David R. Henderson  

Was Going to War with Japan a Good Idea?

Selgin's Thermostat Analogy... Elizabeth Warren Channels Milt...

I wrote about the topic in this blog title back in 2006 at antiwar.com. My piece is titled, "I Don't Have to Fight You." Here is an excerpt that relates to Pearl Harbor:

Last December, I attended a round-table academic conference in which we spent a fair amount of time discussing war and foreign policy. One participant mentioned that after the Japanese government (he actually said "the Japanese") bombed Pearl Harbor, it was obvious that the U.S. government (he said "we") had to go to war with Japan. I replied that that wasn't obvious to me at all. First of all, as my co-author, Charles Hooper, and I point out in our book, Making Great Decisions in Business and Life, and as philosopher David Kelley has so eloquently put it, there's almost nothing we have to do. And you don't think clearly by starting from falsehoods. So, although one might argue that the U.S. government should have made war on Japan, the U.S. government didn't have to: it had a choice.

Second, I said, it wasn't obvious to me that the U.S. government should have made war on Japan. While it's awful that more than 2,000 people were killed at Pearl Harbor, it was not a good bargain to lose 407,000-plus additional American lives, not to mention 2.6 million Japanese lives, 700,000 of them civilian. Interestingly, no one argued with me, possibly because they didn't have a good argument or possibly because they wanted to discuss other things. One might argue that it was worth it because otherwise the Japanese government would have moved on and attacked the U.S. mainland. If that fact could have been established, then I would have [Update: I might have. It's hard to know. It might have made sense to wait until their ships approached and then attacked those.] favored attacking Japan. But, just as in my airplane story, the U.S. government had other options. There were two main differences. One was that the other passenger was angry at me because I had accidentally stepped on his foot, while the Japanese government was angry at the U.S. government because it had purposely tried to cut off [Update: had tried to reduce] Japan's supply of oil: funny how that upsets people. The other difference was that the guy hadn't laid a finger on me whereas Japan's government had attacked the United States. One obvious solution would have been for the U.S. government to back off on trying to strangle Japan's economy in return for, say, an apology from the Japanese government and, say, $1 billion (a lot of money in those days) in reparations. Of course, this wouldn't have accomplished the U.S. government's main goal, which was to get the Japanese government to withdraw from Indochina and China. But why should that have been a goal of the U.S. government? And notice that if the U.S. government's concern was to keep the Chinese people from being ruled by a bloodthirsty government, it didn't succeed: Chairman Mao saw to that. So what did "we" get from going to war with Japan and Germany? Four hundred thousand more deaths and a hostile, mass-murdering government in China. That doesn't sound like a bargain to me. Maybe that's why I didn't get any argument from the attendees, virtually all of whom were well informed about 20th-century history.

But here's the problem. Neither Roosevelt nor the leaders of Congress who pushed for war on Japan actually put themselves at risk by going to war themselves. And they made a quick decision, on Dec. 8, based on something that happened on Dec. 7. That's one of the problems with government solutions: the decision-makers often make quick, bad decisions because they rarely bear the costs of their decisions. But if Roosevelt had been willing to consider alternatives to war, 407,000 American lives and a few million Japanese lives might have been saved. That sounds like something worth thinking about.

After the session ended, various people came up to me and told me that I was the most radical antiwar person there. I think, but I'm not sure, that they meant it as a compliment. They said it made them look like moderates. Now don't get me wrong. I love compliments. But I don't see it their way. I think it's kind of radical to advocate an action that kills a few million people and kind of moderate to advocate thinking first and coming up with solutions that save those same lives. I guess I'm strange.

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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory

COMMENTS (40 to date)
Reid Kelley writes:

No, this position is straight-forwardly radical. And foolishly ahistorical. For starters, it is not as if Pearl Harbor happened and then nothing else. Almost immediately following the attack on Hawaii, Japan launches full-scale attacks on US soldiers in the Philippines and throughout the Pacific - and attacks British and Dutch forces as well. So American citizens were quite literally dying, and American territory was quite literally being seized as the US government was declaring war. What peaceful alternative are you suggesting in the face of direct aggression?

