Sunday, July 12, 2009

Days of infamy part 2

Part 1 of this series can be found here, and if you haven't read it yet you should before continuing here.

In this second part of the series we're going to look at the historic background to the attack on Pearl Harbor, stretching back to Japanese actions in the 1930s. This is an area that Paranoid Conspiracy Theorists mistakenly ignore. Most PCTs focus only on the year or two before the Japanese attack, because taking events in isolation like that it could be argued that the US was deliberately provoking the Japanese into a confrontation.

You just have to ignore the events of the previous 10 years to argue so.

Pay attention, here comes a history bit. For the sake of brevity this is a grossly oversimplified account, but there is plenty of easily accessible information out there if you're interested.


Japan had become increasingly aggressive and expansionist in the 1930s as the Japanese army gained more and more political power. Japan invaded and seized Manchuria in 1931, and in 1933 withdrew from the League of Nations (ineffective forerunner to the United Nations) because of the international condemnation of the invasion and establishment of the Manchukuo puppet state (a primary voice was the USA, but Britain and the Netherlands also voiced outrage).

Japan had withdrawn from the Second London Naval Disarmament conference in 1936 because it had been refused naval parity with the USA. Japan and the USA were potentially facing a similar naval arms race to that which Britain and Germany had engaged in at the turn of the 20th century.

Full scale war with China began in 1937. Japanese atrocities (such as the Rape of Nanking) caused political difficulties around the world for Japan. In particular the USA. Britain, France, the Netherlands and Australia all condemned the Japanese - all were nations with significant territorial or economic interests in southeast Asia that were becoming increasingly alarmed with Japanese military power and her willingness to use it to expand her own territory. Recent aggressive territorial expansion went back as far as 1910, when Korea had been annexed.

In 1939 the US terminated the 1911 US-Japan commercial treaty - part of the US's efforts to rein in Japanese expansion and militarism. This and earlier actions failed to deter the Japanese and simply pushed them into the arms of the Axis powers in Europe - Japan had already signed the Anti-Comintern pact with Nazi Germany in 1936, 11 months after the naval disarmament conference began in London, and subsequently signed the Tripartite Pact in September 1940 with Germany and Italy.

Also in 1939 came the battle of Khalkhin Gol (May - September) between Japan and the USSR. The Japanese suffered a very heavy defeat and this battle ensured that they abandoned any idea of seizing territory in Siberia for the natural resources Japan needed (the idea favoured by the Japanese army) - after this the Japanese became focused on expansion into southeast Asia (the idea favoured by the Imperial Japanese Navy). This event blows a massive hole in the idea that the attack on Pearl Harbor was a conspiracy involving any of the Allies.


The signing of the Tripartite Pact, continued Japanese aggression and militarism and the ongoing war with China prompted the US to embargo scrap metal and gasoline shipments to Japan and close the Panama Canal to Japanese shipping. When Japan moved into north Indochina in 1940 the US froze Japanese economic assets in the US and embargoed all oil exports to Japan.

This latter action was key to what would happen in December 1941 - the Japanese relied almost exclusively on imported oil, over 80% of which came from the USA. Strategic planners in Japan were now calculating the exact point when Japan would run out of oil - giving a timetable for when the Japanese would be forced to take action by. It is important to note here that the US came to a radically different conclusion than Japan did - the US concluded that being starved of oil would bring the Japanese to the negotiating table on US terms, the Japanese concluded they would have to take resources by force. The Japanese planners now also viewed southeast Asia as their primary target for acquiring these much needed natural resources, particularly oil and in particular from the Dutch East Indies.

This is another factor overlooked by the conspiracy theorists, and it's worth emphasising. Pearl Harbor was a sideshow in the Japanese plans, it was not the main event. The main Japanese aims were always expansion into southeast Asia - the attack on Pearl Harbor was to prevent the American navy interfering with this. If the Japanese wanted to act in southeast Asia (and they did), the US Pacific Fleet had to be sent packing frst.

This Japanese expansion was rolled up into the idea of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, formally announced in August 1940. It was centred on the idea of Japan freeing Asia from white colonial rule, and the Japanese tried to sell it that way to gain support from indigenous peoples in the European colonies. Really, it was just an attempt to gloss over Japan's intention to seize the abundant natural resources of French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies and British Malaya.

In the same way that it was obvious to many that Great Britain and Imperial Germany would eventually clash in Europe or Africa prior to 1914, many now believed that there would be an inevitable confrontation in the Pacific between Japan and the USA as both nations sought to increase their influence in the Pacific and southeast Asia and the US tried to contain the Japanese. However, this was not a given. It has even been suggested that the US would not have become involved in a war with Japan even if the Japanese attacked French, Dutch and British colonies in Asia as long as they left US possessions in the Pacific and Asia alone.

By July 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy was able to inform Emperor Hirohito that its fuel reserves would run out within two years if a new source of oil was not found. The Japanese, under Admiral Yamamoto, had been planning for an attack on the US Pacific Fleet since early 1941. An attack had actually only been made possible because the previous year the US Pacific Fleet had been moved to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, to the frustration of its commander Admiral Richardson. He thought Pearl Harbor was not suitable for his fleet, Roosevelt felt the forward position of the fleet kept the Japanese in check. Roosevelt was right, and that's why the Japanese would have to attack it if they wanted to act in Asia.

Even at this stage war was not completely inevitable, peace initiatives and diplomacy continued. Japanese prime minister Konoe believed he had a peace proposal from the US that Japan could agree to, but the proposals were not the official position of the US government so were doomed to fail. Konoe even tried to set up a summit with Roosevelt to avoid war. Diplomatic negotiations continued up until the 11th hour, but it was clear that neither the US or Japan really expected them to succeed. The US was adamant that any agreement must include the withdrawal of Japanese troops from China. The Japanese would never accept the loss of their gains in China. It was a problem never likely to be resolved.

