The Big Leak

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America’s military leaders had been worried by Roosevelt’s decision in June 1941 to embargo all shipments of oil to Japan when it seized Indochina, a cutoff that the Dutch and British imitated. The military feared that the Allies were goading Japan to the brink of war. When the Japanese sent negotiators to Washington to try to resolve the dispute peacefully, Gen. George Marshall, the Army’s Chief of Staff, had urged the State Department to make concessions to keep peace in the Pacific. In his book Going to War with Japan 1937–1941, Jonathan G. Utley has described how Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull attempted to negotiate a comprehensive agreement with Japan, including its withdrawal from China—a diplomatic goal far too ambitious in the context of the political and military realities of 1941.

After Pearl Harbor everyone in the United States except the FBI lost interest in the Tribune story. But the secret information revealed by Chesly Manly acquired a second life in Nazi Germany. On December 5 the German Embassy had cabled the entire transcript of the story to Berlin. There it was reviewed and analyzed as the “Roosevelt War Plan.”

While his military advisers were digesting it, Hitler wrestled with an immense political decision. Should he declare war on the United States? The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor surprised him as much as it surprised Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Tripartite Pact signed by the Axis powers in 1940 had never been supplemented by specific agreements about coordinating their war aims. The German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had promised Hiroshi Oshima, the Japanese ambassador to the Third Reich, that Germany would support Japan if it became embroiled with the United States. But neither he nor Hitler envisioned the kind of aggressive assault launched by Japan at Pearl Harbor. Oshima urged Ribbentrop to make good on his promise. Hitler’s reaction to Pearl Harbor made it clear that he had no overwhelming sense of obligation to declare war as a result of Ribbentrop’s unauthorized assurances.

Theretofore one of Hitler’s basic strategies had been to keep the United States out of the war by getting all possible leverage out of the strong isolationist sentiment in Congress and elsewhere. Even after Roosevelt had issued orders to American warships to “shoot on sight” at German submarines, Hitler had ordered Grand Adm. Erich Raeder, the navy’s commander in chief, to avoid incidents that Roosevelt might use to bring America into the struggle. After the war Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl, Hitler’s chief planner, said that Hitler had wanted Japan to attack Great Britain in the Far East and the U.S.S.R. but not the United States. Hitler had wanted “a strong new ally without a strong new enemy.”

On December 8,1941, President Roosevelt seemed to confirm the wisdom of Hitler’s policy in his speech to Congress, calling for a declaration of war against Japan. Condemning the attack on Pearl Harbor as a “day of infamy,” FDR did not so much as mention Germany. Most historians agree that in the wake of Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt could not have persuaded Congress to declare war on Germany. The nation’s rage was focused on Japan.

On December 6, just before Japan launched its attack, Admiral Raeder became a major player in the Reich chancellor’s global decision. He submitted to Hitler a report prepared by his staff that pointed with particular urgency to the most important revelation contained in Rainbow Five: the fact that the United States would not be ready to launch a military offensive against Germany until July 1943.

Raeder argued that this necessitated an immediate re-evaluation of Germany’s current strategy. He recommended an offensive on land and sea against Britain and its empire to knock them out of the war before this crucial date. He envisaged further incidents between American naval vessels and German submarines in the North Atlantic and admitted that this could lead to war with the United States. But he argued that Rainbow Five made it clear that America was already a “nonbelligerent” ally of Great Britain and the Soviet Union and that a declaration of war was no longer something Germany should seek to avoid by restraining its U-boats. Moreover, Raeder concluded that Roosevelt had made a serious miscalculation “in counting upon Japanese weakness and fear of the United States” to keep Nippon at bay. He was now confronted with a Japanese war two or three years before the completion of a two-ocean navy.

On December 9 Hitler returned to Berlin from the Russian front and plunged into two days of conferences with Raeder, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, the chief of staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (usually referred to as the OKW), and Reich Marshal Herman Goring, the commander of the air force. The three advisers stressed the Victory Program’s determination to defeat Germany. They pointed out that it discussed the probability of a Russian collapse and even a British surrender, whereupon the United States would undertake to carry on the war against Germany alone.