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Pearl Harbor Revisited

by Carl Estabrook

In our state capitalist society, everything becomes a commodity, even truth — you can have as much of it as you pay for. The Disney corporation’s desire to market their movie “Pearl Harbor” in Japan compelled them to suggest in the movie that the Japanese attack on the US navy base in Hawaii in 1941 was something other than purely evil and cowardly. The commander of the attack, Admiral Yamamoto, is given a line (in Japanese, with subtitles) in which he explains that Japan was compelled to attack Pearl Harbor because of a US oil embargo. Thus crass commercialism has slightly redressed the balance of more than two generations of American concentration on the “infamy” of the Japanese “sneak attack.”

In the 1950s, comedian Zero Mostel had a routine in which he portrayed a rather dim Senator demanding to know, “What was Pearl Harbor _doing_ in the Pacific?” The humor of fifty years ago contains an unintended truth. Why was there a major military base in this US colony in the mid-Pacific? The US had seized Hawaii by force, against the will of its inhabitants, less than fifty years before the Japanese attack. Then a few years later, the US slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people in the Philippines in a Vietnam-style war to bring those islands into the US Pacific empire. So the US rejected as ludicrous the eventual Japanese claim that it was establishing an equivalent to the Monroe Doctrine for East Asia.

The opinion ascribed to Admiral Yamamoto (a Catholic from a Nagasaki family converted by Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century, he was eventually assassinated on orders from President Roosevelt) has, as the well-known war criminal Henry Kissinger was wont to say, “the extra, added advantage of being true.” Radhabinod Pal, one of the judges in the post-war Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal (run exclusively by the Americans, but meant to parallel the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi leaders) said later that the US had started the war with embargoes that were a “clear and potent threat to Japan’s very existence.”

The Japanese home islands contain little in the way of mineral resources and no oil, so after the German conquest of France, Japan signed an agreement with the puppet French government in the summer of 1941 that led to Japan’s assuming military control of Vietnam and its energy resources. “Almost immediately, the U.S., Britain, and the Netherlands instituted a total embargo on oil and scrap metal to Japan — tantamount to a declaration of war,” writes one historian. “This was followed soon after by the United States and Great Britain freezing all Japanese assets in their respective countries” (as the US did more recently in regard to Iraq).

My grandfather, an Annapolis man newly appointed captain the in the US Navy, became commandant of the Navy yard at Pearl Harbor in 1932. In that year — nine years before the Japanese attack — the US Pacific fleet carried out a war-game that included a simulated attack by carriers and planes on Pearl, an exercise adjudged a complete victory for the attackers. So the US was hardly in doubt about the feasibility of the attack that eventually took place. Ever since 1941 it has been suggested that the Roosevelt administration purposely left the fleet open to attack, in order to stampede the American public into a war. Like Lincoln with the Confederates at Ft. Sumter, every government launching a war wants to appear in an aggrieved and defensive role. (Even Germany invading Poland in 1939 announced, “We’re finally shooting back!”)

By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the war in Europe had been under way for more than two years with the US officially neutral, and there was strong anti-war sentiment in the US. The US fought the Second World War not to stop Fascism, much less to prevent the Holocaust. When the US finally entered, the decisive events of the war in Europe — the fall of France, the battle of Britain, and the invasion of Russia — had already taken place. Nor did the US go to war because of Japanese atrocities in Manchuria or the rape of Nanking, but because Japan attacked military bases maintained by the US on colonies that it had stolen in the Pacific.

Three days later Japan’s ally Germany declared war on the US. Whatever else it was, the death of almost 2,400 Americans at Pearl Harbor was a propaganda triumph for the pro-war US government. Sixty years later, that tradition is maintained in different circumstances by a “cheesy melodrama [with] a lot of sugary, unashamed American patriotism.” CP

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