What would have happened if Japan did not attack the United States on December 7th, 1941?
You would be right to be pessimistic. The Second World War was not going well for the existing allies when Japanese planes lifted off from their carriers in the mid-Pacific on December 7th.
The collection of countries still in the fight in 1941, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the rest of the British Empire as well as the disorganized, feuding factions in China, had not yet won decisively on the ground. Instead a mesmerized world had witnessed them suffer stunning defeat after stunning defeat. Germany, Italy and Japan were running the table.
The situation was so dire, many questioned whether Britain’s allies could hold on, let alone turn the tide. They had lost their toe hold in Western Europe with the fall of France, the British army left its equipment on the beaches at Dunkirk when its soldiers fled France in small boats and the German army had punched its way to within sight of Moscow.
Roosevelt knew the situation was desperate and the United States was helping Britain with materials, but he had to tread carefully – America was still deeply anti-war.
Some frustrated individual Americans who saw the need to fight enlisted in the armed forces of other countries such as Canada, but the country as a whole did not see the threat of German and Axis domination of the world as significant enough to go to war. So despite the fact that Hitler by this time had shown his true colors, many Americans were still unwilling to enter the fray. Powerful elements in the country were simply adamant against joining the war to defeat Hitler.
The state of the world on December 6th, 1941 was perilous; the existing allies were losing a war against Hitler.
What was also apparent at the time was how formidable Germany and Japan were militarily. The battle of Britain had been won but by the smallest margins.
German armies were pushing deep inside the Soviet Union. They had been stopped at the gates of Moscow. But would Russia have been able to hold the Germans or turn the tide without American supplies and second fronts in the west diverting German armies to the west? How long it took to defeat Germany even with American help gives some sense of the difficulty of the task.
How far would Hitler have gone if the forces against him had not been reinforced? If the United States had not entered the war, what would have been the consequences?
It would have left victory very uncertain and much of the world could have remained under the boot of one of the most vicious and psychopathic regimes in history.
But it wasn’t just the world that was at risk – despite the rhetoric of the isolationists: that America was safe across the ocean. The United States would have found itself isolated politically and despite its geographic isolation, could have found itself even under attack.
If America had not entered the war would Roosevelt have felt the urgency or had the support to make the massive investment in the Manhattan Project and build an atomic bomb? Or would the Germans, who were researching nuclear reactions, have been the first to develop this weapon of mass destruction?
This would have been a devastating combination with Germany’s well advanced “V” rocket program. Especially considering the Germans had successfully tested a submarine launched V2.
Nuclear tipped V2 rockets launched from submarines could have reached and devastated the major cities on the eastern seaboard of the United States. At the very least, it would have put Germany in a commanding bargaining position with the United States. At worst, the consequences were only limited by Hitler’s imagination.
America’s entry into the war raised the certainty that Hitler’s conquest of Europe and his nuclear plans would be put to a stop. And before the Japanese attack, going to war was something America was still unwilling to do.
The solution to the problem occurred when Japan made one of the stupidest decisions in history: to attack an adversary it couldn’t possibly defeat. The decision to attack Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941 is a day that lives in infamy in the United States, but it mobilized America.
In the rest of the world, Pearl Harbor can be seen as an event that saved the world. When the first bombs landed at Pearl Harbor the defeat of Hitler became mush more certain. The rest of the world still had to fight tooth and nail, but the U.S. entry into the war provided vital leadership and resources that tipped the balance for the Allies.