The Axis Threat

In assessing the danger to American security from Axis aggression in 1940 and early 1941, President Roosevelt and his advisers always considered Nazi Germany the greatest menace. They believed that Fascist Italy held no threat at all, at least to American interests in the Western Hemisphere. They viewed Japan as a very real threat to American interests in the Pacific, but not one of the same magnitude as that presented by Germany in the Atlantic. Events were to prove that Japan had both the means and a more immediately deadly intent to challenge the United States. Nevertheless, American leaders were probably correct in focusing their attention on Germany and its unpredictable Fuehrer, and therefore on the Atlantic aspects of the war, at least until after the Nazi-Soviet conflict began in June 1941. Until then, German land and air forces available for operations in the Atlantic area were much greater than those of Great Britain and the United States combined. If Germany's Navy had been relatively as large as its land and air forces, the story of World War II might well have been very different.

The German Position, Summer 1940

Although the United States based its plans and preparations for hemisphere defense on the assumption that the Nazis and their partners in aggression had embarked on a calculated scheme of world conquest, a scheme that would inevitably bring the New World under military attack, it is now known that Germany in 1940 and 1941 had no specific plans for attacking any part of the Western Hemisphere.1  Indeed, the basic objective of German policy toward the United States until Pearl Harbor was to keep it out of direct participation in the war. On the other hand, the general attitude of the Hitler regime was at least as hostile toward the United States as that of the Roosevelt administration and of the great majority of the American people was toward Germany.2


To say that Germany had no specific plans for attacking the United States or any other part of the New World is more or less beside the point in appraising the measures taken at the time to meet the possibility of German military action. When the Germans won their quick land victory over France and Great Britain in June 1940, they had no specific plans for attacking anywhere else, but they did have the means. They had a military machine overwhelmingly powerful in land and air forces, backed by an immediate war industrial capacity far greater than that of any other nation. These means were at the disposal of leaders utterly devoid of a sense of international morality. Given this military preponderance and type of leadership, it was inevitable that the German nation, hindered rather than aided by its Italian partner, would strike out in new directions after the fall of France. Whatever the professions of Hitler and other Nazi leaders, the German military machine was not likely to stop until it was defeated. This was the German menace.

Until the summer of 1940, Hitler and his principal advisers gave but scant attention to the possibility of American intervention-direct or indirect n Europe. The German leaders had taken the neutrality acts of 1935 and 1937 more or less at their face value and had assumed that the United States would maintain an isolationist position so long as Germany made no move that could be interpreted as a violation of the Monroe Doctrine.3  Hitler expressed the opinion in 1939 that the United States would never intervene in another general European war because of the "unpleasant experiences" and financial loss it had suffered in World War I. In July 1940 he reiterated this last point, observing that the United States "lost" $10,000,000,000 by participating in the first world war and "got back" only $1,400,000,000.4  Although the German military attaché in Washington transmitted reasonably accurate estimates of American military preparations, his reports carried little weight among German military leaders. They were convinced that the United States Army of 1939 was too small to take an active part in a European war, that it would take the United States several years to develop substantial military strength, and that even if the Army were rapidly increased in numbers it would still lack experienced leadership and therefore be no match for the Wehrmacht.5 In any event, Hitler expected to complete his European conquests before the United States could possibly intervene. 6


Despite their generally contemptuous attitude toward the American military potential, the Germans after war began in September 1939 tried to avoid military incidents that might be interpreted by the United States as hostile acts. On Hitler's repeated orders, the German Navy until the spring of 1941 carefully respected the Atlantic neutrality zone patrolled by the United States Navy.7  The Nazis did engage in manifold activities to stir up trouble for the United States in Latin America, and within the country they went as far as they could to sow dissension among the American people; but these activities seem to have had the negative objective of weakening the United States and undermining the front of hemisphere solidarity, rather than the positive aim of preparing the New World for German conquest.

