Friday, June 7, 2013

The Unavoidable War: The War of The Pacific

I have notice the war between Japan and the United States being brought up in the comments section of various libertarian and reactionary blogs that I visit.  It is the opinion of some that this war was entirely avoidable was only the result of the machinations of President Roosevelt.  I disagree, the war, while not inevitable, had a very high likelihood of happening. I expect I may take some flak for this statement, I have in the past, but this post will explain my reasoning. Please reserve final opinions and conclusions until you have read it in it's entirety.

The claims that Roosevelt forced the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor because he was denying the Japanese oil perplex me, not because it wasn't a factor as it was, but because the US denying Japan oil reasoning is often issued as some sort of condemnation. I have seen this more from libertarians than reactionaries, though some extremely anti-federal reactionaries have done this, and there is a major reason why it confuses me.  The US stopped shipping oil to Japan because of the their invasion of French Indochina. 
Imperial Japan had invaded because they wished to stop the transference of US materials through this part of the world to the Chinese military forces.  The US was getting involved, to a limited extent, in the war, however, simply condemning the US for this action would entail that we ignore a major piece of information.  That the Japanese were invading territory that was not their own.  I understand, and agree, that the United States should limit itself when it comes to global conflicts; especially when they are civil wars. But when it comes to naked aggression, and the Japanese invasion was naked aggression, what is the proper course of action becomes murkier.
A person could make the humanitarian case, essentially an appeal to the principals of Western morals and idea, that we should become involved when nations come under the assault of a foreign foe. I understand this sentiment, though it has been grossly abused and only applied when it suited the West to do so. But this isn't the major point of concern for me, at least not in this particular instance.  My major point of concern is that naked aggression by a nation towards another nation indicates the willingness, and possibility, of it being done again. Other nations are rightfully nervous about America given the actions of the United States the last 50 or so years, so why would this be any different for the US in regards to Imperial Japan in the 1930s?
In this instance, considering Japans stated aims of establishing a sphere of influence over nations that were not under their purvue, the Co-Prosperity sphere originally started as a North Eastern only body but gradually grew in the planned size and scope from 1938 to 1940, why shouldn't the US have been nervous?  To do nothing to try and protect your interests when a nation is belligerent, and you have the capability to do so, reeks of what I call 'Alderaanean Pacifism', which is pacifism for pacifism sake. That is something I will never ascribe.You could have had a man like Congressman Paul as President and I doubt that our actions would have been any different.
But there is another very important item that needs to be considered.  Whether or not the United States ceased shipments of oil, or declined to sell arms to the Chinese, war would probably have happened.  Why is that? One, there were certain material factors that played into it, and two, it had been building up politically from the 1860s if not earlier. 
People must remember that it was the United States that first brought Japan out of isolation during the Perry expedition in 1852.  Imagine how startling this must have been for the Japanese elites.  Foreigners had come sporadically since the 16th century but what Perry did was different. He led a military expedition, warships, from Virginia all the way into the port of Edo, modern day Tokyo. The Japanese had used force to expel foreigners before, but those had been trading ships, not warships.  When the Shogunate officials demanded that Perry leave, he refused and the Shogunate could do nothing. This was a major culture shock to the Japanese. They realized how weak they were compared to other nations of the world, it hearkened the end of the shogunate and the rise of Meiji Japan.
The Japanese adapted quickly, and in less than 30 years were beginning to colonize the Pacific.  Here is an image of the Pacific and the territorial breakdown in September 1939 - I would insert it into the post but it is far too large so I suggest you open it up in another tab -.  The Japanese and Americans were claiming territories in the pacific around the same time.  Here is a quick timeline of each nations activities.

United States
Midway Islands
Okinawa / Ryuku Islands
Iwo Jima
Line Islands
Palau/Saipan/Carolina/ Marshal Islands