Then of course would not having fought that empire have actually saved lives? Its doubtful, either in the short-run or the long-run. Japan massacred millions of civilians in China and other places it conquered, and it pressed hundreds of thousands more into the cruellest forms of slavery. So if no one resisted them then yes maybe some of the combatants would have been saved (and even some civilians who were collateral damage), but the consequence of that is leaving an incredibly ruthless conqueror in charge of half of Asia.

And that gets to the real problem here. If you aren't willing to resist true naked aggression when it occurs then as a result you are leaving not just yourself but others open to suffering grave evils. The most basic rights of everyone are only protected because we make it dangerous for those people who set such rights at naught to violate them. Does this mean that we should jump into conflict all the time? Or that often it is better for people as a whole if the US gets involved in a conflict? No, it doesn't. But, you critically weaken the case for restraint when you suggest that we should have kept aloof from one of the most obvious cases where intervention was beneficial.

Ross Levatter writes:

Clearly Reid Kelly is wrong to call Henderson's position "foolishly ahistorical." Here's a well known historian (economic historian who has focused on the relationship between war and the growth of domestic State power) making a very similar argument

Reid Kelley writes:

Mr Levatter,

Sadly those two arguments are not really all that similar. Mr Higgs argues that the US provoked the Japanese attack with "economic warfare". Mr Henderson makes the argument that the US should not have engaged in actual warfare after it was attacked at Pearl Harbor. I have little problem with the facts that Mr Higgs presents - the US clearly cut off oil sales to Japan well before Pearl Harbor (his interpretations of motives are more controversial). The implication of Mr Higgs' piece is that we shouldn't have taken action that would potentially provoke the Japanese government into violent action. I end up disagreeing with Mr Higgs on whether we should have taken those actions, but they are not what Mr Henderson is arguing.
Mr Henderson argues that the US should not have fought back against the people who were literally attacking and killing their soldiers; I don't really get what he is suggesting that the US forces in the Philippines and on Guam and on Wake Island should have done, for example. They should have just surrendered? When this was the likely result: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bataan_Death_March. And when things like this had already happened to other people conquered by Japanese armies: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanking_Massacre. There comes a point where widespread, blatant aggression should be countered, and sadly that generally requires force. And the refusal to consider the actual situation that faced US policymakers and the country on December 8th, 1941 in favour of some hypothetical world where we could peacefully negotiate with a force that had just launched a major assault on the US and many of its allies is what I criticized as foolishly ahistorical.

Jonathan Goff writes:

I'm not sure I disagree with you entirely--I've gone back and forth on this thing. Counterfactuals about what would've happened had we chosen differently are basically trying to predict a future that never was, and thus are probably as unreliable as predictions about our own future--maybe worse because we tend to be more certain about the past than we really have any right to.

That said, I think its fair to mention that during the Philippines-American war in the late 1890s, the US military treated its victims only marginally nicer than the Japanese did 50 years later. I've seen varying numbers, but we wiped out somewhere around 10-15% of the Filipino population in that war. Having spent two years out there, I can say that the only reason Filipinos in general are so positively disposed to the US is because the Japanese were more recent jerks.

Had we not been there in the Philippines, we would've been a whole lot less likely to get dragged into WWII in the Pacific Theatre. Attacking Pearl Harbor was basically meant as a way to cut off the Philippines from reinforcements so they could take our "unsinkable aircraft carrier" that we were using just off their coast.

All that said, as I said at the start, I'm not entirely sure that we shouldn't have opposed the Japanese. Bad things would have happened either way, and there's no guarantee that had we not intervened that it would've been better. In life there are often no good choices--especially when you've done your best to make sure there weren't any left.