When the Nazis launched their attack on the West in the spring of 1940 they acted on a carefully calculated operational plan that achieved a quick and decisive victory far sooner than they themselves had anticipated, and therefore they did not have ready any plan for operations thereafter. Hitler in May and June 1940 seems to have hoped to end the war in the West as soon as possible, to persuade both France and Great Britain to make peace on reasonable terms, and then to consolidate his position as master of western Europe. In part, his plans were shaped by the pressure President Roosevelt was bringing to bear on both Italy and Germany to curb their aggressive actions. In a letter to Mussolini on 3 May, a week before the assault on France, Hitler remarked that he thought "the undertone of threat ringing through all of Roosevelt's utterances is sufficient grounds for us to be on our guard and bring the war to a close as quickly as possible." 8  The President's Charlottesville address of 10 June made a great impression or. Hitler. Through a devious channel, he hastened to assure the United States Government that his policy was "Europe for the Europeans and America for the Americans," and he also disclaimed any desire to destroy the British Empire. America's announced policy of aiding Britain and the other nations fighting Germany and Italy brought a new conviction among German leaders that the United States would eventually intervene in the war if it lasted.9

The French request for an armistice on 17 June found the Germans unprepared to give an immediate answer since they had not decided on either the temporary or the long-range demands that they would impose on France. After consulting with Mussolini (and rejecting his proposals), Hitler presented relatively lenient armistice terms to the French on 21 June. He did


not ask for control of the French Fleet, nor did he require the French to open their African territories to German occupation. To the Italians, Hitler explained that he wanted to keep the French Fleet out of British hands. He also felt that the presentation of harsher terms might have led to a withdrawal of the new Pétain government to North Africa. Hitler's primary aim was to get the French out of the war in order to widen the rift that had developed between the French and British and thus to weaken Great Britain's ability further to resist. The Germans expected the British people to see the hopelessness of their military position, to overthrow the Churchill ministry, and to make peace on terms that would leave the British Empire virtually intact but impotent to interfere with Germany's mastery of western Europe.10

Before the downfall of France, Hitler had not planned an invasion of Great Britain.11  By the end of June, the Germans began to realize that the British were determined to fight on. "Britain probably still needs one more demonstration of our military might before she gives in and leaves us a free hand in the East," General Franz Halder, the Chief of the German Army's General Staff, recorded in his journal on 30 June 1940. On 16 July Hitler ordered the immediate preparation of detailed invasion plans. The decision to fight it out with England reoriented the whole German outlook toward the Atlantic front. To beat Britain to its knees would require a German-controlled front extending from the North Cape to Morocco. The Germans also planned to seize Iceland, occupy strategic positions in West Africa, and claim the French Congo and Belgian Congo as war booty. 12

Before the decision to invade Great Britain had been made, the German Naval Staff prepared a general program for base expansion and ship construction designed to make Germany a pre-eminent naval power in the Atlantic. In plans prepared for conferences with Hitler on 20 June and 11 July, the Navy advocated annexation of Iceland and its exploitation as a naval and air base; development of bases either in the Azores or in both the Canary and Cape Verde Islands; creation of a large united German colonial


empire in central Africa; and construction of an Atlantic battleship force that would neutralize British and American naval power.13  In his discussion with Hitler on 11 July, the commander in chief of the German Navy, Admiral Erich Raeder, pointed out the particular importance of Dakar as a base for conducting warfare in the Atlantic. Hider at this time seems to have gone no further toward approving these proposals than expressing a desire "to acquire one of the Canary Islands from Spain in exchange for French Morocco."14  Until he decided to invade England, Hitler himself seems to have taken comparatively little interest in plans for expansion into Africa or extension of German naval power in the Atlantic. His brief interest in Iceland expired when he was told by his advisers that it would be impossible to construct airfields there. As already noted, Great Britain had begun a military occupation of Iceland on 10 May, and by the end of July relatively strong British and Canadian contingents had been brought in to defend the island-a factor that undoubtedly also contributed to the German decision not to attempt its invasion.15

The other measures advocated by the German Navy became more attractive to the Nazi Fuehrer, primarily as adjuncts to a showdown fight with Great Britain. Fortunately for the United States, Hitler seems to have had very little realization of the strategic significance of German bases in French West Africa and on the eastern Atlantic islands for their own sake. Germany's military attaché in the United States during the prewar period, General Friedrich von Boetticher, stated after the war that, following the fall of France in 1940, he had stressed in his reports the strategic significance of controlling the South Atlantic-African-Red Sea belt. But, he added, Hitler and his intimate advisers

