Recalling Dec. 11, 1941: When World War II Truly Began

Join this retired FSO and historian on a journey back to the day when the U.S. entered the Second World War.


Speaking to the men of the Reichstag in Berlin’s Krol Opera House on Dec. 11, 1941, Adolf Hitler delivers a speech on Franklin D. Roosevelt and the war in the Pacific, declaring war on the U.S.
German Federal Archives

German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in London, March 1936.

“Excruciating uncertainty.” Such was the troubled state of mind among Embassy Berlin staff, as First Secretary George F. Kennan recalled in his memoirs, in the aftermath of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. Stationed in the Nazi capital since 1939, Kennan at age 37 was already in his 15th year of diplomatic service. For four days, U.S. Embassy Berlin, occupying the sprawling Blücher Palace, was increasingly isolated: no cables, no telephones; code books and sensitive files burned without clear instruction. “We were,” recalled Kennan, “on our own.”

Shortly after noon on Thursday, Dec. 11, Kennan continued, “the telephone suddenly and mysteriously came alive.” A German official announced dispatch of a car to collect Chargé Leland B. Morris. Once ushered into Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop’s grandiose Wilhelmstrasse office, Morris remained standing while the Nazi’s top diplomat, “striking ferocious attitudes,” delivered a declaration of war, “screaming at him, ‘Your President has wanted this war, now he has it!’” Morris simply requested permission to cable Washington. Having, in diplomatic-speak, been handed his passport, Morris acknowledged the end of America’s diplomatic mission in Nazi Germany. The hostile encounter lasted three minutes.

At 3 p.m., in the Kroll Opera House, Adolf Hitler launched into a 90-minute boastful, meandering tirade to announce war with the United States. Much of the speech was devoted to vilification of President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a plutocrat, failed political leader, warmonger, hypocrite, insane individual and pawn of “the eternal Jew,” according to Mark Weber in The Journal of Historical Review. Moreover, Hitler reached an ominous conclusion: Ultimate blame for a world war rested with the Jewish race, and the only answer was their annihilation. In December 1941, contends historian Klaus P. Fischer, Hitler “crossed the line separating a brutal dictator from a mass murderer.”

Was the declaration of war on the U.S. a suicidal and irrational decision? Why wage war on the U.S. with the mass of the Wehrmacht locked in titanic winter combat at the gates of Moscow and in an air and African ground war with Great Britain?

Historians point to Hitler’s belief that the United States was already at war with Germany. Indeed, FDR’s un-neutral neutrality—a “Destroyer for Bases” deal with Britain, Lend Lease, a Western Hemisphere security zone, the Atlantic Charter, “shoot-on sight” orders—were all, in Hitler’s view, warlike acts. Even before Pearl Harbor, the Germans reaffirmed unwavering commitment to the Tripartite Pact binding Germany to Italy and Japan. Although surprised by the attack on Pearl Harbor, according to premier Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw, the Nazi leader exclaimed, “We can’t lose the war at all. We now have an ally which has never been conquered in 3,000 years.” On Dec. 8, he authorized Admiral Erich Raeder’s U-boats to attack U.S. shipping anywhere on the high seas. Undoubtedly Hitler, with his self-proclaimed instinctive genius, was dismissive of U.S. military and industrial capabilities and the tenacity of its leaders and citizens. Now, he embarked on a war he could not win.

In 1937 Benito Mussolini addresses a crowd from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia in Rome to celebrate the Fascist Party of Italy.
Sueddeutsche Zeitung / Alamy

In Rome at 2:30 p.m., Benito Mussolini’s Foreign Minister (and son-in-law) Galeazzo Ciano summoned U.S. Chargé George Wadsworth. This “good man, somewhat timid,” confided Ciano to his diary, “thinks I have called him to discuss the arrival of certain newspapermen, but I disillusion him immediately. He listens to the declaration of war, turns pale. Wadsworth’s response: ‘It is very tragic.’”

In a brief speech from the Palazzo Venezia’s balcony, Mussolini denounced FDR as an “authentic and democratic despot” responsible for the outbreak of war with “diabolical pertinacity.” He termed Italy’s alliances the guarantor of victory and the future artificer and organizer of just peace among the people. “Italians … rise to your feet once more,” Il Duce exhorted. “Be worthy of this great hour. We will win.” Ciano recorded sourly: “It was three o’clock in the afternoon, the people were hungry, and the day was quite cold. These are all elements that do not make for enthusiasm.”

On this day, too, a revised version of the September 1940 Tripartite Pact committing the Axis powers to wage war together and pursue victory in order to bring about a “just new order” was signed in Berlin.

Germany’s dashing chargé in Washington, D.C., and loyal Nazi, Hans Thomsen, and an aide arrived at the Department of State at 8:20 a.m., one hour after the Ribbentrop-Morris encounter. His instructions: Deliver the war message to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, then ask for your passport and a repatriation plan.

