Pearl Harbor's Place in History

Reflections on the Origins and Consequences of the Pacific War

by James J. Martin

Throughout history there are spectacular and singular happenings of such dramatic circumstances that they seem to hang suspended in time, all other actions and proceedings halted at those moments as though frozen. In our recent past, two such events in particular seem to qualify for inclusion in such a category: the attack on Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. One imagines these stunning occurrences as almost pendant backdrops to subsequent events as though incapable of being dispersed. Every time we once more see moving pictures of them we can imagine easily that the billowing smoke and the explosions at Pearl Harbor actually are still being experienced there, as we also can imagine the stupefying mushroom cloud and unbelievable dazzling light of the atomic shot over Hiroshima nearly four years later.


Dr. James J. Martin in 1961

Journalism and pictured entertainment are heavily responsible for this illusion, as well as for draining them of relationship of all kinds, especially political, as though they were simply staged spectacles, following which the props were dismantled and carried off to be restructured for still another somewhere else to make us gasp in amazement and almost dazed prostration. Few are impressed with their consequences, and even fewer are made aware of their origins. It is easier by far to believe that such incredible affairs are indeed tableaux of massive design with intended assault on the senses so vast that there really is no reason for carrying any further rumination or speculation as to their real place in the history of our days.

Among those for whom the Pearl Harbor drama is not already as remote as Roncesvalles, research continues and revelations are noted, genially ignored by the producers of pious puffs upholding the old fairy tales, as though everything had already been placed on the record by the circle and the elements with a vital stake in the preservation of Establishment veracity. Its fundamental plea is the claim of utter, total innocence of an impending attack upon American installations and fleet in Hawaii. Its attending corollaries are (1) complete ignoring of the nature of politics and war in Asia at the time in 1941, as though the Pearl Harbor affair was simply a mindless and isolated stunt, and (2) a similar blackout of the domestic scene in the weeks and then days prior to the attack, as though public communications lacked even the tiniest smidgen of attention to the likely consequences of the crisis of the fall of 1941.

While important new information on these matters has surfaced in the last 20 or so years, it might be mentioned that a respectable compendium of material, including accounts which actually picked Pearl Harbor as the site of the coming attack weeks before it happened, could be collected from American newspapers and magazines widely circulated late in 1941. These alone indicate that the wail of innocence and outrage which promptly rose to the heavens on December 7, 1941, was spurious and misplaced.

Time magazine, with its immense readership, in its lamentably timed issue (December 8, 1941), gloated about the vast American and British war machine which was allegedly ready to spring on the Japanese, should they snap under President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "war of nerves" and "undeclared war," and react militarily. And Hallett Abend, a widely-read newspaper reporter on matters Japanese in those days, in his November 18, 1941, Look magazine article, "How the US Navy Will Fight Japan," which was exposed to a potential readership of about 12,000,000 Americans, included the following delicious morsel:

When the clash comes, the Japanese fleet will have to stay in home waters, to guard the islands of the [Japanese] Empire, against [US] naval raids. Our own fleet will cruise somewhere west of Hawaii, with scout planes far over the sea day and night to prevent surprise raids on the Pearl Harbor naval base or on our own West Coast cities.

The State Department, the War Department, and the Army Chief of Staff, the latter two responsible for the defense of both the base at Honolulu and the fleet when it was in the harbor, apparently were not among Abend's readers. But a veritable wheel barrow full of similar journalism could easily be assembled, and those who were reading Abend and others writing in the above vein should not have affected a pose of surprise and shock over the events of that fateful Sunday 40 years ago. After all, Time, in its issue referred to above, had comfortingly assured all that "Everyone was ready from Rangoon to Honolulu, every man was at battle stations." In view of this mass of contemporary literature of wide circulation expecting war at any time in those tense days, one may be led to wonder how the legend of treacherous "surprise attack" ever got off the ground.


