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FDR and the politicians around him lied prodigiously about their desire to keep America out of war, even as they took one deliberate step after another to take us into war…

fdr-pearl-harbor pat buchananOn December 8, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt took the rostrum before a joint session of Congress to ask for a declaration of war on Japan. A day earlier, at dawn, carrier-based Japanese aircraft had launched a sneak attack devastating the U.S. battle fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Said ex-President Herbert Hoover, Republican statesman of the day, “We have only one job to do now, and that is to defeat Japan.” But to friends, “the Chief” sent another message: “You and I know that this continuous putting pins in rattlesnakes finally got this country bit.”

Today, seventy-five years after Pearl Harbor, a remarkable secret history, written from 1943 to 1963, has come to light. It is Hoover’s explanation of what happened before, during and after the world war that may prove yet the death knell of the West. Edited by historian George Nash, Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath, is a searing indictment of FDR and the men around him as politicians who lied prodigiously about their desire to keep America out of war, even as they took one deliberate step after another to take us into war.

Yet the book is no polemic. The fifty-page run-up to the war in the Pacific uses memoirs and documents from all sides to prove Hoover’s indictment. And perhaps the best way to show the power of this book is the way Hoover does it—chronologically, painstakingly, week by week.

Consider Japan’s situation in the summer of 1941. Bogged down in a four year war in China, she could neither win nor end, having moved into French Indochina, Japan saw herself as near the end of her tether. Inside the government was a powerful faction led by Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoye that desperately did not want a war with the United States.

The “pro-Anglo-Saxon” camp included the navy, whose officers had fought alongside the U.S. and Royal navies in World War I, while the war party was centered on the army, General Hideki Tojo and Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, a bitter anti-American. On July 18, 1941, Konoye ousted Matsuoka, replacing him with the “pro-Anglo-Saxon” Admiral Teijiro Toyoda.

The U.S. response: On July 25, we froze all Japanese assets in the United States, ending all exports and imports, and denying Japan the oil upon which the nation and empire depended. Stunned, Konoye still pursued his peace policy by winning secret support from the navy and army to meet FDR on the U.S. side of the Pacific to hear and respond to U.S. demands.

U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew implored Washington not to ignore Konoye’s offer, that the prince had convinced him an agreement could be reached on Japanese withdrawal from Indochina and South and Central China. Out of fear of Mao’s armies and Stalin’s Russia, Tokyo wanted to hold a buffer in North China.

On August 28, Japan’s ambassador in Washington presented FDR a personal letter from Konoye imploring him to meet. Tokyo begged us to keep Konoye’s offer secret, as the revelation of a Japanese prime minister’s offering to cross the Pacific to talk to an American president could imperil his government. On September 3, the Konoye letter was leaked to the Herald-Tribune.

On September 6, Konoye met again at a three-hour dinner with Grew to tell him Japan now agreed with the four principles the Americans were demanding as the basis for peace. No response. On September 29, Grew sent what Hoover describes as a “prayer” to the president not to let this chance for peace pass by.

On September 30, Grew wrote Washington, “Konoye’s warship is ready waiting to take him to Honolulu, Alaska or anyplace designated by the president.” No response. On October 16, Konoye’s cabinet fell.

In November, the U.S. intercepted two new offers from Tokyo: a Plan A for an end to the China war and occupation of Indochina and, if that were rejected, a Plan B, a modus vivendi where neither side would make any new move. When presented, these, too, were rejected out of hand.

At a November 25th meeting of FDR’s war council, Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s notes speak of the prevailing consensus: “The question was how we should maneuver them (the Japanese) into… firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.” “We can wipe the Japanese off the map in three months,” wrote Navy Secretary Frank Knox. As Grew had predicted, Japan, a “hara-kiri nation,” proved more likely to fling herself into national suicide for honor than to allow herself to be humiliated.

Out of the war that arose from the refusal to meet Prince Konoye came scores of thousands of U.S. dead, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the fall of China to Mao Zedong, U.S. wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the rise of a new arrogant China that shows little respect for the great superpower of yesterday.

If you would know the history that made our world, spend a week with Mr. Hoover’s book.

Republished with the gracious permission of Mr. Buchanan. Books by Pat Buchanan may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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4 replies to this post
  1. Excellent! The Pearl Harbor story is fascinating, and would be an outstanding subject for serious discussion groups.

  2. I think the better question to ask is whether America did not begin hostilities with Japan in the 1850s with the Perry Expeditions. I see Pearl, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki as having come from the earlier American interventions but to the victor goes the spoils and part of the spoils is to write the “history” of the conflict.

  3. This is a very difficult subject. I myself have dabbled in revisionism – and I think it is a natural moral instinct: we seek to explain war and show that it was avoidable. Yet the great problem with history is that it took place – and the great problem with political life is that it is predicated on the impression that history leaves rather than on the reflections of intellectuals upon history. Thus, intellectuals of high moral principle will take Hoover’s statement (“We have only one job to do now, and that is to defeat Japan”) less seriously than Hoover’s book Freedom Betrayed.

