U.S. Economic Warfare Provoked Japan's Attack on Pearl Harbor
Recently by Robert Higgs: Regime
Uncertainty: Some Clarifications
was delivered at the 30th Anniversary Supporters Summit of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute, Callaway Gardens, Georgia, on October 26, 2012.
here to watch the video of this talk.
are misled by formalities. They assume, for example, that the United
States went to war against Germany and Japan only after its declarations
of war against these nations in December 1941. In truth, the United
States had been at war for a long time before making these declarations.
Its war making took a variety of forms. For example, the U.S. navy
conducted "shoot [Germans] on sight" convoys - convoys that might
include British ships in the North Atlantic along the greater
part the shipping route from the United States to Great Britain,
even though German U-boats had orders to refrain (and did refrain)
from initiating attacks on U.S. shipping. The United States and
Great Britain entered into arrangements to pool intelligence, combine
weapons development, test military equipment jointly, and undertake
other forms of war-related cooperation. The U.S. military actively
cooperated with the British military in combat operations against
the Germans, for example, by alerting the British navy of aerial
or marine sightings of German submarines, which the British then
attacked. The U.S. government undertook in countless ways to provide
military and other supplies and assistance to the British, the French,
and the Soviets, who were fighting the Germans. The U.S. government
also provided military and other supplies and assistance, including
warplanes and pilots, to the Chinese, who were at war with Japan.
The U.S. military actively engaged in planning with the British,
the British Commonwealth countries, and the Dutch East Indies for
future combined combat operations against Japan. Most important,
the U.S. government engaged in a series of increasingly stringent
economic warfare measures that pushed the Japanese into a predicament
that U.S. authorities well understood would probably provoke them
to attack U.S. territories and forces in the Pacific region in a
quest to secure essential raw materials that the Americans, British,
and Dutch (government in exile) had embargoed. 
summary statements by George Victor, by no means a Roosevelt basher,
in his well documented book The
Pearl Harbor Myth.
had already led the United States into war with Germany in the
spring of 1941 into a shooting war on a small scale. From
then on, he gradually increased U.S. military participation.
Japan's attack on December 7 enabled him to increase it further
and to obtain a war declaration. Pearl Harbor is more fully
accounted for as the end of a long chain of events, with
the U.S. contribution reflecting a strategy formulated after
France fell. . . . In the eyes of Roosevelt and his advisers,
the measures taken early in 1941 justified a German declaration
of war on the United States a declaration that did not
come, to their disappointment. . . . Roosevelt told his ambassador
to France, William Bullitt, that U.S. entry into war against
Germany was certain but must wait for an "incident," which he
was "confident that the Germans would give us." . . . Establishing
a record in which the enemy fired the first shot was a theme
that ran through Roosevelt's tactics. . . . He seems [eventually]
to have concluded correctly as it turned out that
Japan would be easier to provoke into a major attack on the
Unites States than Germany would be. 
that Japan attacked the United States without provocation was
. . . typical rhetoric. It worked because the public did not
know that the administration had expected Japan to respond with
war to anti-Japanese measures it had taken in July 1941. . .
. Expecting to lose a war with the United States and lose
it disastrously Japan's leaders had tried with growing
desperation to negotiate. On this point, most historians have
long agreed. Meanwhile, evidence has come out that Roosevelt
and Hull persistently refused to negotiate. . . . Japan . .
. offered compromises and concessions, which the United States
countered with increasing demands. . . . It was after learning
of Japan's decision to go to war with the United States if the
talks "break down" that Roosevelt decided to break them off.
. . . According to Attorney General Francis Biddle, Roosevelt
said he hoped for an "incident" in the Pacific to bring the
United States into the European war.
and numerous others that point in the same direction are for the
most part anything but new; many of them have been available to
the public since the 1940s. As early as 1953, anyone might have
read a collection of heavily documented essays on various aspects
of U.S. foreign policy in the late 1930s and early 1940s, edited
by Harry Elmer Barnes, that showed the numerous ways in which
the U.S. government bore responsibility for the country's eventual
engagement in World War II showed, in short, that the Roosevelt
administration wanted to get the country into the war and worked
craftily along various avenues to ensure that, sooner or later,
it would get in, preferably in a way that would unite public opinion
behind the war by making the United States appear to have been
the victim of an aggressor's unprovoked attack.
As Secretary of War Henry Stimson testified after the war, "we
needed the Japanese to commit the first overt act." 
however, seventy years after these events, probably not one American
in 1,000 nay, not one in 10,000 has an inkling of
any of this history. So effective has been the pro-Roosevelt,
pro-American, pro-World War II faction that in this country it
has utterly dominated teaching and popular writing about U.S.
engagement in the "Good War."
In the late
nineteenth century, Japan's economy began to grow and to industrialize
rapidly. Because Japan has few natural resources, many of its
burgeoning industries had to rely on imported raw materials, such
as coal, iron ore or steel scrap, tin, copper, bauxite, rubber,
and petroleum. Without access to such imports, many of which came
from the United States or from European colonies in Southeast
Asia, Japan's industrial economy would have ground to a halt.
By engaging in international trade, however, the Japanese had
built a moderately advanced industrial economy by 1941.
At the same
time, they also built a military-industrial complex to support an
increasingly powerful army and navy. These armed forces allowed
Japan to project its power into various places in the Pacific and
East Asia, including Korea and northern China, much as the United
States used its growing industrial might to equip armed forces that
projected U.S. power into the Caribbean, Latin America, and even
as far away as the Philippine Islands.
D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, the U.S. government fell
under the control of a man who disliked the Japanese and harbored
a romantic affection for the Chinese because, some writers have
speculated, Roosevelt's ancestors had made money in the China trade.
