07 December 2013

An alternative view of the attack on Pearl Harbor - updated

(originally posted in 2012)  There are lots of memorial posts on the internet today on the topic of Pearl Harbor.  At the risk of offending some readers, I'll post excerpts from this counterpoint, posted six years ago at The Independent Institute.
Ask a typical American how the United States got into World War II, and he will almost certainly tell you that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the Americans fought back. Ask him why the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and he will probably need some time to gather his thoughts. He might say that the Japanese were aggressive militarists who wanted to take over the world, or at least the Asia-Pacific part of it. Ask him what the United States did to provoke the Japanese, and he will probably say that the Americans did nothing: we were just minding our own business when the crazy Japanese, completely without justification, mounted a sneak attack on us, catching us totally by surprise in Hawaii on December 7, 1941...

In the late nineteenth century, Japan’s economy began to grow and to industrialize rapidly. Because Japan has few natural resources, many of the burgeoning industries had to rely on imported raw materials, such as coal, iron ore or steel scrap, tin, copper, bauxite, rubber, and petroleum. Without access to such imports, many of which came from the United States or from European colonies in southeast Asia, Japan’s industrial economy would have ground to a halt. By engaging in international trade, however, the Japanese had built a moderately advanced industrial economy by 1941...

When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, the U.S. government fell under the control of a man who disliked the Japanese and harbored a romantic affection for the Chinese... Roosevelt also disliked the Germans (and of course Adolf Hitler), and he tended to favor the British in his personal relations and in world affairs...

Accordingly, the Roosevelt administration, while curtly dismissing Japanese diplomatic overtures to harmonize relations, imposed a series of increasingly stringent economic sanctions on Japan. In 1939 the United States terminated the 1911 commercial treaty with Japan. “On July 2, 1940, Roosevelt signed the Export Control Act, authorizing the President to license or prohibit the export of essential defense materials.” Under this authority, “[o]n July 31, exports of aviation motor fuels and lubricants and No. 1 heavy melting iron and steel scrap were restricted.” Next, in a move aimed at Japan, Roosevelt slapped an embargo, effective October 16, “on all exports of scrap iron and steel to destinations other than Britain and the nations of the Western Hemisphere.” Finally, on July 26, 1941, Roosevelt “froze Japanese assets in the United States, thus bringing commercial relations between the nations to an effective end. One week later Roosevelt embargoed the export of such grades of oil as still were in commercial flow to Japan.” The British and the Dutch followed suit, embargoing exports to Japan from their colonies in southeast Asia...

Foreign Minister Teijiro Toyoda had communicated to Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura on July 31: “Commercial and economic relations between Japan and third countries, led by England and the United States, are gradually becoming so horribly strained that we cannot endure it much longer. Consequently, our Empire, to save its very life, must take measures to secure the raw materials of the South Seas.”
Addendum: A 2013 column in Salon ("Oil led to Pearl Harbor") provides additional information.
In the summer of 1941, before leaving for Placentia Bay, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ordered a freeze on Japanese assets. That measure required the Japanese to seek and obtain licenses to export and pay for each shipment of goods from the United States, including oil.

This move was most distressing to the Japanese because they were dependent on the United States for most of their crude oil and refined petroleum products. However, Roosevelt did not want to trigger a war with Japan. His intention was to keep the oil flowing by continuing to grant licenses...

Acheson favored a “bullet-proof freeze” on oil shipments to Japan, claiming it would not provoke war because “no rational Japanese could believe that an attack on us could result in anything but disaster for his country.”

With breathtaking confidence in his own judgment, and ignoring the objections of others in the State Department, Acheson refused to grant licenses to Japan to pay for goods in dollars. That effectively ended Japan’s ability to ship oil and all other goods from the United States.
More at the link.

42 comments:

  1. I'll stipulate that the Japanese were treated unfairly on the world stage. Can that be an excuse for the Nanking Massacre, among others?

    Japan was a brutal military dictatorship. However much it may have considered itself to have been wronged, those wrongs aren't even on the map compared to atrocities like that.

