I’m back to reading Churchill again. The book is his The Second World War, which is in six volumes (four volumes in some editions). I have picked up again the third volume, The Grand Alliance.
War started with Germany when Hitler’s army invaded Poland in 1939. England and France had committed to war against Germany in that event, and hostilities commenced on 3 September. By June 1940 the German army had overrun and occupied also Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, and France had surrendered to the conquering foe. England stood alone against Germany and its new partner in aggression, Italy, for many months after, with only its colonies and dominions for assistance. American neutrality was enforced by a staunchly anti-war Congress all this time, although President Roosevelt wrangled through agreements that allowed the United States to supply ships and war materials to England and ultimately to press a naval threat on German submarine patrols in the North Atlantic and elsewhere. England had won the Battle of Britain by successfully fighting off German air attacks in the latter part of 1940, but 1941 was to be England’s darkest time in the war.
England’s only recourse, its only means for countering the German and Italian forces was to attack the Italian army that was making war in North Africa and then resisting the German army that came to the Italian’s assistance when Mussolini’s forces faltered. Still, for most of the year 1941 was very bleak.
Some relief came when Hitler switched his attentions from England and attacked the Soviet Union in June. The story of Churchill and Stalin at this juncture would make a novel on its own, but for another time.
Toward the end of the year a new threat for England loomed as the Japanese Empire began to assume a more aggressive posture. Japan had for years been waging an war of aggression against China, and England and the United States were for once united in resistance to this threat. Churchill and Roosevelt collaborated closely on how to deal with the Japanese menace in the Western Pacific region. The Dutch, though defeated in their own country, maintained a government in exile and still managed their own colonial interests in what is now Indonesia. They threw in their lot with the British and the Americans.
In his book Churchill gives a brief review of the Japanese Empire and the transformation of the Japanese from a feudal society to a modern industrial power in the span of about two generations. By the beginning of the 20th century Japan was a major world naval force. Militaristic interests in the country saw military expansion as Japan’s manifest destiny, its right and obligation.
England, the United States, and the Netherlands government in exile resisted this Japanese expansion by embargoing critical material to Japan. Look at a map. Japan is an island nation of mostly volcanic mountainous geography. It has no petroleum of its own and scarce other mineral resources. Everything must be imported, and the three Western powers determined to strangle the Japanese war effort. On 10 November Churchill gave a talk that included the following remarks:
Viewing the vast, sombre scene as dispassionately as possible, it would seem a very hazardous adventure for the Japanese people to plunge quite needlessly into a world struggle in which they may well find themselves opposed in the Pacific by States whose populations comprise nearly three-quarters of the human race. If steel is the basic foundation of modern war, it would be rather dangerous for a Power like Japan, whose steel production is only about seven million tons a year, to provoke quite gratuitously a struggle with the United States, whose steel production is now about ninety millions; and this would take no account of the powerful contribution which the British Empire can make. I hope therefore that the peace of the Pacific will be preserved in accordance with the known wishes of Japan’s wisest statesmen. But every preparation to defend British interests in the Far East, and to defend the common cause now at stake, has been and is being made.
Churchill, Winston (2010-07-01). The Grand Alliance (Winston Churchill World War II Collection) (Kindle Locations 9496-9502). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
In Japan there was a divergence of world view between the army and the navy. Until 100 years prior to World War II Japan had been a closed society, suffering few interactions with the remainder of the planet. In the 20th century Japan’s naval forces sailed the world’s oceans and visited foreign ports. Naval commanders, including Admiral Yamamoto, acquired a knowledge of what lay outside the home islands. The Japanese army had no such opportunity and possessed an unrealistic view of other cultures. While naval commanders were wary of challenging other world powers, in 1941 the army generals came to dominate Japanese politics and began to steer the country toward war. Churchill and Roosevelt soon came to the correct conclusion that Japan would initiate war against the Wester powers, and quite soon.
While Churchill dreaded conflict with Japan in this, its darkest year, he also saw that such an event would turn the Congress on its ear, and the United States, with its vast industrial resources, would enter the war and tilt the balance for good. Churchill promised President Roosevelt that in the event the United States went to war with Japan, England would have a declaration within the hour. He was good to his word.
In England Churchill was entertaining American ambassadors John Gilbert Winant and Averell Harriman at his home on a Sunday evening. He switched on his radio and caught a brief mention of Japanese attacks on American interests. A butler came in and confirmed the news. Japan had initiated a war with the United States and England.
From that moment, Churchill has stated, he foresaw the final outcome. With four fifths of the world’s population and maybe 90% of its industrial capacity pitted against the Axis powers, within a matter of a few years the people who had initiated this global conflagration would be standing with ropes around their necks.
Churchill gained the Nobel Prize in literature for this work, but it is not considered a definitive piece of history. Churchill was not a historian by profession, and he was not in a position to do the comprehensive research to produce a major historical work. He was, however, a master of language, and that’s what shows in his public life and in this work.
The War Cabinet authorised the immediate declaration of war upon Japan, for which all formal arrangements had been made. As Eden had already started on his journey to Moscow and I was in charge of the Foreign Office I sent the following letter to the Japanese Ambassador:
Foreign Office, December 8th
On the evening of December 7th His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom learned that Japanese forces without previous warning either in the form of a declaration of war or of an ultimatum with a conditional declaration of war had attempted a landing on the coast of Malaya and bombed Singapore and Hong Kong.
In view of these wanton acts of unprovoked aggression committed in flagrant violation of International Law and particularly of Article 1 of the Third Hague Convention relative to the opening of hostilities, to which both Japan and the United Kingdom are parties, His Majesty’s Ambassador at Tokyo has been instructed to inform the Imperial Japanese Government in the name of His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom that a state of war exists between our two countries.
I have the honour to be, with high consideration,
Your obedient servant,
WINSTON S. CHURCHILL
Some people did not like this ceremonial style. But after all when you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite.
Churchill, Winston (2010-07-01). The Grand Alliance (Winston Churchill World War II Collection) (Kindle Locations 9758-9770). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
It requires a Churchill to issue a death warrant with such panache and style.