Major US Navy war ships in "battleship row" at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, settle to the bottom following the Japanese attack on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

But the response even now reflects a general viewpoint in harmony with the belief that we are dealing in the main with an isolated occurrence unrelated to Asian history or world affairs, and to be considered even now as a subjective event to be seen through the eyes of a politically ignorant sailor several decks down on an exploding ship or a housewife standing on a rooftop five miles from the embattled Base, describing the smoke and the noise of the explosions. And the editorial writers still produce copy which reads like contemporary indignant screeds. The gout of self-serving evasive and irrelevant wrath which boiled forth on the 40th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing in the US press was a remarkable confirmation of the observation made nearly five centuries ago by the anonymous observer, in his four-word "review" of Poggio Bracciolini's lopsided partisan history of Florence ("good patriot, bad historian"), on how easy it still is to be simultaneously such a proper patriot and execrable historian. For most journalists it was simply another occasion to tie the past into contemporary opportunism and to use it to buttress current policy in one way or another.

So the usual two-level perception of reality continues, one prepared for the general public and quite another for the serious historical students. Essentially the former product comes under the heading of what George Orwell described as "prolefeed," casual diversionary trivia intended to mystify and mollify, while entertaining, the vast semi-informed populace. Little if any of the war that ensued is allowed to complicate the presented spectacle.

In the sense that modern war is first of all an industrial pitting of national production strengths the Pacific War represented two gigantic clusters of major industries in conflict. Nevertheless, the Japanese were wholly outclassed from the start in total size, capitalization, labor force, resources and general wherewithal. The remarkable thing is that the forces of Imperial Japan persisted so long. Though in eventual total and profound defeat, their overall performance was not lost on East Asians, and its impressiveness may never be forgotten by them, whatever devices may have been employed by their conquerors to make its conduct appear "immoral" and reprehensible (a maneuver that has been employed against the vanquished since antiquity).

The collapse of Euro-American colonialism, despite the "victory," was swift and drastic. Because its preservation was a major factor in American policy leading to the confrontation, we may begin here by noting a spectacular demise of a major war aim of the "victorious." The subsequent incredible industrial expansion of all the Far East and all the attendant changes of the last 40 years are integrally related to the course and outcome of that war. Japanese resurgence and their remarkable pressure in the industrial and commercial world today remind one of Lawrence Dennis' reflection on the "bloody futility of frustrating the strong." One may observe here that all this has seemingly taken place without any expenditure of blood at all. But the breaking of the impasse and logjam of the 1930s in the Pacific War was its presaging. Surely things could not have gone on that way very much longer; the war of 1941-45 simply detoured the course of events a few years.

There is little need to dwell upon "misunderstanding" and "lack of communication" as war causes, though these surely were abominably bad, no matter what angle one wants to pursue. Japan had a considerable exposure in the American press, almost all invidious, whether it emanated from patrician Ivy League Japanophobe political adversaries such as Henry L. Stimson, or from the Stalinist, Trotskyite and pro-Maoist columnists and reporters who proliferated in the papers and magazines, and political advisers of similar stripe who flourished behind the scenes. The latter seemed to be concerned more about future Chinese than Japanese affairs, but surely recognized that a Red China was out of the question until the Japanese had been driven from mainland Asia. So came years of malicious misrepresentation convincing Americans that the Japanese were utterly beyond the pale of respectability for their alleged limitless "militarism."

How tiny the funnel was through which actual Japanese information got to Americans was revealed after war was under way. Archibald MacLeish, Librarian of Congress and one of the Roosevelt regime's principal propaganda chiefs, asserted that there were in his opinion only three non-Japanese in the entire USA at Pearl Harbor time with a real command of Japanese language. Publishers Weekly (September 26, 1942, p. 1192) suggested this was too small, and believed the number to be one hundred. But even this is a microscopically small percentage of a country then of about 132,000.000.

