Navy had rivalled that of Japan throughout the 1920s and 1930s; and it served, especially after the summer of 1940, as the backstop of the British Empire.

A spiralling series of actions transformed tensions and expectations into direct confrontation and then war. The Japanese government chose sides in September 1940, when it signed the Tripartite Pact with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The three states declared that they would work together for the New Order in Europe and Asia. More specifically, they aimed to deter the neutral United States from intervening in either arena. Under the terms of the Tripartite Pact if Washington were to make war on any of the signatories, then the others would provide full political, economic and military assistance. The Tripartite Pact was a document of the greatest importance. It led, ultimately, to the declaration of war by Germany and Italy against the United States on 11 December 1941.

President Roosevelt's government opposed many of Japan's policies. It objected to the war in China, it feared an encroachment on the European colonies, it disliked Tokyo's open orientation towards Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and it understood that the United States was the target of the Tripartite Pact. The Japanese government of Prince Konoe (Tojo's predecessor), however, and not without some inconsistency, thought that it might be possible to lessen the tension between the two countries. In April 1941 the Japanese Ambassador in Washington, Nomura Kichisabur, began secret talks with Secretary of State Hull. Indeed, Hull now became the main spokesman for the Western powers in Asia; the embattled British were very eager to obtain American support and the London-based Dutch government in exile followed the British lead. However, the gulf between the Japanese and US positions proved too wide to be bridged.

The final slide into war began at the start of July 1941, when an Imperial Conference in Tokyo confirmed that the main thrust of Japanese policy would be 'taking steps to advance south'. Thailand and French Indochina were identified as the first areas required for an advance into what the Japanese called the 'Southern Area' (Nan'yo). No measure was excluded in carrying out these plans: 'our empire will not be deterred by the possibility of being involved in a war with Great Britain and the United States.' Later that month Japanese forces moved into southern Indochina, and began preparing air, land and sea bases for further movement (Japanese troops having been present in northern Indochina since September 1940). To the surprise of the Japanese, the Roosevelt Administration retaliated immediately with very strong economic countermeasures, imposing an embargo on the shipment of oil and other raw materials, and freezing Japanese assets in the US. These American measures were also taken up by the British and the Dutch.

The trade embargo was a powerful diplomatic weapon, but it was based on Washington's calculation that Japan was weak and could be forced to make concessions. In reality the embargo created the most dangerous of situations. Tokyo could see that the empire would, month by month, become weaker relative to its enemies, as its economy wilted under the embargo and America built up its own armed forces. Tokyo now came to believe that a gamble on war was better than national destruction and humiliation. In early September the Japanese government under Prince Konoe resolved to follow the 'twin-track' policy, one being diplomacy, the other, war. A decision between the two would be made in the last days of October 1941.

As the moment of decision approached, Prince Konoe lost his nerve and resigned. In the middle of October the Emperor appointed General Tojo to form a new government in his place, and with this act it is clear – from hindsight – that the Imperial Palace had concluded war was unavoidable. The Imperial Conference held on 5 November was the first presided over by Tojo. It resolved to continue the twin-track policy, but with more resolute preparation for war: 'The time for resorting to force is set at the beginning of December, and the Army and Navy will complete preparations for operations.' Midnight on 1 December was designated as the final point by which a diplomatic breakthrough could be achieved.

This was the background for the last stages of the Hull-Nomura talks in mid-November in Washington. Neither side made concessions. The American government did contemplate a temporary easing of the tension with a 'live and let live' arrangement – the so-called modus vivendi. This would have gained time to strengthen the US military presence in the Far East. But President Roosevelt – aware of Japan's fundamental inflexibility – decided against it. The Japanese, for their part, were keenly aware that delay would only make them weaker. On 26 November the Secretary of State presented to the Japanese representatives a memorandum setting out the final US position.

The famous 'Hull Note' began with a statement of idealistic principles of international relations. It then went on to state that there could be no general normalisation of Japanese-American relations or any slackening of the economic embargo until Japan agreed to withdraw its troops from China and French Indochina and until it rejected the Tripartite Pact. The Hull Note was in no sense an 'ultimatum', but the Japanese government found its terms intolerable. As Prime Minister Tojo told the Imperial Conference on 1 December, 'This not only belittled the dignity of our empire and made it impossible to harvest the fruits of the China Incident, but also threatened the very existence of our empire.' Nor was this outcome unexpected by the majority of the Japanese leadership, especially the Army and Navy. Over recent months the Japanese military had made extensive preparation for full-scale war in the Pacific and the Far East.

On Monday, 1 December, as the statesmen met in Tokyo, the generals and admirals of Japan were busily undertaking their final practical measures. At 0000 hours, the Imperial Navy changed the radio call signs of all its ships and sea-going commands. Foreign monitoring stations eavesdropped on Japanese radio traffic; the adjustment blocked their attempts to pinpoint individual vessels and to untangle the Imperial Navy's chain of command.

