December 10, 2012 – Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 71 years ago this month was a “day that will live in infamy” according to US President Franklin Roosevelt.

Seven decades later,  it increasingly appears that the president’s surprise and outrage may have been synthetic.   Roosevelt had been maneuvering for more than a year to bring the United States into World War II.

However, most Americans were against joining Britain’s war against Germany, and had little interest in Asia.

Something dramatic was needed to arouse war fever in the United States – particularly so since American-Germans constituted one of the largest ethnic group in the United States.  In 1900, New York City was the third largest German city after Berlin and Hamburg.

Washington had been demanding since the mid-1930’s that Japan cease its occupation of strategic Manchuria, an autonomous state on China’s northeastern border. America’s warnings to Tokyo intensified after Japan invaded China in 1937.  By 1941, Japanese armies were deep in China, a nation that the US considered its sphere of commercial and political interest.

Roosevelt issued an ultimatum to Tokyo to get out of China – or else.  When Japan ignored the warning,  Roosevelt cut off all US exports to Japan of crude oil, aviation gas, scrap iron and other strategic commodities on which Japanese industry depended.   At the time, the US produced over 50% of the world’s oil supply.  Japan produced no oil and imported all of its strategic materials and much of its food.

Washington  should have known an attack was coming.  The 1904 Russo-Japanese War began with a surprise attack on Russia’s important northern China naval base of Port Arthur.  When President George Bush I ordered US forces to war against Iraq in 1991, he justified the attack by claiming America’s oil supply was threatened.

Japan’s war against the ten times more powerful United States was folly.  The architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who had lived in the United States, warned beforehand “we are going to war for oil, and I fear we will lose it because of oil.”

In 1941, Japan had a two-year strategic reserve of oil.  The US embargo meant that Japan had to either go to war while it still had oil, see itself crippled by the embargo, or pull out of China, something the Imperial Army would not accept.

Yamamoto was absolutely correct.   Japan’s main source of oil was the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia), which it quickly conquered.   But mid-1944, US submarines and mining had cut off 96% of Japan’s imports of oil, strategic material and food.  Japan’s navy and air forces became inoperable.  Japan began to starve; half its cities were leveled by US fire bomb raids.

From 1939, the Imperial Japanese Navy had been at samurai sword’s drawn with the Imperial Army.  They in effect ran two separate wars:  the Navy wanted the East Indies’s oil and to dominate the Pacific Ocean.  The Army demanded resources be poured into its wars in China and Southeast Asia.

Strategists calling for Japan’s Kwantung Army in Manchuria to attack Russia’s Far East were ignored.  Had Japan done so,  Stalin would not have been able to transfer 41 tough Siberian divisions just in time to halt the German advance on Moscow.

Had Germany and Japan coordinated their offensives, Russia would likely have been defeated.  But they did not.  Japan’s Emperor, Hirohito, dithered and failed to force the Army and Navy into a coordinated war effort.  Recent research in Japan has uncovered the tragicomic bungling and squabbling of the Imperial generals and admirals, and a weak emperor paralyzed by indecision.

Even worse,  Hitler for some reason declared war on the United States soon after Pearl Harbor, giving Roosevelt the pretext he had long sought to enter the war against Germany.

Historians will long battle over whether Roosevelt lured Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor.  The absence of the only two US aircraft carriers in the Pacific from Pearl Harbor during the attack, and Washington’s ability to read Japan’s naval codes add suspicions that the White House saw the attack coming.  At minimum, the embargo of strategic material to Japan was a huge provocation.  Japan foolishly took the bait and paid a terrible price.




This post is in: Asia, History, Japan, USA


  1. stage1dave says:

    If memory serves, even the US Congress absolved Adm. Kimmel of all responsibility for this “sneak” attack by special session in 1946. (He was relieved of his command after the attack) Barbara Tuchman has commented on the FDR administrations’ motivations as well…apparently, not too many Americans were (or have been) listening.

    It’s worth mentioning that the congressmen in 1946 were well aware that the relevant code-breaking machines HAD NOT been supplied to PH but were in other command areas. It should also be remembered that the Pacific Fleet HQ was moved from San Diego to Pearl shortly before the attack…violating an ancient naval warfare edict of quartering a fleet in a port that had one entry & exit.

    Pop culture trumps history every time!

