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Stepehen Ambrose: 1941 and the Steps Leading Up to the U.S. Entering WWII

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
December 7, 2023 3:00 am

Stepehen Ambrose: 1941 and the Steps Leading Up to the U.S. Entering WWII

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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December 7, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, here's Stephen Ambrose telling the story of 1941--the year that would bring America into WWII in December after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

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Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. This is Lee Habib and this is our American stories, and we tell stories about everything here on this show and our favorite subject history. Stephen Ambrose was one of America's leading biographers and historians, and at the core of Ambrose's success was his simple belief that history is biography, that history is about people.

Ambrose passed in 2002, but his storytelling can now be heard here at our American stories thanks to those who run his estate. Here's Ambrose telling the story of the year 1941, a year that would bring the United States into World War II in December after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. As the year opened, the aggressors were on the march around the world. Mussolini had overrun Ethiopia and was about to launch an attack out of Albania that he had recently conquered down into Greece. The Japanese had taken Manchuria, had taken much of eastern China, were at war with the Red Army in Mongolia in 1939 and in 1940, and were laying plans to move even further south after their conquest in the fall of 1940 of French Indochina, moving down towards British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. So aggression was being rewarded, and especially so in Hitler's case, where at the beginning of 1940, he stood astride the continent like a colossus, more so even than Napoleon, more than the Holy Roman emperors, more than Julius Caesar.

He was the greatest conqueror the world has seen. At the beginning of 1941, Hitler either had an alliance with or was in military occupation of all of Europe from the Black Sea through what used to be Poland up to Lithuania. Poland had disappeared from the map.

Germany had annexed the western two forests of Poland, and the Russians had the eastern half. And so Poland was off the map at the beginning of 1941. So too for Czechoslovakia, which had been divided into protectorates under the Germans, Bohemia and Moravia.

Czechoslovakia had disappeared. Hungary was an ally. Austria, of course, had been incorporated. Italy was an ally. Hitler was about to invade Yugoslavia, and in the course of the spring of 1941, would take Yugoslavia. Hitler had taken Denmark and Norway and Holland and Belgium and, of course, France down to the line that separated Vichy from occupied France. And Spain, of course, was an ally, and the Soviet Union was an ally, providing Hitler with raw materials and foodstuffs that were critical to his war machine. As against this, Britain stood alone, the only nation in the world that was continuing the fight against Hitler. Meanwhile, in the United States, the argument still was between isolationists and interventionists. That is, the isolationists remained very strong, representing a significant portion of the population.

Whether it was 45 or 50 or 55 percent can't be said with any accuracy, but that it was a significant portion of the population is clear enough. And it was a retarding factor in America's trying to catch up, after years of neglect of our armed forces, with what had happened around the world in the 1930s. To try to come up with some modern tanks, modern aircraft, come up with them in something approaching the numbers that America's potential and real enemies had reached and were reaching in arms production. Expanding the personnel of the Army and the Navy and the Air Force and the Coast Guard. All these things were beginning to happen at the beginning of 1941 in the United States, but at a snail's pace.

There was not the sense of urgency in it or the sense of teamwork to it that were necessary to the kind of expansion that the times required. So the United States wasn't much of an influence on world affairs because we didn't have much firepower. Still, it was the richest country in the world, with worldwide interest.

And obviously it was going to have and did have an impact on the development of events, if not at all commiserate with its size and wealth. The big event of the first part of 1941 was with the coming of the longer nights in the North Atlantic, the Battle of the Atlantic. The German U-boat fleet, their submarine fleet, went all out to try to blockade Britain in a resumption of what Ludendorff had started in January of 1917 and what had brought the United States into the First World War. Unrestricted submarine warfare around the British Isles. The British suffered previously in this war of attrition. Britain could not build ships fast enough to replace those that the submarines were sinking. British countermeasures against the submarine were ineffectual, or at least insufficient. They were just beginning to bring sonar online and were beginning to improve their radar and starting to get more destroyers out there with the convoys.

