The Man In High Castle has raised the profile of alternate history lately. Is it plausible? Is there any way the Axis Powers could have not only beaten the Allies but also invaded and subdued the United States?
Let's start out by saying that an Axis victory of any kind was unlikely. I've seen alternatives that might lead to stalemate and Axis survival due to Allied exhaustion, but I've never seen anything plausible that leads to a complete Axis victory. On the other hand, I love a challenge, so I'll explore some possible routes to an Axis victory and the kind of nightmarish Japanese/German occupation of the US depicted in the popular TV series.
Why was an Axis victory so unlikely? A lot of reasons.
Wealth/Industrial capacity. Add up the percentage of world wealth from the three major Axis powers, then compare that total to the US alone. The US started out ahead and widened its lead through the war. And that's not even taking into account Britain and the Soviet Union. [Editor's Note: See this map to get a better idea of what Dale is talking about.]
Access to natural resources. A big chunk of the motive for World War II was that the Allies controlled the bulk of the world's natural resources and the Axis powers wanted a bigger share. Of the three Axis powers, Germany managed to temporarily grab some of the Soviet Union's resources, but not the one they needed the most, which was oil. Japan grabbed a very rich natural resource area, but never had enough shipping to take advantage of it and quickly lost much of their already inadequate shipping to US subs once the US got their faulty torpedoes fixed.
Technology. In spite of the hype about Axis secret weapons, the US had a major technological lead in a lot of the war-fighting areas, especially electronics, automotive and some areas of chemistry, particularly in producing high octane fuel and mass-producing explosives. Those advantages led to extremely reliable tanks for the era, proximity fuses that made Allied anti-air much more deadly, much more accurate naval gunnery, bomb-sights and aircraft analog computers that the Axis never quite duplicated, more effective radar, television-guided attack drones and of course the Atom bomb.
The Axis powers managed to convince most of the people they conquered that their vicious or brutal former rulers were the lesser of two evils. That prevented them from effectively using the manpower and resources they conquered. Convincing Ukrainians that Stalin was the lesser evil was quite a feat, but the Germans managed it in a lot of cases, while the Japanese convinced an amazing number of Chinese factions to unite against them in the name of national survival.
Both Japan and Germany quickly got themselves into resource-devouring quagmires with no exit.
Once Germany invaded the Soviet Union, how could they avoid getting bled white, even in the most optimistic scenario? Let's say the Germans managed to grab Moscow in late summer 1941--which might or might not have been possible. Let's take it an unlikely step further and say for the sake of argument that when Moscow fell the Soviets lost control of much of their army. The mostly peasant Red Army evaporated like the Tsarist army did at the end of World War I. That's very unlikely, given the effective Soviet organs of repression and the continuing stream of German atrocities that pushed Russians together, making the war a fight for national physical survival. Let's say, however, that a Soviet army disintegration happened. Simply occupying the Soviet Union would still absorb huge amounts of manpower because it's so huge and even a Soviet Union that disintegrated would still have huge numbers of armed Russian roaming it and still have large production facilities the Germans couldn't reach.
If Stalin died and the Soviet Union collapsed, the vast expanses of Russia would undoubtedly produce warlords, some Communist and others probably anti-Communist or simply opportunists with no ideology. The Germans would have to garrison the vast area for decades and it would continue to drain their resources. And that's even given an improbably successful campaign.
What about Japan? Let's say the Japanese knocked out the Nationalists--destroyed Chiang's remaining German-trained troops and occupied the Nationalist wartime capitol. War over? Not even close. They would still have to deal with China's remaining warlords, plus the Communists, who would quickly flow in to fill the vacuum. After the many atrocities of the Japanese occupation, the Chinese would have continued to fight and continued to tie down Japanese troops.
Axis leadership. The Japanese purged almost all of their most rational leaders during the 1930s, resulting in leaders who seemed to almost always take the most destructive of two possible courses. Their action often were aimed more at rivals within the Japanese military than at foreign enemies.
Hitler started out as an evil leader with reprehensible goals but he was initially good at understanding the reality he was trying to subvert. He lost his grip on as German victories multiplied and especially when facing defeat, while kicking out technocrats and promoting fanatics around him. Mussolini was simply a very bad military leader, consolidating more power than he could possibly use, draining the already weak Italian military by never sticking to one objective long enough to attain it and not understanding the limitations of Italian logistics and equipment. All three leaderships were extremely vulnerable to victory disease, where early German and Japanese victories seemed to confirm Axis propaganda about the weakness of the democracies and led all three Axis countries into trying far more than their militaries were capable of. In spite of their much-hyped "efficiency", the Axis powers used their limited resources poorly.
Finally, a complete Axis victory, invading and conquering the United States, would have meant ferrying and supplying armies across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Neither Japan nor especially Germany had any realistic possibility of bringing a large army across the ocean and supplying it. Japan held naval superiority in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor to the Battle of Midway, but didn't have enough cargo vessels to supply a ground invasion of Hawaii, much less invading the mainland US. Not only that, but their warships didn't have the range to escort an invasion fleet or do battle with the US fleet off the US west coast. They were only able to attack at Pearl Harbor by using desperate measures to extend their aircraft carriers' ranges--stacking oil in drums on the decks and carrying it in the bilge, then using essentially every oil tanker the Japanese had available to refuel along the way.
The Japanese deliberately built a short-range navy, because they planned to force the US fleet to fight its way across the Pacific against strings of Japanese-held island chains, then defeat the weakened US ships in a decisive battle near the Philippines. If the decisive battle was to be fought near Japan, Japanese ships could use the tonnage the US used for fuel for armor and firepower.
German U-boats could challenge the British and US, but that could at best only deny the Allies use of the Atlantic. Invading the US would have meant controlling the Atlantic not just denying it to the Allies. The Axis never came close to challenging the British and US fleets in that way and wouldn't have had enough cargo ships to invade anyway.
Wow! That's a formidable list of reasons why an invasion of the US couldn't happen. Do I really want to even bother trying to figure out how it might be possible? Is there any way an Axis we would recognize as such could invade the US, or is this one of those alternate history nightmares that couldn't really happen? We'll look deeper in the next few weeks.