If you live near Pearl Harbor, there’s delicious U.S. Navy jet fuel in your drinking water. Yum! Yum!
And some of the same people who have been warning about that for a long time have also been warning about the deadly threat posed by the stories people tell each other on Pearl Harbor Day.
If you live near a television or a computer, you’re at risk.
One of the holiest days of the year is fast approaching. Are you ready? Remember the true meaning of Pearl Harbor Day!
The U.S. government planned, prepared for, and provoked a war with Japan for years, and was in many ways at war already, waiting for Japan to fire the first shot, when Japan attacked the Philippines and Pearl Harbor. What gets lost in the questions of exactly who knew what when in the days before those attacks, and what combination of incompetence and cynicism allowed them to happen, is the fact that major steps had indisputably been taken toward war but none had been taken toward peace.
The Asia pivot of the Obama-Trump-Biden era had a precedent in the years leading up to WWII, as the United States and Japan built up their military presence in the Pacific. The United States was aiding China in the war against Japan and blockading Japan to deprive it of critical resources prior to Japan’s attack on U.S. troops and imperial territories. The militarism of the United States does not free Japan of responsibility for its own militarism, or vice versa, but the myth of the innocent bystander shockingly assaulted out of the blue is no more real than the myth of the war to save the Jews.
When I ask people to justify WWII, they always say “Hitler,” but if the European war was so easily justifiable, why shouldn’t the United States have joined it earlier? Why was the U.S. public so overwhelmingly against U.S. entry into the war until after December 7, 1941? Why does a war with Germany that supposedly should have been entered have to be depicted as a defensive battle through the convoluted logic that Japan fired the first shot, thereby (somehow) making the crusade to end the Holocaust in Europe a question of self-defense? Germany declared war on the United States, hoping that Japan would assist Germany in the struggle against the Soviet Union. But Germany did not attack the United States.
Winston Churchill wanted the United States to enter WWII, just as he had wanted the United States to enter WWI. The Lusitania was attacked by Germany without warning, during WWI, we’re told in U.S. text books, despite Germany literally having published warnings in New York newspapers and newspapers around the United States. These warnings were printed right next to ads for sailing on the Lusitania and were signed by the German embassy.[i] Newspapers wrote articles about the warnings. The Cunard company was asked about the warnings. The former captain of the Lusitania had already quit — reportedly due to the stress of sailing through what Germany had publicly declared a war zone. Meanwhile Winston Churchill wrote to the President of Britain’s Board of Trade, “It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.”[ii] It was under his command that the usual British military protection was not provided to the Lusitania, despite Cunard having stated that it was counting on that protection. That the Lusitania was carrying weapons and troops to aid the British in the war against Germany was asserted by Germany and by other observers, and was true. Sinking the Lusitania was a horrible act of mass-murder, but it wasn’t a surprise assault by evil against pure goodness.
In September of 1932, Colonel Jack Jouett, a veteran U.S. pilot, began teaching 80 cadets at a new military flying school in China.[iii] Already, war was in the air. On January 17, 1934, Eleanor Roosevelt made a speech: “Any one who thinks, must think of the next war as suicide. How deadly stupid we are that we can study history and live through what we live through, and complacently allow the same causes to put us through the same thing again.”[iv] When President Franklin Roosevelt visited Pearl Harbor on July 28, 1934, General Kunishiga Tanaka wrote in the Japan Advertiser, objecting to the build-up of the American fleet and the creation of additional bases in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands: “Such insolent behavior makes us most suspicious. It makes us think a major disturbance is purposely being encouraged in the Pacific. This is greatly regretted.”[v]
In October 1934, George Seldes wrote in Harper’s Magazine: “It is an axiom that nations do not arm for war but for a war.” Seldes asked an official at the Navy League:“Do you accept the naval axiom that you prepare to fight a specific navy?”The man replied “Yes.”“Do you contemplate a fight with the British navy?”“Absolutely, no.”“Do you contemplate war with Japan?”“Yes.”[vi]
In 1935 Smedley Butler, two years after foiling a coup against Roosevelt, and four years after being court martialed for recounting an incident in which Benito Mussolini ran over a girl with his car[vii], published to enormous success a short book called War Is a Racket.[viii] He wrote:
“At each session of Congress the question of further naval appropriations comes up. The swivel-chair admirals don’t shout that ‘We need lots of battleships to war on this nation or that nation.’ Oh, no. First of all, they let it be known that America is menaced by a great naval power. Almost any day, these admirals will tell you, the great fleet of this supposed enemy will strike suddenly and annihilate our 125,000,000 people. Just like that. Then they begin to cry for a larger navy. For what? To fight the enemy? Oh my, no. Oh, no. For defense purposes only. Then, incidentally, they announce maneuvers in the Pacific. For defense. Uh, huh.
“The Pacific is a great big ocean. We have a tremendous coastline in the Pacific. Will the maneuvers be off the coast, two or three hundred miles? Oh, no. The maneuvers will be two thousand, yes, perhaps even thirty-five hundred miles, off the coast. The Japanese, a proud people, of course will be pleased beyond expression to see the United States fleet so close to Nippon’s shores. Even as pleased as would be the residents of California were they to dimly discern, through the morning mist, the Japanese fleet playing at war games off Los Angeles.”
In March 1935, Roosevelt bestowed Wake Island on the U.S. Navy and gave Pan Am Airways a permit to build runways on Wake Island, Midway Island, and Guam. Japanese military commanders announced that they were disturbed and viewed these runways as a threat. So did peace activists in the United States. By the next month, Roosevelt had planned war games and maneuvers near the Aleutian Islands and Midway Island. By the following month, peace activists were marching in New York advocating friendship with Japan. Norman Thomas wrote in 1935: “The Man from Mars who saw how men suffered in the last war and how frantically they are preparing for the next war, which they know will be worse, would come to the conclusion that he was looking at the denizens of a lunatic asylum.”
