Friday, 8 December 2017

Pearl Harbor: How Japan Saved the World for "Democracy"

The "dastardly attack."

December 7th is the anniversary of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. Once again we have the opportunity to either look back in anger or, now that the embers of history have grown cold, to rake through them and ask what was the real significance of that fateful day.

It is often said that history is written by the winners. Although every nation committed horrendous atrocities in World War II, Japan is still cast as a pure villain. But, considering that many historians now believe the Japanese were unwitting dupes in one of the most complicated games of propaganda, espionage, and diplomacy ever played out across the world stage, isn't it time to revise the Hollywood version of history and admit the existence of gray areas, especially as the Americans would have been unable to play their full part in the defeat of Fascism without the cooperation of Japan?

The well-planned and devastating strike that crippled America's Pacific battle fleet and killed 2,403 Americans, was the decisive act of the war, but not in the way the Japanese intended. Although it gave the Japanese navy control of the Pacific for six vital months, enabling the Imperial army to conquer a vast area and establish a formidable defensive perimeter, it did little to aid Japan's Fascist allies, Germany and Italy. The main effect of launching a surprise attack on American soil was simply to resolve the disagreements inherent in any democratic system, divisions that in America's case threatened to prevent its participation in the war until it was too late.

Anyone who believes that Pearl Harbor was incidental to the war should ask two key questions: (1) Did America's entry into the war make a decisive difference; and (2) Could America have entered the war in time to make a decisive difference if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor? The answers are "yes" and "probably not."

The Wolves at the Door

At the start of December 1941 the two powers actively opposing Fascism, the British Empire and the Soviet Union were both close to collapse. Britain, after consecutive defeats was reduced to military impotence and was so threatened with starvation by Germany's U-boat campaign that even a form of cannibalism was being advocated in government circles: In 1941 nutritional scientist Dr. Magnus Pyke submitted a proposal for making black pudding from discarded blood plasma to help boost protein levels, a suggestion that was thankfully vetoed by the British PM, Winston Churchill, who was interested in blood – along with sweat and tears purely in a rhetorical sense.

Russia was in even worse straits. Since the German invasion of June that year, they had lost 2.5 million of their original 4-million-man army; while of an original 15,000 planes in their air force, only 700 remained. Both the capital city, Moscow, and Leningrad, home of the 1917 revolution, seemed on the verge of falling. The Soviet government had already fled to Kuibyshev, some 500 miles to the East.

Russia on the ropes.

The only thing that could prevent the defeat of these powers was the entry of America into the war. Many Americans, including President Roosevelt, were sympathetic, but, ominously for democracy's prospects, many more Americans wanted nothing to do with a European war. Americans viewed the pacts and alliances of European politics with deep distaste, and feared the high financial cost of entangling alliances and a large military. Many were also convinced that the country had been maneuvered into World War One to support the interests of profiteering bankers and munitions makers. This feeling was recognized in the Neutrality Act of 1935, which explicitly banned loans and the export of war implements to belligerents.

Also, despite general sympathy for Britain and its short-lived French ally, a sizable minority of Americans were sympathetic to the Axis powers, including tens of millions of Americans of German, Italian and Irish descent. When Roosevelt strongly criticized Mussolini for his stab in the back attack on a defeated France in June 1940, it lost him the votes of many Italian Americans at the polls later that year.

The Sleeping Giant

These antiwar sentiments, mobilized in groups like America First, led by the famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh, were strongly represented in Congress, which stubbornly maintained America's neutrality. As world-shaping events unfolded, Roosevelt, who fervently believed in fighting side-by-side with Britain, was forced to sit on his hands. Any concessions he wrung from Congress to provide material support for the Allies, such as Lend-Lease were paid for by increasingly explicit pledges to "keep American boys out of the war."

