Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The 7th Revisited

Rather than a rehash of the subject in slightly different words, reprinted below is a blog I wrote back in 2007 about Pearl Harbor. I see no reason to change it.

Iowa on the Oder

Back around the time I was born, this complaint about the war of the day (Korea) was commonplace: "It's the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place against the wrong enemy." It was, too. The same can be said for every war fought by the US at least since 1898.

Pacifism? No, not really. I'm all for hitting back. I'm just not keen on seeking out wildcats and poking them with sticks.

I want to distinguish between context and blame, since the two are too often confused. In particular, any attempt to place 9/11 in geopolitical context is likely to evoke charges of “blaming the victims” when no such thing is intended.

So, in recognition of the day, let’s instead consider the context of an attack we can view with more detachment: the one of 12/7/41. The context of the attack was a series of deliberate provocations of Japan by the US, the most damaging of which was an embargo of strategic materials including oil. (Back in the day, the US was the leading oil producer and exporter.) The provocations were not mindless, but were in response to Japan’s ongoing war with China; all the same, most Americans, while sympathetic to China, felt the Sino-Japanese war was "not our business." The Roosevelt Administration knew full well the consequence of its actions would be war between Japan and the United States. This was, in fact, the idea. Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote the following in his diary shortly before the attack:

"[Roosevelt] brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked perhaps next Monday [December 1], for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was…what we should do. The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves."(Source: The Pacific War by John Toland.)

Kido Butai, the Japanese carrier force, fired a more effective first shot than Stimson or Roosevelt anticipated.

It is important to understand this context. It does not excuse the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor, nor does it blame the victims. The US provocations fell short of acts of war. Japan could have bought (or seized) the needed strategic materials in Southeast Asia without attacking the US, though its sea lanes would have been precariously exposed. A less warmongering government than the one in Tokyo at the time wouldn't have opted to attack. The ultimate blame therefore lay with Japan; after Pearl Harbor there was little left for the US to do but hit back. However, it is fair to ask if FDR should have poked this particular wildcat.

Similarly, more recent attacks on the US are not excused by the context, and the victims certainly are not to blame. Still it is fair to question the poking of wildcats.

Otto von Bismarck back in the 19th century predicted the next big war would be started by "some damn fool thing in the Balkans." He also said, "The whole of the Balkans is not worth the life of a single Pomeranian grenadier." He was prescient. After a damn fool thing in the Balkans in 1914, 18 million people died, including more than a few Pomeranian grenadiers.

Well, the whole of the Middle East and Central Asia is not worth the life of a single Iowan rifleman. The matter of oil complicates our approach to the region. It shouldn't. There are other sources and there are other fuels – all of which must be cheaper than the trillion dollars spent on the wars. Besides, regardless of the regime, what can any producer do with the stuff but sell it to the West?

Isolationism? Why not? More often than not, the isolationists have the better argument.


  1. Indeed, why rewrite something that is as valid now as when it was written? It would be great if the President and Congress dusted off and read some other old writings, the Constitution, for instance!

  2. Perhaps, as is the case with most of the bills they pass, the MCs can say “my staff members read it.” Constitutionalists are often ridiculed for acting as though a hodge-podge document negotiated by self-serving politicians over 200 years ago is somehow perfect and sacrosanct. Of course it is neither, but it is what we have, and, on the matter of individual rights and limits on government, it gets the main points right. Given a choice, I’d rather go by its actual lines than by what modern pols and judges like to read between them.