Politics and Infamy


Every December 7, the US’ ultranationalists make a point of beating the war-drums and waving the bloody shirts. “We must never be surprised again!” they argue.

How much of a surprise, really, was December 7?

There are plenty of conspiracy theories about what the US Government knew (or did not know) prior to the Japanese attack. But I tend to be dismissive of conspiracy theories that can be adequately explained by government incompetence. Conspiracy theories require, simultaneously, the assumption of tremendous government competence, coupled with such bad operational security that a conspiracy theorist can see right through it.

As a kid, I learned the default propaganda, that the Japanese launched an evil sneak attack out of a clear blue sky. But that’s far from the truth: for one thing, Japan’s interactions with European powers had immediately cast it into the framework of European imperialism – they modernized their military, annexed Korea, clobbered the Russian navy* and entered into an alliance with Britain. The latter was a great big seal of approval in 1902 and amounted to the imperialist British and Americans accepting Japan’s aggression as an acceptable part of the international framework of the time. The Japanese also bought ships – floating heaps of advanced military technology – from the British. Fairly quickly, the Japanese had built the third largest navy in the world. It doesn’t require a strategic genius to figure out why. In fact, the Japanese were pretty much following right in the footsteps of Germany** – professionalizing the military while building industrial capacity. Until they hit a bump.

Japanese coal-gas powered truck

Japanese coal-gas powered truck (source)

The bump was natural resources. The Japanese could manufacture things just fine, but they lacked easy natural access to oil, coal, iron, copper, etc. You can’t have an industrial revolution when you’re importing everything.

Hence, Manchuria.

And the diplomacy of the time was – complicated. On one hand, Japan’s money was good, and the European powers liked that. But there’s no way to avoid discussion of European and American racism. British society, with its strongly structured classes, would seem to be a natural partnership with Japan (also, literally, a caste-based society) except, as the middle eastern arabs later learned: mere money isn’t good enough to buy into British society.*** Meanwhile, America had immigration limits**** on Japanese – and eventually the Immigration Exclusion Act of 1924 barred all Japanese immigration. On the west coast of the US, closest to Japan, there began to arise anti-Japanese sentiment (which ended in internment camps) and concern over the safety of the US imperial outposts in the Philippines and Hawaii.

We also need to remember that fascism was on the rise everywhere. The US had its domestic fascists (who were probably the source of the anti-Japanese immigrant sentiment) and the Europeans rather obviously had theirs. The Japanese had them, too: military successes in the great game of imperialism coupled with economic changes and perturbations of the power structure made Japan ripe for opportunists of the worst sort to take over. Meanwhile, Japan was relying for its industrial base on imports from America: steel, rubber, oil, chemicals. Yet, like Germany and Italy, Japan was being excluded from the European great powers club, which became frustrating. Japan’s imperial ambitions set it on a collision course with US imperial ambitions when it invaded French Indochina (now Vietnam) and the US responded by siezing Japanese banked assets and blocking export of industrial materials. Including, of course, oil.

The Japanese had a great big navy and military and were going to run out of fuel.

Pittsburgh, 1930

Pittsburgh, 1930 (source)

The gigantic Daqing oil field in Manchuria was not discovered until 1958.

There is only one reason why the US can claim to be taken by surprise on December 7th, and that’s that there was no reason to believe the Japanese would attack a nation with 10 times its industrial capacity. To give you some perspective: the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, alone produced 40 times more steel than all of Japan and Manchuria, combined. The Japanese knew they had only one chance at being a first-rate power, and that was to sink enough of the US Navy in Hawaii that the US was reluctant to take things further. What they taught us in school was that the Japanese launched their attack out of the blue, unprovoked. But, actually, there was plenty of economic provocation and Japan had been very very militarily busy expanding its empire. The way Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait is eerily similar: he appears to have thought it was OK because he’d been sold a lot of weapons and allowed to wage wars before, “why get so upset now?” Containment strategies gone wrong usually exacerbate the problem they were trying to contain.

The fascist party in Japan had been warning itself and the rest of the Japanese government that the European powers were never going to let them be anything more than a dependent power, beholden to the US for oil and steel, Britain for ships, Germany for guns. And they were right. It doesn’t excuse their making horrible decisions that devastated their country, but it makes sense in context. It was a failure of leadership vision on both sides.