At about 9:30 a.m., the Secretary brushed past the Nazi envoy. The State Department’s press release reported, “The Secretary, otherwise engaged, directed they [the Germans] be received by the Chief of the European Bureau.” New York Times diplomatic correspondent Bertram Hulen described the atmosphere as “frigid,” but also marked by “a complete absence of excitement or dramatics.”

In December 1941, contends historian Klaus P. Fischer, Hitler “crossed the line separating a brutal dictator from a mass murderer.”

The rebuffed German climbed the stairs to the office of chief of the European Division, Ray Atherton. Upon receiving Thomsen’s message, Atherton made it clear that since 1939, the United States had recognized the threat and purposes of an aggressive Germany “toward the Hemisphere and our free American civilization,” as stated in another State press release.

In an elevator on the way out, press photographers jostled Thomsen, whose comment was captured also by Hulen: “This is not very dignified.” The Germans retreated to their embassy on Massachusetts Avenue to await developments. Soon the Swiss flag was hoisted over it, as it was over the American embassy in Berlin. Swiss diplomats quickly assumed the duty of representing both American and German interests.

Benito Mussolini on Nov. 1, 1922, shortly after the March on Rome when he ascended to power.
Topical Press Agency

At 10:30 a.m., Italian Ambassador Prince Ascanio Colonna visited political adviser James Clement Dunn, only to confess he was without instructions from his government and had called to inquire as to his status. Dunn acknowledged that a state of war existed with Italy. FDR’s press secretary acidly noted that a vainglorious Mussolini was in goose-step fashion reduced to following Hitler’s orders.

By midday, the die was cast. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and his aides hurriedly drafted the text of a presidential message to Congress: “The long known and long expected has thus taken place. The forces endeavoring to enslave the world are moving toward this hemisphere. Never before has there been a greater challenge to life, liberty and civilization.” Prompt action, President Roosevelt told American lawmakers, promised “a world victory of the forces of justice and of righteousness over the forces of savagery and barbarism.”

Before 3 p.m., without Roosevelt’s appearance, Congress unanimously approved war resolutions. At 3:06 p.m., FDR initialed them. The U.S. was at war with Germany and Italy.

In a single day, a Pacific war became a global war with cascading consequences for grand strategy and statecraft. In the geopolitical game, Hitler’s and Mussolini’s actions further unleashed the fury of American power. Despite the humiliation of Pearl Harbor and daunting Pacific challenges, the bull’s-eye fell squarely on Nazi Germany and occupied Europe as the focal point for U.S. war strategy. With no end other than victory and a Grand Alliance—the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union—taking shape, the fate of the Axis was sealed. On Jan. 1, 1942, 26 nations signed the United Nations Declaration pledging to accept the Atlantic Charter and agreeing not to negotiate a separate peace with any Axis power.

Hitler’s action forced his East European allies—Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania—to follow Berlin.

In Budapest, Premier László Bárdossy summoned Minister Herbert “Bertie” Pell, a U.S. political appointee to Hungary and former minister to Portugal, to announce a rupture in relations. Two days later, on Dec. 13, Hungary fell in line and declared war. (If the name “Pell” sounds familiar, it is because Bertie’s son—Claiborne, future FSO and long-serving chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—enlisted as a seaman in the Coast Guard in August 1941. Correspondence in FDR’s files testifies to an anxious father in faraway Budapest asking high-powered friends, including FDR, to keep an eye on his adventurous son.)

The German chargé d’affaires, Herr Hans Thomsen, and his wife, Frau Hans Thomsen, depart the German embassy in Washington, D.C., for a White House diplomatic reception on Dec. 14, 1939, soon after war was waged in Europe.
U.S. Library of Congress

In Bucharest, sadness prevailed. Minister Franklin Mott Gunther, a career FSO since 1908 and former minister to Egypt and Ecuador was stricken with leukemia. Although advised to depart post, he remained. Assigned to Romania since 1937, Gunther distinguished himself through relentless reporting on rampant anti-Semitism, the Isai pogrom and the massacre of Jews. He was among the first at State to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding Romania’s appalling complicity in the ultimate murder of as many as 300,000 Jews. Citing obligations under the Tripartite Pact, an official delivered a note verbale on Dec. 12 announcing a state of war to Chargé James Benton. Less than two weeks later, the 56-year-old Gunther was dead. In the words of the State Department press release: He “sacrificed his life in the course of duty.”

George H. Earle III, minister to Bulgaria, stands out as one of the most intriguing political diplomats of the 1930s. Appointed minister to Austria (1933-1934), Earle left Vienna to run successfully as a New Deal Democrat for the governorship of Pennsylvania. When his term ended in 1939 and a Senate bid failed, the indefatigable Earle jumped back into the diplomatic game.

