Was Going to War with Japan a Good Idea?
By David Henderson
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.