Pearl Harbor: facing facts



The Establishment defense of Franklin Roosevelt's policies leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor typically deals with key arguments of revisionists by ignoring them. That was certainly the case with the History Channel's recent documentary "Tora, Tora, Tora," and it seems to be reflected in the cinematic special-effects blockbuster "Pearl Harbor."

The legend pushed by courtier historians, picked up by the low-brow media and entertainment industries, is that the United States was minding her own business until the mad Japanese launched their unprovoked attack, dragging reluctant Americans into a terrible world war and thereby obliging the United States to shoulder "international responsibilities" as world judge and policeman. In reality, the United States had been deeply involved in Far East affairs for some time, and her policies actually provoked the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.

Washington had sought to prevent Japanese expansion in China for many years. By 1940, the United States was providing support for China, which was at war with Japan, in the form of a $25 million loan. In 1941, the Roosevelt regime extended lend-lease to China, which enabled China to receive American war materials without requiring payment. The U.S. government covertly sponsored an American-manned air force for China — General Claire Chennault's "Flying Tigers." The unit was advertised as being manned by "volunteers," but actually it was closely connected to the American military — paralleling the Chinese Communist "volunteers" who intervened in the Korean War. In mid 1941 the U.S. Army prepared to send a second "voluntary" air group to China equipped with B-17s that could carry out strategic bombing of Japan — paralleling the Soviets' installing missiles in Cuba to protect Castro. U.S. aid to China had the effect of stiffening Chinese resistance and precluding any peace settlement that would favor Japan.

Meanwhile in 1941, the United States had been making secret military plans with the British and Dutch. Between January and March, joint staff conferences between the Americans and the British took place in Washington. They were extended in April to include the Dutch, in meetings held in Singapore. Out of the discussions came the ABD agreement, committing the conferees to jointly fight the Japanese in Asia if Japanese forces crossed the geographical line of 100° East and 10° North, which approximated the northern extremity of the Dutch East Indies. The agreement covered Japanese movement into neutral Thailand as well as invasions of British and Dutch colonial possessions. In these secret agreements, unknown to either Congress or the American people, Franklin Roosevelt committed the United States to war even if American territory or forces were not attacked.

Though the agreements were only verbal, the British and Dutch took them as an irreversible commitment, while the U.S. armed forces drew up a war plan in harmony with them that became known as WPL 46. The overall agreement was known as Rainbow 5; the part involving the Dutch was known as Rainbow (A-2). The war plans of the Americans, British, and Dutch were predicated on going to war if Japan moved southward.

When the Japanese actually crossed the prescribed geographical line on December 4, three days before Pearl Harbor, the Dutch implemented the ABD and Rainbow-5 (A-2) plans and expectantly awaited the promised help from the U.S. Navy in repelling the Japanese incursion. Thus, Americans became involved in the Pacific phase of World War II whether they approved of it or not. That the general public knew nothing of the pact and that the Roosevelt regime did not actually sign  any documents involving the United States are irrelevant; the other signatories took it very seriously and expected Washington to honor the commitment. (See James J. Martin, "Pearl Harbor: Antecedents, Background and Consequences.")

The Dutch exile regime (their homeland was occupied by the Germans) obviously believed the United States would back them up: they would not dare face the mighty Japanese military by themselves. It must be emphasized again — according to the wording of Roosevelt's secret commitment and the war plan based on it, the United States was at war with Japan, de facto, before the Pearl Harbor attack even occurred.

Now, of course, according to the U.S. Constitution, the United States was not  at war as a result of Roosevelt's secret commitment. In order to carry out his war commitment, Roosevelt desperately needed an incident with Japan that would win him public support. A declaration of war to stop Japanese aggression southward — in the absence of an attack on American colonial possessions or on American forces — would have been difficult, perhaps politically impossible. There would have been strong public opposition to such a war. An incident was necessary to unify the country. That is why, from Roosevelt's standpoint, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a godsend. But that is not to say the attack came out of the blue, given what the Japanese knew of American aims and strategy, and what they saw American policy doing to them.


The United States had been building up her military strength in the Far East in addition to her false-flag bomber force in China. In 1940, Roosevelt ordered the Pacific Fleet to move from its permanent base in San Diego to Pearl Harbor. The American fleet combined with the British fleet in the Pacific was superior to that of the Japanese.

