Herewith is a re-posting of Anthony Gregory’s reflections on the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, from Dec. 6, 2011.—Editor
Seventy Years of Infamy
December 7 marks seventy years since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This incident finally broke the non-interventionist spirit that had characterized the American people—an attitude that was informed by the utter failure of the United States’s very costly entry in the last world war to bring about the democracy that was promised of it. Polls show as many as four out of five Americans opposed intervention. The Pearl Harbor attack changed everything. The America First movement, the largest antiwar movement in U.S. history, folded, for the most part. One of its most vocal leaders, Charles Lindbergh, joined the war effort upon hearing of the Pearl Harbor attack. He ended up flying fifty combat missions in the Pacific Theater.
In October, 1940, U.S. Admiral James Richardson warned President Roosevelt, Admiral Harry Stark, and Secretary Frank Knox that U.S. ships did not belong at Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt responded that the ships would have a “restraining influence” on Japan. When Richardson asked FDR if the U.S. was going to war with Japan, the president responded, according to Richardson, “that if the Japanese attacked Thailand, or the Kra Penninsula, or the Dutch East Indies we would not enter the war, that if they even attacked the Philippines he doubted whether we would enter the war.” But “sooner or later they would make a mistake and we would enter the war.”
Casual observers had many reasons to suspect FDR wanted war. In September 1940, the president had established the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. Voters were worried. The next month he told a concerned audience: “I have said this before but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”
In March 1941, safely sworn in to his third term as president, Roosevelt signed the bill creating Lend-Lease, a program of U.S. military aid to Russia, Britain, China, and France. On December 4, 1941, three days before the Pearl Harbor attack, the Chicago Tribune‘s headline read: “F.D.R.’s War plans!” The paper published a copy of Rainbow Five, Roosevelt’s secret plan to create a ten-million man army in the event of an invasion of Europe.
More than a few of Roosevelt’s contemporary critics believed the Pearl Harbor attack was a set-up. In 1945, New Deal critic John Flynn wrote about U.S. agitation of Japan before the attack:
There is a story of profound importance yet to be told about the state of peace so far as America was concerned before Pearl Harbor. Certainly we had not declared war. But we had sent an army across the sea to Iceland to join the British army there; we had been sending arms, ammunition and destroyers and planes as a gift to Britain and France and China. We had been with our warships hunting down German submarines for British planes and even bombing them. . . . In the Pacific we had cut off all shipments and trade of essential materials with Japan and frozen and seized here $130,000,000 of her funds, which Walter Lippmann called “a declaration of economic warfare.” We had sent an American military mission to China and an American economic adviser to Chiang Kai-shek. We had sent General Chennault with a large number of American army fliers to China to fight with Chiang’s army.
President Herbert Hoover wrote a history of World War II that also made points along these lines, although it was not published until fifty years after it was written. It was also long after the war that scholars were able to provide more sophisticated scrutiny of the events, most notably Robert Stinnett, whose 1990s work Day of Deceit goes further than any previous work in demonstrating that the United States had cracked Japanese codes and arguing that the U.S. had foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack.