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Pearl Harbor: Necessary or Not?

Updated on June 23, 2011

Pearl Harbor Attack

Pearl Harbor: Irrefutably Inexorable

            Looking back at the attack on Pearl Harbor, some would state that compromises could have been made in order to escape the doom which took place on the morning of December 7th, 1941.  But doom is the key to the sentence; yes, one can define the word doom as a catastrophe, a tragedy or a misfortune, just as it is used previously.  However, doom in another sense means fate or destiny, something that is ultimately inescapable or unavoidable, just as the United States was doomed to suffer the attack on Pearl Harbor.  After reading primary and secondary sources in Pearl Harbor and the Coming of the Pacific War, one can simply choose whether the attack was inevitable or not, whether a compromise could have been made, or not.  Because Japan and the United States each had different sets of priorities when dealing with domestic and foreign policies and because the two countries made assumptions about each other, the Japanese inevitably attacked Pearl Harbor, and there was really no way of escaping this fate through compromise or negotiation. 

            During World War I, Japan was on the same side of the United States in the war as the United States joined the Allies in 1917; despite their discordant affairs over China, the two became allies until the end of the war and even signed an agreement. Thus, it is nearly shocking to see how Japan switched sides as a world power and started a war with the United States within thirty years; however, the war between the United States and Japan should not be so surprising simply because the two countries were never really allies given that they always had different priorities.  They shared one priority, however, that being that both Japan and the United States wanted spheres of influence in the Pacific.  After World War I, Japan wanted power, as they wanted to be the most powerful and influential country of the pacific, and land, in order to gain access to raw materials without paying to import them and in order to build a kingdom.  Japan would do anything to make sure that their desires were fulfilled.  Because the League of Nations was so weak after World War I (most arguing that it was due to the absence of the United States in the League), totalitarian countries like Japan and Italy felt they could take advantage of the failing union.  Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, starting the conflict between China and Japan, which would ultimately lead to the Sino-Japanese War that would last until the end of World War II (Iriye 3-4).  Japan, whom detached Manchuria from China Proper and ostensibly gave it its independence, renaming it Manchukuo, felt that they were helping the peoples of Manchuria away from Communist China (Iriye 4).  In 1937, China finally decided to fight Japan, and other countries took sides in the conflict, including the United States, whom would back the Chinese under Chiang Kai-shek, afraid of the Japanese’ new slogan: “the Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” (Iriye 6).  The United States, however, had a dilemma.  Even though they were the richest country in the world by 1941 (Iriye 7), the United States was not ready to fight a two front war, a war against Japan in order to stop them from gaining more prosperity and power in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, and a war in Europe against Hitler’s Germany.  Not only was President Roosevelt afraid of these two nations as a direct threat to U.S. security, Roosevelt was scared that “the nation’s democracy ... as well as democratic governments and free people elsewhere would be jeopardized if forces of aggression and totalitarianism were allowed to spread unchecked” (Iriye 7), meaning that Roosevelt was scared of losing American Democracy and the influence of democracy around the world. 

Geopolitics played a large role in war for Japan because in order to acquire what they desired, the Japanese had to decide whether they were going to “go north” and attack Siberia in order to harm the Stalinist regime, whom were not prepared for war yet, even though that would violate the neutrality treaty, or “go south” in order to obtain resources that were necessary for “Japan’s industries and growing war machine” (Iriye 8).  Japan decided to plan a southward advance and progress to southern Indochina, which would end up being a “fatal step that ultimately led to the war with the United States” (Iriye 9).  Roosevelt, whom wanted to concentrate mostly on the War in Europe because he observed that Germany was the greater threat, saw this advance and decided to freeze Japanese assets (Iriye 9), which could be considered a declaration of war.  Japan assumed that the freezing of the assets, the de facto, was a way for the United States to somehow get ahead of Japan in the Pacific, however, the United States argued that it was their way of showing Japan muscle in order for them to stop entering into other territories (Iriye 9).  One would have to realize that if Japan had instead moved north, Pearl Harbor may have never happened, therefore the Pacific War between the U.S. and Japan may have never happened.  Soon Japan began complaining of an “ABCD encirclement” assuming that their nation was always going to be encircled by America, Britain, China, and the Dutch, making it impossible for them to create an empire (Iriye 10).