But nevertheless, for the most part, Admiral Dernitz, the commander in chief of the German U-boat fleet, was winning the Battle of the Atlantic at the beginning of the longer nights in 1941. And this was obviously critical, just as it had been in 1917. And just as in 1917, when it had been the threat of Britain being cut off from the rest of the world that had brought the United States into the war, it played a major role in that decision. So too in 1941, we moved very much closer to Britain and took much larger risks than Roosevelt had previously done, rather than see Britain get cut off from the world. And thus, our closeness to war came to depend very heavily on the fate of Britain.

All age short of war is what Roosevelt promised through the first part of 1941. And you're listening to Stephen Ambrose. The story of 1941 is told by the very best there is on World War II. Our American Stories continues with Stephen Ambrose after these messages. Here at Our American Stories, we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith, and love. Stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.

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Let's return to Stephen Ambrose. And one very far short of war in the spring of 1941. He sent U.S. troops to Greenland. That meant that the British could pull their troops out of Greenland and send them to North Africa where they had an active campaign going on. And then later in July of 1941, Roosevelt sent Marines to Iceland.

They relieved the British battalion that was there, which then went down into the Middle East to fight in the desert battles. This was a full fledged alliance, except that the United States was not a belligerent partner in it. But we weren't far short of being a belligerent partner in this alliance. For the big event of 1941 that captures everyone's attention, the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany and her allies. Italians and Romanians and Hungarians were all a part of this invading force. This was an invasion of Eastern Europe by Central Europe.

This was the Genghis Khan in reverse. This was the greatest military operation of all time in terms of the size of the forces involved and the casualties inflicted. It was a gigantic struggle that was critical to the outcome of the Second World War.

And that's so obvious if you're almost fully saying it. But this is where the Second World War was decided, on this Eastern front. Where the Wehrmacht lost eight out of every ten soldiers killed in the Second World War. In the United States, Roosevelt typically was back and forth. He issued very tough orders for the Navy in the North Atlantic. We got into what was an undeclared war. The first of these presidential undeclared wars, then the next to come was going to be Korea and then it was going to be Vietnam. But the first was the naval war in the North Atlantic in the summer and fall of 1941.

Roosevelt had the U.S. Navy cooperating with the British right on up to Iceland and even beyond, working together. There were some restrictions on what Americans could do. American destroyers were not supposed to throw depth charges at German submarines.

And I don't know if that was ever violated or not. What they were, however, allowed to do and were sent to do, ordered to do, was to track German submarines and inform the British destroyers in the area where they were. And this was done and in July a German submarine turned on its American pursuer, a destroyer named the Reuben James, and fired a couple of torpedoes at it and hit it and sank it. Roosevelt was outraged.

He spoke of these rattlesnakes of the Atlantic. He said that the Reuben James was on innocent passage, carrying nothing but mail to Iceland, all of which was, I mean, of course they were carrying mail to Iceland, they were carrying it to U.S. Marine Division Station or battalion station on Iceland. And they were radioing the German subs position and so on. But Roosevelt was able to present this as an innocent American destroyer out in the North Atlantic.

Mining its own business and these bastardly Germans just shoot it down. And so he declared naval war on Germany. He gave the United States Navy orders to shoot on sight against German war vessels in the North Atlantic. Now let's turn to the Far East and, as it were, see how Roosevelt managed to get America into the war as a unified nation.

Something that right up till the first week of December 1941 no one thought possible. Well, in the Pacific the Japanese were the aggressors as the Italians and the Germans were in Europe. The Japanese army had taken control of Japanese politics in the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, primarily through political assassination. Any politician who disagreed with them, they just killed them.

And pretty soon not very many politicians would disagree with them. And their program was based on racial ideas of Japanese superiority and the inferiority of all the peoples around them, especially Koreans and Chinese, but including Russians. And, in fact, including everybody else, too. Asia for the Asians. They didn't add that they meant Asians for certain Asians, us. They did say that all Asians are equal.