Jeff writes:

I read the Higgs article you linked to, Ross. Quite frankly, I am baffled how anybody could think economic sanctions were inappropriate given what the Japanese Army was doing in Manchuria. Sure, doing so risks turning a regional conflict into a larger, global one, which it did, but the alternative is you allow the raw materials to continue to flow, feeding the Japanese warachine and allowing episodes like the rape of Nanking to continue and perhaps proliferate. Second guessing sanctions against a regime capable of such brutality strikes me as pure hindsight bias, arising solely from the fact that you and David (understandably) didn't like what resulted.

RohanV writes:

I don't think Mr. Henderson is giving the Japanese enough credit. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor knowing that it would cause the United States to declare war. They gambled that the destruction of the US ships at Pearl Harbor would be enough to give them significant advantage in the coming war.

With the benefit of hindsight, Mr. Henderson places the US in a position of strength just after Pearl Harbor, and imagines that the Japanese would have been willing to capitulate to that strength and pay reparations.

But the Japanese did not believe in that strength. If they had believed, they would not have attacked Pearl Harbor in the first place. You don't escalate a cold war into a hot war unless you think you win that hot war.

I think a demand for reparations would have been met with "negotiations" over the amount of reparations. Then followed up with another attack on the rest of the US Pacific fleet. To me, that seems a far more likely future than one where millions of casualties are avoided.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

One could make the same claim about all of the USA's wars, from the revolution onward. Surely slavery would have extinguished in some way without the Civil War.

Yet, consider China, or Russia. We didn't fight them, and they oppressed two generations and then dissolved to their current state. All those people who grew up in Russia or China in 1950-80 lived lives of miserable hypocrisy and servitude. Would it have been better to sacrifice 10M to prevent that? It's not obvious. I certainly could think of no worse hell than living in a communist state.

Reid Kelley writes:

Mr Goff,

I agree with you for the most part. In particular we did treat the Philippines terribly. And yes our presence there likely made it more likely that we would get dragged into conflict in the region (even if WW2 itself had never happened). But Roosevelt and the leaders in the late 1930s weren't responsible for the US invasion many years previously, nor were they in a position on 8 December 1941 where they could have had the luxury to peacefully negotiate with those who were directly attacking US soldiers, citizens and territory. And on some level I think leaving large swaths of the world to wanton violence is simple neglect of one's moral responsibility to defend those rights, a duty one has regardless of whether one has trespassed on someone else's rights previously.

Richard Manns writes:

I'm sorry, I find this whole proposition terrifyingly naive, especially from someone who advocates economic thinking.

Let us consider the proposal above: that Japan instead is made to pay $1,000,000,000 (1941).


1941 Japan is the terror of the Pacific, laying waste to East Asia, slaughtering and enslaving millions with soldiers of mythical status. They have a strict view of honour and shame (note even office-workers' hara-kiri suicides of the 1990s) and they have just obliterated half the Pacific fleet of their only real contender across the largest ocean on the planet.

What are you bringing to the table to force a humiliating surrender? That have already calculated that the US is 'cheaper' to eliminate as a threat by slaughtering Americans and starting a hot war than some cash; having achieved their aim of a US gov't that is not going to fight back even without a hot war, what reason do they have to parlay?

As Japan, I'd have sent a few/all of your diplomats back in boxes to terrify your civilian population into psychological surrender. With such a weak-minded government, who'd miss the opportunity?

This post is a solid reminder about why Plato was so wrong about philosopher-kings, and that modern-day philosophers still haven't taken the hint.