            A substantial reason in which Japan and the United States would ultimately go to war without compromise was that they had different priorities; the two nations had contrasting foreign and domestic policies and this would create a rather large clash between the two countries.  The United States’ foreign policy was a set of goals that would defend the Allied countries from aggressors, but in turn the foreign policy would help preserve the goals desired in their domestic policy.  Although President Roosevelt claimed a policy of isolationism during the beginning of the War in Europe, mostly due to the fact that the country was in the Great Depression, he soon understood that “unless the peace-loving nations of the world cooperated to ‘quarantine’ aggressors, they would never enjoy their peace and freedom... isolation or neutrality was simply impossible and unrealistic” (Iriye 7).  As soon as the United States became involved in the incidents abroad, Roosevelt made it clear that the foremost goal during the war would be peace among the globe.  The United States wanted Hitler to stop aggressing countries in Europe, especially so that the Soviet Union and Britain would not fall, and they wanted the Japanese to stop assaulting China and the rest of the European-colonized Southeast Asian countries (Iriye 2-4).  Another foreign policy that the United States believed in was self-defense, as Cordell Hull met with Japanese ambassadors, he explained to them that the United States felt so profoundly that danger was headed their way that the nation “has committed itself to ten, twenty-five or fifty billions of dollars in self-defense” (Iriye 43) because the ambassadors assumed that the U.S. was not acting in self-defense.  Hull continued on by telling the ambassadors that the United States assumed and feared that the Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was just another name for the Japanese program to “dominate entirely, politically, economically, socially, and otherwise by military force all of the Pacific area” (Iriye 43), thus the United States’ policy was practiced in terror that Japan would dominate all of the Pacific, that it would “harm British prestige, isolate Australia and New Zealand, [and] injure the interests of Europeans in the region” (Iriye 9).   The achievements of these foreign policies would ultimately preserve the domestic policies that President Roosevelt had assigned for the United States.  Because the domestic policy of the New Deal in the 1930s worked so well for Roosevelt in getting the country out of the Great Depression, he felt that it was feasible that the nation could assist to its allies in the war in order to in turn preserve his nation’s beliefs and policies (Iriye 7).  Roosevelt did not want his country to fall to anything but democracy, just as the other countries had so easily done in Europe and Asia, therefore he pressed on about the importance of peace and freedom to his citizens (Iriye 7). 

            Whilst the United States focused more on peace as a way of shaping their priorities, Japan had their priorities molded by foreign and domestic policies of power.  Domestically, Japan created policies in their homeland in order to gain more money for their problems abroad.  They asked their citizens to substitute food that would be more expensive like soybeans, minor cereals, and sweet potatoes for rice, a much cheaper food (Iriye 22).  They also wanted to maintain “a minimum of 3 million tons of shipping for civilian use” so that they could be more prepared for war (Iriye 21).  They also planned on taxing their citizens and saving money with the help of adequate economic policies and they also asked for “a policy of self-sufficiency in the South” so that they could be wealthier.  This went along with making the most of labor forces in Japan and disregarding the decline of the value of currency (Iriye 25).  When dealing with foreign matters, Japan wanted to make it clear that self-preservation and self-defense was their aim in going to war.  Clearly, they wanted land and power to establish a kingdom and to create a “New Order in Greater East Asia” (Iriye 15).  Since they feared U.S. control of East Asia, they took force in order to gain raw materials that they lacked, due to discrimination in trade.  This included obtaining major items such as “Nickel ore, Tin, Bauxite, Crude rubber, Cassave root, Copra, Sisal, Corn, Industrial Salt, [and] Sugar” (Iriye 23).  Whilst the Americans would defend the British, the French, the Soviets, and the Chinese, the Japanese were on the same side as Germany and Italy, and involved in the Tripartite Pact with these two countries.  As the Japanese saw how Germany was taking over countries so easily, the Japanese felt they could do the same.     On November 5th, 1941, Japanese leaders met and created their negotiating position (Proposals A and B) in their Imperial Conference (Iriye 14).  They concluded that they would try to negotiate with the U.S. until December 1st, otherwise they would go to war with them and become closer with Germany and Italy.  They compromised for peace, stating that the troops in China will remain for a necessary period of time (25 years) in order to establish peace between Japan and China (Iriye 16).  Japan negotiated that they would take all troops out of French Indochina because they know that the U.S. was “apprehensive that Japan has territorial ambitions” there (Iriye 16).  They also said that they would recognize the use of nondiscrimination in the Pacific, even in China, if the entire world followed the same principle as well (Iriye 17).  Because the U.S. wanted Japan to break the Tripartite Pact, Japan tells the United States in Proposal A that the pact is an act of self-defense and they will not use the term self-defense unreasonably, and that also they will act independently (Iriye 17).  The United States leaders, on the other hand, assumed that the idea of Japan in the Pacific was not an act of self-defense.  Proposal B just states that neither country will advance into Southeast Asia or the South Pacific, except French Indochina, that both countries will be cooperative towards each other and restore trade relations (unfreezing of assets), but the compromise would be that the United States will not be allowed to hinder any efforts for “peace” in Japan and China (Iriye 17).  Japanese Foreign Minister Tōgō made a statement saying that in order to create an empire, they must be prepared to sweep away any and all obstacles, which somewhat disregards the talks of peace because they would be willing to do whatever in order to establish their Empire (Iriye 19).