On May 18, 1935, ten thousand marched up Fifth Avenue in New York with posters and signs opposing the build-up to war with Japan. Similar scenes were repeated numerous times in this period.[ix] People made the case for peace, while the government armed for war, built bases for war, rehearsed for war in the Pacific, and practiced blackouts and sheltering from air raids to prepare people for war. The U.S. Navy developed its plans for a war on Japan. The March 8, 1939, version of these plans described “an offensive war of long duration” that would destroy the military and disrupt the economic life of Japan.
The U.S. military even planned for a Japanese attack on Hawaii, which it thought might begin with conquering the island of Ni’ihau, from which flights would take off to assault the other islands. U.S. Army Air Corp. Lt. Col. Gerald Brant approached the Robinson family, which owned Ni’ihau and still does. He asked them to plow furrows across the island in a grid, to render it useless for airplanes. Between 1933 and 1937, three Ni’ihau men cut the furrows with plows pulled by mules or draft horses. As it turned out, the Japanese had no plans to use Ni’ihau, but when a Japanese plane that had just been part of the attack on Pearl Harbor had to make an emergency landing, it landed on Ni’ihau despite all the efforts of the mules and horses.
On July 21, 1936, all the newspapers in Tokyo had the same headline: the U.S. government was loaning China 100 million yuan with which to buy U.S. weapons.[x] On August 5, 1937, the Japanese government announced that it was disturbed that 182 U.S. airmen, each accompanied by two mechanics, would be flying airplanes in China.[xi]
Some U.S. and Japanese officials, as well as many peace activists, worked for peace and friendship during these years, pushing back against the buildup toward war. Some examples are at this link.
In November 1940, Roosevelt loaned China one hundred million dollars for war with Japan, and after consulting with the British, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau made plans to send the Chinese bombers with U.S. crews to use in bombing Tokyo and other Japanese cities. On December 21, 1940, China’s Minister of Finance T.V. Soong and Colonel Claire Chennault, a retired U.S. Army flier who was working for the Chinese and had been urging them to use American pilots to bomb Tokyo since at least 1937, met in Morgenthau’s dining room to plan the firebombing of Japan. Morgenthau said he could get men released from duty in the U.S. Army Air Corps if the Chinese could pay them $1,000 per month. Soong agreed.[xii]
In 1939-1940, the U.S. Navy built new Pacific bases in Midway, Johnston, Palmyra, Wake, Guam, Samoa, and Hawaii.[xiii]
In September, 1940, Japan, Germany, and Italy signed an agreement to assist each other in war. This meant that were the United States at war with one of them, it would likely be at war with all three.
On October 7, 1940, the director of the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence Far East Asia Section Arthur McCollum wrote a memo.[xiv] He worried about possible future Axis threats to the British fleet, to the British Empire, and to the Allies’ ability to blockade Europe. He speculated about a theoretical future Axis attack on the United States. He believed decisive action could lead to the “early collapse of Japan.” He recommended war with Japan:
“While . . . there is little that the United States can do to immediately retrieve the situation in Europe, the United States is able to effectively nullify Japanese aggressive action, and do it without lessening U.S. material assistance to Great Britain.
“. . . In the Pacific the United States possesses a very strong defensive position and a navy and naval air force at present in that ocean capable of long distance offensive operation. There are certain other factors which at the present time are strongly in our favor, viz:
- Philippine Islands still held by the United States.
- Friendly and possibly allied government in control of the Dutch East Indies.
- British still hold Hong Kong and Singapore and are favorable to us.
- Important Chinese armies are still in the field in China against Japan.
- A small U.S. Naval Force capable of seriously threatening Japan’s southern supply routes already in the theatre of operations.
- A considerable Dutch naval force is in the Orient that would be of value if allied to U.S.
“A consideration of the foregoing leads to the conclusion that prompt aggressive naval action against Japan by the United States would render Japan incapable of affording any help to Germany and Italy in their attack on England and that Japan itself would be faced with a situation in which her navy could be forced to fight on most unfavorable terms or accept fairly early collapse of the country through the force of blockade. A prompt and early declaration of war after entering into suitable arrangements with England and Holland, would be most effective in bringing about the early collapse of Japan and thus eliminating our enemy in the pacific before Germany and Italy could strike at us effectively. Furthermore, elimination of Japan must surely strengthen Britain’s position against Germany and Italy and, in addition, such action would increase the confidence and support of all nations who tend to be friendly towards us.
“It is not believed that in the present state of political opinion the United States government is capable of declaring war against Japan without more ado; and it is barely possible that vigorous action on our part might lead the Japanese to modify their attitude. Therefore, the following course of action is suggested:
- Make an arrangement with Britain for the use of British bases in the Pacific, particularly Singapore.
- Make an arrangement with Holland for the use of base facilities and acquisition of supplies in the Dutch East Indies.
- Give all possible aid to the Chinese government of Chiang-Kai-Shek.
- Send a division of long range heavy cruisers to the Orient, Philippines, or Singapore.
- Send two divisions of submarines to the Orient.
- Keep the main strength of the U.S. fleet now in the Pacific in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands.
- Insist that the Dutch refuse to grant Japanese demands for undue economic concessions, particularly oil.
- Completely embargo all U.S. trade with Japan, in collaboration with a similar embargo imposed by the British Empire.
“If by these means Japan could be led to commit an overt act of war, so much the better. At all events we must be fully prepared to accept the threat of war.”
According to U.S. Army military historian Conrad Crane, “A close reading [of the above memo] shows that its recommendations were supposed to deter and contain Japan, while better preparing the United States for a future conflict in the Pacific. There is an offhand remark that an overt Japanese act of war would make it easier to garner public support for actions against Japan, but the document’s intent was not to ensure that event happened.”[xv]
The dispute between interpretations of this memo and similar documents is a subtle one. Nobody believes the memo quoted above was aimed at negotiating peace or disarmament or establishing the rule of law over violence. Some think the intention was to get a war started but be able to blame it on Japan. Others think the intention was to get ready for a war to start, and take steps that might very well provoke Japan to start one, but might instead — it was just barely possible — frighten Japan out of its militaristic ways. This range of debate turns an Overton window into a keyhole. It’s a debate that has also been sidetracked into a focus on whether one of the eight recommendations above — the one about keeping the fleet in Hawaii — was part of a nefarious plot to get more ships destroyed in a dramatic attack (not a particularly successful plot, as only two ships were permanently destroyed).