By the fall of 1941 the development of a B-17 bomber force in the Philippines had been awarded precedence over the fleet as the means of deterring Japanese expansionism. Its purpose could be construed as offensive as well as deterrent since the Americans were thinking in terms of bombing Japanese cities. In September 1941, the ABD conferees in Singapore sent a Top Secret memo to General MacArthur in Manila that underscored the fact that American forces and resources could be used for offensive purposes. Among its provisions:

Create subversive organizations in the China coast ports, and in French Indo-China. These must commence operation as soon as possible concentrating on propaganda, terrorism, and sabotage of Japanese communications and military installations....

... Assassination of individual Japanese should also be considered.

... Prepare to defeat Japan without suffering grievous loss ourselves.... We must base mobile forces as near to Japan as is practicable.... To the west there is China where air bases are already being prepared and stocked.... To the south there is Luzon in the Philippine Islands, within easy air range of Hainan, Formosa, and Canton, and extreme range of southern Japan.... Development of further air bases is proceeding. [1]

Historian Robert Smith Thompson outlines the American, British, and Dutch plan for an offensive contained in the memo: "First, the ABD powers intended to confine Japan 'as nearly as possible to the defense of her main islands.' Second, they proposed to 'cut Japan off from all sea communications with China and the outside world by intensive action in the air and waters around Japan, and to destroy by air attack her war industries.' Two months before the Pearl Harbor attack, that is, the United States of America was party to a secret international agreement to firebomb Japan." [2]

Thompson's last point needs repeating, and it needs emphasizing: Two months before Pearl Harbor the United States was party to a secret agreement to firebomb Japan.

Later in his book, Thompson illustrates how the ABD plan for offensive action against Japan was leaked to the press.


In July 1941, Japanese forces completed their occupation of French Indo-China. Allegedly in retaliation, Roosevelt announced his most drastic measure to date: He froze all Japanese assets in the United States. That deprived the Japanese of the means to purchase American goods, the most critical of which was oil. (Roosevelt had considered the move prior to the latest Japanese aggression.) The British and Free Dutch governments followed suit. Japan had to import all of her oil: neither Japan nor the Japanese-controlled areas in China produced any. Japan relied on the United States for all but 2 percent of her oil supply. The mechanized elements of the Japanese army required oil to function; without oil, Japan would be unable to continue her war in China. The United States (and the British and Dutch) made it clear to the Japanese that the oil embargo would be relaxed only in exchange for an end to Japanese involvement in China. In its July 27 issue the New York Times referred to Roosevelt's action as "the most drastic blow short of war."

All factions of the Japanese government — moderates as well as extremists — believed that complete abandonment of their position in China was unacceptable. Backing down, they held, would destroy Japan's status as a great power and would be ruinous economically. But without oil, Japan would ultimately be militarily helpless in her own backyard, given the rising strength of the Anglo-American alliance.

To continue prosecuting the war in China, Japan required oil and other natural resources blocked by the embargo. Thus the Japanese felt they had to seize Thailand, British Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies where those resources were situated. And they would have to attack soon: the Japanese Navy was warning that its fuel supplies were running low.


The militant Japanese reaction was expected by Washington and feared by American military leaders who wanted to postpone war for some time. Six days before Roosevelt's assets-freeze, Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, Navy chief of war plans, presented a report to the president on the probable consequences of imposing an oil embargo on Japan. Turner wrote:

It is generally believed that shutting off the American supply of petroleum will lead promptly to an invasion of the Netherlands East Indies.... An embargo on exports will have an immediate severe psychological reaction in Japan against the United States. It is almost certain to intensify the determination of those now in power to continue their present course. Furthermore, it seems certain that, if Japan should then take military measures against the British and Dutch, she would also include military action against the Philippines, which would immediately involve us in a Pacific war.

