The Holocaust Historiography Project


Study of Roosevelt’s Path to Pearl Harbor Debunks Popular Historical Myths

  • A Time For War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Path to Pearl Harbor, by Robert Smith Thompson. New York: Pren- tice Hall, 1991. xiii+449 pages. Hardcover. Photos. Source notes. Bibliography. Index.

Reviewed by Joseph Bishop

In the popular view, the origin of America’s war with Japan is clear: without provocation, the dastardly Japanese launched a sneak attack against us at Pearl Harbor. Japan’s militaristic warlords, together with their totalitarian Axis partners, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, were bent on savage world conquest and global domination. America, militarily weak but morally strong, recovered from the “day of infamy” attack to subdue Japan and its Axis partners, and save the world.

With help from the mass media and a community of “court historians,” Americans widely accept this portrayal of the conflict as a struggle between angels and devils. Over the years, though, revisionist historians such as Charles Beard, Harry Elmer Barnes, John Toland and John Costello have thoroughly discredited this feel-good establishment account.

Among the facts of “inconvenient history” cited by revisionists are President Franklin Roosevelt’s threats and ultimatums to Japan, the tightening US trade embargo of Japan, unlawful US aid to Japan’s enemies, and American foreknowledge of an imminent Japanese attack against US bases some time in early December 1941 based on a reading of Japan’s secret military and diplomatic codes.

In this book, Robert Smith Thompson, a lecturer on foreign policy at the University of South Carolina, re-affirms the established revisionist view of the war’s origins, but with a focus on the role of China in the interwar period. He understands, of course, that Japan was hardly blameless, and it is not his purpose to deny Japanese aggression or atrocities. At the same time, though, he sheds light on a neglected chapter of history, and effectively debunks popular but inaccurate perceptions. Summing up his thesis, he writes (p. xiii):

The traditional view of why America entered World War II is a myth. Neither isolationist nor truly neutral, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration forced Germany and Japan to go to war with us. Why Roosevelt did so is another — and an enthralling — question. The answer to this question goes back at least to the start of the twentieth century.

Chinese Weakness

Often overlooked in the emphasis on the Pacific War of 1941-1945 is Japan’s drawn out military involvement in China, 1931-1945. As Thompson shows here, the Sino-Japanese war foreshadowed the Japanese-American clash, not least because it was a laboratory for Rooseveltian lawbreaking and duplicity. Furthermore, he shows that the military conflict between Japan and the United States had its origins in earlier rivalry and competition in east Asia between the two countries.

Already in the 19th century, European powers and the United States were prying open commercial markets in China, which was ruled by the weak and hopelessly ineffectual Ch'ing (Manchu) dynasty. Particularly in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, Western powers reduced China to a playground for European and American business interests, missionary societies, and private adventurers. A string of humiliating losses of territory and sovereignty to alien foreigners eroded the authority of China’s Manchu regime, which “lost face” with its people. The collapse of the dynasty in 1911 brought further disorder and chaos. Secret societies proliferated, bandits roamed the countryside, gangsters terrorized the cities, and warlords seized control of large territories.

European powers, and, increasingly, the United States, also moved to fill the power vacuum. To enforce its hegemony, Westerners established “international settlements” in China’s larger cities and their gunboats patrolled her rivers and sea lanes.

Japanese Ambitions in China

The proclamation earlier of an “Open Door” policy in China reflected America’s new-found power and influence on the world stage, and further underscored China’s semi-colonial status. Weaker but friendly European powers such as Britain, Netherlands and France had to rely ever more on the United States for help in maintaining their positions in China. In spite of the Nine-Power Treaty of 1922, which guaranteed the integrity of China and its “Open Door” (and of which Japan was a signatory), the “door” was more open to some than to others.

Meanwhile, Japan’s rapidly expanding industrial economy required vast imports of raw materials as well as large markets for its finished export goods. The most obvious source of imports and outlet for exports was neighboring China, the world’s most populous country. But in the scramble for markets and power in Asia, Japan was disfavored and humiliated. The Western powers, and increasingly, the United States, thwarted her ambitions. As Thompson explains (p. 16), the US wielded ever greater power in Asia to its own advantage and to Japan’s detriment:

America had persuaded Britain to renounce its own 1901 treaty with Japan. America had required Japan to evacuate the Shantung Peninsula, occupied during World War I, and to return customs control and sovereignty to China. America had demanded, and gotten, cable rights on Yap [Island] in the Pacific. America had forced Japan to leave Siberia, which the Japanese had invaded in 1919, and to give the Soviets the northern half of Sakhalin Island.

