Saturday, January 30, 2016

Why Did The Japanese Bomb Pearl Harbor? Has Anything Changed?

The China Mirage tells the story of how missionaries serving in China and wealthy descendants of opium traders (like both the Roosevelt presidents) believed in the Christianization and Americanization of China and were easy prey for the Soong sisters who were married to Chiang Kai-Shek, Sun Yat Sun, and the richest man in China, banker H.H. Kung.  Their Chinese father had gone to college in the US in the late 1800s and became a Methodist.  And saw how much money Christians were sending to China and decided to take advantage.  All three sisters had gone to Wesleyan college in Georgia and spoke excellent American English.  Their brother TV Soong, graduated from Harvard and played an important role negotiating with top American leaders, including President Franklin Roosevelt.

Author James Bradley makes the argument that the Soong family took advantage of Americans' desire to believe that China was ready to become Americanized and Christian.  They helped form, with a number of prominent Americans, including the son of American missionaries in China, Henry Luce, the owner of Time  and Life magazines, The China Lobby.  Bradley tells us Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Mayling were on Time's cover more than any other people on the planet, including being Man of the Year in 1937. The Lobby painted this greatly misleading picture of China for politicians and the American public.

This false image of China played well and led, according to author Bradley, to disastrous results in China and Southeast Asia.  By aligning with the Soongs and Chiang Kai-Shek, Americans failed to see the rise of Mao in China and speeded up World War II's spread  into the Pacific. The US gave money and weapons to the Soong-Chiang alliance to fight the Japanese who had invaded Manchuria, but Chiang was more interested in fighting Mao and Ailing, the oldest sister, was more interested in filling her husband's bank.

There are lots of examples in the book of Americans dealing with the Soong-Chiangs - Americans who spoke no Chinese and had no background in Chinese history or present.  They'd go to China for a week on tour led by the Soongs, and come back with reports of their great army and how some military help would keep the Japanese at bay.  Bradley even says that the Soongs staged war zones and suggests that the Japanese soldiers they showed them in the binoculars were really Chinese actors.  The results almost always that the Soong's, with their perfect American English, good looks, and charming ways, successfully sell their highly misleading story of China and China's affinity to the US.

Overlooked was Mao's growing power and bond with Chinese peasants who made up most of the population, the loyalty and enthusiasm of Mao's army, or the incompetence of Chiang's army, and Chiang's interest in fighting Mao rather than the Japanese.  And not known to most, was that many of those Americans - missionaries, diplomats, businessmen - who lobbied for the Soongs, were also on their payroll.

Here's the plan one of their American educated Chinese employees offered to gain US support:
"1.  Recruit American missionaries, arm them with evidence of Japanese atrocities, and have them return to the U.S. to give testimony and speeches. (Tong emphasized that the American target audience would not know that the paid missionaries were acting as agents for the Soong-Chiang syndicate.  Tong wrote that he would 'search for international friends who understand the realities and politics of the Chinese war of resistance and have them speak for us, with Chiinese never coming to the fore.')
2.  Hire Frank Price (Mayling's favorite missionary) to lead the missionary campaign.
3.  Recruit American newsmen and authors to write favorable articles and books."
Besides lobbying for money and arms, they were lobbying to stop the US from selling oil and steel and other materials to Japan, which Japan used to invade and bomb China.  People at the State Department feared an embargo would prod Japan to retaliate.  At the very least, Japan would head south to take over the oil in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).  Having read other accounts of this battle in FDR's administration, I'm surprised that Bradley never (well, I still have another hundred pages to go, but I'm 3/4 into the book) mentions another argument - the money that US oil companies were making and and how that was helping an economy still recovering from the Great Depression.

Probably, you can see where I'm going with all this.  We know this is still going on today.  Who did the Bush administration rely on for advice on invading Iraq?  Which Afghans and Syrians have been advising our government on Afghanistan and Syria?  To what extent have Western educated natives of those countries been able to have undue credibility because their knowledge of English and of the US was so superior to our knowledge of their countries?  And how misleading were their assessments of how the war was going and how was their own personal wealth affected?

