2016 Press Releases

Op Ed: The legacy of Pearl Harbour

5 Dec 2016
Pearl Harbour 7 December 1941 Japanese Forces: The aircraft carrier AKAGI, flagship of Vice Admiral Nagumo Chiuchi the commander of the Japanese attack force. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Seventy-five years after Japan’s devastating surprise attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbour a new great power clash looms in the Asia-Pacific region. 

This time America’s foe will be China and the weapon of choice will be trade not torpedoes. Donald Trump’s election as US President augurs a trade war to protect American jobs that could undermine international free trade and prompt a US-led return to protectionism and the economic politics of beggar my neighbour.

Like Japan in the 1930s China is seeking to construct and dominate a new international order in East Asia. Thankfully, Chinese expansionism is primarily economic and political, not military. Political tension is rising in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims to be an extension of its territory, but this is unlikely to provoke an international war.

Trump’s election platform of “America First” is reminiscent of those American isolationists in the 1930s who argued the United States should protect its own interests and strictly limit its involvement and commitment to engaging in global politics. The isolationists were opposed by internationalists who believed the United States should project its power overseas to construct a peaceful and prosperous global order to serve as the ultimate guarantee of American interests. This long-standing debate originated in the First World War, after which President Woodrow Wilson failed in his attempt to persuade the US to join the League of Nations and play a full part in defending the postwar peace settlement

Hitler’s rise to power and Japan’s military expansion into China after 1931 eroded the credibility of the isolationists. But it took the attack on Pearl Harbour to finally swing public opinion in favour of an internationalist approach. American involvement in the war against Hitler in Europe quickly followed the outbreak of war in the Pacific. The European war Hitler had launched in 1939 transformed into a global conflict. After the Second World War the United States adopted a globalist foreign policy based on the spread of democracy and free trade underpinned by American economic and military power. Opposition to the Soviet Union and anti-communism were also integral to the policy.

The collapse of communism and the disintegration of the USSR in 1991 seemed to offer the United States unlimited scope to pursue its global foreign policy ambitions. However, the 9/11 terror attacks and the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed the limits of American power.

The current bête noire of the American foreign policy establishment is Putin’s Russia but President-elect Trump believes Putin to be a man with whom he can do business, Russian interventions in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria notwithstanding.

It remains to be seen whether Trump’s brand of isolationism will deconstruct the United States as a global power seeking to re-make the world in its own image. Many observers who support an internationalist foreign policy are comforted by the thought that the realities of international relations will force Trump to adopt a more realistic foreign policy than that put forward during his presidential campaign. But Trump has confounded such expectations before and he may do so again.

President Franklin Roosevelt memorably described Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 as a day of infamy but that was not how the Japanese viewed that action. For them it was a desperate and defensive act to break an American economic blockade that threatened to collapse the Japanese economy.

American economic sanctions had been imposed as a response to Japan’s expansion into China and Indochina. While not specifically intending to provoke war, American decision-makers were sanguine about risking military conflict with Japan, a struggle they were confident they could win easily. Roosevelt and his advisors were more worried by Japan’s alliance with Hitler and Nazi Germany – a coalition that seemed capable of achieving global hegemony if the Japanese could subdue China and the Germans conquer Britain and the Soviet Union.

This somewhat unexpected scenario came about because of changes in Japanese domestic politics in the 1930s. During the First World War Japan was an ally of the United States and fought against Germany. In 1922 Japan signed the Washington Treaty, which established a new international order in East Asia based on free trade, Chinese independence and limits  to naval power.

Japan was a relatively satisfied power but that changed with the onset of the worldwide depression in the late 1920s. Like many countries, including Ireland, the Japan sought refuge in autarky – or national economic self-sufficiency – to protect itself from the vagaries of the world market. Lacking domestic sources of raw materials such as oil and metals, for Japan autarky meant the establishment of an economic empire in East Asia. Like Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, Japan re-defined itself as a ‘have not’ power compared to Britain and France, which already had empires, and to the United States which controlled the American continent. In the 1930s Japan instead became a revisionist power, a policy turn reinforced by the growing political influence of the Japanese military.