They didn't add what they really meant, but some of us are more equal than others. What I'm getting to here is that the Japanese, as conquerors, proved to be as bestial as the Nazis were. They raped and pillaged and looted and shot and had mass executions and carried out atrocities in the footsteps of their advancing troops all through Asia. The worst country to be in in the Second World War was China. Not Russia. Not Germany. Not even Yugoslavia, which was god-awful.

Not even the Philippines, which were terrible. It was China. And the Japanese in China.

A story that the Japanese really had managed pretty well to, if not suppress entirely, to get most of the world to forget. In response to these Japanese advances in Asia, and especially into China, where Americans felt they had a special relationship based partly on people like Henry Luce and the missionaries, partly on the so-called China lobby in the United States, primarily West Coast politicians and businessmen who were eager to trade with China, primarily a very deep admiration that many Americans had for things Chinese. We had this special relationship with China, and from the beginning of the Japanese invasion of China, the United States had taken the position that we will not recognize these areas that you have conquered as being under your control.

We insist on an open door in China. And from the first, the Americans had as a stated principle that before anything else can happen in our diplomacy or in our relationship, the Japanese have got to pull out of China. Something that the Japanese were absolutely never going to do.

So you had two non-negotiable positions being taken by the contending sides. And almost with just that sense, I can say, and so that's why we had a Second World War in the Pacific. The Japanese would not pull out of China.

We would not recognize their conquest of China. If Japan wanted to become a great power, she was going to have to conquer the natural resources she lacked on her home islands. And if she did that, she was going to get driven back by the Americans and the British. But she was going to get driven back anyway, she felt.

And better to go down fighting, better to have taken the chance, better to have tried than never to have tried at all. Japan entered the war, a prince of the imperial family said later, with a tragic determination and desperate self-abandonment. Well, in 1941, there was no question for the Japanese they were going to extend their war. They were going to push on with their conquest.

But against whom? Yeah, they were very tempted. In June of 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin had to strip down his armies in Siberia, the great Russian frontier regions, to bring troops back for the defense of Moscow so that for the Japanese, who were the traditional enemies of the Russians, the Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union opened up some very tempting possibilities to strike north.

And this is very oil-rich and mineral-rich country up here in Siberia, very tempting to the Japanese. On the other hand, they were tempted to go south. The Japanese argued among themselves over this. Roosevelt, by the way, listened in to the argument because it was being carried out between diplomats and the United States had broken the Japanese diplomatic code. Eventually, the Japanese decided to go south.

That's where the more immediately exploitable resources were. And you're listening to Stephen Ambrose tell the story of 1941 like nobody else can when we come back. More with Stephen Ambrose, the story of 1941 here on Our American Stories. It uses rich, spatialized sound to bring your fave holiday classics to life. World-class noise cancellation straps you in for a not-so-typical silent night. And custom-tuned technology analyzes your ears' shape, adapting the audio performance so each whistle note hits higher and each sleigh bell rings even brighter than the last. It's everything music should make you feel taken to new holiday highs. It's more than just a present, and it gifts like a party. So turn your ordinary moments into epic memories with the gift of sound.

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Any monthly withdrawals or transfers reduce earnings. And we continue with our American stories and Stephen Ambrose telling the story of a year. And in this case, a pretty important one. 1941. The Philippines wasn't pumping any oil. The Philippines didn't have a lot in the way of minerals.

Philippines' biggest cash crop was mahogany. It wasn't all that important or valuable to the Japanese, to a Japan at war. So why attack the Philippines at all? Why bring the United States into this war?

Because they sit right in the middle of our line of communications. And Roosevelt, in order to deter the Japanese, had just sent America's superweapon out to Clark Field outside Manila. 50 B-17 four-engine bombers. As it were, to tell the Japanese, yes, if you do attack to the south, I'm going to interdict your supply columns with these B-17s. Okay, the thinking in the Japanese high command then, beginning with this idea that we're going to have to attack the Philippines, led to the development of a plan to attack, of all places, out here in the middle of the Pacific at Honolulu.

