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.