The War after Pearl Harbor

AN Imperial Rescript – the manifesto which is issued at great decisions of the Government – accompanied Japan’s declaration of war, and read as follows:

We hereby declare war on the United States of America and the British Empire… It has been truly unavoidable… More than four years have passed since China, failing to understand the true intentions of our empire, disturbed the peace of Asia. Although there has been re-established the National Government of China with which Japan has effected neighbourly intercourse and cooperation, the régime which has survived at Chungking, relying upon American and British protection, still continues its fratricidal opposition. Eager for the realization of their inordinate ambition to dominate the Orient, both America and Britain, giving support to the Chungking régime, have aggravated the disturbances of East Asia. Moreover these two powers, inducing other countries to follow suit, have increased military preparations on all sides of our empire to challenge us. They have obstructed by every means our peaceful commerce and finally have resorted to a direct severance of economic relations thereby gravely menacing the existence of our empire… This trend of affairs would, if left unchecked, endanger the very existence of our nation. The situation being such as it is, our empire, for its existence and self-defence, has no other recourse but to appeal to arms and to crush every obstacle on its path.

Except for the blame it casts on China for the convulsion, this is an accurate statement of why Japan went to war. Japan states that it enlarged the war because it believed that only by doing so was it possible to wind up a smaller war with China. Its intervention in Indo-China, to which America had reacted so stiffly, had been undertaken for the same reasons.

War on such a scale as Japan now embarked on had come out of the inability of the Japanese Government to find any other means of dealing with a situation which had passed out of its control. It was due in the last resort to a failure of ingenuity. The war was not preceded by elaborate planning. There was no systematic scheme of operations against the United States and Britain, which laid down a timetable for successive undertakings. British and American war planners and Intelligence experts, considering their prospects in the eventuality of a war against Japan, had been virtually unanimous in affirming their belief that while the Japanese were meticulous in their staff work, their gifts of improvisation were of a low order. That was to prove another failure by the West to know their enemy. All the evidence which was to become available to the Western Allies at the end of the hostilities confirms that the war was a desperate venture, hastily decided upon: that it was conducted by a series of improvisations, however brilliant some of these were: that no elaborate plans were made of the assets, military and economic, of the Western Allies, and that no intelligent scheme existed for eroding them: that Japan was, quite literally, taking a great leap in the dark, and casting its faith into the keeping of a veiled Providence, which it had no reason to think would be kind.

Admiral Yamamoto, accomplished gambler and the architect of Pearl Harbor, summed up the attitude of those who took the decision to go to war:

What a strange position I find myself in now – having to make a decision diametrically opposed to my own personal opinion, with no choice but to push full-speed in pursuance of that decision. Is that, too, fate?

To his sister, he wrote, ‘Well, war has begun at last. But in spite of all the clamour that is going on, we could lose it. I can only do my best.’ And to a fellow admiral he wrote:

This war will give us much trouble in the future. The fact that we have had a small success at Pearl Harbor is nothing. The fact that we have succeeded so easily has pleased people. Personally I do not think it is a good thing to whip up propaganda to encourage the nation. People should think things over and realize how serious the situation is.

He had, at Pearl Harbor, fought a successful holding operation, which had bought time. But he knew, as well as anybody, that this time would pass, and that, if at the end of it Japan – and its ally Germany – had not found a way to peace, Japan would be ruined. He had said repeatedly that it was easier to start a war than finish one. However much territory the Japanese took, however many American battleships they sank, final victory almost certainly would elude them.

One way only seemed to offer hope. Japanese strategy should be to win, by the impetus of surprise, as much as it possibly could in the first six months of the war. The only chance of a satisfactory peace would be to follow up Pearl Harbor by sinking the American aircraft-carriers: and then, from the triumphal height of that moment, to persuade the United States to negotiate peace. It might hope that Japan would seem to be in such a commanding position that its Anglo-Saxon enemies would be cast down by the difficulty of dislodging it. Though Japan’s occidental enemies had potentially invincible power, they would be unwilling to make the exertion of mobilizing it, the more so since they would have been worn out by the war effort they were making against Germany and Italy. Japan, it should be remembered, occupied a naval position of great strength strategically. After the war of 1914–18, it had inherited from Germany the Caroline and Marshall Islands in the Pacific which, if thoroughly fortified (as they were to become), interposed a screen which would hamper the Americans in defending the Philippines or in advancing westwards towards the Japanese homeland. And in the South Pacific there were other considerations.

