The Voice of the White House
Washington, D.C. February 20, 2017:”Roosevelt’s role in the Pearl Harbor attack has been the subject of speculation even from the first. His opponents claimed that he deliberately pushed the Japanese into war to permit him to fight his archenemy, Adolf Hitler. His supporters have firmly denied this thesis and the multiplication of books, scholarly articles and media dramas seems to have no end.
Several valid points have been brought by Roosevelt partisans that deserve to be carefully considered. The first is concerned with American military intelligence work and deals, in the main, with the interceptions of Japanese coded messages. It has been fully acknowledged that the Japanese diplomatic code, called “Purple,” was broken by the Americans and consequently, all high-level diplomatic messages between Tokyo and Japanese diplomats throughout the world were being read almost as soon as they were sent. (The average translation took two days.)
The question of the Japanese Army and Navy operational codes was another matter. The American government has firmly denied for decades that such codes had even been broken or, if that had, were not translated until 1945! While nearly all of the “Purple” intercepts have been made public, only a very few of the coded Japanese Naval messages have appeared in print and then only concerning matters of no special significance.
The Japanese Pearl Harbor task force did not broadcast any messages during their passage to the Hawaiian Islands but Japanese Naval headquarters did send messages to the task force. What they may have consisted of are not known at present and perhaps will never be known, although the National Security Agency, holder of these documents, has stated that it will release the Naval intercepts (known as JN-25) at an unspecified future date.
The argument has been well made, specifically by Roberts Wohlstetter, that so much material was intercepted during the period just prior to the Japanese attack, that it was extremely difficult for American intelligence agencies to winnow out the wheat from the chaff. In retrospect, it is glaringly obvious that some kind of a Japanese attack was planned and in train, but the direction of this attack was lost in the muddle of complex and difficult-to-translate messages.
A further point well made is, had American military intelligence learned of a definite attack on Pearl Harbor, it would have been impossible to keep this a secret, given the number of translators and other military personnel who handled such intercepted messages. The army and navy of that period were small in size and most senior officers in both services knew each other well, having served together for many years. In the absence of any concrete evidence to support the receipt of Japanese military messages dealing with an attack on any specific American installation, it is not within the realm of belief that these senior officers would passively allow American military units to be attacked.
In response to this entirely valid postulation, it should be noted that the specific warning did not come to Roosevelt from below but on a parallel level and from a foreign intelligence source which was far better equipped to decode and translate the Japanese transmissions.
A second area of interest has been the possible motivation for Roosevelt’s increasing pressure on the Japanese, pressure which culminated in a stringent oil embargo that forced Japan into war. Diverse reasons are given for this, including a personal prejudice in favor of China stemming from his maternal grandfather’s highly lucrative opium and immigrant-smuggling operations to an intense hatred of Hitler in specific and Germans in general.
Both of these reasons for Roosevelt’s attitude are historically valid but in and of themselves do not explain the dangerous brinkmanship practiced by Roosevelt in his dealings with Japan. It is clearly evident from reading the intercepts of the Japanese diplomatic coded messages that Tokyo was not only not interested in pursuing war against the United States but was seriously engaged in attempting to defuse and dangerous situation whose accelerating progress caused them great alarm. Roosevelt and his advisers were fully aware of the ease with which they could achieve effective dialog with the Japanese government. All diplomatic approaches by Japan were rebuffed by Washington and as the diplomatic crisis deepened, the possibility of military action by Japan against the United States was very clearly evident in Washington.
The actual motivation behind the turning of the screw against Japan and the refusal on the part of Roosevelt to negotiate has been explored extensively in print but one of the most valid answers seems to lie clearly in the section of the intercepted communication dealing with the Soviet Union.
As much as Roosevelt wished to enter a war against Germany, he was constrained by Congress from conducting a personal war. A de facto war against Germany was in progress in the Atlantic where US naval units were engaged in open warfare with German U boats but Hitler would not rise to the bait and issue a unilateral declaration of war against the United States. For a time, Roosevelt was check in his ambitions.
With Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Roosevelt’s aims shifted. He had very strong reasons for supporting Stalin in his epic struggle with the Wehrmacht. There were no forces available in Europe to effectively counter Hitler. France was defeated and England’s army was shattered and the island under siege. The British has been soundly beaten on the continent by German forces and in 1941, they had been chased out of Greece and Crete. England was in no position to support any kind of a serious military action against Germany and the US was still technically neutral.
Since the beginning of his presidency, Roosevelt had actively sought the support of the well-organized Communist party in the United States. This entity was especially numerous and effective in the state of New York, whose Governor he had once been, and by voting en bloc the Communists could and did swing major elections. Roosevelt’s administration was filled with Communists, both active and passive, who aggressively supported the programs of the New Deal. When the Hitler-Stalin pact was signed in 1939, many of these persons underwent serious conscience crises but in June 1941, when Hitler invaded Mother Russia, their collective angst was resolved and Stalin once more resumed his place as the exalted champion of the workers and peasants and the beau ideal of embittered intellectuals and academics throughout the world.
