U.S. Planned to Go to War with Japan and Germany Before Pearl Harbor Attack
On the 75th anniversary, historian Peter Kuznick says the Trump administration likely won’t wait for a ‘New Pearl Harbor’ to pursue war with Iran
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown. President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are set to meet in Honolulu at the end of the month for a commemoration of the Pearl Harbor attacks. Abe will be the first Japanese leader to visit Honolulu since then, but in official US mythology, the Pearl Harbor attacks would prompt the US to enter World War II and assume the role of global superpower, bringing democracy and free markets to nations around the globe. But this story excludes the history of mass labor discontent during the war years, as well as the ensuing Cold War that saw a lot of US-backed regime change and a dangerous nuclear arms race with the Soviets.
Here to help us unpack the mythology around Pearl Harbor on its 75th anniversary is Peter Kuznick. Peter is a Professor of History and the Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. He also co-wrote with Oliver Stone The Untold History of the United States. Peter, thank you so much for joining us.
PETER KUZNICK: Sure, Kim. Glad to be here.
KIM BROWN: Peter, start off with the story of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Why did Japan attack the US naval base on the then-US colony on December 7th of 1941?
PETER KUZNICK: Well, the first thing people need to realize is that Japan did not only attack Pearl Harbor, this was part of a much broader assault. It also included — in fact, more than an hour before Pearl Harbor was attacked, Japan attacked the British colony of Malaya. Then, after Pearl Harbor, they also attacked the British colony of Hong Kong, they attacked the American bases in Wake Island, in Midway, and especially in the Philippines. This was part of a much broader assault by the Japanese.
To understand the history, to put this in some context, you have to go back to at least 1931 when the Japanese invaded Manchuria. But the Japanese had their eyes on China. They saw Chinese resources. One context to put the Pacific War into is as a battle between competing imperialisms and competing colonialisms. So, you’ve got the British colonies in Burma, Malaya, Hong Kong. You’ve got the American colonies in the Philippines and other American holdings in the Pacific. You’ve got the Dutch East Indies. You’ve got the French in Indochina, and the Japanese eyed those jealously and wanted to get a piece of the action themselves.
In 1937, they began a full-scale war with China. Now, Japan is a resource-poor island, or series of islands, and they were getting most of what they needed in terms of oil, metal and other resources in trade with the United States. But their policy in China put them in direct confrontation with American interests, because the more the Japanese took in China, the more they cut off American and other Western economic access to the markets and the resources in China. The United States and its allies had imposed an open-door policy in China early in the 20th century. You have to remember that going back to the 19th century, American businessmen always had this fantasy about the great China market that they were some day going to exploit. That fantasy still exists now.
So, they wanted the markets, they wanted the resources, but the Japanese were cutting it off. So, the United States gradually responded to Japanese economic encroachment in China with tightening sanctions and embargoes against Japan.
In August of 1940, Japan announces the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. And in September of 1940, Japan joins with Germany and Italy to form the Axis. At that point then tensions are really rising. The United States ultimately gets to the point where it cuts off oil completely to Japan. Japan is very dependent upon that oil — maybe something like 60% to 80% of Japan’s oil came from the United States. So now Japan’s got to devise a different strategy.
Also, in 1940, Japan had taken the French colonies in Indochina through an agreement with the Vichy government of France. So now they’ve got Indochina, they announce the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the war in China is heating up, they join the Axis, but in order to get the oil that they need, their other alternative is the Dutch East Indies, or Indonesia as we now call it.
Now, what stood between the Japanese and the Dutch East Indies? Pearl Harbor. So, as long as the American fleet was intact at Pearl Harbor — and the American fleet had been moved from San Diego to Pearl Harbor the previous year, had been headquartered in Pearl Harbor — so as long as the American fleet was there it posed a threat to Japanese intentions of getting the oil and transporting the oil from the Dutch East Indies, or Indonesia, to Japan and to China.
And so, the Japanese strategy, stupid as it may be, was to launch the attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, thinking that a surprise attack of that sort could possibly sink and destroy the American fleet, if not knock the United States out of the war, set the United States back sufficiently that Japan would have a couple of years in which it could ride roughshod and seize the resources that it wanted in Southeast Asia and defeat China and get the oil it needed from the Dutch East Indies. That was the idea. It was a foolhardy idea. And it proved to be suicidal.
