Monday, December 16, 2013

Embargo: An Act of War?

I return to the column by Kurt Schuler, “Pearl Harbor and all that (partly off topic).”  I have commented previously about several of Schuler’s statements; however one specific comment of his has stuck with me:

The 1940 U.S embargo of certain materials frequently used for military purposes was intended to pressure Japan to stop its campaign of invasion and murder in China. The embargo was a peaceful response to violent actions. Japan could have stopped; it would have been the libertarian thing to do. For libertarians to claim that the embargo was a provocation is like saying that it is a provocation to refuse to sell bullets to a killer.

I wrote, in my initial post:

An embargo, an act Schuler describes as peaceful.

There is nothing peaceful about an embargo.  It is an act of government force stepping in between willing buyers and willing sellers.  It is an act that results in depravations for the population of the country being targeted, with far less if any impact to the objectives of the government being targeted.  It is an act that harms non-belligerents while doing little to injure the belligerents.

What can be said about this embargo?

In 1940, in an effort to discourage Japanese militarism, these Western powers and others stopped selling iron ore, steel and oil to Japan, denying it the raw materials needed to continue its activities in China and French Indochina. In Japan, the government and nationalists viewed these embargoes as acts of aggression; imported oil made up about 80% of domestic consumption, without which Japan's economy, let alone its military, would grind to a halt. (emphasis added)

The domestic economy would grind to a halt.

No, it isn’t about bullets and killers.  The domestic economy would have ground to a halt.  Countless thousands would have died – thousands who never raised a single hand against the United States

There is nothing peaceful about an embargo.  It is an act of war.

This issue has been on my mind since I first wrote my post.  What bothers me is that I initially missed the most important term in the above-referenced paragraph, and I missed the subtle shifts in terms that Schuler used both in his initial post and in subsequent comments he makes. 

The word is “provocation.”  It is used in the context of a provocation toward the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

First, more background.  In the comments, Schuler goes on to his definition of an act of war (emphasis added):

December 11th, 2013 12:20 am: War is invading territory and killing people. Refusing to export oil and scrap metal is not war.

Under this definition, I will agree that an embargo is not an act of war.  However, Schuler – in his original post – dismissed the embargo as even a provocation.

Historical evidence makes clear that Roosevelt intended it as a provocation, and Japan was, in fact, provoked to attack Pearl Harbor.  Schuler can hang his hat on whatever semantics he likes, but the actors on both sides of the stage knew exactly the situation and intention.

When Schuler’s statement is challenged in the comments, he further replies (emphasis added):

December 12th, 2013 11:05 pm: Ceasing to export goods is a nonviolent act. Dropping bombs on people is a violent act. If the difference between them is not obvious there can be no libertarian approach to foreign policy, which is what I take you to advocate.

Note, Schuler has moved from the language of “provocation” to the language of “a violent act.”  An embargo is not violent under Schuler’s definition, yet he initially wrote of the embargo as provocation.

As an aside, there is a minarchist libertarian approach to foreign policy (which is the only approach one can consider if one wants to speak in terms of a “libertarian approach to foreign policy.”  Ron Paul’s views suffice, if I can summarize: no entangling alliances; butt out of other people’s business.

December 13th, 2013 10:39 pm: Libertarianism is a rationalistic ideology whose foundation is the idea that initiating the use of force is reprehensible. If it is not possible to define what constitutes a violent act and all we have is feelings, the whole ideology falls to the ground.

Here again, Schuler employs a subtle transition: he equates the term “initiating the use of force” to “a violent act.”  Libertarians don’t equate the two.  There are certainly examples of the initiation of force that are not also physically violent – a burglary comes to mind as one.

And by the way, what happened to “provocation”?  How far is Schuler straying from his initial statement?

There is lively intellectual debate between and amongst libertarians who struggle with applying the non-aggression principle to several difficult situations. There is nothing in this that would therefore cause “the whole ideology” to fall “to the ground.”

Abortion, fractional-reserve banking, and intellectual property.  These come to mind right off the top of my head.  That there is no clear consensus – and may never be – on such issues does not negate the NAP – it only says that the real world is more complicated than a political theory.  But this is true for every political theory and every theory involving the interaction between and amongst human beings.

The NAP offers a guideline, a north star.  Judgment must always be exercised against this standard, yet not every possibility offers a clean dividing line.  This is no condemnation of the philosophy.

December 15th, 2013 6:44 pm: The United States had had embargoes imposed on it, such as the Arab oil embargo in 1973, and neither it nor the countries imposing the embargoes have considered them acts of war.

Now Schuler has moved the language to “acts of war” (admittedly in response, it seems, to comments by one of the feed-backers).  In any case, Schuler never corrected that these were not his words.  This is significantly beyond “provocation,” which was his initial critique; beyond a violent act, which he later introduced.

