By Stephen Gowans
February 28, 2022
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was the culmination, to that point, of the struggle between the United States and Japan for control of China and the Pacific. Pearl Harbor, a naval base located at the US colony of Hawaii (Hawaii did not become a state until 1959), is a synecdoche for a larger Japanese attack on US and British colonial possessions in East Asia and the Pacific. Not only did Japan attack Hawaii on December 7, 1941, home to the US Pacific Fleet, it also attacked the US colonies of Philippines, Guam, Midway Island, Wake Island and the British colonies of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
The United States, Britain, the Netherlands, and other Western powers had increasingly encroached on Japan’s backyard, creating colonies and spheres of influence that not only threatened Japan’s access to the markets and raw materials of East Asia, but also stood as potential threats to Japan’s own sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“In Japanese eyes,” wrote historian John Dower, “it was the non-Axis West that aimed at world domination and had been engaged in that quest, with conspicuous success, for centuries; and it was the value system of the modern West…that explained a large part of its bloody history of war and repression, culminating in the current world crisis.” Later, “the American bombing of Japanese cities was offered as proof beyond any conceivable question of the bestial nature of the enemy.”
In August 1941, Japan laid the ideological groundwork for its impending attack. In a manifesto titled The Way of the Subject, Tokyo pointed to what it saw as a crisis that was enveloping East Asia, one traceable to the value system of the West. Western values included ways of thinking that “regard the strong preying on the weak as reasonable…and stimulate the competition for acquiring colonies and securing trade, thereby leading the world to a veritable hell of fighting and bloodshed.”
If war was to ensue, Japan warned, it would only be because the West had pushed it inevitably along war’s path.
Japan’s neighborhood, East Asia, was teeming with Western military bases and shot through with Western influence. It was a place, complained the Japanese, “where a half million British ruled 350 million Indians, and another few score thousands of Englishmen ruled 6 million Malayans; where two hundred thousand Dutchmen governed a native population of 60 million in the East Indies; where twenty thousand Frenchmen controlled 23 million Indochinese, and a few tens of thousands of Americans ruled over 13 million Filipinos. Eight hundred thousand white men, the tally went, controlled 450 million Asians.”
Tokyo noted that Japan, unlike the United States, Britain, France, and the Netherlands, was linked to the region by natural ethnic and geopolitical ties. As such, and as an avowed opponent of Western imperialism, Japan had an historical mission: to liberate its ethnic brethren—one Asian people—from the yoke of Western colonialism and fold them into a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere under Japanese leadership.
As Japan pushed into China in pursuit of its vision, upsetting Washington’s own designs on the country, the United States imposed an oil embargo. Dependent on the United States for oil, Tokyo cast its gaze upon the oil rich Dutch East Indies, which produced enough oil to satisfy Japanese needs. But Japan would first have to knock out the US fleet in the Pacific, based at Pearl Harbor, if it was to achieve its aim. The result would be the December 7 attack.
Some have argued that Washington deliberately provoked Tokyo to war and welcomed the attack, since it provided a justification for US entry into the war. Public opinion in the United States was against foreign entanglements and Japanese aggression would surely rally US Americans around the flag.
There are parallels between the US and Japanese struggle over East Asia, and the current US and Russian struggle over Eastern Europe.
Japan was a weak imperialist power, with limited colonial possessions, surrounded by strong Western powers which had pushed into Japan’s neighborhood over many decades. Tokyo had a number of grievances against its stronger imperialist rivals, and believed that as a Pacific country it had a geopolitical and ethnic affinity with the region. What’s more, Western rivalry threatened Japan’s economic success, since the country depended on access to raw materials and markets that Western powers either controlled, or could soon control. The Japanese, posing as anti-imperialists of the first order, lambasted the West for its imperialism in East Asia—an imperialism which, through successive waves, had pushed right up to Japan’s borders.
Japan’s critique of Western imperialism, did not, however, make Japan any less of an imperialist power itself, however much it might have wanted the world to believe otherwise. Nor did Tokyo’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere liberate the peoples of Asia from imperialism. It only liberated them for a time from Western imperialism, but visited upon them a Japanese imperialism that was even more vicious in some places and at some times than what it replaced.
We cannot know how antiwar organizations operating under principles that guide many North American antiwar organizations today would have responded to the events of December 7, 1941, but we can make a guess, based on the following principles and beliefs that appear to guide these organizations.
- The existence of US imperialism negates the existence of its rivals’ imperialism.
- A US rival’s war of aggression is not an attack or invasion or violation of the UN Charter; it is a ‘military operation’, or simply a crisis.
- US rivals don’t start wars; they’re provoked to war.
- All blame for a US rival’s war of aggression lies with Western powers.
- Accordingly, all responsibility for ending a US rival’s war of aggression lies with Western powers.
In regards to Pearl Harbor, today’s North American antiwar organizations would likely have quite fittingly condemned Washington for its imperialism and provoking a Japanese escalation to war, but at the same time, would likely have either apologized for the Japanese attacks as an unavoidable response to US provocation or would have simply ignored them. A demand would be made that the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, and other Western powers dismantle their colonies and renounce their spheres of influence, but no call would be made for Japan to cease its military operations or refrain from imposing its rule on the territories it attacked.
None of this would comprise an authentic anti-war analysis and set of demands, but would represent a one-sided, anti-Western-war view, that would happily leave Japan off the hook for its imperialism and for initiating a war of aggression.
An organization that is only against the wars of its own country and not those of other countries, is not antiwar, anymore than an organization that is only against the wars of other countries and not its own, has a tenable claim to the title of peace organization.
The War in the Pacific was an inter-imperialist struggle. If North American antiwar organizations operating under their current principles had shaped the view of that war, the story of Japan as a vicious, imperialist power, committed to aggressive war to achieve its aims, would never be told.