The Japanese, linked by blood to Polynesia as well as to Mongolia, Korea and China, have always exhibited a degree of interest in the South Seas and in that concept of manifest destiny which they called the ‘Southern Advance’. The South Seas Mandated Islands, wrested by Japan from Germany during the First World War and conceded to Japanese control by the League of Nations, were a source of national pride as well as being a focus for economic exploitation. From a naval point of view, the strategical importance of the islands was immense. It was the view of the Naval Affairs Bureau that:

the South Sea Islands were so situated geographically as to constitute the bulwark of sea defence for Japan and hence we termed it the first line of defence for our country. We felt that if these islands fell into the hands of an enemy it would have meant certain defeat for Japan. Hence it was but natural that the Navy was desirous of installing on these islands or some of them such military defensive measures as would satisfy our need for security. Were it not for treaty restrictions we would have carried out defensive constructions on these islands with no hesitation.

In the Covenant of the League of Nations there was a general prohibition against the establishment of permanent defences on mandated territories. The award to Japan of the islands formerly possessed by Germany in the South Pacific was contingent upon additional assurances that it would respect that prohibition. That the Japanese eventually broke these promises is not in dispute and, since the United States never joined the League of Nations, has little significance in itself. A nation’s self-defence was regarded as its paramount obligation and inalienable right. It was, however, important that in several treaties concluded during the Washington Conference in 1922, the Japanese repeated their categorical assurances that the Japanese Mandated Islands would not be fortified although, of course, it was plain that their freedom of action (like that of their rivals) would be restored whenever the agreements finally terminated.

Long before the expiration of the Washington Treaties, the British and Americans convinced themselves that the Japanese were in breach of their undertakings. Their evidence for this was merely that the Japanese declared the Mandated Islands off-limits to foreigners and strictly enforced the rule. The rest was rumour and speculation. Subsequently it emerged that the civil administration of the islands had been put into the hands of naval officers. They thoroughly surveyed the defence potential of each one, naval manoeuvres were periodically conducted there, and a number of facilities were erected which, strictly speaking, were not proscribed by the Treaties but might have raised a hair on an international lawyer’s eyebrow: these included some rudimentary air strips, light harbour facilities and modest fuel storage tanks – all ostensibly for civil use in the economic exploitation of the islands though with their potential conversion to military use clearly in mind. None of these constructions nor a few temporary buildings built there constituted the kind of defended bases and fixed artillery emplacements proscribed by the Treaties. Even the limited development that did take place on the Mandated Islands prior to the outbreak of the Pacific War occurred only after the demise of the Washington Treaty System, and the contrast between what was built before the war and the defence installations installed there after Pearl Harbor provides some measure of the Japanese Navy’s attempt to uphold its Treaty obligations.

The suspicions of the Western Powers were in fact groundless although understandable. The matter was explored by both sides at the time of the Japanese war crimes trials, and notwithstanding the International Tribunal’s characteristically one-sided judgement to the contrary, the evidence produced by the Defence seems far more convincing than the case for the Prosecution. The myths and legends persist, but the formidable defence works constructed on these islands during the war itself should be regarded as a memorial to Japanese forward planning, engineering skill and efficiency, not to duplicity. Indeed it is clear that the policy of successive Japanese Governments and of the Japanese fighting services was to conform to Japan’s undertaking not to fortify the islands, until a surprisingly late stage. It is a point worth setting straight, and the Summation by the Defence at the Tokyo Trial puts the issue squarely:

It was frankly admitted that after November 1941 the Navy decided for the first time to carry out the construction of defence works on the Mandated Islands. But it was not until after the middle of November that the construction corps left Japan for some of the islands. But this was only after conditions between the Western Powers and Japan had come to the danger point of explosion and it would have been militarily ridiculous for the Japanese Navy to have sat back quietly with folded hands.

The Japanese defences in their Mandated Islands do merit comparison with the poor state of readiness that existed in British, American, Australian and Dutch island possessions in the Pacific in the years between the termination of the Treaties and the outbreak of war in the Pacific. The economic parsimony of the western democracies was responsible for the fact that they achieved less where development was permitted. The Defence, however, made another cogent point as well in summing up:

If Japan had entertained the thought of aggressive war against the United States, Great Britain or the other countries, surely [it] would not have waited until this desperately late day to begin such military construction on the lifeline of Japan.

The vast depths of the Pacific Ocean were in themselves a very strong defence. Japan could argue that the United States, confronted with the possibility of either a prolonged, arduous counter-assault, or with a generous peace offer by Japan – generous in the sense that it would not be against the United States’ interest in any part of the world except East Asia – would choose the path of peace.