In any case, the Arabs seemed to think it was an act of war:

October 17 [1973] — OAPEC oil ministers agree to use oil as a weapon to influence the West's support of Israel in the Yom Kippur war. They recommend an embargo against non-complying states and mandate a cut in exports.

March 5 [1974] — Israel withdraws the last of its troops from the west side of the Suez Canal.

March 17 [1974] — Arab oil ministers, with the exception of Libya, announce the end of the embargo against the United States.

Was not the embargo a tool in warfare, a weapon?  No bombs and bullets, but a tool of war nonetheless?

In summary, Schuler begins by stating that libertarians wrongly label the embargo as a “provocation.”  Yet Roosevelt intended it to be a provocative act, and the Japanese took it as such.  Many historians agree on this point.  Schuler’s opinion is meaningless in light of the reality.

He then moves to a straw man – equating the term “initiating the use of force” (basically, the NAP) to “a violent act,” an equivalency that libertarians do not make; he then proceeds to beat libertarians with this false construction, suggesting that an embargo is not a violent act. 

It certainly is not violent in terms of bullets flying.  One may consider it violent depending on definitions, however this is irrelevant.  It was certainly provocative – counter to Schuler’s initial argument – and one can easily argue that an embargo is the initiation of aggression, thereby violating the root of libertarian thought.  Although establishing this connection is not necessary in order to label the embargo as provocative.

He finally takes it all the way to “acts of war.”  This is another strawman.

But back to basics, and Schuler’s initial statement: the embargo was certainly provocative, and that libertarians state this is no shame.  Roosevelt’s actions were intended to be, and were, in fact, provocative.  In this, historians agree.  Somehow, Schuler can’t see this and instead chooses to beat libertarians with strawman arguments.


  1. The steel and oil embargo of Japan is what gets the most notice but the US in fact shut down all Japanese financial transactions and seized their assets in the US and since most central and south American finances went through the US it meant that all Japanese foreign trade was shut down. The rest of the world was at war so the only trade the Japanese had left was within its own empire.

    The book ‘Bankrupting the Enemy, The US Financial Siege of Japan Before Pearl Harbor“ ” by Edward S Miller details this. It gives a in depth accounting of all US/Japan trade and the steps the US took to shut it and other Japanese trade down and who in the US government was pushing what actions

    Edward S Miller is also the author of “War Plan Orange” which details US war plans with Japan since the late 19th century

    1. DJF, your comments are always very helpful. Thank you.

    2. Well, if that doesn't dismantle the "non-violent" strawman, nothing will.

  2. Oh wow - the U.S. Government hampered Japan's belligerent imperialism and yet they're the bad guys? By your reasoning anyone who refuses to hand over their money to a mugger provokes the stabbing or shooting and as such is responsible while the mugger is now innocent.

    1. US imperialism not belligerent enough for you? French-Indian War, War of Unification, Spanish-American War, WWI...

      Also, all economic regulations (quotas, embargoes etc...) are price fixes backed by the threat of violence from the government who enacts them. It's mercantilism.

      (Most) Individuals who live in the borders of the US are not benefited by having aparatchniks limit voluntary exchanges between peaceful people.

      BM's analysis usually underscores the fact the all government dictats benefit one group of (politically connected) people over others. In this case, embargoing Japan, and forcing war, benefited two groups of low-lifes: politicians who seize power during war and military-industrial cronies whose industry is all of a sudden in enormous demand.

      The mugger in your example is the US government and the victim is, well, the victim.

    2. You can't envisage Japan doing the right thing and withdrawing from China and not be war-mongering? Nope, Japan is the mugger who was robbing and hurting people while the U.S. did something about It. Sure the U.S. was primarily concerned about protecting its business interests in that region more so than any love for the Chinese people. Nonetheless Japan was way in the wrong and by choosing war made things far worse.

  3. The NAP covers violent acts, and threats of violence. The question is, did the US threaten violence against Japan?

    DJF above answers in the affirmative. The US employed economic and financial warfare on Japan prior to Pearl.

  4. Weather or not an embargo is an act of war cannot be consistent. The exact situation at the time must be taken into consideration. If it causes the embargoed nation(s) little difficulty, then it can hardly be called war. The cutoff of oil and scrap metal to Japan destroyed their war making capacity. They would have had to give up everything they had taken. If we wanted to stop their war making for moral reasons we should have done so several years earlier.

    A good account of several actions obviously meant to get us into the war is the beginning of "The New Dealers' War: F. D. R. and the War Within World War II," by Thomas Fleming. It is a hefty tome with nary a wasted page. Quite useful for increased understanding of everything that has happened since.