The USA’s gradual slide into WW2

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island shortly after the beginning of the Pearl Harbor attack. View looks about east, with the supply depot, submarine base and fuel tank farm in the right center distance. A torpedo has just hit USS West Virginia on the far side of Ford Island (center). Other battleships moored nearby are (from left): Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee (inboard of West Virginia), Oklahoma (torpedoed and listing) alongside Maryland, and California. On the near side of Ford Island, to the left, are light cruisers Detroit and Raleigh, target and training ship Utah and seaplane tender Tangier. Raleigh and Utah have been torpedoed, and Utah is listing sharply to port. Japanese planes are visible in the right center (over Ford Island) and over the Navy Yard at right. U.S. Navy planes on the seaplane ramp are on fire. Japanese writing in the lower right states that the photograph was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry.
Imperial Japanese Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Conventional wisdom has it that prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour the USA was sitting pretty and ignoring what was going on in the world. To an isolationist American public this was exactly what they wanted. How true was this. This article will try to indicate this was not exactly the case by looking at various moves the Americans and others were making and I think these show that FDR was planning to get involved one way or another. There is lots of proof that the USA was exceedingly well informed about the Japanese intentions towards Pearl Harbour and basically ignored all the signs. We shall avoid that part of the equation and concentrate on what was happening on the ground and in the diplomatic arena.

There were multiple German diplomatic attempts to involve Japan against the British and Dutch Empires and later the USSR; these began even before Operation Barbarossa. The isolationists in the USA, chief among them Charles Lindbergh, were vocal in their dedication to keep the USA out of hostilities. The USA became ever more involved in protecting the Atlantic convoys while the Germans went to even greater lengths to avoid a clash with the Americans. The US and the UK were as thick as thieves as their military leaders discussed various kinds of co-operation and both the US and Japan were warily building up their bases and forces in the Pacific.

It is fairly obvious that all sides knew what was coming and were actively planning and preparing for yet more war.

American Isolation

In February the Chicago Tribune featured an article on the US Government’s secret plan for war. This included details such as a 100,000 man military half of which were slated to be the American Expeditionary Force destined to fight in Europe.

In March at a White House dinner for the Press Correspondents Association FDR made a speech promising America would supply the needs of the British and Greeks with ships, planes and food. This was fighting talk but he was powerless to deliver. A bit of a Rishi Sunak moment. This was beamed to Europe and was translated into fourteen languages.

In April at an America First Committee meeting in New York, Charles Lindbergh again made a public appeal for America to stay out of the war. In response, a couple of days later, FDR called Lindbergh an appeaser.

German attempts to involve Japan

While the Germans attempted to keep the USA out of it, the Germans were trying to get Japan to attack British possessions and the Soviet Union even before they had launched Operation Barbarossa. These attempts were led by von Ribbentrop wearing his Foreign Minister hat. The name to remember here is Hiroshi Oshima who was the Japanese Ambassador to the third Reich.

In February Joachim von Ribbentrop invited Hiroshi Oshima to his home and tried to persuade him that it was time for the Japanese to strike at British and Dutch territories in Asia helpfully explaining that should the Americans decide to respond the Japanese Navy was far superior to the US Navy.

In March Adolf ordered the German Foreign Ministry to lure the Japanese into the war by attacking British possessions but to avoid involving the Americans at this stage. Later in March the Japanese Foreign Minister, Yosuke Matsuoka, met with von Ribbentrop who again tried to involve the Japanese against the British Empire. This was with the usual blandishments that the USA was intimidated by the Japanese Empire. Later the same day Matsuoka met the man himself – Adolf. A couple of days later the two Foreign Ministers met again with von Ribbentrop offering German assistance if the Soviet Union should attack Japan. Matsuoka calmly noted that the Soviet Union seemed to be friendly to Japan.

A week after the start of Operation Barbarossa von Ribbentrop asked Japan to tear up the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact and invade the Soviet Union by attacking Vladivostok. The Japanese prevaricated and actually left their invasion of the USSR to the very last minute in 1945.

