WWII: Remembering the Past
© 2001 Gordon Prather
by Gordon Prather
Hollywood has reportedly made a blockbuster movie for those of you
who aren't old enough to "Remember Pearl Harbor" If it's historically
accurate – as it is reported to be – then it will be all about the
totally predictable reaction by the Japanese to President Roosevelt's
crude oil embargo – tantamount to an act of war in those days –
of July 24, 1941.
(At the same
time, Roosevelt also froze all Japanese assets in the United States
which, if not an act war, is decidedly not making nice. You are
probably old enough to remember when the Arab states slapped an
oil embargo on us in 1973, in retaliation for our assistance to
Israel, which was under attack by Egypt and Syria. And you probably
remember that President Carter froze Iran's assets in the United
States in retaliation for their taking our embassy and diplomats
hostage. In the first instance, the Arabs were very unhappy with
us, and in the second, we were very unhappy with the Iranians.)
you've seen the movie, or if you know your history, you're probably
wondering what some historians have also wondered: When Roosevelt
stood for re-election to an unprecedented third term in 1940, he
promised American mothers on a stack of Bibles that he was never
going to send American boys to fight "in any foreign wars"! Unless,
of course, we were attacked. If not to provoke an attack on us and
the Brits, then why did Roosevelt slap an oil embargo on Japan,
a country that had no oil of its own and literally couldn't survive
long – maybe six months – without it? And why did he do it when
he did it?
after imposing an oil embargo on Japan, why did Roosevelt keep the
U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands – a U.S.
possession – rather than at Subic Bay in the Philippines, another
U.S. possession about 5,000 miles to the west? Why is it that we
"Remember Pearl Harbor," today, and don't "Remember Subic Bay"?
apparently Roosevelt slapped the embargo on when he did because
Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union only a few weeks before, on
June 22, 1941, and it already looked like the Wehrmacht would be
in Moscow in a matter of weeks. Roosevelt and Churchill were frantic.
Unless they did something – and did it quickly – the Soviet Union
would soon go the way of Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Norway,
Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, etc.
course, the Wehrmacht didn't get to Moscow by Christmas of 1941
and the reason is telling: Hitler, also having almost no oil of
his own, made the capture of the Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus
– not Moscow – his number one priority. By the time he captured
the Soviet oil fields in the south, the snow was waist deep around
Moscow in the north.)
back to Japan in the summer of 1941. Japan – although allied with
Germany, Italy and other European Axis Powers – had little interest
in their European war. Nor had Japan committed in the Pacific any
war-like acts against the British Empire.
see, Japan had been engaged in an all-out war on the Asian mainland
since 1933, the year Roosevelt became U.S. president and Hitler
came to power in Germany. By the fall of 1941, Japan's armies occupied
a huge hunk of Asia, including Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and almost
a third of China. But the Japanese were then – as they are today
– resource poor. In particular, they were completely dependent on
oil (and rubber) from Indonesia and Borneo and other possessions
of the European colonial powers in the southwest Pacific and Indian
now you ought to get out your globe. Notice that smack dab in the
middle, between Japan and all that oil (and rubber) they desperately
need, are the Philippine Islands. And just to the west of them lies
the Brit stronghold of Singapore on the Malay peninsula. With the
British Pacific Fleet operating out of Singapore and the U.S. Pacific
Fleet operating out of Subic Bay, there was no way the Japanese
were going to get any oil (and rubber) past those fleets without
what to do?
on November 7, 1941, Admiral Yamamoto issued Combined Fleet Order
No. 1. The 1st Fleet – which included all the Japanese aircraft
carriers – was to attack Pearl Harbor. The 2nd Fleet was to attack
all Dutch, British and U.S. aircraft, air fields, warships and naval
installations in the Dutch East Indies, on the Malay Peninsula and
in the Philippines. The 2nd Fleet was also to support the invasion
that day of Malaya and the Philippines by units of the Japanese
on and about daybreak, December 8, 1941 (in Japan, China and the
Philippines it was already the 8th, but was still the 7th in Hawaii
and the United States) – "a day that will live in infamy" – after
months of fruitless negotiations with the United States about lifting
the oil embargo, the Japanese attacked every U.S. and British aircraft
and warship they could find between Japan and all that oil (and
rubber). They destroyed most of the aircraft – many still lined
up beside the runway, like at Hickam Field in Hawaii – and sank
most of the warships they found, including the pride of the Royal
Navy, HMS Prince of Wales, the British battleship that sank the
German battleship, Bismarck. Japanese dive-bombers also sank the
British battle-cruiser, HMS Repulse.
Clark Field, in the Philippines, it was 108 Japanese bombers escorted
by 84 Zero fighters against 107 P-40 fighters and 35 B-17 bombers.
At the end of the day, there were only 22 P40s and 17 B-17s left.
The principal U.S. warship at Subic Bay, the WWI-era battleship
USS New York, was scuttled by her own crew. (All eight of the U.S.
battleships at Pearl Harbor were essentially sunk by the Japanese,
and nearly all Army Air Corps aircraft destroyed.)
