Sleep of the Saved: Churchill's Reaction to Pearl Harbor

September 09, 2017

The American reaction to Pearl Harbor is not surprising. Fear mixed with shock and anger led to a readiness to enter the Second World War, ending the isolationism that had been US policy up to that point. Across the Atlantic, however, reactions were less predictable. With no direct ties to the naval base at Pearl Harbor, one might wonder whether leaders like British Prime Minister Winston Churchill took much notice.

For those unfamiliar with Churchill’s—and Britain's—situation at the time, his reaction may come as a surprise. It certainly wasn’t one of indifference, though with his own war to focus on, that wouldn't have been unexpected. Instead, Churchill’s initial reaction to hearing about the Pearl Harbor attack may have been seen as slightly self-serving.

Sleep of the Saved

Churchill's call for a united response

While the United States was still reeling over the growing number of casualties and the destruction some of its mightiest battleships, Churchill saw an opportunity. The early years of World War II had been incredibly difficult for England, as Germany proved to be a brutal foe. The Nazis seemed unstoppable and the British forces weren't far from defeat.

When news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reached Churchill, he immediately realized what that meant; the United States would now have to take up arms. In his own words, written in a history of World War II, Churchill said he “went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved” that night.

All of the time he had spent trying to convince the United States into joining forces with the British against Germany finally looked like it would pay off. With a declaration of war on Japan, it was only a matter of time before the Axis powers forced the Americans into fighting in the European Theater as well. Per the terms of the Tripartite Pact, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States on December 11th, 1941. Thanks to the Japanese, the British finally got the powerful ally it had so desperately needed since the war first broke out.

Wasting No Time

PM Winston Churchill address a joint session of Congress

Within days of the Pearl Harbor attack, Churchill traveled to the United States, sailing with his military chiefs in order to work with American generals to build a combined strategy that initially focused primarily on defeating the Germans in Europe, as they posed the greater immediate threat to the world.

I late December, 1941, Churchill stood in front of the US Congress for the first time and urged the Americans to join the two nations into a joint, unstoppable fighting force. “What kind of people do they think we are?” he asked rhetorically, speaking of the Japanese. It may come across as a simple sound bite, but the point of it was to link the United States and Britain into a single, allied front.

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