What do I say to these ghosts that keep coming round again?
What do I say to these ghosts that keep coming round again?
We was just kids doing the dirty work for the failures of old men. – Ray Wylie Hubbard

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Wikipedia: History of the steel industry#Japan

Ray Wylie Hubbard: The Red Badge of Courage (video)

George MacDonald Fraser’s “Quartered Safe Out Here” is a beautiful book about young men in the Burma war. It’s on the recommended reading list.

(* There are some heartwrenching bits about the horrific suffering of the Russian navy during the run-up to Tsushima straits in Alistair Horne’s Hubris, The Tragedy of War in the 20th Century. The Japanese victory was great, but it was over a second-rate fleet commanded by a brave second-rater, exhausted and out-gunned.)

(** I have added David S Landes “The Unbound Prometheus” to my recommended reading list. Landes’ mapping the disparity of industrial production makes it pretty clear that wars happen whenever any nation’s economic output far outstrips its leaders’ self-control.)

(*** Adam Curtis’ documentary “The Mayfair Set” has some fascinating bits about the horrible way the British upper crust – who are mostly descended from thugs and warlords themselves – treated the “new” Arab money, such as the Al-Fayed family who bought Harrods largely as an act of revenge.)

(**** The US limits immigration by pretty much everyone, at some point or another, unless you came in chains.)

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    The US limits immigration by pretty much everyone, at some point or another, unless you came in chains.

    To be fair, the US did, eventually, limit such imports too – well before the 1861-1865 unpleasantness.

    There is only one reason why the US can claim to be taken by surprise on December 7th, and that’s that there was no reason to believe the Japanese would attack a nation with 10 times its industrial capacity.

    The US military did have lots of intelligence “chatter” about impending attacks, though most of the generals thought American bases in the Philippines would get hit first. The Germans gave J. Edgar Hoover a big clue about Pearl Harbor, but he ignored it.

    Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait … he appears to have thought it was OK because he’d been sold a lot of weapons and allowed to wage wars before…

    Not to mention that face-to-face with Ambassador Glaspie, who declared the US “took no sides” in Arab-on-Arab disputes even while Iraq tanks lined up on the Kuwaiti border – she might as well have yelled “Green Light!!1!”

  2. sonofrojblake says

    the horrible way the British upper crust – who are mostly descended from thugs and warlords themselves – treated the “new” Arab money

    That’s a thing foreigners never seem to quite get about the British. If, where you are from, social class and wealth are interchangeable terms, if you think that simply by having more money you can move from working to middle class, then the good news is you don’t have a class system. You just have money, or not, and you should be glad of the privilege of living somewhere like that. People get confused and angry when they find social class and wealth are entirely separate in Britain, and literally no amount of the latter will make up for deficiencies in the former.

  3. says

    Considering how isolationist the US and its populace were in the first few years of World War II, the biggest mistake that Japan made was attacking. If Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbour and Germany not declared war, it’s very likely many/most in the US would have willingly stood by while Germany and Japan took over all of Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Even without the attempted coup by Prescott Bush.

  4. cartomancer says

    To be fair, if you go back far enough pretty much everyone is descended from thugs and warlords.

  5. cartomancer says

    On the other hand I’m not sure quite how the British (or, more accurately, the English) class system is the relevant bit of exclusionary bigotry here. There were almost no Japanese migrants trying to settle in Britain in the early 20th century like there were in the US, so almost nobody came up against the barriers the class system created. The class system is an internal thing that we use to tell us whether we can look down on one of our own or not. In fact, when we start thinking that you deserve to be viewed through the lens of the class system you’ve made it and are one of us now – welcome to the exciting world of English classist bigotry!

    If you’re not one of our own then we’ll almost certainly look down on you, but for very different reasons. Being foreign is more than enough – we’ve never felt the need to distinguish between different social classes of foreigner because for most of our history we’ve been convinced that you’re all equally awful. Oh, you’re awful in different ways, naturally, but not having been born English is the common thread that damns the lot of you in the eyes of traditional English diplomatic relations. Here, Armstrong and Miller have a song all about it:

  6. says

    Swann and Flanders, the originals, have a similar song entitled, I think, The English are Best.

    I’ll say this for the Brits, they’re fairly open and honest about much of their bigotry!

  7. lorn says

    Two aspects seldom seen in the mainstream press, but mentioned a bit by professional historians, are the cultural differences of how Japanese and US populations think and act, and the profound difference between the visual and reported success contrasted with the tactical and strategic failure of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And how the assumptions made in the first were possibly the root cause of the failure in the second.

