Last week I spoke at a high school. As I often do, I told them I’d perform a magic trick. I only know one, but I know it will almost always work with no skill required. I scribbled on a piece of paper and folded it up. I asked someone to name a war that was justified. They of course said “World War II” and I opened up the paper, which read “World War II.” Magic!
I could do a second part with equal reliability. I ask “Why?” They say “the Holocaust.”
I could do a third part, as well. I ask “What does Evian mean?” They say “No idea” or “bottled water.”
Of the great many times I’ve done this, only once that I recall did someone say something other than “World War II.” And only once did someone know what Evian meant. Otherwise it has never failed. You can try this at home and be a magician without learning any sleight of hand.
But even once we discuss what Evian means, it’s difficult to behave as if we’ve understood it. Evian was, of course, the location of the biggest, most famous of the conferences at which the nations of the world decided not to accept Jews from Germany. This is not somehow secret knowledge. This is history that has been out in the open from the day it occurred, massively covered by the major world media at the time, discussed in endless papers and books since the time.
When I ask why the nations of the world refused the Jews, the blank stares continue. I have to actually explain that they refused to accept them for openly racist, anti-Semitic reasons expressed without shame or embarrassment. My listeners have no idea what public popular attitudes were in their own or any other country less than a century ago. They’ve not heard that the United States had (and still has!) racist, eugenicist immigration policies. If they knew this basic historical context, then the justification used for the decision at Evian would be obvious. As it is, I am obliged to actually point out that the completely impossible did not happen, that the U.S. government did not promote World War II with posters reading “Uncle Sam Wants You to Save the Jews!”
That didn’t happen because the majority of people in the United States, and the majority of its elected officials, decidedly did not want to allow more Jewish immigrants. It would have been bad propaganda. Explaining this and having it understood are two very different things. A simple statement is no match for decades of movies and cartoons and video games and history text books. So, last week, a student followed up by asking me “Well, what if they had made posters like that?” In other words, what if the myths were real, then would the war have been justified? Then would it have made sense to kill in the war several times the number of people killed in the camps and to justify it by
the exclaiming “the Holocaust”?
But myths can’t be made real in that way. If the U.S. government had wanted to save the Jews and the millions of non-Jewish victims of the camps, it wouldn’t have needed war. It would have only needed to say “Yes, we’ll take them.” Hitler’s response to Evian was, “I’ll put them on luxury cruise ships and send them anywhere, but nobody will take them.” The response of the U.S. and U.K. governments to appeals from peace activists to negotiate a rescue was consistently “We have no interest in that and cannot be bothered; we have a war to fight.” Attaching a just cause that had no need of a war to a war cannot make a war just. Some other non-mythical argument could make a war just, but each of those can always be rejected given enough hours to work through each of them.
Justifying the biggest public enterprise of the United States with its use three-quarters of a century ago is a tricky business, not just because of so many unpopular uses of it since, but also because of the lack of concrete actions to memorialize. Has nobody ever noticed that there’s no holiday to commemorate the date on which the United States decided to rescue the Jews? It’s hard to glorify things that didn’t happen. This is part of why Pearl Harbor is so incredibly important. With the saving-the Jews myths alone it simply would not be the case that you could rehabilitate a blood-soaked warmonger like George HW Bush by saying the
world word “World War II.” A World War II without Pearl Harbor myths could not possibly outweigh Central American death squads, killing thousands of people in an attack on Panama, manufacturing a war on Iraq with grotesque lies and then bombing principally civilians and retreating troops and installing bases that would generate 911, ginning up new excuses for a permanent military after the Soviet collapse, sending the vultures to exploit Russia, and of course the October Surprise and the possible role in killing Kennedy, not to mention the fact that during World War II Bush’s father was doing profitable business with the Nazis. What gives the phrase “World War II” the power to erase all such horrors is a concoction of overlapping and interlocking myths in which the keystone is the Pearl Harbor Lie of Innocence.
The combination is difficult to make sense of. If being innocently attacked by the Japanese justifies the war, and rescuing the Jews justifies the war (even though neither of these things actually occurred), should Yemenis try to rescue Afghans if attacked by the United States and Saudi Arabia? And would they be wrong to try to rescue Afghans if not attacked by the United States and Saudi Arabia? Would the mythical rescuing of the Jews have been wrong without the mythical surprise attack by the Japanese? Would fighting the Japanese have been wrong without the mythical rescuing of the Jews? In any case, despite not being dependent on logic, faith in the Good War is dependent on each of its major myths. So, knocking down the Pearl Harbor one is helpful.
