Imperialist War for the Pacific:
The True Story of Pearl Harbor

Revolutionary Worker #1105, June 3, 2001, posted at

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the news passed quickly across the U.S. and around the world that the Japanese navy had attacked part of the U.S. fleet, anchored at its Pearl Harbor base in Hawai'i. In two intense hours, Japanese aircraft sank four aging U.S. battleships and other vessels.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt immediately called for the U.S. to enter the second world war--and argued that this was an American war of self defense against the treachery and expansionism of Japan. Roosevelt said: "Our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger... I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire."

This myth--born within hours of those first bombs--is being retold this week onscreen with the release of Pearl Harbor. In this new movie, the U.S. is portrayed as a "sleeping giant"--where only a few military "hawks" could see the real threat. According to this military parable, the population of the U.S. was soft, passive, and dangerously preoccupied in the diversions of their daily lives, while a ruthless enemy plotted to take advantage of their lack of vigilance.

The message of this "summer blockbuster" is as subtle as an airborne torpedo. The propaganda is crude and pro-imperialist: "Don't get too self-absorbed in your little lives," this movie is saying, "because the U.S. operates in a very dangerous world, and you, too, may be called upon to kill for this flag."

And exactly because it would be so wrong to fight for U.S. dominance--and make heroes out of airborne government killers--we need to peel away this myth of Pearl Harbor and World War 2, and tell the true story of what that battle and that war were all about.

Whose Territory?

"We have pacified some thousands of islanders and buried them; destroyed their fields; burned their villages and turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors; furnished heartbreak by exile to some dozens of disagreeable patriots; subjugated the remaining tens of millions by Benevolent Assimilation, which is the pious new name of the musket...and hoisted our protecting flag... And so, by these Providences of God--and the phrase is the government's, not mine--we are a World Power."

Mark Twain, after the 1901
U.S. conquest of the Philippines

"Our general diplomatic and strategic position would be considerably weakened--by our loss of Chinese, Indian and South Seas markets (and by our loss of much of the Japanese market for our goods, as Japan would become more and more self-sufficient) as well as by insurmountable restrictions upon our access to the rubber, tin, jute, and other vital materials of the Asian and Oceanic regions."

State Department memorandum
on how Japan
's moves affected
U.S. imperialist interests, 1940

The men who ruled the U.S. were not surprised when war broke out in 1941. They had prepared for it, even dreamed about it, for long years.

Over 40 years before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. had made its first massive armed moves into the western Pacific. In 1899, the U.S. sent half its military forces to conquer the Philippines and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in three years of bloody warfare to crush their resistance.

And before the U.S. imperialists could even start this colonial move, they had set up forward military bases for themselves scattered across the vast Pacific--to store the new steel navy that would carry out their conquests. That is why they seized Hawai'i from the Hawaiian people. The lands of Hawaiians were stolen and turned into plantations. Their culture attacked and dissed by missionaries. Finally, in 1893, their home government was overthrown and their islands annexed. In the U.S. Congress, the argument was made: "In the possession of the United States it will give us the command of the Pacific."

But the U.S. was not alone in its plans to seize the wealth and labor of southeast Asia. The British, French and Dutch imperialists had already invaded and carved out rich colonies for themselves--in Indonesia, Indochina, and Malaysia. And everyone knew that Japan, which was emerging as a newly industrial nation, would be working to seize for itself secure sources of rubber, oil, and labor.

For decades, rivalry raged over which oppressor power would rule what in east Asia. In 1922, the U.S. and Britain imposed restrictions on Japanese navy building--fixing a 5/5/3 ratio for larger classes of warships. This treaty, and the use of U.S. gunboats and troops against Chinese people that same year, was a declaration that the U.S. intended to seize a position of power in east Asia through military force, if necessary.

The U.S. called for a joint imperialist rape of China (the so-called "Open Door Policy"), so when Japan started to seize major chunks of China as its exclusive colonial possessions, the hostility between the U.S. and Japan escalated.

