Pearl Harbor: the prequel

As the film Pearl Harbor opens in UK cinemas, what was really behind the Japanese attack on American fleets?

Daniel Nassim

Topics Politics

On 7 December 1941 Japanese aircraft attacked the headquarters of the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. Japan also invaded British and Dutch colonies on US-held islands across the Pacific. American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt told congress it was ‘a date which will live in infamy’, and condemned Japan for its ‘surprise offensive’ and ‘unprovoked and dastardly attack’.

To this day most people in America and Britain accept Roosevelt’s characterisation of the Pearl Harbor attack as an unprovoked surprise assault which dragged an unwilling USA into the Second World War. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic have done their best to suppress any information which might suggest otherwise. Many important papers relating to the attack are still secret. A British book on the subject was banned by the government’s D-notice committee in 1989. Winston Churchill’s papers for the period are not to be released to the public until 2016.

But a cursory examination of the available evidence which is available shows that the truth is very different from the school book history.

For a start, both American and British cryptographers had broken Japan’s most secret communications codes. They often decoded and read diplomatic or military messages before their Japanese counterparts. It seems certain that US and British intelligence would have had some kind of forewarning about any attack.

The Americans and British were also well aware that the economic sanctions which they had already imposed against Japan could prompt military retaliation. As an industrial power with few natural resources, Japan was vulnerable to a blockade in raw materials. Many of its east Asian neighbours were colonies of Britain, France or the Netherlands. A US state department memo in December 1938 acknowledged the possibility ‘that any attempt by the Unites States, Great Britain and the Netherlands to cut off from Japan exports of oil would be met by Japan’s forcibly taking over the Netherlands East Indies’ (1).

Indeed, the possible consequences of economic sanctions against Japan were recognised in the USA at least eight years before Pearl Harbor. After the Japanese attack on Manchuria in 1931, US secretary of state Henry Stimson had proposed economic sanctions and military action. But President Herbert Hoover warned his cabinet that sanctions ‘are the roads to war’ (2).

Despite this recognition, a series of trade measures were enacted against Japan. In July 1939, the Roosevelt administration abruptly notified the Japanese government to abrogate the Japanese-American Treaty of Commerce and Navigation. Exactly a year later, the USA introduced a licensing system for exports of petroleum and scrap iron into Japan.

In July 1941, the US government announced a freeze on all Japanese funds in the USA and the suspension of all trade. Britain and the Netherlands, along with their colonies, quickly followed suit. Japan was left with about 18 months’ reserves of petroleum. ‘America provoked Japan to such an extent that the Japanese were forced to attack Pearl Harbor’, recalled Captain Oliver Lytletton, production minister in Churchill’s cabinet, in 1944: ‘It is a travesty on history ever to say that America was forced into war.’ (3)

The ‘complete surprise’ thesis on Pearl Harbor is further exposed by the fact that there was already a public discussion of the possibility of war between Japan and the USA or Britain in the thirties. Lieutenant Commander Ishimaru’s Japan Must Fight Britain was translated into English and published in 1936. Its contents were sufficiently sensitive to be repudiated by the Japanese minister of foreign affairs at the time. In the same year, the Oriental Economist, an authoritative English language journal published in Tokyo, raised the possibility of an Anglo-American military alliance against Japan. Such speculation became more frequent and heated in subsequent years.

Nor was the discussion of a possible war confined to the Japanese side. Sutherland Denlinger and Charles B Gary’s War in the Pacific in 1936 examined the strategy of a theoretical Japanese-American war. From the mid-thirties there was a debate about whether the USA should fight against Japanese aggression in China.

Over the years since Pearl Harbor, some critics have suggested that the USA’s lack of preparedness for a predictable attack on 7 December 1941 was due to a giant conspiracy by the Roosevelt administration. In this view, the president deliberately let the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor as a ploy to get the USA into the war. There is certainly evidence to support this argument.

