Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Provoking Pearl

"I think world war two just started!"
--Danny Walker (Pearl Harbor)

Seventy five years ago today, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The standard story, the one that is taught in US schools, is that Japan's attack was unprovoked and took the country completely by surprise. While it certainly surprised the unfortunate US forces stationed at Pearl Harbor (and in the Philippine Islands), this mythology is far from true.

After being duped by President Woodrow Wilson into being involved in the bloody conflict of WWI, the American people had little taste for further conflict after 'The War to End War.' Never again, it was resolved, will the United States become entangled in foreign conflict. Artifacts that reflected this mindset included the Peace Dollar. Struck from 1921 thru 1935, it is the only circulation coin minted in the US to contain the inscription 'PEACE.'

1922-s $1 Peace PCGS MS65+ CAC

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 in part because his platform included a promise to keep America  away from war. He extended his promise as a condition of his re-election in 1936--despite war drums beating in both Europe and Asia.

Unfortunately, FDR's New Deal policies aimed at reviving the US economy were not generating their intended effects (the New Deal's effectiveness is a mythology to be addressed on another day). By 1937, the economy was hitting stall speed and tumbling back into Depression once again with unemployment recapturing the 20%+ level.

Desperate to jump-start the economy once again, FDR and his braintrust turned their attention to the prospects of military spending and, gradually, military involvement as a means for breaking the back of the Depression. It began by supplying 'allies' with arms but by 1940 activity had escalated toward active, but 'unofficial' involvement in areas such as the North Sea vs Germany and on mainland China vs Japan.

FDR and his braintrust wanted war. Unfortunately for them, and unlike today, the president was unable to act unilaterally and send large numbers of troops into battle (as would happen later in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, etc.). Instead, a declaration of war by Congress was constitutionally required. FDR knew he couldn't get this declaration from Congress as the American people were still collectively opposed to involvement in foreign conflict. Thus, as observed by Jacob Hornberger, FDR campaigned once again for an unprecedented third term on a promise that "Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars."

'Foreign,' of course, being the key word because FDR's administration had already been active for years trying to get Germany or Japan to fire the first shot (much as Lincoln did with the South at Fort Sumter). FDR preferred Germany to be the perceived aggressor so he approved of 'lend-lease' armament agreements with the United Kingdom and of US warships escorting British vessels in u-boat infested waters to provoke Hitler. Unfortunately, he would not bite.

As documented by FDR's secretary of war Henry Stimson, focus turned to Japan. Robert Higgs writes that, beginning in 1939, the US terminated commercial treaties with Japan and slapped embargoes on resources critical to Japanese standard of living such as fuel oil and steel. In 1941, all Japanese assets in the US were frozen, effectively bringing foreign relationships between the two countries to a halt.

On the back of terms put forth by the US to end the intervention, the Japanese faced two choices. One would be to end its occupation of China. The other would be to move into areas of the South Pacific to secure vital economic resources such as oil.

Japan chose the latter. Correspondence between the Japanese foreign diplomats included the following:

"Commercial and economic relations between Japan and third countries, led by England and the United States, are gradually becoming so horribly strained that we can not endure it much longer. Consequently, our Empire, to save its very life, must take measures to secure the raw material of the South Seas.

The Japanese knew, however, that American forces in the Pacific would be sent to challenge any movement that would weaken US government-sponsored economic sanctions.

FDR and his braintrust knew that Japan knew. Cryptographers and broken Japanese diplomatic and military codes and understood that Japanese 'measures' might well include an attack of Pearl Harbor to keep US forces at bay.

Yet, despite this understanding, the federal government did little to place military forces at Pearl and in the Phillipines on high state of alert. Instead, they were dangled as bait.

Unfortunately for them and for the world, Japan took the bait.

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