When Roosevelt said, after Pearl Harbor, that "our territory" was "in great danger," this talk of defending "our territory" is really a defense of U.S. imperialist interests. Hawai'i was not "sacred American soil"--it had recently been seized (from its own people!) at gunpoint. And those warships that lay at anchor in Pearl Harbor were an aggressive imperialist navy--built, deployed and based in Hawai'i precisely to threaten east Asia with U.S. military might.

After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government deliberately inflamed fears of invasion to rally a reluctant population by claiming the war and their sacrifice were for self-defense. The authorities created coast watches and blackouts. President Roosevelt fanned the hysteria, and signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, putting 110,000 Japanese-Americans into concentration camps. In the movie Pearl Harbor there is laughable talk about Japanese troops penetrating all the way to Chicago. In fact, the Japanese were seeking to take and hold China and southeast Asia, not Oklahoma, and everyone knew it.

The U.S. was also not waging a war about liberating anyone: Japan was an imperialist power that carried out extreme and oppressive acts--including the infamous Rape of Nanking and the colonial conquest of neighboring countries. But when General MacArthur said "I shall return"--he was talking about U.S. troops returning to the Philippines and re-imposing U.S. domination there at any cost--a domination that itself had been created through extreme and oppressive acts.

U.S. society had just gone through the Great Depression of the 1930s, where the heartlessness and madness of capitalism had been displayed for all to see. The U.S. military and navy were viciously Jim Crow--as was the larger society they were defending. And the oppression of Black people was there at every level, including to the point of mass murder in Port Chicago.

Meanwhile, this U.S. war for the Pacific was a war about O.P.T.--Other People's Territory. The U.S. prepared and waged a colonial war over who would get to exploit the people of east Asia and the larger Pacific. This was a war about whether the corrupt Marcos-type governments of post-war Asia would speak English or Japanese.

Whose Surprise?

"Both groups of belligerent nations were systematically preparing the very kind of war such as the present. The question of which group dealt the first military blow or first declared war is immaterial in any determination of the tactics of socialists. Both sides' phrases on the defense of the fatherland, resistance to enemy invasion, a war of defense, etc., are nothing but deception of the people."

V.I. Lenin

Lenin's point about World War 1 describes the conflict shaping up between the U.S. and Japan 20 years later in the 1930s.

The U.S. imperialists knew war was coming and, by the late 1930s, the problem for the U.S. ruling class was how the inevitable war should break out. There was deep-seated opposition to the war within the U.S. population--who were not interested in dying in distant war in Europe. And there were powerful forces within the ruling class who felt that the U.S. should stay with the policy that served it so well through the first two years of the world war--what Mao called "sitting on the mountain and watching the tigers fight."

But by 1941, the Roosevelt government was convinced that the time had come to step in. The various other great powers were badly bloodied. Nazi Germany had just invaded the socialist Soviet Union, and faced a long bitter battle there. Britain was on the ropes. France was conquered and partitioned. Japan was bogged down trying to hold large chunks of China--and facing a growing resistance headed by Mao Tsetung and the Chinese Communist Party. And there was an opening for the U.S. to weigh in and eventually take over much of the world.

And by 1941, the Japanese imperialists were starting to encroach on areas that the U.S. considered its vital interests--including threatening the key U.S. sources of rubber and tin in southeast Asia. On July 26, 1941, Japan began occupying the strategic rubber-growing area of southern Vietnam. The next day the U.S. froze all Japanese assets in the U.S. and forced Britain and Holland to follow suit.

The U.S. imposed embargoes of scrap iron and oil--key resources that Japan needed from overseas to maintain its industry and military. And it meant war was certain unless Japan capitulated to all U.S. demands to withdraw from the area. Howard Zinn writes in A People's History of the United States, "The records show that a White House conference two weeks before Pearl Harbor anticipated a war and discussed how it should be justified."

On November 25, 1941, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull gave the Japanese an ultimatum demanding that they evacuate Indochina and China and recognize U.S. ally General Chiang Kai-shek as the only legitimate government in China. They knew the Japanese would not comply.

