Certain dates in history have a powerful hold on the American imagination. When we think about World War II, we remember Dec. 7, 1941—a date President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed would forever live “in infamy.” Our minds also turn to D-Day, June 6, 1944, when Allied forces led by General Dwight D. Eisenhower landed in northern Europe and helped seal the doom of the Axis powers. We may also recall Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, when atomic bombs dropped from U.S. airplanes exploded in the skies over two Japanese cities.
These dates frame a distinctly American view of the war, one that obscures as much as it enlightens. For World War II was truly a global contest, sprawling over five continents and involving dozens of nations. Underway for years before the United States entered the fight, this titanic conflict was shaped by a variety of international forces and events interconnected in complex ways.
One of the many achievements of Evan Mawdsley’s ambitious and deeply researched new book is to place the American narrative of World War II into a larger global context. In December 1941: Twelve Days That Began A World War, he weaves the familiar story of Japan’s attack on Dec. 7 against U.S. targets in the Pacific into a broader history of the pivotal early weeks of December 1941. He argues forcefully that a series of events around the globe between Dec. 1 and Dec. 12, 1941, both merged and decisively changed the course of what had been two distinct wars. The first had been raging in Europe since September 1939. The second had cast a shadow over Asia since at least July 1937. Mawdsley shows how the events of December 1941 melded these two conflicts into one, creating what Winston Churchill called a “new war”—one that the Axis powers were doomed to lose.
The months before December 1941 were desperate ones for the Allied coalition battling Hitler and Mussolini— which by this point in the war amounted to the British Empire and the Soviet Union. Germany and Italy controlled most of Europe. In the east, the German Wehrmacht was pressing at the gates of Moscow and Leningrad. In North Africa, Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps threatened to drive British forces out of Egypt. In the North Atlantic, German submarines were sinking a staggering number of supply ships bound for Great Britain and the Soviet Union. These ships carried vitally needed armaments from the United States provided through President Roosevelt’s innovative Lend Lease program. Lend Lease made it possible for the United States to combat Axis aggression without entering the war. Powerful American isolationist sentiment kept the president from venturing much farther.
The considerable perils faced by the Allies were heightened by growing threats in Asia, where Japan seemed poised to expand its war of empire into Southeast Asia by seizing British and Dutch colonies. Japan was allied with Germany and Italy in the June 1940 Tripartite Pact, which mandated that each would come to the other’s defense if “attacked by a Power at present not involved in the European War or in the Japanese-Chinese conflict.” The pact was clearly aimed at discouraging U.S. intervention.
Mawdsley presents this dismal global picture in detail before revealing how it was upended by the events of Dec. 1-12, 1941, in the Atlantic, North Africa, the Soviet Union and the Far East. His gripping, day-by-day account takes the reader to Washington, Berlin, Moscow, London, Tokyo, Rome and a host of other locations.
Some of this history covers familiar ground. Japan’s final decision to strike both British and American targets in Asia and the Pacific was made on Dec. 1. The subsequent attacks immediately drew the United States into the war. Isolationist sentiment disappeared overnight and the nation’s economic and military power became a crucial factor in the global balance of forces.
But Mawdsley explores other events of this crucial 12-day period that also helped decisively change the course of the war. On Dec. 1, while Japan’s leaders were deliberating war, British tanks were mobilizing for what would prove to be their first full-scale victory over German Panzers in North Africa. During the next week they defeated Rommel’s forces at Tobruk and drove them back from the Egyptian frontier.
On Dec. 6 the war in Eastern Europe was transformed as Soviet troops—previously on the defensive—began mounting sudden and successful counterattacks in front of Moscow. German forces would remain on Soviet soil for nearly three years and Axis and Soviet deaths would mount into the millions. But after Dec. 6 Germany’s string of unchecked advances in the east was at an end.
On Dec. 11 Germany declared war on the United States. Hitler’s action—which was not required under the terms of the Tripartite Pact—freed President Roosevelt from a dilemma. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, U.S. anger burned against Japan. Yet Roosevelt understood that Germany posed the greater threat to American security. In the event of a two-front war, he planned to pursue a strategy of defeating “Germany first.” Hitler’s declaration of war made this task much easier.
By the morning of Dec. 12, Churchill’s “new war” was at hand. A grand alliance of Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States was about to emerge. We now know that this marked a decisive shift in the global balance of power, though this was not clear to many observers at the time. In the dark months that followed December 1941, Japan conquered a vast empire in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. In the Soviet Union, German and Soviet forces continued to fight desperate battles with enormous casualties. U-boats continued to sink Allied shipping in the North Atlantic, while German tanks roamed vast stretches of North Africa. And all the while, Germany accelerated its genocidal campaign to exterminate Europe’s Jews.
Despite these horrors and setbacks, clear thinkers like Winston Churchill understood that the events of December 1941 had irreversibly altered the war’s course. Later he recalled that on the night of December 7, “I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”
Eighteen hours later and 3,600 miles away, Franklin Roosevelt reflected the same confidence when he stood before a joint session of Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Japan. His face was grim, but his voice rang out with determination as he concluded his address: “With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.” In his masterful book, Mawdsley demonstrates how President Roosevelt’s conviction rested on a solid foundation. For the tide of battle had already turned.