Unique among commentaries on Japan and its people was John Patric's Yankee Hobo in the Orient, issued originally by Doubleday in 1943 as Why Japan Was Strong. Its sympathetic and understanding portrait of the Japanese people must have shocked many Americans, though overstated was his conclusion that most of what was wrong and undesirable about Japan was its Statism. Surely their version was an extremely muted form when compared with that of the USA's noble "ally," Soviet Russia, accentuated undoubtedly by the aggravated poverty of the 1930s decade, when Patric wandered about Japan almost at will. Material such as this, had it been widespread here in the decade before the war came about, might have had some modifying effect. (An absorbing summary of American misconceptions about the Japanese in the period ending about March 1941 can be found in Porter Sargent's Getting US Into War [Boston, 1941], "Prodding Japan Into War," pp. 525-545.)

But communication was not noticeably better on many other levels, including the diplomatic. Stimson, while Secretary of State under President Herbert C. Hoover, during the crisis of 1931-32 involving Japan in Manchuria and North China, utilized a novel device to cut down on "discourse" with the Japanese. According to the two anonymous journalists who wrote High Low Washington (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1932, pp. 159-61), Stimson excluded all Japanese foreign correspondents from his press conferences in these times, presumably on the grounds that they lacked sufficient command of English to grasp the tortured writhings through which the Secretary of State sought to present American positions in his "agonizing acrobatics," as the authors, in attendance themselves, described the fumbling proceedings. (Stimson did far better later on as Roosevelt's Secretary of War, and was much clearer as to what he "meant" in 1940-1941, in particular.)

Under Roosevelt, and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, a few months later, the situation got no better, and, subsequently, much worse. The Japanese view that Japan was as entitled to a separate power position in Asia via a device approximating the Monroe Doctrine, behind which Roosevelt increasingly functioned in extending, ultimately, American power virtually to the western coast of Africa, was denounced in the pre-Pearl Harbor decade. The rigid unwillingness to recognize this obviously played a big part in bringing about war. Only now are we noticing attention to this matter which is sober and appreciative, not a distillation of snorts and catcalls, denunciation and ridicule. Some serious attention is due to the points made by Dr. Gerald K. Haines in his "American Myopia and the Japanese Monroe Doctrine," published in Prologue: Journal of the National Archives (Summer 1981, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 101-114).

If the Pearl Harbor story is still conducted on two levels, depending on the intelligence, general knowledge, sophistication and experience of the audience aimed at, so are the other events of high drama, from the war itself all through to the atomic bombing conclusion, and including what passes for explanation of the world that has resulted to the present day. What did the USA go to war for, other than as retaliation for Pearl Harbor? Surely the American public would never have entered a war so enthusiastically and fought with such desperate devotion unless its aims had been lowered to a very primitive common denominator. Fighting for the preservation of European colonies, the "Open Door," and the promotion of an opaque and complicated China policy never would have survived as projected goals. But fighting to exterminate the Japanese for their effrontery and obliterate their home islands, followed by a general incineration of East Asia if need be and a return home to peace and prosperity, seemed to prevail vaguely in many minds, and these bare and simple sentiments were not noticeably jogged by the war regime's propaganda. Japanophobia, cultivated by all means available, was so successful that it has not yet receded, despite tanks of ink and miles of film devoted to telling all that Japan is America's "friend" now.

Surely the decision to incarcerate all Japanese living on the US mainland in concentration camps envisioned a goodly element of the wartime propaganda value accruing to such a program, and the decision to adopt such measures appears to be anything but a spinal cord reaction to the way things were going at the start of the war in December 1941 and shortly after. Still a leader in its class as a study of the camp experience is Michi Weglyn's Years of Infamy (New York: Wm. Morrow, 1976). Mrs. Weglyn has called attention in her continuing researches to a remarkable memorandum to President Roosevelt from his Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, dated October 9, 1940 (to be found in PSF Box 5, Navy, in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park, NY) in which the Secretary listed 15 "steps in preparation for war" which he recommended "be taken to impress the Japanese with the seriousness of our preparations." The 12th recommended "step" was: "Prepare plans for concentration camps." (Some friend of history in the past had attempted to blot out this recommendation from the memorandum, from the copy supplied this writer.)

