U.S. Sanctions Did Not Provoke Pearl Harbor

Analysis: Sanctions were a response to Japanese aggression, not its cause, historical record shows

The USS West Virginia during the attack on Pearl Harbor / AP
April 3, 2014

Earlier this week, a video clip surfaced in which Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said, in the context of talking about sanctions on Iran, that 'Leading up to World War II, we cut off trade with Japan. That probably caused Japan to react angrily." Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post reported on the video, accusing Paul of attributing U.S. involvement in World War II to American provocations. Paul’s office rushed to respond, claiming his words were taken out of context.

What the historical record clearly shows is that U.S. sanctions had a very limited impact on Japanese behavior and objectives. The evidence does not even support the more limited contention that sanctions made Japan particularly angry. The fact of the matter is that Japan was determined to dominate all of East Asia and could not tolerate America standing in its way. Japan’s brutal war of aggression began long before Pearl Harbor, with the occupation of Manchuria and invasion of central China in the 1930s. Still, it is necessary to recount the historical record in greater detail, since there is a scattered contingent on both ends of the political spectrum that mistakenly insists sanctions were responsible for Pearl Harbor—and will lead to war with Iran or Russia today.

In the spring of 1940, after Hitler’s armed forces shocked the world with its rapid demolition of the French military, the deterrence of further Japanese aggression became a priority for both Britain and the United States. Tokyo rapidly signaled that it would exploit Allied setbacks in Europe by demanding that the United Kingdom close the Burma Road, China’s principal means of importing critical supplies. The British gave in, sensing correctly that Washington was not ready to join them in resisting Japan. Although President Franklin Roosevelt had signed a proclamation in July limiting the export of oil, the State Department restricted only the export of high-octane aviation fuels, which rendered the sanctions ineffective. According to Robert Dallek, the leading historian of Roosevelt’s foreign policy, 'this loophole in the President’s proclamation was an open secret in the administration [and] Roosevelt had no desire to close it," lest he provoke Japan.

U.S.-Japanese tensions simmered until the spring of 1941, when Japan signed a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union, which complemented the Japanese, and the Communist, alliance with the Germans and Italians. Now Japan sought to determine whether it could persuade the United States to accept its hegemony in East Asia. Thus began an intense series of diplomatic exchanges, through which Washington and Tokyo hoped to avoid a conflict that would divert attention and resources from greater concerns—for Washington, the war in Europe; for Japan, the war in China.

As a prelude to negotiations, Secretary of State Cordell Hull informed Japan that any agreement would have to rest on mutual support for four principles, the first of which was 'respect for the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of each and all nations." Although negotiations would continue until the final weeks before the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Hull’s position made clear the depth of the divide between the American and Japanese visions for Asia. Japan intended to rule its neighbors, which the United States considered dangerous and intolerable.

Along with his four principles, Hull sent Japan a prospective agreement known as the Draft Understanding. The Japanese responded in early May 1941. Hull met frequently with Adm. Kichisaburō Nomura, the Japanese ambassador in Washington, while the State Department prepared the official American reply, delivered in late June. 'Washington’s proposal made [Japanese Foreign Minister] Matsuoka angry," writes Forrest Morgan, a political scientist at RAND Corp.

By this point, deeply involved in the defense of Britain, the United States wanted a Japanese commitment to avoid hostilities in the Pacific theater even if America found itself at war with the Nazis. In effect, the United States was asking Japan to abrogate a key provision of its alliance with Germany. In addition, America wanted a pledge that Japan would not pursue further expansion in Southeast Asia, a region the Japanese considered essential to their sphere of influence.

The German assault on the Soviet Union in June 1941 abrogated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and secured Japan’s northern flank, freeing Tokyo to focus on its southward advance. In July 1941, Japan informed the Vichy government in France that it would take all of Indochina by force if France did not give Japan rights to build air and naval bases there, which could serve as a launch pad for further expansion. The French yielded.

Roosevelt was furious. He stated plainly to Nomura that the United States would cut off the supply of oil to Japan if it were determined to follow 'the policy of world conquest and domination which Hitler was carrying on." Roosevelt then offered to guarantee the neutrality of Indochina if Japan would refrain from occupying it. His offer was refused. On July 26, while Japanese forces were spreading out through Indochina, Roosevelt issued Executive Order Number 8832, freezing Japanese assets in the United States. Trade came to a standstill, including exports of oil.

The historical record makes it clear that sanctions were a response to serial Japanese aggression. They were not an American provocation. Although deeply troubled by the loss of American oil, Tokyo responded with a new diplomatic initiative, designed once again to secure American acceptance of Japanese hegemony in East Asia. The Japanese even sought to arrange a personal meeting between Roosevelt and their prime minister, Prince Fumimaro Konoe.

In his September 1941 reply to Konoe, Roosevelt preconditioned a meeting on Japanese acceptance of the four principles that Hull had elaborated in April. Konoe maintained that Japan had no objections to the four principles, yet a month of detailed exchanges made it clear that the two countries had fundamentally different visions of what entailed a just and secure order in Asia. Konoe then resigned, passing the premiership to his war minister, Hideki Tojo. Discussions continued but Tojo offered no meaningful compromise. On Dec. 1, the emperor authorized war against the United States.

It remains difficult to explain the Japanese decision to attack the United States, since internal documents provide clear evidence that Tokyo recognized the tremendous strategic advantages of the U.S. economy. For Americans familiar with the intense antiwar and isolationist sentiment of the era, the logical move for Japan would have been to occupy British and Dutch possessions in Southeast Asia, including the oil-rich East Indies. It would have been extremely difficult for Roosevelt to make the case for defending European colonial possessions without a direct threat to U.S. territory. The historian Michael Barnhart argues that Tokyo’s deficient understanding of American politics led it to believe that a series of rapid, devastating victories, like the one at Pearl Harbor, would strengthen the antiwar movement and break the Americans’ will to fight. Morgan, on the other hand, places greater emphasis on Japanese culture and the ideology of emperor worship as the causes of reckless behavior.

What can be said with confidence is that American sanctions were not a significant cause of Japanese expansionism. The conflict between the United States and Japan arose out of profound disagreement about Japan’s imperialist objectives. Japan felt entitled to what the United States considered dangerous and deeply immoral.

Today, clear thinking about sanctions is essential to counter Moscow’s aggression and Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. One lesson to learn from U.S. sanctions on Japan is that sanctions are a tactical consideration, which may pale in comparison to ideology and strategic objectives as potential causes of war. Another lesson is that even those sanctions threatening an adversary’s key resources may have little deterrent or punitive value in the absence of potent, well-placed military forces.

What we know of Vladimir Putin and Ali Khamenei’s respective ideologies and objectives is not encouraging. Yet the United States has the ability, if it has the will, to confront them with deterrent forces that can prevent war while sanctions take their toll.