Japanese economic expansionism focused on China, at that time a weak and divided country. Among Japan’s possessions was the Chinese Eastern Railway in Manchuria and in 1931 the Japanese used the supposed sabotage of the line by Chinese nationalists as a pretext to invade and occupy the region. Japan’s annexation of Manchuria provoked international protests, including at the League of Nations, but no action ensued.

In 1937 Japan invaded northern China, quickly capturing Beijing and Shanghai. The occupation of Nanking was particularly brutal, with large-scale civilian casualties and the mass rape of Chinese women by Japanese troops. It was the Nanking atrocities that turned American public opinion against Japan.

Despite their initial successes the Japanese military were unable to defeat China and were instead drawn into a long war of attrition in a huge geographical territory occupied by an enormous population, with access to significant resources and influential international supporters.

Among China’s international allies was the Soviet Union, which became a major supplier of munitions to Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalist government. Hundreds of Soviet military advisers served in China, including many pilots. While the Soviets were not willing to enter the war on China’s side they fought their own border clashes with the aggressive Japanese military. The Japanese came off second-best in these battles with the Red Army, revealing that Japan’s imperial ambitions were not matched by its military strength.

American foreign policy only turned decisively against Japan after the outbreak of the European war in September 1939. The US officially declared its neutrality but favoured the Anglo-French side of the war. After the fall of France in June 1940 Britain fought on but was reliant on American aid. The US remained neutral but became Britain’s de facto ally in the struggle against Hitler. By summer 1941 the US was fighting an undeclared war with Germany in the Atlantic, protecting British convoys and hunting down German submarines operating in an exclusion zone that stretched as far east as Iceland.

In the 1930s Japan had formed an anti-communist alliance with Nazi Germany directed against the Soviet Union and, in September 1940, the relationship developed further when Japan signed a tripartite pact with Germany and Italy – constructing a coalition directed against Britain and the United States.

Japan’s priority remained the war in China and it preferred to avoid a direct clash with the Americans. If anything, the Japanese preference was war with the USSR but this became more complicated when, in August 1939, Hitler and Stalin concluded the Nazi-Soviet pact – a deal designed to keep the USSR neutral when Germany invaded Poland. The Germans were also seeking to incorporate the Soviets into their triple alliance with Italy and Japan. But Stalin had no interest in participating in such a coalition.

In June 1941 Hitler broke the Nazi-Soviet pact and launched an invasion of the USSR, urging his Japanese allies to join the attack. But Japan was already in conflict with the United States. That summer the US imposed yet more economic sanctions on Japan. Adding to the tension was the US navy’s decision to relocate its Pacific Fleet from the US West Coast to Pearl Harbour.

The final trigger for the Pearl Harbour attack was Japan’s occupation of southern Indochina in July 1941, which provoked an American oil embargo on Japan and a US decision to freeze Japanese assets.

Faced with this American economic stranglehold and to secure direct control over vital raw materials, especially oil, the Japanese decided to invade British and Dutch colonial territories in South East Asia. The Pearl Harbour attack was designed to cripple the Americans’ ability to respond to this Japanese expansion. Although Japanese leaders had few illusions about defeating the United States militarily they hoped to established a Pacific defensive perimeter and force the Americans to negotiate. The Japanese also counted on their German ally winning the war in Russia and drawing the US deeper into the defence of Great Britain.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, conducted by aircraft launched from carriers, was stunningly successful. Hundreds of dive bombers and torpedo planes attacked American military targets on the Hawaiian island. Caught by surprise, the US navy lost several battleships, cruisers and destroyers while others were severely damaged. Thousands of American sailors were killed or wounded. Fortunately for the Americans their own aircraft carriers were at sea and escaped the carnage.