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    1. By 1938-39, it was more than a dictatorship. It was an imperialistic empire expanding its reach into China, Formosa (Taiwan), and southern Asia. Though I should add - they were merely mimicking what other European empires were doing. (the Dutch, English, and French in Africa and Asia)

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  2. This version of history completely fails to recognize the militaristic buildup and regional expansion that Japan was already participating in.

    In 1931 the Japanese invaded China and began their effort to control their region. It seems to me that FDR (of whom I am no great fan) responded properly with the diplomatic means at his disposal.

    In 1933 the Japanese walked out of the League of Nations because the general consensus was the invasion of China was wrong.

    In 1937 the Rape of Nanking occured. Regardless of if FDR had a 'romantic affection for the Chinese' it was a human rights horror and it was a good thing that FDR did what he could to respond with extension of economic sanctions.

    This version of history where the Japanese were the victims of WWII is a problem. It is what is taught in Japan where schoolchildren have no idea about the horrors of Japanese POW camps, or the rape of Nanking, or even that Japan was the aggressor nation at all.

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    1. Much like American children were (are) taught that their country has only done good things for the right reasons, even if it's genocide or invading countries for no legitimate reasons.

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    2. Odd that you would mention Japan deciding to leave the League of Nations, which the U.S. never joined at all, despite it being Woodrow Wilson's baby. It was also 8 years before Pearl Harbor, so could not in any way be seen as any provocation to war in 1941.

      At the same time, the very week before 9/11 the Israelis and the U.S. both walked out of the U.N. Conference on Racism. Any connection? Who knows?

      I also don't hear Stan arguing that Japan was a victim. He is only laying out what actually happened and what their reasons were. All that Stan says has been known for several decades. There is nothing new in it.

      It was widely known, also that FDR was champing at the bit to get America into the war. Churchill was very convinced that the Americans wouldn't really do anything, including Lend Lease, even.

      Stalin, for another three years kept wondering if the U.S. and Brits would EVER actually participate in the European war. Recall that D-Day was almost exactly 2-1/2 years after Peal Harbor, and in the meantime the U.S. and Brits hadn't fought in northern Europe at all. The Soviets, in the meantime, had fought for 3 years by then and had lost several million soldiers and millions of civilians. Stalin wand the Soviets won the war, by killing about 8 million German soldiers. The Soviets would have gotten into Berlin at about the same time as they did, with or without the Americans and Brits. They were already well on their way to Berlin by June 6, 1944. The war was all over by then, except for the fat lady singing.

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  3. And by Sep. 27, 1940, Japan was part of the military union of the Axis powers (the Tripartite Pact). Japan and Germany signed the Anti-Comintern agreement earlier in 1936.

    So as an ally of Germany, Japan was fair game for sanctions. Not to mention atrocities like the 1937 Rape of Nanking, already referenced.

    Lurker111

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    1. You seem to not understand the term "neutral country." There was technically no more reason for the U.S. to have sanctions against Japan than against England. Other than FDR's like of England and the slow build-up of propaganda back home.

      As to the Rape of Nanking, the U.S./British firebombings of Germans and Japanese cities killed many times more civilians than the number killed in Nanking. The U.S. was no angels, either. Rober McNamara in "The Fog of War" discussed how he and General LeMay planned those firebombings. McNamara on camera admitted that if we had lost the war he and LeMay would certainly have been tried as war criminals. (Yes, Hitler started the civilian bombings. That didn't in any way excuse the intentional blanket bombing of cities with incendiaries.)

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  4. From the intro I was expecting more of a provokation than a trade embargo. Still seems a big jump from that to a bombing of US soil.

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    1. Let's see how long of an interval there will be if the Saudis ever cut off oil to the U.S.

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  5. In other somewhat related WWII trivia: According to the new Winston Churchill bio, Churchill knew that Germany could never succeed in a British invasion (mainly due to the power of the Royal Navy). His famous "We will fight them on the beaches" speech was mainly given to rouse morale and gain sympathy from the US.

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  6. You forgot to mention the US bases blooming all over the Pacific. Pan Am would put in a seaplane base on some Pacific island, and the US Navy would then install a base to defend it. But despite that, you should always say the Japs attacked the US because they were the bad guys. Don't forget they were part of the Axis, and to even admit they were human beings is to prove to the world that you are an anti Semite. Let the academics think about the real history and every one else stick to the national mythology. Truth is too complicated for the rest of us.