Winston Churchill’s fervent hope for years before the U.S. entry into the war was that Japan would attack the United States. This would permit the United States (not legally, but politically) to fully enter World War II in Europe, as its president wanted to do, as opposed to merely providing weaponry and assisting in the targeting of submarines as it had been doing. On December 7, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt drew up a declaration of war on both Japan and Germany, but decided it wouldn’t work and went with Japan alone. Germany quickly declared war on the United States, possibly in hopes that Japan would declare war on the Soviet Union.
Getting into the war was not a new idea in the Roosevelt White House. FDR had tried lying to the U.S. public about U.S. ships including the Greer and the Kerny, which had been helping British planes track German submarines, but which Roosevelt pretended had been innocently attacked. Roosevelt also lied that he had in his possession a secret Nazi map planning the conquest of South America, as well as a secret Nazi plan for replacing all religions with Nazism. The map was of the quality of Karl Rove’s “proof” that Iraq was buying uranium in Niger.
And yet, the people of the United States didn’t buy the idea of going into another war until Pearl Harbor, by which point Roosevelt had already instituted the draft, activated the National Guard, created a huge Navy in two oceans, traded old destroyers to England in exchange for the lease of its bases in the Caribbean and Bermuda, and — just 11 days before the “unexpected” attack, and five days before FDR expected it — he had secretly ordered the creation (by Henry Field) of a list of every Japanese and Japanese-American person in the United States.
On April 28, 1941, Churchill wrote a secret directive to his war cabinet:
“It may be taken as almost certain that the entry of Japan into the war would be followed by the immediate entry of the United States on our side.”
On May 11, 1941, Robert Menzies, the prime minister of Australia, met with Roosevelt and found him “a little jealous” of Churchill’s place in the center of the war. While Roosevelt’s cabinet all wanted the United States to enter the war, Menzies found that Roosevelt,
” . . . trained under Woodrow Wilson in the last war, waits for an incident, which would in one blow get the USA into war and get R. out of his foolish election pledges that ‘I will keep you out of war.’”
On August 18, 1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill met with his cabinet at 10 Downing Street. The meeting had some similarity to the July 23, 2002, meeting at the same address, the minutes of which became known as the Downing Street Minutes. Both meetings revealed secret U.S. intentions to go to war. In the 1941 meeting, Churchill told his cabinet, according to the minutes: “The President had said he would wage war but not declare it.” In addition, “Everything was to be done to force an incident.”
Indeed, everything was done to force an incident, and the incident was Pearl Harbor.
Japan was certainly not averse to attacking others and had been busy creating an Asian empire. And the United States and Japan were certainly not living in harmonious friendship. But what could bring the Japanese to attack?
When President Franklin Roosevelt visited Pearl Harbor on July 28, 1934, seven years before the Japanese attack, the Japanese military expressed apprehension. General Kunishiga Tanaka wrote in the Japan Advertiser, objecting to the build-up of the American fleet and the creation of additional bases in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands:
“Such insolent behavior makes us most suspicious. It makes us think a major disturbance is purposely being encouraged in the Pacific. This is greatly regretted.”
Whether it was actually regretted or not is a separate question from whether this was a typical and predictable response to military expansionism, even when done in the name of “defense.” The great unembedded (as we would today call him) journalist George Seldes was suspicious as well. In October 1934 he wrote in Harper’s Magazine: “It is an axiom that nations do not arm for war but for a war.” Seldes asked an official at the Navy League:
“Do you accept the naval axiom that you prepare to fight a specific navy?”
The man replied “Yes.”
“Do you contemplate a fight with the British navy?”
“Do you contemplate war with Japan?”
In 1935 the most decorated U.S. Marine in history at the time, Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler, published to enormous success a short book called War Is a Racket. He saw perfectly well what was coming and warned the nation:
“At each session of Congress the question of further naval appropriations comes up. The swivel-chair admirals don’t shout that ‘We need lots of battleships to war on this nation or that nation.’ Oh, no. First of all, they let it be known that America is menaced by a great naval power. Almost any day, these admirals will tell you, the great fleet of this supposed enemy will strike suddenly and annihilate our 125,000,000 people. Just like that. Then they begin to cry for a larger navy. For what? To fight the enemy? Oh my, no. Oh, no. For defense purposes only. Then, incidentally, they announce maneuvers in the Pacific. For defense. Uh, huh.
