So says James Bradley, speaking for Roosevelt, regarding Pearl Harbor.
The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia, by James Bradley.
According to Bradley, it was somebody else (emphasis added):
This is the story of how a few of these officials surreptitiously outmaneuvered and undermined the president of the United States and thrust America into an unwanted Asian war. My father and millions of others fought in a conflict that didn’t have to happen, a war that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was trying to avoid, one that could have been prevented or delayed if some overconfident administration officials had heeded their president instead of the China Lobby.
One of the most politically savvy presidents in the history of the United States apparently was duped.
This book offers an in-depth look at the American involvement in China in the one-hundred years up to and including World War II; before I review the broader book, I will consider Bradley’s treatment of the Pearl Harbor backstory.
Dean Acheson plays a prominent role in the Pearl Harbor narrative offered by Bradley; Bradley describes him as believing he “existed above mere mortals…strong-willed and overconfident.” Acheson had little patience or tolerance for a peaceful approach to diplomacy; having been sworn in as undersecretary of state for economic affairs, he called into question Secretary Hull’s deliberate pace:
Acheson complained that Hull was “slow, circuitous, cautious – concentrated on a central political purpose, the freeing of international trade from tariff and other restrictions as the prerequisite to peace and economic development.” He ridiculed in writing Hull’s oft-repeated goal of “mutually beneficial trade agreements” by making fun of Hull’s speech impediment: “wecipwocal twade aqueements.”
There was a narrative developed within an important subset in Washington: the US could embargo Japan with no repercussions – Japan would back down militarily if dealt with forcefully through sanctions. Henry Morgenthau accepted this; so did Acheson. This was the view of the first wise man, Henry Stimson. There were powerful supporters of this view throughout official and unofficial Washington.
There was also public support in the United States for China and against Japan; that the “China” supported by the American public had nothing in common with the China of the real world was irrelevant to this support. This political reality is a major part of the history, and will be developed in my future work on this book.
Roosevelt – through Tommy Corcoran – put in place a scheme to utilize private front companies to recruit and pay American pilots outside of government channels – the Flying Tigers (complete with artwork provided by Disney). Pilots would resign from the Army Air Corp and then immediately be hired for this “private” effort to fly for China. These fighter squadrons were labeled “advanced training units,” thereby providing additional cover for the United States government.
Yet, Bradley offers that Roosevelt was almost singularly focused on the war in Europe, quoting FDR: “So long as the Battle of the Atlantic is won everything will be all right.”
Roosevelt had already embargoed oil exports to Japan; according to Bradley, it was a purposely loose embargo (unimportant grades of fuel and oil, etc.); it was meant to pacify those critical of supporting a war-mongering Japan (including the general public) while ensuring at the same time that Japan would not distract from Roosevelt’s desire to remain focused on Europe.
In the ten months following FDR’s July 1940 partial embargo, the Japanese purchased more oil than they had in 1939, and they obtained State-approved licenses for five million gallons more. Shipments from California to Japan in May of 1941 totaled over two million barrels, a record for the year.
In November 1940, Japan sent Nomura as ambassador to Washington. It was felt that the signal to Washington would be understood – Nomura was a navy man, and the Japanese navy was opposed to war. Discussions were held between Nomura and Hull, but Roosevelt wanted these to be kept secret – the American people would not support negotiating with the aggressive Japanese who were fighting against the “friendly” Chinese of Chiang Kai-shek (a public oblivious to the reality of Mao Zedong’s greater influence in China).
Bradley describes the discussions in almost comedic terms – Hull with his speech impediment and Nomura with his barely passable English. One example will suffice:
Nomura asked Hull a yes or no question: Did the U.S. agree with the draft understanding Japan had submitted? Nomura struggled to comprehend Hull’s answer: “If your government is in real earnest about changing its course, I can see no good reason why ways could not be found to reach a fairly satisfactory settlement of all the essential questions presented.”
Nomura’s struggle is understandable. One misunderstanding led to another: Hull’s demand that Japan leave China and Japan’s wish list to include maintaining the Japanese presence in China were thus reconciled! (The US role in getting Japan into China early in the twentieth century should not be forgotten.) Thereafter, any consideration that seemed outside of this “agreement” was seen by the other side as back-peddling.
