December 7 marks seventy years since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This incident finally broke the non-interventionist spirit that had characterized the American people—an attitude that was informed by the utter failure of the United States’s very costly entry in the last world war to bring about the democracy that was promised of it. Polls show as many as four out of five Americans opposed intervention. The Pearl Harbor attack changed everything. The America First movement, the largest antiwar movement in U.S. history, folded, for the most part. One of its most vocal leaders, Charles Lindbergh, joined the war effort upon hearing of the Pearl Harbor attack. He ended up flying fifty combat missions in the Pacific Theater.
In October, 1940, U.S. Admiral James Richardson warned President Roosevelt, Admiral Harry Stark, and Secretary Frank Knox that U.S. ships did not belong at Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt responded that the ships would have a “restraining influence” on Japan. When Richardson asked FDR if the U.S. was going to war with Japan, the president responded, according to Richardson, “that if the Japanese attacked Thailand, or the Kra Penninsula, or the Dutch East Indies we would not enter the war, that if they even attacked the Philippines he doubted whether we would enter the war.” But “sooner or later they would make a mistake and we would enter the war.”
Casual observers had many reasons to suspect FDR wanted war. In September 1940, the president had established the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. Voters were worried. The next month he told a concerned audience: “I have said this before but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”
In March 1941, safely sworn in to his third term as president, Roosevelt signed the bill creating Lend-Lease, a program of U.S. military aid to Russia, Britain, China, and France. On December 4, 1941, three days before the Pearl Harbor attack, the Chicago Tribune‘s headline read: “F.D.R.’s War plans!” The paper published a copy of Rainbow Five, Roosevelt’s secret plan to create a ten-million man army in the event of an invasion of Europe.
More than a few of Roosevelt’s contemporary critics believed the Pearl Harbor attack was a set-up. In 1945, New Deal critic John Flynn wrote about U.S. agitation of Japan before the attack:
There is a story of profound importance yet to be told about the state of peace so far as America was concerned before Pearl Harbor. Certainly we had not declared war. But we had sent an army across the sea to Iceland to join the British army there; we had been sending arms, ammunition and destroyers and planes as a gift to Britain and France and China. We had been with our warships hunting down German submarines for British planes and even bombing them. . . . In the Pacific we had cut off all shipments and trade of essential materials with Japan and frozen and seized here $130,000,000 of her funds, which Walter Lippmann called “a declaration of economic warfare.” We had sent an American military mission to China and an American economic adviser to Chiang Kai-shek. We had sent General Chennault with a large number of American army fliers to China to fight with Chiang’s army.
President Herbert Hoover wrote a history of World War II that also made points along these lines, although it was not published until fifty years after it was written. It was also long after the war that scholars were able to provide more sophisticated scrutiny of the events, most notably Robert Stinnett, whose 1990s work Day of Deceit goes further than any previous work in demonstrating that the United States had cracked Japanese codes and arguing that the U.S. had foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack. The book also provides readers with a copy of the McCollum memo, an action plan from October 1940 devised by Lieutenant Commander Arthur H. McCollum included with conjecture about how the U.S. might enter the war should Japan fire the first shot. Some suggested policies, such as interfering with Japan’s oil supply, were undertaken by the United States in the following year.
If Pearl Harbor was indeed a set-up, a provoked attack to get the U.S. into a war that Americans leaders wanted for reasons independent of the attack, it would not be the first time an American president deceitfully jumped on false pretenses or misconstrued skirmishes and enemy actions to drag the country into war—The Mexican War began with a disingenuously interpreted border dispute in a hardly populated strip of land between Texas and Mexico, when the real purpose was to grab California and other territories; the Civil War involved disingenuous federal diplomacy regarding Fort Sumter; the Spanish-American War was sold as a crusade to liberate Cubans from Spanish atrocities that were exaggerated in Yellow Journalism, pointing to the destruction of the USS Maine that was likely not caused by the Spanish; World War I involved a mass of propaganda concerning the Lusitania, the Zimmerman Telegram, and exaggerated German atrocities.