Not surprisingly, Thompson notes (p. 98), Japan viewed all this as an intolerable state of affairs:

For close to a century, Western commercial interests in China had centered their activities on the treaty ports… [In] each of these cities, which China had signed away in part or altogether to foreigners (usually to the British)…Westerners controlled the currencies, the exchange rates, the tariffs and quotas, the regulations over shipping and navigation, the rates and symbols of the power of the West. And the Japanese were determined to end all that.

One-Sided Neutrality

During the early 1930s Japan took military control of much of northern China. In Manchuria (northeast China) it established the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932. Japan’s full-scale war in China traditionally dates from the “Marco Polo Bridge” incident in 1937. While the origins of this “incident” remain unclear to this day, Chinese Communist involvement is a possibility. Indeed, an ominous and complicating factor throughout East Asia was the rise of Communism. Proxies of Soviet Russia did their best to foment unrest and conflict amongst the Asian peoples, and Japan’s responsive efforts to combat Communist “bandits” in China merged with its general war of conquest there.

Naturally, the Westerners who had been holding sway in China resented Japan’s sudden military intrusion and new power in the vast land. Between 1931 and 1941, hostile incidents in China between American citizens and Japanese troops, the luridly Japanophobic portrayal of the Sino-Japanese conflict in American newspapers, periodicals and newsreels, and official US condemnations of Japanese actions in China all helped psychologically to prepare the American public for an “inevitable” showdown with Japan.

Contributing to this was the work of Henry Luce, the avidly pro-Chinese publisher of Time and Life magazines. (Luce was the son of American missionaries in China.) In his influential weeklies, he bashed Japan and boosted Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) and his anti-Japanese government as the authentic representative of the Chinese people. In reality, Chiang Kai-shek presided over a corrupt and dictatorial regime, which was largely controlled by the fabulously wealthy and corrupt Soong clan. (Mei-ling Soong was Chiang Kai-shek’s wife, and T.V. Soong, at one time the wealthiest man in the world, was his Prime Minister.)

During 1937-1941, all these factors contributed to the erosion of the remnants of United States neutrality. Writes Thompson (p. 39):

In the mid-1930s, Congress had passed a series of neutrality acts, requiring belligerent countries to pay cash for whatever they bought in the States and to ship such goods in their own vessels (the cash-and-carry principle) — and requiring the president, when two foreign countries were in a state of war, to declare an arms embargo. Since Japan could produce its own weapons, however, and China could not, having to make purchases overseas, an embargo would hurt China more than it would hurt Japan. So Roosevelt made a move that was not a move. He decided that he would “find” no war. He would wink at the sale of arms to China.

Roosevelt’s phony neutrality and his illicit aid to China against Japan foreshadowed his circumventions of the neutrality laws in aiding Britain against Germany. Indeed, the campaign to inflame emotions against Japan over the China war served as a general precursor to America’s propaganda war against Germany.

As early as 1937, America’s willful violations of neutrality extended to the financing of China’s war against Japan, and the training and equipping of China’s air force. (See also “Roosevelt’s Secret Pre-War Plan to Bomb Japan,” Winter 1991-92 Journal.) As Thompson explains (p. 33):

Three events, each out of the spring of 1937, cast doubt on America’s true neutrality. The Chinese government had begun to send presents to American officials, especially to President Roosevelt. The US Treasury had begun to buy Chinese silver, granting China a kind of foreign aid. And the Chinese government had begun to pay money to an American pilot, Claire Chennault. His job was to reorganize the Chinese air force; and although he was retired from the US Army Air Corps, he had plenty of contacts in Washington. In time, he would make full use of those contacts.

Much of China’s ability militarily to resist the Japanese depended upon the outside sources of material aid coming through the Yangtze River, which also served as the main artery of trade for American and other western companies. Japan severed the conduit to their enemies by announcing in 1937 their seizure of the Shanghai customs service. This was accompanied by further international incidents, including a brief Japanese invasion of the Shanghai international settlement, and aerial strafings of western ships plying the river lines, including the sinking of the US gunboat “Panay” in December 1937. Other sources of western aid to China came through Haiphong in French Indochina and via Britain’s Hong Kong colony. Japanese pressures applied to these routes further inflamed tensions.