    Analogously, many Poles take Prime Minister Cat-Mackiewicz’s books and proposal to follow the example of Vichy more seriously than Cat-Mackiewicz’s later decision to accept and work within the Communist era People’s Republic. They see the former as the righteous prelude to the always hoped for Western crusade against first Germany, then Russia. They see the latter as selling out the ideals of the former – when in fact it is the same point: Cat-Mackiewicz advised alliance with Hitler in the 1930s and a Vichy model in the 1940s not out of love for Hitler, but out of prudence and a desired to preserve the physical and biological material of his nation. By 1956, when Cat returned to Poland, under conditions of a post-Stalinist thaw – this course of moderate acceptance of the status quo was likewise the best course towards first preservation – then liberty (liberty is no good if everyone dies in it’ pursuit). Yet it was then a course of accepting the Warsaw Pact.

    I view the American experience as somewhat similar. No matter how much the United States wanted to maneuver Japan into firing the first shot – Japan needn’t have fired. Japan needn’t have allowed itself to be so provoked. In addition, the Japanese had undertaken a largely horrible imperial war against much of Southeast Asia. Imperialism – in Roosevelt’s view – was the great menace to the world. In this sense, Roosevelt was a greater statesman than Churchill. Churchill’s sole purpose in the entire war was the preservation of British imperial interests – matters of humanity and justice came second for him. Not so with Roosevelt.

    We Americans should appreciate this fact – that our President at the time was the pillar of non-Communist anti-Imperialism in the civilized world. The alternative to what America under Roosevelt portended was the USSR. If Roosevelt failed to influence world affairs with a view to reducing or liquidating imperialism in favor of liberal democracy – the alternative facing the world was Communism (and this in a sense became the flashpoint of the Cold War). Do I think it would have been an even greater triump for non-Communist anti-Imperialism to stay out of the war and preserve and strengthen the American republic? Yes. Do I therefore condemn Roosevelt and the lot? No – because the war came. After Pearl Harbor what possible alternative could there be? Hoover was right – the only job then was to defeat Japan. Just like after 9/11 it was obvious SOMETHING had to be done – and the real problem was “to whom?” (in my view to terrorists, not to states like Iraq – or at least, we could not have the same policy of liquidation towards state-sponsors of terrorism as towards the terrorists themselves – because to liquidate a state is to create a vacume for terrorists to fill). Roosevelt – after Pearl Harbor – had very few good options. He took the course he took and he performed his war time duties well – I say so for a simple reason: America WON. Wouldn’t it be nice to at least do that again from time to time? Nowadays we not only bungle into war – but we fail to win it….

    The Communists never for an instant believed that such a thing as a peaceful liquidation of colonial imperialism and a reform of the world along liberal or even social democratic lines was possible. When HG Wells interviewed Stalin in 1937, he raised the specter of Roosevelt and Stalin being the two men towards whom the world looks for liberation. Stalin was adamant that there can be no liberation without a dictatorship of the proletariate – that intellectuals, while useful in a technical sense, were deluded if they thought it possible to achieve revolutionary goals without employing revolutionary means.

    Roosevelt – and the entire New Deal and subsequent American policy in Europe following World War II – were a very blunt response to the Communist view: a response which demonstrated that in fact it is possible to abolish old forms of oppression without passing through bitter new ones.

    I do not wish to say that the world war was inevitable – though certainly we cannot think that simply because it may have been possible to avoid, that it was indeed avoidable. The number of factors which would have of necessity had to have been altered in the run up to the war were of such magnitude that at a certain point events simply played themselves out – much as they would in Greek or Shakespearean tragedy.

    When I think of all of the chief political actors during World War II, I think to myself that President Roosevelt was probably the best of the entire cast. Naturally, this isn’t saying much – how do you praise anyone involved at such a level in such a horrible and catastrophic event? Nevertheless – it seems to me that Roosevelt played a part that was positive. He kept America out of the war as long as possible, acted prudently insofar as how he took the country to war, and once at war – fought it well and won the war. War is a terrible thing – but if it has to be fought – I think we can all agree that a nation which fights it and wins it the way Roosevelt did is blessed. The world would certainly have been even worse off had Roosevelt not pursued many of the policies he did. That he might have done better – that the war with Japan and the entrance of America into the entire affair may have been avoided – well…perhaps. But if Poland and Germany had simply come to terms in 1939 rather than go to war over a highway and a sea port – things may have turned out differently as well. If the Tsar had allowed for reforms akin to those which Austro-Hungary permitted he may have kept his head. If the King had heeded Edmund Burke’s advise – he may have kept his American colonies…if Adam had listened to God rather than Eve – he may have kept his Paradise.

    To study the causes and consider the alternatives is wise political science. To accept the facts, their consequences and judge matters on that basis and within that context is likewise wise political science.

  4. Until he threw in the towel,, so to speak, it was Hitler, not Roosevelt, who kept the U.S. out of the war. Lend-Lease and the aggressive maneuvers ordered by Roosevelt against German submarines prior to Pearl Harbor did not bait Hitler, who kept his powder dry. And the President had been warned by Admiral J.O. Richardson against basing the Pacific Fleet at Pearl, pointing out that, at the time, it was a death trap, and that the Navy was not prepared to take on the Japanese. For this, he was replaced. Of the many excellent books on Pearl Harbor, Richardson’s On the Treadmill to Pearl Harbor is the most important.

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