. . . had no clear idea of the geographical requisites for a world war. The significance of the British Empire's life-line through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, and the importance of the Middle East were not grasped at the time .... There was also no clear idea of the strategic significance of the narrowing of the Atlantic Ocean between Brazil and Africa, and of the land and air routes across central Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.16

On 10 July the German Air Force began its assault in force on Britain. After 16 July the German Army and Navy staffs worked feverishly on invasion plans, for they realized that an invasion must either take place in the early fall or be postponed at least until the following spring. At the same


time, the Germans attempted to secure a revision of the armistice arrangements with France in order to obtain French consent to the establishment of German bases in southern France and along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of French North Africa.17  From their beginning Hitler appears to have viewed the preparations for a full-scale Atlantic war with misgivings. On 13 July General Halder recorded in his journal:

...the Fuehrer is greatly puzzled by Britain's persisting unwillingness to make peace. He sees the answer (as we do) in Britain's hope on Russia, 'and therefore counts on having to compel her by main force to agree to peace. Actually that is much against his grain. The reason is that a military defeat of Britain will bring about the disintegration of the British Empire. This would not be of any benefit to Germany. German blood would be shed to accomplish something that would benefit only Japan, the United States and others.

Very quickly Hitler came to the conclusion that Britain's reason for continuing the war was its hope for aid from the United States and the Soviet Union. He discounted the ability of the United States to render much aid to Britain, and he assumed that the British did also; the Russians were another matter. As of 21 July, the Nazi Fuehrer felt that Britain's obduracy could best be overcome by confronting the British with a political front embracing Spain, Italy, and the Soviet Union.18

Ten days later, after the German Army and Navy had presented their blueprints for an invasion of England, Hitler arrived at a very different decision. While the Army and Navy told him that they could undertake an invasion in September, provided that Britain had been sufficiently softened up by air bombardment, that the Germans had gained air superiority over the invasion area, that the weather was extremely favorable, etc., etc., it was rather clear that neither the German land nor sea forces had any stomach for the invasion project. Neither did Hitler. The alternative to invasion was a long, drawn-out effort to reduce the British Isles by air and submarine action, which would take at least a year or two. Again observing that Britain's hope for survival lay in the prospect of aid from the Soviet Union and the United States, Hitler came to the conclusion that by beating the Russians first he could knock out both props that sustained the British: by eliminating the Soviet Union as a Far Eastern power, he would enormously strengthen the power of Japan, and by thus increasing the peril to American interests in the Pacific, would stay any American intervention in the European war. Furthermore, the Soviet Union, initially the partner-in-conquest of Nazi Germany, had shown increasing signs of restiveness and distrust since the fall


of France. "With Russia smashed," Hitler is reported to have said, "Britain's last hope would be shattered." Therefore, the Fuehrer concluded: "Russia's destruction must . . . be made a part of this struggle. Spring 41.19

Despite Hitler's stated decision on 31 July 1940 to turn against the Soviet Union, preparations for the English invasion went on during August and early September, the period of the "Battle of Britain." But the German Air Force did not knock out British airpower, the first and most important prerequisite for a successful invasion. In mid-September Hitler virtually decided on the indefinite postponement of the invasion of Great Britain, though at the same time he ordered a continuance of invasion preparations and kept these in motion until mid-October.20  The air bombardment of Britain was also maintained, but on a diminished scale after October .21

The Tripartite Pact and Japan

Hitler's decision to postpone the invasion of Great Britain coincided with the negotiation by the European Axis partners of a tripartite alliance with Japan, signed on 27 September 1940. This pact provided that a military attack on any member of the new Axis triumvirate by any nation not then engaged in either the European or the Sino-Japanese war would invoke the political, economic, and military assistance of the other two. It was aimed primarily at the United States, secondarily at the Soviet Union. By it, Germany and Italy gave a much freer hand to Japanese aggression in the western Pacific, at the same time securing at least a paper promise that Japan would attack the United States if the United States attacked German or Italian forces in the eastern Atlantic theater. By the pact the Nazis hoped to keep the United States out of the European war and away from all-out preparations for war until Germany had completed its conquest of Europe.22