Of the chances of their ally Germany – who was little more, either then or later, than their nominal ally – they took a rather similar view: Germany’s long-term prospects were black, but it might find salvation in the war-weariness of the Western Allies. In this titanic world contest, one of the most curious things was the failure of Japan and Germany to cooperate. Their relations throughout were scarcely more than the conventional ones of peacetime association. Their relations were conducted by Ambassadors. The joint planning which essentially made up Anglo-American cooperation was almost totally absent in the wartime partnership of their rivals. There were joint commissions which Japan and Germany established to help coordinate their policies, but these were largely empty shells without much vital substance. When diligent spying failed to discover any joint war plans by Germany and Japan, it was assumed at first that an unusually opaque veil had been woven to hide them. Not until much later did the real and simple truth become credible. No such plans had been brought into being.

Japan, unlike Germany, had no well-considered long-term war aims. In contrast to what Germany planned for Europe, Japan invested little effort in its projects for the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The direction of the war on the Japanese side was too widely diffused among different hands for a clear national policy to become plain. Japan, even though it had hopes of limiting the war, was easily diverted away from the idea of a defensive war. By Pearl Harbor and Japan’s initial victories, a situation had been created which made prudence difficult, and lured the Japanese on. It was as impossible to restrain its generals and admirals from further adventures as it is to prevent bulls from charging in a bull-ring.

In general, Japan followed a strategy remarkably close to that by which Mr Micawber governed his life. It was to take violent action, and then to hope that something or other would turn up, enabling it to escape disaster and to re-establish peace.

Japan had committed the error of all military Powers in dealing with the United States. It underrated grossly the willingness of the United States to bear the adversities of war. It despised it; and continued to do so throughout the war. Because in the course of every war the United States armies had begun badly, because its democratic institutions encouraged crude criticism and loose talk, because its people were not ashamed to harp upon considerations of material interest, the Japanese, like Hohen-zollern Germany before them, too easily expected the United States to give up. They scoffed at the American commercial instinct, and they predicted that, in the grim struggle of war, this could never survive against the Samurai tradition.

But the nature of Anglo-Saxon democracy has often been its tenacity. This the Americans, and the British, have demonstrated clearly in chapters of their history. Confront them wth a desperate situation, give them disastrous leaders, let their economic policies be deplorable, saddle their public life with a rising rate of casualties; and they have generally become more stubborn. They can be implacable, and seemingly their pocket is limitless. They become pitiless and merciless, both to their enemies and to the civilian minorities among them who protest against a transfiguration of the values of life by the stubborn resolve to continue war. Pass-chendaele and the battlefields of the American Civil War are a terrible warning, which naturally militant people, but those untouched by the traditions of Anglo-Saxon democracy, have never taken to heart. Once it has taken up arms, and has suffered the bloodletting which warms its temper, the democracy long ceases to understand the virtues of a peace which is negotiated, and is satisfied only with the barren conclusion spreading bitterness everywhere, of absolute victory. There have been exceptions – the history of the Vietnam War was one, the adventures of the United States in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America have been others – when public opinion has cast a decisive vote against foreign wars. Britain, too, had her Boer War, and her scuttle from African and East Asian conflicts after the Second World War may count as much the same. Yet generally the Anglo-American democracies at war set aside all rules, and, with a mood created by the tempest of the hour, work simply and mechanically, grinding their way to victory. This was the tempest which Japan was bringing down upon itself: more awful than any of its feared typhoons.

It was to discover later that, terrible as a victorious democracy may be, it has at least the virtue of quickly changing its temper when the goad of war is removed. The resolution and implacability, which thrive during war, are dissolved after a year or so of peace. Hence Japan, if it had dwelt on past history, need not have been so miserably cast down by its total defeat.

If the Japanese despised the United States, Americans no less misunderstood the Japanese. Their mutual incomprehension is one of the facts, tragic and at times comic, of the war. Throughout its course, anyone visiting the United States was at once made conscious of the passionate contempt, originally based on resentment, which was felt for the Japanese. All the discreditable facts about them were remembered. All that made Japanese civilization interesting was, as by system, forgotten. All Japanese were lumped together as a misshapen, ugly, stupid, dwarf people. They were like nothing so much as Mr Tolkien’s orcs in The Lord of the Rings, creations of a people of sheer malevolence and hideousness. One discreditable consequence of this racialist response was the public hysteria which quickly developed on the West Coast of the United States for the forcible internment of Americans of Japanese extraction.

