December 7, 1941. Mention that date to a person of a certain age and their reaction will be akin to later generations’ reaction to November 22, 1963 or September 11, 2001. Most any person over the age of five on those dates remembers where he was, what he was doing and how he felt when he heard the news. Those are dates that had a profound effect on our lives both individually and collectively.
On December 6, 1941 America was still working its way out of the Great Depression, which began in 1929 with the stock market crash. Unemployment was at 9.9%, not good, but a significant improvement from the peak of 25% in 1932. Americans were not thinking about war. After all, we had just fought the “Great War,” (the “war to end wars”). Sure, there was a war waging in Europe, but we were not involved directly. We had no boots on the ground, and we had a vast ocean between us and them. Most Americans were focused on their own lives, not on world events. America was in full isolationist mode. All that was about to change suddenly, violently, tragically and irrevocably.
We all know what happened on December 7, 1941. We know that the Japanese executed a devastating surprise attack on our naval base at Pearl Harbor that precipitated our involvement in WWII. Approximately, 3,500 lives were lost along with much of our Pacific Fleet and airplanes. America switched immediately from peacetime mode to wartime mode. Patriotism and nationalism abounded. The “greatest generation” was on the march. After the attack FDR called December 7 “a date that will live in infamy,” and he was right. It has.
As we all know, America recovered to win the war after four years of intense and costly fighting. Consequently, there is no need for me to rehash those events. The central theme of this blog will focus on the events that led up to the war with Japan.
Every war has its immediate cause and its underlying causes. The attack on Pearl Harbor was the immediate cause. But, what were the underlying causes? What would make Japan start a war that it had virtually no chance of winning? Glad you asked. Read on.
Many, if not most, historians maintain that the US actually provoked Japan into starting the war, although we did not intend that they devastate our naval fleet in the fashion they did. Over the course of the 1930’s we took various actions that, in reality, left Japan no choice, to wit:
1. The US was providing assistance to the Chinese who were at war with Japan. This included airplane pilots, armaments and other supplies and materials. Japan had been at war with China since the 1930’s. Its extreme brutality was exemplified by the Nanking Massacre, aka the Rape of Nanking, which began in December 1937. In a six-week period over 300,000 Chinese civilians were murdered, and there was widespread raping and looting. This shocking brutality was a portent of the Pacific War.
2. Along with the British and the Dutch the military was actively planning prospective military operations against the Japanese in the Far East to counter its aggression.
3. Japan had few natural resources of its own; it needed to import raw materials, such as coal, iron, oil, rubber and bauxite, from the US and other countries in Southeast Asia to fuel its burgeoning industries. In the late 1930’s the US began to severely limit its access to these materials by enforcing sanctions, limits and embargoes. This aided the British and the Dutch, who were concerned about Japan’s aggressive behavior in the Far East, but it provoked the Japanese.
4. Thus, one can view the attack on Pearl Harbor, not as an isolated event, but rather as the last act in a long line of connected ones.
Many historians believe that FDR provoked Japan intentionally, because he wanted to go to war against the Axis Powers, and the American people were decidedly against doing so. Before you scoff at that notion, consider that we have fought other wars following provocations that may or may not have been fabricated. For example:
1. The Spanish-American War in 1898 began when the battleship “Maine” was blown up in Havana harbor under mysterious circumstances. 75% of her crew was killed. “Remember the Maine” became the signature battle cry of that war. There is evidence that suggests that the “Maine” was not blown up by the Spanish, but may have blown up by accident or been sabotaged to provide a pretext for us to enter that war.
2. The legal basis for commencing the Vietnam War was the Gulf of Tonkin incidents of August 2 and 4, 1964. A US destroyer, the USS Maddox, exchanged fire with North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf, which is off the coast of Vietnam. As a result Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized President Johnson to assist any Southeast Asian country that was being jeopardized by “communist aggression.” Johnson was only too eager to do so. It was later determined that some key facts, such as who fired first, are in dispute.
3. President Bush, 43, “sold” the Iraq War to the American people by asserting there was “proof” that Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” Such weapons have never been found.
So, if FDR did, in fact, goad Japan into attacking us so that we could enter the war against the Axis Powers, it would not have been the only time the US Government used that tactic. In the 1950’s the renowned historian Harry Elmer Barnes (who, ironically, later lost much of his credibility by becoming a vociferous denier of the Holocaust) published a series of essays describing the various ways in which the US Government goaded the Japanese into starting a war it could not win and manipulated American public opinion. After the war, Secretary of War Henry Stimson admitted that “we needed the Japanese to commit the first overt act.”
Most historians agree that even the Japanese leadership in the 1930’s knew it could not win a prolonged war with the US. The US was vastly superior in terms of men, material and resources, and eventually, it would wear down the Japanese. That, in fact, is precisely what happened. In 1941 the die was cast when a more militant, nationalistic government came into power headed by Emperor Hirohito and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. They spent several months planning the pre-emptive strike. No doubt, they were influenced, in part, by the successful surprise attack on the Russians in 1905 led by then-Admiral Tojo during the Russo-Japanese War. Their intention was to neutralize American naval power in the Pacific so that it would be unable to block Japan’s aggression in Southeast Asia. They determined that Sunday would be the best day of the week to attack. They also weighed the advantages and disadvantages of attacking the fleet in the harbor or at sea before settling on the attack in the harbor. Although the battleships were sitting ducks in the more shallow harbor, Admiral Chester Nimitz denoted later that one crucial advantage to the US was that we were able to raze several of them later.
Despite its years of provocations, the US was ill-prepared for an attack. In addition, we had failed to confront the Japanese directly earlier when they could have been dealt with more easily. So, instead of fighting a small war in the 1930s we ended up fighting a world war just a few years later.
One could argue that there are strong parallels between then and now with respect to ISIS and other terrorist groups. Once again, we failed to deal with the problem when it was small; once again most of the country is very reluctant to get involved in “other people’s problems;” and, in my opinion, once again we will end up fighting a much larger and more costly war as a result. History, when ignored, does tend to repeat itself.
Ultimately, the Japanese underestimated the US. Their leaders knew we were in isolationist mode. They did not think we had the “stomach” to fight a prolonged, brutal war. Also, they knew we would be fighting the Germans and Italians as well. Furthermore, they figured that with our Pacific Fleet decimated, if not destroyed, we would be unable or unwilling to counter their aggression in the Far East. The Far East was their end game for reasons discussed above; they were not interested in attacking the US mainland.
Obviously they were wrong. They were not the first enemy to underestimate the US, and they likely will not be the last.