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,
- 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;
- 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.