Pearl Harbor

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun May 27 15:54:37 MDT 2001

[The convergence of the appearance of the atrocious new movie "Pearl
Harbor" this week and the arrival of Memorial Day tomorrow in the USA has
prompted a barrage of newspaper articles and television segments on the
"sneak attack". Here is an alternative interpretation from Howard Zinn's
"People's History of the United States".]

It was not Hitler’s attacks on the Jews that brought the United States into
World War II, any more than the enslavement of 4 million blacks brought
Civil War in 1861. Italy’s attack on Ethiopia, Hitler’s invasion of
Austria, his takeover of Czechoslovakia, his attack on Poland—none of those
events caused the United States to enter the war, although Roosevelt did
begin to give important aid to England. What brought the United States
fully into the war was the Japanese attack on the American naval base at
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Surely it was not the humane
concern for Japan’s bombing of civilians that led to Roosevelt’s outraged
call for war—Japan’s attack on China in 1937, her bombing of civilians at
Nanking, had not provoked the United States to war. It was the Japanese
attack on a link in the American Pacific Empire that did it.

So long as Japan remained a well-behaved member of that imperial club of
Great Powers who—in keeping with the Open Door Policy— were sharing the
exploitation of China, the United States did not object. It had exchanged
notes with Japan in 1917 saying "the Government of the United States
recognizes that Japan has special interests in China." In 1928, according
to Akira Iriye (After Imperialism), American consuls in China supported the
coming of Japanese troops. It was when Japan threatened potential U.S.
markets by its attempted takeover of China, but especially as it moved
toward the tin, rubber, and oil of Southeast Asia, that the United States
became alarmed and took those measures which led to the Japanese attack: a
total embargo on scrap iron, a total embargo on oil in the summer of 1941.

As Bruce Russett says (No Clear and Present Danger): "Throughout the 1930s
the United States government had done little to resist the Japanese advance
on the Asian continent." But: "The Southwest Pacific area was of undeniable
economic importance to the United States—at the time most of America’s tin
and rubber came from there, as did substantial quantities of other raw

Pearl Harbor was presented to the American public as a sudden, shocking,
immoral act. Immoral it was, like any bombing—but not really sudden or
shocking to the American government. Russett says: "Japan’s strike against
the American naval base climaxed a long series of mutually antagonistic
acts. In initiating economic sanctions against Japan the United States
undertook actions that were widely recognized in Washington as carrying
grave risks of war."

Putting aside the wild accusations against Roosevelt (that he knew about
Pearl Harbor and didn’t tell, or that he deliberately provoked the Pearl
Harbor raid—these are without evidence), it does seem clear that he did as
James Polk had done before him in the Mexican war and Lyndon Johnson after
him in the Vietnam war—he lied to the public for what he thought was a
right cause. In September and October 1941, he misstated the facts in two
incidents involving German submarines and American destroyers. A historian
sympathetic to Roosevelt, Thomas A. Bailey, has written:

"Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people during the
period before Pearl Harbor. . . . He was like the physician who must tell
the patient lies for the patient's own good . . . because the masses are
notoriously shortsighted and generally cannot see danger until it is at
their throats "

One of the judges in the Tokyo War Crimes Trial after World War II,
Radhabinod Pal, dissented from the general verdicts against Japanese
officials and argued that the United States had clearly provoked the war
with Japan and expected Japan to act. Richard Minear (Victors’ Justice)
sums up Pal’s view of the embargoes on scrap iron and oil, that "these
measures were a clear and potent threat to Japan’s very existence." The
records show that a White House conference two weeks before Pearl Harbor
anticipated a war and discussed how it should be justified.

A State Department memorandum on Japanese expansion, a year before Pearl
Harbor, did not talk of the independence of China or the principle of
self-determination. It said:

"...our general diplomatic and strategic position would be considerably
weakened—by our loss of Chinese, Indian and South Seas markets (and by our
loss of much of the Japanese market for our goods, as Japan would become
more and more self-sufficient) as well as by insurmountable restrictions
upon our access to the rubber, tin, jute, and other vital materials of the
Asian and Oceanic regions."

Louis Proyect
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