He attracted international attention in February 1941 when he became embroiled in a diplomatic kerfuffle. With Germans present in a popular restaurant, Earle requested the band play “Tipperary,” a British World War I marching song. Taking offense, a German, presumably a Nazi in mufti, livid with rage threw an empty wine bottle at Earle. “This sudden, vicious, unprovoked attack irritated me considerably,” Earle, a rugged 220-pounder told the press. “So I smashed him in the face, knocking him down, causing his face to bleed.” Shades of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the 1942 hit “Casablanca.” Earle would report that from King Boris on down, Bulgarians regretted having war with the U.S. forced upon them.

In a single day, a Pacific war became a global war with cascading consequences for grand strategy and statecraft.

Opéra bouffe? “The United States should pay no attention to any of these declarations … against us by puppet governments,” FDR wrote to Secretary Hull. Reciprocal U.S. declarations of war did not come until June 5, 1942.

On Sunday, Dec. 14, Chargé Morris, First Secretary Kennan and others arrived, luggage in hand, from U.S. Embassy Berlin at Potsdamer Station to board a special train for the spa town of Bad Nauheim. The party of 130—men, women and children, as well as several journalists—would remain in the Jeschke’s Grand Hotel for months under the Gestapo’s watchful eyes. Isolation, boredom and meager diets took a toll. “Particularly disillusioning were the endless complaints about food which I was compelled to receive,” Kennan wrote in his memoirs.

One embassy staff member, Herbert John Burgman, an American-born but locally engaged clerk, failed to appear at the station. He subsequently became an anti-American propagandist/broadcaster for the Nazi regime. In 1949 a U.S. court convicted Burgman of treason, a dubious distinction for a one-time State Department employee.

The S.S. Drottningholm in Gothenburg Harbor, Sweden, circa 1943. The spring before, in 1942, her first westbound voyage during WWII had carried U.S. diplomats Leland Morris and George Kennan, and many others, from Lisbon to New York City.

Invidious comparisons were often made between the spartan conditions at Bad Nauheim and the treatment Thomsen and the German diplomats received while interned at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

American diplomats in Italy experienced a more civilized confinement. Allowed to stay in Rome, each American was shadowed by so-called “guardians” in plain clothes and permitted considerable freedom as long as they followed what Second Secretary Elbridge Durbrow described as the “rules of internment”: no social contact, movies, restaurants, golf or tennis; plenty of walking and sightseeing.

On Dec. 11, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the declaration of war against Germany, which leads the United States into World War II in Europe. On his left is Senator Tom Connally, who holds a watch to mark the exact time of the declaration.
Farm Security Administration / Office of War Information

Minister Earle and staff escaped internment in Bulgaria, safely arriving in Istanbul in late December. Hungarians also treated Minister Pell well. After closing the U.S. mission in Hungary, the Pells occupied a suite in the Ritz, vacated temporarily by Pell and his wife when von Ribbentrop descended on Budapest. Following a friendly send-off, Pell’s party reached neutral Portugal in January 1942 after promising not to leave the continent until such time as Hungarian diplomats arrived there from the U.S.

Last to leave were the American diplomat refugees camped at Bad Nauheim. Traveling through Germany, Occupied France, Vichy France and Spain, they did not reach Lisbon until May 16. Kennan confessed in his memoirs that after months on the receiving end of food complaints, as the only American allowed to leave the train at the Portuguese border, he took “final revenge upon my fellow internees by repairing to the station buffet and eating a breakfast of several eggs.” It was hours before the rest of the internees could eat to their fill in friendly Lisbon.

On June 1, for the hundreds aboard the Swedish-flagged liner S.S. Drottningholm, chartered to ferry diplomats and others across the Atlantic, there was no more welcome sight than Lady Liberty and New York’s skyline. In the minds of Minister Pell, Mrs. Gunther, Chargé Morris, First Secretary Kennan and numerous others, it was a bittersweet ending to ordeals begun five months before.

Eighty years later, Dec. 11, 1941, marks a day when the world descended with head-spinning rapidity into total global war. Wrote Secretary Hull: “The voices of diplomacy were now submerged by the roar of the canon.”

War forced upon the State Department and Foreign Service challenges never before experienced and scarcely imagined. They ranged from waging economic warfare, while preserving alliances and hemispheric solidarity, to supporting governments in exile and shaping public opinion while planning for postwar peace. State vied for influence in a time of war, not always with success. Competing agencies proliferated; personnel shortages persisted; and FDR, sometimes known as the Juggler, frequently kept his own counsel.

Nonetheless, for the Foreign Service, staff and families, ahead lay ordeals of separations, perilous journeys and risky assignments. Total global war would continue to test the mettle of State and the Foreign Service until the guns of war fell silent on Sept. 2, 1945.

Ray Walser is a retired FSO (1980-2007), former senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation and currently Professor of Practice, Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Washington Program. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.