On December 1st 1941, Emperor Hirohito approved war with the US, Britain and the Netherlands. On December 7th, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. On December 11th, Germany and Italy declared war on the USA.

What does this mean for the conspiracy?

First and foremost the facts of increasing Japanese militarism and aggressive expansionism for the 10 years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor present a problem the PCT fails to adequately deal with.

Japan's goals were long term and clear, and its leaders not incompetent morons. They knew that their increasing aggression and military expansion would eventually bring them into conflict with the USA in the Pacific, and they also knew that they couldn't beat the USA in a protracted war. Originally they believed they could act freely because the US Pacific Fleet was based on the west coast of America and would take time to intervene. Then the fleet was moved to Pearl Harbor and the best option then became a surprise attack that would cause the US to withdraw its Pacific fleet to bases in California again - the IJN did not think that Pearl Harbor would be the decisive victory, just one that would buy them time. Once the fleet was withdrawn, the Japanese could act as they wished in southeast Asia, and then face a weakened US fleet. Japanese naval strategy had envisaged the decisive battle coming in Japanese waters with a US fleet weakened by passage across the Pacific and attacks from Japanese submarines.

Given the pattern of aggressive Japanese actions, how can the PCT draw the conclusion that the aggressive action at Pearl Harbor was provoked deliberately and not accidentally? How does the PCT explain the fact that the US had clearly shown a pattern of responses to Japanese actions before the war had even begun in Europe?

Further to this, how does the PCT explain the consequences of the battle of Khalkhin Gol? Did Roosevelt and/or Churchill also arrange for the Japanese to suffer a massive defeat at the hands of Stalin's Red Army? Did Roosevelt and/or Churchill provoke the border clashes that led to the battle? It was this battle that focused Japanese attention on southeast Asia, which would eventually force the Japanese military to devise a plan to neutralise the US Pacific Fleet. The plan they devised when the time came? The attack on Pearl Harbor. Would there have been a Pearl Harbor however, if the Japanese army faction had won out and the Japanese had attacked Siberia instead?

The PCT also has to explain the Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere - announced formally in August 1940 but existing as an idea in Japan for many years prior to this. Japan invaded Indochina in September 1940 (after the formal announcement of the Co-Prosperity Sphere and after the battle of Khalkin Gol) and it was this that caused the US to embargo oil. Yet it is the embargo of oil that many PCTs cite as provoking the Japanese into the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan was already acting on long term aims and in response to events elsewhere and this forced the US to act, not the other way around.

And how does the PCT explain the fact that the majority of Japanese military action on December 7th 1941 and immediately afterwards was not at Pearl Harbor? Did Roosevelt and Churchill also provoke the Japanese into invading Malaya, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies just to get the USA into the war with Germany? Britain was well aware of the fact that she couldn't protect Malaya adequately whilst at war with Germany and had chronically underestimated the power of the Japanese military, yet she needed the money generated by selling rubber and tin from Malaya to the US. The British were so keen to avoid provoking the Japanese in Malaya they ignored Japanese reconnaissance flights over RAF bases in Malaya and ignored the large Japanese spy network which they knew existed. The PCT then has to argue that if Churchill was provoking the Japanese into attacking the US he was too stupid to see that British colonial possessions in Asia would also be attacked, or that he was willing to risk the loss of them. Or, do Japanese actions actually demonstrate a strategy that, in the end, just didn't work but was indicative of long term goals and not just a response to US provocation?

Then the PCT has to explain why the US Pacific Fleet was moved to Pearl Harbor before the Japanese invaded Indochina, as part of the conspiracy. Until May 1940 the US Pacific Fleet was stationed on the west coast of America, but the conspiracy says that the US provoked the Japanese into an attack on the US Pacific Fleet at vulnerable Pearl Harbor by using the invasion of Indochina as an excuse to cut off Japanese oil supplies. The PCT would have to argue that the conspirators knew the Japanese were going to invade Indochina, so they moved the fleet knowing they could then use the US response to the invasion to provoke an attack on it.

But here's the bit that really doesn't make sense - if Roosevelt wanted to enter the war with Nazi Germany why provoke an attack by Japan? American naval vessels were already engaged in protecting merchant convoys on the east coast of America - why not provoke an incident against the enemy he allegedly really wanted to go to war with? War with Japan was no guarantee of war with Germany despite the Tripartite Pact, Japan was not at war with Britain or the USSR until December 1941 after all even though Germany was. It was Hitler that declared war on the USA, not the other way around remember. If Hitler had not declared war then Roosevelt would still not have been able to bring the US into the European war whatever the Japanese had done.

Summing up

Looking at events prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor we don't see any evidence for a deliberate or specific conspiracy to bring the USA into the war in Europe via provoking an attack by Japan on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor (the conspiracy actually raises more questions than it answers when viewed against the background of the international situation of the 1930s and early 1940s). What we see is that Japan was intent on expansion into either Siberia or southeast Asia, and once the Japanese were beaten at Khalkhin Gol Siberia was abandoned and southeast Asia became the only option. And that meant an attack on the US Pacific Fleet was necessary.

Given Japanese aggression the PCT will comeback and argue that any provocative action by the US would provoke war, and this is what Roosevelt and/or Churchill or whoever the conspirators are knew and counted on. But there's still plenty more to look at that will answer this, don't worry.

Next week we will look at the events in the final hours before the attack and ask - why weren't they prepared?


  1. Have you ever thought righting a book Mr J? Seriously, you could definitely do it.

  2. JB,

    Have you listened to any of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. I highly recommend it.

  3. I haven't listened to him, but I'm guessing I probably should?


    Ha, it's been suggested to me before but I'm really not that good!