by Gerard Emershaw
On the morning of December 7, 1941, 353 Japanese fighter jets attacked the United States naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. When the smoke cleared, over 2,400 Americans were dead and over 1,200 more were wounded. As a result of the Japanese attack, the United States declared war and became involved in World War II. Over 418,000 Americans would die in World War II.
Pearl Harbor is typically cited as a paradigm case of a sneak attack. But was it such a surprise? There is some evidence that President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew that the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor was going to take place. However, this is not the issue that will be discussed here. The issue in question is whether the bombing of Pearl Harbor and World War II in general were so inevitable as to come as no surprise.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but this should never be used as an excuse to give historical leaders a pass when it comes to missing signs of trouble. Japan was a growing industrial empire with fascistic designs on territorial expansion. Such a nation requires fuel to power its ambition and aggression. The September 1940 embargo on Japan by the United States prevented the export of steel, scrap iron, and aviation fuel to Japan. Following Japan’s occupation of southern Indochina, the United States, United Kingdom, and the Netherlands froze Japanese assets, and the United States blocked all Japanese purchases of American oil. With no source of oil, the Japanese decided to seize oil fields of the Indies. The only thing standing between Japan and that oil was the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor. With crippling sanctions and a desperate and belligerent empire, blowback was inevitable. Knowing about Japanese culture and giving the empire no way to save face, FDR and his advisors should have known that an attack was inevitable.
The blowback which ignited in a global war, the Holocaust, the Cold War, and countless geopolitical tinderboxes such as the Middle East should have been obvious from the very beginning. When Woodrow Wilson engineered the entry of the United States into the Great War, there was no risk that Germany and her allies would conquer the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and their allies. Without American involvement, peace would have been brokered. Perhaps Germany would have won some new colonies and a bit of territory, but a peaceful status quo would have followed soon thereafter. How could Wilson not see that American intervention would throw Europe out of balance? How could Clemenceau and George not see that forcing a broken Germany to pay crippling reparations and humiliating the nation and its people in so many ways would lead to problems? Sanctions and humiliation create the most destructive blowback. It was obvious then. And it is obvious now.
Even if one were to grant that Wilson and FDR could not see how their actions would inevitably create blowback, one cannot grant that the Obama administration and the Congress are unaware of the blowback that their actions and policies could create. Knowing what American intervention in World War I did, it is shocking that President Obama had wished to intervene in Syria. A decisive victory for the Jihadist rebels over Assad’s oppressive Stalinist Ba’athist regime simply had no upside and plenty of downside and plenty of potential blowback. Knowing what sanctions and humiliation caused Germany to do following World War I, why are so many Republicans in Congress unwilling to give diplomacy with Iran a chance? If and when the United States creates more blowback which results in yet more terrorism and war, American leadership will have no excuse for not seeing it coming.