Statements by several major players of the time point to a possible set-up. Shortly before Pearl Harbor, British prime minister Winston Churchill expressed his confidence that the USA would join the war in the Far East. Perhaps most revealing of all is an entry in the diary of Henry Stimson, by now the US secretary of war, for 25 November 1941. Stimson describes a top-level meeting at the White House where Roosevelt ignored the agenda and ‘brought up entirely the relations with the Japanese’:

‘He brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked, perhaps [as soon as] next Monday, for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what should we do. The question was how we should manoeuvre them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.’

Roosevelt had repeatedly and publicly stated that America would not be the first to fire a shot in the war between the great powers. This pledge was a response to isolationist sentiment still strong among the American public, who wanted no part of what they saw as a foreigners’ war. A Gallup poll in 1941 showed that 80 percent of Americans were unwilling to enter a war for the sake of Britain.

Roosevelt, however, was convinced that the USA would eventually have to enter the war to fulfil its global ambitions. From June 1940, his administration was sending military equipment to Britain. At a meeting in the Atlantic in August 1940, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to abide by common principles that came to be known as the ‘Atlantic Charter’. It later emerged that the need to stop Japanese expansion in Asia had been a secret part of discussions. At that time, however, Roosevelt could not make public his views. It was only after the bloodshed at Pearl Harbor, and the furious reaction to it in the US media, that the American public swung behind the president’s war policies.

One final element lends credibility to the conspiracy thesis. All four of America’s aircraft carriers in the Pacific – the crucial weapon in its naval armoury – were away from Pearl Harbor when the Japanese struck. Despite the apparent success of Japan’s attack many of the ships that were destroyed or damaged, particularly the eight battleships, were already obsolescent.

The Roosevelt administration and Churchill government may well have known something about the impending attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet ultimately it does not matter whether or not it was a conspiracy. The most important point to grasp is that Pearl Harbor, or something like it, was inevitable; not simply because of the machinations of politicians, but because of the broader rivalries which drove the USA and Japan to go to war with one another.

After the First World War, the USA was in an uncertain position. Britain had clearly been displaced as the world’s strongest power but the USA was a long way from achieving global hegemony. Its influence was still constricted by the old European empires, especially the British one, which maintained control over key areas of the world.

On the other side of the Pacific, meanwhile, Japan was emerging as a leading power and America’s most dynamic rival in the region. By 1919, when it attended the Paris Peace Conference, Japan was officially acknowledged as a great power. In subsequent years its manufacturing base continued to grow at an impressive rate – and so did its shares of overseas markets. Japan’s international trade increased almost two-and-a-half times between 1913 and 1929. Japanese industry became increasingly dependent on imported raw materials and fuel; in the twenties, imports of oil increased 20-fold and coal imports increased.

The great economic slump of the thirties exacerbated tensions among the rival powers. In the USA, the Roosevelt administration took drastic measures to counteract the effects of Depression. Under Roosevelt’s New Deal the government militarised the entire economy, launched a rearmament programme and erected more protectionist barriers against foreign goods. To the dismay of its competitors, the Japanese economy continued to grow through much of the Depression. Between 1932 and 1941, mining and manufacturing production more than doubled. The competition between Japan and the USA reached crisis points.

The war between the USA and Japan was both a conflict for control over east Asia and a broader struggle for influence in the world. From the American point of view, the Japanese expansion into China from 1931 was an aggressive act which allowed Japan to squeeze the USA out of important markets and disturbed the delicate balance of power in the Pacific. From the Japanese point of view, the invasion of China was a legitimate response to economic problems at home and growing protectionism in Britain and the USA. Only one view could finally prevail.

Japan and the USA were equally to blame for the shooting war that broke out on 7 December 1941. They were rival powers, driven into conflict by the economic forces unleashed by a global capitalist crisis. Japan’s ‘surprise, unprovoked’ attack on Pearl Harbor was a continuation by other means of a conflict which, through sanctions and diplomatic threats, was well under way long before the bombs started to drop.

(1) Quoted in Irvine H Anderson, ‘The 1941 De Facto Embargo on Oil to Japan: A Bureaucratic Reflex’, Pacific Historical Review, May 1975

(2) Quoted in Charles A Beard, President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1948

(3) Quoted in John McKechney, ‘The Pearl Harbor controversy’, Monumenta Nipponica, 18, 1963

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Topics Politics


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