Considerable debate exists about what American intelligences knew or should have known about the coming Japanese attack. There are even conspiracy theories that allege Roosevelt ignored the warning signs because he wanted a Japanese to attack to force the US into war in Asia and in Europe. Yet there is no hard evidence to back up these allegations. Intelligence information is always easier to interpret after the event and military disasters frequently provoke the search for scapegoats. In truth, Pearl Harbour, like the 9/11 attacks and Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, is an all-too familiar example of intelligence failure.

The successful invasion of the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, Malaya and Singapore was as important to the Japanese as the attack on Pearl Harbour. Two British battleships – the Repulse and the Prince of Wales - were sunk off Malaya on 10 December 1941. Hong Kong was captured on Christmas Day and when Singapore fell in February 130,000 British and Commonwealth troops surrendered to the Japanese. Not until the battle of Midway in June 1942 did the tide of the Japanese advance in Asia and the Pacific begin to ebb.

As expected, Hitler declared war on the US in support of his Japanese ally – an act they failed to reciprocate. Japan had its hands full fighting wars in China, South East Asia and the Pacific. It did not have the capacity to also invade the USSR from the east. Hitler’s calculation in declaring war on the Americans was threefold. Firstly, he wanted to be able to conduct unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic. Secondly, he was, in December 1941, still confident of winning the war in Russia. Thirdly, he expected the Americans to be tied down in Asia by the struggle with Japan.

Hitler’s decision to declare war was also intimately connected to the radicalisation of Nazi policy on the Jewish question. Massacres of Soviet Jews had begun and before the war Hitler had threatened that if there was another global conflict the Jews would all perish. The outbreak of the Pacific War presented Hitler with an opportunity to fulfil his prophecy. The European War was transformed by Hitler into a World War in which the Nazis could pursue their genocidal goals.

In Roosevelt’s eyes Germany was a far more important enemy than Japan. Hence the Americans adopted a ‘Europe First’ strategy in which priority was given to the war in Europe.

After Midway the Americans were confident they would not be defeated by Japan in Asia-Pacific and that in time their superior population resources, technology and industrial power would overwhelm the Japanese. And so it proved. In South East Asia the Americans together with British, Australasian and other allies fought a series of attritional battles with the Japanese. In the Pacific the US Navy and Marine Corps invaded Japanese island strongholds and used submarine attacks to cut Japan off from its imperial possessions, while the American air force bombarded the country from the air – killing 800,000 civilians.

By mid-1945 the Americans had captured Okinawa – just 400 miles from Japan. By this time Hitler was dead and Germany had surrendered. The scene was set for an allied invasion of Japan’s home islands that would have resulted in hundreds of thousands more deaths. In August 1945, however, the Soviet Union finally entered the Asian war when the Red Army launched a massive attack on Japanese forces in Manchuria. Simultaneously the Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was the dual shock of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the atomic bombings that prompted the Japanese Emperor Hirohito to announce the country’s surrender on 15 August 1945.

Japan lost the war but won the peace. The country emerged as a prosperous and peaceful nation and became the US’s key ally in Asia. China survived the decade-long Japanese onslaught but then experienced a civil war from which Mao Tse Tung’s communists emerged triumphant. Communist China became the US’s new adversary in Asia but Sino-American relations improved in the 1970s and the marketization of China’s economy after Mao’s death in 1976 turned the country into the US’s most important trading partner.

Sino-Japanese relations remain problematic, not least because of the legacies of the long war between the two countries. Japan’s security rests on its alliance with the Americans. A Sino-American trade war could result in an even closer relationship between Japan and the US. But with Trump in charge anything is possible, including the emergence of a new security order in East Asia that is independent of the United States.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour set in motion a chain of world-changing events with consequences that have yet to be fully played out.


Geoffrey Roberts is Dean of Graduate Studies and Professor of History at University College Cork.





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