The December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor changed all our lives in so many ways. It is one of the great if-only moments in American history. No war is inevitable, but this act by Japan closed all avenues to peace and brought ruin to so many. It was day one of a 50-year hot and cold war for the US that lasted until the last gasp of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991.
The path to the attack was laid on July 26, 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt retaliated for the Japanese takeover of French Indo-China, that pesky province known as Vietnam. He seized all Japanese assets in the United States. Britain and the Dutch East Indies did likewise as the Japanese moved on Singapore, grabbing resources vital to the West. The embargo cost Japan three-fourths of its foreign trade and 88 percent of its oil imports.
Given its desperate need for oil to fuel its war in Korea and China, the military leaders in Japan decided to go for broke, awakening the sleeping American tiger. Hideki Tojo was the prime Japanese spokesman for the age-old folly of “preventive war.” (Students of the Iraq War take note.) As the 19th century German statesman Otto von Bismarck put it, “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.” And it truly was the suicide of Imperial Japan.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. called the debate in the United States before the attack between those who wanted to intervene in World War II and those who wanted us to stay out one of the greatest debates in American history. Many in the U.S. public were jaded about foreign intervention in the aftermath of World War I and favored neutrality. As the saying went, rather than saving the world for democracy, America’s dead and wounded had just “pulled Britain’s chestnuts out of the fire.” After the war, democracy, rather than thriving, was on life support in a destabilized Europe. Read more…