The Axis Invasion of America That Never Came

Neither Germany nor Japan ever prepared to invade the United States. That didn’t stop Americans from worrying.

A possible German invasion of North America as depicted in the 1945 American propaganda film Why We Fight: War Comes to America
A possible German invasion of North America as depicted in the 1945 American propaganda film Why We Fight: War Comes to America

The Axis powers in World War II never really had any plans to invade the continental United States. The Nazis hoped to keep the Americans out of the war altogether. As late as the spring of 1941, Adolf Hitler said a German invasion of the Western Hemisphere was as fantastical as an invasion of the Moon.

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December of that year did prompt the Germans to develop long-range bombers that could reach the East Coast. But although Hitler started speaking grandly of a future contest between America and Germany, no preparations for war were made.

Nor did the Japanese think seriously about conquering the United States. Some advocated seizing Hawaii and Japan briefly occupied the leutian Islands in Alaska, but that was it.

Of course, that’s what we know now. Things looked very different in the winter of 1941, when America unexpectedly found itself at war with both the Empire of Japan and a Nazi Germany that dominated Europe.

Early warnings

Map of Europe's trade with the world, from Life magazine, July 22, 1940
Map of Europe’s trade with the world, from Life magazine, July 22, 1940

There were Americans who felt it was only a matter of time before their country would once again be drawn into a European war.

George Fielding Eliot, a World War I veteran, warned readers of Life magazine in May 1940 — when Germany invaded the Low Countries and France — that a Nazi victory would put Hitler in a strong position to eventually attack the Western Hemisphere.

Eliot predicted that if the Nazis ever tried, they would first seek to weaken America’s “rear”.

America has little defense against Trojan-horse activities in South America — indeed in all Latin America, not forgetting our neighbor, Mexico.

He identified two possible invasion routes: the first across the North Atlantic, with Germany using Iceland and Greenland as stepping stones, and the second via the Azores and Bermuda.

Walter Lippmann in 1960
Walter Lippmann in 1960 (Life/Alfred Eisenstaedt)

Walter Lippmann, already one of America’s most respected journalists at the time, warned in the same magazine later that year that the economic consequences of a German victory would be grave. All but one of the world’s economic powerhouses (America itself) would then find themselves under totalitarian control, he pointed out:

Our own manufacturers, our own farmers and miners and the farmers and miners of South America will no longer be trading and competing with private firms and private producers. They will be competing and trading with these gigantic government monopolies managed by dictators and backed by enormous armed force.

Americans attempting to do business under such circumstances “would be like naked soldiers trying to stop a charge of tanks,” he wrote.

If Britain — the only nation still undefeated by Hitler at that point — were to fall, Lippman predicted that the United States would face an impossible choice: “Either we shall pull ourselves together and in self-defense we shall organize America, maintaining our essential liberties but sacrificing many liberties to which we are accustomed, or we shall listen to the complacent reassurers and we shall let ourselves drift aimlessly.” The consequences of that, he added, would be isolation and demoralization and impoverishment.

How an invasion might happen

Map of a possible Axis invasion of North America from Life magazine, March 2, 1942
Map of a possible Axis invasion of North America from Life magazine, March 2, 1942

Shortly after Hitler declared war on the United States, Life magazine, in March 1942, considered several ways in which his armies and Japan’s might attempt an invasion.

One involved a Japanese hop-skip-and-jump across the northern Pacific. The invasion would start with a naval attack on Dutch Harbor in Alaska. Then land-based planes would help the carrier planes protect a sea advance down the West Coast. A fifth column of Axis sympathizers would wreck havoc at home. “The Japs take the West Coast aviation industry, shipyards and oil wells. Then Germans stab at [the] East Coast.”

Map of a possible Axis invasion of North America from Life magazine, March 2, 1942
Map of a possible Axis invasion of North America from Life magazine, March 2, 1942

Other versions of a Japanese-led attack suggested going via Pearl Harbor to San Francisco or across the South Pacific and through Central America.

German-led plans assumed the Nazis would capture the remnants of the French fleet (most capital ships had been sunk by the British at Mers El Kébir in 1940), combine it with the Italian and receive support from the Japanese via the Indian Ocean.

First, they would take Gibraltar, the British mountain fortress that guards the Mediterranean. From there, the plans diverged.

Map of a possible Axis invasion of North America from Life magazine, March 2, 1942
Map of a possible Axis invasion of North America from Life magazine, March 2, 1942

One suggested going by Dakar, in French West Africa, and crossing the Atlantic to Brazil; take Trinidad, a British colony, and then invade North America up the Mississippi River.

Another option was going by Iceland and Greenland and invading down the Saint Lawrence River and Hudson Bay valleys. “Germans could readily bomb Chicago, Detroit, Akron and rampage through [the] Midwest,” Life wrote.

Map of a possible Axis invasion of North America from Life magazine, March 2, 1942
Map of a possible Axis invasion of North America from Life magazine, March 2, 1942

The catch would be getting past the British fleet. Life suggested German submarines and warplanes could keep the Royal Navy busy around the British Isles, allowing the invading force to sneak by.

All of this, of course, assumed the Germans would get around to building a fleet large enough to mount an invasion to begin with. In the real world, they couldn’t even make it across the Channel to invade England.

Japan’s actual war plan

Japan's plan to conquer the Far East as reported by Life magazine, December 9, 1946
Japan’s plan to conquer the Far East as reported by Life magazine, December, 9 1946

Life revealed as early as December 1946 that the Japanese never had any designs on North America. Basing itself on “captured documents” and interviews American officers conducted with their Japanese counterparts, the magazine reported that the empire’s goal was always a negotiated peace.

The strike on Pearl Harbor was only meant to immobilize the American fleet so the Japanese could take the Philippines, Guam, Singapore, the East Indies and Wake Island.

Then the Japanese thought they would have time, behind their outer defenses, to exploit their new “southern resources zone” for raw materials which they needed to complete their hopelessly deadlocked war in China.

When Japan’s efforts went better than expected, its leaders, shocked by the 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, miscalculated: they changed the plan and extended their defensive perimeter to include Kiska, Midway, New Caledonia and all of New Guinea. “This rash decision cost them most of their carriers and air force,” leaving the empire vulnerable once the United States had fully mobilized.

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