There were Americans who understood what was going on in China.  The US embassy's military attaché in China, in 1936, Colonel Joseph Stilwell, for example,
"observed Chiang's dragooned 'scarecrow' soldiers:  many were less than four and a half feet tall, under fourteen years of age, and barefoot.  Stilwell wrote in his diary, 'The wildest stretch of the imagination could not imagine the rabble in action except running away.'
Forty pages later,
[Colonel Stilwell] wrote:  'No evidence of planned defense against further Japanese encroachment.  No troop increase or even thought of it.  No drilling or maneuvering.  Stilwell also observed Mao's warriors, about whom he noted, 'Good organization, good tactics.  They do not want the cities.  Content to rough it in the country.  Poorly armed and equipped, yet scare the Government to death.'"
Then there's the secret army that FDR sends to China (led by the man who will be Stilwell's biggest nemesis later when Stilwell's in command of the US military in China.)
"Roosevelt was now running an off-the-books secret executive airforce through Ailing's front companies.  Claire Chennault was a private contractor - a mercenary - being paid by the China Lobby.  Roosevelt was sheep-dipping:  taking U.S. personnel, cleansing them with the fiction of their resignations, and then sending them off as secret mercenaries.  Today, many mistakenly believe that Chennault's mission was an American invention controlled by the U.S. military, but when he returned to Asia, Chennault reported back to Washington not through American military channels but privately, through his boss, T.V. Soong."
Bradley argues that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because Dean Acheson managed to block oil shipments in August 1941 without Roosevelt knowing.  This, plus the mercenary air force in China, and the movement of US navy ships to Hawaii, sent signals to Japan that led the Japanese to do what neither the Japanese nor the Americans wanted - start a war between the two nations.  While our history books paint the Pearl Harbor attack as a dastardly, the US was already supplying China with bombers and pilots - offensive weapons that could be used to attack Japan.

Disturbing that not much has changed.  Even though we have better access to information about what our leaders are doing, there is still much we don't know.  And Edward Snowden is still in Russia because they don't want us to know.  Democracies are in a quandary.  There's a need for voters to be able to assess what their leaders are doing, yet you don't want your enemies to know as well.  But better understanding of the Soongs well funded and massive campaign at the time, might have helped people ask for a more accurate assessment.  It will be very interesting to hear what Obama and others have to say in 20 years about who was doing what to influence our foreign policy in his administration.

I'm a little skeptical of Bradley.  I think he too may be overly sold on his own thesis.  Despite the power of the China Lobby, FDR's leadership style has his subordinates constantly in competition.  Instead of groupthink, there seemed to have been epic battles over policy, with FDR getting to hear a wide range of views.  Though the groupthink link above gives the failure to anticipate the bombing of Pearl Harbor as an example.  The book makes it clear that Secretary of State Hull was vehemently opposed to the oil embargo in fear of prodding the Japanese into a Pacific war, but I don't think bombing Hawaii was what they had in mind.  This may not have been so much groupthink as failure to understand what the Japanese were thinking.  There's an interesting passage in the book where Secretary of State Hull negotiates with the Japanese ambassador, a former naval admiral whose English was poor.  They didn't use an interpreter and the book's account has the ambassador not understanding Hull's warning and sending back to Japan a totally incorrect interpretation of Hull's message.

While we are warned that history repeats itself, it's also true that picking the wrong examples from history leads to bad assessments.  The domino theory was a key argument to get into Vietnam after Eastern Europeans fell into the Soviet sphere in 1946.  But was it the right one?  Would the Southeast Asian countries have fallen one-by-one to Communist leaders had we not gone to war in Vietnam?  That's still debated, but in part, we supported authoritarian pro-Western leaders (at least those who portrayed themselves that way as did the Soongs) over the nationalist, anti-colonial leaders, like Ho Chi Minh, who found support from the Soviets when we rejected them.

Life is endlessly complicated and seeing through the complications to the real issues is too.  Probably why a candidate like Trump appeals to a sizable minority - he makes it all simple.  He tells them what they want to believe, just as the Soongs did.

[Update Jan 31, 2016:  I should have mentioned that a 2012 post goes through Doris Kearns Goodwin's description  (in No Ordinary Time) of the lead up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Bradley's book cites Goodwin's book, and there's nothing that's inconsistent, but the two emphasize different details.]


  1. Obviously more than chat material for a book, Steve. You are certainly a citizen of the academy. It's certainly what the Trumpists don't want: uncertainty in times demanding 'right' action.

    To the book itself, I add only this note from this new reader of history: when confronted with a significant re-evaluation of critical events, don the specs of scepticism, carefully engage the contest, using credible analysis of differing writer-perspectives.

    British philosophers are famously analytical. Damn them.

    Imperceptible or deliberate loyalty to a nation, faction, religion, philosophy or economics helpfully occludes what is necessary to be open to contestable assertion of fact. I find bias sometimes draws an elephant-like image by the arc of what the argument isn't.

    I'd take this author and start here by reading Japanese history accounts, both right and left. And of course, what Chinese scholarship exists in translation (is that getting better, btw?).