Not just that one point — which is significant with or without such a plot — but all eight recommendations made in the memo or at least steps similar to them were pursued. These steps were aimed at intentionally or accidentally (the distinction is a fine one) starting a war, and they seem to have worked. Work on the recommendations, coincidentally or not, began on October 8, 1940, the very next day after the memo was written. On that date, the U.S. State Department told Americans to evacuate Eastern Asia. Also on that date, President Roosevelt ordered the fleet kept in Hawaii. Admiral James O. Richardson wrote later that he had strongly objected to the proposal and to its purpose. “Sooner or later,” he quoted Roosevelt as having said, “the Japanese would commit an overt act against the United States and the nation would be willing to enter the war.”[xvi]
Richardson was relieved of his duties on February 1, 1941, so perhaps he lied about Roosevelt as a disgruntled former employee. Or perhaps getting out of such duties in the Pacific in those days was a popular move by those who could see what was coming. Admiral Chester Nimitz declined to command the Pacific Fleet. His son, Chester Nimitz Jr. later told the History Channel that his father’s thinking had been as follows: “It is my guess that the Japanese are going to attack us in a surprise attack. There will be a revulsion in the country against all those in command at sea, and they will be replaced by people in positions of prominence ashore, and I want to be ashore, and not at sea, when that happens.”[xvii]
In early 1941, U.S. and British military officers met to plan their strategy for defeating Germany and then Japan, once the United States was in the war. In April, President Roosevelt started having U.S. ships inform the British military of the locations of German U-boats and planes. Then he started allowing the shipment of supplies to British soldiers in North Africa. Germany accused Roosevelt of “endeavoring with all the means at his disposal to provoke incidents for the purpose of baiting the American people into the war.”[xviii]
In January 1941, the Japan Advertiser expressed its outrage over the U.S. military build-up at Pearl Harbor in an editorial, and the U.S. ambassador to Japan wrote in his diary: “There is a lot of talk around town to the effect that the Japanese, in case of a break with the United States, are planning to go all out in a surprise mass attack on Pearl Harbor. Of course I informed my government.”[xix] On February 5, 1941, Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner wrote to Secretary of War Henry Stimson to warn of the possibility of a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor.
On April 28, 1941, Churchill wrote a secret directive to his war cabinet: “It may be taken as almost certain that the entry of Japan into the war would be followed by the immediate entry of the United States on our side.” On May 24, 1941, the New York Times reported on U.S. training of the Chinese air force, and the provision of “numerous fighting and bombing planes” to China by the United States and Britain. “Bombing of Japanese Cities is Expected” read the subheadline.[xx] On May 31, 1941, at the Keep America Out of War Congress, William Henry Chamberlin gave a dire warning: “A total economic boycott of Japan, the stoppage of oil shipments for instance, would push Japan into the arms of the Axis. Economic war would be a prelude to naval and military war.”[xxi]
By July, 1941, the Joint Army-Navy Board had approved a plan called JB 355 to firebomb Japan. A front corporation would buy American planes to be flown by American volunteers. Roosevelt approved, and his China expert Lauchlin Currie, in the words of Nicholson Baker, “wired Madame Chiang Kai-Shek and Claire Chennault a letter that fairly begged for interception by Japanese spies.” The 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force, also known as the Flying Tigers, moved ahead with recruitment and training immediately, were provided to China prior to Pearl Harbor, and first saw combat on December 20, 1941.[xxii]
On July 9, 1941, President Roosevelt asked top U.S. military officials to draw up plans for war on Germany and its allies and on Japan. His letter doing this was quoted in full in a news report on December 4, 1941 — which was the first time the U.S. public heard anything about it. See December 4, 1941, below.
On July 24, 1941, President Roosevelt remarked, “If we cut the oil off, [the Japanese] probably would have gone down to the Dutch East Indies a year ago, and you would have had a war. It was very essential from our own selfish point of view of defense to prevent a war from starting in the South Pacific. So our foreign policy was trying to stop a war from breaking out there.”[xxiii] Reporters noticed that Roosevelt said “was” rather than “is.” The next day, Roosevelt issued an executive order freezing Japanese assets. The United States and Britain cut off oil and scrap metal to Japan. Radhabinod Pal, an Indian jurist who served on the war crimes tribunal after the war, found the embargoes a predictably provocative threat to Japan.[xxiv]
On August 7, 1941, the Japan Times Advertiser wrote: “First there was the creation of a superbase at Singapore, heavily reinforced by British and Empire troops. From this hub a great wheel was built up and linked with American bases to form a great ring sweeping in a great area southwards and westwards from the Philippines through Malaya and Burma, with the link broken only in the Thailand peninsula. Now it is proposed to include the narrows in the encirclement, which proceeds to Rangoon.”[xxv]
On August 12, 1941, Roosevelt met secretly with Churchill in Newfoundland and drew up the Atlantic Charter, which set out the war aims for a war that the United States was not yet officially in. Churchill asked Roosevelt to join the war immediately, but he declined. Following this secret meeting, on August 18th, Churchill met with his cabinet back at 10 Downing Street in London. Churchill told his cabinet, according to the minutes: “The [U.S.] President had said he would wage war but not declare it, and that he would become more and more provocative. If the Germans did not like it, they could attack American forces. Everything was to be done to force an ‘incident’ that could lead to war.”[xxvi]
British propagandists had also argued since at least 1938 for using Japan to bring the United States into the war.[xxvii] At the Atlantic Conference on August 12, 1941, Roosevelt assured Churchill that the United States would bring economic pressure to bear on Japan.[xxviii] Within a week, in fact, the Economic Defense Board began economic sanctions.[xxix] On September 3, 1941, the U.S. State Department sent Japan a demand that it accept the principle of “nondisturbance of the status quo in the Pacific,” meaning cease turning European colonies into Japanese colonies.[xxx] By September 1941 the Japanese press was outraged that the United States had begun shipping oil right past Japan to reach Russia. Japan, its newspapers said, was dying a slow death from “economic war.”[xxxi] In September, 1941, Roosevelt announced a “shoot on sight” policy toward any German or Italian ships in U.S. waters.
