August always calls to mind the final weeks of the war in 1945: Hiroshima on Aug. 6, Nagasaki on Aug. 9, the surrender of Aug. 15. Formal surrender in September to General MacArthur on the Missouri in Tokyo Bay was but a photo op.
Today, World War II is recalled as the “good war” on Hitler’s empire. But that was not true for the generation that lived through it. For even the youngest, it was, first and foremost, a war against the evil empire that had carried out the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
And understandably so. Even before U.S. troops first clashed with Rommel’s Afrika Corps, Pearl Harbor, the Coral Sea, Midway, Bataan, Corregidor, the Doolittle Raid, and Guadalcanal were already burned in our memories. And while the morality of our war measures—the fire-bombing of Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki—is still debated, no one denies the morality of the war itself.
Yet, even as Bush and Tony Blair today face charges of having “lied us into war,” so, too, did FDR. Even more so.
Indeed, why did Japan, an island nation smaller than Montana, attack the most powerful nation on earth? How did Hirohito and Tojo expect to win a war to the death with America that they must have known a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor would ignite?In 1952, the great revisionist historian Charles Callan Tansill, in Back Door to War: The Roosevelt Foreign Policy 1933-1941, concluded it was not Japan that sought war with us, but FDR who sought war with Japan, as a back door to war with Nazi Germany. His case: in 1931, Japan occupied Manchuria as a defensive move to secure her northern flank from Stalin who had seized Outer Mongolia and Sinkiang. Manchuria was as critical to Japan as Mexico is to us.
In 1937, following a clash on the Marco Polo Bridge outside Peiping, Japan and China went to war. For four years they fought, with Japan controlling the coasts and China the interior. For three years of this war, America saw no vital interest at risk and remained uninvolved.
But when Japan joined the Axis and occupied Indochina, FDR sent military aid to Chiang Kai-shek under lend-lease and approved the dispatch of the Flying Tigers to fight against Japan. He ordered B-17s to Manila to prepare to attack Japan’s home islands. He secretly promised the Dutch and British that, should Japan attack their Asian colonies, America would go to war. Japan was aware of it all.
In July 1941, FDR froze Japan’s assets, shutting off her oil. Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner warned FDR it meant war.
Indeed, when Israel’s oil supply was imperiled by Nasser’s threat to close the Straits of Tiran to ships docking in Israel, the Israelis launched their own Pearl Harbor, destroying the Egyptian air force on the ground before invading the Sinai and ending the oil threat to Israel’s survival.
Nevertheless, knowing it meant war, FDR cut off Japan’s oil. Thus was the Japanese empire and national economy, entirely dependent on imported oil, put under a sentence of death.
Japanese militarists wanted war but the government of Prince Konoye did not. He offered to meet FDR anywhere in the Pacific. The prince told the U.S. ambassador that if oil shipments were renewed, Tokyo was ready to pull out of Indochina and have FDR mediate an end to the Sino-Japanese war. FDR spurned the offer.
Japan then sent an envoy to Washington to seek negotiations. On Nov. 26, Secretary of State Cordell Hull rejected negotiations and handed an ultimatum to the Japanese: get out of Indochina and China.
Japan faced a choice: accept a humiliating retreat from an empire built with immense blood and treasure, or seize the oil-rich Dutch East Indies. Pearl Harbor followed. The Tojo Doctrine of pre-emptive war.
Did FDR truly believe China’s integrity was a vital interest? Hardly. Once war broke out, China was ignored. The Pacific took a back seat to Europe. U.S. forces on Corregidor were abandoned. Aid to Churchill and Stalin and war on Germany took precedence over all.
At Yalta, FDR, without consulting Chiang Kai-shek, ceded to Stalin Chinese territories that were to be taken from Japan.
Was America’s war on Japan a just war? Assuredly. Were U.S. vital interests threatened by Japan? No. Provoking war with Japan was FDR’s back door to the war he wanted—with Hitler in Europe.
After a meeting with FDR, Nov. 25, Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote in his diary that the main question is “how we maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.” That is the American way to war.