KIM BROWN: Well, Peter, there’s a claim that’s often dismissed as conspiracy theory that President Franklin Roosevelt did know that an attack was coming, but let it happen in order to create a fervor among the public to go to war. What did the historical evidence show for that?
PETER KUZNICK: Well, unfortunately to some, the historical evidence does not bear that out. What we do know, the Americans had broken the Japanese diplomatic codes in August of 1940. So, we were intercepting their cables. We had a lot of good intelligence. And what we did know was that the Japanese were planning a military action about when they did. The assumption was that would either be the British colonies in Malaya, or the Dutch East Indies, possibly the US colony in Manila. Very few people gave credence to the thought that it might be Pearl Harbor. That was for a few reasons: one of it was simply racism. There was a fascinating exchange between a lawyer, Edward Morgan, and a Navy Commander Admiral Husband Kimmel, who was in charge of the naval operations at Pearl Harbor. This was during the investigations. There were multiple investigations of this in subsequent years. During that exchange the lawyer over lunch says to Kimmel, Admiral Kimmel, he says, … and Kimmel responds, “All right, Morgan. I’ll give you your answer. I never thought those little, yellow sons-of-bitches could pull off such an attack so far from Japan.”
So one of the reasons why they downplayed Pearl Harbor was they didn’t think the Japanese, “those little yellow sons-of-bitches” as these racists called them, could actually pull of such an attack. That was one thing. But it was a bold and kind of ambitious move on the part of Admiral Yamamoto. Yamamoto had done the planning on this. He himself did not think it was a good idea. The previous government under Prince Konoe as Prime Minister rejected the idea of an attack on Pearl Harbor. But Yamamoto and the new government that replaced him under Tojo went ahead with this plan. The Emperor had signed off on it, and Samuel Eliot Morison, the naval historian from Harvard, called the attack at Pearl Harbor an act of “strategic imbecility”. The Americans didn’t think the Japanese were going to do this.
But the thing that’s interesting to me, and one of the things that undercuts the conspiracy theorists on this, clearly, Roosevelt knew the war was coming. He said that the attack was coming. He thought it might come even earlier than Pearl Harbor according to Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s diaries. The War Department had actually warned General MacArthur in the Philippines that an attack was likely. They had warned the commanders at Pearl Harbor that an attack there was possible. So the question is why was everybody caught so off-guard?
Now that’s an interesting question. It was ultimately a colossal failure of intelligence, but even without the attack on Pearl Harbor — Oliver Stone and I just wrote a piece that’ll be out tomorrow — even without the attack on Pearl Harbor, the rest of the Japanese attacks at Manila, especially at Wake Island, at Midway, that would have been sufficient to bring the United States into the war, even if they had not attacked us at Peal Harbor. But the attack at Pearl Harbor made it that much more emotional, that much more startling and shocking to Americans, who felt this sudden sense of vulnerability, as well as this colossal intelligence failure. It was a great… and so it struck… it did what the Japanese wanted to a certain extent: it knocked out part of the Pacific fleet. Fortunately for the United States, three aircraft carriers were not in Pearl Harbor at the time, though one was supposed to have been back by that point, but they were out of Pearl Harbor. So, some of the American fleet was knocked out, put out of commission, but much of it could be refurbished, and the United States was actually able to defeat Yamamoto’s navy in the Battle of Midway only six months after they thought they had knocked out the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.
KIM BROWN: We know that part of the dominant narrative around Pearl Harbor is that it inspired the Greatest Generation to enter the Second World War and to fight against tyranny and totalitarianism. But it’s not often remembered that there was a mass discontent at home during the World Wars that would launch the largest wave of strikes in the country’s history. How was the Pearl Harbor attack used by the US elite against labor unions and labor unrest?
PETER KUZNICK: Well, Pearl Harbor gave the government the authority to call for rallying around the flag to fight this war, which you have to remember is that there was pervasive — universal, almost — anti-war sentiment in the United States. And that can be traced back to the outrage over World War I. I said that World War II was a battle over competing imperialisms in the Pacific. But World War I was largely a battle over competing imperialisms between the Europeans and the upstart Germans at that point, as well.