Again in August von Ribbentrop asked Japan to attack Vladivostok. The Japanese responded by saying that such a venture would require much time for deliberation and planning. At the end of August asked Admiral Soemu Toyoda to attack Vladivostok. The reply was that Japan was preparing for such an attack but needed more time to complete preparations. Had the Nips been taking lessons from Franco ?

By the middle of November Japan was requesting Germany not to conclude a separate peace with any of their common enemies but still did not reveal their plans to attack the USA. A week later and the Japanese Ambassador in Berlin was saying that Germany (in fact von Ribbentrop) had verbally promised that the Germans would declare war on the USA should Japan and the USA enter a state of war.

At the start of December the Germans came up with a draft document promising that Germany would in fact declare war on the USA.

US and UK machinations

In January secret US-British talks began in Washington DC regarding possible US involvement in the European War. This was known as the ABC1 Conference. These meetings continued until the start of April.

At the end of March, following these meetings, the Americans seized 2 German, 26 Italian and 35 Danish ships in US ports. They also imprisoned 850 Italian and 63 German officers and men.

In April, alarmed by the Soviet- Japanese Neutrality Pact, FDR ordered the US Navy to scale back operations in the Atlantic so as to avoid war with the Germans. This meant naval resources could be quickly moved to the Pacific in case they had to fight the Japanese and/or Soviets.

In May Henry Stimson, the US Secretary for War, surprised his fellow countrymen by saying that the US must use its fleet to ensure the triumph of democracy. FDR also announced an unlimited state of emergency which enabled him to send more war supplies to the UK.

In June the assets of German and Italian nationals in the US were frozen. German and Italian Consulates in the United States were forcibly closed and the diplomats were expelled. Three days later, in the usual tit for tat reaction, US Consular officials in Germany and Italy were expelled.

In early July FDR announce that American troops would be relieving British troops in Iceland. The British had marched in to stop the Germans doing the same thing. Adolf’s reply was that this was an act of aggression. Erich Raeder then asked Adolf if it was time for the German Navy to attack US vessels. Hitler rejected the request. The British had stationed troops in Iceland in May 1940, whether the Icelandics liked it or not. Iceland was a Danish colony and the teutons had occupied Denmark, the occupation of Iceland was to stop the Axis using the island.

In the middle of July FDR and Cordell Hull, US Secretary of State met with the Japanese Ambassador in Washington and tried to open negotiations regarding peace in the Pacific region. Adolf ordered that American shipping was not to be attacked by German forces, he didn’t want the Americans in the war. Then all Japanese ships were forced out of the Panama Canal Zone.

In August FDR and Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter, the opening shots in setting up the very evil United Nations that plagues us to this day.

In September FDR announced that US warships would attack German and Italian submarines on sight during one of his “fireside chat” radio addresses.

In October US and UK Naval Commanders met in Singapore. Harold Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, informed Husband Kimmel, 4 star US Admiral in charge of Pearl Harbour, of his opinion that while Japan was likely to attack in the near future, an attack on Pearl Harbour was unlikely. Meanwhile FDR made an address to his country saying that the German attack on destroyer USS Kearny was an attempt to frighten the American people off the High Seas. He stated that this had aroused the American Spirit.

In November FDR placed the US Coast Guard under the control of the US Navy for the duration of the national emergency. Congress amended the Neutrality Act of 1939 and this allowed US merchant ships to be armed thereby allowing them to enter war zones. Two weeks before it happened, Henry Stimson wrote in diary that during a cabinet meeting, FDR thought that Japan was likely to attack the US, maybe in the next week, and it could provide the reason for FDR to take the US into the war.

Guarding Convoys in the Atlantic

This was.a major area of escalation during 1941. We have seen that Germans didn’t really want to start a shooting war with the US and their submarines had been told not to attack American ships. Over the course of 1941 thing became much much warmer in the North Atlantic.

In March the US Navy established the Support Force Atlantic Fleet and this force was to provide protection for merchant shipping.

In April the US Navy transferred 3 battleships, 1 carrier, 4 light cruisers, 18 destroyers and several other ships from the Pacific Fleet to the Atlantic Fleet. A US Navy base began operating in Bermuda. This was leased to the Americans for 99 years in return for destroyers. The so called Neutrality Patrols were allowed to operate as far east as Iceland and as far south as Rio de Janeiro.