After the Imperial Conference meeting on 1 December the Army section of Imperial General Headquarters (IGHQ) despatched orders to General Count Terauchi Hisaichi: 'The Commander-in-Chief, Southern Army [Terauchi], will begin invasion operations on 8 December.' The Imperial Navy would send out its own, later more famous, executive order on the following day.

* * *

The Japanese armed forces had towards the end of 1940 begun long-term preparations for a possible move into the Southern Area. In October of that year the Army's 5th Division – a formation which will play a major part in our story, with its landing in the Kra Isthmus of Thailand – began training in amphibious operations near Shanghai. Similar training for three more divisions commenced in South China before the end of 1940. In January 1941 the Japanese Army set up a special institute on Formosa (now Taiwan) to study warfare in the tropics. From July these measures suddenly took on a greater urgency.

The Army had to balance the concentration of its divisions between Manchuria, China and Southeast Asia. The Navy had to decide whether its main fleets would operate in the Central Pacific or the South China Sea. The planners of both services needed to take account of the seasons, and with them the changing weather. Offensive operations across the South China Sea, the approach route to Thailand and Malaya, had to be started by December; after that, the full-strength northeast monsoon of January and February made movement too risky. Meanwhile, major operations in Southeast Asia, including the Dutch East Indies, needed to be completed before March 1942 and the end of winter, because at that time conditions would make operations by the Soviet Army – or against it – possible. The Japanese planners estimated that three months were required for the 'Southern Operation', so December 1941 had been fixed as the latest starting date.

In the middle of August 1941 the Army and Navy had agreed on the basic strategic shape which an advance to the south, if it occurred, might take. The programme was ambitious in the extreme. Potential objectives were Thailand, the Dutch East Indies, the American possessions of the Philippines and Guam, and the British colonies of Malaya, Burma and North Borneo. The challenge to the Empire of Japan was immense, but its forces were limited. The Army already had huge commitments on the Asian mainland, fighting a war in China and facing down the Red Army in Manchuria. The pool of available merchant shipping was not unlimited. The Imperial Navy, as a battle force, would have to both support invasions in Southeast Asia and deal with the American fleet in the Central Pacific.

The plan was much more ambitious than the governments of Britain and the United States imagined possible. The Japanese military had decided that it would not simply take cautious steps against weak and neutral Thailand or the orphaned European (French and Dutch) colonies. Japan would not even only attack one great power. It would make war on both Britain and the United States.


Excerpted from DECEMBER 1941 by Evan Mawdsley Copyright © 2011 by Evan Mawdsley. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Maps vi

List of Terms and Abbreviations viii

Introduction 1

1 1 December. Japan, Germany and the Coming World War 6

2 1 December. The Fight to the Death in Russia 25

3 1 December. London, Libya and the Dangers of the Far East 48

4 1 December. Washington, magic and the Japanese Peril 64

5 2 December. Two Doomed Battleships in Singapore 80

6 3 December. The Presidents Secret Promise 92

7 4 December. Hitler and Japan's War of Conquest 102

8 5 December. The Lull Before Two Storms 121

9 6 December. General Zhukov Throws in his Armies 131

10 7 December. Date of Infamy: Japan's Undeclared Wars in Malaya and Hawaii 152

11 8 December. The Beginning of the End of the British Empire 189

12 9 December. FDR Begins the American Century 215

13 10 December. Force 'Z' and the Malayan Tragedy 227

14 11 December. Hider's War on America 242

15 12 December. World War and the Destruction of the Jews 257

16 Aftermath. The New War and a New World 266

List of Participants 288

Notes 291

Select Bibliography 327

Index 337

What People are Saying About This

Bernard Wasserstein

'Using a zoom lens, Evan Mawdsley captures the realities of the dramatic twelve days in 1941 that determined the fate of the world. He shows how the campaigns in the Atlantic, North Africa, the Soviet Union and the Far East suddenly merged into a global war. He demonstrates how these momentous events presaged the defeat of Hitler and of Japan, the downfall of the British empire, and the rise of the two superpowers that dominated the history of the world between 1945 and 1989. Vividly written, based on a wealth of sources, and illuminated by penetrating and judicious insights, this is a pioneering work of international history that will enthrall scholars and general readers alike.' - Bernard Wasserstein, author of Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in Our Time

Joe Maiolo

Mawdsley’s grasp of the complexities of military operations and grand strategy is second to none. Weaving together the national strands of this global story in a compelling narrative, he underscores just how crucial that first week of 1941 was.’ - Joe Maiolo, author of Cry Havoc: Arms Races and the Second World War

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