Roosevelt et al. did expect – and had warned U.S. forces in the
Pacific – that the Japanese might well attack us because of the
oil embargo in late November or early December, 1941, but at Clark
Field and/or Subic Bay in the Philippines. Roosevelt et al. never
dreamed that the Japanese would – or could – come all the way to
Hawaii to wipe out the U.S. Pacific Fleet. And in their worst nightmares,
Roosevelt and Churchill never imagined that the Japanese – having
sunk our battleships and destroyed our land-based bombers – could
then actually invade and quickly conquer Singapore and the Philippines,
as they proceeded to do.
and Churchill were focused on Europe. They knew that the Japanese
desperately needed that oil, but they didn't appreciate what a truly
desperate nation of samurais is capable of. Thank God our aircraft
carriers weren't at either Pearl Harbor or Subic Bay that day.
that you know that the Japanese attack was more or less provoked,
there are a couple of things about World War II that might make
more sense to you. For example, you may have read in Stephen Ambrose's
wonderful biography of Ike, where General Marshall – the U.S. Army
Chief of Staff in 1941 – called Eisenhower (who temporarily had
been promoted to Colonel in March 1941 and to Brigadier General
in September 1941) to the Pentagon immediately after the Japanese
attack and charged him with war planning. Eisenhower, who had spent
years as aide-de-camp to General MacArthur – the commanding general
in the Philippines in the late 1930s and early 1940s – naturally
assumed that he was to plan a counterattack in the Pacific against
the Japanese, who had attacked us. No, no, said General Marshall.
Put the Pacific war on the back burner, he said. Our first priority
is to defeat Hitler.
see, four days after the Japanese attack – which apparently came
as a complete surprise to him – Hitler declared war on the United
States! Absolutely incredible that Hitler would have done such a
thing! Many historians believe that if Hitler had not done that,
Roosevelt might never have persuaded Congress to declare war on
Germany. After all, it was the Japanese who had attacked us. Hitler
hadn't. On the other hand, the vile dictator Hitler had attacked
the vile dictator Stalin. The Third Reich vs. the Soviet Union should
have been – to us – like the Iran-Iraq war, where some unnamed high-level
administration official opined that it was too bad that one side
or the other would have to win the war.
immediately after the Japanese attack on U.S. forces in the Philippines
and at Pearl Harbor, in late December of 1941 and early January
of 1942, Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt met in Washington,
D.C., with their military chiefs in attendance. Roosevelt and Churchill
agreed at that time to set up a U.S.-British combined chiefs of
staff and recommitted themselves to the defeat of Germany as their
March 1942, three months after the Japanese attack, Marshall made
Eisenhower a major-general (temporary), sent him to England to scout
out the situation and, when Ike returned, gave him a (temporary)
third star, and sent him back to be in charge of all U.S. forces
starting to arrive in England. In December 1943, Eisenhower – who
was made a four-star general (permanent) in February 1944 – was
named supreme commander of allied forces in Europe. General Eisenhower,
hero of WWII and author of "Crusade in Europe," never had anything
to do with the war in the Pacific against Japan, which had been
put on the back burner within days after the Japanese attack.
fought and won the War in the Pacific? Basically, it was the U.S.
Navy, the principal victims on December 78, 1941, because
it was from the very beginning a naval war, fought for command of
the sea lanes. When it became necessary for us to actually take
possession of an island or two, it was usually the U.S. Marines
that led the assault. And when General MacArthur went island hopping
with his Army divisions and Army Air Corps, it was the U.S. Navy
that allowed him to hop. Even the Doolittle raid in April of 1942
– when the Japanese still ruled the Pacific – wouldn't have been
possible if the Navy hadn't risked one of its precious aircraft
carriers – the USS Hornet – to get his Army bombers within striking
distance of Japan. Of course, after Spruance's Navy dive bombers
sank four Japanese carriers off Midway about a month later, the
U.S. Navy could go just about anywhere they damned well pleased.
of the U.S. Army Air Corps, the most recent Hollywood epic about
Pearl Harbor and the War in the Pacific reportedly revolves – strangely
enough – not around sailors, but around the love-lives of two Army
Air Corps pilots, and an Army nurse who plays the part of the hypotenuse
in their love triangle. Also, you may be wondering: If the Japanese
aircraft carriers were all off the coast of Oahu on December 78,
1941, where did the Japanese aircraft come from that attacked Clark
Field and Subic Bay in the Philippines that same day? Well, they
were Imperial Navy aircraft, all right, but they were operating
from airfields in Vietnam, which the Vichy French gave them in July
1941, the same month Roosevelt slapped an oil embargo on Japan.
isn't it all a bit weird? Hitler didn't conquer the Soviet Union
when he could have, because, first, he had to go down south to capture
himself a supply of oil to fuel his war machine. And the Japanese
didn't conquer Asia because – even though they did go down south
and capture themselves a supply of oil (and rubber) to run their
war machine in Asia – the U.S. Navy, by regaining control of the
sea lanes, kept them from transporting the oil they had captured
back to Japan.
1973, when the Arabs slapped an oil embargo on us, we only imported
about a quarter of the oil we consumed. Still, there was a lot of
panic for a while. There were gasoline and home-heating oil shortages
because of federally-imposed price controls, and the prices still
went sky high – despite price controls – increasing by about a factor
of five within a few months. Think about what would happen now,
when we import about 55 percent of the crude oil, heating oil and
gasoline we consume, if a war broke out in the Middle East and the
Arabs once again slapped an oil embargo on us. The rolling blackouts
on the East and West Coasts would be the least of our troubles.
James Gordon Prather [send
him mail] has served as a policy-implementing official for national
security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency,
the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department
of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department
of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for
national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla.
ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the
Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather
had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory
in New Mexico.