A War Sales Pitch
On October 27, 1941, Roosevelt made a speech[xxxii]:
“Five months ago tonight I proclaimed to the American people the existence of a state of unlimited emergency. Since then much has happened. Our Army and Navy are temporarily in Iceland in the defense of the Western Hemisphere. Hitler has attacked shipping in areas close to the Americas in the North and South Atlantic. Many American-owned merchant ships have been sunk on the high seas. One American destroyer was attacked on September fourth. Another destroyer was attacked and hit on October seventeenth. Eleven brave and loyal men of our Navy were killed by the Nazis. We have wished to avoid shooting. But the shooting has started. And history has recorded who fired the first shot. In the long run, however, all that will matter is who fired the last shot. America has been attacked. The U.S.S. Kearny is not just a navy ship. She belongs to every man, woman and child in this nation. Illinois, Alabama, California, North Carolina, Ohio, Louisiana, Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arkansas, New York, Virginia — those are the home states of the honored dead and wounded of the Kearny. Hitler’s torpedo was directed at every American whether he lives on our sea coasts or in the innermost part of the nation, far from the seas and far from the guns and tanks of the marching hordes of would-be conquerors of the world. The purpose of Hitler’s attack was to frighten the American people off the high seas — to force us to make a trembling retreat. This is not the first time he has misjudged the American spirit. That spirit is now aroused.”
The ship sunk on September 4th was the Greer. The Chief of U.S. Naval Operations Harold Stark testified before the Senate Naval Affairs Committee that the Greer had been tracking a German submarine and relaying its location to a British airplane, which had dropped depth charges on the submarine without success. After hours of being tracked by the Greer, the submarine turned and fired.
The ship sunk on October 17th, the Kearny, was a replay of the Greer. It may have mystically belonged to the spirit of every American and so forth, but it was not innocent. It was taking part in a war that the United States had not officially entered, that the U.S. public was adamantly opposed to entering, but that the U.S. president was eager to get on with. That president continued:
“If our national policy were to be dominated by the fear of shooting, then all of our ships and those of our sister Republics would have to be tied up in home harbors. Our Navy would have to remain respectfully-abjectly-behind any line which Hitler might decree on any ocean as his own dictated version of his own war zone. Naturally we reject that absurd and insulting suggestion. We reject it because of our own self-interest, because of our own self-respect, because, most of all, of our own good faith. Freedom of the seas is now, as it has always been, a fundamental policy of your government and mine.”
This strawman argument depends on the pretense that innocent ships not participating in the war were attacked, and that one’s dignity depends on sending war ships around the world’s oceans. It’s a ridiculously transparent effort to manipulate the public, for which Roosevelt really ought to have paid royalties to the propagandists of WWI. Now we come to the claim that the President seems to have thought would clinch his case for war. It’s a case based almost certainly on a British forgery, which makes it theoretically possible that Roosevelt actually believed what he was saying:
“Hitler has often protested that his plans for conquest do not extend across the Atlantic Ocean. But his submarines and raiders prove otherwise. So does the entire design of his new world order. For example, I have in my possession a secret map made in Germany by Hitler’s government — by the planners of the new world order. It is a map of South America and a part of Central America, as Hitler proposes to reorganize it. Today in this area there are fourteen separate countries. The geographical experts of Berlin, however, have ruthlessly obliterated all existing boundary lines; and have divided South America into five vassal states, bringing the whole continent under their domination. And they have also so arranged it that the territory of one of these new puppet states includes the Republic of Panama and our great life line — the Panama Canal. That is his plan. It will never go into effect. This map makes clear the Nazi design not only against South America but against the United States itself.”
Roosevelt had edited this speech to remove an assertion as to the map’s authenticity. He refused to show the map to the media or the public. He did not say where the map came from, how he connected it to Hitler, or how it depicted a design against the United States, or — for that matter — how one might have sliced up Latin America and not included Panama.
When he had become Prime Minister in 1940, Churchill had set up an agency called British Security Coordination (BSC) with the mission to use any necessary dirty tricks to get the United States into the war. The BSC was run out of three floors of Rockefeller Center in New York by a Canadian named William Stephenson — the model for James Bond, according to Ian Fleming. It ran its own radio station, WRUL, and press agency, the Overseas News Agency (ONA). The hundreds or thousands of BSC staffers, later including Roald Dahl, kept busy sending forgeries to the U.S. media, creating astrologers to predict Hitler’s demise, and generating false rumors of powerful new British weapons. Roosevelt was well aware of the BSC’s work, as was the FBI.
According to William Boyd, a novelist who has investigated the agency, the “BSC evolved a prankish game called ‘Vik’ – a ‘fascinating new pastime for lovers of democracy’. Teams of Vik players across the USA scored points depending on the level of embarrassment and irritation they caused Nazi sympathisers. Players were urged to indulge in a series of petty persecutions – persistent ‘wrong number’ calls in the night; dead rats dropped in water tanks; ordering cumbersome gifts to be delivered, cash on delivery, to target addresses; deflating the tyres of cars; hiring street musicians to play ‘God Save the King’ outside Nazi sympathisers’ houses, and so on.”[xxxiii]
Ivar Bryce, who was Walter Lippman’s brother-in-law and Ian Fleming’s buddy, worked for the BSC, and in 1975 published a memoir claiming to have produced there the first draft of Roosevelt’s phony Nazi map, which had then been approved by Stephenson and arranged to be obtained by the U.S. government with a false story as to its origins.[xxxiv] Whether the FBI and/or Roosevelt was in on the trick is not clear. Of all the pranks pulled by “intelligence” agents over the years, this was one of the more successful, and yet least trumpeted, as the British are supposed to be a U.S. ally. U.S. book readers and moviegoers would later dump fortunes into admiring James Bond, even if his real-life model had tried to deceive them into the worst war the world had ever seen.