Greg G writes:

Reid Kelley you have said everything I would have wanted to say here and done it much better than I could have. Thanks for that.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Eric Falkenstein,
Yet, consider China, or Russia. We didn't fight them, and they oppressed two generations and then dissolved to their current state. All those people who grew up in Russia or China in 1950-80 lived lives of miserable hypocrisy and servitude. Would it have been better to sacrifice 10M to prevent that? It's not obvious. I certainly could think of no worse hell than living in a communist state.
Yes, Eric, let’s consider China and Russia. As I noted in my piece above:
"if the U.S. government's concern was to keep the Chinese people from being ruled by a bloodthirsty government, it didn't succeed: Chairman Mao saw to that”
Now Russia. I agree with you that Russia’s government, like China’s, was horrible. But then how do you advocate subsidizing Stalin? Or maybe you don’t. But most defenders of American’s participation in WWII whom I run into do defend FDR’s extensive support of Stalin.

H_Wasshoi writes:

I read "The Better Angels of Our Nature".
I believe democracy, capitalism, more market oriented world reduce war.

I heard Yamamoto Isoroku did not pursue “extermination” at the Pearl Harbor.
It was “corner-cutting” attack (almost certainly, I think).
So maybe, Japanese high ranking military officials somewhat expected that US never declared to war, reasonably (backward induction).

Japan was under the democracy, capitalism and the Emperor.
I think the Emperor was enlited. I perceive that he was the anti-war emperor, from his official sayings. He was always like on "left-side". He respected the democracy. I assume that the war occurred from the “code-error” of Meiji Constitution (related the Imperial prerogative of supreme command).

Under the world in 1940s, I think there were higher priority risks than Japanese military force: Stalin Dictatorship, Communism (of China).

I think sophisticated democratic decision doesn't choose wrong set of risks and returns.
With reasonable risk intelligence, going war with Japan could not be a first option, I think.

After WW2, the United States made many war. Today it is not yet seized. I suspect American political system have some weakness of democracy as in Japan of before 1945. (Please check the "code-error" of the constitution.)

Daublin writes:

From what I have read of the history, Japan's medium-term objective was to carve out a chunk of the Pacific so as to give themselves a buffer from the United States. It's not clear they would have pressed further east any time soon, not with 1940s military technology. In short, Japan had the same plans for the Pacific as the U.S.

As such, I think it is hard to defend the war on Japan as a way to defend U.S. interests in a short time horizon.

The longer-term argument is better, but it has inherent problems in that there are more different ways things can go. Would China have managed to mount a counter-attack on their own? If they continued to lose to Japan, would they have been worse off under Japan than under Mao? If Japan took over China but was then contained, how bad would that have been, exactly? None of these things are clear, but I could see it *probably* helped to beat back Japan.

Even then, you have to consider that we didn't know we would succeed. If we had lost, Japan would probably have pressed its advantage, and we could have lost our homeland.

Another consideration is whether a counter-attack beyond the Pacific was worthwhile. Maybe we should have firmed up our outposts in the Pacific. Did we really need to totally defang and humiliate Japan, though? Up until the Manhattan project finally started working, the running plan was to land massive numbers of troops in Japan and physically depose the emperor. Overkill much?

Finally, it is worth considering the mood of the time. It was bad, and it was shameful. Americans overwhelmingly lept into a war founded on xenophobia. We broke all of our own rules, and we mistreated American citizens that had the wrong race. We rationed, and we manipulated our youth into dying on gory, maggoty hills.

We might have made the right decision, but we definitely made it the wrong way. We had a proud president, high unemployment, and a romanticized idea of war after decades of staying out of it. We went on an adventure, and we bled.

Mark writes:

Not only did Japan declare war on the US by its attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, Guam and Wake but it formally declared war on the U.S. two hours after Pearl Harbor, the day before the U.S. declaration. We were at war whether we liked it or not. We didn't make war on Japan, they did on us. The only question is what strategy would we employ. The question of whether we should have gotten involved in the war makes no sense.

Roger McKinney writes:

Another option would have been a limited response instead of total war with the demand for unconditional surrender.

The historian Butterfield, friends with CS Lewis, wrote that politicians need to be more humble because they can rarely achieve the outcomes they desire.

The US goaded Japan into attacking through trade sanctions, which have always been considered an act of war. Japan had no choice but to attack the US in response.