But what resulted from Pearl Harbor has been a virtually uninterrupted cascade of U.S. government infamy. The war transformed the United States domestically. The highest income tax rates surpassed ninety percent. Butter, sugar, tires, and a wide range of other necessities were rationed. Forty percent of the economy and work force were devoted to the war effort. Never again would the U.S. have as small a government as it did even during the New Deal. Moreover, civil liberties were trashed. Martial law was declared in Hawaii. 110,000 Americans of Japanese extraction were interned. A U.S. citizen was tried by military commission and executed without civilian judicial oversight. The Roosevelt administration engaged in censorship and surveillance. Most dramatically, over ten million American men were conscripted—forced to join the military—and hundreds of thousands of them did not return.
During the war, the U.S. became the empire it is today. It embarked upon a multi-billion dollar program to create nuclear weapons, employing 100,000 people and succeeding in introducing these terrifying and demonic devices to the world. President Roosevelt, who had been hostile to business interests in the late New Deal, turned around to court them for the purpose of building a military-industrial complex that has never retreated from having significant influence over U.S. national security policy. President Truman, having presided over the war’s end, oversaw a retrenchment of U.S. war power and the defense establishment—but never as they were before the war. And indeed, unlike after most U.S. wars before—the Civil War and World War I, in particular—the U.S. would never after World War II again restore the degree of non-interventionism and orientation toward peace.
America’s impact on the world stage in World War II has been pretty much accepted as a blessing. It is taken for granted that it was necessary to defeat the Nazis, although they were principally defeated by the USSR. It is assumed that U.S. defeat of Imperial Japan was worth whatever costs were incurred. So much of Asia fell prey to an evil comparable or even worse—communism—but this is often neglected in the nearly universal positive assessments of U.S. entry into World War II. Nor are we supposed to acknowledge the hundreds of thousands of victims and dozens of destroyed cities in the U.S. firebombing in Japan or British firebombing of Germany, atrocities that dwarf in their terroristic nature and sheer enormity the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor, many times over.
Indeed, World War II was no more a success for world freedom than World War I had been, although it is often characterized as exactly that. The victims of the Holocaust were mostly effectively slaughtered, not saved. Millions of other victims became enslaved and murdered under Communist totalitarianism. Roosevelt had said of “Uncle Joe” Stalin in 1943 that he believed that if he would “give [Stalin] everything I possibly can and ask for nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.” Stalin had already annexed much of Eastern Europe, and went on to vastly expand the Communist empire. As for peace, the U.S. soon found itself embroiled in another major global crusade—the Cold War.
The Soviet Union finally dissolved half a century later, but the United States empire never did. In the Cold War, more pretenses and propaganda defined America’s hot wars. The U.S. went to war with Korea in the name of peace, democracy, and freedom, targeting civilians and siding with dictators. The U.S. jumped on the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 to wage a monstrously aggressive war in Indochina that killed millions of civilians.
Meanwhile, the U.S. supported despots and torturers, mostly in the name of keeping socialism at bay, in every region from Latin America to the Middle East. In the Muslim world, U.S. support for brutal dictators like Shah in Iran, the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan, and Saddam Hussein ended up resulting in blowback and the most ironic modern incidents of a superpower fighting insurgents that it had armed not a decade before.
In the year 2000, a number of foreign policy ultra-hawks in the Project for a New American Century were dissatisfied with America’s relatively peaceful posture, despite the Gulf War, the U.S. boot on Iraq’s neck through bombing and sanctions, and recent interventions in Haiti, Somalia, the Balkans. They said the U.S. needed a “new Pearl Harbor” to bring Americans along to supported another surge in U.S. warmaking.
It came on September 11, 2001. The story since then is fresh on everyone’s mind. A decade of war in Afghanistan. Threats of mushroom clouds and depleted uranium followed by nine years of war in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of dead civilians, torture scandals, a Bill of Rights in tatters, trillions squandered, and no end in sight. The U.S. is fighting its former allies, the ones the U.S. sided with to fight the Soviets, all in a global Cold War that itself grew out of World War II.
For years after the 9/11 attacks, those who advocated peace and a commitment to civil liberties were accused of their pre-9/11 mentality. I’m guilty of that condition, myself. But looking back at the last seventy years of U.S. militarist infamy, destruction, and perpetual war, mark me down for having a pre-12/7 mentality too.