Of course, Germany was struggling in a drawn-out war with the Soviet Union, and had not dared to invade England. Taking over South America was not going to happen. No record of the phony map has ever turned up in Germany, and speculation that somehow there might have been some shadow of truth to it seems especially strained in the context of the next section of Roosevelt’s speech, in which he claimed to possess another document that he also never showed anyone and which may never have existed, and the content of which wasn’t even plausible:
“Your government has in its possession another document made in Germany by Hitler’s government. It is a detailed plan, which, for obvious reasons, the Nazis did not wish and do not wish to publicize just yet, but which they are ready to impose — a little later — on a dominated world — if Hitler wins. It is a plan to abolish all existing religions — Protestant, Catholic, Mohammedan, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish alike. The property of all churches will be seized by the Reich and its puppets. The cross and all other symbols of religion are to be forbidden. The clergy are to be forever silenced under penalty of the concentration camps, where even now so many fearless men are being tortured because they have placed God above Hitler. In the place of the churches of our civilization, there is to be set up an International Nazi Church — a church which will be served by orators sent out by the Nazi Government. In the place of the Bible, the words of Mein Kampf will be imposed and enforced as Holy Writ. And in place of the cross of Christ will be put two symbols — the swastika and the naked sword. A God of Blood and Iron will take the place of the God of Love and Mercy. Let us well ponder that statement which I have made tonight.”
Needless to say, this was not based in reality; religion was openly practiced in Nazi-controlled nations, in some cases newly restored after Soviet-imposed atheism, and medals that the Nazis bestowed on their biggest supporters were shaped like crosses. But the pitch to enter a war for love and mercy was a nice touch. The next day, a reporter asked to see Roosevelt’s map and was turned down. As far as I know, nobody even asked to see this other document. It’s possible that people understood this not to be a literal claim to have an actual document in possession, but rather a defense of holy religion against evil — not something to be questioned with skepticism or seriousness. Roosevelt continued:
“These grim truths which I have told you of the present and future plans of Hitlerism will of course be hotly denied tonight and tomorrow in the controlled press and radio of the Axis Powers. And some Americans — not many — will continue to insist that Hitler’s plans need not worry us — and that we should not concern ourselves with anything that goes on beyond rifle shot of our own shores. The protestations of these American citizens — few in number — will, as usual, be paraded with applause through the Axis press and radio during the next few days, in an effort to convince the world that the majority of Americans are opposed to their duly chosen Government, and in reality are only waiting to jump on Hitler’s band wagon when it comes this way. The motive of such Americans is not the point at issue.”
No, the point seems to have been to limit people to two options and get them into a war.
“The fact is that Nazi propaganda continues in desperation to seize upon such isolated statements as proof of American disunity. The Nazis have made up their own list of modern American heroes. It is, fortunately, a short list. I am glad that it does not contain my name. All of us Americans, of all opinions, are faced with the choice between the kind of world we want to live in and the kind of world which Hitler and his hordes would impose upon us. None of us wants to burrow under the ground and live in total darkness like a comfortable mole. The forward march of Hitler and of Hitlerism can be stopped — and it will be stopped. Very simply and very bluntly — we are pledged to pull our own oar in the destruction of Hitlerism. And when we have helped to end the curse of Hitlerism we shall help to establish a new peace which will give to decent people everywhere a better chance to live and prosper in security and in freedom and in faith. Each day that passes we are producing and providing more and more arms for the men who are fighting on actual battle-fronts. That is our primary task. And it is the nation’s will that these vital arms and supplies of all kinds shall neither be locked up in American harbors nor sent to the bottom of the sea. It is the nation’s will that America shall deliver the goods. In open defiance of that will, our ships have been sunk and our sailors have been killed.”
Here Roosevelt admits that the U.S. ships sunk by Germany were engaged in supporting war against Germany. He just seems to believe it more important to convince the U.S. public that it is already at war than to continue further with the claim that the ships attacked were wholly innocent.
In late October, 1941, U.S. spy Edgar Mowrer spoke with a man in Manila named Ernest Johnson, a member of the Maritime Commission, who said he expected “The Japs will take Manila before I can get out.” When Mowrer expressed surprise, Johnson replied “Didn’t you know the Jap fleet has moved eastward, presumably to attack our fleet at Pearl Harbor?”[xxxv]
On November 3, 1941, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, tried — not for the first time — to communicate something to his government, a government that was either too incompetent to understand, or too cynically engaged in plotting war, or both, but which certainly was not even considering working for peace. Grew sent a lengthy telegram to the State Department warning that the economic sanctions imposed by the United States might force Japan to commit “national hara-kiri.” He wrote: “An armed conflict with the United States may come with dangerous and dramatic suddenness.”[xxxvi]
On November 6, 1941, Japan proposed an agreement with the United States that included partial Japanese withdrawal from China. The United States rejected the proposal on November 14th.[xxxvii]
On November 15, 1941, U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall briefed the media on something we do not remember as “the Marshall Plan.” In fact we don’t remember it at all. “We are preparing an offensive war against Japan,” Marshall said, asking the journalists to keep it a secret, which as far as I know they dutifully did.[xxxviii] Marshall told Congress in 1945 that the United States had initiated Anglo-Dutch-American agreements for unified action against Japan and put them into effect before December 7th.[xxxix]
On November 20, 1941, Japan proposed a new agreement with the United States for peace and cooperation between the two nations.[xl]
On November 25, 1941, Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote in his diary that he’d met in the Oval Office with Marshall, President Roosevelt, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Admiral Harold Stark, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Roosevelt had told them the Japanese were likely to attack soon, possibly the next Monday, December 1, 1941. “The question,” Stimson wrote, “was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves. It was a difficult proposition.”
On November 26, 1941, the United States made a counter-proposal to Japan’s proposal of six days earlier.[xli] In this proposal, sometimes called the Hull Note, sometimes the Hull Ultimatum, the United States required complete Japanese withdrawal from China, but no U.S. withdrawal from the Philippines or anywhere else in the Pacific. The Japanese rejected the proposal. Neither nation, it seems, invested remotely the resources into these negotiations that they did into preparing for war. Henry Luce referred in Life magazine on July 20, 1942, to “the Chinese for whom the U.S. had delivered the ultimatum that brought on Pearl Harbor.”[xlii]
“In late November,” according to Gallup polling, 52% of Americans told Gallup pollsters that the United States would be at war with Japan “sometime in the near future.”[xliii] The war was not going to be a surprise to over half the country, or to the U.S. government.