All of Roosevelt’s aims were addressed by his now permissible support of Stalin, However, the swift advances of the Wehrmacht into Russia and the massive losses in territory, manpower and material suffered by the Red Army caused great consternation in Washington and London. If, as it appeared in the autumn of 1941, Russia could collapse, the last major hope for the containment and destruction of Hitler and his country was gone.
The point of balance now shifted from European Russia to the Far East. The advance guard of the German Army was in front of Moscow and most of the Soviet Army was engaged in a protracted death struggle for the capital. There was an acute possibility that the Japanese, chronic enemies of Russia and putative allies of Germany, would take advantage of Stalin’s major preoccupations and fall onto his rear by invading his eastern provinces, an area extraordinarily difficult to supply as the Tsar’s generals had found out in 1904.
The hostility between the Japanese and the Russians culminated in the Russo-Japanese war which Russia lost. The public humiliation suffered by Russia was balanced by the elevation of Japan tom the status of a world power. The animosity between the two countries never abated and in July of 1938, an expansionist Japan, engaged in a savage war with the warlords of China, turned its attentions to Russia and attempted to seize land near the vital Soviet naval base at Vladivostok. The Soviets counterattacked and drove the Japanese back into their own territory. Undaunted, Japan attacked the Russians again in May 1939 and for four months a series of major battles were fought between the two countries. Finally, in late August, Soviet General Zhukov launched a powerful attack against the Japanese using nine divisions and 600 tanks. The Japanese were severely beaten and suffered a loss of 18,000 men and considerable aircraft.
Following this embarrassing defeat, there was a movement in the Japanese high command to prepare for war against the Soviet Union. Japanese plans for a full scale attack on Vladivostok were shown to Hitler by Baron Oshima, Japan’s pro-German ambassador as early as March 1941. Hitler discussed the probability of these attack with members of his military entourage throughout the balance of the year. The Matsuoka referred to in the Roosevelt-Churchill intercept was Yosuke Matsuoka, a hardline anti-Soviet who had been dropped from the cabinet in July 1941 to placate the Russians. His return to power was certainly not out of the questi
The major problem facing Roosevelt then is evident. Stalin was the lynchpin of the US-British policy. If Stalin fell, Hitler was certain to shatter Russia’s military establishment and this could not be allowed to happen. Roosevelt gave money to Stalin but could render no further assistance to the dictator without actually being at war with Germany. If the Japanese decided to a move against Stalin’s eastern territories, he would be fighting a two-front war and in all probability would be swiftly defeated.
Roosevelt’s most urgent necessity was to prevent Japan from making any military moves against Russia. By applying diplomatic and economic pressure against Japan, Roosevelt hoped to distract them from a Russian adventure and encourage them to move, if move they did, in the opposite direction. The American President was safe in promoting this course of action because the United States had very little invested in the Far East with the exception of a few mid-Pacific islands and the Philippines which were slated for independence in 1948.
The British, on the other hand, had a great deal invested in the Far East as Churchill pointed out. Roosevelt, who at that time held all the cards, brushed Churchill’s fear of loss of empire aside with the vague promise that lost territories could be recovered later. In actual fact, Roosevelt was a bitter opponent of the colonial systems extant at that time and had no intentions of giving any liberated former colonies back to their former masters.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, both Australia and New Zealand had been asked by Churchill to supply troops for duty in North Africa. When it became a possibility that Japan might engage in hostilities in the Pacific, Churchill sought an opinion from his military experts as to the effectiveness of using British military forces to defend British holdings in the Pacific. The resulting report was extremely negative and Churchill decided that it would be an impossibility to reinforce the great British naval base at Singapore or assist in the defense of either Australia or New Zealand against Japanese aggression. Neither of these countries were to be supplied with a copy of report and his subsequent decision to write them off, but a copy was sent out to the military commander of Singapore. Unfortunately, this report was sent by sea on the SS Automedon which was captured by the German commerce raider Atlantis. The secret Churchill report was forwarded to both the Japanese government and to Berlin. The foreknowledge that Britain could not and would not defend her interests in the Pacific was obviously of great interest to the Japanese.
American pressure on Japan to prevent any attack on Russia is certainly the simplest answer to the complex welter of issues raised in the post-war years concerning the outbreak of the war in the Pacific. In reality, Roosevelt was completely successful in his matador’s movements to distract the Japanese bull. From a pragmatic point of view, he achieved his aims completely. There is no valid place in the compilation of history for moral issues. Morals and ethics are excellent norms but hardly effective techniques.
The British Prime Minister was a man who was the greatest loser in the general end game that represented the Second World War. Frantic to save what was left of the decaying British Empire, he lived to witness its economic and geopolitical destruction. Roosevelt was the posthumous winner if the post-war preeminence of the United States is taken into account. Hitler vanished from the stage and his replacement, Stalin, created a hollow empire which eventually imploded. The Japanese rebuilt their shattered factories and emerged from the charred rubble of their homes to become a powerful world economic force. Their code of Bushido has been transferred from the battlefield to the boardroom and with far more success than they had implementing their Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.”
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