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    1. Actually, no. Prior to the war, the Japanese and Americans (other nations, including Britain were also involved) had a treaty that prevented both parties from developing their bases in the Pacific (excluding, for Japan, Japan proper, and for the US, mainland US). Japan as usual paid lip service to the treaty, but didn't really feel compelled to comply with it. The United States on the other hand avoided even the appearance of violating the treaty. So much so, that when an American Base needed repairs to routine equipment (such as water purification equipment) it was either delayed or cancelled altogether because it would look like the United States was violating the treaty. It was only with the advent of World War Two in Europe that the United States began strengthening its Pacific Bases, and even then it didn't do very much. American base building didn't really blossom until during the war, and the signing of the treaty stopped American base expansion altogether until after the beginning of the war.

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    2. Yeah, it makes you wonder, that someone uses a name like "Anonymous" and then runs around making unfounded assertions like U.S. bases in the Pacific "blooming." How Anonymous can say fighting Japanese can be in any way called "anti semitic" - WTF??? And then he finishes with: "Let the academics think about the real history and every one else stick to the national mythology. Truth is too complicated for the rest of us." Well, truth is certainly too complicated for Anonymous to lift a finger and actually look things up, instead of pulling stuff out of his never to be complicated butt. In that comment he didn't say one true thing, other than that the Japanese were part of the Axis.

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  7. The day the japanese attacked pearl harbor, the US Navy and USMC had bases on " Hawaii, Midway, Wake, and Guam, the Philippines, Shanghai, two in the Aleutians, American Samoa, and Johnston Island (Harkavy, Great Power Competition for Overseas Bases: The Geopolitics of Access Diplomacy, 1982)
    As far as wartime base building activity- "by the end of WW II, the United States had built or acquired an astounding 30,000 installations large and small in approximately 100 countries." (Blaker,James R, United States Overseas Basing: An Anatomy of the Dilemma 1990:28)
    I have explored the ruins of those pre-war bases, and the wartime ones. I have been to the pacific battlefields, and talked to the veterans on both sides, as well as the families of those who did not make it home. Not to be argumentative or anything.

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  8. Also reference the rather controversial book "Imperial Cruise". Take away what you will, but the US had been stirring up trouble in the region for a long time before bobs fell over Pearl Harbor.

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  9. Yea. Right. They were just minding their own business when evil FDR cut them off. Never mind that they had invaded and Japan, Korea, and pretty much the rest of eastern Asia. And they were pretty damn brutal too.

    Japan attacked Pearl Harbor so they could buy time to secure the western Pacific ocean from the US Navy. That was a tactical move as as part of a strategy to sue the US for peace. The idea was that the US would allow them to hold Asia rather fight them back to Japan.

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  10. Link doesn't work any longer.

    "500 - Internal server error.
    There is a problem with the resource you are looking for, and it cannot be displayed."

    I wonder why.

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  11. Oh that evil FDR checking a political and economic competitor that had allied with Hitler.

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  12. There is 2 sides to a coin. And in all wars, there are no 'who was right', only winners, coz the winner writes the history.

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    1. Exactly. Viz. the firebombing of Dresden. Or the calculated delays by the Russians before moving in to 'liberate' cities, giving the other combatants as much time as possible to kill as many adult males as they could before they moved in and occupied the area themselves. Or the Katyn Massacre or even the Holodomor. Or, for that matter, dropping another atomic bomb on Nagasaki before even checking to see if the Japanese gov't was maybe thinking of surrender after the logic-defying devastation of Hiroshima. 2 sides to a coin indeed.

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    2. Yeah the picnic in nan-king, the manilla soccer scrum, 2.7 million Chinese who patriotically stared themselves to death for the Japanese emperor. Yes indeed, two sides to every coin...

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    3. There are always at least two sides to every story, usually more than two, in the continuing analysis. Japan's preemptive strike at Pearl Harbor was a calculated risk, which ultimately underestimated America. --A.

