Learning From History: America and Japan, Part II
Joseph Grew, America’s Ambassador to Japan, beginning in 1932, also had strong words of concern over Japan’s growing influence and intentions. In his analysis on the present state of affairs in Southeast Asia at the commencement of Roosevelt’s Presidency, he noted how, with the acquisition of Manchuria, Japan’s empire was “larger than the combined territories of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, and controlled over 120 million people, almost equal to the U.S. population.” Moreover, Grew advised the President that the Japanese people were “intelligent, industrious, energetic, extremely nationalistic, war-loving, aggressive and, it must be admitted, unscrupulous.” Grew even went so far as to tell the President he felt Japan was the most “powerful fighting machine in the world today.” These words must have resonated with Roosevelt, as his foreign policy concerning Japan would prove to be one built on cynicism, paranoia and the need to contain their ability for economic and military growth. From his first days in office, Roosevelt discussed the danger Japan posed and he formulated war strategies against Japan with his cabinet.
On October 5th, 1937 Roosevelt delivered his famous Quarantine Speech that moved American policy away from its path of isolation with an implication that certain countries, including Japan, were aggressors that required international action to curb their belligerent behaviour. The American media responded with words of encouragement. In New York, the World-Telegram and the New York Daily News voiced their approval for interventionist policies, as did the Washington Post, Washington Evening Star, Chicago Daily News, the Cincinnati Enquirer, San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times. Clearly, Roosevelt’s positioning for intervention using sanctions was a popular idea. An American public that had been watching the activities of foreign nations from the sidelines felt the need to interject American posturing into the dynamic of world politics. There were some voices of hesitation and caution in American media, but the aggressive actions of Italy and Germany would soon reinforce the notion that inaction was antithetical to the values of freedom, democracy and kinship with European nations in a time of need.
Throughout the 1930s, the balance of naval power had slowly been shifting in favour of the Axis powers and this shift forced Britain to concentrate their fleet in the Atlantic, abandoning the Pacific to the Americans and the Japanese. It was becoming clear that any war in the Pacific that America might face, they would have to face alone. This realization, along with exaggerated reports of Japan`s ship building, finally stirred Roosevelt to action; by August, 1940, the U.S. Congress had provided funds for two hundred and fifty warships, doubling the number of ships it had granted funds for in the first six years of Roosevelt`s Presidency. The naval competition that had started in 1937 between Japan and America was underway and the Japanese Imperial Navy had taken an early lead, both in the quality of naval craft and the quantity, but this lead was now being threatened by America`s new-found enthusiasm for reaching parity in the Pacific. Japan understood that this meant the extraordinary cost and effort they had put into their navy was being undermined and if they wished to continue with their plan of securing Southeast Asian colonies and resources, they would have to strike the Americans while they still had the naval lead if they hoped to be successful.
In 1940, America found itself with a leader in Britain that shared Roosevelt`s paranoia about the intentions of the Japanese in Southeast Asia. Winston Churchill had served as the First Lord of the Admiralty and knew full well the potential of the Japanese fleet in the Pacific. He was also aware of Britain`s inability to oppose that fleet and the necessity of American assistance to deal with the issue. In August, 1940, Roosevelt and Churchill met to discuss the international situation and their conversation turned to the ominous events occurring in the Pacific. This conversation regarding the threat Japan posed continued between the two leaders as events began to unfold that reinforced their suspicions. Throughout 1941, Japan had extended its reach into China and Indochina, threatening the Dutch East Indies and Malaya. During this period, correspondence between Roosevelt and Churchill increased and the topic of conversation was often Japan and the growing threat they posed. Beginning in October, 1939, before he had attained the position of Prime Minister, Churchill had already warned Roosevelt to increase patrols to keep belligerents out of American waters. On October, 4th, 1940, Churchill was asking Roosevelt to send the biggest fleet he could to Singapore to act as a deterrent to Japanese aggression. On February 15th, 1941, Churchill sent a much more specific caveat, citing the possibility of a full scale attack by the Japanese against Singapore and the Dutch East Indies in the following weeks or months. He warned that Britain was unable to defend its interests in Southeast Asia with naval power, as it was all being utilized in the Mediterranean and any withdrawal from that front would have disastrous consequences. Moreover, Churchill advised Roosevelt that it was in America and Britain’s best interest to “inspire the Japanese with fear” to get them to back down from any confrontation in Southeast Asia. Roosevelt took these warnings very seriously and proceeded to push congress for permission and money to meet the demands of the pending confrontation in the Pacific. These correspondences expose how Roosevelt was aware of the Japanese threat and how deeply he was concerned with the likelihood of a Japanese invasion of western interests in Southeast Asia. They also show how Roosevelt was playing two roles: an American President unwilling to bring his nation into war yet prepared to do so if the need arose and a leader preparing his country for an unavoidable entrance into a war in the Pacific with the Japanese; the latter role reflecting his actual sentiments.
The atmosphere in Japan from 1940 onwards was much more decisive. By June, 1940, it had become apparent that neither France nor Britain was capable of stopping a Japanese push southwards. On June 20, 1940, the Japanese Navy Ministry began researching the best method of taking control of the Dutch East Indies and French Indochina. It was surmised that if these targets were taken, war with the U.S., Britain and Holland would be assured. Regardless of this likelihood, the naval command was also in agreement that, without access to the oil fields in the Dutch East Indies, Japan’s future was bleak. The nomination and subsequent election of Prince Konoye Fumimaro as Prime Minister on July, 20th, 1940, gave the Japanese Navy the leadership they needed to move forward with a plan for a southern advance. Five days after taking office, Konoye officially adopted the policy presented by the navy. When the Japanese army entered northern Indochina on September, 22nd, Roosevelt reacted quickly, ending all exports of scrap iron and steel to Japan.
