NEW YORK – Perhaps because it’s a round number, the 70th anniversary of Japan’s assault on Pearl Harbor has given me the impression that more articles on it saw print than in the past, except for, as I recall, the 50th anniversary of the same.
Back in 1991, Japan’s financial bubble had burst, but there was as yet little sense that its economy had lost its “juggernaut” momentum and the Japanese were anxious that the U.S. might grab the half-century anniversary of the “sneak attack” as another occasion to inflame the fear of Japan. That sense of Japan’s unstoppable economic power is long gone now, on both sides of the Pacific. But “70 years have not dimmed the meaning and memory of that day,” Dec. 7, 1941, as The N.Y. Times editorial put it.
Among the articles I read this time around, two stood out. One is Ian Toll’s op-ed column for The N.Y. Times, “A Reluctant Enemy,” and the other, Patrick Buchanan’s in The American Conservative, “Did FDR Provoke Pearl Harbor?”
Toll, the author of a book published earlier this year, “Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942,” attempts to exonerate, as it were, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto from his image implanted by the Dec. 22, 1941 Time cover portrayal. As you can readily see because the weekly appears to have put everything online, the portrait itself is a wartime distortion, all too common to this day.
It depicts, against the yellow background (the Yellow Peril!), a sallow, fox-faced man with sour-grape eyes rising up toward their outer edges atop a Hitlerian large-lapelled jacket. Besides the fact that Yamamoto had a round face with round eyes, rather like that of a panda people may conjure up nowadays, the Japanese admirals, in full regalia — as suggested in this portrait — or formal uniform, did not appear in a large-lapelled jacket.
Time chose Yamamoto for the cover, with the caption “Japan’s Aggressor,” obviously because he was commander in chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet that carried out the attack. But, as Toll points out, he was dead set against war with the United States, until the war faction won. He had studied at Harvard while stationed in Washington D.C., and knew perfectly well the country’s “incomparable” industrial power.
The title for Toll’s article is evidently taken from “The Reluctant Admiral,” John Bester’s 1979 translation of Hiroyuki Agawa’s biography of Yamamoto. It was part of Agawa’s trilogy on three admirals: Yamamoto, Mitsumasa Yonai, and Shigeyoshi Inoue.
Like Yamamoto, Yonai, who served as prime minister in 1940, and Inoue, Japan’s “last admiral,” opposed the Tripartite Pact and militarily challenging the United States. But they, too, lost both battles. Agawa, a naval officer who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, wrote about the three admirals as a requiem for all the navy men who went to useless deaths as a result.
Ian Toll’s article might further soften the attitude of those Americans whose idea of “the day of infamy” may be fading into “history,” despite The N.Y. Times editorial.
Patrick Buchanan’s article, in contrast, might harden those Americans who feel the U.S. with its hegemonic position and power has no choice but to intervene in the affairs of other countries. As you can tell from the title of his article, Buchanan revives and repeats the argument that FDR knew what was coming, or worse. It is a time-honored historical interpretation that has been roundly dismissed for a number of years.
The judgment that FDR had maneuvered to have Japan fire the first shot was put forward soon after World War II. In 1947, the distinguished historian Charles Beard published a book, “President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War,” to make the case.
The source for Buchanan’s argument this time is George Nash’s book, “Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath,” Hoover’s “magnum opus” his biographer edited.
I haven’t read either Toll’s “Pacific Crucible” or the conservative scholar Nash’s “Freedom Betrayed,” but Buchanan quotes Hoover, who had strongly opposed FDR’s avowed foreign policy, telling his friends following Pearl Harbor: “You and I know that this continuous putting pins in rattlesnakes finally got this country bit.”
That sentiment was stated differently in Robinson Jeffers’ “Pearl Harbor,” a poem the California poet wrote shortly after the attack: “The men who conspired and labored / To embroil this republic in the wreck of Europe have got their bargain.” (“War perspective of poets oceans apart,” Oct 27, 2003, The Japan Times.)
Now, even if FDR had not made a deliberate effort to provoke Japan to fire the first shot, it is difficult to imagine that Americans at the time were not aware that their country had in effect been at war with Japan before Pearl Harbor or at least that FDR’s measures against Japan were tightening the screw in such a way as to force Japan to make a desperate move.
After all, by late fall that year a 16-year-old Japanese boy could predict this: “We appear to be going to war with America.” He added, “I think it’s too late now. Germany will soon run out of gas” — that is, the German offensive against Moscow started in October had stalled. That was Yukio Mishima writing to his friend on Nov. 10, 1941. Pearl Harbor was four weeks away.
To assume Japan would do nothing against the U.S. at that juncture would be comparable to imagining Saddam Hussein wouldn’t do anything even as President George W. Bush declaimed, “Get out or it’s war,” after amassing huge forces near Iraq.
(In fact, the Iraqi president could do nothing because he’d been deprived of any means of doing anything.) The same thing may be said of Iran today.
Herbert Hoover, FDR’s predecessor as U.S. President, has generally won double ill repute because of his reluctance to take clear measures to deal with the Great Depression and his strong “anti-interventionist” opposition to FDR even after the war broke out in Europe in the last part of the 1930s.
Patrick Buchanan, the presidential candidate in 2000, has been dismissed as a credible polemicist and politician for some years now largely because of his “anti-interventionist” or isolationist stance. But I do not see much harm in nonintervention in most instances. Do you?
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.