The signing of the Tripartite Pact also coincided with the expansion of the war in both the European and the Asiatic theaters. In mid-September the Italian Army launched its North African drive against British forces in


Egypt, and in late October Mussolini began the invasion of Greece. The Japanese made their first overt move outside of China in these same months by occupying northern French Indochina, ostensibly as a means of prosecuting the Sino-Japanese War, actually to prepare Indochina as a base of operations against Singapore and the Dutch East Indies.23

In the Japanese plans and actions of 1940 and early 1941 there was less immediate but more ominous future danger to the United States than in the German. Germany's victory in Europe had once more aroused the militant Japanese advocates of expansion. Capitalizing on the distress of the Western Allies, the Japanese in July forced Britain to close the Burma Road and France to yield concessions in Indochina. In a series of fateful cabinet meetings extending from July to early October, Japan forged the decision to attack southward as soon as circumstances permitted. This decision envisioned the establishment of Japanese control in China and the colonial expansion of Japan to include Indochina, Thailand, Malaya, Burma, and the Dutch and British East Indies. The Japanese hoped to conclude a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union in order to guard their northern flank during the southward advance. They also wanted to negotiate a nonaggression treaty with the United States, in which the Americans would agree to stop encouraging Chinese Nationalist resistance to Japan, acquiesce in Japan's establishment of a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" with dimensions approximating those specified above, and in return accept a Japanese guarantee of Philippine independence. If, instead, the United States insisted on resisting Japan's expansion, then the Philippines and Guam were to be added to Japan's Far East empire. 24

Ambassador Grew reported from Tokyo in December 1940 that in his opinion Japan had become "openly and unashamedly one of the predatory nations" and that only "insuperable obstacles" could stop the Japanese from pushing their southward advance.25  The Japanese, recognizing the slight chance of obtaining American acquiescence in their expansion, began in January 1941 to hatch the plan for a surprise and crippling attack on the United States Fleet at its Pearl Harbor base. Rumors of this plan reached the Department of State before the end of January but were dismissed without


much ado.26  The United States also knew that the Japanese were gathering detailed information about American defense preparations, particularly those along the Pacific coast and in the Pacific outposts of Alaska, Hawaii, and Panama. The Navy was kept busy investigating rumors that Japanese submarines were reconnoitering in Pacific waters, especially in the vicinity of Hawaii.27  The Japanese were indeed beginning their preparations for war against the United States; but because these preparations would require many months to complete, and because the Japanese preferred to carry out their expansion if possible without a war with the Americans, they authorized their new ambassador to the United States to negotiate an agreement toward this end. Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura, after a preliminary talk with President Roosevelt on 14 February, began his discussions with Secretary Hull in March.28  The arrival of a new ambassador in Washington eased the tension over the Far Eastern situation that had characterized the preceding few months, though sober analysis should have indicated the small chance of a mutually satisfactory American Japanese agreement.

The Gibraltar-Africa Project

After Japan's adherence to the Axis in September 1940, Hitler concentrated on plans for a limited offensive in the Mediterranean area that could be carried out before his projected attack on Soviet Russia. At the end of July German Army leaders had agreed that a decisive blow to British power in the Mediterranean, by the capture of Gibraltar and Suez, was the best immediate alternative to an invasion of Great Britain. An attack on Gibraltar seemed the most feasible initial step, if Spanish collaboration could be secured. Spain was already bound to Germany by a treaty of friendship and had shown its kinship with the Axis partners by seizing the international zone of Tangier in June 1940. German inquiries in Spain in late July led to a Spanish overture, transmitted through the German ambassador, proposing entry into the war on the side of Germany and Italy. Spain would attack Gibraltar, in return for extensive German military and economic assistance, and also for a German guarantee that in the peace settlement Spain would acquire Gibraltar, French Morocco, Oran, and an expansion of Spain's central African possessions. General Francisco Franco also made known his terms to


Mussolini, who gave them a vague blessing. During August Hitler and his military advisers tentatively approved a plan for a Spanish attack on Gibraltar, with large but camouflaged German air and artillery support.29  Spain made these overtures, it may be noted, at a moment when the early defeat of Great Britain seemed assured. Later, when Britain's downfall appeared less likely, Spanish ardor for entering the war cooled, while at the same time German enthusiasm for the Gibraltar operation mounted.