That evening Secretary of War Stimson recorded in his diary: "[The President] brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked perhaps next Monday, for the Japanese were notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what we should do. The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves. This was a difficult proposition."

The next day, the army chief of staff, George C. Marshall, sent the following cable to the commanding general in Hawai'i: "Negotiations with Japan appear to be terminated to all practical purposes with only the barest possibilities that the Japanese government might come back and offer to continue. Japanese future action unpredictable but hostile action possible at any moment. If hostilities cannot, repeat cannot, be avoided, the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act. This policy should not, repeat not, be construed as restricting you to a course of action that might jeopardize your defense. Prior to hostile Japanese action you are directed to undertake such reconnaissance and other measures as you deem necessary but these measures should be carried out so as not, repeat not, to alarm civil population or disclose intent. Report measures taken. Should hostilities occur you will carry out the task assigned in Rainbow Five so far as they pertain to Japan. Limit dissemination this highly secret information to minimum essential officers."

In other words, they were saying: This is it! We are going to war against Japan. Make sure they strike the first blow so they can be branded as the aggressor. And, whatever you do, don't let the masses of people find out our plan!

Meanwhile, the U.S. had broken the code for secret Japanese diplomatic transmissions in August of 1940. Every day, top U.S. officials read cables between Tokyo and its embassies. They knew on December 7 that an attack was coming, somewhere, though they didn't know where.

Japan's militarist government, facing war against a much bigger and economically stronger rival, decided to go for a decisive strike--hoping to put the U.S. on the defensive while Japan's military consolidated their gains in Asia. And one thing that can be said for watching the air raid in the movie Pearl Harbor, it does remind you of the usefulness of surprise when seeking to defeat an enemy like U.S. imperialism.

Still, overall, the U.S. ruling class saw the Japanese raid on Hawaii as a opportunity to enter the war, despite the fact that they suffered some initial losses (mainly in aging warships, and not in the aircraft carrier core of their fleet).

In his diary, Secretary Henry Stimson wrote: "When the news first came that Japan had attacked us, my first feeling was of relief that the indecision was over and that a crisis had come in a way which would unite all our people. This continued to be my dominant feeling in spite of the news of catastrophes which quickly developed. For I feel that this country united has practically nothing to fear; while the apathy and divisions stirred up by unpatriotic men have been hitherto very discouraging.'

The ones really surprised when the attack finally came on December 7 were the masses of people in the U.S. As for the FDR government, the war they wanted and expected had come in a way that politically allowed them to mask their real motives and goals. A colonial war could be portrayed as a war of defense. A new stage of U.S. aggression could be portrayed as a war against aggression.

Bourgeois historians can and do argue over which act started the war, and which side hit first. But for class conscious proletarians and oppressed peoples, these controversies of who provoked the war are irrelevant next to the important fact about the basic class nature of this conflict: The war between Japan and the U.S. was an unjust imperialist war on both sides.

The U.S. war campaign that followed was waged in a notoriously genocidal and reactionary way. Japanese people were openly portrayed in the U.S.--and to the U.S. soldiers--as fanatical and vicious subhumans who deserved to be extinguished to the last person. The glorification of a U.S. revenge raid on Japan that happens in the movie Pearl Harbor is particularly disturbing since it completely ignores how such raids eventually built up to the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo and the criminal nuclear attack on the two civilian cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

General Curtis LeMay, commander of the Tokyo attack, later said: "I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal. Fortunately, we were on the winning side."

Whose Interests?

"War is the continuation of politics by other means."

Karl von Clauswitz, On War, 1832

"A revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war, cannot fail to see that its military reverses facilitate its overthrow."

V.I. Lenin, Socialism and War, 1915

"If you were going to make a case about how much more terrible the fascist states were than the democracies, you'd make it better in Europe where there was more democracy than you would if you went in some of the colonial countries and started arguing about how great British imperialism was for India, for example, as compared with Japanese imperialism and its colonies."