Roosevelt had been warned that embargos against Japan would inevitably lead to war by Ambassador Grew in 1939, particularly an embargo on oil. Regardless of this warning, or in spite of it, Roosevelt implemented an economic offensive against Japan that would accelerate as Japan accelerated their push southward. In the 1930s, approximately eighty percent of Japan’s crude oil was imported from the United States. On July 25th, 1940, Roosevelt signed a proclamation issuing control over exports of oil and scrap metal to Japan. The embargo on oil was further defined to include all "high octane gasolines, hydrocarbons, and hydrocarbon mixtures which, with the addition of tetraethyl lead up to a total content of 3 c.c. per gallon will exceed 87 octane number, or any material from which by commercial distillation there can be separated more than 3 per cent of such gasoline, hydrocarbon, or hydrocarbon mixture." The purpose of this further defining feature was to appease those in Roosevelt’s cabinet that felt total restrictions on oil were too provocative. This loophole in the type of gasoline American companies were allowed to sell had the opposite effect Roosevelt intended; gasoline sales to Japan increased dramatically, well beyond any reasonable levels for commercial use. The Japanese were obviously stockpiling whatever oil and gas they could get their hands on. Recognition of this fact incited proponents for a stronger embargo and pressure continued for more effective sanctions, particularly from the British. Oil exports from America to Japan did decrease following this warning, but not from a government mandate; scarcity caused American oil companies to restrict their export of oil to British buyers, in order to meet the terms of contracts already under obligation. Rear Admiral Turner, a recently appointed Admiral from his position of Director of War Plans in Washington, D.C., completed an investigation titled, “Study of the Effect of an Embargo of Trade between the United States and Japan” which concluded the strong likelihood that the present state of oil embargo on Japan would leave Japan desperate and force them to take military action to secure sources of oil in the Dutch East Indies, as well as attacks against the Philippines and Malaya. Roosevelt reacted to the report by freezing all Japanese assets on July 25th. Either Roosevelt had not taken the warnings of Grew or Turner seriously, or he was following a line of actions that he knew would incite Japan into war with America.
The embargo imposed on Japan forced the Japanese to consider their options and the option for going to war figured prominently, particularly with the command of the Japanese military whose domination of Japanese foreign policy had been increasing since the Mukden Incident. The military put forth three proposals, based on the circumstance of Japanese-American relations and the dire situation the oil embargo had put them in. The first of these proposals called for immediate war, the second called for patience and the third asked for further negotiations to better the Japanese condition. On November 1st, 1941, the Japanese Army High Command met and made their decision: the first option must be taken, as negotiation or patience would only give America more time to build up its resources in the Pacific and the pattern of economic sanctions was such that it would only be a matter of time before Japan was incapable of defending its territorial gains and incapable of sustaining its domestic economy. Japan would run completely out of oil in a year and a half at their current rate of consumption. This would leave them prone to whatever reprisal would be demanded of them and that would signal the end of Japan as a world power, and possibly the end of Japan as a nation altogether.
From November 1st forward, the question in Japan was no longer about if they should go to war; it was about how the war should be conducted. The Japanese had defeated the Russians using Mahanian strategies of a massive pre-emptive strike debilitating the enemy as quickly as possible and that is what the Japanese decided would be the best strategy in the coming war with America. Strategic positions throughout the Pacific could be taken simultaneously that would make a counteroffensive impossible. On November 26, 1941, the U.S. further committed the Japanese to their course of action by issuing a statement that became known as the “Hull Note.” This declaration made it clear that America would not turn back the tide of sanctions it had imposed unless Japan gave up their territorial gains, something they could not do without compromising their industrial demands. Furthermore, the Hull Note implied a state of war between the two countries and, therefore, further sanctions would reflect a war paradigm. Negotiations had now completely failed and as of December 1st, Japan considered itself to be in a state of war with America, Great Britain and the Netherlands.
The five decades that preceded Japan’s decision to attack Pearl Harbour were a moment in history where two nations simultaneously arose to positions of power and sustaining that power was contingent on accessibility to natural resources to fuel that rise. These resources were limited and coveted, making control over them a zero sum game. America had secured ample resources in Latin America and had a domestic supply of oil that made them hesitant to enter into conflict over foreign sources in the Pacific; however, Japan’s method of securing Southeast Asian resources using militaristic, aggressive strategies went against Wilsonian ideas of freedom and liberal economics and that aggression inspired Roosevelt to take a stand. Predisposed to paranoia regarding the exotic Eastern lands, the American public accepted Roosevelt’s choice to isolate and target a regime seen as sociopathic in its intention to expand its control over Southeast Asia. By disrupting the growth of the Japanese economy and threatening their existence through a series of escalating sanctions, America had appeased their European allies, but, at the same time, had knowingly forced Japan to make a choice: attack America and control the Pacific and the resources therein or submit to a quick decline as a nation and a world power unable to sustain itself. Given the pride of the Japanese people and the actions required for self preservation, an attack on America was their only rational choice left. Trusting Mahanian strategies, Japan felt a per-emptive strike held the best chance for success in their goal to trump America in a century-long naval race that had reached a final stage of confrontation. From these circumstances, Japan took the final step to all out war with America: a massive naval attack on Pearl Harbour.
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