During the next two months the German plan for an attack on Gibraltar broadened into a project for an operation that, if it had been carried out successfully, would have naturally led to the establishment of German control in northern and western Africa and the adjacent Atlantic islands, and ultimately to the reconstruction of a German colonial empire in central Africa. During the unsuccessful British-Free French attack on Dakar on 23-25 September, the Pétain government retaliated by bombing Gibraltar. These incidents further embittered Anglo-French relations and opened to Hitler the prospect of pursuing the Gibraltar-Africa project with Vichy French as well as with Spanish collaboration.

Hitler himself was particularly anxious to establish German forces in the Cape Verde and Azores Islands. The former would cover the establishment of a German naval base at Dakar, and the Azores would become a base for future air operations against the United States, if it became more directly involved in the war. Fortunately for the United States, neither the German Navy nor the Air Force believed at this time that it had the means to capture and hold positions in the Azores.30  Besides their quest for bases and colonies, the Germans wanted to gain military control of North Africa in order to prevent the execution of any current or future British or American plans for invading this area and using it as a base of operations against the European continent.31


Germany had plenty of military means to carry out the projected Gibraltar-Africa operation and probably could have done so in the fall and winter of 1940-41 without unduly interfering with the projected Soviet invasion scheduled for 1941. The real check came when Hitler tried to reconcile the conflicting interests and claims of Italy, France, and Spain. Not having asked for control over French African possessions at the time of the armistice, Hitler now had the difficult task of persuading the French to "cooperate" by allowing the Germans access to key positions in French Africa and also persuading them to permit transfer of certain French territories to Italy and Spain. If Hitler pressed the French too severely, he believed that their African leaders might switch to the British camp. On the other hand, to satisfy both Italian and Spanish minimum pretensions would have absorbed most of French Africa, leaving nothing for Germany itself. Besides, the Gibraltar-Africa scheme could not be carried out except collaboratively with Italy and Spain, and from the military point of view both nations were dangerous liabilities. By early October, it appeared that a "reconciliation of conflicting French, Italian and Spanish interests in Africa {was} possible only by a gigantic fraud." 32

Hitler's much-publicized meetings with French, Spanish, and Italian leaders during October appear to have been a personal attempt to lay a groundwork for this "fraud." Nevertheless, in the end this undertaking proved too much for even Hitler's mastery of the art.33  What Hitler apparently hoped to do was to satisfy everyone after Britain's defeat at the expense of Britain's African empire. He conferred with Mussolini on 4 October, and thereafter he talked with German Army and Navy commanders about military plans for Gibraltar and Africa. On 22 October, he discussed prospects for French collaboration with the Vichy vice premier, Pierre Laval. On the following day, Hitler met General Franco at the Spanish border. During their conversation Franco gave an oral pledge that Spain would join the Axis and enter the war at an undetermined future date-provided Germany promised approximately the same considerations that Spain had demanded in August.34  On 24 October, Hitler talked with Marshal Pétain. The marshal agreed to issue an official announcement stating that France had an identical interest with Germany in seeing the defeat of England, and that the French


Government would "support, within the limits of its ability, the measures which the Axis Powers may take to this end." 35  Actually, Hitler's conferences had failed to produce an explicit agreement on the terms of collaboration or on the subsequent division of the spoils, and Spain had not really committed itself to enter the war in the near future. Nevertheless, on 4 November the Fuehrer instructed his commanders to go ahead with detailed planning for the Gibraltar operation.36