According to Japanese calculations the United States would go to war against them if they attacked British or Dutch territory. Tokyo saw the U.S. Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor as a significant threat to its military policy. The Japanese understood, too, that U.S. bomber forces could operate against them from the Philippines. American forces could strike at Japan's exposed left flank as she drove south, fatally disrupting the required quick takeover of Southeast Asia. The ABD talks were not so secret that the Japanese did not get wind of them, and they comported with other evidence that the United States would support the British and the Dutch in militarily opposing any Japanese move southward to obtain the vital oil. On December 3, 1941, the Japanese Embassy in Washington cabled Tokyo: "Judging from indications, we feel that some joint military action between Great Britain and the United States, with or without a declaration of war, is a definite certainty in the event of [a Japanese] occupation of Thailand."[3]

That meant that if Japan wanted to acquire the resources of Southeast Asia she would have to strike a pre-emptive blow against American power. As Robert Smith Thompson writes: "The implication was clear. Japan's only salvation lay in taking out the United States Pacific fleet, wherever it lay." (p. 379) Neutralization of American offensive power in the Philippines was another necessary objective.

Japan's military leadership realized that the military potential of the United States was much superior to their own and looked to war only because there seemed to be no other alternative. Tokyo's aims in striking at the United States were limited: to destroy existing American offensive capabilities in the Pacific by tactical surprise. The Imperial Military High Command hoped only to give its forces time to occupy the islands of the Southwest Pacific, to extract those islands' raw materials, and to turn the whole area into a virtually impregnable line of defense that could long delay an American counteroffensive.


Although Japan was planning for war, she still sought a last-minute peace with the United States. War would be the instrument of the last resort if Japan was unable to get trade with the United States restored by diplomatic means. Tokyo sent senior diplomats to Washington in an effort to achieve peace and more-normal relations. In August 1941, Prime Minister Prince Konoye even offered to meet President Roosevelt in Washington to negotiate in an effort to prevent war. Roosevelt rejected Konoye's offer. Soon afterward, Konoye's moderate government fell from power and was replaced by a more militant group headed by General Hideki Tojo. That clearly signaled a further step toward war.

However, Tokyo still sought to negotiate. Japan was willing to promise the United States that she would pull out of Indo-China and refrain from joining Germany in an offensive war. In return the United States would be expected to stop backing China and to encourage the Chinese government to negotiate with the Japanese. The United States refused to accept the Japanese offers and demanded that Japan withdraw her army from China and respect China's territorial integrity.

Japan continued to seek a diplomatic solution in November as she prepared to attack. American intelligence had broken the Japanese diplomatic code, and the American leadership was aware that, if no solution was reached, then Japan would go to war. However, the only conciliatory move the Roosevelt administration ever considered making was a "modus vivendi," which would have been a temporary arrangement. Military leaders in Washington wanted to avoid war until America had increased her strength in the Far East. The modus vivendi would have entailed mutual American and Japanese pledges against aggressive moves in the Pacific; Japan would withdraw from southern Indo-China and limit her troops in the north. In return the United States would supply Japan with limited supplies of oil and other materials.

The Roosevelt regime ultimately rejected the modus vivendi on November 27 and instead offered its "10-point proposal." Under its provisions, Japan would have to withdraw all military forces from China and Indo-China. Japan regarded the proposal as an insult and completely unacceptable.

The U.S. rejection of any compromise that would provide Japan with oil convinced Tokyo that Japan would have to seize oil resources by force. Despite the breaking of the Japanese code and their knowledge that Japan would now initiate war, U.S. government leaders were still not certain that the United States would be a target. Revisionist historians differ on this point. Some hold that although Roosevelt had information that the Japanese would attack American territory, including Pearl Harbor, he still feared that the Japanese might avoid a direct attack — that, at least, he was not certain until shortly before the actual attack.


On the surface, it would seem that the United States pursued a policy that led to war in order to preserve the territorial integrity of China. Since it is generally believed that states should make war only to protect their own national security, the preservation of Chinese territorial integrity should strike most people as an odd reason for which to go to war. Moreover, it should be pointed out that the professed American concern for China's territorial integrity was highly selective. Washington never criticized the Soviet Union for detaching Outer Mongolia in the 1920s (making it a satellite) or for establishing control over China's Sinkiang province in the 1930s. For that matter, near the end of World War II the United States herself violated Chinese sovereignty in the Yalta Accord, which awarded the Soviet Union various rights in Manchuria.

Perhaps it was not the defense of China that motivated American policy toward Japan. Revisionists claim that Roosevelt was actually pursuing a "Back Door to War" approach, intending that war with Japan should lead to war with Germany. That did occur, but critics point out that Germany was not obliged to declare war since Japan, not the United States, launched the attack. However, according to John Costello in The Pacific War,  Churchill in the fall of 1941 had decoded a message from Hitler in which he stated that he would declare war on the United States if Japan and the United States went to war — that is to say, even if Tokyo struck first. And Churchill passed that intercept on to Roosevelt. In any case, it was widely believed in the United States that Germany and Japan worked closely together. Consequently, war with Japan would make it easier for Roosevelt to achieve a declaration of war on Germany.

