Today world citizens might ask themselves: Would President-elect Barack Obama go to war with Iran? Would John McCain have gone to war with Iran if he had been elected?
We allow a natural prejudice to focus us too much, some times, on historical events such as the outbreak of war. We might learn a lot some times by asking: why was there peace?
Take for instance the entry of the U.S. into World War II, which happened shortly after the Battle of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Most Americans do not know that what Japan and the U.S. were fighting over was China, that is, who would control China. Once you know that basic context, a lot of details about the events leading up to Pearl Harbor fall into a comprehensible framework. The main theme of this essay will ask what nations the U.S. did not go to war against over China, and why. But first let me remind you very briefly about Japanese - U.S. relations leading up to Pearl Harbor.
I have covered the rocky start to the story in The U.S. Bullies Japan in the 1850's. Fast forward to the 1930's. Korea has been incorporated into the Japanese Empire. Manchuria is basically under Japanese control. The Japanese are grabbing more and more of China. The United States of America, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, repeatedly warns Japan to leave China and its leader, Chiang Kai-shek, alone. World War II breaks out and Japan offers to enter the war against Germany if the U.S. will recognize its sphere of influence in China. The U.S. says no, Japan must give up all its possessions in China or the U.S. will declare war. The U.S. assembles an enourmous fleet at Pearl Harbor to attack Japan. The U.S. declares an embargo, a classic act of war, that means if Japan does nothing it will be unable to continue to build its defense capabilities. On July 26, 1941, Roosevelt froze Japanese assets in the U.S. Desperate, the brave Japanese sail across the Pacific and heroicly sink the U.S. invasion fleet. Oops, that sounds like the Japanese super-patriot viewpoint. How would you write that story?
Consider the standard American hypothesis that Japan started the war. This requires believing that U.S. threats against Japan were simply threats. So Japan could have stayed in China without being attacked by the U.S. You could spend a lifetime sorting through diplomatic cables and secret reports trying to sort out which side was to blame for the war. In the limited set of documents I have seen each side says it really wants peace.
Ask simpler, more illuminating question? What other countries grabbed parts of China, (or other militarily weak nations), yet the U.S. did not feel it had to go to war with them? For instance some great power grabbed the Philippines around 1900 ... wait, that was the United States of America. The world is too vast a field. So let's stick to China. The U.S. had not actually grabbed any part of China. It held to the Open Door policy, which I will dissect elsewhere.
Before the United States of America was even a nation, the national of Portugal had grabbed Macao. The Chinese then got pretty good at keeping out other imperial nations until the 1800's, when things began to fall apart. Aside from gaining the right to trade at various spots by force, the British Empire grabbed Hong Kong in 1841. The Russians grabbed Manchuria east of the Amur river in 1858. The French grabbed Indochina in 1862, the British grabbed Burma the same year. Germany grabbed the Shantung Peninsula in 1897. About the same time the French took a "sphere of influence" in the south China provinces of Kwangsi, Kwangtung, and Yunnan. In 1898 the British also enlarged their holdings. In the 20th century Russia and Japan became rivals over Manchuria. The Germans lost Shantung when they lost World War I. The establishment of a Communist government in China allied with the U.S.S.R. in 1931 was considered by Chiang Kai-shek to be a Russian encroachment on Chinese sovereignty. [On the other hand Chiang Kai-shek was considered to be a puppet of the United States by the communists and some other Chinese]
Did the U.S. threaten to go to war with France over her colonization of Indochina or semi-colonization of south China? No.
Did the U.S. threaten to go to war with Britain over her Chinese colonies and influence? No.
The U.S. did not even see fit to threaten the Russians over their holdings of formerly Chinese territories, or influence with the Chinese Communist Party.
So the mere fact that Japan had areas under its control in China, and was expanding them, is not a good explanation for Roosevelt's war threats.
I have two likely, and somewhat overlapping, ideas about why the U.S. singled out Japan for war. But let's dispose of a more obvious, but incorrect, line of reasoning.
For the most part the European possessions and influence in Japan could be relics of the 19th century. The U.S. might have singled out Japan as not being allowed to rape China because the U.S. was not allowing further aggression, but was effectively grandfathering in the status quo. However, if that were the case then after World War II was over, and a new status quo (with the British out of Hong Kong and the French out of south China and Indochina) had been established, the U.S. would have helped Chiang Kai-shek resist the re-establishment of the French and British. Instead the U.S. insisted that they be given back their old colonies.
It is generally conceded that Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of "nationalist" China during this period, was a good friend of the United States, if not exactly a puppet. It could be argued that therefore the U.S. threatened Japan with war simply to uphold its interest in a nation that had come under U.S. political and economic influence. That may be, but consider that until the embargo was put into full effect in July 1940, there was no reason to think Japanese expansion from China would have a negative impact on the U.S. economy. In fact the opposite had been true in the past: Japanese control of Korea and Manchuria had resulted in their industrialization. Japan imported far more from the U.S. than she exported to the U.S. While Japan might have established a competitive edge in China through its puppet regimes there, it was a better economic partner both to the U.S. and to China than the U.S. and China were to each other.
[It is ironic that the U.S. in the 1850's threatened Japan with war unless it started trading, then in the 1940's force Japan into war by cutting off trade between the two nations.]
My final idea is that the U.S. attitude toward Japan was the outcome of a deeper social illness manifested in the United States: racism. Japan was not allowed to do what the U.S., France, and Britain were allowed to do because the Japanese were an Asian ("yellow") rather than European ("white") people.
There can be no doubt that the U.S. was a racist nation, controlled by its European-American majority, during this period of time. Racism was an official policy of the United States of America. It was enshrined in laws ranging from Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution to state and local laws that discriminated against non-white persons. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a member of the Democratic Party, a racist organization that contolled the most blatently racist southern states.
There is no way to prove that the U.S. went to war against Japan in order to stop the successful economic expansion of a non-white nation. All I can assert is that this idea seems to fit the facts better than other explanations that have been put forward. It may seem bizarre to us today, a few days after the election of Barack Obama, who is a Democrat at that. But if you look at how things were in 1941, it makes sense. The Japanese had been a threat to white pride ever since they defeated Russian in 1905. Their expansion into China could have brought to the Chinese the same economic benefits that had already been seen in Korea and Manchuria. This does not make their expansion right, but it was wrong for the same reason that any nation conquering another nation is wrong. The United States was not defending China by attacking Japan. The United States was working to assert European supremacy, including the right of Europeans to have colonies, a right that they believed no non-white nation should have.
The war ended with the U.S. occupation of Japan. This occupation had been contemplated by U.S. expansionists since the 19th century. Japan had totally changed its culture and economy in response to this threat.
Then, to add to the historic ironies, the U.S.-allied Chiang Kai-sheck lost the Chinese civil war. Leaving the U.S. occupying Japan, but short of the grand prize, China.
And, ironically, imperialism was no longer acceptable. The British were kicked out of India, for example, and the U.S. had to return sovereignty to the Japanese within a few years of the conquest. The Japanese were enlisted in the cold war against their traditional enemy, Russia.