    The 'lessons of history' are NOT easily gained contrary to widely-held hopes. But thanks for a look into this subject. May some day add it to other threads of history reading; but for now, I am reading philosophy -- a multiverse of truly imponderable ideas, with only my stuttering-watt brain as a guide.

    Sometimes it all seems hopeless... (sigh)

  2. I've read this book. I hope the following does not diverge too much from the book discussion. I felt that Bradley's views about the Pearl Harbor attack were rather simplistic.

    Any student of history understands how difficult it is to "get things right". This is because it is very difficult to tell people (whether they are in positions of power or just the general public) what they do not want ( or are not ready) to hear. At that time (prior to December 7, 1941) who would have publicly argued that the US could not easily defeat the Japanese whenever and wherever either we or they chose to fight? The same would probably apply to Her Majesty's fleet and colonial forces.

    Looking back at the period of the late 1930s to December 7, 1941 a number of things are now obvious.

    1. Britain and all the other colonial powers in Asia were engaged in a struggle for survival that was being played out on the Eurasian landmass half a world away from Japan and China.

    2. The battleship based navies (actually the gun based navies) of the world were now highly vulnerable to attack by air and by submarine.

    3. The merchant marine fleets were equally defenseless against air and submarine attack.

    4. Without the ability to defend their merchant fleets and naval power from attack the colonial powers could not sustain their control of the land and resources in Asia.

    5. The only way at that time to project power and either defend against or preemptively strike against a naval aviation based task force was with naval air power. The same was true for anti-submarine warfare.

    6. At that time defending merchant shipping against submarine attack also required naval aviation as a crucial component.

    What was the degree of comprehension of the above points by the Japanese command structure as compared to the US and British command structure?

    It is difficult to imagine that the soon to be opponents of Japan were capable of correctly analyzing their precarious position. What actions or negotiated settlements would have been possible in 1941 that would have addressed the actual power vacuum in Asia and still maintained the colonial empires? It is difficult to imagine that the colonial powers having correctly assessed their weak position would have been willing to negotiate a settlement with Japan which reflected reality.

    Could Pearl Harbor have been prevented diplomatically? That's the same as asking if Japan would have gotten what it thought it was entitled to and able to militarily seize without a war. (My opinion- no.)

    Could the Pearl Harbor "surprise" have been prevented? Part of deciding how many resources to devote to any defense is understanding the costs of a successful attack. There was not a proper understanding of what was really possible with a naval air attack on a fleet until after December 7, 1941. Remember that conventional wisdom held that Pearl Harbor was too shallow for aerial torpedoes to be used.

  3. Jacob and Anon - thanks for you contributions here. Time reveals what we didn’t know at the time, but time also plays games with memory. And philosophy, Jacob, is a topic altogether more difficult, today dealing with those issues science hasn’t been able to take over and quantify.

    Anon, you add interesting military realities Bradley barely touches if at all. Thanks.

    My real aim here was not so much to find answers about Pearl Harbor, but to use the facts of those times to raise questions about the process used by world leaders to make policy decisions today. FDR at least was hearing different sides argue, and as Anon points out, even when you do lots right, it's difficult to understand at the time. Even with all the pressure Bradley says the China Lobby was putting on American policy makers, FDR resisted the oil embargo. He makes Dean Acheson the culprit, secretly thwarting Roosevelt’s policy, strongly influenced by the Soongs.

    My interest here is to raise the question: who are today's Soongs? I’d also note that Roosevelt’s priority of Europe over China could also be challenged as a cultural bias that didn’t treat Asian lives as importantly as European lives.

    The book also mentions how the nationalism of the Japanese military took negotiation off the table. Bradley quotes Ian Kershaw from Fateful Choices:

    “For no faction of the Japanese elites could there be a retreat from the goals of a victorious settlement in China and successful expansion to establish . . .Japanese domination of the Far East. These objectives had not just become an economic imperative [because of the oil embargo.] They reflected honor and national pride, the prestige and standing of a great power. The alternatives were seen as not just poverty, but defeat, humiliation, ignominy, and an end to great power status in permanent subordination to the United States.”

    I see shades of this attitude among Trump supporters and other Republican candidates. Though I sense that Trump isn’t caught up in this, he’s just exploiting it.

    1. I guess I didn't quite get the question the first time.

      My interest here is to raise the question: who are today's Soongs?

      Today's Soongs are engaged in selling confected stories about Middle Eastern regime change and the supposed dangers of aluminum tubes. Contact Judith Miller (formerly of the New York Times) for any additional details you might need on this topic.


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