Influencing overall American hard-line policy toward Japan, perhaps crucially, was the desire to bolster the Soviet Union. Roosevelt saw the Soviet Union's survival, which was still uncertain in the fall of 1941, as necessary for defeating Germany. At that time, Japan still had not abandoned her plan to attack Russia, which in the late 1930s had humiliated her in an undeclared war. The leadership in Tokyo was still debating whether to move north or south. If the Japanese war with China was settled and the embargo on oil was lifted, it would be easier for Japan to attack the Soviets. It is apparent that American Communists who held important positions in the Roosevelt administration, such as Harry Dexter White, wanted America to pursue a hard line with Japan in order to protect the Soviet Union. Maybe that was Roosevelt's principal motivation as well.

The Soviets, for their part, worked to guarantee a war between Japan and the West to prevent any Japanese attack on the Soviet Far East. White, assistant secretary of the treasury, was the key Soviet spy in the U.S. government, and he consciously served Moscow's strategy — the "Operation Snow" plan — in agitating for American brinksmanship against Japan. That the Soviet Union and her agents acted to foster U.S. involvement in the war is demonstrated by Anthony Kubek in his excellent book, How the Far East Was Lost. [4] Recent revelations from the Venona files by Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel [5] and by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr [6] have confirmed Kubek's analysis.

Many revisionists would argue that Roosevelt did not need the push from Soviet spies to motivate his pro-war policy, but it is hard to deny that they were a contributing factor. And conceivably Roosevelt took a harder line in November 1941 — rejecting the proposed modus vivendi with Japan — to aid the interests of the Soviet Union.


While the movie "Pearl Harbor" omits Roosevelt's machinations, Official Conservatives are outraged that it is insufficiently anti-Japanese. Presumably they would prefer something resembling the old movies and cartoons with cringing, buck-toothed, bespectacled little "Nips" mouthing the words "so solly" after being caught performing some devilish deed. But that is what Official Conservatism is all about today. It is the ultra-war party. It wants to beef up the military to enhance America's global imperialism. It wants to prevent the United States from slumbering in "isolationism" while some evil nation prepares to launch a "sneak" attack. That is the lesson of Pearl Harbor that Official Conservatives want to teach. It should surprise no one that the Official Conservatives of the mature American Empire consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt one of their greatest heroes; his legacy is a large part of what they seek to conserve.

The Japanese assumption that the United States would go to war against them was based on fact. The attack on Pearl Harbor, godsend for Roosevelt that it was, did not  come out of the blue, nor was it the result of the evil nature of the Japanese militarists. The Japanese attacked because they knew that the United States planned to attack them, and they deemed it necessary to get in the first blow.

Of course, the reality of the Pearl Harbor attack — as presented by the revisionists — teaches a lesson totally different from the one taught by Officials of all stripes. It was Roosevelt's policies — embargoes, secret treaties, and military plans — that induced the Japanese attack. What were the results? The defeat of Japan, with the expenditure of considerable blood, brought on not the promised world of peaceable democracies but a world threatened by a Soviet colossus. And the Soviets, by creating a safe haven for Mao's forces, did much to establish communism in China: the very China that the United States had purportedly set out to save from tyranny!

The real lesson of Pearl Harbor is that Americans must somehow rein in their rulers to prevent them from maneuvering the country into war. How we might accomplish that, however, falls far beyond the scope of this essay.

June 11, 2001


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1. Robert Smith Thompson, A Time for War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Path to Pearl Harbor  (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1991), pp. 365-66. See also John Costello, The Pacific War  (New York: Rawson, Wade, 1981), pp. 95-6. [Back]

2. A Time for War,  p. 366. [Back]

3. Bruce Russett, No Clear and Present Danger: A Skeptical View of the United States Entry into World War II  (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 53. [Back]

4. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1963. [Back]

5. The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America's Traitors  (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2000). [Back]

6. Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). [Back]


































Its formal name was the Netherlands East Indies. Now Indonesia. [Back]









































































Now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. [Back]