America First 
Interestingly US isolationism was directed more towards Europe than Asia. Here, the US traditionally took a more active role. Despite fears of greater vulnerability to attack, the main base of the Pacific fleet had been moved to Hawaii, while a large US military presence was maintained as far forward as the Philippines. Following Japan's invasion of China in 1937, the US provided extensive military aid, including advisors and volunteers to assist Nationalist China. Also, with the occupation of France and Holland, the US extended its protection to their Asian colonies, secretly collaborating with the British and the Dutch in a common defense plan against possible Japanese action. In negotiations with Japan, the USA, while it exercised hegemony over the entire New World, attempted to deny Japan any rights or influence outside its own borders.

Although the Roosevelt administration saw Germany as the main threat to democracy, it took more active steps against Japan. With far fewer Japanese Americans than Italian or German Americans, an aggressive approach towards Japan was more politically acceptable. Also racist attitudes led the US government and military to underestimate the ability of the Japanese military.

After the fall of France in 1940, there was a widespread fear that Hitler would soon be reaching across the Atlantic. Despite this, an opinion poll in July found that only 15% of Americans were prepared to go to war. With isolationist sentiment still strong, the key to winning the war for the Axis powers was to resist any provocation offered by President Roosevelt that might escalate into a full war. In Japan, the Prime Minister, Prince Fumimaro Konoe was well aware of this danger and was prepared to make important concessions to appease the USA, including withdrawing Japanese troops from parts of China (in fact the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek had lured the Japanese into a larger war than they were comfortable with).

Prime Minister Konoe tried hard to appease America.
Hitler knew that America's entry into World War One had shifted the balance of power decisively away from Germany. To avoid a repeat of this, he was prepared to tolerate a great deal of provocation: By 1941 America had frozen German assets; given 50 destroyers to aid Britain's wartime effort; and supplied the British with easy credit and vital war materials under the Lend/Lease agreement. Also, using the extremely elastic concept of America's defensive waters, FDR had extended American naval patrols far out into the Atlantic with a policy to shoot-on-sight, resulting in unprovoked depth-charging of German U-boats. All this, it should be remembered, was from a country that was officially at peace with Germany. Despite this, Hitler ordered his U-boats to only fire if fired upon.

It is often assumed that Japan had to take the gamble of attacking Pearl Harbor if it was to preserve its ascendancy in Asia, but there were other options available. Japan could have avoided Americas oil embargo by not occupying French Indo-China, and even if it had, there were other sources of fuel. When Japanese-American negotiations reached the danger point, President Suzuki of the Japanese Planning Board reported that petroleum was the only item which posed a serious problem and that even here, major investment in the synthetic oil industry, would produce more than could be obtained from the Dutch East Indies under wartime conditions.

Japan's best chance of success lay in the general victory of the Axis powers. This was something understood by Konoe's foreign minister Yosuke Matsuoka. Although a hawk who wouldn't flinch from war with the United States, Matsuoka strongly advocated turning Japan's military might against the weakening Soviet Union, a move which Konoe rejected because he felt it might upset the Americans.

The Sorge Spy Ring

If the Japanese had decided to attack the Soviet Far East instead of Pearl Harbor, not only would the details of the war have been altered but also its final outcome. Although the vital regions of Russia were located thousands of miles to the West, a Japanese attack or even a threat of one at this crucial moment would have sapped the Soviets of the strength they needed to survive. Luckily for the Soviets, they had established an effective spy ring in Japan that gave them vital intelligence.

This was led by Dr. Richard Sorge, the son of a German father and a Russian mother, who used his cover as a journalist for the Frankfurter Zeitung, to gather information both from Germans and Japanese. A dedicated Communist since his time in the German army in World War One, Sorge had been operating in Japan since 1933. In early May 1941, he warned Moscow of the coming German blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union. Stalin, relying on his political instincts, ignored this information with the result that the Soviet army was taken by surprise and nearly annihilated, but after this debacle the Kremlin started to take their man in Tokyo much more seriously.

Richard Sorge, Stalin's ace card.
Although he had several sources of information, Sorge's most important one was undoubtedly Hotsumi Ozaki, a correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun and a secret Communist sympathizer, whom Sorge had met in China. As a recognized authority on China, Ozaki was employed as a government advisor. More importantly, he was also a member of Japan's equivalent of the Old Boy network, with many of his associates active in the highest circles of power.