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    4. happycrab - I agre with everything you wrote except the but about the Soviets' "calculated delays." They may not have gotten it 100% exactly correct in all ways, but I suggest you watch some of the YouTube videos "Soviet Storm: WW2 in the East." Check out the episodes after Stalingrad. The Germans were still just about the most powerful military in the world, second only to the Soviets at that time. (The U.S. hadn't even fought on battle yet in N Europe and only a few in Italy, against the Germans and Italians in a secondary front in the war.) At every turn the Germans fought tooth and nail, and several times did or nearly did get armies trapped in cities as they retreated by pincer movements ala Stalingrad - while having NO intention of retreating. The Germans actually lost their 6th Army TWICE; the 6th had been reformed and the reformed one got surrounded, too. All thos battles ate up millions of soldiers on both sides. There was no running around and playing "future politics" while the Germans could turn on them at any moment. They were making a bee-line for Berlin, and kicking the shit out of the Germans was the only real issue on their minds.

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  13. "According to the new Winston Churchill bio, Churchill knew that Germany could never succeed in a British invasion"

    I'm not familiar with the bio, but it does seem problematic to state things in absolutes from our vantage as observers with the benefit of historical hindsight. Things often don't go as expected in war. Leader's overconfidence also brings such things as the Maginot Line or the German invasion of Russia...

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    1. "Things often don't go as expected in war".

      - Nominee for Understatement of the Year Award 2012

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  14. Or it was a cunning plot by the Russians....

    http://nation.time.com/2012/12/07/pearl-harbor-2-0/?xid=gonewsedit&google_editors_picks=true

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  15. I think the Russo-Japanese war is also useful background for understanding the attack in Pearl Harbor:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russo-Japanese_War

    Short version: in 1904, Russia, having spent some time munching its way eastward across central Asia, conquering various Asian nations as it went, is poised to invade Korea, which would give it a warm-water port on the Pacific. The Japanese have their own imperialist designs on Korea, and are (justifiably?) worried about being somewhere on Russia's list of Countries It Would Eventually Be Fun To Conquer.

    So the Japanese launch a surprise attack on a Russian naval base, beginning the Russo-Japanese war.

    The attack cripples the Russian fleet in the area, and (possibly partly because the Trans-Siberian Railway isn't finished yet, and Russia therefore can't bring new troops to the area quickly) Japan goes on to win the war, which ends a little over a year later.

    Fast-foward to 1941: America has been spreading its influence across various islands in the Pacific, conquering Hawaii and the Philippines and putting bases on other islands...and for some of the Japanese, surely, it's 1904 all over again.

    None of this is meant to excuse Japanese brutality in war--but as the original post pointed out, the current impression a lot of Americans have of the attack on Pearl Harbor is that it happened because the Japanese were crazy and evil. They did what they did for reasons that made sense to them at the time, and I think it's worth trying to understand the reasoning.

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  16. From my study of war, I have concluded that there has NEVER been one side that is wholly right, and one side wholly wrong. Both sides have done something to provoke the other...and both sides have at least some justification for what they have done. We fall victim to simplification and propaganda when we act like America is always the white knight. Yes, we are a good nation, I believe. In fact, as an American, I believe we are the best in the world. But let's have none of this nonsense that we are of sterling character, always on the right side. I think the unmarked graves of thousands of American Indians and African American slaves more than gives the lie to the notion that ANY NATION can be fully righteous.

    Of course, it is almost political suicide in the USA to hold that we would ever act in any way that is not in line with the highest virtues. Walk the Trail of Tears and see if you still feel the same way.

    We are improving, I think. I THINK. But it takes time. The way forward is to acknowledge our shortcomings, to learn from them, to never repeat them.

    As for Pearl Harbor, my issue is not that we somehow forced the matter. Rather, I wonder why we would ever think that in war we have the "right" to be adequately forewarned of our enemy's intentions. If I was fighting another country, I am certainly not going to want to say, "Be prepared, for in the near future we will attack a military base."

    Moreover, Pearl Harbor was a MILITARY attack. It struck a legitimate target--a military installation. It did not specifically target civilians. Of course, for Americans, ANY ATTACK ON US, no matter how well within the rules of war, angers us, stirring us to take our revenge.

