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Pearl Harbor: An Exchange

I always delight in Ian Buruma’s analyses of the ongoing political and cultural shortcomings of the Japanese [“The Emperor’s Secrets,” NYR, March 25]. But then how could I not? As a member of The Greatest American Generation, I served in the Pacific Theater of Operations in World War II where one was marinated in propaganda about the essential subhuman bestiality of the Japanese, a savage race who for no reason whatsoever took time off from their reasonably successful conquest of mainland Asia to sink, almost idly one Sunday morning, the American fleet based at Pearl Harbor. Why? No reason was ever given us, the innocent victims, other than we were ever so good and they were ever so bad. Although Charles A. Beard, our leading historian in those far-off days, wrote President Roosevelt and the Coming of War, 1941 (1948), in which he made the case that the Japanese attack was the result of a series of deliberate provocations by FDR, he promptly underwent erasure at the hands of the court historians in place, as always, to demonstrate that what ought not to be true is not true.

Recently, I touched on this delicate matter in The Golden Age and, currently, R.B. Stinnett, in Day of Deceit, has analyzed FDR’s policy of provocation based on new material, much of it only released in 1995 under the Freedom of Information Act. But as Mr. Stinnett is currently making his case in these pages [Letters, NYR, February 8], I shall only respond to one of Mr. Buruma’s blithe footnotes to the effect that the Japanese war party’s “plans for the attack on Pearl Harbor had been presented to Hirohito already in early November, after he was convinced that war with the US was inevitable. This would suggest that those who continue to believe that Pearl Harbor was really Roosevelt’s doing are barking up the wrong tree.” As this bold non sequitur suggests, Mr. Buruma himself is firmly lodged in the wrong tree. But then many Western journalists who move about the Far East are permanently dazzled if not blinded by the Rising Sun.

I particularly like the notion that Hirohito (for reasons not mentioned) was, somehow, in November 1941, convinced that war with the US was inevitable. Why? Lady Murasaki has, apparently, pledged Mr. Buruma to secrecy. So let’s try to work out what was going on in November that might have convinced the marine biologist atop the Chrysanthemum throne that an “inevitable” war was coming his way not, as Mr. Buruma would have it, from the savage war party in Tokyo but from Freedom’s alabaster home itself. If Hirohito had been studying his in-box, as “a divine priest-king” ought, he might have suspected that the US had been trying to get a rise out of him for many years. On July 16, 1941, Prince Konoye, a would-be peacemaker, became prime minister. On July 26 (as a vote of confidence?) the US froze all Japanese funds in the US and stopped the export of oil. When Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles was asked by the Japanese if some compromise might be worked out, Welles said there was not the “slightest ground for any compromise solution.”

Our first provocation against Japan began with FDR’s famous Chicago address (October 5, 1937), asking for a quarantine against aggressor nations. Certainly, Japan in Manchuria and north China qualified as an aggressor just as we had been one when we conquered the Philippines and moved into the Japanese neighborhood at the start of the twentieth century. In December 1937, the Japanese sank the Panay, an American gunboat in Chinese waters, on duty so far from home as the Monroe Doctrine sternly requires. Japan promptly, humbly paid for the damage mistakenly done our ship. Meanwhile, FDR—something of a Sinophile—was aiding and abetting the Chinese warlord Chiang Kai-shek.

Three years later the Western world changed dramatically. France fell to Hitler, an ally of Japan. FDR was looking for some way to help Britain avoid the same fate. Although most bien pensant Americans were eager to stop Hitler, not many fretted about Japan. Also, more to the point—the point—a clear majority of American voters were against going to war a second time in Europe in a single generation. Nevertheless, instead of meeting Konoye, FDR met Winston Churchill aboard a warship off Newfoundland. FDR said that he would do what he could to help England but he was limited by an isolationist Congress, press, and electorate. Later, Churchill, in a speech to Parliament, let part of the cat out of the bag: “The possibility since the Atlantic Conference…that the United States, even if not herself attacked, would come into a war in the Far East, and thus make final victory sure, seemed to allay some of those anxieties….” (The anxieties were FDR’s inability to come to the full aid of England in the war with the Axis.) “As time went on, one had great assurance that if Japan ran amok in the Pacific, we should not fight alone.”

Pointedly, FDR refused to meet Konoye, whose government was then replaced by that of General Hideki Tojo. The military, so feared by Mr. Buruma, were now in power. But though they lusted for the blood of everyone on earth, they more modestly wanted to get on with the conquest of China and Southeast Asia. Certainly, they did not want a simultaneous war with a great continental power thousands of miles away. In November 1941 they made a final attempt at peace. We now know—thanks to our having broken the Japanese diplomatic code—the contents of Hirohito’s in-box. Japan looked for a compromise. We looked for war. The Japanese ambassadors to the US, Kurusu and Nomura, were treated to a series of American ultimatums that concluded, November 26, with the following order: “The government of Japan will withdraw all military, naval, air and police forces from China and Indo-China” as well as renounce the tripartite Axis agreement. It was then, as Lincoln once said on a nobler occasion, the war came. Churchill’s anxieties were at last allayed. On November 29 Germany assured Japan that should they go to war with the US, Germany would join them. In April 1945, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, in a memorial address at Harvard, praised the late President Roosevelt, “while engaged in this series of complicated moves, he so skillfully conducted affairs as to avoid even the appearance of an act of aggression on our part.” There it is.