Now, why on earth, if they're going south, are they going to be sending forces out on a flanking operation out into the middle of a vast ocean? Well, because Roosevelt also was a deterrent to the Japanese, had, beginning in 1941, stationed the United States Pacific Fleet, taking it out of San Diego and putting it in space at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. And Admiral Yamamoto, the Japanese naval commander in chief, who had studied in the United States, and who knew Americans, and who had quite a reputation as a poker player, said, listen, if we're going to get America into this war by attacking the Philippines on the first day, we're going to have to take out the American fleet in Hawaii. That's the only way that we can proceed with our conquest of the Dutch East Indies and Malaya.

Otherwise, the Americans will be too powerful. They'll be sailing out of Hawaii, coming across the Western Pacific and hitting our lines of advance. So we've got to hit Pearl Harbor. We've got to hit the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

We've got to take it out, and it can be done. He came up with a brilliant plan, using five aircraft carriers, to sail to within 200 miles of Hawaii, and then launch from these five aircraft carriers dive bombers and fighter bombers and Zeros, the fighter airplane, on the American base in Hawaii. And the Army looked at this idea, and they said, you're nuts. But Yamamoto insisted that if we're going to go to war, we've got to knock out the American fleet first.

Now, he was a complex guy, a very intelligent man. He went on to say at these staff meetings, and to the Emperor on one occasion, we can't ever win a war with the United States. I've been there.

I've seen the United States. And if we get these people riled up, they'll fight to the finish. You may have this contempt for them, but I've studied the American Civil War, and I know what kind of stock these Americans come from. And we'll never win a war with the United States. But if you're insisting on going to war with the United States, for God sakes, you've got to start it with an attack on Hawaii, and take out the American fleet in a surprise attack just as the Japanese had taken out the Russian fleet at the beginning of the war between Russia and Japan in 1905, with a surprise attack. And eventually, he was able to convince his colleagues and the General Staff, and the attack on Pearl Harbor was laid on. And the Japanese began to prepare for it with some very extensive, very well-executed, well-thought-out, well-done training operations. Now we come to a question that has a real life to it.

It's gone on for now 55 years and bids fair to go on for another 100 or more. The question is, did Franklin Roosevelt know the Japanese were going to attack us at Pearl Harbor? Did Roosevelt take the back door to war? Did Roosevelt trick and maneuver his country into war?

Yes and no is the answer. I think critics can rightly point to some of his actions with regard to Japan, especially with freezing assets at a time when he knew from their exchanges that they were feeling desperate and were going to strike. No to any specific charge that he knew an attack was coming on Pearl Harbor. I think on December 7, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt expected the Japanese to attack the Philippines, probably that day. I think he was astonished, as everybody else in the world was, when they attacked Pearl Harbor. People say that Roosevelt had information that he didn't share with his commanders in Hawaii, and this is just nonsense. Information that he kept from them.

Well, this information was coming up from serving Army and Navy officers, and those were their friends out there in the Philippines and in Hawaii, and you'd think that they would have sat on this kind of information if they'd had anything so clear cut as that. What went wrong at Pearl Harbor, the reason that Pearl Harbor excites us is partly Franklin Roosevelt was Franklin Roosevelt. He was a very hated man and a very much loved man. He was one of the most polarizing of our presidents, at least as much so as Richard Nixon. And the people who hated Roosevelt tended to be, obviously they were far more Republican than not, intended to be isolationists. And they were therefore receptive to this argument that Roosevelt had taken us through the back door to war and that Roosevelt, that SOB, had known all along that that attack was coming and he didn't tell those boys and he didn't give them a chance. And you'd hear that in bars and in country clubs all over the country.

There just isn't anything to it. Roosevelt did not know an attack was coming on Pearl Harbor any more than anyone else did. Roosevelt basked in the same cocoon that Short and Kimmel did, that General Marshall did, that everybody in the American military and everybody in the country did. Nobody thought that, I mean to put it bluntly, nobody thought that those little yellow people could do something like this.