Many Americans of a more reflective turn of mind were dismayed by this outrage, but they were powerless in the face of the sensationalist press and radio coverage which pandered to the prejudices of the majority. With strong backing from local congressmen and other public figures, notably from State Attorney General Earl Warren, who was then campaigning for the governorship of California which he won in 1943 (he went on to earn a place in history as a Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court renowned for his then less than popular advancement of the civil liberties of other minority groups), sufficient pressure was put upon officials in Washington, DC, to produce results. At first the Japanese-Americans were subjected to abuse, harassment and worse as individual American citizens ‘took matters into their own hands’. Soon various curfews were imposed and Japanese-Americans were excluded from specified ‘prohibited zones’, which grew in number or extent over the first few months after Pearl Harbor until these unfortunates were barred altogether from the western third of Washington and Oregon, the western half of California and the southern quarter of Arizona. Then in June 1942, orders were given that led to further controls which effectively deprived all Americans of Japanese extraction of their liberty within any part of those four states.

Eventually, 119,000 were taken away to be concentrated at ten internment camps established for that purpose at remote, inhospitable sites (where they lived in terrible hardship and a significant number died from their privations). Forced to abandon their property and personal possessions or to dispose of their homes, businesses and smallholdings at giveaway prices, there was to be no restitution of their property after the war. No real steps were taken by the United States Government to compensate Japanese-Americans for their losses until the early 1980s.

The supposed threat which was allegedly posed by these Americans to the national security of the United States was almost entirely imaginary – and was recognized as such by many of those who carried out the exercise: in that most sensitive of military districts, Hawaii, fewer than 500 persons of Japanese extraction were interned. Despite intensive surveillance by vigilant citizens, local police forces, the FBI and the Intelligence agencies of the defence services, not one Japanese-American was ever charged with the commission of an act of sabotage within the continental limits of the United States or Hawaii (although General John L. DeWitt, Commanding General of the Western Defense Command, who showed a keen interest in tightening his grip on the Japanese-Americans until their pips squeaked, remarked, ‘The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken’). No similar measures were taken against the Italo-American or German-American ethnic communities in the United States or its overseas territories.

The British reacted in a less extreme way. On going to war, Churchill wrote a quite sentimental letter to the Japanese Ambassador, but generally he shared the prejudices of his countrymen and of his American cousins. The stream of American feeling did not sweep the British along with it; the British had their emotions concentrated on the Nazis, and, except where they had powerful reasons for hatred from personal experience of Japanese camps or other atrocities, regarded the Japanese as a provoking irrelevance. These were differences of cultural styles, not of perception.

By its fateful decision Japan altogether changed the character of the war.

China, which until then had preserved the fiction that its war was no war but merely an incident, declared war on Japan on 9 December. It rejoiced in the United States being committed and saw the prospect of its operation being enlarged by American aid. All would have been denied to China by the isolationists of America had China declared war before America itself was committed to the struggle. So the declaration was a voluntary act by China. Events might have taken a different course if China had not thus regularized its American alliance. Similarly, on the same day that it declared war on Japan it declared war on Germany.

Why it did so is not clear. As Germany was under no obligation to declare war on the United States, and did so against its interests, so China was under no obligation to declare war on Germany. Apparently it did so out of a kind of contagion. It might be assumed that the countries were beset by madness.

From this time onwards, the direst and chiefly decisive part of the war was waged on sea and in the air. The air and sea operations of the Japanese war were probably the most spectacular in human history. It is true that the war with China continued desultorily, but the problems which compelled the attention of the wartime Japanese Governments had very little relation to those of the earlier period. Pearl Harbor meant a huge increase in Japan’s enemies. It had against it the British Empire, in those days still a Super-power, as well as the United States. It had defied a great part of the world, and though it had at first won prodigious successes, the precariousness of its position was always plain, even to the Japanese man in the street.

In the whole of the latter part of the war, in the struggle of Japan with the Western Powers, Japan was by conviction as well as by circumstance compelled to appear as the liberator of the orient against occidental control. The role of the emancipator, which nationalists everywhere had first hopefully seen Japan as fulfilling in its victory against Russia in 1905, was now firmly wished upon it by the exigencies of the time. In India, in Indo-China, in Indonesia, in Burma, a tide was started which, if the Japanese had rightly worked with it, might have proved irresistible. In this new illumination the presence of the white man in Asia seemed a ghastly insult to the rights of Asian peoples. Even classes of people who had formerly been contented to work with the West hailed the new prospect of building the future of Asia upon Asian foundations.