On November 27, 1941, Rear Admiral Royal Ingersoll sent a warning of war with Japan to four naval commands. On November 28, Admiral Harold Rainsford Stark re-sent it with the added instruction: “IF HOSTILITIES CANNOT REPEAT CANNOT BE AVOIDED THE UNITED STATES DESIRES THAT JAPAN COMMIT THE FIRST OVERT ACT.”[xliv] On November 28, 1941, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., gave instructions to “shoot down anything we saw in the sky and to bomb anything we saw on the sea.”[xlv] On November 30, 1941, the Honolulu Advertiser carried the headline “Japanese May Strike Over Weekend.”[xlvi] On December 2, 1941, the New York Times reported that Japan had been “cut off from about 75 percent of her normal trade by the Allied blockade.”[xlvii] In a 20-page memo on December 4, 1941, the Office of Naval Intelligence warned, “In anticipation of open conflict with this country, Japan is vigorously utilizing every available agency to secure military, naval and commercial information, paying particular attention to the West Coast, the Panama Canal, and the Territory of Hawaii.”[xlviii]
On December 4, 1941, newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, published FDR’s plan for winning the war. I had written books and articles on this topic for years before I stumbled across this passage in Andrew Cockburn’s 2021 book, The Spoils of War: ”
“[T]hanks to a leak that makes the revelations of Edward Snowden appear trivial by comparison, the full details of this ‘Victory Plan’ appeared on the front page of the isolationist Chicago Tribune just days before the Japanese attack. Suspicion fell on an Army general of alleged German sympathies. But the Tribune‘s Washington bureau chief at the time, Walter Trojan, told me years ago it was the Air Corps commander, Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, who had passed along the information via a complicit senator. Arnold believed the plan was still too stingy in its allocation of resources to his service, and so aimed to discredit it at birth.”
The victory plan, as reported and quoted here, is mostly about Germany: encircling it with 5 million U.S. troops, possibly many more, fighting for at least 2 years. Japan is secondary, but plans include a blockade and air raids. The Tribune quotes in full the July 9, 1941, letter from Roosevelt mentioned above. The victory program includes U.S. war aims of upholding the British Empire and preventing the expansion of a Japanese empire. The word “Jews” does not appear. U.S. war in Europe was planned for April 1942, according to “reliable sources” of the Tribune. The Tribune opposed war and favored peace. It defended Charles Lindbergh against charges of Nazi sympathies, which he actually did have. But nobody, as far as I can tell, has ever questioned the accuracy of the report on the pre-Pearl Harbor plan for U.S. waging of WWII.
As of December 6, 1941, no poll had found majority U.S. public support for entering the war.[xlix] But Roosevelt had already instituted the draft, activated the National Guard, created a huge Navy in two oceans, traded old destroyers to England in exchange for the lease of its bases in the Caribbean and Bermuda, supplied planes and trainers and pilots to China, imposed harsh sanctions on Japan, advised the U.S. military that a war with Japan was beginning, and — just 11 days before the Japanese attack — secretly ordered the creation of a list of every Japanese and Japanese-American person in the United States. (Hurray for IBM technology!)
On December 7, 1941, following the Japanese attack, President Roosevelt drew up a declaration of war against both Japan and Germany, but decided it wouldn’t work and went with Japan alone. On December 8th, Congress voted for war against Japan, with Jeanette Rankin casting the only no vote.
Controversy and Lack Thereof
Robert Stinnett’s Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor is controversial among historians, including in its claims about U.S. knowledge of Japanese codes and coded Japanese communications. I don’t think, however, that either of the following points should be controversial:
- The information I’ve already presented above is already more than sufficient to recognize that the United States was neither an innocent bystander attacked out of the blue nor an engaged party making an all-out effort for peace and stability.
- Stinnett is right to have put in the efforts he has to declassify and make public government documents, and right that there can be no good excuse for the National Security Agency continuing to keep huge numbers of Japanese naval intercepts secret in the 1941 U.S. Navy files.[l]
While Stinnett believes his most important findings only made it into the 2000 paperback of his book, the New York Times review by Richard Bernstein of the 1999 hardcover is notable for how narrowly it defines the questions that remain in doubt:[li]
“Historians of World War II generally agree that Roosevelt believed war with Japan was inevitable and that he wanted Japan to fire the first shot. What Stinnett has done, taking off from that idea, is compile documentary evidence to the effect that Roosevelt, to ensure that the first shot would have a traumatic effect, intentionally left Americans defenseless. . . .
“Stinnett’s strongest and most disturbing argument relates to one of the standard explanations for Japan’s success in keeping the impending Pearl Harbor attack a secret: namely that the aircraft carrier task force that unleashed it maintained strict radio silence for the entire three weeks leading up to Dec. 7 and thus avoided detection. In truth, Stinnett writes, the Japanese continuously broke radio silence even as the Americans, using radio direction finding techniques, were able to follow the Japanese fleet as it made its way toward Hawaii. . . .
“It is possible that Stinnett might be right about this; certainly the material he has unearthed ought to be reviewed by other historians. Yet the mere existence of intelligence does not prove that that intelligence made its way into the proper hands or that it would have been speedily and correctly interpreted.
“Gaddis Smith, the Yale University historian, remarks in this connection on the failure to protect the Philippines against Japanese attack, even though there was a great deal of information indicating that such an attack was coming. Nobody, not even Stinnett, believes that there was any intentional withholding of information from the American commander in the Philippines, Douglas MacArthur. The information available was for some reason just not put to use.
“In her 1962 book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, the historian Roberta Wohlstetter used the word static to identify the confusion, the inconsistencies, the overall uncertainty that affected intelligence gathering before the war. While Stinnett assumes that most information that now seems important would have gotten speedy attention at the time, the Wohlstetter view is that there was a great avalanche of such evidence, thousands of documents every day, and that the understaffed and overworked intelligence bureaus may simply not have interpreted it correctly at the time.”