That's what it came down to. But Roosevelt, or Marshall had described Pearl Harbor as the strongest fortress in the world. He said the Japanese couldn't get within 750 miles of it. Kimmel and Short knew that a war was coming, everybody knew a war was coming because the negotiations had broken down. We had told the Japanese we're not going to lift this embargo or unfreeze your assets until you get out of Indochina and China. And the Japanese had just spent a lot of blood, treasure, and emotion on taking China and Indochina and they were about to back out. And we knew that. And they knew we weren't going to back down and so now as Secretary of State Cordell Hull said, now it's up to the Army and the Navy, I withdraw.

I'm out of here. That was in the middle of November and they began sending out messages to all the commanders in the Pacific and in Panama and around the world to look up. We're breaking off negotiations and war is expected at any moment. On December 1st, Kimmel and Short got a message, identical from General Marshall in the War Department, that began, this is a war warning. And you're listening to Stephen Ambrose and he is telling the story of 1941 and dealing with the mythology that Roosevelt somehow knew all along that Pearl Harbor was going to be hit and just let it happen. And I think he does a superb job of putting that at bay. When we come back, more of this remarkable storytelling from one of the greats and certainly the very best on the subject of World War II.

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Any monthly withdrawals or transfers reduce earnings. And we continue here with our American stories and Stephen Ambrose telling the story of 1941. Let's pick up where Ambrose last left off. Now you ask how on earth could Kimball and Short be caught by surprise in a situation like this? To add to it, a situation in which the American intelligence had lost the Japanese fleet, the carrier fleet. One of the greatest intelligence blunders of all history. The Pacific world was about to go to war and American intelligence lost track of the Japanese strongest striking force. Didn't know where they were. Didn't know if they had gone south, north, west, where. So how did Kimball and Short get caught?

By surprise. Well, for one, it's really not difficult to understand actually. But for one thing, the Japanese did everything right. From the moment that the carriers left Tokyo Harbor, they maintained radio silence. Even very low volume talk between ships themselves.

Everything was done by semaphore. They could receive messages from Japan, but they didn't send out anything at all. So that our breaking of the Japanese code did us no good because it doesn't do anything good to have broken the code when they're not using the radio. Kimball and Short prepared for war by doing the sensible things that a commander on Hawaii ought to do.

They put their planes together in the middle of the runway, wingtip to wingtip. That's much of the best way to protect your planes from saboteurs. There was a great fear the Japanese saboteurs were on Pearl Harbor. That they would strike when hostilities began. Another factor in how the Japanese pulled this one off was American, I don't want to say complacency because that's not what I mean.

American, it had become routine. There had been so many false alarms. There had been so many times in 1941 when negotiations were breaking down and people were worried that war might come at any moment. That there had been too many full alerts, which of course interfered with drill and training. So that even when warned to be on full alert, they weren't. They couldn't.

They couldn't take it seriously enough. A lot of little things went wrong in the morning of December 7th for the U.S. Navy. We did have radar. We were just coming onto radar.

It was not a common issue. It was still experimental, but radar was there and we'd gotten some tips from the British who had used radar very successfully in the Battle of Britain. And there was a radio station on Hawaii that was beaming out in the direction that the Japanese planes were coming from in the pre-dawn hours of the seventh day of December 1941. And these radar operators, they were out there for a state of time. They were staying at their post until 7 a.m. And then they were supposed to be relieved by another team. Well, 7 a.m. came and the other team wasn't there and they noted some blips on the screen. They saw planes were approaching. And they got on the phone and called back to base and the lieutenant back there, the duty officer, said, oh, they were expecting some B-17s to be coming in from San Francisco and those must be them.

So you can go ahead and shut down your radar for the day. And so they shut it down and went back. The first shots fired at Pearl Harbor were fired by an American destroyer that caught a Japanese midget submarine coming through into Pearl Harbor and attacked it at about 4.30 in the morning. Successfully, four of those midget submarines, by the way, came into the harbor that day and three of the four were sunk.