Roosevelt established, in May 1941, the Office of Petroleum Coordinator for National Defense. This office was to be headed by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes; he had little experience in foreign policy. Yet, like Morgenthau, Acheson and others, he felt Hull was a soft secretary of state.
Ickes looked for ways to cut oil exports to Japan, publicly blaming these exports for shortages on the east coast. Hull complained to Roosevelt, and Roosevelt scolded Ickes: only the president or the secretary of state had authorization to shape foreign policy. According to Bradley, Roosevelt still wanted to provide all the oil Japan wanted, in order to avoid being drawn into a war in Asia.
In June, the president’s life was thrown into turmoil: Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles was accused of making homosexual advances to black Pullman porters on the presidential train; Roosevelt stuck by Welles. Missy LeHand, the president’s secretary (and rumor had it, something more) for two decades, suffered a stroke just a few hours before the German invasion of Russia. Finally, at this crucial time, Secretary of State Hull was on a six week vacation, suffering from exhaustion (and also perhaps from the fact that the president often circumvented his office); this while the undersecretary was besieged with the aforementioned charges.
Meanwhile, while the American public was in the dark regarding Roosevelt’s private air force in China, the Japanese were not fooled. From Japanese intelligence:
The first party of 100 members of American aviators and technicians dispatched has recently arrived in Rangoon…
The second contingent set sail from San Francisco – passports identifying them as missionaries, clerks and bankers – on July 7.
On July 2, Japan decided to go south beyond China toward Indochina; Roosevelt informed his cabinet of this on July 18. At this time, Roosevelt asked for draft regulations regarding the use of Japanese assets – not a complete freeze, but requiring Japan to ask permission; per Bradley, Roosevelt still did not want to stop oil shipments to Japan. Welles asked Acheson to draft the details according to Roosevelt’s direction. Acheson did not like the soft approach, and drafted harsher language…which Welles later removed.
At the same time, Roosevelt publicly defended his oil sales to Japan for the first time, in a speech given at Hyde Park. He focused on his desire to avoid being drawn into a Pacific war.
Meanwhile, on July 23, Roosevelt – for the first time – established an official US military connection with Chiang. The purpose was to study Chiang’s Lend-Lease needs. On July 26, FDR issued Executive Order No. 8832, freezing Japanese assets (following the soft approach); per Bradley, Roosevelt’s intent remained to look tough to the public while still selling to Japan all the oil the country demanded.
To administer his freeze on Japanese assets, Roosevelt created a nuanced interdepartmental process.
The first step required the State Department to determine the amount of oil Japan could purchase; next Treasury would determine how many frozen Japanese dollars were to be unfrozen; finally, a newly created committee – the Foreign Funds Control Committee (FFCC), a three-man panel – would release the approved dollars for payment.
The FFCC wasn’t involved in policy-making; it existed only as a mechanism to release to the Japanese the dollars State had authorized and Treasury had calculated.
And this committee, according to Bradley, is where the roots of Pearl Harbor are to be found – not in a deliberate policy enacted by Roosevelt, but in the actions of lower-level bureaucrats who felt Roosevelt was wrong regarding his policy of selling oil to an aggressive actor.
Little did Roosevelt imagine that an obscure committee deep within his bureaucracy would catapult America into World War II.
Dean Acheson from State, Edward Foley from Treasury, and Francis Shea from Justice made up this committee. Acheson took charge. Meanwhile Roosevelt – without his long-time personal secretary, without Hull, and with a distracted Welles, was focused on Europe – specifically Hopkins’ meeting on July 30 with Joseph Stalin. Roosevelt would soon be leaving on his secret rendezvous in the Atlantic with Churchill (with Welles also attending) – believing that the oil would continue to flow to Japan.
On August 1, the State Department notified the FFCC that hundreds of thousands of dollars were just approved for the Japanese purchase of oil. The committee did not release the funds.
To confront Japan’s State-approved and Treasury-calculated requests with a definitive no would have attracted FDR’s attention.
Acheson concocted with Morgenthau a scheme to repetitively make Japan jump through bureaucratic hoops. Funds were not released; Japanese tankers began lining up in San Pedro, waiting…and waiting. Hull, having returned to work, continued to approve licenses for Japan to purchase oil. Japanese officials met with American officials – more hoops, more roadblocks. Morgenthau and Acheson never directly said no, but always found some way to delay the process – a new request for data, some clarification regarding the forms, etc.
