SAN FRANCISCO — Why does America continue to nurture a deep preoccupation with Pearl Harbor, 60 years after the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base in Hawaii? The makers of Disney’s blockbuster $135 million film “Pearl Harbor” said the movie is primarily a love story, but its title, climax and cinematic heart are about the war and American heroism.
The swell of attention caused by the film has died down now in America, and before it flares up again with the 60th anniversary of the attack in December, now may be a good time to look behind the patriotism at what causes these continued outbreaks of Pearl Harbor fever.
Nations naturally honor their war dead, but why does Pearl Harbor in particular tower over the landscape of American war memory like a shrine, inspiring a greater sense of memoriam, indignation and righteous national pride than perhaps any other event in the history of the United States?
The conventional answer is Pearl Harbor not only brought America into the bloodiest war ever fought on Earth but also, as a devastating “sneak attack” by a nation with whom the U.S. had been negotiating for peace, became what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy.”
The cultural consensus seems to be that the U.S. base in Hawaii was sitting there minding its own business when all of a sudden “the evils of Japanese wartime aggression,” to quote American columnist Michelle Malkin’s recent characterization, came out of the blue and attacked an innocent nation, killing 2,400 Americans and sinking or crippling 18 ships. The idea that Japan may have been pushed into the attack by U.S. economic sanctions — suggested briefly in a comment from a Japanese officer in the Pearl Harbor movie — provoked the Los Angeles Times on June 28 to label the film “blatant revisionism.”
I wonder if America suffers from deficiencies in its history diet. Pearl Harbor remembrances seldom ask why America had an armada there in the first place, or what gave the U.S. the right to take away Hawaii’s sovereignty and annex it as an American outpost in the middle of the Pacific.
I don’t hear discussion of the clash of empires in the Asia Pacific region that preceded Pearl Harbor, or of the critical fact that before the attack, the U.S. had been waging economic war against Japan with such severity that Japan was being strangled and, in the view of some historians, had little choice but to hit back militarily or surrender to American demands.
Nor do replays of the infamy at Pearl Harbor recognize history’s long roster of other unannounced aggressions or America’s own record of deceit and killing in various coups, assassination plots, invasions and “sneak” bombings around the world.
Pearl Harbor didn’t just fall out of the sky. It followed a long chain of events that had filled many Japanese minds with resentment and hostility against the Western powers in general and the U.S. in particular. The first came in 1853 when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry confronted Japan with a squadron of gunboats — the “Black Ships” — that eventually forced Japan to open its ports and accept unequal treaties.
Japan deeply feared being colonized and was shocked by this gunboat diplomacy into rapid industrialization and a desire to join the club of imperial powers, including their feast on China and other weak, resource-rich territories. Japan modeled its rebirth after the Western mold, and joined with Western powers in suppressing the anticolonialist Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900.
But the Western powers ultimately didn’t want to grant what Japan felt it deserved. When Japan asked for a racial equality clause for the new League of Nations at the end of World War I, the white nations refused. In 1922, when the major powers established naval arms limits in the Pacific, Japan felt humiliated again by being compelled to settle for a ratio of forces set at 5 for the U.S., 5 for Britain and 3 for Japan.
Fanning further resentment in Japan was a series of racist laws in the U.S. enforcing segregation and barring Japanese (and often Chinese) from citizenship, land ownership and immigration.
Seeking to build its own empire, Japan started spreading its colonial muscle and bases abroad, only to meet resistance from rival Western powers.
Ian Buruma, an English-Dutch author respected for his writing on Asia, summarized the dynamics of that period in an April essay in Time magazine: “To be civilized you had to have an empire. The British had one and the Dutch and French, so why not the Japanese? That Americans and Europeans began to resent Japanese empire-building and tried to find ways to curb Japanese ambitions was seen by many Japanese, not entirely without reason, as a form of racial discrimination.”
The U.S. engaged in hostile acts aimed at Japan before Pearl Harbor. Under a covert U.S. government operation, American pilots were being trained in China to fight the Japanese as “volunteers,” but of far greater impact were the American embargoes on oil, steel and other vital products in 1940 and 1941 that, coupled with a freeze on Japanese assets, were choking Japan.
