Hitler's Blunder, 50 Years After

December 11, 1991

Fifty years ago today, Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States. No major commemoration of this colossal event is planned in this country or in Germany. Yet to Harold Macmillan, later to be British prime minister, it was "a gift from the gods." To Winston Churchill's private secretary, John Martin, it meant "the stars are fighting for us." To Churchill, it signified "certain victory."

At last America was in the war, not only against a militaristic Japan that had attacked Pearl Harbor four days earlier but against a Nazi juggernaut that had overrun most of Europe, had blitzed Britain, had gotten to the gates of Moscow and was systematically inflicting holocaust on millions of Jews and other assorted Untermenschen who did not meet Aryan racial standards.

Once committed, the United States was involved in a two-front war in which Germany's defeat, with the enthusiastic agreement of Britain and the Soviet Union, was to come first. American soldiers were to fight and die in the conquest of Italy, the D-Day landing, the Battle of the Bulge, the offensive into Germany itself. They were to remain on the continent even to this day as potential belligerents and eventual winners of the Cold War.

Hitler, The Sun editorialized on Dec. 12, 1941, "remains World Enemy No. 1" -- this even after the treacherous Japanese attack on a slumbering U.S. Pacific fleet. Yet such a judgment had not been pre-ordained. Until the moment when Hitler declared war, there was no certainty that Congress would approve involvement in the European war short of irrevocable German provocation.

For two years, Hitler had scrupulously avoided war with America even after President Franklin D. Roosevelt had turned 50 destroyers over to Britain, had launched Lend-Lease and had continued his deliberate taunting of the Nazi leader's twisted psyche. Hitler was counting on the well-financed and slickly orchestrated America First Committee to keep the U.S. isolationist and uninvolved. He wanted Japan in the war against Britain and the Soviet Union, but not against the U.S.

Yet, at the pivotal moment, Hitler switched, opting for war against "a decayed country" that is "half Judaized and the other half Negrified." The German navy was ordered to shoot on sight at any U.S. ships. On Dec. 11, 1941, he formally declared war in a burst of invective against Roosevelt.

To most historians, Hitler had sealed his doom. British historian Martin Gilbert calls Hitler's decision "perhaps the greatest error, and certainly the single most decisive act, of the Second World War." American historian John Toland calls it "folly, a major psychological blunder that would only solve another of Roosevelt's domestic problems." Robert E. Sherwood wondered if "perhaps Hitler had completely taken leave of his senses."

Whatever the reason, the 50th anniversary of Germany's declaration of war should not be ignored in this country. Hitler's mistake hastened the end of a horrifying trauma in human history.

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