    We were on the right side of World War II, that cannot be doubted. But to act as if we did everything right...that is a falsehood. General LeMay, speaking of the bombing of civilian populations in Japan, said that if Japan had won, he would have been tried for war crimes. Being the winner has a LOT to do with the narrative that follows the war. The winner gets to wear the white hats, no matter how stained their hands are with innocent blood.

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    1. The only real surprise about the attack on Pearl Harbor is that it was not closer to Japan, like the Philippines or Guam. No one expected them to come all the way to Hawaii. I think it was Yamamoto who said that if they didn't take out ALL the U.S. ability to to fight the war, Japan was screwed. Strategically it was the best move from their POV. But like Germany and the Blitzkrieg, it didn't and the enemies managed to develop enough (due mainly to the U.S. and its factories) to out slug them.

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  17. Plans for battle get tossed out the window the moment the battle starts. Striking back against your attacker is an act of self-defense, not revenge. (But, I personally don't think revenge is all that bad. When it is channeled and moderated, it drives the achievement of justice.) I've noticed that being the loser has a lot to do with the narrative, too. Each country in charge of teaching its own history will, of course, depict itself in the most flattering light possible. To what degree actual facts and truth are included depends on the depth of corruption and denial. --A.

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  18. What is the principle I consider wise enough to guide my words when talking about the history of the world? My patriotism. How to I regard the patriotism of other people? As stupidity.

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  19. Wow... Just Wow. Not a single word about Japan's aggression and invasion of China in all this? Nor their undeclared war with the Soviet Union in 1940-1941? I suspect that may have had something to do with the trade embargos that the US and other countries placed on Japan.

    Whether or not you want to think that refusing to sell oil or other raw materials to Japan was an agressive act, you still have to consider at the time Japan had invaded China.

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    1. Wales, I don't believe anyone is trying to imply that the Japan of the 1940s was a nice government or that it didn't deserve to be attacked. The point is, why did they choose to attack Pearl Harbor?

      Let me ask you the question. What do you think their purpose was if it wasn't oil-related?

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  20. From what I have been able to research, the Japanese were expanding into China proper (they already had Manchuria as a fiefdom) from 1933-36, even before the official start of the 2nd Sino-Japanese War in 1937. So they can hardly be described as good actors and worthy of ethical respect.

    That said, what an earlier poster stated about no party to a war ever being 100% in the right is probably true, but an aggression for the sake of land expansion into occupied space can't be seen as right.

    On the third hand, this article was a worthwhile prompt that caused me to refresh my memory of 20th Century history.

    Lurker111

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  21. > Let me ask you the question. What do you think their purpose was if it wasn't oil-related?
    [My apologies, but the reply to a reply javascript doen't appear to be working here...]

    Do I think their purpose was oil related? yes. I think the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in order to eliminate the US fleet from considerations for their movement into the East Indies, and in particular capture of the oil fields there to assure themselves of a source of supply. (There were other critical raw materials there they also wanted). Having the US fleet and other military assets in the Pacific in general, and in the Phillipines were felt to be too much of a risk to their operations elsewhere in Asia.

    However.. why was this so critical? If Japan had not invaded China and was massively involved with something like a million troops in a massive ground war in China -- would this have been so critical?

    Again, ignoring the fact that Japan had invaded China and focusing strictly upon US non-military responses to that invasion is only looking at half the issue.

    As a counter-factual thought experiment. Let's suppose that Japan had not invaded China in 1937. Would the US have placed the same embargos upon them? Would they have attacked Pearl Harbor in that case?

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  22. we keep messing with other countries and then acting all surprised when they attack us without provocation! because we are just minding our own business! (or our business interests...)

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  23. Whatever the reason, it was a bad idea . . . wasn't it.

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  24. Let me also highly recommend reading "The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War" with a critical eye. The book is a bit overzealous, but contains an amazing amount of critical historical context that has been completely ignored for far too long.

    Interestingly Teddy Roosevelt comes across as the inverse of FDR in that he admired the Japanese but looked down on the Chinese, though both were meddling statists of the worst kind.

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  25. Way to leave out the whole side of the story tywki! Do you actually think the US wrote up these sanctions on a whim?

    I'll be sure to read your article on how the german disliking british suddenly attacked the Luftwaffe planes that were on a simple patrol over England, or the british homes that were constructed right in the way of V2 test flights.

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  26. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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