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WWII: Remembering the Past

Well, 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.)

If 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?

Furthermore, 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”?

Well, 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.

(Of 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.)

But, 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.

You 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 oceans.

About 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 a fight.

So, what to do?

Well, 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 army.

So, 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.

At 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.)

Now, 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.

Roosevelt 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.

Now 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.

You 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.

Therefore, 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 first priority.

In 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.

Who fought and won the War in the Pacific? Basically, it was the U.S. Navy, the principal victims on December 7–8, 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.

Speaking 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 7–8, 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.

But, 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.

In 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.

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