In an exchange of letters with Ian Buruma in the New York Review of Books, in 2001, Gore Vidal discussed the role of the administration of Pres. Franklin Roosevelt in provoking the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which was 70 years ago today:
As a member of The Greatest American Generation, I served in the Pacific Theater of Operations in World War II where one was marinated in propaganda about the essential subhuman bestiality of the Japanese, a savage race who for no reason whatsoever took time off from their reasonably successful conquest of mainland Asia to sink, almost idly one Sunday morning, the American fleet based at Pearl Harbor. Why? No reason was ever given us, the innocent victims, other than we were ever so good and they were ever so bad. Although Charles A. Beard, our leading historian in those far-off days, wrote President Roosevelt and the Coming of War, 1941 (1948), in which he made the case that the Japanese attack was the result of a series of deliberate provocations by FDR, he promptly underwent erasure at the hands of the court historians in place, as always, to demonstrate that what ought not to be true is not true.
Recently, I touched on this delicate matter in The Golden Age and, currently, R.B. Stinnett, in Day of Deceit, has analyzed FDR’s policy of provocation based on new material, much of it only released in 1995 under the Freedom of Information Act. But as Mr. Stinnett is currently making his case in these pages [Letters, NYR, February 8], I shall only respond to one of Mr. Buruma’s blithe footnotes to the effect that the Japanese war party’s “plans for the attack on Pearl Harbor had been presented to Hirohito already in early November, after he was convinced that war with the US was inevitable. This would suggest that those who continue to believe that Pearl Harbor was really Roosevelt’s doing are barking up the wrong tree.” As this bold non sequitur suggests, Mr. Buruma himself is firmly lodged in the wrong tree. But then many Western journalists who move about the Far East are permanently dazzled if not blinded by the Rising Sun.
I particularly like the notion that Hirohito (for reasons not mentioned) was, somehow, in November 1941, convinced that war with the US was inevitable. Why? Lady Murasaki has, apparently, pledged Mr. Buruma to secrecy. So let’s try to work out what was going on in November that might have convinced the marine biologist atop the Chrysanthemum throne that an “inevitable” war was coming his way not, as Mr. Buruma would have it, from the savage war party in Tokyo but from Freedom’s alabaster home itself. If Hirohito had been studying his in-box, as “a divine priest-king” ought, he might have suspected that the US had been trying to get a rise out of him for many years. On July 16, 1941, Prince Konoye, a would-be peacemaker, became prime minister. On July 26 (as a vote of confidence?) the US froze all Japanese funds in the US and stopped the export of oil. When Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles was asked by the Japanese if some compromise might be worked out, Welles said there was not the “slightest ground for any compromise solution.”
Our first provocation against Japan began with FDR’s famous Chicago address (October 5, 1937), asking for a quarantine against aggressor nations. Certainly, Japan in Manchuria and north China qualified as an aggressor just as we had been one when we conquered the Philippines and moved into the Japanese neighborhood at the start of the twentieth century. In December 1937, the Japanese sank the Panay, an American gunboat in Chinese waters, on duty so far from home as the Monroe Doctrine sternly requires. Japan promptly, humbly paid for the damage mistakenly done our ship. Meanwhile, FDR—something of a Sinophile—was aiding and abetting the Chinese warlord Chiang Kai-shek.
Three years later the Western world changed dramatically. France fell to Hitler, an ally of Japan. FDR was looking for some way to help Britain avoid the same fate. Although most bien pensant Americans were eager to stop Hitler, not many fretted about Japan. Also, more to the point—the point—a clear majority of American voters were against going to war a second time in Europe in a single generation. Nevertheless, instead of meeting Konoye, FDR met Winston Churchill aboard a warship off Newfoundland. FDR said that he would do what he could to help England but he was limited by an isolationist Congress, press, and electorate. Later, Churchill, in a speech to Parliament, let part of the cat out of the bag: “The possibility since the Atlantic Conference…that the United States, even if not herself attacked, would come into a war in the Far East, and thus make final victory sure, seemed to allay some of those anxieties….” (The anxieties were FDR’s inability to come to the full aid of England in the war with the Axis.) “As time went on, one had great assurance that if Japan ran amok in the Pacific, we should not fight alone.”
Pointedly, FDR refused to meet Konoye, whose government was then replaced by that of General Hideki Tojo. The military, so feared by Mr. Buruma, were now in power. But though they lusted for the blood of everyone on earth, they more modestly wanted to get on with the conquest of China and Southeast Asia. Certainly, they did not want a simultaneous war with a great continental power thousands of miles away. In November 1941 they made a final attempt at peace. We now know—thanks to our having broken the Japanese diplomatic code—the contents of Hirohito’s in-box. Japan looked for a compromise. We looked for war. The Japanese ambassadors to the US, Kurusu and Nomura, were treated to a series of American ultimatums that concluded, November 26, with the following order: “The government of Japan will withdraw all military, naval, air and police forces from China and Indo-China” as well as renounce the tripartite Axis agreement. It was then, as Lincoln once said on a nobler occasion, the war came. Churchill’s anxieties were at last allayed. On November 29 Germany assured Japan that should they go to war with the US, Germany would join them. In April 1945, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, in a memorial address at Harvard, praised the late President Roosevelt, “while engaged in this series of complicated moves, he so skillfully conducted affairs as to avoid even the appearance of an act of aggression on our part.” There it is.
Question to those in denial about the US as provocateur: Why is it, if we were not on the offensive, that so small and faraway an island as Japan attacked what was so clearly, already, a vast imperial continental power? You have now had over sixty years to come up with a plausible answer. Do tell.
Mr. Buruma’s response is here.
- Dec. 7, 2011