“The Pacific is a great big ocean. We have a tremendous coastline in the Pacific. Will the maneuvers be off the coast, two or three hundred miles? Oh, no. The maneuvers will be two thousand, yes, perhaps even thirty-five hundred miles, off the coast.
“The Japanese, a proud people, of course will be pleased beyond expression to see the United States fleet so close to Nippon’s shores. Even as pleased as would be the residents of California were they to dimly discern, through the morning mist, the Japanese fleet playing at war games off Los Angeles.”
In March 1935, Roosevelt bestowed Wake Island on the U.S. Navy and gave Pan Am Airways a permit to build runways on Wake Island, Midway Island, and Guam. Japanese military commanders announced that they were disturbed and viewed these runways as a threat. So did peace activists in the United States. By the next month, Roosevelt had planned war games and maneuvers near the Aleutian Islands and Midway Island. By the following month, peace activists were marching in New York advocating friendship with Japan. Norman Thomas wrote in 1935:
“The Man from Mars who saw how men suffered in the last war and how frantically they are preparing for the next war, which they know will be worse, would come to the conclusion that he was looking at the denizens of a lunatic asylum.”
The U.S. believed a Japanese attack on Hawaii would begin with conquering the island of Ni’ihau, from which flights would take off to assault the other islands. U.S. Army Air Corp. Lt. Col. Gerald Brant approached the Robinson family, which owned Ni’ihau and still does. He asked them to plow furrows across the island in a grid, to render it useless for airplanes. Between 1933 and 1937, three Ni’ihau men cut the furrows with plows pulled by mules or draft horses. The U.S. Navy spent the next few years working up plans for war with Japan, the March 8, 1939, version of which described “an offensive war of long duration.” As it turned out, the Japanese had no plans to use Ni’ihau, but when a Japanese plane that had just been part of the attack on Pearl Harbor had to make an emergency landing, it landed on Ni’ihau despite all the efforts of the mules and horses.
The U.S. Navy spent years working up plans for war with Japan, the March 8, 1939, version of which described “an offensive war of long duration” that would destroy the military and disrupt the economic life of Japan. In January 1941, eleven months before the attack, the Japan Advertiser expressed its outrage over Pearl Harbor in an editorial, and the U.S. ambassador to Japan wrote in his diary:
“There is a lot of talk around town to the effect that the Japanese, in case of a break with the United States, are planning to go all out in a surprise mass attack on Pearl Harbor. Of course I informed my government.”
On February 5, 1941, Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner wrote to Secretary of War Henry Stimson to warn of the possibility of a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor.
As early as 1932 the United States had been talking with China about providing airplanes, pilots, and training for its war with Japan. In November 1940, Roosevelt loaned China one hundred million dollars for war with Japan, and after consulting with the British, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau made plans to send the Chinese bombers with U.S. crews to use in bombing Tokyo and other Japanese cities. On December 21, 1940, two weeks shy of a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, China’s Minister of Finance T.V. Soong and Colonel Claire Chennault, a retired U.S. Army flier who was working for the Chinese and had been urging them to use American pilots to bomb Tokyo since at least 1937, met in Henry Morgenthau’s dining room to plan the firebombing of Japan. Morgenthau said he could get men released from duty in the U.S. Army Air Corps if the Chinese could pay them $1,000 per month. Soong agreed.
On May 24, 1941, the New York Times reported on U.S. training of the Chinese air force, and the provision of “numerous fighting and bombing planes” to China by the United States. “Bombing of Japanese Cities is Expected” read the subheadline. By July, the Joint Army-Navy Board had approved a plan called JB 355 to firebomb Japan. A front corporation would buy American planes to be flown by American volunteers trained by Chennault and paid by another front group. Roosevelt approved, and his China expert Lauchlin Currie, in the words of Nicholson Baker, “wired Madame Chaing Kai-Shek and Claire Chennault a letter that fairly begged for interception by Japanese spies.” Whether or not that was the entire point, this was the letter:
“I am very happy to be able to report today the President directed that sixty-six bombers be made available to China this year with twenty-four to be delivered immediately. He also approved a Chinese pilot training program here. Details through normal channels. Warm regards.”
The U.S. ambassador had said “in case of a break with the United States” the Japanese would bomb Pearl Harbor. I wonder if this qualified!
The 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force, also known as the Flying Tigers, moved ahead with recruitment and training immediately, were provided to China prior to Pearl Harbor, and first saw combat on December 20, 1941, twelve days (local time) after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
On May 31, 1941, at the Keep America Out of War Congress, William Henry Chamberlin gave a dire warning: “A total economic boycott of Japan, the stoppage of oil shipments for instance, would push Japan into the arms of the Axis. Economic war would be a prelude to naval and military war.” The worst thing about peace advocates is how many times they turn out to be right.