If most American fighting men were not influenced by abstractions derived from listening to Foreign Policy Association radio talks, but were largely preoccupied by strategies of survival intermixed with their aims for revenge, what can we say of policy fabricated in and emanating from the highest levels? Probably the shortest definition of "statesmanship" was elucidated by the famed Johns Hopkins University geographer, Isaiah Bowman, "looking ahead." One must say that not much, if any, of this took place within the Roosevelt camp or that of his successor, Harry S. Truman. Most of the developments in the closing months of the war, and immediately after, struck with the characteristic catastrophe of the atom bomb, unprepared for and responded to with the usual confusion of makeshift temporizing and make-do which generally found the people in the highest places with the lowest jaws dropped in amazement at what happened, especially in the decade 1944-54. It was a time when shambles replaced even the primitive notions masquerading as "policy" which had occasionally grazed the consciousness of the "statesmen." (This writer attempted a rumination on the subject in an extended review of the book by the Oxford historian Christopher Thorne, Allies of a Kind: The United States, Britain and the War Against Japan, 1941-1945 [1978] in Libertarian Review for October 1978, pp. 47-50). But this subject and that of the atomic bombing decision lie still deeply encumbered in contemporary politics, and a large part of such studies must be mainly speculative. (Did Mr. Truman really direct Mr. Stimson originally not to drop the atomic bombs on cities?)

For that matter, there is much of the Pacific War and its related Asian mainland campaigns still little told and in some instances untold or just told. A case in point is the participation of American Japanese in the US armed forces, a small part of which has long been exploited in the instance of those who took part in the European campaigns. But only in the late 1970s were we been able to learn that thousands upon thousands of Japanese-Americans took part in the war campaigns in the Pacific, on occasion even in combat against members of their families fighting in behalf of Imperial Japan. Only the book Yankee Samurai by the late Joseph D. Harrington (Detroit: Pettigrew, 1979) tells us about this. (Japanese-Americans were in the US Pacific forces before Pearl Harbor; see the letter to the Los Angeles Times of November 23, 1981, by Yoshikazu Yamada, on his tour of duty as a draftee in service in the Philippines between November 1941 and April 1942, when he was airlifted to Australia on a stretcher after sustaining wounds in the fighting prior to the Corregidor surrender.)

It is obvious from what happened between 1945 and 1950 that the Roosevelt-Truman regime had no clear idea of what they wanted to prevail in China, after the massive campaign of talk and literature they had launched on the world prior to and during the war explaining how deeply involved Chinese affairs lay in American decisions in East Asia. Since the foundering of discussions over China policy was portrayed as the reason why a position was taken which precipitated the Japanese decision to go to war, the flabby performance after "victory" was just another instance reinforcing the suspicion that there never was a serious policy for a postwar mainland East Asia, especially after it became obvious that the decayed and degenerate Euro-American colonial system opposed by the Japanese was going to self-destruct anyway.

But what was to be the "new order" in Japan was certainly no clearer, and no improvement. John Hohenberg in a rather limp way in his book New Era in the Pacific (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), reminds us once more of "insurrections" in Far East American troop centers even before the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945, while stressing how anxious Americans were to return home rather than deal with the consequences and responsibilities stemming from their victory. Political leaders were only too happy to accommodate the armed forces.

What did the "victors" want for Japan? Surely they did not expect the country to follow the Red course which seemed likely to swamp all of East Asia. They hardly could have listened to the likes of Guenther Stein tell them of the possibility of a Red Japan as a consequence of the efforts of the tiny Japanese Stalinist Maoist cadre headed by Sanzo Nozaka, which had spent the war in Yenan. Despite the convoy of Maoist and Stalinist sympathizers resident in various American departments of government, nothing to advance this goal took place. Though defeated, it is important to note that the settlement of the Pacific War between Japan and the USA was a negotiated one, which could have been arrived at five or six months before the atom bombings, and the disintegration of Japanese society was not an objective under these stipulations. To be sure, various programs were later introduced, including the beheading of the Japanese wartime leader class via "war crimes" trials, and the imposition of a strange "constitution," to which the Japanese still adhere stubbornly despite frequent efforts made to dissuade them into more "realistic" courses since. (How strange it was that Stimson could have become so hotly indignant over regimes founded by force in 1931-32, and devised his famous "Doctrine" for non-recognition of same, and then becoming mute when such regimes proliferated in the same area in 1945 and after, under different auspices.)

