Tim Kelly
December 7, 2012

Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, rumors began to circulate challenging the official narrative that it was an unprovoked surprise attack. The cumulative evidence gathered over the last seventy years by scholars, journalists, and investigators vindicates those suspicious of treachery from the top; for it comprises a solid circumstantial case that Franklin D. Roosevelt and his top advisors deliberately provoked the attack and deliberately looked the other way before it came.

What was the reason for their treachery?

Roosevelt wanted to plunge the United States into the European war on the side of Great Britain but was unsuccessful in provoking Germany in the North Atlantic. So he decided that provoking a Japanese attack upon U.S. military bases in the Pacific would be the best way to achieve that objective. Since Japan was allied with Germany under the Tripartite Pact, Roosevelt calculated a war with Japan would sooner or later bring the United States into the war against Germany.

Most historians when pressed on the matter now grudgingly concede that Roosevelt lied when he told the American people that he would never send their boys to fight into foreign wars, but they excuse his treachery as a “noble lie,” a deception perpetrated against the public by the political elite to achieve a supposed greater good.

The Pearl Harbor noble-lie argument usually goes something like this: “Given the evil of Nazism and the threat that Hitler posed to the world, Roosevelt was justified in maneuvering the United States into a war with Germany.”

Robert Stinnett adopts this view in his book Day of Deceit, where he writes, “I sympathize with the agonizing dilemma faced by President Roosevelt. He was forced to find circuitous means to persuade an isolationist America to join in a fight for freedom.”

The standard justification for U.S. entry into the war is that otherwise Hitler would have defeated Britain and Russia and completed his conquest of Europe. With all the resources of the continent at his disposal, Hitler then would have been able to move against North America to achieve his dream of world domination.

There are several problems with this analysis. First, it greatly underestimates the difficulties of a trans-Atlantic invasion and grossly exaggerates Germany’s military capabilities even when she was at the apex of her power. It also confuses the conditions of December 1941 with those of June 1940. By the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the fortunes of war were already beginning to turn against Hitler.

Moreover, there is no evidence that Hitler ever entertained plans for world domination. His primary objective was the abrogation of the Treaty of Versailles, which had disarmed Germany and led to her territorial dismemberment. Hitler was determined to reclaim these territories, and although negotiations were his preferred method, he was willing to wage war if necessary. His only overt plans for war involved an anticipated confrontation with Communism and the reacquisition of the “living space” that Russia had ceded to Germany in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918.

The outbreak of a general war in Europe was not a part of Hitler’s game plan but a consequence of Britain and France’s declaration of war against Germany after her invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.

Furthermore, although Hitler’s armies had overrun France in the spring of 1940, total victory was denied to them when the British Expeditionary Force escaped capture at Dunkirk. The defeat of the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain forced Hitler to cancel his cross-channel invasion plans. Britain had made it through the darkest hour, and as 1940 drew to a close her survival was essentially assured. As for Hitler, his hopes for a quick end to the war in the West were lost.

Germany’s June 1941 invasion of Russia, Operation Barbarossa, though remarkably successful in its initial stages, had failed by the end of the summer to achieve its primary objective: the destruction of the Red Army. Even as early as August 1941, the failure of the blitzkrieg was apparent, as Roosevelt began receiving reports indicating that Russia would, indeed, hold out. The onset of the Russian winter, the inability of German forces to take Moscow, and a major Russian counteroffensive on December 6 had dashed Hitler’s hopes for victory in 1941 and raised the specter of a mutually exhausting war that was unlikely to end in Germany’s favor.

While the ebb tide against Hitler was greatly assisted by the American Lend-Lease program, the crucial point is that both the British and Russians were able to blunt major German offensives and deliver severe blows to the Nazi war machine without direct U.S. military intervention.

So if U.S. entry into the war was unnecessary to prevent a victory by Nazi Germany in Europe, what remains of the case for Roosevelt’s “noble lie” regarding Pearl Harbor?