On July 24, 1941, President Roosevelt remarked, “If we cut the oil off , [the Japanese] probably would have gone down to the Dutch East Indies a year ago, and you would have had a war. It was very essential from our own selfish point of view of defense to prevent a war from starting in the South Pacific. So our foreign policy was trying to stop a war from breaking out there.”
Reporters noticed that Roosevelt said “was” rather than “is.” The next day, Roosevelt issued an executive order freezing Japanese assets. The United States and Britain cut off oil and scrap metal to Japan. Radhabinod Pal, an Indian jurist who served on the war crimes tribunal after the war, called the embargoes a “clear and potent threat to Japan’s very existence,” and concluded the United States had provoked Japan.
On August 7th, four months before the attack, the Japan Times Advertiser wrote: “First there was the creation of a superbase at Singapore, heavily reinforced by British and Empire troops. From this hub a great wheel was built up and linked with American bases to form a great ring sweeping in a great area southwards and westwards from the Philippines through Malaya and Burma, with the link broken only in the Thailand peninsula. Now it is proposed to include the narrows in the encirclement, which proceeds to Rangoon.”
One cannot help being reminded here of Hillary Clinton’s comments to Goldman Sachs bankers. Clinton claimed to have told the Chinese that the United States could claim ownership of the entire Pacific as a result of having “liberated it.” She went on to claim to have told them that “We discovered Japan for heaven’s sake.” And: “We have proof of having bought [Hawaii].”
By September 1941 the Japanese press was outraged that the United States had begun shipping oil right past Japan to reach Russia. Japan, its newspapers said, was dying a slow death from “economic war.”
What might the United States have been hoping to gain by shipping oil past a nation in desperate need of it?
In late October, U.S. spy Edgar Mower was doing work for Colonel William Donovan who spied for Roosevelt. Mower spoke with a man in Manila named Ernest Johnson, a member of the Maritime Commission, who said he expected “The Japs will take Manila before I can get out.” When Mower expressed surprise, Johnson replied “Didn’t you know the Jap fleet has moved eastward, presumably to attack our fleet at Pearl Harbor?”
On November 3, 1941, the U.S. ambassador tried again to get something through his government’s thick skull, sending a lengthy telegram to the State Department warning that the economic sanctions might force Japan to commit “national hara-kiri.” He wrote: “An armed conflict with the United States may come with dangerous and dramatic suddenness.”
Why do I keep recalling the headline of the memo given to President George W. Bush prior to the September 11, 2001, attacks? “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in U.S.” Apparently nobody in Washington wanted to hear it in 1941 either.
On November 15th, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall briefed the media on something we do not remember as “the Marshall Plan.” In fact we don’t remember it at all. “We are preparing an offensive war against Japan,” Marshall said, asking the journalists to keep it a secret, which as far as I know they dutifully did.
Ten days later Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote in his diary that he’d met in the Oval Office with Marshall, President Roosevelt, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Admiral Harold Stark, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Roosevelt had told them the Japanese were likely to attack soon, possibly next Monday. It has been well documented that the United States had broken the Japanese’ codes and that Roosevelt had access to them. It was through intercept of a so-called Purple code message that Roosevelt had discovered Germany’s plans to invade Russia. It was Hull who leaked a Japanese intercept to the press, resulting in the November 30, 1941, headline “Japanese May Strike Over Weekend.”
That next Monday would have been December 1st, six days before the attack actually came. “The question,” Stimson wrote, “was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves. It was a difficult proposition.” Was it? One obvious answer was to keep the fleet in Pearl Harbor and keep the sailors stationed there in the dark while fretting about them from comfortable offices in Washington, D.C. In fact, that was the solution our suit-and-tied heroes went with.
The day after the attack, Congress voted for war. Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin (R., Mont.), the first woman ever elected to Congress, and who had voted against World War I, stood alone in opposing World War II (just as Congresswoman Barbara Lee [D., Calif.] would stand alone against attacking Afghanistan 60 years later).
