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A Hitler Hypothetical

Summary:
On December 11, 1941 Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States.  Almost everyone who has analyzed this decision has been puzzled.  Why go out of your way to antagonize the United States when it’s consumed with fury against Japan? The leading reply: At this point, Hitler saw that war was inevitable, so he might as well take the moral high ground for propaganda reasons. I’m unconvinced.  In the absence of Hitler’s war declaration, there must have been at least a 5% chance that the U.S. would have delayed war with Germany for at least another year.  And even if the U.S. seized the initiative and declared war, there must be at least a 10% chance that the U.S. would have focused more on Japan in this scenario.  Even if war was “inevitable,” timing and intensity

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On December 11, 1941 Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States.  Almost everyone who has analyzed this decision has been puzzled.  Why go out of your way to antagonize the United States when it’s consumed with fury against Japan?

The leading reply: At this point, Hitler saw that war was inevitable, so he might as well take the moral high ground for propaganda reasons.

I’m unconvinced.  In the absence of Hitler’s war declaration, there must have been at least a 5% chance that the U.S. would have delayed war with Germany for at least another year.  And even if the U.S. seized the initiative and declared war, there must be at least a 10% chance that the U.S. would have focused more on Japan in this scenario.  Even if war was “inevitable,” timing and intensity matter.

In any case, I maintain that Hitler had a simple way to dramatically reduce the risk of war with the U.S. after Pearl Harbor.  Namely: Instead of declaring war on the United States, he should have declared war on Japan.  Something along the lines of, “While we have had grave differences with the Americans in the past, I was horrified to see fellow Aryans attacked by Asian Untermenschen.  We stand shoulder to shoulder with the Americans – and I offer my sincere condolences to President Roosevelt.”

“War with Japan” would be a token military commitment for Germany.  They already lost all their Asian colonies after World War I.  Just sink a stray Japanese vessel or two in the Atlantic and wage a second Sitzkrieg, a “Phony War.”  It is hard to see Japan doing much to retaliate.  Germany and Japan almost totally failed to coordinate their war effort.  And despite their common border in the East, Japan wasn’t in much of a position to Soviet resistance.

I say this strategy would have at least a 25% chance of keeping U.S. troops out of the European theater until 1944.

Am I wrong?

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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