Because it’s the victors who write the history, a common theme in the US is that in all military operations we were just moseying along minding our own business and being benevolent when some purely evil shithead came from out of nowhere and attacked us. Of course. It’d be foolish to expect the government that wants you to send your kids off to battle to say something like, “Our wealthy industrialists covet the tin, oil, and rubber of Vietnam and we want your boys to sacrifice their lives to get it”.
And so it goes with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. We were just moseying along minding our own business, and Japan launched an unprovoked attack upon an unsuspecting nation. Thus making WWII one of the few wars the US has conducted that most modern Americans look back on and consider perfectly righteous.
The rub, of course, is that in order to believe that bullshit you have to avoid reading history books.
My mostest favoritist history teacher was a hippie chick named Janet. She was a brand new teacher, a student teacher working up to full certification when first I met her, and she was way, way into history. And usually stoned. Every now and then I’d catch her in her off period when she returned from driving around toking up, and we’d sit around and bullshit. Ditching some other class was not an indication that I did not desire education. Plus, she was cute and she giggled a lot when she was high. Something she once said to me, off hand, was, “There’s really no such thing as a patriotic historian”. The longer I live the more I appreciate that statement.
The US had been concerned that war with Japan might come since the 1920’s, as Japan was seeking a greater role in the world and its economy after WWI. They’d inherited some power from Germany after WWI… Lots of stuff that’s background and far more than I’m going to write about here. Basically, Japan wanted more of Asia for itself to become a bigger boy in the world economy, but the US, UK, Dutch, and others had lots of trade in the region and didn’t particularly dig the idea of Japan interfering. Despite the concerns of those who would later come to be known as the Allies in WWII, they continued feeding Japan’s thirst for oil and steel. Japan had none of its own, flat freakin’ zero. It’s kinda hard to be a significant industrial power when you’ve got no resources of your own…
A civil war broke out in China in 1927, and in fact it might not even be legally ended today. That’s why Taiwan (Republic of China) and China (People’s Republic of China) don’t get along. The civil war was sporadic at first but intensified as time went along, and got downright hot in 1930. Japan swooped in and occupied Manchuria in 1931, ostensibly as a buffer for its own self defense. Gotta sell the war somehow. The truth of the matter was that Japan had no significant natural resources of its own, and Manchuria was a rich source of all kinds of stuff Japan wanted. Essentially, Manchuria was to Japan what India was to England. There’s a famous quote from some Japanese dude: We finally learned how to play poker and you changed the game to bridge. Lots of empires had colonies and no one really seemed to mind.
But why stop at Manchuria with so much easy pickin’s? Japan soon continued, taking more and more of China in what has been referred to as a “nibbling policy”. They mostly stuck nearer the coasts which were easier territories to take, but in 1937 they went whole hog into the interior. They were headed straight for Beijing, aiming to take the whole pu pu platter. The warring factions in China (the damned dirty commies and the folks who opposed them and had the bulk of the power) woke up and allied themselves to repel Japan. A real WTF moment. Why hadn’t they allied themselves against Japan much earlier? Uh, never thought of it. We wuz doin’ other stuff at the time. Whatever.
I love historical fuckuppery.
Through all of this, popular US sentiment was in favor of Japan, and those folks who would become the Allies were content to continue supplying Japan with steel and oil. Which might seem an odd choice for folks who were concerned that they might soon have to go to war against Japan. Unless you understand capitalism. The US, UK, France, and the Dutch were pumping oil in Southeast Asia and Japan was a thirsty nearby market.
All of this was while Hitler was still working on his rock star image. Hitler’s Germany hadn’t invaded anything yet. In January, 1939, Time Magazine named Hitler their 1938 Man Of The Year. The most important point here being that the US was already concerned about war with Japan before Nazi Germany invaded anything at all.
Here’s where I either write a textbook that you’ve already read or that you haven’t ever cared to read, or I figure out how to get from here to there without it. My default position being stasis, go find your own damned textbook. 🙂 But don’t neglect Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy 1931-1941. It’s a publication of the US Department of State and ibiblio has it online. Interesting stuff.