In May Task Group 1 consisting of aircraft carrier USS Ranger heavy cruiser USS Vincennes and destroyers USSs Sampson and EBerle sailed from Bermuda on a near 5,000 mile Neutrality Patrol in the Atlantic. U-69 sank the unarmed US freighter Robin Moor by torpedo and gunfire 800 miles off the coast of British West Africa. This was the first time a Geman submarine had sunk a US merchantman. Luckily all 46 crew members survived. FDR protested and demanded compensation from Germany. No compensation was forthcoming. The US Navy now extended its Neutrality Patrol to both the North and South Atlantic.

In June men of the US Naval Reserve were called to active duty. The USS New Mexico left Hampton Roads, Virginia to patrol the Atlantic Ocean.

In July US Marines arrived in Iceland freeing British troops for other duties escorted by USS New York, Arkansas, Brooklyn, and Nashville. By the middle of July this takeover was complete.

In August US Navy aircraft based in Iceland began routine patrols over the North Atlantic. The cruiser USS Nashville, escort carrier USS Long Island and destroyers Livermore and Kearny departed Bermuda as part of the Neutrality Patrol. This was the first use of an escort carrier in an anti-submarine role.

In September destroyer USS Greer chased U-652 for 2 hours 190 miles southeast of Iceland. Both sides attacked each other but no damage was done, This was the first time Germany attacked a US warship. US Coast Guard cutters intercepted and boarded Norwegian trawler Buskoe off Greenland. The trawler was being operated by Germans trying to establish a weather station in the North Atlantic. Allied convoy ON18 was the first to be escorted by American ships was it rendezvoued with destroyer USS Madison, USS Lansdale, USS Hughes and USS Simpson in the middle of the Atlantic.

In October destroyer USS Anderson detected a submarine and dropped depth charges. Shortly after she reported an oil slick. U-106 damaged oiler USS Salinas 700 miles east of Newfoundland.  USS Salinas made it slowly back to Newfoundland while other escort vessels chased U-106 for nine hours. The U-boat survived but had sustained serious damage.At the end of the month a German U-boat fires a torpedo at a US destroyer but missed. U-552 attacked an allied convoy to the west of Iceland. USS Reuben Jams, a destroyer, was sunk with 100 crew killed and 45 survivors. This was the first US warship lost in the Atlantic in WW2.

In November 3 US destroyers escorting the next convoy HX 157 used depth charges against sonar contacts off Newfoundland. US Catalina aircraft began providing air cover for convoy ON 31. USS Upshur again used depth charges while covering convoy HX 157. US cruisers USS Omaha and Memphis along with 3 destroyers began hunting German surface raiders. After a couple of days USS Omaha and destroyer USS Somers captured German blockade runner Odenwald which was disguised at the US merchant ship Willmoto off Brazil. The Odenwald was carrying rubber from Japan to Germany. USAAF 12th Bombardment Squadron began into submarine operations from its base in the US Virgin Islands. US warships including carrier USS Ranger began escorting a troop convoy with more than 20,000 Canadian soldiers. The troop ships were from the US Navy. Adolf again ordered the German Navy to restrain from attacking American ship s unless they were fired upon by the Americans. US Army troops arrived in Dutch Guiana on behalf of the Dutch Government to protect the Bauxite mines.

On the 3rd of December U-124 sank zee unarmed US freighter Sagadahoc in the South Atlantic.

Japanese Preparations.

The Imperial Japanese Army was already fighting in China so there are only a few additions to what they were up to. They did however try to conceal their preparations to attack the USA.

In March the Japanese established an intelligence network in San Diego to monitor the transport of war materials. Japan ordered Vichy France to return parts of Cambodia and Laos, which the French had taken from Thailand, back to the Thais.

In July the Japanese came to an agreement with Vichy France which permitted a virtual Japanese occupation of French Indo-China.