Incompetence or malevolence? The usual debate. Did the U.S. government fail to know the exact details of the coming attack because it was incapable or because it didn’t want to know them, or didn’t want certain parts of the government to know them? It’s an interesting question, and it’s all too easy to underestimate incompetence, and all too reassuring to underestimate malevolence. But there is no question that the U.S. government knew the general outlines of the coming attack and had been knowingly acting for years in ways that made it more likely.
As the book review above mentions, the same question about the details of foreknowledge and the same lack of any question about the general outlines of it apply to the Philippines as to Pearl Harbor.
In fact, the case for an intentional act of treason would be easier for historians to speculate about in regard to the Philippines than in regard to Hawaii, if they were so inclined. “Pearl Harbor” is a strange shorthand. Hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor — on the same day but technically December 8th due to the International Date Line, and delayed six hours by the weather — the Japanese attacked the U.S. military in the U.S. colony of the Philippines, fully expecting to have a harder go of it, given that surprise would not be a factor. In fact, Douglas MacArthur received a phone call at 3:40 a.m. Philippines time alerting him to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the need to be prepared. In the nine hours that elapsed between that phone call and the attack on the Philippines, MacArthur did nothing. He left U.S. airplanes lined up and waiting, like the ships had been in Pearl Harbor. The result of the attack on the Philippines was, according to the U.S. military, as devastating as that on Hawaii. The United States lost 18 of 35 B-17s plus 90 other airplanes, and many more damaged.[lii] In contrast, in Pearl Harbor, despite the myth that eight battleships were sunk, the reality is that none could be sunk in such a shallow harbor, two were rendered inoperable, and six were repaired and went on to fight in WWII.[liii]
On the same day of December 7th / 8th — depending on the position of the International Date Line — Japan attacked the U.S. colonies of the Philippines and Guam, plus the U.S. territories of Hawaii, Midway, and Wake, as well as the British colonies of Malaya, Singapore, Honk Kong, and the independent nation of Thailand. While the attack on Hawaii was a one-off attack and retreat, in other locations, Japan attacked repeatedly, and in some cases invaded and conquered. Falling under Japanese control in the coming weeks would be the Philippines, Guam, Wake, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the western tip of Alaska. In the Philippines, 16 million U.S. citizens fell under a brutal Japanese occupation. Before they did, the U.S. occupation interned people of Japanese origin, just as was done in the United States.[liv]
Immediately after the attacks, the U.S. media didn’t know it was supposed to refer to them all with the shorthand of “Pearl Harbor,” and instead used a variety of names and descriptions. In a draft of his “day of infamy” speech, Roosevelt referred to both Hawaii and the Philippines. In his 2019 How to Hide an Empire, Daniel Immerwahr argues that Roosevelt made every effort to depict the attacks as attacks on the United States. While the people of the Philippines and Guam actually were citizens of the U.S. empire, they were the wrong sort of people. The Philippines was generally viewed as insufficiently white for statehood and on a track to possible independence. Hawaii was whiter, and also closer, and a possible candidate for future statehood. Roosevelt ultimately chose to omit the Philippines from that part of his speech, relegating it to one item in a later list that included the British colonies, and to describe the attacks as having happened on “The American Island of Oahu” — an island whose Americanness is, of course, disputed to this day by many native Hawaiians. The focus has been kept on Pearl Harbor ever since, even by those intrigued by the blundering or plotting behind the attacks.[lv]
Further Into The Past
It’s not hard to think of things that could have been done differently in the years and months leading up to U.S. entry into WWII, or even leading up to the first sparks of war in Asia or Europe. It’s even easier to describe things that could have been done differently if one goes back a little further into the past. Things could have been done differently by every government and military involved, and each is responsible for its atrocities. But I want to mention some things that the U.S. government could have done differently, because I’m trying to counter the idea that the U.S. government was forced reluctantly into a war that was exclusively of others’ choosing.
The United States could have elected William Jennings Bryan president over William McKinley who was succeeded by his vice president, Teddy Roosevelt. Bryan campaigned against empire, McKinley in favor of it. To many, other issues seemed more important at the time; it’s not clear that they should have.
Teddy Roosevelt didn’t do anything halfway. That went for war, imperialism, and his previously noted belief in theories about the Aryan “race.” TR supported the abuse and even killing of Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, Cubans, Filipinos, and Asians and Central Americans of nearly every variety. He believed only whites capable of self-rule (which was bad news for the Cubans when their U.S. liberators discovered some of them to be black). He created a display of Filipinos for the St. Louis World’s Fair depicting them as savages who could be tamed by white men.[lvi] He worked to keep Chinese immigrants out of the United States.
James Bradley’s 2009 book, The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, tells the following story.[lvii] I’m leaving out portions of the book that have had doubts raised about them.
In 1614 Japan had cut itself off from the West, resulting in centuries of peace and prosperity and the blossoming of Japanese art and culture. In 1853 the U.S. Navy had forced Japan open to U.S. merchants, missionaries, and militarism. U.S. histories call Commodore Matthew Perry’s trips to Japan “diplomatic” although they used armed war ships to compel Japan to agree to relations it adamantly opposed. In the years that followed, the Japanese studied the Americans’ racism and adopted a strategy to deal with it. They sought to westernize themselves and present themselves as a separate race superior to the rest of the Asians. They became honorary Aryans. Lacking a single god or a god of conquest, they invented a divine emperor, borrowing heavily from Christian tradition. They dressed and dined like Americans and sent their students to study in the United States. The Japanese were often referred to in the United States as the “Yankees of the Far East.” In 1872 the U.S. military began training the Japanese in how to conquer other nations, with an eye on Taiwan.
Charles LeGendre, an American general training the Japanese in the ways of war, proposed that they adopt a Monroe Doctrine for Asia, that is a policy of dominating Asia in the way that the United States dominated its hemisphere. Japan established a Bureau of Savage Affairs and invented new words like koronii (colony). Talk in Japan began to focus on the responsibility of the Japanese to civilize the savages. In 1873, Japan invaded Taiwan with U.S. military advisors. Korea was next.