  2. BuckHailstone says:

    A new book ( 2000 ) reveals the absolute truth about the FDR inner circle having full access to all the Japanese diplomatic and military communications cryptographic codes. Admiral Kimmel at Pearl Harbor was excluded from getting them, so that he wouldn’t move the ships out of harms way. FDR needed enough damage and death there to swing the American public sentiment into supporting war in Asia.

    The 2000 book : ” Day of Deceit, The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor”, by Robert B. Stinnett, ISBN 0-684-85339-6

    So Japan was “maneuvered ” into attacking the US by FDR.

    After 7 decades we might ask if it was really necessary, because the Japanese eventually were able to create their needed economic empire in Asia. And, subsequently , China has been able to create an even larger economic empire .

    So, was the loss of life and the expenditure of treasure really of benefit to America in the long run ?

  3. franc black says:

    Hi Eric… this column is clearly ‘easy filler’, and I’m looking forward to something more timely to appear. Hopefully you’re researching North Korea or Syria.

    As for Pearl Harbour, they lost far too much during that air raid to say that they were certain about the attack. Such speculation might only feed into right-wing revisionists looking to undermine FDR’s great leadership (as in “he knew, but let all those brave boys die anyway … those darn Democrats!”).
    Maybe they had an inkling and hedged a bit with the aircraft carriers … who would really know? Will they ever disclose ?

  4. As usual,Eric writes a provocative article which is right on the mark in my opinion. The war mongering rulers of the USA have a long history decieving their people to go to war on false pretenses. I am comforted by the belief that most people prefer peace to war but I am much perturbed by how easy it is,for rulers, to manipulate the overly trusting and gullible mass of people. However,could it be otherwise,is society even possible if the people are always suspicious of their rulers? I think not. Ironicly,Americans seem to worship their wartime presidents more than their peaceful ones. Right now,Obama et al,are trying to provoke Iran into retaliation so they can have a just cause to bomb them,failing that they will implement a false flag operation or find some excuse to go to war. So, perhaps Obama wants to be remembered as the president who cut those nasty,defiant Iranians down to size,otherwise Americans won’t likely remember him except for the colour of his skin. By the way,if you believe the twin towers were brought down by jet liners then you are just another compliant dupe.

  5. Iraq was just as bad as the Kuwait one. And don`t forget the vietnam war, where the Bay of Tonkin incident was used as an excuse to start that one. The assassination of prince Ferdinand of Austria was the excuse for WW1 and the ensuing treaty of Versailles was used by Hitler as an excuse to start WW2. It is a matter of unbridled capitalism running amok and the people living in fear and believing, that it is the only fair system in the world. Oh, the power of the brainwashing propaganda we are inundated with every day.
    And then the artificially created moral decay, to make the masses more malleable. The low average level of education in the general western population is, what keeps us in bondage. And that is also, why Asia is pulling ahead of the west.

  6. Who ultimately gained financially from the second world war and from the first one for that matter. Because I think we find a common denominator there. Those two wars were interconnected. Wars are about money and lots of it and whoever finances it, is guaranteed a handsome return on their investments, because it is always the taxpayer, who foots the financial bill and supplies the canon-fodder for that folly. Who financed the different countries involved?
    The excuses given for entering a war is purely to get the people to agree to it. Of course all these reasons given by those, who doubt the official stories, are called conspiracy theories and anybody giving any credence to them is quickly ridiculed as a dumb fool. How come so many people cower, even when the logic is on their side?

  7. George Rizk says:

    The Pearl Harbor attack is one of the most talked about story. The better story is our attack on Iraq? That is an event that took place in our recent history, and our media/government was used to sell us some lies. This is clear recent story, and how the average Republican has never allowed any truth or facts to interfere with the lies simply explains to me why most Americans today never question the OFFICIAL history of Pearl Harbor, or the civil war!

    Now, I was not around during the Pearl Harbor time to personally detect the lies, but many contemporaries of that era written different version from the official government story. Having been aware of many government, historians, and media lies; I tend to think there is a possibility of our government have lied again!

    Even today, as our joe-si-packs have looked at the news over the past decade and perhaps learned that America is fighting the fanatic Islamists as led by an a bad group called Al Qaeda; they are still unable to be outraged at our government helping AL QAEDA to destroy Syria.

    My conclusion is the majority of the American public have been transformed into robots, or Pavlov dogs only reacting to the signal from the overlords. It does not matter how big are the lies, the majority will never question the lies unless they are told GO AHEAD QUESTION THAT STUFF!

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