Question to those in denial about the US as provocateur: Why is it, if we were not on the offensive, that so small and faraway an island as Japan attacked what was so clearly, already, a vast imperial continental power? You have now had over sixty years to come up with a plausible answer. Do tell.

Gore Vidal

Ravello, Italy

Ian Buruma replies:

Mr. Vidal wonders why, by November 1941, Emperor Hirohito was convinced that war with the US was inevitable. Indeed, he finds the notion amusing. Here are a few points by way of comment.

The Imperial Conference, convened on November 2, 1941, was summed up by the Privy Council President Hara Kei as follows:

It is impossible, from the standpoint of our present situation and of our self-preservation, to accept all of the American demands. On the other hand we cannot let the present situation continue. If we miss the present opportunity to go to war, we will have to submit to American dictation. Therefore, I recognize that it is inevitable that we must decide to start a war against the United States.1

What were these American demands? In fact there had been no American demands, until Japanese troops moved into Indochina in July 1941. Washington had lectured the Japanese about their brutal war in China, beginning with a military invasion in 1937, but had done nothing to stop them (and by the way, I wasn’t born in time to “fear” the Japanese military; many Chinese, on the other hand, were and did). The Japanese, however, could not continue to occupy China without more natural resources at their disposal. That is why they invaded Indochina, with plans to expand further into Southeast Asia. And that is why Roosevelt froze Japanese funds in the US and stopped the export of oil.

Some Japanese were willing to retreat, no doubt, but not the Japanese who mattered. General Tojo, who was minister of war in the cabinet of Prince Konoye, the “would-be peacemaker,” stated that there could be “no compromise on the stationing of troops in China. It affects military morale…. If we just acquiesce to the American demand, everything we have achieved in China will be lost.”2

The Japanese navy was on the whole less keen than the army to take on the US, but Naval Chief of Staff Admiral Nagano had suggested war with the US as early as July 1941, because, in his view, Japan was better prepared and would “have a chance of achieving victory” if it acted with sufficient speed.3 He said this on July 21, five days before the US decided to impose economic sanctions.

Konoye did indeed offer the US a vague deal in the summer of 1941. He wanted the US and Britain to stay out of China, to give Japan a free hand in much of Southeast Asia, and to lift all economic sanctions. In exchange, Japan promised to leave the Philippines alone and to withdraw from Indochina, but only after the situation in China was resolved to Japanese satisfaction. How this was to be resolved was left unclear. As Mr. Vidal says: “some compromise.” No wonder Secretary of State Cordell Hull was not much interested.

In September, General Tojo took over as prime minister. Prince Takamatsu, the Emperor’s younger brother, wrote in his diary: “We have finally committed to war and now we must do all we can to launch it powerfully.”4 The hope was that a knockout blow would, in Admiral Yamamoto’s words, leave the Americans “so dispirited they will not be able to recover.”5 This kind of thinking was encouraged by the common idea that Americans were a decadent people. The man who planned the attack on Singapore, Colonel Tsuji Masanobu, later explained that “our candid ideas at the time were that the Americans, being merchants, would not continue for long with an unprofitable war.”6

Right-wing Japanese revisionists still argue that a US ultimatum forced Japan to attack Pearl Harbor. In fact, it was more like the other way around. The Japanese armed services decided that war was inevitable if Washington did not give in to their demands by October 1941. When the US failed to do so, Admiral Nagano warned his government that the navy was running out of oil. He said: “The government has decided that if there were no war the fate of the nation is sealed…. A nation that does not fight in this plight has lost its spirit and is doomed.”7

I’m not entirely sure what Mr. Vidal means when he states that “Japan looked for a compromise. We looked for a war.” I assume he refers to vague proposals that Japanese troops might be pulled back to the northern part of Indochina once Japan had gained control over the Chinese continent. This was proposed on November 20. If the Americans didn’t agree by midnight November 30, the deal was off. Cordell Hull replied that Japan should withdraw from China (not Manchuria, or Korea), but left room for further negotiation. There was no American ultimatum, only a Japanese deadline. November 30 came and went, and the rest we know.

Mr. Vidal doesn’t have to take my word for any of this, or indeed the words of American historians. Ienaga Saburo, the left-wing Japanese historian who has spent a lifetime fighting conservative Japanese officials, put it succinctly: “…The clash with America stemmed from the invasion of China…. It can hardly be overstressed that aggression against China was at the heart of the fifteen-year-war.”[8 ]By 1942 Japanese forces had, in addition to parts of China, occupied much of the rest of the Pacific region, including Burma, the Philippines, Indochina, and the Dutch East Indies.

One can still go on believing, of course, that Franklin D. Roosevelt was happy to sacrifice much of his navy in the hope that Hitler would join Japan in going to war with the US, something Hitler was under no obligation to do. But to believe that, you either have to be a right-wing Japanese with a political agenda (to revise the “peace constitution,” promote nationalism, and revive the military spirit), or permanently dazzled, if not blinded, by conspiracy theories in Washington, D.C.

  1. 1

    Quoted in Marius Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 640.

  2. 2

    Quoted in Ienaga Saburo, The Pacific War (Pantheon, 1978), p. 134.

  3. 3

    Quoted by Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (HarperCollins, 2000), p. 401.

  4. 4

    Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, p. 419.

  5. 5

    John Dower, War Without Mercy (Pantheon, 1986), p. 36.

  6. 6

    Dower, War Without Mercy, p. 36.

  7. 7

    Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, p. 639.

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