Furthermore, the disastrous politics following the end of hostilities in the Pacific War in August 1945, especially over the unresolved real estate issues of Korea and the old French Indo-China colonial preserve, already dissolved alarmingly in 1941, had consequences even more shocking and alarming to those who thought that after Pearl Harbor it was simply a matter of devastating Japan and retiring home to eternal peace and quiet. The return to influence of "difficult" people such as the Japanese and the Thais in the subsequent decades might have been predicted.

A major American building materials producer ran a most interesting full page advertisement in the October 8, 1980, issue of Forbes magazine, titled "How America Became a Colony Again." Its obvious but unstated objective was the hope of overturning contemporary Japanese commercial and industrial success in the USA, while expanding their purchases of American food and raw materials, the classic imperialist relationship. That Japan has essentially traded political independence for this economic advantage is rarely alluded to, and the "one-world" conceptualists prefer to keep attention away from this situation. It is likely to remain a reality regardless of the distress it causes in America, until there is a major reversal in world affairs, and Japan once more becomes an independent world power center.

The 40th and 50th anniversaries of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -- a brilliant tactical success for them in that it prevented the American Pacific Fleet from engaging in offensive action in behalf of the British and Dutch colonial powers in South East Asia already under a state of siege, which aid had already been pledged, and asked for -- was the occasion for the usual barrage of mindless journalistic flummery, totally lacking in political content and oozing with bravado and after-the-fact invented "reasons" for it happening. To this day the majority of Americans have never been taught to relate the event to world politics and the consequence of the foreign policy of their revered President Roosevelt, whose "day-of-infamy" diversionary oratory has usually been satisfactory over the years as an explanation of how it all came about. It has been his successors who have had to cope with the consequences of the war which ensued, and the progressively unsatisfactory resulting circumstances may account in part for the increasing vociferousness of the defense of Roosevelt and his Japanophobic regime by partisans who profess to this day to be so offended and appalled at the spread of revisionism in assaying this affair.

In that sense we have gone "beyond Pearl Harbor" to such a degree, and plunged into matters which seem to be so much more serious, if not dangerous, that it is understandable that so many contemporary Americans have responded to polls about the significance of Pearl Harbor to the effect that they are unaware why it should be remembered as of particular importance to United States history. If Asians ever return to a control over their affairs and their neighborhood as the USA is in theirs, Pearl Harbor in future books may be stored away in an obscure footnote.


From The Journal of Historical Review, November/December 1997 (Vol. 16, No. 6), pages 2-6.

Author bio

James J. Martin graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1942 and received his M.A. (1945) and Ph.D. (1949) degrees in history from the University of Michigan. His teaching career has spanned 25 years and involved residence at educational institutions from coast to coast. Dr. Martin's books have included the 1964 two-volume classic, American Liberalism and World Politics, 1931-1941, as well as Beyond Pearl Harbor, The Man Who Invented 'Genocide': The Public Career and Consequences of Raphael Lemkin, and An American Adventure in Bookburning in the Style of 1918. He is also author of two collections of essays: Revisionist Viewpoints and The Saga of Hog Island and Other Essays in Inconvenient History. Dr. Martin has addressed six conferences of the Institute for Historical Review, including the first in 1979. This essay is a slightly abridged and edited version of his introduction to Beyond Pearl Harbor (Little Current, Ont., Canada: Plowshare Press, 1981). It appears here by arrangement with the author.