Brief Comment on Pearl Harbor

On Facebook, there’s a lot of discussion on the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, especially given the circulation of today’s Mises Daily by Robert Higgs: “How U.S. Economic Warfare Provoked Japan’s Attack on Pearl Harbor.” I’m sympathetic to this view; the only thing I might not agree with (although, a better term would be to withhold judgment) is that U.S. military intelligence was aware of the impending attack on Pearl Harbor or, at least, that it expected the damage that the Japanese attack ultimately wrought on the Pacific Fleet. In any case, Higgs’ article is not what I want to comment on. (Edit: I actually spoke to Higgs for a few minutes on the topic back in 2009, but it wasn’t for very long.)

As one might expect, the reactions to Higgs’ piece — and similar narratives — are mixed. Apparently, there are a lot of negative reactions. The notion that Roosevelt, and others, were looking for a cassus belli shouldn’t be controversial. The administration wanted to enter the war, but it had to sell the idea to Congress. It’s only natural that our government explored other means of supporting our allies, with the limit being something below outright fighting prior to December 1941, including supplying our allies (and not our soon-to-be foes) and restricting trade with those we wanted to wage war against. For the most part (99.9–100 percent), Higgs’, et. al., narrative is factually accurate, whether you’re anti-State or not — the U.S. provoked Japan into starting an outright war.

If those who are reacting negatively are doing so because of the facts, they are wrong. But, something tells me that this isn’t the main motivation behind the negative reactions. The principal reason some people don’t like these types of histories is because the authors are implying that the U.S. government was in the wrong for committing to these actions. If you believe that the U.S. was right for going to war with Japan and Germany, irrespective of Pearl Harbor, then none of the United States’ tacit belligerence prior to December 1941 was unjustified.

This isn’t just a problem of those reacting negatively, who aren’t focusing on what they really disagree with. It’s also with the writers who are trying to portray U.S. actions as negative. To lay out how the Americans provoked the Japanese into attacking U.S. assets in the Pacific and then argue that the U.S. was in the wrong because of these provocations is misleading. You can only come to this conclusion if you believe the Second World War to be an unjust war. But, few articles ever talk about the “morality” of the Second World War (whether it was just versus unjust for the U.S. to enter). Instead, they list a number of things which might be considered “wrong,” but don’t suggest that there are normative justifications that some people hold in defense.

Two final notes,

  1. Talking about what is “just” and “unjust” in the context of topics like war might be the wrong approach. Sometimes it really is about the lesser of two evils. For example, if the British and French had committed to a genuine invasion of Western Germany in September 1939 it would be difficult for me to dismiss this as “unjust,” out of hand — it may have spared the world the Second World War. I just think that there has to be some wiggle room when applying ethics and morality to these kinds of situations;
  2. Do I think the U.S. was justified in entering the Second World War? I think we could have probably gotten away with not entering, assuming the Japanese wouldn’t have invaded U.S. Pacific territories had the U.S. not provoked Japan into war. With our aid (especially in the realm of logistics supplies, including trucks and other mechanized vehicles), the Soviet Union was more than capable of pushing the German military back into Germany, and the British would have probably defeated the German army in North Africa, as well (tying down ~130,000 German troops). But, I don’t consider it wrong of the U.S. to enforce a steel embargo on Japan for attacking China in the late 1930s, and actions of similar ilk.


12 thoughts on “Brief Comment on Pearl Harbor

  1. Jeremy H Smith

    I had similar thoughts as yours. As you know, viewing history retrospectively is difficult because the context of past decisions is hard to emulate. History will judge actions, but it is difficult for history to judge the decision making process for those actions. I still believe that Japanese and German ambitions were aggressive and freedom killing. Of course, thousands dying at Pearl Harbor is abhorrent. I wish there could have been a different way, and there may have been. People, which includes politicians, will naturally flow to the path of least resistance. Roosevelt may have seen the plans to attach Pearl Harbor as an easier path to justified war than the alternatives. Again, I wish it didn’t happen. However, the aggressive ambitions of the Axis needed to be squelched.

  2. Wladimir Kraus

    ” If you believe that the U.S. was right for going to war with Japan and Germany, irrespective of Pearl Harbor, then none of the United States’ tacit belligerence prior to December 1941 was unjustified.” That’s exactly right. Horrible as the war undoubtedly is, at times going to war can be “just” or “justified” if doing so will combat the greater evil. That’s the benchmark. There is no doubt that German Nazism and Japanese imperialism were forces positively bent on conquest, genocide, destruction. Could it have been done with fewer losses of lives and treasure or even without the US entering the war? Probably, but why would that matter here for us? As far as I can see, only as a lesson to what to do better/more efficient in future such situations. Nice post, Jonathan! Got me thinking.

  3. Roman P.

    The history of the WWII is complex and the schoolbook interpretation might be misleading and shaped by the political propaganda of the past.
    In the end, USA and USSR won. Third Reich, Japan AND Britain lost the war and the geopolitical struggle. USA did what it did simply because it could, taking its due by the right of the strong. And shouldn’t it, really?

  4. gcallah

    “then none of the United States’ tacit belligerence prior to December 1941 was unjustified.”

    Well, someone can think that:
    1) The US had good cause to go to war against the axis, but
    2) In a democracy, such a policy should be sold openly to the citizens; they should not be duped into going to war.

    1. JCatalan

      I guess we can use the word “duped,” but we could also see it as the administration using whatever powers it had at its disposal to help out the allies until it had a cassus belli to declare outright war.

      1. Silvano

        He was under no treaty obligation to do so–as if treaties mattered to Hitler anyway.
        (And if treaties mattered so much why France & UK which signed the Polish-British Common Defence Pact declared war only to Germany when Poland had been invaded by both Germany & USSR?)

        1. JCatalan

          Treaties may not have meant much to Hitler, but his declaration of war was a direct result of Japan’s attack. Had Japan not attacked, it’s unlikely that Hitler would have instigated the United States’ entry into the war.

          1. Silvano

            Not so unlikely, considering US were almost openly supporting UK and Germany was interested in sunking American aids. Hard to figure out a “what if” scenario starting from Hitler’s mind. Just two years before, despite the Anti-comintern pact, he signed a NAP with Russia (the Nazi-Soviet pact) to split Poland in two while Japan was at war with USSR in Asia (Tokyo even asked Hitler to join Japan vs Stalin). Then he changed his mind and put in place Operation Barbarossa.

            Anyway, in 1941 Hitler was free to choose – surely more than Roosvelt who had a Congress and a public opinion to deal with – and he chose war. Without his declaration US Government would have had no reason to send troops in Europe. Considering at the time German Navy was barely able to control Baltic sea and few more I don’t know what passed on his mind (incompetence? megalomania?).

          2. JCatalan

            Hitler wasn’t interested in having a physical presence of American manpower in Europe and North Africa. The reason he declared war on the U.S. after Japan’s attack is because he expected Japan to draw the U.S.’ attention, and because he thought that if he were to declare war on the U.S. it might push Japan to declare war on the Soviet Union (opening a “second front” for the Soviets in the east).

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