Another route used by the western powers to supply Japan’s enemies in China was an overland road from Rangoon in Burma. The tremendous cost of maintaining this supply line were secured at a meeting between US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and Chinese finance minister H.H. Kung. They agreed that the United States would purchase Chinese silver and allow for a series of foreign exchange loans to China, which would maintain the flow of military supplies to China. Initial objections to this violation of American neutrality by the US State Department were overridden by President Roosevelt.

Numerous other Americans, serving as unofficial agents of China, encouraged further US aid and stridently opposed Japanese interests. Among them, Thompson points out (p. 93), was none other than John Foster Dulles, who would later serve as President Eisenhower’s ardently anti-Communist Secretary of State:

Upon his return to New York [from China], late in April 1938, Dulles spoke to the Lunch Club. Standing on the dais, he praised the Chinese Communists — this was Dulles! — as the “most effective fighting portion and the most patriotic” of the Chinese troops; and he expressed his conviction that the Japanese would never topple Chiang Kai-shek. Henry L. Stimson [later US Secretary of War] was in the audience. Dulles' words impressed him: Perhaps, Stimson concluded, Japan could be beaten after all.

In effect, some US officials already considered themselves at war with Japan. Continued American aid to Japan’s enemies, and the hostile anti-Japanese rhetoric in the US media fueled Japanese anger and precipitated still more incidents.

In August 1938, for example, a commercial DC-2 aircraft of the American-run “China National Aviation Corporation,” piloted by American Captain Hugh Woods, was shot down en route to Chungking (capital of Chiang Kai-shek’s government), and most of the western civilian passengers who survived the water landing were killed by Japanese strafings. Few of the millions of Americans who were outraged by this incident knew the full story. As Thompson notes (p. 107): “Was CNAC nonbelligerent? Captain Woods' DC-2 was unarmed. But other CNAC planes, DC-2s, had been flying into Chungking with tanks of fuel for military use.”

This was not the only source of American ill will toward Japan. As Japan tightened its control of China’s coastal cities, it imposed its own political and economic hegemony, now at the expense of the Westerners who just a short time earlier had been calling the shots. Americans were not pleased, as Thompson explains (p. 108):

Voters were angry — and so were investors. The Japanese had lowered booms across the waters at Shanghai, refusing to raise them for American vessels; the Japanese had seized, without payment, such goods as the tobacco stock of the Carolina Leaf and Tobacco Company and a lighter [small freighter] belonging to the US-owned Shanghai Lumber and Coal Company; the Japanese had prevented salesmen from the Singer Sewing Machine Company from docking at Shanghai; the Japanese had shut off two American oil companies from their long-standing markets in China; the Japanese had severed American exporters, based in China, from their sources of fur and wool.

America’s ambassador in Tokyo, Joseph C. Grew, was a decent man, respected by the Japanese, who struggled to avert war. But as Thompson writes (pp. 110-111), his task was daunting:

Grew had worked day and night to keep mutual relations peaceful — but the task was becoming impossible. To the Japanese he had to keep explaining away the bombast [of Japanophobes in America]; to the Americans he had over and over to present the Japanese view; namely, that Americans in China were acting in ways that were anything but neutral. Here is a sample of Japanese accusations that Grew forwarded to Washington: In Hopeh Province, American Presbyterian missionaries had allowed Chinese troops to use their church as a sanctuary; in Shansi Province, Chinese troops had used an American-owned church as a fortress. Near Hsuchow, American missionaries had let Chinese soldiers use their establishment as a communications center. At Tsingtao, Sen Chihti, head of a Chinese secret police unit, had taken sanctuary in a middle school run by the American Presbyterian church.

Thompson not only affirms that such incidents did occur, he cites additional hostile American actions, including support by American missionaries for Chinese Communists. (For example, American Methodist Bishop Roots worked with Chou En-lai to explore ways to embroil the US in the China war against Japan.)

Ambassador Grew conveyed to Washington Japan’s protests about such incidents, but to no avail. His superiors, including President Roosevelt, did not share his concerns or goals. As war loomed ever larger in the ironically-named Pacific region, Grew and others who worked for peace could only look on helplessly.

