The build-up to Pearl Harbor began two decades prior to the attack when, in 1922, the U.S., Britain, and Japan agreed that the Japanese navy would not be allowed more than 60 percent of the capital ship tonnage of the other two powers. As resentment grew within Japan over this decidedly inequitable agreement, that same year, the United States Supreme Court declared Japanese immigrants ineligible for American citizenship. This decision was followed a year later by the Supreme Court upholding a California and Washington ruling denying Japanese the right to own property. A third judicial strike was dealt in 1924 with the Exclusion Act which virtually banned all Asian immigration. Finally, in 1930, when the London Naval Treaty denied Japan naval hegemony in its own waters, the groundwork for war (and “surprise attacks”) had been laid.
Upon realizing that Japan textiles were out-producing Lancashire mills, the British Empire (including India, Australia, Burma, etc.) raised the tariff on Japanese exports by 25 percent. Within a few years, the Dutch followed suit in Indonesia and the West Indies, with the U.S. (in Cuba and the Philippines) not far behind. This led to the Japanese claiming (correctly) encirclement by the “ABCD” (American, British, Chinese, and Dutch) powers. Such moves, combined with Japan's expanding colonial designs, says Kenneth C. Davis, made “a clash between Japan and the United States and the other Western nations over control of the economy and resources of the Far East and Pacific . . . bound to happen.”
WWII, in the Pacific theater, was essentially a war between colonial powers. It was not the Japanese invasion of China, the rape of Nanking, or the atrocities in Manchuria that resulted in the United States declaring war on the Empire of Japan. It was the attack of three of America's territories‹the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii (Pearl Harbor)‹that provoked a military response.
On July 21, 1941, Japan signed a preliminary agreement with the Nazi-sympathizing Vichy government of Marshal Henri Pétain, leading to Japanese occupation of airfields and naval bases in Indochina. 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. This was followed soon after by the United States and Great Britain freezing all Japanese assets in their respective countries. Radhabinod Pal, one of the judges in the post-war Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, later argued that the U.S. had clearly provoked the war with Japan, calling the embargoes a “clear and potent threat to Japan's very existence.”
Which brings me to those negatives references I mentioned earlier. Self-censorship in the name of profits will mislead movie-goers about the high level of anti-Japanese racism cultivated by the “greatest generation.” The Japanese soldiers (and, for that matter, all Japanese) were commonly referred to and depicted as subhuman‹insects, monkeys, apes, rodents, or simply barbarians that must be wiped out or exterminated. The American Legion Magazine's cartoon of monkeys in a zoo who had posted a sign reading, “Any similarity between us and the Japs is purely coincidental” was typical. A U.S. Army poll in 1943 found that roughly half of all GIs believed it would be necessary to kill every Japanese on earth before peace could be achieved. As a December 1945 Fortune poll revealed, American feelings for the Japanese did not soften after the war. Nearly twenty-three percent of those questioned wished the U.S. could have dropped “many more [atomic bombs] before the Japanese had a chance to surrender.” Eugene B. Sledge, author of With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, wrote of his comrades “harvesting gold teeth” from the enemy dead. In Okinawa, Sledge witnessed “the most repulsive thing I ever saw an American do in the war”‹when a Marine officer stood over a Japanese corpse and urinated into its mouth. Perhaps Edgar L. Jones, a former war correspondent in the Pacific, put it best when he asked in the February 1946 Atlantic Monthly, ”What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers.”
And then there was the man who'd eventually give the order to drop atomic bombs on Japanese civilians: “We have used [the bomb] against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare,” Harry Truman later explained, thus justifying his decision to nuke a people that he termed “savages, ruthless, merciless, and fanatic.”
Rationality in the Pacific was so rare during WW II that, ironically, it required as a mouthpiece none other than prominent racist Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. Repelled by what he saw and heard of U.S. treatment of the Japanese in the Pacific theater, the aviator spoke out. His sentiments are summed up in the following journal entry: “It was freely admitted that some of our soldiers tortured Jap prisoners and were as cruel and barbaric at times as the Japs themselves. Our men think nothing of shooting a Japanese prisoner or a soldier attempting to surrender. They treat the Jap with less respect than they would give to an animal, and these acts are condoned by almost everyone. We claim to be fighting for civilization, but the more I see of this war in the Pacific the less right I think we have to claim to be civilized.”When Lindbergh left the Pacific and arrived at customs in Hawaii, he was asked if he had any Japanese bones in his baggage. It was, by then, a routine question
Like most Hollywood spectacles, Pearl Harbor is devoid of context. There's only one line alluding to U.S. economic and legislative provocation prior to December 7, 1941 and no hint at all of the internment camps and atomic bombs yet to come. After three hours, World War II is still “The Good War,” America's honor remains untarnished, and the summer movie season is in full swing.
Mickey Z. (Michael Zezima) is the author of Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of “The Good War” (Soft Skull Press, 2000), on which this article is based. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.