In October the Tatsuta Maru, a Japanese passenger ship, arrive in Honolulu and disembarked American nationals who had wished to return to the US because of the rapidly deteriorating relations between the US and Japan. Two Japanese intelligence agents also disembarked. They were carrying instructions for the Japanese consulate and a supply of radios for civilian spies on the island who were already in place.

November got to be very busy. On the 1st Combined Fleet Order #1 was issued calling for additional radio communications to be generated to make US cryptanalytic efforts more difficult. The US Navy in turn noted the change in signals. On the 3rd the Chief of the Japanese Navy General Staff, Admiral Osaka Nagano, approved the draft plan of attack on Pearl Harbour. At the same the US cryptanalysts realised the the Japanese were inflating the amount of radio traffic. On the 5th at a conference with Emperor Showa, this name being awarded posthumously to Hirohito, the Japanese leaders decided to go to war with the US, UK and the Netherlands in early December if diplomatic relations with the US did not improve quickly. On the 6th the Japanese military mobilised for war.

On the 7th Japan conducted a carrier exercise. On the 8th following Great Army Instruction 992 the Japanese Army and Navy were ordered to coordinate their plans for the opening phases of the Pacific War. On the 16th obsolete Japanese battleship began to sail around the Inland Sea to generate fake radio communications at different ports. Admiral Yamamoto revealed the Pearl Harbour attack plan to the naval leadership. Japanese special envoy Kurusu Sabre arrived in Washington and met with Secretary of State Cordell Hull.

On the 19th the Japanese Embassy in Washington was instructed that should war be declared on the US, Japanese public radio broadcasts would include the code phrase “hibachi no kaze ame” (“brazier of wind and rain”), on the Soviet Union “ita no kaze hare” and on the United Kingdom “niche no kaze hare”. This clear preparation was intercepted by the Americans. The next day the Japanese Ambassador to the US, Nomura, presented Japan’s final proposal to keep the peace in Asia. The Japanese set the 29th November as the final date for peace negotiations.

On the 26th The Japanese carrier fleet departed the Kurile Islands for Pearl harbour. By the 30th the Japanese Ambassador in Germany, Hiroshi Oshima, was informed that war with the US was very close and that he should tell Hitler and von Ribbentrop of this. Emperor Showa (Hirohito)  ordered Prime Minister Tojo to proceed with the plans to start a Pacific War having rejected US proposals for peace.

As everyone knows the Nips attacked Pearl Harbour on the 7th (the 8th for the Japanese) and the plans were in full swing by now so the few remaining details are that on the 1st the Japanese Navy changed their communications code and at an Imperial Conference was taken to go tot war with the USA. On the 3rd the Japanese Navy informed all its Admirals That hostilities would start on the 8th (Tokyo Time) and also asked the Italians to declare war on the US should Japan and the US enter a state of war. On the 5th Japanese submarines surrounded the Hawaian Islands while announcing that its recent troop movements in Indo-China were merely precautionary. On the 6th the Japanese carriers reached their rendezvous point and then began their high speed approach to Pearl Harbour. The American Admirals in Hawaii knew something was happening but did not think Pearl Harbour would be a target. In Pearl Harbour itself the Japanese Consul  sent a cable to Japan saying that he had seen no barrage balloons nor torpedo nets around the battleships in the harbour.

In essence the Japanese kept their preparations very quiet and tried to hide them. They were well aware that they would have to fight the United States along with the British and Dutch Empires.

American Preparations in the Pacific

In March the Americans installed 8 men and some 2.5 inch guns on Johnston Atoll a few hundred kilometres southwest of Hawaii. Construction of defences for both Johnston Atoll and Palmyra Atoll, due south of Hawaii, began.

In April, fearing that Britain (aka Aircraft Carrier One) might be invaded The USAAF invited designs for a bomber capable of carrying out missions against Europe directly from the USA. The design winner was the humungous B-36 Peacemaker but it was not ready until 1946. FDR approved the formation of the American Volunteer Group of combat pilots for China. Admiral Kimmel (he was to be the fall guy for Pearl Harbour)requested Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold Stark, for base construction at Wake Island and for US Marines to be stationed there. A few days later Harold Stark ordered a battalion of Marines be established at Wake Island.