Economic Warfare Against Japan

During this period, Japan was economically very vulnerable. More than any other industrial power, it was unusually dependent on imports of oil and other essential raw materials, as well as on foreign markets for export. In the circumstances of the time, it was economically beholden to the United States. It was thus a jolt when, in 1939, the United States cancelled its 1911 trade agreement with Japan. Much more serious were the trade embargoes imposed in 1940, when the US halted exports to Japan of petroleum, petroleum products (including gasoline and lubricants) and all grades of iron and steel scrap.

America’s economic warfare against Japan came to climax on July 26, 1941, when President Roosevelt ordered the freezing of all Japanese assets and credits in the United States. This ended all trade between the two countries. (In coordination with this, Britain and the Netherlands followed quickly with similar measures of their own.) Because Japan was largely dependent on the US for petroleum and petroleum products, Roosevelt’s order threatened her survival as an industrial nation. As British historian J.F.C. Fuller pointed out (in The Second World War, p. 128), “this was a declaration of economic war, and, in consequence, it was the actual opening of the struggle.”

Commenting on Roosevelt’s policy of “deterring” Japan through economic pressure, Thompson writes (p. 401):

Here was no mere deterrence; here was deterrence that amounted to provocation. Was the provocation deliberate? Three times, twice to Lord Halifax and once to British premier Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt intimated that he was trying to force “an incident” that would bring America more deeply into the fray. He may have hated war, but he presided over policies that came to be indistinguishable from incitements to war.

Ruin or War

In this desperate situation, Japan faced inevitable economic ruin as a developed country. It decided, therefore, to act boldly to seize by sudden military action the resources and markets that the United States, Britain and France denied to it through embargo and the colonial system. In the words of J.F.C. Fuller, Japan’s “choice was between two evils — both gigantic. She decided to follow the one she considered the lesser — war rather than economic ruin. “

When Japan did strike in December 1941, the Commanders-in-Chief of her Army and Navy issued a joint Order of the Day, which declared:

They [America and Britain] have obstructed by every means our peaceful commerce, and finally have resorted to the direct severance of economic relations, menacing gravely the existence of our Empire.

This trend of world affairs would, if left unchecked, not only nullify our Empire’s efforts of many years for the sake of the stabilization of eastern Asia, but also endanger the very existence of our nation. The situation being such as it is, our Empire for its existence and self-defense has no other recourse but to appeal to arms …

At his trial after the war, Japan’s wartime prime minister, Hideki Tojo, stated: “To adopt a policy of patience and perseverance under such impediment [the American pressure] was tantamount to self-annihilation of our nation. Rather than await extinction, it was better to face death by breaking through the encircling ring and find a way for existence.”

Roosevelt’s Motives

This book raises pertinent historical questions: Could the war in China have ended peacefully, or earlier, if the United States had not intervened to provide extensive aid to the Chinese combatants? Would Japan have acted more responsibly in Asia if America had behaved as a sincere neutral? If America had impartially tried to end the war in China, rather than intensify it, could the later and more generalized war with Japan have been avoided?

Finally, Thompson attempts to explain the motives behind Franklin Roosevelt’s policies. In his path to war, Thompson believes, the President was driven not by a wish to safeguard America from supposed threat by the “bandit nations” of Germany, Japan and Italy, nor was he motivated by a desire to save China, Britain or even “democracy.”

Instead, Thompson argues, Roosevelt sought to reestablish the stability of an earlier age by imposing his personal “vision” of a peaceful international order. He portrays FDR as a hopeless romantic harking after a lost “golden age” (p. 405):

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and those around him had the same vision in the months and years before Pearl Harbor. The Roosevelt administration, you sense, wanted to return to the status quo ante, to the world before the Great Depression, before the Great War, before the Russian Revolution, above all, to the world as it existed before the rise of Germany and Japan. Only with Germany and Japan removed from international affairs — indeed, only with America in Britain’s place — would the golden age return.

While Thompson never makes clear whether he admires or deplores Roosevelt’s policies, he does clearly establish that in the years before the Pearl Harbor attack, the President acted deceitfully and even unlawfully in furthering American economic and political interests in East Asia. Along with other works of revisionist scholarship, Thompson’s valuable study points up the wide gap between popular perception and historical reality.

Joseph Bishop studied history at a South African university. He now resides in the Pacific Northwest with his wife and three children.