Pearl Harbor

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Apr 30 08:23:12 MDT 2001

[From an exchange between Gore Vidal and Ian Buruma in the latest New York
Review of Books]

Our first provocation against Japan began with FDR's famous Chicago address
(October 5, 1937), asking for a quarantine against aggressor nations.
Certainly, Japan in Manchuria and north China qualified as an aggressor
just as we had been one when we conquered the Philippines and moved into
the Japanese neighborhood at the start of the twentieth century. In
December 1937, the Japanese sank the Panay, an American gunboat in Chinese
waters, on duty so far from home as the Monroe Doctrine sternly requires.
Japan promptly, humbly paid for the damage mistakenly done our ship.
Meanwhile, FDR-something of a Sinophile-was aiding and abetting the Chinese
warlord Chiang Kai-shek.

Three years later the Western world changed dramatically. France fell to
Hitler, an ally of Japan. FDR was looking for some way to help Britain
avoid the same fate. Although most bien pensant Americans were eager to
stop Hitler, not many fretted about Japan. Also, more to the point-the
point-a clear majority of American voters were against going to war a
second time in Europe in a single generation. Nevertheless, instead of
meeting Konoye, FDR met Winston Churchill aboard a warship off
Newfoundland. FDR said that he would do what he could to help England but
he was limited by an isolationist Congress, press, and electorate. Later,
Churchill, in a speech to Parliament, let part of the cat out of the bag:
"The possibility since the Atlantic Conference
that the United States, even
if not herself attacked, would come into a war in the Far East, and thus
make final victory sure, seemed to allay some of those anxieties
." (The
anxieties were FDR's inability to come to the full aid of England in the
war with the Axis.) "As time went on, one had great assurance that if Japan
ran amok in the Pacific, we should not fight alone." 

Pointedly, FDR refused to meet Konoye, whose government was then replaced
by that of General Hideki Tojo. The military, so feared by Mr. Buruma, were
now in power. But though they lusted for the blood of everyone on earth,
they more modestly wanted to get on with the conquest of China and
Southeast Asia. Certainly, they did not want a simultaneous war with a
great continental power thousands of miles away. In November 1941 they made
a final attempt at peace. We now know-thanks to our having broken the
Japanese diplomatic code-the contents of Hirohito's in-box. Japan looked
for a compromise. We looked for war. The Japanese ambassadors to the US,
Kurusu and Nomura, were treated to a series of American ultimatums that
concluded, November 26, with the following order: "The government of Japan
will withdraw all military, naval, air and police forces from China and
Indo-China" as well as renounce the tripartite Axis agreement. It was then,
as Lincoln once said on a nobler occasion, the war came. Churchill's
anxieties were at last allayed. On November 29 Germany assured Japan that
should they go to war with the US, Germany would join them. In April 1945,
Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, in a memorial address at Harvard,
praised the late President Roosevelt, "while engaged in this series of
complicated moves, he so skillfully conducted affairs as to avoid even the
appearance of an act of aggression on our part." There it is. 

Question to those in denial about the US as provocateur: Why is it, if we
were not on the offensive, that so small and faraway an island as Japan
attacked what was so clearly, already, a vast imperial continental power?
You have now had over sixty years to come up with a plausible answer. Do tell.

Gore Vidal
Ravello, Italy 


Right-wing Japanese revisionists still argue that a US ultimatum forced
Japan to attack Pearl Harbor. In fact, it was more like the other way
around. The Japanese armed services decided that war was inevitable if
Washington did not give in to their demands by October 1941. When the US
failed to do so, Admiral Nagano warned his government that the navy was
running out of oil. He said: "The government has decided that if there were
no war the fate of the nation is sealed
. A nation that does not fight in
this plight has lost its spirit and is doomed." 

I'm not entirely sure what Mr. Vidal means when he states that "Japan
looked for a compromise. We looked for a war." I assume he refers to vague
proposals that Japanese troops might be pulled back to the northern part of
Indochina once Japan had gained control over the Chinese continent. This
was proposed on November 20. If the Americans didn't agree by midnight
November 30, the deal was off. Cordell Hull replied that Japan should
withdraw from China (not Manchuria, or Korea), but left room for further
negotiation. There was no American ultimatum, only a Japanese deadline.
November 30 came and went, and the rest we know. 

Mr. Vidal doesn't have to take my word for any of this, or indeed the words
of American historians. Ienaga Saburo, the left-wing Japanese historian who
has spent a lifetime fighting conservative Japanese officials, put it
succinctly: "
The clash with America stemmed from the invasion of China
It can hardly be overstressed that aggression against China was at the
heart of the fifteen-year-war." By 1942 Japanese forces had, in addition to
parts of China, occupied much of the rest of the Pacific region, including
Burma, the Philippines, Indochina, and the Dutch East Indies. 

One can still go on believing, of course, that Franklin D. Roosevelt was
happy to sacrifice much of his navy in the hope that Hitler would join
Japan in going to war with the US, something Hitler was under no obligation
to do. But to believe that, you either have to be a right-wing Japanese
with a political agenda (to revise the "peace constitution," promote
nationalism, and revive the military spirit), or permanently dazzled, if
not blinded, by conspiracy theories in Washington, D.C.

Ian Buruma

Full exchange:

Louis Proyect
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