Commentary / Japan

Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack but hardly a surprise

by Paul De Vries

Special To The Japan Times

Sneak attack? Yes. But a surprise? Not according to the Honolulu Advertiser. Its Nov. 30, 1941, edition proclaimed that “Japan may strike over the weekend.”

A surprise at the U.S. governmental level? “This dispatch is to be considered a war warning” read an admonition from U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold Stark on Nov. 27. “An aggressive move by Japan is expected within the next few days.”

The people of America? A Gallup poll recorded that between July and September of that fateful year, the percentage of the public in favor of “stopping Japan,” even “at the risk of war,” had “risen from 51 percent to 70 percent.” That Gallup was even asking such a question suggests the prospect of war was no great surprise to the heartland.

In truth, the outbreak of war between the United States and Japan astonished very few at all. By the time of Pearl Harbor, civilians, military dependents, and even military personnel had long since been evacuated out of Hong Kong, Singapore, Rabaul, the Philippines and most significantly, the Western-controlled enclave of Shanghai. In the early days of December 1941, battleship row at Pearl Harbor was a picture of enticing targets. Not so the wharves that lined Shanghai’s Huangpu River. On the eighth of that month (Dec. 7, Hawaiian time), there was but a single U.S. warship to be found.

The U.S. vessel to fall at Shanghai was the USS Wake. A modest gunboat, the Wake was the final naval craft to make its way down the Yangtze River from the Chinese interior during the prewar evacuation. It made the trip in tow with two Japanese escorts — all three ships at battle stations and sweating on the next radio transmission. Upon arrival at Shanghai, the Wake was stripped of all but small arms ammunition and the regular crew of 55 was reduced to 14, more than half of whom were radiomen. On the morning of Monday the 8th it was taken without a shot being fired, thus becoming the only American vessel of World War II to be captured “intact and without resistance.” This unfortunate distinction, however, was not fully deserved. Shanghai had already “fallen.” War was considered inevitable and the city had been conceded because all knew well that it couldn’t be held.

Other parts of the Asia-Pacific theater being cleared were the foreigner quarters of Tokyo and the North Pacific Ocean. In the final weeks before war, an unusually large number of foreign nationals steamed out of Yokohama with a noticeable sense of urgency and purpose, while that other purposeful armada, the Japanese carrier fleet, made its journey to the islands of Hawaii through waters which the U.S. had pronounced “vacant.” The ocean was declared closed when war became “imminent,” explained Rear Adm. Richmond K. Turner, head of the War Plans Division of the U.S. Navy. The U.S. diverted traffic south “so that the track of the Japanese task force would be clear.”

Also devoid of an American presence was the northern periphery of Hawaii’s Oahu Island. In early 1941, with tensions in Asia rising, the American command at Pearl Harbor began to patrol the surrounding waters by air. While initially covering the full perimeter, these patrols were inexplicably confined to the south from around the middle of that year. Two weeks prior to the actual attack, Adm. Husband Kimmel, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, moved ships into waters north of Hawaii — the location from which Japan’s carrier planes would ultimately be launched. The patrol was short-lived. When Washington learned that the fleet was out on vacant seas it promptly ordered it home.

The question as to whether America had concrete knowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack is one for which it enjoys plausible deniability, but ample evidence exists of attempts to provoke Japan into war — much of it in plain English. According to a diary entry of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated in late November 1941 that the problem at hand was how to “maneuver” the Japanese “into firing the first shot,” thus enabling the American government to gain the full support of its people. Stimson’s post-Pearl Harbor reaction was that the “Japs” had “solved the whole thing.”

It is ostensibly aberrant that a nation would seek to be attacked, but the rationale behind this U.S. desire is uncontroversial. During the election campaign of 1940, Roosevelt, the incumbent, made great electoral gains from a promise to stay out of the European war. By the time of Pearl Harbor, however, he had long since concluded that his nation could not sit idly by while the Nazis threatened complete domination of Europe. An avenue was needed in which the pledge could be overturned. Induced or not, the attack by Japan — a treaty-bound Germany ally — was welcomed.