Korea and Japan had known peace for centuries. When the Japanese arrived with U.S. ships, wearing U.S. clothing, talking about their divine emperor, and proposing a treaty of “friendship,” the Koreans thought the Japanese had lost their minds, and told them to get lost, knowing that China was there at Korea’s back. But the Japanese talked China into allowing Korea to sign the treaty, without explaining to either the Chinese or Koreans what the treaty meant in its English translation.
In 1894 Japan declared war on China, a war in which U.S. weapons, on the Japanese side, carried the day. China gave up Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula, paid a large indemnity, declared Korea independent, and gave Japan the same commercial rights in China that the U.S. and European nations had. Japan was triumphant, until China persuaded Russia, France, and Germany to oppose Japanese ownership of Liaodong. Japan gave it up and Russia grabbed it. Japan felt betrayed by white Christians, and not for the last time.
In 1904, Teddy Roosevelt was very pleased with a Japanese surprise attack on Russian ships. As the Japanese again waged war on Asia as honorary Aryans, Roosevelt secretly and unconstitutionally cut deals with them, approving of a Monroe Doctrine for Japan in Asia. In the 1930s, Japan offered to open up trade to the United States in its imperial sphere if the United States would do the same for Japan in Latin America. The U.S. government said no.
Britain was not the only foreign government with a propaganda office in New York City leading up to WWII. China was there too.
How did the U.S. government shift from its alliance and identification with Japan to one with China and against Japan (and then back again the other way after WWII)? The first part of the answer has to do with Chinese propaganda and its use of religion rather than race, and with putting a different Roosevelt into the White House. James Bradley’s 2016 book, The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in China tells this story.[lviii]
For years leading up to World War II, the China Lobby in the United States persuaded the U.S. public, and many top U.S. officials, that the Chinese people wanted to become Christian, that Chiang Kai-shek was their beloved democratic leader rather than a faltering fascist, that Mao Zedong was an insignificant nobody headed nowhere, and that the United States could fund Chiang Kai-shek and he would use it all to fight the Japanese, as opposed to using it to fight Mao.
The image of the noble and Christian Chinese peasant was driven by people like the Trinity (later Duke) and Vanderbilt educated Charlie Soong, his daughters Ailing, Chingling, and Mayling, and son Tse-ven (T.V.), as well as Mayling’s husband Chiang Kai-shek, Henry Luce who started Time magazine after being born in a missionary colony in China, and Pearl Buck who wrote The Good Earth after the same type of childhood. TV Soong hired retired U.S. Army Air Corps colonel Jack Jouett and by 1932 had access to all the expertise of the U.S. Army Air Corps and had nine instructors, a flight surgeon, four mechanics, and a secretary, all U.S. Air Corps trained but now working for Soong in China. It was just the start of U.S. military assistance to China that made less news in the United States than it did in Japan.
In 1938, with Japan attacking Chinese cities, and Chiang barely fighting back, Chiang instructed his chief propagandist Hollington Tong, a former Columbia University journalism student, to send agents to the United States to recruit U.S. missionaries and give them evidence of Japanese atrocities, to hire Frank Price (Mayling’s favorite missionary), and to recruit U.S. reporters and authors to write favorable articles and books. Frank Price and his brother Harry Price had been born in China, without ever encountering the China of the Chinese. The Price brothers set up shop in New York City, where few had any idea they were working for the Soong-Chiang gang. Mayling and Tong assigned them to persuade Americans that the key to peace in China was an embargo on Japan. They created the American Committee for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression. “The public never knew,” writes Bradley, “that the Manhattan missionaries diligently working on East Fortieth Street to save the Noble Peasants were paid China Lobby agents engaged in what were possibly illegal and treasonous acts.”
I take Bradley’s point to be not that Chinese peasants are not necessarily noble, and not that Japan wasn’t guilty of aggression, but that the propaganda campaign convinced most Americans that Japan would not attack the United States if the United States cut off oil and metal to Japan — which was false in the view of informed observers and would be proved false in the course of events.
Former Secretary of State and future Secretary of War Henry Stimson became chair of the American Committee for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression, which quickly added former heads of Harvard, Union Theological Seminary, the Church Peace Union, the World Alliance for International Friendship, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, the Associate Boards of Christian Colleges in China, etc. Stimson and gang were paid by China to claim Japan would never attack the United States if embargoed, would in fact transform into a democracy in response — a claim dismissed by those in the know in the State Department and White House. By February 1940, Bradley writes, 75% of Americans supported embargoing Japan. And most Americans, of course, did not want war. They had bought the China Lobby’s propaganda.
Franklin Roosevelt’s maternal grandfather had gotten rich selling opium in China, and Franklin’s mother had lived in China as a child. She became honorary chairwoman of both the China Aid Council and the American Committee for Chinese War Orphans. Franklin’s wife Eleanor was honorary chairwoman of Pearl Buck’s China Emergency Relief Committee. Two thousand U.S. labor unions backed an embargo on Japan. The first economic advisor to a U.S. president, Lauchlin Currie, worked for both the U.S. government and the Bank of China simultaneously. Syndicated columnist and Roosevelt relative Joe Alsop cashed checks from TV Soong as an “advisor” even while performing his service as a journalist. “No British, Russian, French, or Japanese diplomat,” writes Bradley, “would have believed that Chiang could become a New Deal liberal.” But Franklin Roosevelt may have believed it. He communicated with Chiang and Mayling secretly, going around his own State Department.
Yet Franklin Roosevelt believed that if embargoed, Japan would attack the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) with the possible result of a wider world war. Morgenthau, in Bradley’s telling, repeatedly tried to slip through a total embargo on petroleum to Japan, while Roosevelt resisted for a time. Roosevelt did impose a partial embargo on aviation-fuel and scrap. He did loan money to Chiang. He did supply airplanes, trainers, and pilots. When Roosevelt asked his advisor Tommy Corcoran to check out the leader of this new air force, former U.S. Air Corps captain Claire Chennault, he may have been unaware that he was asking someone in the pay of TV Soong to advise him on someone else in the pay of TV Soong.
Whether the British or Chinese propagandists working in New York moved the U.S. government anywhere it didn’t already want to go is an open question.