And as Dr Henderson shows, the Communist government did far more damage to Chinese than the Japanese ever dreamed of. Over 30 million Chinese starved to death in the 1960's. And was Hitler worse for Eastern Europe than Stalin? Not by a long shot. The Allied victory left the world much worse off than if they had done nothing.

As Patton once said, we should have supported Germany against the USSR and kept the two fighting until they were totally exhausted.

Ross Levatter writes:

Without going into a long and detailed response to Mr. Kelly, I'll simply suggest perhaps he should focus on my first sentence, which shows my goal was merely to correct his gross overstatement that Prof. Henderson's claim was "foolishly ahistorical." When a prominent historian makes a similar case, referencing numerous historical facts, you may think him wrong, but it would be fatuous to think him "foolishly ahistorical."

Prof. Henderson titled his piece here in the interrogative. Was it "a good idea" to go to war with Japan? For those readers here, perhaps including Mr. Kelly, who desire a more constrained, smaller, less powerful government, I respectfully suggest this essay even more strongly argues Prof. Henderson's case.

David Friedman writes:

I'm not an expert on the Pacific war, but two features of the situation as I understand it that are relevant to this discussion:

1. Japan was under severe time pressure because the U.S. embargo meant that unless it seized a source of oil (i.e. Dutch Indonesia), its supplies of oil would soon be insufficient to fight a naval war.

2. The Japanese military did not believe that Japan could win an all out war with the U.S. Their plan was to do well enough so that the U.S. would agree to a compromise peace. The quote I remember from one of the admirals was that they could manage a year of victories, hold the line for another year, and would then start losing.

Which suggests that we probably did have the option of negotiating a compromise peace not long after Pearl, whether or not it would have been a good idea.

One other point of interest. The Flying Tigers are now known to have been a U.S. government operation disguised as a private volunteer operation. If their movement into China had gone on schedule, they would have attacked the Japanese military in China before Pearl—without, of course, a declaration of war. So U.S. moral indignation, at least by the U.S. leadership, amounted to complaining that the Japanese had attacked us without a declaration of war before we got around to doing the same to them.

Mark writes:

The comments by Ross are interesting but are irrelevant to Mr Henderson's point - once the Japanese attacked what should the U.S. response have been? Did U.S. diplomacy contribute to Japan's decision to attack? Yes, but so what.

As to the link at Ross' 2nd post it completely garbles the history. The problem before Dec 7, 1941 was that there was a mismatch between the U.S. aggressive diplomatic strategy in Asia and its ability to support that strategy with limited military capabilities. The reason for that mismatch was that the war the U.S. (both the FDR Administration and the military) were anticipating was with Germany which it felt to be the greater danger to the U.S. Even in the event of a two-front war, which the U.S. did not seek, Germany, not Japan, was to be the priority. FDR was not trying to entice a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor because it would distract the U.S. from what it viewed as its primary enemy.

Could the U.S. have negotiated a compromise peace right after Pearl Harbor? Theoretically possible, but in reality impossible. The American population was outraged by the surprise attack and a peace in which the U.S. abandoned the Pacific would have been politically impossible for any President of any party. As it was the White House and military had difficulty keeping the priority on Germany in light of public pressure to make Japan the priority.

As a final note, Germany declared war on the U.S. on December 11, 1941, not the other way around.

John Fembup writes:

David, perhaps another 70 or so years will provide sufficient perspective to analyze this question.

Meanwhile remember Europe had a choice in 1938.

Also, recall Machiavelli's observation that one puts off war only to their enemy's advantage.

Faze writes:

Speaking of "having" to do things, everyone thought Obama "had" to bomb Syria after Syria crossed his red line on gas attacks. But Obama didn't bomb Syria. He did something brilliant, instead. He changed the subject. By steering the discourse away from bombing toward the possibly irrelevant issue of whether it was possible or desirable to destroy Syria's supplies of poison gas, bombing as an immediate possibility vanished off the table. Many innocent lives were unquestionably saved, and very possibly, the world avoided a massive conflagration in the Middle East. I'm not an admirer of Obama, but I think with that one decision, he retroactively earned his Nobel Peace Prize.