The history of the war was to some extent a chronicle of Japan’s lost opportunities: of a crusade which never got started; of a Japan which was so hampered by inner contradictions and by lack of a systematic blueprint that it was unsuccessful in rising to the occasion. As the war went on, many Japanese allowed it to become plain that they, at least, were bent on a simple predatory enterprise of the kind which had been supposed to have gone out of fashion with the passing of the nineteenth century. They failed to disguise in a plausible way that their interest was no higher than the transfer to Japan of the benefits enjoyed by western countries in the South Seas and in Asia. The ideology of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, with its picture of an eastern world finding harmony under the protection of the Japanese armies, was far from being perfunctory for those who strove for it mightily. Yet for others it remained unconvincing amid the turmoil and the temptations of conquest which beggared the imagination of an island people. Opportunism, where it occurred, often overlay a deep-seated belief in Hakkō Ichiu (all-the-eight-corners-of-the-world-under-one-roof) rather than vice versa.

In three years, Japan, by a series of blunders, disappointed the hopes of Asia that it was the liberator. By extraordinarily insensitive action, hardline Japanese convinced Asian nationalists that so long as the war continued Japan could or would offer little or nothing to the peoples struggling to be free; and satisfied the national leaders that more was to be had from the European Imperial Powers – or from the United States – than from the victory of Japan. For this result, a part of the responsibility was due to the misconduct, repeated blunders, arrogance and stupidity, of the Japanese Army. Japan’s imperial adventure was always associated with the Japanese Army: Japanese diplomats, civilians and captains of industry were of secondary importance. For reasons, one must look to the very sources of the Japanese Army’s strength – to the social background, educational system, internal discipline and ascetic values of the Imperial Japanese Army, described earlier. The opportunities for a genuine new era in the region, which were made available by the daring and glittering achievements of Japanese arms, were flung away because the Japanese Army acted in the teeth of the inhabitants of the region, and came to be hated throughout Asia. It was defeated by Anglo-Saxon powers in military combat, but when this came about, few tears were shed by Asian nationalists at the result.

After Pearl Harbor, the war, or the China Incident and the European War, broadened out, and became a world war, in which nearly every country was engaged. It was more universal than the First World War had been. The greater part of the civilized world was drawn in.

There is a distinction, of kind as well as of degree, between a local war and a universal one. In a local war, there are boundaries to the general savagery. In general men can opt out of it: they, or at least some, can go to neutral territory. In a universal explosion, war is everywhere. The shortage of neutrals leaves man without refuge.

Ruskin, in a passage from Praeterita, describes the difference between a local war and a war which had got out of hand and swept the world: that of Napoleon. Of this war, Ruskin says that:

death was of another range and power; more terrible a thousand-fold in its merely physical grasp and grief; more terrible, incalculably, in its mystery and shame. What were the robber’s casual pang, or the range of the flying skirmish, compared to the work of the axe, and the sword, and the famine, which was done at this time in all the hills and plains of the Christian earth, from Moscow to Gibraltar… Look on the map of Europe, and count the bloodstains on it, between Arcola and Waterloo.

So with this later convulsion; only the scientific progress with weapons of destruction made the havoc worse. What, in other ages, armies could bring about in a dozen years, they had now the capacity to do in a dozen days, or even hours.

The greater part of the civilized world was at war: little by little, in almost every country of the world, in great cities, and in most of the accessible villages, the sights and sounds of war were to become the commonplace of the age. In North America, in the Asian countries, in Australia, and in North Africa, the progress of the war became a grand preoccupation. In all too many centres of ordered life, centres which for more than a century had been famous for commerce or culture, the distant hum of conflict turned abruptly into the clash and commotion of sudden battle, to be followed often by the long tedium and horror of military occupation by an alien power. In all the world, only Central Africa and South America were relatively undisturbed.

The whole world moved senselessly in one direction or another, suffered and died in great swaths. Peasants and citizens of the huge Asian towns were caught alike. Many more perished from famine and disease than were killed by the armies.

This huge populace was informed about what was happening chiefly by local newspapers. Other media of communication scarcely touched it. Beyond Japan Proper and the Philippines, only the rare Asian village was, at the time, equipped with radio. For the townsmen, the radio set poured out propaganda, but in the towns the people largely discounted this, and put more faith in the printed word. From newspapers, and still more by word of mouth, word was spread, without which the Asian peoples would have supposed that there was no rhyme or reason in the convulsion of the world. It is hard enough to see how these instruments were sufficient for their purpose. Even though newspapers made their way into most of the villages, even remote ones in China and India, the number of people who could read them was very restricted. The war which had engulfed the governments had drawn in a mass of illiterate peasants. Those who could read found their talent even more highly regarded than in the past. They read in their newspaper and told the rest of the people what it contained. They and their village councils and headmen were the agents of the increasing self-awareness of the peoples of Asia during this time. But it is unlikely that many of them came to any conclusion about the events they contemplated more perceptive than that of little Peterkin on the battle of Blenheim two and a half centuries earlier:

But what they fought each other for

I could not well make out.

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