In an effort to move things along, Japan proposed to bring dollars from funds held in Brazil – this began an entirely new avenue for delay and obfuscation.
For the entire month of August, Tokyo officials waited as tankers sat empty in San Pedro.
And here is where the narrative offered by Bradley begins to come apart. Even if you generously concede Bradley’s interpretation of Roosevelt’s actions up to this point, it is difficult to accept the rest of this narrative at face value.
Roosevelt was back in Washington by mid-month. And it was still only August – four months before Pearl Harbor.
Roosevelt met with Ambassador Nomura a few hours after his return to Washington on August 17.
Is it plausible that Nomura said nothing to Roosevelt about the situation – now more than two weeks old – that the oil stopped flowing? Yet Bradley writes that Roosevelt was “still unaware.” Even as late as August 28, Bradley maintains that Roosevelt assumed the oil was flowing. Is it believable that Nomura – a navy man known to want to avoid war – would not bring this up even once in this entire month to Roosevelt or Hull or any one of many bureaucrats also interested in avoiding war?
Only on September 4, according to Bradley, did Hull become aware that something was amiss.
Hull promptly headed for the White House. No record of what Hull told FDR over their lunchtime meeting that day has been found, but Roosevelt was likely shocked to learn the news. (Emphasis added)
If Roosevelt was so desirous to stay out of war in Asia, why would he not ensure a record? Something to provide political cover in the future just in case events went sideways (as they did)? Still three months before Pearl Harbor?
Instead, Bradley describes Roosevelt as a shrinking violet: “He faced significant political hurdles in restarting oil sales to the Japanese.” (Emphasis in original)
I think I need not offer examples of when FDR took decisive and controversial action at other times – a shrinking violet he was not. Further, what was there to “restart”? He merely had to unblock the bureaucracy.
Hull and Roosevelt elected to leave the situation as it was…Roosevelt and Hull had lost the administrative control they had used so effectively for over a year…
They had been effective at this maneuvering for over a year, yet somehow – on this most important issue – lost control?
Meanwhile, what was happening in Japan during this month of supposedly undesired and unofficial embargo?
By the time FDR learned of the de facto oil embargo, it was already month-old news in Tokyo.
Joseph Grew, a career diplomat, was ambassador to Japan in 1941. He began his civil service in 1904, and came to Japan as ambassador in 1932. He was no amateur. George Victor’s The Pearl Harbor Myth: Rethinking the Unthinkable will shed some light on Ambassador Grew’s views regarding consideration of an oil embargo:
Ambassador Grew was on closest terms with Japan’s leaders and best informed on their thinking. He opposed an oil embargo vigorously in 1939, 1940, and 1941, warning that “it would be hazardous to base our national policy on the belief, held in certain quarters, that our economic pressure will not drive Japan to war.”
Grew worked tirelessly to avert war between the United States and Japan; is it conceivable that Tokyo – fully aware for one month that the oil stopped flowing – said nothing to Grew, or that Grew – having been made aware of this situation in Tokyo – said nothing to Hull or Roosevelt?
It was not until November 1941 that the Japanese tankers left San Pedro, empty. Yet somehow Roosevelt was unable to do anything about the situation for all of these months.
On November 26, 1941, six Japanese aircraft carriers sailed from Hitokappu Bay in the Kurile Islands in the direction of Pearl Harbor.
You know the rest of the story.
I return to something from George Victor, who drives a tractor through the surprise-attack-we-didn’t-do-anything-to-prompt-it myth of Pearl Harbor (while at the same time supportive of Roosevelt’s actions to bring it about):
Events are poorly explained by making assumptions that crucial acts by competent, conscientious leaders were capricious, careless, or negligent. And U.S. leaders who figured in the Pearl Harbor disaster were highly competent and conscientious.
Bradley’s conclusions regarding the roots of the war in the Pacific are based on such assumptions, yet his conclusions do not stand up to even the most basic critical considerations.
With that said, I look forward to completing my work on the remainder of his book; even with books where I find reason to disagree with certain aspect or conclusions, I find that I can learn much.
The most interesting aspect to me from this book is the role of the United States in China from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century; how this role influenced US policy in Asia and how this contributed to the advance to war. Bradley’s book will provide valuable background to the actions of the players on all sides of the Second World War in the Pacific.