I guess one of them did get away then. They didn't do much damage. And then, as all the world knows, at 7.30 the Japanese, crying out, Torah, Torah, Torah, came roaring in and saw a sight that they never thought in their wildest dreams they would see. The American battleships and cruisers tied up side by side, stem to stern, all together in one place, can't miss it. And they just blew the American Pacific Fleet out of the water. Six battleships sunk in one hour. They hadn't sunk that many battleships in the greatest naval battle ever fought at Jutland in a whole day of fighting.

And he's got six in an hour. Three cruisers and many destroyers damaged. 3,600 men killed.

The fighter air force on the island, the land-based U.S. Army Air Force and the Marine contingent were just destroyed on the ground. And it was a humiliating defeat for the United States. And it was the best thing that ever happened to the United States and to Franklin Roosevelt. It did. It was the one act, the only act, that could have brought this country together. And it did. It helped enormously that the Japanese, who were so efficient and indeed brilliant in the way they carried out the attack, were politically so inept that they forgot to hand in or did not manage to hand in the declaration of war until one hour after the attack began. And that became a newsreel that I think in my lifetime I must have seen a thousand times.

It seems like every newsreel during World War II of the Japanese ambassadors arriving to present the declaration of war to the Secretary of State an hour after Pearl Harbor had started. The national outrage was palpable. You could feel it. You could smell it.

You could touch it. The sense of we're all in this together. We've got to have revenge. Feelings that Roosevelt would never, had not been able to, would never have been able to produce without Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor did the thing that Yamamoto had most feared. If Yamamoto knew, as I say, the Japan can't win such a war, he did think if we knock out their fleet, it'll take them two years to build a new one. Meanwhile, we'll build a defensive perimeter in the Pacific that'll be so expensive for them to attack that they'll give it up and agree to a compromised peace that'll allow us to keep China. In a way, Yamamoto's strategy was similar to Ho Chi Minh's. You fight a democracy, you just outweigh them.

Just keep inflicting casualties and pretty soon they'll quit. Just won't be important enough to them. Pearl Harbor made it important enough. Pearl Harbor meant that we were going to go on to the end whatever in this war.

Absolutely. Now, added to the shame of Pearl Harbor was what happened in the Philippines, where the Japanese caught Douglas MacArthur's B-17s on the ground on Clark Field, lined up wingtip to wingtip. Protected by sentries from possible saboteurs coming in from the jungle without any anti-aircraft guns looking up because the nearest Japanese base was 20 miles beyond their maximum, the known maximum range of their zeroes.

But the Japanese pilots who knew how to maintain these RPMs so that they never varied one little millimeter from it for hours on end got that extra 20 miles out of their zeroes and got over Clark Field and destroyed America's air force, America's bomber air force, 50 planes in the Pacific. And this added to the national humiliation. Roosevelt spoke for all Americans the next day in a joint session of Congress yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy. The United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. He asked the Congress to recognize that a state of war now existed between the Empire of Japan and the United States, and Congress did so with only one dissenting vote. That came from a Congresswoman from Missoula, Montana, who had also voted against entering into World War I. And so America was at war, but only on one front. Roosevelt did not ask for a declaration of war against Germany. He had no more reason to ask for a declaration of war against Germany on December 8 than he had had on December 6. Germany hadn't attacked the United States, Japan had. But all the plans called for fighting the war against Germany first. And this put Roosevelt in something of a dilemma, and we don't know what he would have done about it, how he would have handled that problem. Hitler solved it for him by inexplicably declaring war on the United States, a decision that no one has ever understood. He was not required to do it by his pact with Japan, which was a defensive pact.

It brought him no benefits. It brought in now the United States as his sworn enemy. And so 1941 came to an end with the United States now fully involved in but still woefully unprepared for the Second World War. And you've been listening to the great Stephen Ambrose, and thanks to his estate for letting us use so much of this remarkable storytelling, this time about the year 1941. Thanks to Greg Hengler for all the work he does on these pieces. And if you want to hear more from Stephen Ambrose, go to OurAmericanStories.com and just type in the word Ambrose on the search bar.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-12-07 04:09:51 / 2023-12-07 04:26:05 / 16

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