Next in negotiations, the Japanese created Plan A and Plan B, in a last-ditch endeavor to avoid war.  In these plans, the Japanese do not change much from talks in the proposals (Iriye 38-40).  The United States leaders responded to Japan’s conclusions drawn in the Imperial Conference by stating that they “did not know whether anything could be done in the matter of reaching a satisfactory agreement with Japan; that we can [they could] go far but rather than go beyond a certain point it would be better for us [them] to stand and take the consequences” of war (Iriye 46).  This statement made by Joseph W. Ballantine, a foreign service officer for the United States relations with Japan, showed how no matter the compromise, the two countries would always have too many differences in priorities.  Plan B, however, proved to be important to the United States because it confirmed that it may be viable to postpone the war through this last-minute deal.  Could the United States trust Japan and give them back their assets and oil if they knew that Japan would stay out of British and Dutch colonies in Asia and the Pacific?  No; because the Tripartite Alliance was still in tact and because the Japanese leaders harped upon slogans of the co-prosperity sphere and the “new order in East Asia,” American leaders knew that although the Japanese desired peace, they too desired power (Iriye 53-54).  Here was an assumption made by American leaders that Japan would not be a country to trust, due to their strong alliances with Germany and Italy.  The United States created a proposed Modus Vivendi with Japan, but they discarded the three-month agreement after Winston Churchill and other country leaders disapproved the temporary truce (Iriye 67-70).  Next, Cordell Hull proposed an agreement that would require each country: to practice territorial integrity, to be equal and non-interfering, to practice non-discriminatory trade, and to enter a multilateral non-aggression pact (Iriye 74-76).  In the Hull Note, the U.S. was quite frank, simply because they assumed that Japan was weak and would agree to the proposal in hopes of peace and in hopes that they would not have to go to war.  It was obvious that the U.S. demanded superiority.  Japan had one major problem with the Hull Note, however, they found an “insulting clause” that would disallow Japan from sustaining their pact with Germany and Italy, the Tripartite Pact (Iriye 80).  During the Imperial Conference on December 1st, 1941, Japanese leaders made it clear that they could not accept the U.S. proposal because their very survival would be threatened due to: the nonexistence of the Tripartite Pact, the lack of friendship between China and Japan, the disestablishment of a New Order in East Asia, the lack of nondiscrimination in trade, and the impossibility of controlling their empire (Iriye 89).   Japan, then wrote a note on December 7th, 1941, declaring war against the United States, however, it was delivered late, delivered after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor took place (95-96).  When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, they assumed that before the United States could recover from the surprise blow, the Japanese would be able to seize all that they had wanted in the Far East, however, the surprise attack somewhat helped because not only did it “wake the sleeping giant,” but it enraged American citizens, so they easily accepted a war with Japan and Germany (Iriye 97). 

Both Japan and the United States were responsible for the breakdown of relations because even though they had many differences in their goals, they shared two things in common: they wanted a sphere of influence in the Pacific and they both backed up their real allies: the United States would always help the countries being attacked, and Japan would stay true to its aggressing self and the Tripartite Pact.  Thus, the doom that took place on December 7th, 1941, was inevitable, there was no way a compromise could be found.  Because the Japanese wanted an empire, and because they would use force to get the land and raw materials they lacked, the Americans had to do something about it, in order to save democracy and freedom.  The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was unavoidable because Japan and the United States would never be able to compromise, this was due to the fact that each country had different priorities; both Japan and the United States had a set list of foreign and domestic policies that they could not sacrifice through negotiation, therefore, Pearl Harbor was destined to happen.

Works Cited

Iriye, Akira. Pearl Harbor and the Coming of the Pacific War. Boston, NY: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999. A Brief History with Documents and Essays.


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      Rob 6 years ago

      I highly recommend reading NO CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER. It would contribute a greattime deal to this article!