It was through Ozaki that Sorge was in a position to assure Moscow by early September that, barring a total collapse on the Russian front or a complete withdrawal of Soviet forces from Siberia, there would be no Japanese attack on the Soviet Far East that year. This news came just in time for the Soviets to switch 11 rifle divisions to the West, a move which military analysts believe saved Moscow from falling into German hands.

Raising the Stakes

Sorge's spy ring also gave the Soviets an inside view of the internal power struggles in the Japanese government between those, like Konoe, who wished to compromise and negotiate, and hardliners like the War Minister Tojo, who believed that America was essentially insincere in its claim to be seeking a peaceful solution. Frustrated by America's unbending attitude and foreseeing a future conflict, the Japanese occupied French Indo-China in July, 1941, to use as a base against China, and as a stepping stone to the oil producing Dutch East Indies.

America responded by freezing Japanese assets and imposing an oil embargo. This strong stance did nothing to help the moderates in the Japanese government. In early October, PM Konoe was still suggesting that confrontation with America could be averted by withdrawing troops from China. Tojo opposed him, insisting that such a move would destroy the army's morale. The result of this argument was the resignation of Konoe and the appointment of Tojo as his successor.

Hideki Tojo was effectively brought to power
by America's oil embargo against Japan.
Informed of matters by Ozaki, Sorge was able to tell Moscow well in advance that the Japanese would strike at the Americans probably in November.

With a high degree of certainty that the Japanese army would be fully committed elsewhere, the Soviets now transferred further divisions to the West for their winter offensive. It is no coincidence that at exactly the same moment the Japanese army struck South at the Philippines and South East Asia, the Siberian divisions of the Red Army were striking West, pushing the frozen panzer divisions back from the gates of Moscow.

Although some of the wilder allegations about Roosevelt having precise foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack are rightly dismissed as ridiculous, it seems clear from the general pattern of his administration's actions that FDR had decided to provoke Japan as an adjunct of his policy towards Germany.

One danger this raised, however, was the possibility of war breaking out in the Pacific, while the USA remained at peace with Germany. Although they were allies, Germany had no real obligation to assist Japan in the event of a war with America. After all Japan hadn't joined Germany's attack on Russia. To prevent this danger, Roosevelt had adopted a much more aggressive Atlantic policy towards Germany. The Germans steadfastly refused to take Roosevelt's bait, but with a high state of tension between the two countries, there was a good chance that war with Japan would also lead automatically to war with Germany. Japan now became the back door to the international war that Roosevelt so keenly desired and the new Japanese Premier Hideki Tojo was the perfect fall guy.

The Game Ends

With close ties to the army in China, Tojo was much less willing to consider withdrawing the Imperial army from parts of China or even slowing down the war there. Blindly ignorant of the important role that public opinion played in American politics, Tojo's government decided to snap at the bait of the American Pacific fleet lying at its moorings.

Roosevelt had always justified his caution in not bringing America into the war sooner on the grounds that he dared not get too far ahead of public opinion. When the first wave of 214 Japanese aircraft struck at 7:50 a.m. on the morning of the 7th of December, 1941, President and public were finally united in the same opinion: a great crusade would have to be fought. Given the strict legalism of American foreign policy, the question of whether the crusade would also include Germany continued to hang in the balance until Hitler, impatient of the game in the North Atlantic and confident of crushing the Russians before America could make a difference, declared war on Dec. 11, giving Roosevelt the war he had always wanted.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was the first large scale, long distance attack by carrier planes in history. It was a military achievement of such rare distinction, that until it happened almost any other course of action seemed more probable. Studying this particular event, it is possible to feel that we are now living in a parallel universe where the least likely course of events prevailed. If instead of taking a long shot with Pearl Harbor, Japan had pitched in to help its German ally in its war against the Soviet Union, or just waited for America to strike the first blow, American intervention in World War II would probably have been delayed until it was too late, with the result that we would be living in a world dominated by the Axis powers.

History about to be made.

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