    As a young boy I lived in Japan. One of the important things to keep in mind when dealing with the Japanese society is to remember that it is a populous society on small islands. Social order is a higher priority than individual property rights. It is a major social offense to deny anyone what they require to live simply because it might drive the deprived group or individual to act in extreme and unexpected ways. Acts undertaken in desperation might threaten the social order and result in anarchy on a tightly packed island.

    In this context the Japanese were being deprived of the resources vital to the Japanese nation. The western nation were not desperately short of these materials. To withhold them was seen as breach of social norms. As a nominal member of the developed nations this was unacceptable. This sort of thing would fully justify limited violence to wake up the withholding party. The attack on Pearl Harbor was, in some contexts, intended to be a painful slap. After which the US would restore trading with the Japanese people. Clearly the attacks on Pearl and Philippines were not threats to the US as a nation. In the Japanese mind it seemed unlikely that the US would spend the time and effort to undertake a fight across the Pacific to avoid trading with Japan or to regain such minuscule losses. They felt certain the preservation of the international order had more value to the US than mere property rights. Likewise the French were a occupied nation and the Brits had trouble with the Germans far closer to home. Relieving them of their colonies was doing them something of a favor by shortening their lines.

    The US and Brits didn’t see it that way.

    The actual attack on Pearl Harbor was a failure. Everyone has heard about how they didn’t sink the carriers. Less well known was that Hawaii was the bitter end of a tenuous supply line for oil. The two main assets were two oil tankers and the fuel farms on Oahu. Destruction of those tanks, or even one of those tankers, would have crippled fleet activity from the Hawaii island and might have forced US forces to have to fall back to the US west coast.

    As it was the tank farms, tankers, and most of the fleet were untouched. As were the warehouses, repair facilities, and troops. Was this an oversight? Or was this a matter of the attack being mostly symbolic in nature? Clearly the Japanese expected a quick conclusion. Either by early victory, or negotiated settlement.

    Did the assumptions about the first lead to failure to effectively destroy Oahu as a base? Did that sabotage the early victory or settlement and force japan into a protracted war it was unprepared for?

    Perhaps this is what was meant by:
    “Indeed, We declared war on America and Britain out of Our sincere desire to ensure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from Our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.”

    Of course the war was tragic for Japan. Or, as phrased in one of the all-time understatements ever:
    … ” the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage” …

    Above from Emperor Hirohito:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewel_Voice_Broadcast

  8. John Morales says

    lorn, perhaps.

    http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/pub905.pdf

    Record finds that the Americans underestimated the role of fear and honor in Japanese calculations and overestimated the effectiveness of economic sanctions as a deterrent to war, whereas the Japanese underestimated the cohesion and resolve of an aroused American society and overestimated their own martial prowess as a means of defeating U.S. material superiority

  9. janiceintoronto says

    “We must never be surprised again!” they argue.

    How’d that work out on 9/11?

    Not so much, eh?

  10. sonofrojblake says

    @Andrew Molitor: Who on earth are Swann and Flanders??? I’ve heard of Flanders and Swann…

  11. says

    janiceintoronto@#9:
    “We must never be surprised again!” they argue.
    How’d that work out on 9/11?
    Not so much, eh?

    Exactly. Authoritarians are constantly arguing that we need to defend ourselves better against things that worked well(ish) against us in the past, Yet, they ignore the waves of evidence coming at them in advance. After Bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war, there was plenty of evidence that Al Quaeda was up to something. Of course, it was ignored because hind-sight is 20/20 and intelligence is not. Prior to Pearl Harbor the Japanese had a huge military and the US was trying to contain them. Stalin (clearly) would have had spies all up in their business, but the US was too busy breaking crypto and watching its own civilians, as usual.

  12. says

    cartomancer@#4:
    To be fair, if you go back far enough pretty much everyone is descended from thugs and warlords.

    Exactly. It’s why I don’t believe anyone should venerate rulers. Especially not hereditary rulers. That results in utterly weird things like one family running England, Germany, and Russia, then getting into a family squabble that kills millions.

  13. says

    sonofrojblake@#2:
    People get confused and angry when they find social class and wealth are entirely separate in Britain, and literally no amount of the latter will make up for deficiencies in the former.

    Well said. The US has replaced class with fame and fortune.
    The Japanese, with hereditary aristocracy, ought to have understood that their treaty with Britain was not an agreement between equals and that the British were going to take their money, sell them a navy, but otherwise continue to look down on them.

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