Operation FELIX, as the Gibraltar project was christened, contemplated a German entry from occupied France into Spain about 10 January 1941. Simultaneously, German planes from France would attack British shipping at Gibraltar in order to drive British naval support away from the fortress; they would then land at newly prepared Spanish airfields to provide air support for the attack. An artillery barrage-primarily by German guns secretly emplaced in advance-would begin at the same time. About three weeks later (on or after 1 February), German ground forces would arrive before the Rock to spearhead the attack. The Gibraltar assault force would be followed through Spain by two German divisions-one armored and one motorized-that would cross the strait into Morocco to seize control of its Atlantic littoral. Three more German divisions were to cross Spain to the Portuguese frontier, where they would be in position to counterattack a British landing in Portugal. Spain, with the aid of German guns, would reinforce the Canaries to guard them against an anticipated British attack. After Gibraltar's capture, the Germans planned to garrison it themselves and also to maintain German artillery on both sides of the strait to insure that the western exit of the Mediterranean remained closed to the British. Only after Britain's defeat would Gibraltar be turned over to the Spaniards. Plans and the necessary reconnaissance for subsequent operations in northwestern Africa and against the Atlantic islands had not been completed when FELIX was presented to Hitler for his approval on 5 December. By then, the German Army, Navy, and Air Force had reported to Hitler that their plans for FELIX were complete, and the German High Command on 2 December informed its staff that General Franco had agreed that operations should be launched at the beginning of February. 37


At this point, the Germans demanded that Franco give his express approval to the commencement of operations on or about 10 January 1941. The Spanish dictator on 7 December refused to do so, or to agree to Spanish entry into the war at any early date in the future. 38  Since the Germans had throughout considered Spanish collaboration an essential to the execution of their project, Hitler felt he had no alternative but to postpone FELIX and turn German military power in other directions. He made half-hearted attempts in January to reopen the question with Spain, but when his military advisers informed him that it would take two months to remount the Gibraltar project and that the units involved would therefore be unable to complete their task in time to participate in the attack on the Soviet Union then scheduled for May 1941, the Nazi Fuehrer reluctantly abandoned Operation FELIX. He had to content himself with expressing the conviction "that the situation in Europe can no longer develop unfavorably for Germany even if we should lose the whole of North Africa." 39

The execution of the Gibraltar-Africa project of 1940 would have posed a very serious threat to the security of the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere. While the British had expressed optimism about their chances of defending Gibraltar successfully,40  the Germans had been at least equally confident that they could capture it with relative ease and that thereafter they could keep the western Mediterranean closed and could control northwestern Africa. If the Gibraltar plan had succeeded, Britain's position would have been seriously weakened, morally as well as materially. The entry of German military forces into Morocco would have given Germany a hold over Vichy France that it had hitherto lacked and would have eliminated the constant threat that French North African leaders might throw in their lot with Great Britain should the Germans push the Vichy Government too far. Spain's refusal to carry out its tentative promises of collaboration had the effect of definitely turning German military power eastward, first into the eastern Mediterranean and then against the Russians. This eastward shift in the surge of German military might was of incalculable advantage to the military preparations of the United States in 1941, and it left the door open for the Anglo-American North African offensive in 1942.

German control of French North and West Africa would have had a profound influence on the Latin American nations and would have made it


necessary for the United States greatly to accelerate its plans and measures for defense in the Latin American area. No evidence had been uncovered that Hitler or his military advisers developed their Gibraltar-Africa project to the point of planning any transoceanic attack on the Brazilian bulge, though to American military observers that seemed the logical sequel to a German thrust toward the South Atlantic. When a similar German drive through Spain seemed imminent in the spring of 1941, President Roosevelt and his military and civilian advisers considered that it would be a very grave threat to American security. The records of the preceding autumn do not reflect :a similar concern, presumably because the President and his advisers never obtained a real inkling of the concrete nature and precise scope of the German plans and preparation of 1940. 41

Thus the two specific German moves planned after the land victory in June 1940 that appeared to threaten the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere immediately-the invasion of Great Britain and the Gibraltar-Africa project-failed to materialize. A third and continuing threat-German air and submarine action against Britain and British shipping lanes-was to have a good deal more to do with the gradual involvement of the United States in the Atlantic war from the fall of 1940 onward. The major menace-German military might at loose ends under irresponsible and amoral leadership-was first stalled and then slowly diverted toward secret preparations for the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Japanese rather than the German decisions of 1940 were to bring the United States into the war full-scale at the end of 1941, though Japan acted then in response to the opportunity created by Hitler's European aggressions.




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