BBC History Magazine
THE tIEW FpOM WASHINGTON
gives an American perspective on the events leading up to Pearl Harbor
Why did America oppose Japanese expansion intoChina?
Although the US was technically neutral in the conflicts in Europe and Asia up until the end of 1941, that isn’t to say that they didn’t have a dog in the fight. The US had great sympathy with Britain in the European theatre, and China in the Asian theatre. Considering the US and Japan had strong business ties, the groundswell of public support for China may seem somewhat surprising. Some of the support was because of the huge market potential of China if it became more developed. There was also an idea that Nationalist China was something like an early version of the US – having thrown off the imperial system, it had the potential to embrace an American-style democracy. The success of American missionaries in China led to a sentiment of the Chinese being “like us”.
When war erupted between Japan and China, in which Japan was certainly the aggressor, it was a real mess for the US. On the one hand, they wanted China to win, but Japan was also helping fuel the US economy by buying US materials to fight the war.
Did the Americans feel threatened by the Japanese before Pearl Harbor?
No, not at all. From the American perspective, events in Asia were largely a sideshow to those in Europe. The Americans minimised the threat Japan posed. Even isolationists were saying: “We can be assertive against Japan, take a hard line, level embargoes and force a tough negotiating position.” Most people believed that Japan wouldn’t dare attack the US and even if they did, it wouldn’t matter because the US was so much stronger. There was also a ridiculous racialised scepticism about Japan’s military prowess, despite the fact that they had clearly disproven this in conflicts like the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War, which saw the Japanese triumph over tsarist Russia.
So the attack on Pearl Harbor really did blindside most Americans?
The American public, absolutely. It also surprised many policy planners. The US was concerned that when they levelled embargoes, Japan might push south into European colonies in south-east Asia to secure other sources of oil. But not that Japan would attack the US itself.
Confident of their own strength, American diplomats at home were certain that the Japanese would have to concede. But what’s interesting is that if you look at the diaries of diplomats stationed in Japan, they had a different perspective. They even wrote about feeling relieved on hearing about the attack because of a growing sense of impending doom and dread. For those who had been embedded in Japanese society, it was clear that conflict was becoming inevitable.
Dayna Barnes is senior lecturer in modern history at City, University of London, specialising in America foreign policy and east Asia