In July The USS Arizona arrived at Pearl Harbour, it is still there but resting on the bottom. The USMC finally established a detachment at Johnston Atoll.

In August the US Navy established the Naval Air Station at Midway. Douglas MacArthur, stationed in the Philippines, was told by his superiors the he would receive reinforcements no later than early September.

In October the US Navy awarded a contract to build Dock Number 4 and a 20,000 kilowatt bomb proof power plant at Pear Harbour shipyard.

In November Wake Island received reinforcements and the US Navy Asiatic Fleet ordered its Yangtse River gunboats and Marines from China. The Marines were to be evacuated to the Philippines. US submarines Triton and Tanbour arrived at Wake Island in simulated war patrols. Admiral Harold Stark warned commanders of the Pacific and Aisatic fleets that attacks on Malaya, Philippine Islands and the Dutch East Indies were a distinct possibility. The US Navy chartered a passenger ship, President Madison, to transport the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Marine Regiment from Shanghai to the Philippine Islands. US Marine Fighter Squadron 211 secretly flew fto Ford Island in their Grumman Wildcats to be transferred to USS Enterprise. The Enterprise then set sail for Wake Island. The Captain of the Enterprise informed his subordinates that the carrier was now operating under war conditions. More defensive guns were to be installed on Pacific Islands.

In December things really started warming up. FDR ordered US Navy yacht Isabel and two other small vessels to be deployed off the coast of Indochina, they were to be bait for the Japanese to fire the first shot if they fell for the ruse. US river gunboats Luzon and Oahu, submarine rescue vessel Pigeon and minesweeper Finch set sail from China heading for the Philippines under the watchful eye of a Japanese floatplane and several naval vessels. Two more USMC battalions arrived at Pearl Harbour. Submarine USS Trout began a simulated war patrol off Midway Atoll. Carrier USS Enterprise began launching USMC F4F Wildcat fighters heading for Wake Island. Submarine USS Argonaut began a simulated war patrol off Midway Atoll. US river gunboats Wake and Tutilla remained near Shanghai to maintain communications with American diplomatic offices in China. Carrier USS Lexington left Pearl Harbour carrying Vindicator dive bombers to be delivered to Midway Atoll. The USS Arizona arrived at Pearl Harbour and heavy cruiser USS Astoria left Pearl Harbour to join Task Force 12 which was operating around Hawaii.

It rather looks as though the US Navy was preparing for attacks on Wake or Midway rather than Pearl Harbour. There was enough intelligence to point to Pearl Harbour being the target but much of this was either not delivered or was delivered too late. FDR was determined to get his day of infamy whatever the cost.


It was no secret that war was coming in the Pacific and the US was also getting very involved in convoy protection in the Atlantic in 1941. The isolationist sentiment in the US was strong and it would need a rather large kick in the pants to change it. That kick was delivered at Pearl Harbour.

Germany was trying not to antagonise the Americans but by the time the Japanese attacked Hawaii they joined in gleefully declaring war on the USA. It may be they thought Japan would now also attack the USSR but that attack never came. This was not Hitler’s greatest idea and would eventually cost him the war with the Russians supplying the canon fodder and the Americans supplying much of their hardware, Stalin was obsessed with tanks but had forgotten about trucks and jeeps, the Americans made up the difference big time thus enabling the Soviets to provide ammunition and supplies for the twenty odd thousand tanks they had built.

FDR was a crafty devil, he made out he was keeping the US out of the war while simultaneously planning to get involved. Most of the US steps before hostilities broke out mean little on their own but taken as a whole they indicate there was a plan to go to war. The Americans were suckered in by their own government as much as anything else.

Four hours after the attack on Pearl Harbour the Japanese Army began shelling Hong Kong and this ended in another British capitulation. Our far eastern Empire was only viable when the natives believed we were omnipotent. Once that fallacy had been destroyed it was only a matter of time until the end. We only kept Hong Kong after the war because the Chinese abided by the terms of the lease. I think our preparations consisted mainly in hoping for the best.

© well_chuffed 2023