One year after the vote, on December 8, 1942, Rankin put extended remarks into the Congressional Record explaining her opposition. She cited the work of a British propagandist who had argued in 1938 for using Japan to bring the United States into the war. She cited Henry Luce’s reference in Life magazine on July 20, 1942, to “the Chinese for whom the U.S. had delivered the ultimatum that brought on Pearl Harbor.” She introduced evidence that at the Atlantic Conference on August 12, 1941, Roosevelt had assured Churchill that the United States would bring economic pressure to bear on Japan. “I cited,” Rankin later wrote, ” the State Department Bulletin of December 20, 1941, which revealed that on September 3 a communication had been sent to Japan demanding that it accept the principle of ‘nondisturbance of the status quo in the Pacific,’ which amounted to demanding guarantees of the inviolateness of the white empires in the Orient.”
Rankin found that the Economic Defense Board had gotten economic sanctions under way less than a week after the Atlantic Conference. On December 2, 1941, the New York Times had reported, in fact, that Japan had been “cut off from about 75 percent of her normal trade by the Allied blockade.” Rankin also cited the statement of Lieutenant Clarence E. Dickinson, U.S.N., in the Saturday Evening Post of October 10, 1942, that on November 28, 1941, nine days before the attack, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., (he of the catchy slogan “Kill Japs! Kill Japs!” ) had given instructions to him and others to “shoot down anything we saw in the sky and to bomb anything we saw on the sea.”
General George Marshall admitted as much to Congress in 1945: that the codes had been broken, that the United States had initiated Anglo-Dutch-American agreements for unified action against Japan and put them into effect before Pearl Harbor, and that the United States had provided officers of its military to China for combat duty before Pearl Harbor. It is hardly a secret that it takes two war powers to wage a war (unlike when one war power attacks an unarmed state) or that this case was no exception to that rule.
An October 1940 memorandum by Lieutenant Commander Arthur H. McCollum was acted on by President Roosevelt and his chief subordinates. It called for eight actions that McCollum predicted would lead the Japanese to attack, including arranging for the use of British bases in Singapore and for the use of Dutch bases in what is now Indonesia, aiding the Chinese government, sending a division of long-range heavy cruisers to the Philippines or Singapore, sending two divisions of submarines to “the Orient,” keeping the main strength of the fleet in Hawaii, insisting that the Dutch refuse the Japanese oil, and embargoing all trade with Japan in collaboration with the British Empire.
The day after McCollum’s memo, the State Department told Americans to evacuate far eastern nations, and Roosevelt ordered the fleet kept in Hawaii over the strenuous objection of Admiral James O. Richardson who quoted the President as saying “Sooner or later the Japanese would commit an overt act against the United States and the nation would be willing to enter the war.” The message that Admiral Harold Stark sent to Admiral Husband Kimmel on November 28, 1941, read, “IF HOSTILITIES CANNOT REPEAT CANNOT BE AVOIDED THE UNITED STATES DESIRES THAT JAPAN COMMIT THE FIRST OVERT ACT.” Joseph Rochefort, cofounder of the Navy’s communication intelligence section, who was instrumental in failing to communicate to Pearl Harbor what was coming, would later comment: “It was a pretty cheap price to pay for unifying the country.”
The night after the attack, President Roosevelt had CBS News’s Edward R. Murrow and Roosevelt’s Coordinator of Information William Donovan over for dinner at the White House, and all the President wanted to know was whether the American people would now accept war. Donovan and Murrow assured him the people would indeed accept war now. Donovan later told his assistant that Roosevelt’s surprise was not that of others around him, and that he, Roosevelt, welcomed the attack. Murrow was unable to sleep that night and was plagued for the rest of his life by what he called “the biggest story of my life” which he never told, but which he did not need to. The next day, the President spoke of a day of infamy, the United States Congress declared the last Congressionally declared war in the history of the republic, and the President of the Federal Council of Churches, Dr. George A. Buttrick, became a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation committing to resist the war.
Decades later, World War II would become a Good War having been fought for the noblest of causes, yet also having been forced on reluctant heroes (despite the need for them to act on those noblest of causes). And so, bloodlust now demands that each December 7th your local warmongers and corporate media outlets perform certain primitive rites in honor of the God of War who is so disgracefully maligned by current events that lack the rosy glow of decade upon decade of sweet-smelling bullshit.
9 thoughts on “The Ancient Mythical Rites of Pearl Harbor Day”
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This guy, a British agent, in his memoirs claimed he brought news of the impending attack to the Americans, and they did not care.
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Very fine essay!
I wonder if the “public secret” of the Lanakai – another ploy by FDR to entice Japan into creating an incident to blow out of proportion, might not be a good read, for many.
See> “The Cruise of the Lanakai” – and it’s a great story too. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21459414-cruise-of-the-lanikai
for some ideas about the story.
Interesting — never heard of it