Imperial Japan was indeed on the move in East Asia, but it was unclear how that threatened the United States. Roosevelt never explained to the American people why they should be concerned with protecting European colonies in Asia from the Japanese. Moreover, Japan’s desire for a “Co-Prosperity Sphere” of economic and political predominance was hardly unique in a world where France, Britain, and the United States had all carved out spheres of influence. Japan’s crime in the eyes of the Western powers was being a latecomer to the colonial banquet. As one Japanese diplomat wryly remarked, “Just when we learn how to play poker, they change the game to bridge.”

True, Japan could be a cruel colonial master, especially in China. But it should be noted that while Roosevelt was quick to call out the Japanese for their atrocities, the United States had not flinched from resorting to brutal methods to pacify populations in her own colonies (See Alfred W. McCoy’s Policing America’s Empire).

Some have argued the danger to the United States did not come from Germany or Japan but from the possibility that the two powers, along with Italy, would combine to encircle the western hemisphere. But this view greatly exaggerates the military capacity of the Axis Powers and misrepresents the Tripartite Pact, which was a defensive alliance primarily intended to deter U.S. entry into the then-separate conflicts in Asia and Europe. Moreover, Germany and Japan never developed a coordinated military strategy.

Japanese ambitions were viewed by some geostrategists as a threat to U.S. naval operations in the Pacific and contrary to America’s long-term economic interests in the region. Such concerns are telling; for they betray a presumption of imperial entitlement that casts the Pacific war in a very different light than the standard historical account. Rather than being the crusade for freedom, the war begins to resemble a realpolitik clash of two mercantilist empires. Some have also suggested that American sentimentalism towards China and the hope for a restoration of the Open Door Policy were important in determining Roosevelt’s policies towards Japan.

But these were only contributing factors that facilitated Roosevelt’s drive to war. The lodestar of U.S. foreign policy in 1941 was entry into the European war against Germany. Frustrated by Hitler’s forbearance in the North Atlantic in the face of repeated provocation by U.S. warships, Roosevelt looked to the Pacific as the back door to war in Europe.

The standard history treats U.S. entry into World War II as moral and strategic imperative. But as demonstrated above, that assessment does not bear careful scrutiny. Nazi Germany was not about to conquer the world, nor was she in any position to threaten the United States. Indeed, Hitler’s bid for continental supremacy had been thwarted by Britain and Russia long before the United States entered the war. Imperial Japan was bogged down on the Asian mainland, hungry for raw materials, and anxious for a modus vivendi with the United States.

This history also ignores the enormous costs and horrifying consequences of direct American intervention. The Anglo-American bombings of German and Japanese cities killed more than a million civilians, most of whom were women and children. Most of the destruction in Western Europe occurred during the period of Allied liberation in 1944–1945 (See William Hitchcock’s The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe). And the decision by President Truman to drop atomic bombs on a prostrate Japan in August 1945 accelerated a nuclear-arms race that still threatens the incineration of the world.

On the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack, most Americans believed that there should be no large standing armies and that their government should heed George Washington’s admonition to steer clear of foreign entanglements. They ruefully remembered President Wilson’s “war to end all wars” and were in no mood for another crusade to “make the world safe for democracy.” That is why on December 6, 1941, the vast majority of Americans still opposed entering the war.

Pearl Harbor transformed the nation. The American people were outraged over Japan’s diabolical “sneak attack” and marched off to fight “the Good War.” A vast military-industrial complex was developed to stock the “arsenal of democracy.” After the war, more noble lies were told to justify a permanent national-security state, and the United States became the globe-girdling empire it is today; corrupt, bankrupt, bellicose, and shrouded in secrecy.

In his introduction to the Pentagon Papers, Mike Gravel quoted the British novelist and historian H.G. Wells:

The true strength of rulers and empires lies not in armies or emotions, but in the belief of men that they are inflexibly open and truthful and legal. As soon as government departs from that standard, it ceases to be anything more than “the gang in possession,” and its days are numbered.

Remember that quote when you come across Roosevelt apologists excusing his treachery as a “noble lie” and praising him for his foresight and statesmanship. Deceit is neither praiseworthy nor noble.

This article was first published by the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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