Andrew_FL writes:

With regard to subsidizing Stalin, there were at least a few people then, and I would think now, who might have preferred if the US Army had kept marching after reaching Berlin.

Anyway, I'm not sure I can agree with this analysis. Yeah, economically war is a loser. In a world where all actors rationally analyze the situation and expect their counterparts to do the same, war would not occur because people would assess it in this way. But that isn't the way the world works. That war occurs is the evidence for this itself.

The US government absolutely had a choice. So did the Japanese government. Having observed the Japanese government's choice, why on Earth would one proceed in the above stated manner of trying to resolve the situation nonviolently?

Sam Grove writes:

From my reading of Richard Maybury, FDR had been keen to get into the war in Europe, but was unable to provoke the Germans into attacking despite much US aid to the allies. Then FDR worked to provoke Japan into attacking the US knowing that war with Japan would involve Germany because of their treaties. FDR had actually sent warships into Japanese territorial waters in addition to working to cut Japan off from oil sources.

FDR also made sure that Pearl Harbor was defenseless against an air attack to further enticing the Japanese into attacking there. His purpose in this was to change American sentiment against entering the war in Europe by getting Japan to strike the first blow.

Reid Kelley writes:

Mr Levatter,

I believe that I have demonstrated that the two arguments (by Mr Higgs on the one hand and Mr Henderson on the other) are not in fact all that similar. Merely reasserting that a prominent historian asserts argument A does not make my criticism that argument B is "ahistorical" any less true. A reading of what I actually have written that was close enough to realize that the name is Kelley should have made that clear.

The new article you post is interesting but again irrelevant as others have already noted. Even if we buy the all of the arguments that Mr Higgs and Mr Gregory present, that still doesn't make any case for why the US should have reacted the way Mr Henderson suggested after the attack on a key strategic asset and concurrent to continuing attacks on US soldiers, citizens and territory. That is what Mr Henderson failed to grapple with and that is what is ahistorical. The articles that you have supplied make the case that prior to the attacks that US leadership acted improperly. These simply are different issues.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Without commenting on this precise issue, here are some often forgotten events of 1941.

The freezing of Japanese assets in the United States on July 25, 1941.

Orders to American warships to shoot at sight at German submarines, Sept. 11, 1941.

When the Japanese Prime Minister, Prince Fumimaro Konoye, appealed for a personal meeting with Roosevelt to discuss an amicable settlement in the Pacific, this appeal was rejected, despite the strong favorable recommendations of the American ambassador to Japan, Joseph C. Grew.

Secretary of State Hull's note to the Japanese government. Before sending this communication Hull had considered proposing a compromise formula which would have relaxed the blockade of Japan in return for Japanese withdrawal from southern Indochina and a limitation of Japanese forces in northern Indochina.

However, Hull dropped this idea under pressure from British and Chinese sources. He dispatched a veritable ultimatum on November 26, which demanded unconditional Japanese withdrawal from China and from Indochina and insisted that there should be "no support of any government in China other than the National government [Chiang Kai-shek]."

The negative Japanese reply to this note was delivered almost simultaneously with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Greg Jaxon writes:

You did take one of the most radical antiwar positions - turning the other cheek. But the sanctions we'd imposed on Japan were already serious warfare. It's often argued that we expected the Dec 7 attack, and FDR may have welcomed it as an excuse to enter the much broader war already-in-progress. War in the Pacific was a decision that had already been taken - only the citizens and military were surprised. The next time you argue this, consider whether vis-a-vis the Russian communist threat of the 1930s, the US would have been better off cultivating Japan as an ally instead of the Chinese.
I was never clear on why we stood by just watching Japan's hawks come to dominate their politics, and why we incited them even as late as 1944 with "unconditional surrender" terms that kept them from negotiating, but which in the end, we did not finally enforce, nor what we expected from befriending the troubled Chinese gov't of the 1930s, which collapsed in 1949.