That America and Japan held negotiations prior to the outbreak of war is commonly known. The standard U.S. contention is that the Japanese continued to “treacherously” negotiate, even as the carrier fleet sailed. The Japanese counter is that the U.S. ceased to act in good faith after the conclusion of the Atlantic Conference, a summit between Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in July 1941.

Support for this counter claim can be found in the words of Benjamin Sumner Welles, U.S. undersecretary of state. “I think I can baby them along for a while,” Welles claims Roosevelt bragged during the course of that high-level exchange. This interpretation of Roosevelt’s behavior from July 1941 and beyond is supported by British Ambassador to Japan Robert Craigie, who cabled Foreign Minister Anthony Eden that “the Americans seem to be playing for time.”

The ultimate breach occurred with the delivery to Japan of the Hull note on Nov. 26. The Hull note (named after Secretary of State Cordell Hull) was described by Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo as “obnoxious,” “unreasonable,” a “marked retrogression from earlier understandings” and wholly in disregard of the negotiations that had been carried out over the preceding six months. It essentially demanded Japan revert back to its 1895 footing — a summons which would have required U.S. withdrawal from the Philippines and Pearl Harbor if inversely applied. Needless to say, the Japanese were no more likely than America to comply.

Of even greater significance than the Hull note was the note Hull did not write in response to the request by wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo’s predecessor, Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe, for a meeting between himself and Roosevelt. On Aug. 18, 1941, with the question of war in the balance, Konoe proposed a meeting at the highest governmental level. He not only consented to hold it on American soil but promised to bring army and navy officers of sufficient stature and influence to ensure that the agreements would be honored. “For the Prime Minister to shatter all precedent and tradition” and “come cap in hand,” U.S. ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew’s diary records, “is a gauge of the determination” of the Konoe administration to resolve the ongoing crisis. A formal reply was never received. The meeting was never held.

The success of this presumed U.S. stratagem is evident in the widespread acceptance of a “December 8th interpretation” of Pearl Harbor that survives to the present day. On that illustrious date in 1941, Roosevelt made his “day of infamy” speech in which the Pearl Harbor raid was labeled as a stab in the back against an isolationist America. This image has become so entrenched and pre-eminent in the collective American psyche that attempts to insert context into the Pacific War are routinely met with the blanket rebuttal of “Pearl Harbor!”

To be sure, the Japanese did what they did. Pearl Harbor was illegal, wrong and an option rather than imperative, but the sense of Pearl Harbor being a surprise has contributed to the formation of a troubling mindset in which past is not prologue. This was never more evident than on Sept. 11, 2001, itself when Richard Armitage, a “Japan hand,” announced on behalf of the Bush administration that “history begins today.” Unsurprisingly, the subsequent military action was pursued without consideration to the primary grievance of Osama bin Laden that America remove itself from “the land of Muhammad,” nor to the fact that 15 of the 19 suicide bombers, as with bin Laden, were Saudi Arabian.

To deter reoccurrence of the post-9/11 reaction it would be conducive if the standard interpretation of Pearl Harbor moved in the direction of December the 9th, and preferably, many more decades beyond. To this end, it may be time for the Japanese to offer some additional “shock and awe,” but this time of a mischievously verbal kind. Another to openly welcome the prospect of Japanese attack in the prewar weeks was U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, before offering a postwar amendment that “of course, no one anticipated that this act would be the crippling of the Pacific fleet.” “We apologize for the Pearl Harbor attack being outside the bounds of that which was desired,” the Japanese might therefore proclaim. “But what, pray tell, was the attack you had in mind?”

Paul de Vries is writer and educator based in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture. His new book, “Remembering Santayana: the lessons unlearnt from the war against Japan,” will soon be available at Amazon.