America’s sanctions against Japan were prompted not only by a desire to evict Japan from China and release Japan’s grip on the vital raw materials of Southeast Asia. Americans were horrified also at the large-scale atrocities inflicted on Chinese citizens by the Japanese Imperial Army.
Subsequent Japanese horror at American atrocities — the firebombing and atomic bombing of Japanese cities, estimated by MIT historian John Dower to have killed 400,000 civilians — is often rationalized in the American mind by the conviction, as one American veteran vehemently told me, “Japan started the war!”
But is that entirely true? Japan did launch the attack on Pearl Harbor before American “Flying Tigers” were able to fire their first shots at Japanese planes in China, but both sides were already on the road to war. Before the attack, the U.S. was making contingency war plans for razing Japanese cities with firebombs.
Cornell University historian Walter LaFeber notes in his critically acclaimed 1997 book, “The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations Throughout History,” that Roosevelt met with his top advisers 12 days before Pearl Harbor to discuss, as recorded by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, “how we should maneuver them (the Japanese) into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.”
In the book, “Total War : The Causes and Courses of the Second World War,” historians Peter Calvocoressi and John Pritchard conclude, “Roosevelt steered (the United States) resolutely on a course of economic strangulation so intense and so aggressive that it must result in war or the abject surrender of Japan to America’s implacable demands.”
So who started it? If the U.S. had not imposed crippling sanctions on Japan, would there have been a Pearl Harbor? If Japan had not brutally invaded China and established hegemony over Southeast Asia, would there have been American sanctions? If the Western powers had not colonized parts of Asia and if Japan had not felt persecuted by the West, would Japan have challenged Western imperialism with its own imperialism?
Some see Pearl Harbor as a mad act by bloody militarists who had hijacked the Japanese government. Some see it as a ricochet from Perry’s gunboats. I suspect it was a bit of both.
The world scoffs at Japan’s wartime explanation that it was seeking to free Asia from Western colonialism, and Americans probably would be embarrassed if anyone reminds them of their explanations for taking Hawaii and colonizing the Philippines — that they, for example, were extending the lamp of Christian civilization to the benighted heathens. At the time, most people in both the U.S. and Japan sincerely believed in the nobility of their respective colonial enterprises.
But when Americans remember Pearl Harbor, they typically don’t recall this background. By airbrushing the history of what preceded the Japanese attack, popular U.S. depictions have reduced Pearl Harbor to an instantly recognizable emblem of American righteousness and Japanese perfidy. Pearl Harbor symbolizes American sacrifice and bravery in World War II and stands for a time when Americans see themselves as the heroes riding to the rescue of freedom and democracy against a treacherous and evil Japan.
To be sure, Japan had become an almost fascist state at home, and an arrogant, often brutal occupier of its territories abroad. Its wartime sins were enormous and can’t be excused, but that Japan no longer exists. In recalling Japanese aggression, America should not forget the larger conflict of empires that shaped Japan at that time or America’s own periods of domestic repression and foreign brutality.
The U.S., like Japan and other nations, tends to whitewash its past and seek a glorious self-image, and this urge is perhaps greater now than ever before. In post-Vietnam America, most U.S. foreign policy and military ventures have been tainted by the charge that the U.S. is a superpower bully acting primarily out of self-interest and greed, so it’s not surprising to find Americans clinging even closer to a heroic image from the past. This, I believe, has fed the nation’s recent boom in World War II remembrances.
Pearl Harbor in the American mind is not history so much as it is a central character in a morality tale about national identity. It’s the national grievance, a sanctuary for patriotism, an antidote for guilt about dropping the atomic bombs and a medal of moral worthiness for America’s claim to world leadership today.
But history is cheated in oversimplified nationalist narratives, and future international cooperation is threatened when the good vs. evil propaganda of wartime continues to be prominently enshrined in America’s national consciousness. I believe it’s time to lower the intensity of the spotlight on Pearl Harbor and to spread its beam to show more of the complex fabric of the past.
British playwright Peter Nichols warned, “Peace is no more than a dream as long as we need the comfort of the clan.” I dream, perhaps in vain, of a day when history escapes the shadow of nationalism.
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