Sniegoski Stephen J. - The case for Pearl Harbor revisionism

Author : Sniegoski Stephen J.
Title : The case for Pearl Harbor revisionism
Year : 2009

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The prevalent view of World War II is that of the “good war”—a Manichaean conflict between good and evil. And a fundamental part of the “good war” thesis has to do with the entrance of the United States into the war as a result of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. According to this view, the cause of the war stemmed from the malign effort by Japan, run by aggressive militarists, to conquer the Far East and the Western Pacific, which was part of the overall Axis goal of global conquest. Japan’s imperialistic quest was clearly immoral and severely threatened vital American interests, requiring American opposition. Since American territory stood in the way of Japanese territorial designs, the Japanese launched their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Although the Roosevelt administration had been aware of Japanese aggressive goals, the attack on Pearl Harbor caught it completely by surprise. To the extent that any Americans were responsible for the debacle at Pearl Harbor, establishment historians, echoing the Roosevelt administration, blamed the military commanders in Hawaii for being unprepared. A basic assumption of the mainstream position is that given the Japanese bent to conquest, war with the United States was inevitable. As mainstream historians Gordon W. Prange, Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon put it: “nothing in the available evidence... indicates that they (the Japanese) ever planned to move one inch out of their appointed path, whatever the United States did about it.” There was nothing the United States could do to avert war short of sacrificing vital security interests and the essence of international morality. A small group of revisionist investigators have disputed this orthodox interpretation at almost every turn. Revisionists argue that, instead of following an aggressive plan of conquest, Japanese moves were fundamentally defensive efforts to protect vital Japanese interests. And instead of seeing the United States simply reacting to Japanese aggression, as the orthodox version would have it, the revisionists see the United States goading the Japanese—by aiding China (with whom Japan was at war), military expansion, quasi-secret alliances, and economic warfare—to take belligerent actions. Finally, some revisionists go so far as to claim that Roosevelt had foreknowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor but refused to alert the military commanders in order to have a casus belli to galvanize the American people for war. These revisionists see the effort as part of Roosevelt’s effort to bring the United States into war with Germany—the so-called “back-door-towar” thesis. Revisionism began before the end of World War II and reflected the views of the non-interventionists who had opposed American entry into the war. Prominent figures in the revisionist camp include: Charles Beard, Harry Elmer Barnes, George Morgenstern and Charles C. Tansill in the 1940s and 1950s; James J. Martin and Percy Greaves in the 1960s and 1970s; and more recently John Toland and Robert B. Stinnett. And some writers have accepted parts of the revisionist position but rejected others. The idea that American foreign policy provoked the Japanese into more belligerent actions, for example, has gained more adherents than the view that President Roosevelt intentionally allowed the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. This essay, however, will not present a historiographical discussion of the revisionist literature bringing out the similarities and differences of the various revisionist authors’ writings. This has been done elsewhere, most notably by Frank Paul Mintz in his Revisionism and the Origins of Pearl Harbor. This essay will try to elucidate the major revisionist themes and to show their validity. In short, this essay hopes to provide what its title proclaims: “The Case for Pearl Harbor Revisionism.” THE CAUSES OF JAPANESE EXPANSIONISM Revisionists have focused on the underlying causes of Japanese expansionism in an effort to counter the mainstream view of the nefarious nature of Japanese policy. As Frank Paul Mintz writes: The revisionists demonstrated—and quite compellingly in some cases--that it makes for a poor historical interpretation to condemn Japan without coming to grips with the strategic, demographic, and economic problems which were at the root of Japan’s—not to mention any nation’s—imperialism. Revisionists emphasize that the Japanese had vital economic and security interests in China. Lacking in natural resources, Japan had especially depended upon foreign markets. Thus, access to China became absolutely essential to Japan’s economic well-being when, with the onset of the Great Depression, most industrialized countries established nearly insurmountable trade barriers. Instead of being an aggressor, Japan had been essentially satisfied with the status quo in China at the start of the 1930s, but as the decade progressed, the forces of Chinese communism and nationalism threatened Japanese interests in China. “It seemed to Tokyo,” Charles C. Tansill wrote, “that Japanese interests in North China were about to be crushed between the millstones of Chinese nationalism and Russian Bolshevism.” The revisionists portray the Japanese interests in China as similar to American interests in Latin America. As Anthony Kubek writes: The United States had its danger zone in the Caribbean and since the era of Thomas Jefferson, every effort had been to strengthen the American position and to keep foreign nations from establishing naval and military bases which would threaten American security. So Japan regarded Manchuria. Japan followed this natural policy and attempted to practice it with reference to the lands that bordered upon the China Sea. Korea, Manchuria, and Inner Mongolia were essential pillars of her defense structure. While the establishment interpretation emphasizes that the Japanese incursion into China was a violation of Chinese territorial integrity, the revisionists point out that the United States was highly selective in applying this standard. During the inter-war period, the Soviet Union had converted Outer Mongolia into a satellite and secured de facto control over Sinkiang, yet the State Department never protested Moscow’s violations of Chinese sovereignty. And Japanese actions in China were, in part, taken as defensive measures against the growing threat of Soviet Communism. Looking beyond the moral and legal aspects, revisionists maintain that Japanese interests in China did not portend further aggression into Southeast Asia or threaten vital American interests. Rather, American actions—aid to China, military expansion, and economic sanctions—purportedly intended to deter Japanese aggression actually served to induce such aggression into Southeast Asia and ultimately led to the Japanese attack on American territory. This is not to say that there were not extremist, militarist elements in Japan who sought military conquest. But in the immediate pre-Pearl Harbor period, the Japanese government was run by more moderate elements who sought to maintain peace with the United States and who were undermined by American intransigence. ...

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