The grabbing of islands in the Pacific happened for many reasons, access to resources, need for ports for replenishment, simple imperialism and security concerns, but one thing should be undeniably apparent to anyone looking at this map, the nations were moving towards confrontation.  I doubt it was a primary motivation, or if it was an ancillary one, of the officials for both nations. But that is how geopolitics works sometimes. Conflicts don't always happen suddenly, though it may appear that way to us, they often gestate over a period of time.
This brings me to my point about it not mattering whether or not the US had sold weapons to the Chinese, or put an oil embargo on Japan.  There are two big reasons among many.
1. There were conflicting zones of influence. Neither the US, nor Japan, wanted to be at risk of a foreign military invasion of their coasts. Like I mentioned earlier, this is part of the reason why they grabbed islands in the pacific. As each one grabbed more territory they gradually grew towards being a threat to each other, intentionally or unintentionally it doesn't matter. 
2. A US territory, the Philippines, lies on the pathway towards a resource Japan desperately wants, the oil in the Dutch East Indies. So long as the US holds the Philippines they have the ability to bring Japans economy to a halt.
Now you might ask that why would the Japanese invade the Dutch East Indies if the US hadn't ceased selling oil to the Japanese?  The answer is why wouldn't they? What sort of nation would rely on a single source of oil if the cutting off of that source would bring their war effort to a halt?  The only reason the US continues to allow dependence her on foreign oil is:
a. Most of our foreign oil comes from Canada and Mexico.
b. The US possess amazing military might and could take the oil if nations wouldn't sell it to us; not to mention we could become energy independent if we desired. Japan circa 1941 does not have that. They aren't the preeminent power in the region, just a power among many others, and they had no major domestic sources of energy.
You also have to remember that the Dutch East Indies was owned by the Netherlands, which at this point and time is being occupied by the Germans, I doubt the Dutch would be able to put up much of a resistance if the Japanese invaded. So there you have it, you have a real need for energy independence from a rival foreign power, and an energy rich territory that is weakly defended. Knowing history, I think we know what usually results in a situation like this.
This brings the Americans back into play. Who is to say that the United States would allow Japan to invade and conquer the Dutch East Indies? While the argument could be made that the US shouldn't have cared from a geopolitical standpoint about China being conquered, I cannot see anyone seriously suggesting that the US wouldn't have serious qualms about an invasion of the Dutch East Indies.
 In the end this is why I say the war between the two nations, while not inevitable, would have been very difficult to avoid. The elimination of one factor, the oil embargo, or two factors, if you include selling arms to China, doesn't eliminate a whole host of other items that made war a real possibility.  There are a lot of things that I fault Franklin Deleano Roosevelt for but the War of the Pacific, and by extension World War II, isn't one of them.


  1. Cool image of the Pacific expansion timeline-- thanks. The first time I heard this argument was during a video related to the peoples' history of the united states. While many libertarians are small government, free market types, I've also noticed that some are the counter culture type. Chomskyites tend to embrace the notion of western imperialism while forgiving any instance of it practiced by other cultures.

  2. Why would American have declared war over the invasion of the dutch east indies? Most Americans had been a in very isolationist mood after the swindle that was WW1 and FDR was going to get them into a war short of a sneak attack on the US. Hell FDR even setup and got a US destroyer sunk by a German sub and the public told FDR to pound sand. It was public opinion, not national interests that would have kept us out of war.

    The key thing that triggered the war was not the Oil embargo. It was FDR's slow build up of the Philippines. Once the Philippines where fully fortified the imperial navy would have been useless anywhere near it due to land based sea bombers. FDR made his intentions very clear by sending large B17 air wings with very little fighter support. A fully fortified philippines was a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan on the level of the nukes that JFK deployed to turkey.

    FDR setup a very slow build up on the philippines, sacked the commander of the pacific fleet so that he could move the fleet to Perl harbor, and waited until the Japanese took the bait. Hell FDR was so concerned that the attack on Perl might not cause enough damage that he personally selected a total incompetent to run Perl Harbor.

    1. For some reason, my response was lost in the internet ether....

      I'll try again.
      This reasoning does not make sense. FDR wanted to go to war against Germany, not Japan. The Declaration of war by Hitler on the US was NOT a predictable event. Had Hitler not taken this foolhardy measure, the US would have been FURTHER from a war in Europe due to the Japanese attack, not closer. The public ire was against Japan.

      Even assuming FDR wanted the attack to happen I don't understand the above rationale that "enough damage" had to be done. There was nothing to be gained by leaving unprotected and unready. The attack would still take place, Japan is still the aggressor (they declared war against us, not the other way around), and the US would not risk losing its entire Pacific fleet and main Pacific naval base.


    2. Why would the US declare war over the Dutch East Indies? Well they might not have. Some US commanders had expressed reluctance to declare war in the event that they invade the Philippines, however, I think that would have been the minority opinion. What we do know is that throughout the Japanese wars in the East prior to 1941 the US response grew stronger.

      When the Japanese invaded China the US started to sell arms to the Chinese nationalists.

      When the Chinese invaded Indochina the US initiated the oil embargo.

      I highly doubt the US would have sat still, considering my points above, if the Japanese invaded Indonesia.

      As for our foreign policy hinging on isolationism at the time. A lot of FDRs policy decision were influenced by public opinion, however, while a US sub was sunk by the Germans it should also be noted that the US took retaliatory actions against the Germans.

      This isn't unusual, the United States didn't enter WWI after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. It was only when the Germans announced that they were going to conducted unrestricted submarine warfare that the US finally entered.

      We have to remember that foreign policy is crafted more by the men in uniform, and the presidents, cabinet than the president himself. This is why foreign policy after stays the same despite a new president entering the office. At the time, the conventional wisdom of the military leadership was that it was in our best interests to stay out of those wars.

      As for the Philippines, yes the US was reinforcing the island, but so what? At that time the Philippines was a Commonwealth Territory of the United States. The Philippines was our territory at that time, and nations have every right to defend their territory how they will.

      As for FDR wanting an attack on Pearl Harbor, I have a hard time believing that theory considering that written testimonials have FDR, right after he heard of the attack, absolutely despondent and saying 'I am going to be known as the worst president in US history.'


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Seattle resident whose real name is Kevin Daniels. This blog covers the following topics, libertarian philosophy, realpolitik, western culture, history and the pursuit of truth from the perspective of a libertarian traditionalist.