By mid-1941, the US was neutral in what we now call WWII in lip service only. We were allied with Britain, and to a lesser though still significant extent, the USSR. We were supplying them with armaments and supplies, and the Lend-Lease Act made it officially a non-neutral neutrality. US warships were escorting cargo ships across the Atlantic, and we had a secret agreement with England that if it came down to fighting both the Japanese and the Germans our first priority would be to defeat Germany. And so save the Brits at the risk of taking heavy losses in our war with Japan. We’re kinda generous that way. (Plus, our bankers really, really needed for England to survive to repay its debt to them. If Germany had won they’d have said “Hey, man, that’s not our debt!”.)
Over in the Pacific at the same time, FDR had imposed (in late 1940) a limited embargo on Japan, severely limiting how much aviation fuel, steel, and high grade scrap metal could be sold to them. He did this with full knowledge that an embargo that severely restricted Japan’s ability to make war would be seen by Japan as sufficient provocation for war. His own Ambassador to Japan had said as much in September of 1940.
Japan tried to lift the embargo through diplomacy, but could not or would not accept the US condition that they must withdraw completely from China and Indochina.
Some patriotic historians will explain away the embargo saying that Western European oil controlling nations were in on it too. Kinda like saying you ain’t really guilty of a gang rape because there were lots of peckers involved and yours only one of ’em, ain’t it?
Germany’s position at that time was that they’d prefer to keep the US out of the war. No one with half a brain and a will to live wants to go head to head with what the US was then, a nation with awesome manufacturing capacity and abundant natural resources that could be turned to wartime use.
Meantime, the French and Dutch abandoned their Far East (oil producing) colonies because they had Hitler to deal with at home. All that oil just lying around under the ground… Japan took notice and went after it. The Dutch colonies, first, because they were the militarily weakest.
In response to that, the US ceased all oil export to Japan in July of ’41. That gimped about 80% of the Japanese oil supply, and left them with about six months’ reserves until they ran out. Running out of gas would be disastrous for Japan. The embargo was no secret, and if nothing else they would have been stuck trying to negotiate a peace from a severely disadvantaged position. But that wasn’t even an option that was realistically open to them after an atrocity that’s known as the Nanking Rape. It was pretty much what it sounds like, and the Chinese were wicked pissed about it. You don’t just let some motherfucker get away with raping tens or hundreds of thousands of your mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters.
So for Japan, running out of gas meant being literally erased from the map. China would have righteously fucked their shit completely up.
Oh, wait, there’s no cussing in history. Well, let’s just accept that there is when I’m telling it.
Japan’s only viable option was to get hold of that oil that was just lying there under the ground in Southeast Asia with nobody minding it. FDR had moved most of the Pacific fleet to Hawaii and the Philippines earlier in the year to dissuade Japan from getting too adventurous, and Japan knew it (because it ain’t a threat if the other guy doesn’t know it’s there) so Japan assumed that attacking those English colonies would bring the US into the war. Some patriotic historians say that Japan’s thinking on this point was wrong. Me, I don’t know. I just know they thought it, and I don’t blame ’em for thinking it.
So: FDR knew that a severe embargo would be sufficient provocation long before he did it. His ambassador to Japan had said so a year earlier. He’d even explained it that way to his own cabinet at that time when the limited embargo was put into place. The US had been concerned about the possibility of war with Japan since the 1920’s. The US Pacific Fleet was concentrated in Hawaii and the Philippines for just such an eventuality.
Bonus information: In 1973 Nixon had contingency plans to use military force to take the oil fields of the Middle East should it happen that the OPEC Oil Embargo continue too long. And the US wasn’t in danger of being erased from the map.
I didn’t cite any references. It’s my blog, I don’t have to. Google the shit. I don’t actually use Google, myself, and I only threw the word shit in there because there’s always cussing when I go on about… well, pretty fucking much anything.
Be well, friends and neighbors!