Christopher Chang writes:

Germany had no historical claim to Moscow; indeed, it did not even have a border with Russia in 1938. Japan had no historical claim to Shanghai. And you may have heard of a "peace for our time" claim made in 1938 which turned out to be a bit optimistic. Against this type of belligerent, the only way to judge whether peace made sense is "would it have put America in a better military position?"; no other yardstick was relevant.

Given how, in practice, America had an incredibly strong military position by 1945, it's very difficult to make that case. And 407k American lives was an incredibly cheap price to pay, given the circumstances (the other big "winner", the Soviet Union, lost closer to 20 million).

Tracy W writes:

As a NZ citizen, and knowing what I do about Japanese atrocities, I'm very grateful that the Americans did defeat them.

And Roger McKinny - you sound terribly naive about the WWII Japanese. Of course the Japanese had a choice - they could have responded to the sanctions by withdrawing from China and the other occupied territories, thus stopping themselves from committing more atrocities against the locals. Deaths in China during WWII are estimated at between 10 and 20 million. Noticeably once the US forced Japan to be peaceful Japan took off economically.

Grant Hillemeyer writes:

I think war with Japan was inevitable. Although I doubt they would have attacked the continent, it's likely that Hawaii would have been invaded, as well as Austrailia and New Zealand. It may have been costly in lives and material to fight that war, but it could only have become more costly in the future as the Japanese consolidated gains and increased their industrial capabilities and technology.
I take the authors point that the US had a choice, they certainly did, and they made the right one. The ability of the allies to wage global war on the axis powers put an end to such aspirations of the future. It kept both the Chinese and the Russians in check during the rest of the century.
As for the argument that Stalin and Mao went on to be worse than Hitler and Tojo, they had in just a few short years shown themselves capable of murdering millions without a care, and of course, US leaders were not privy to the future. From their point of view in 1940, the world and the United States was at the precipice.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

A brief quibble with the premise:

"Going to war" was not an idea formulated by US authorities then in power (President & Congress).

In the Evolution of Civilizations, the last century was one of extensive conflict that might well represent the fragmentation or possible transition of Western Civilization, whose core had moved to North America and the US in particular.

The Japanese feudal culture, based on clan violence had begun entry into westernization in the first decade of that last century. Its initial efforts at expansion were successful at modest costs and without essential alteration of that basic feudal culture and its sustaining force. It would come to represent a form of Westernization regarded in that culture as "modernization."

The viewpoint of an "idea" as discussed initially does not consider the Clausewitz thesis or any of its modern refinements.

The concept of war, as hostilities and violence between nation-states that were the roiling conflicts of the last century differed from the hostilities undertaken for the expansion of the Japanese feudal culture in its westernization and modification of Western Civilization - based on superiority in human to human violence. That expansion of the Japanese feudal system was of course an idea formed by the consensus of the dominant clans (who are still highly influential in Japanese culture).

The reactions to the various expressions of the expansion of the Japanese feudal system and its incongruent uses of violence will probably be seen historically as part of the spontaneous reordering of Western Civilization to eliminate a possible intrusion of the permanent influence of a violent feudal culture in the shaping of the future of that civilization as it fragments or transitions.

It was therefore essential that the possibility of future and continuing influence of a violent feudal culture in the shaping of Western Civilization be not only suppressed, but totally eliminated. Otherwise the epoch of conflicts which continued past the halfway mark of the last century would be continuing on into this century.

Those dominant clans appear to have adopted a new and evolving consensus which may even affect the degree of their continuing dominance: as well as the manner in which that dominance is exercised.

While the reaction to the attempts at Japanese feudal expansion was not an idea, it was an essential and good reaction.

Faze writes:

We all have survivor's bias: "I'm here now and I'm doing pretty well, so whatever historical events, however horrible, led to this outcome must all have been for the best."

