This week (Dec. 7) in 1941, “a date which will live in infamy,” as President Franklin Roosevelt memorably described it, six aircraft carriers of the Imperial Japanese Navy sent waves of Japanese fighters, bombers and torpedo planes in a coordinated attack against the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. At day’s end, the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been all but destroyed, 2,400 Americans had been killed, and nearly 1,300 others had been wounded.
The next day President Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan, which it promptly did, as an infuriated American public demanded revenge. Yet, to the astonishment of many Americans, when Nazi Germany declared war on the United States four days later, Roosevelt and his military advisors decided to make the defeat of Germany, not Japan, their highest military priority. Granted, Roosevelt did so in consultation with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had long pleaded with Roosevelt to declare war on Germany, but the fact was that, other than occasionally (and mostly inadvertently) sinking some American shipping in the Atlantic Ocean, Germany — on Hitler’s orders — had strenuously avoided antagonizing the United States.
It was the Japanese, not the Germans, who had spilled American blood, and every major opinion poll showed that Americans wanted Japan’s defeat to be the top priority. Further, the U.S. Navy was unanimous in wanting payback against Japan for its brutal surprise attack.
So why did Roosevelt decide to focus on Germany?
Several reasons, both strategic and political. By December of 1941 both Britain and the Soviet Union had been attacked by Germany and were barely surviving. Roosevelt thought it was critical that the United States support them both to ensure that they continued to hold out.
Second, militarily Hitler’s Germany was by far the more dangerous adversary, so from a strategic standpoint it made more sense to defeat the stronger enemy first and then go after the weaker, rather than deplete one’s forces against the weaker enemy, and then have to face the stronger. Also, should Great Britain be defeated, a distinct possibility in late 1941, the formidable British Navy would be rendered neutral, or ineffectual, at best, or come under German control at worst. Either way, Germany would control the Atlantic sea lanes that were critical to America’s economic survival, both in terms of trade and access to raw materials.
Finally, Roosevelt saw Hitler as a uniquely dangerous threat. It was one thing to create an empire in a backwater like Southeast Asia, as Japan was trying to do. It was quite another to create an empire on the highly industrialized and advanced European continent, as Hitler was on the verge of doing.
That being the case, Roosevelt made the right decision.