Despite Donald Trump’s questioning of our condition of endless, eternal warfare during the course of the recent campaign season, we are still fighting a worldwide (the word used to be “global”) War on Terror. Our plans to co-operate with the Russian bombing in Syria, to add thousands more men to our Afghanistan mission, and even our recent raid by special forces in Yemen, are based, legally, on the Congressional authorization of force, aimed at those who brought us Nine-Eleven.
Moreover, we are fighting, in many ways, the same war of revenge we felt we were fighting in the Second World War, a war forced upon us by a surprise attack. Both President George W. Bush and President Obama explicitly stated such views; indeed, there had been a call, back in the Bill Clinton Administration, for a “new Pearl Harbor” by neoconservative critics of the peaceful trend of American foreign policy. Given the fact, then, that the mental framework for our present circumstances emerges from our experience in the December 7, 1941 attack, it might be well-advised to consider the present historical perspective on the genesis of that earlier attack as a means of gaining perspective on the later, more recent one.
There is a literature of conspiracy on Pearl Harbor. The usually reliable Internet encyclopedia has it:
Several writers, including journalist Robert Stinnett, retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Robert Alfred Theobald, and Harry Elmer Barnes have argued various parties high in the U.S. and British governments knew of the attack in advance and may even have let it happen or encouraged it in order to force America into the European theatre of World War II via a Japanese–American war started at “the back door”. Evidence supporting this view is taken from quotations and source documents from the time and the release of newer materials. However, the Pearl Harbor advance-knowledge conspiracy is considered to be a fringe theory and is rejected by most historians.
Substantial circumstantial evidence, drawn from primary sources, to summarize, suggests willingness on the part of U.S. leaders to accept a Japanese attack. That way the U.S. entry into the European war against Germany, which most U.S. citizens opposed but which President Franklin Roosevelt favored, would take place by the momentum of events.
Logically, however, if you wish some foreign power to attack you, you ought to take measures to make the attack as unsuccessful as possible, especially if your largest collection of war-fighting machinery is at risk. You will need it (not to mention the sailors and pilots involved) to win the subsequent war. This objection to a conspiratorial view is supported by many contemporary accounts of U.S. underestimation of Japanese Military strength and by U.S. incompetent and disjointed military and civilian command structures.
Thus 76 years after the event the Conspiracy Theory is “rejected by most historians.” However, the question still remains how the attack happened to take place at all. Just as, even at the time, thoughtful observers found the “They hate us for our freedoms” explanation for the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon unpersuasive in the terms offered, so the leaders of Japan could not ever have expected to conquer the United States. “The prewar Japanese economy was about 8 percent the size of the American,” says Edward Miller in Bankrupting the Enemy. The U.S. Financial Siege of Japan before Pearl Harbor [Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2007], on p. xiii.
No, the Japanese decided to attack in defense of a longstanding imperial enterprise, one which the historian David Bergamini traces to Emperor Hirohito in person. The four decades since publication of that attempt at explanation, however, have tended rather to confirm the position of weakness of the occupant of the Chrysanthemum Throne. Writing in the American Historical Review in 1974, the anti-militarist Asian history specialist Chalmers Johnson wrote:
For readers more interested in the historical than the systematic role of the Emperor, [the book under review, by David ] Titus is convincing on one of the major controversies of the postwar world. . . . The foreigners most knowledgeable about the militarist and wartime periods supported the decision of [Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers] MacArthur to spare the Emperor, but there has always been a grain of suspicion . . . Titus’s documented conclusion is therefore of considerable interest: the “palace acted as a break [sic –MM] on extremism throughout its prewar existence” (p. 333).
Indeed the 2012 effort by John Koster to explain the Pearl Harbor attack — Operation Snow. How a Soviet Mole in FDR’s White House Triggered Pearl Harbor — (is it just me, or are book titles lengthening to the baroque extent popular back in Queen Victoria’s day?) pictures Hirohito in alignment with the historical consensus, as a monarch threatened both politically and physically by extremists to his right — militarists — and left — communists. The means the White House used to “trigger” the Japanese attack, an attack that had not been foreseen, and here again the author is in tune with the consensus of historians, by the President, was the freeze on Japanese funds imposed on 26 July 1941 in response to the Japanese occupation of French Indochina.
Miller’s account is full of documented detail of the violation of Roosevelt’s stated intention “to bring Japan to its senses, not its knees”: second-level bureaucrats, he shows, interpreted the freeze of Japanese funds in such an uncompromising manner that it amounted to “strangulation”.
Koster’s “mole” was one of the few U.S. government economists well aware of the sensitivity of the Japanese economy to access to funds held in the U.S. and to credit for purchases of U.S. products and supplies. He warned in February 1941 that “Japan is particularly vulnerable to the freezing of her assets in the United States,” that is, to just the policy later adopted and enforced without pity. His name was Harry Dexter White, and his office was found, at the end of wartime activities, to have been infiltrated by a ring of spies. His voluntary appearance before the House Un-American Affairs Committee did not go well, since he could provide no answer why all the spies uncovered by intelligence investigation were either his subordinates or longtime friends; within three days of the hearing he died of a heart attack.
Koster provides, as decisive proof of White’s nefarious activities, which the Wikipedia entry regards as confirmed by U.S. intelligence intercepts, the relevant passages of the 1996 memoirs of ex-KGB general Vitalii Popv (entitled “Operation Snow” in Russian). However, the ability of a second-rank U.S. Treasury secretary to initiate conflict with a foreign power is by no means evident. In fact, Miller’s much more comprehensive account establishes the key figure in the “strangulation” effort to be Dean Acheson, the future Secretary of State to President Truman, and no Soviet mole at all. In his own account of the affair [Present at the Creation. My Years in the State Department, W.W. Norton, 1969, pp. 48-53] Acheson takes pride in the damage his enforcement of the freeze accomplished. The Encyclopedia says
Roosevelt froze all Japanese assets merely to disconcert them. He did not intend the flow of oil to Japan to cease. The president then departed Washington for Newfoundland to meet with Churchill. While he was gone Acheson used those frozen assets to deny Japan oil. Upon the president’s return, he decided it would appear weak and appeasing to reverse the de facto oil embargo.
while citing a 2007 biography of Roosevelt to support the statements. Miller’s work attempts to assess Acheson’s motives, including the possibility that Roosevelt wanted Acheson to act harshly so as to provide FDR with the appearance of leniency as well as the result of rigor, but concludes there is an absence of decisive evidence on the matter.
What we do have, with overstatement on Koster’s side, is a fairly well-accepted consensus, that the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor was a response to a crippling freeze of Japanese assets, one which was seen by the Japanese, for good reason, as an existential threat to their entire empire, in mainland China, Korea, and elsewhere. This picture is in striking contrast to that of the back-stabbing deceitful Asians of wartime propaganda.
We do know now, how Pearl Harbor happened. We have yet to find out how September 11th did. It is likely, I argue, that even in the event of the disproof of any conspiratorial activity, we will be confronted with profound lack of understanding of those who committed the second attack, just as we have found with those who contrived the first.