On Pearl Harbor and the price of pre-emptive war.
1941 was a frustrating year for President Roosevelt. He was giving away war materiel to Great Britain. His navy tried and tried to provoke Germany into “firing the first shot” that would bring the USA into the war against Germany. Hitler wouldn’t take the bait, even though the USA’s actions of aiding Britain, and transporting supplies to them, were themselves acts of war on Germany.
So FDR instead looked to Japan. He had been planning this since 1938. His New Deal was prolonging, not ending, the Great Depression. But during war, the industrial capacity of the USA could quickly rev up. The Great War established this. To FDR, and to most of his admirers since, the solution for economic ills is to print up more money for the government to spend. Battleships would end the Great Depression.
To Japan, who from the previous century was pressured - even forced - to integrate with the rest of the world, evolving into a respected world power meant establishing an empire, as Spain, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the USA had done. Territory, and governing foreign peoples, means strength and glory. So Japan embarked on that mission by invading China.
So FDR knew what he had to do: provoke Japan. Cut off trade, including precious oil, to that country. Freeze Japanese assets in the United States. And then promise the Allies that if Japan, in its need for natural resources, invades Europe’s South Pacific possessions, that the USA would enter the war against Japan.
Am I suggesting that Japan was in the right? Not at all. Imperialism and wars of aggression are evil. The important question is not Japan’s morality in trying to establish an empire, but rather, what were her generals thinking when they attacked Pearl Harbor?
There is one answer: pre-emptive war. Did Japan want to conquer the United States? Not at all. But America had clearly established itself as a “threat” to Japan. Japan needed the resources of the South Pacific territories of Europe, which FDR pledged to defend. The solution? Destroy America’s Pacific Fleet. Attack Pearl Harbor.
Was attacking Pearl Harbor a mistake? Hindsight is, of course, 20/20. For Japan to have imperial ambitions at all was a mistake. But in the mind of the Japanese general, was the USA quite as “innocent” as Americans now believe?
That is the question. Japan’s reasons for attacking Pearl Harbor make sense. I’m not saying justified or excusable, but they were reasonable in light of their own circumstance and self-interest. They had sufficient reason to believe that the USA was going to war against them anyway. The reasonable option was to strike first - hope that the first blow would be the knock-out.
Japan thus fell into FDR’s trap. FDR craved war, and finally got it. America was too big, too strong. In the end, massive bombing of Japan’s cities culminated in the nuclear strikes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The USA, by any objective standard, posed a far greater threat to Japan, than Iraq ever did, whether in 1991 or 2003, to the USA Actually, it is more accurate to say the Iraq never was a threat to the USA. Japan attacked what it reasonably saw was a hostile nation that posed a threat to its ambitions, and got repaid with massive conventional bombings and two nuclear strikes.
If this is the price for pre-emptive war that Japan paid, what will be the price America pays? How many tens of thousands of Iraqis have we killed and maimed for no reason?
Why wouldn’t many Iraqis and other Arabs thus feel, as payback, that America richly deserves its own nuclear attacks, such as we disproportionately repaid Japan?
Is it because America is a democracy that we’re always in the right and our actions are justified? Or because we’re still largely Christian? Or white? I don’t know. But if we separate our sentimental attachments to this country and step back, we will see that we have far more in common with empires and aggressor nations than we care to admit. And as all the others eventually fell into ruin, perhaps we should learn some lessons and reverse our course. Do we want a nuclear bomb to go off in our country and have much of the world say that we had it coming?
If not, then the best protection against WMD’s coming to our shores is to pull out of Iraq and the rest of the world. Everyone in the world would be a lot safer and better off if the USA just minded her own business.