Bob Avakian, Conquer the World? The International
Proletariat Must and Will
, 1981

World War 2 has often been portrayed as "the good war"--as the time when the U.S. was involved in some great anti-fascist crusade, where progressive people could fight for the red-white-and-blue and yet still (somehow) serve the interests of the people of the world.

This is a deeply mistaken view that badly damaged the class consciousness of a whole generation of communists and working people in the U.S. Its lingering influence supports deep illusions about the capitalist system and the nature of U.S. government and military today. The idea that there was some "good war" in the past, where U.S. imperialism played some "progressive anti-fascist role," is used by some as proof that it could happen once again--that the U.S. could become what it says it is, a defender of democracy and human rights in the world.

A world war is (obviously) a vast and complex event--where people of many countries and of opposing classes are drawn into conflict, fighting for their interests and for their vision of the future. There were revolutionary struggles taking place during that war, struggles that deserved support and great sacrifice from the masses of people. The Soviet Union fought one of history's most bitter wars against powerful forces of Nazi Germany, in defense of its then-socialist society. The people of many countries waged resistance during World War 2 against imperialism--including in China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Philippines. And these were national liberation struggles that, under the leadership of communists like Mao Tsetung, were part of the larger worldwide revolutionary struggle to overthrow imperialism.

But the war that the U.S. waged in the Pacific was of a fundamentally different kind: that war was an extension of imperialist politics and rivalry that had grown over decades. And the second world war arose, overall and fundamentally, from such inter-imperialist rivalry--waged throughout the world, including in Europe, North Africa, and in the Pacific Basin. The second world war reached its resolution in a new imperialist redivision of the world--despite the fact that revolutionary struggles played a much bigger role in this war than in World War 1.

In fact, it is possible to see, with hindsight, what the U.S. forces were fighting for by seeing what emerged from that new redivision.

As early as 1940, study groups set up by the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations mapped out plans for a new global order they intended to create after a victory in the world war (which they had not even yet joined). The U.S. emerged out of World War 2 proclaiming "the American Century"--it established over 400 military bases around the world, and set about bullying everyone in sight. From its defeated Japanese rival, it took over half of Korea, occupied Japan itself, seized Okinawa, maneuvered unsuccessfully to dominate China, retook the Philippines and seized the many island chains of the Pacific. Not content with that, it also seized many areas previously dominated by its allies. In the post-war world, the U.S. emerged as the main oppressor in the former French colony in Indochina, with its hand deep in formerly Dutch Indonesia and formerly British Malaysia. Hundreds of millions of people got a new oppressor and were slated for a future of sweatshops, occupation, sex trade and financial domination. Meanwhile, some of the Pacific islands that the marines "liberated" became ground zero for French and American nuclear tests.

As for the talk of "anti-fascist war"--the U.S. saw continuing use for fascist dictatorships after World War 2, and backed them all over the world--including Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in China (and then Taiwan), Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Diem and then Thieu in southern Vietnam, plus a string of torturers in southern Korea and elsewhere. U.S. generals went on to wage brutal counterrevolutionary wars against the people of Asia--General Douglas MacArthur tried to conquer the Korean peninsula for U.S. imperialism, and even dreamed of invading China to overthrow the victorious 1949 Maoist revolution. General Curtis LeMay went on to direct the U.S. bombing of Vietnam--where he coined the phrase "Bomb them back to the Stone Age."

Now, 60 years after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. cause in World War 2 is portrayed as noble--in books and film. Those who fought it are glorified as "the greatest generation."

Well, what is so "great" about killing to create a bigger U.S. empire? What is so noble about a naïve patriotism that made people think they were fighting "against fascism and aggression"--while they brought nuclear attack and new oppression to the people of Asia and the Pacific?

This war for the Pacific was an oppressors' war to expand and consolidate oppression. Their victories are not our victories. And their defeats and setbacks are something to welcome (then and now)--because they create openings both here and around the world for people to overthrow them and everything they stand for.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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