Roosevelt also disliked the Germans in general and Adolf Hitler
in particular, and he tended to favor the British in his personal
relations and in world affairs. He did not pay much attention to
foreign policy, however, until his New Deal began to peter out in
1937. Thereafter he relied heavily on foreign policy to fulfill
his political ambitions, including his desire for reelection to
an unprecedented third term.
began to rearm and to seek Lebensraum aggressively in
the late 1930s, the Roosevelt administration cooperated closely
with the British and the French in measures to oppose German expansion.
After World War II commenced in 1939, this U.S. assistance grew
ever greater and included such measures as the so-called destroyer
deal and the deceptively named Lend-Lease program. In anticipation
of U.S. entry into the war, British and U.S. military staffs secretly
formulated plans for joint operations. U.S. forces sought to create
a war-justifying incident by cooperating with the British navy
in attacks on German U-boats in the northern Atlantic, but Hitler
refused to take the bait, thus denying Roosevelt the pretext he
craved for making the United States a full-fledged, declared belligerent a
belligerence that the great majority of Americans opposed.
In June 1940,
Henry L. Stimson, who had been secretary of war under William Howard
Taft and secretary of state under Herbert Hoover, became secretary
of war again. Stimson was a lion of the Anglophile, northeastern
upper crust and no friend of the Japanese. In support of the so-called
Open Door Policy for China, Stimson favored the use of economic
sanctions to obstruct Japan's advance in Asia. Treasury Secretary
Henry Morgenthau and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes vigorously
endorsed this policy. Roosevelt hoped that such sanctions would
goad the Japanese into making a rash mistake by launching a war
against the United States, which would bring in Germany because
Japan and Germany were allied.
administration, while curtly dismissing Japanese diplomatic overtures
to harmonize relations, accordingly imposed a series of increasingly
stringent economic sanctions on Japan. In 1939, the United States
terminated the 1911 commercial treaty with Japan. "On July 2, 1940,
Roosevelt signed the Export Control Act, authorizing the President
to license or prohibit the export of essential defense materials."
Under this authority, "[o]n July 31, exports of aviation motor fuels
and lubricants and No. 1 heavy melting iron and steel scrap were
restricted." Next, in a move aimed at Japan, Roosevelt slapped an
embargo, effective October 16, "on all exports of scrap iron and
steel to destinations other than Britain and the nations of the
Western Hemisphere." Finally, on July 26, 1941, Roosevelt "froze
Japanese assets in the United States, thus bringing commercial relations
between the nations to an effective end. One week later Roosevelt
embargoed the export of such grades of oil as still were in commercial
flow to Japan." 
The British and the Dutch followed suit, embargoing exports to Japan
from their colonies in Southeast Asia.
and his subordinates knew they were putting Japan in an untenable
position and that the Japanese government might well try to escape
the stranglehold by going to war. Having broken the Japanese diplomatic
code, the American leaders knew, among many other things, what
Foreign Minister Teijiro Toyoda had communicated to Ambassador
Kichisaburo Nomura on July 31: "Commercial and economic relations
between Japan and third countries, led by England and the United
States, are gradually becoming so horribly strained that we cannot
endure it much longer. Consequently, our Empire, to save its very
life, must take measures to secure the raw materials of the South
American cryptographers had also broken the Japanese naval code,
the leaders in Washington also knew that Japan's "measures" would
include an attack on Pearl Harbor.
Yet they withheld this critical information from the commanders
in Hawaii, who might have headed off the attack or prepared themselves
to defend against it. That Roosevelt and his chieftains did not
ring the tocsin makes perfect sense: after all, the impending
attack constituted precisely what they had been seeking for a
long time. As Stimson confided to his diary after a meeting of
the War Cabinet on November 25, "The question was how we should
maneuver them [the Japanese] into firing the first shot without
allowing too much danger to ourselves." After the attack, Stimson
confessed that "my first feeling was of relief . . . that a crisis
had come in a way which would unite all our people."
Robert Higgs, "How U.S. Economic Warfare Provoked Japan's Attack
on Pearl Harbor," The Freeman 56 (May 2006): 36-37.
George Victor, The
Pearl Harbor Myth: Rethinking the Unthinkable (Dulles,
Va.: Potomac Books, 2007), pp. 179-80, 184, 185, emphasis added.
Ibid ., pp. 15, 202, 240.
War for Perpetual Peace: A Critical Examination of the Foreign Policy
of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Its Aftermath, edited
by Harry Elmer Barnes (Caldwell, Id.: Caxton Printers,
Stimson as quoted in Victor, Pearl Harbor Myth, p. 105.
Harry Elmer Barnes, "Summary and Conclusions," in Perpetual
War for Perpetual Peace: A Critical Examination of the Foreign
Policy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Its Aftermath, edited
by Harry Elmer Barnes (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers,
All quotations in this paragraph are from George Morgenstern,
"The Actual Road to Pearl Harbor," in Barnes, ed., Perpetual
War for Perpetual Peace, 322-23, 327-28.
Quoted in Morgenstern, "The Actual Road to Pearl Harbor," 329.
Robert B. Stinnett, Day
of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor (New York:
Free Press, 2000).
Quoted in Morgenstern, "The Actual Road to Pearl Harbor," 343,
Higgs [send him mail] is
senior fellow in political economy at the Independent
Institute and editor of The
Independent Review. He
is also a columnist for LewRockwell.com. His
most recent book is Neither
Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government.
He is also the author of Delusions
of Power: New Explorations of the State, War, and Economy, Depression,
War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence
of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against
Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society.
© 2012 by the Ludwig von
Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in
part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.
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