SIXTY-EIGHT years ago tomorrow, Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. In the brutal Pacific war that would follow, millions of soldiers and civilians were killed. My father — one of the famous flag raisers on Iwo Jima — was among the young men who went off to the Pacific to fight for his country. So the war naturally fascinated me. But I always wondered, why did we fight in the Pacific? Yes, there was Pearl Harbor, but why did the Japanese attack us in the first place?
In search of an answer, I read deeply into the diplomatic history of the 1930s, about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policy on Asia, and his preparation — or lack thereof — for a major conflict there. But I discovered that I was studying the wrong President Roosevelt. The one who had the greater effect on Japan’s behavior was Theodore Roosevelt — whose efforts to end the war between Japan and Russia earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.
When Theodore Roosevelt was president, three decades before World War II, the world was focused on the bloody Russo-Japanese War, a contest for control of North Asia. President Roosevelt was no fan of the Russians: “No human beings, black, yellow or white, could be quite as untruthful, as insincere, as arrogant — in short, as untrustworthy in every way — as the Russians,” he wrote in August 1905, near the end of the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese, on the other hand, were “a wonderful and civilized people,” Roosevelt wrote, “entitled to stand on an absolute equality with all the other peoples of the civilized world.”
Roosevelt knew that Japan coveted the Korean Peninsula as a springboard to its Asian expansion. Back in 1900, when he was still vice president, Roosevelt had written, “I should like to see Japan have Korea.” When, in February 1904, Japan broke off relations with Russia, President Roosevelt said publicly that he would “maintain the strictest neutrality,” but privately he wrote, “The sympathies of the United States are entirely on Japan’s side.”
In June 1905, Roosevelt made world headlines when — apparently on his own initiative — he invited the two nations to negotiate an end to their war. Roosevelt’s private letter to his son told another story: “I have of course concealed from everyone — literally everyone — the fact that I acted in the first place on Japan’s suggestion ... . Remember that you are to let no one know that in this matter of the peace negotiations I have acted at the request of Japan and that each step has been taken with Japan’s foreknowledge, and not merely with her approval but with her expressed desire.”
Years later, a Japanese emissary to Roosevelt paraphrased the president’s comments to him: “All the Asiatic nations are now faced with the urgent necessity of adjusting themselves to the present age. Japan should be their natural leader in that process, and their protector during the transition stage, much as the United States assumed the leadership of the American continent many years ago, and by means of the Monroe Doctrine, preserved the Latin American nations from European interference. The future policy of Japan towards Asiatic countries should be similar to that of the United States towards their neighbors on the American continent.”
In a secret presidential cable to Tokyo, in July 1905, Roosevelt approved the Japanese annexation of Korea and agreed to an “understanding or alliance” among Japan, the United States and Britain “as if the United States were under treaty obligations.” The “as if” was key: Congress was much less interested in North Asia than Roosevelt was, so he came to his agreement with Japan in secret, an unconstitutional act.
(...)Roosevelt had assumed that the Japanese would stop at Korea and leave the rest of North Asia to the Americans and the British. But such a wish clashed with his notion that the Japanese should base their foreign policy on the American model of expansion across North America and, with the taking of Hawaii and the Philippines, into the Pacific. It did not take long for the Japanese to tire of the territorial restrictions placed upon them by their Anglo-American partners.
Japan’s declaration of war, in December 1941, explained its position quite clearly: “It is a fact of history that the countries of East Asia for the past hundred years or more have been compelled to observe the status quo under the Anglo-American policy of imperialistic exploitation and to sacrifice themselves to the prosperity of the two nations. The Japanese government cannot tolerate the perpetuation of such a situation.”
In planning the attack on Pearl Harbor, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto was specifically thinking of how, 37 years earlier, the Japanese had surprised the Russian Navy at Port Arthur in Manchuria and, as he wrote, “favorable opportunities were gained by opening the war with a sudden attack on the main enemy fleet.” At the time, the indignant Russians called it a violation of international law. But Theodore Roosevelt, confident that he could influence events in North Asia from afar, wrote to his son, “I was thoroughly well pleased with the Japanese victory, for Japan is playing our game.”
It was for his efforts to broker the peace deal between Russia and Japan that a year and a half later Roosevelt became the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize — and one of only three presidents to do so while in office (the other two are Woodrow Wilson and President Obama, who will accept his prize this week). No one in Oslo, or in the United States Congress, knew the truth then.
But the Japanese did. And the American president’s support emboldened them to increase their military might — and their imperial ambitions. In December 1941, the consequence of Theodore Roosevelt’s recklessness would become clear to those few who knew of the secret dealings. No one else — including my dad on Iwo Jima — realized just how well Japan had indeed played “our game.”-NYT