The American public caught on to that, despite the slogans about World War I: “The War to end all wars,” “The war that made the world safe for democracy.” The American public didn’t see it that way, and in the 1930s there was the famous Nye Committee hearings, and they branded the people, the bankers and the arms profiteers, they branded them “merchants of death” in the 1930s.
So, there was a real hesitation on the part of the American people to get involved in another war, especially another European war, at that point. That’s why Roosevelt wanted to get the Americans… Roosevelt understood how dangerous the Nazis were. He understood what a threat Hitler posed to humanity. He wanted to bring the Americans into the war, but he wasn’t able to do so because the anti-war sentiment was so strong.
The Americans were planning to come into the war; as early as early 1941, American and British officers met to plan what would happen after the United States got into the war — how we would first defeat Germany and then we’d defeat Japan. The Americans were providing the British supplies and intelligence that brought them into direct confrontation with Germany’s U-boats. In September of 1941, Roosevelt gave an order that the Americans should shoot on sight any German or Italian ships sailing in American waters.
It was back in August of 1941 that Roosevelt met with Churchill in Newfoundland when they issued the Atlantic Charter. And Churchill implored the United States to come into the war immediately. But Roosevelt said that was very revealing — Churchill reported back to the British Cabinet — he said, “Roosevelt said that we will wage war, but we won’t declare it, and that we’re going to increasingly be provocative toward the Germans and so that the Germans will attack us.” Roosevelt was waiting for an attack on the United States to bring the Americans into the war. He got what he wanted on December 7th at Pearl Harbor. The next day, he goes and makes his famous speech. He said that “a day which will live in infamy,” and the Americans declare war on Japan. But that only gave us part of what we were looking for. Fortunately for Roosevelt, then the United States and the world, ultimately, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States on December 11th, three days later. That gave us the two-front war that we actually wanted.
But in the process of rallying the American public behind the war, there was this patriotic attempt to sacrifice on the part of American workers, to give up strikes and to accept a wage freeze. Well, increasingly, the American economy was booming during the war, and American workers wanted to get their fair share of those war profits and the economic expansion. And, so, as you were saying, there was a vast wave of strikes during the war, and certainly after the war.
KIM BROWN: The attack itself on Pearl Harbor has become a reference point for a kind of cathartic experience that could push the US population to accept the necessity of a war, and we’ve seen it cited this way in an infamous document by the neo-conservative think tank known as The Project for a New American Century. But with the figures surrounding President-elect Donald Trump who seem very much like they want to pursue an aggressive foreign policy towards Iran, do you think we have to fear another Pearl Harbor?
PETER KUZNICK: Well, The Project for a New American Century folks who did say that they need a catalyzing, catastrophic event like a new Pearl Harbor in order to vastly increase America’s military spending, as they did after 9/11, it’s true that some of these same people, like John Bolton, the real Iran-haters do have Trump’s ear, and there is still speculation that Bolton might be brought in as Secretary of State. But there’s also the Gaffneys and the Woolseys and the others who Trump is listening to, who are also talking this line about confrontation with Iran. During the campaign, he referred to the nuclear deal with Iran as the worst kind of treaty possible.
In fact, the nuclear deal with Iran is a major step in the right direction and is very much in America’s interest. It’s hard to tell. On the one hand, Trump says he wants better relations with Russia. Russia and China were instrumental in getting that Iran deal that Trump now says he wants to tear up on his first day in office.
The thing about Trump is that he’s unpredictable. There is no way to know what he’s going to say or what he’s going to do. He contradicts himself; from the beginning of the sentence to the end of the sentence he’ll contradict himself. So, he’ll say one thing one day, then the opposite the next day. We really don’t have any idea. But there is… it is dangerous that he’s surrounded himself with so many military people, so many hawks, especially when it comes to Iran and when it comes to the Islamic world. So that is a threat. Do they need a new Pearl Harbor? Not necessarily. They’ve got probably enough pretexts in order to do what they want to do without that.
KIM BROWN: We have been speaking with Peter Kuznick. Peter is a Professor of History and the Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. He also co-wrote with Oliver Stone The Untold History of the United States. We’ve been discussing the upcoming 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Peter, we appreciate your time and your expertise today a lot. Thank you so much.
PETER KUZNICK: My pleasure, Kim.
KIM BROWN: And thanks for watching The Real News Network.