We unconsciously interpret the purpose of the past as being the production of ourselves in the present. Would anybody change history to make WWII not happen, if the result would be one's own non-existance?

Topias Uotila writes:

Having read all of the comments, it seems that this audience is the polar opposite of the one in the original story.

I'm referring to this part:

Interestingly, no one argued with me, possibly because they didn't have a good argument or possibly because they wanted to discuss other things.

For it seems that all the comments here only want to argue if the war was inevitable or not. I hope this is due to the writers considering the existence of the actual choice obvious. In my opinion that is the actual point of the story.

Topias Uotila writes:

Seems I wrote my previous comment in a haste and therefore left it unfinished.

To better express myself:

I mean that people here are arguing if the war was inevitable over the long term, but not if there was a choice at that specific moment. (The latter being the actual point, as I stated.) Still what I also failed to express is that the most interesting part is that this point was not recognized with such an audience.

Phew, hope this clarifies enough.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:


Maybe the point essayed is that different participants in what comes to be "war" are affected by differing forces and factors that cause their participation.

Carl writes:
Could the U.S. have negotiated a compromise peace right after Pearl Harbor? Theoretically possible, but in reality impossible.

If something is theoretically possible, it can't be impossible "in reality".

Andrew_FL writes:

@Greg Jaxon-

why we incited them even as late as 1944 with "unconditional surrender" terms that kept them from negotiating

Unconditional surrender was Allied policy, although it was only grudgingly agreed to by Churchill and Stalin (imagine that, Stalin opposed demanding unconditional surrender by the Nazis? This surprised me, too!)

Either way, the policy seems to have been FDR's idea, and his alone. Much of the US military disagreed with it. I believe I read somewhere once that MacArthur would have accepted a conditional surrender from the Japanese, if he had been allowed to.

Greg Jaxon writes:

Barnes' Compilation "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace" includes a very relevant chapter (4) by William Neumann on the subject of pre-war American policy towards Japan.

CMC writes:
The comments by Ross are interesting but are irrelevant to Mr Henderson's point - once the Japanese attacked what should the U.S. response have been? Did U.S. diplomacy contribute to Japan's decision to attack? Yes, but so what.

Isn't that apparent dilemma exactly what those who want war tend to set up and impose?

Why not grab the bull by the horns and insist on an explanation from FDR what he thought he was doing?

At a Nov. 25 [1941] meeting of FDR’s war council, Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s notes speak of the prevailing consensus: “The question was how we should maneuver them (the Japanese) into … firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.”

Ka Fai Ho writes:

For economic reason, war is never a good option to a country, since the United States fight back Japan, at that time the labor participation rate decrease rapidly. Also, at that time the United States was just escaped from the Great Depression for few years, so labor participation rate decrease and spending money on war, slow down the recovery of the United States economy.

But in the other hand, if the United States didn't fight back Japan, foreign investor may feel the United States afraid to fight with Japan, so it may makes them loss confidence to invest in the US and which is not good for the US economy.

In conclusion, in business and economic side, war is never benefit to the country. But for a country, the United States should fight with Japan, because it is way to not show weakness to other countries.

How we got into WWII is a lot more interesting than anyone posting here seems to realize. We deliberately provoked Japan into attacking us at the behest of Stalin's secret service. The memo that delivered an ultimatum to Japan was authored by Harry Dexter White operating under the orders of the Russian KGB operative Vitaly Pavlov. It was known to the Russians as Operation Snow.

John R. Graham writes:


I suppose the U.S. could have waited until Japan attacked the U.S. mainland.

In which case, it could have waited until Japan had occupied Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California.

In which case it could have waited until Japan had occupied the U.S. West of the Mississippi.

In which case it could have waited until Japan had crossed the Appalachians and Alleghenies.

I think the Canada, which had been at war since 1939, would have invaded and occupied the south shore of the St. Lawrence river long before then.

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