Posted: June 2nd, 2010 by Militant Libertarian

by Thomas Schmidt, LRC

It is possible to disagree with others and yet learn from them. A good friend took umbrage at my insistence that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had foreknowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor. I based my argument on Robert Stinnett’s Day of Deceit, which I think makes a pretty convincing case that critical information on the Pearl Harbor attack was available beforehand, and that it was kept from the Commanders in Hawaii, Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Walter Short. As the Amazon review writes: “(a)lthough obviously troubled by his discovery of a systematic plan of deception on the part of the American government, Stinnett does not take deep issue with its outcome. Roosevelt, he writes, faced powerful opposition from isolationist forces, and, against them, the Pearl Harbor attack was ‘something that had to be endured in order to stop a greater evil – the Nazi invaders in Europe who had begun the Holocaust and were poised to invade England.’”

I bought the book for my friend to read, and he likewise gave me a book dealing with dismissing the controversy (I did point out that “my” book was based on previously unavailable classified documents). I did not think his book made his point well, but he did have a logical point that undermined Stinnett’s and thus my argument. According to article 3 of the Tripartite Pact among Italy, Germany, and Japan, “Japan, Germany, and Italy … undertake to assist one another with all political, economic and military means if one of the Contracting Powers is attacked by a Power at present not involved in the European War or in the Japanese-Chinese conflict.” So it was logically impossible for Roosevelt to assume that inciting the Japanese to strike the first blow would bring him into the war against a Nazi Germany which had been extremely cautious (unlike the Wilhelmine Second Reich) in actions to not provoke the US to war. Of course, Hitler did declare war on the USA in the wake of Pearl Harbor, an action called “Hitler’s greatest blunder” by a number of sources; in the linked article, Nicholas Henderson does cite some support in the record for Nazi Germany’s declaration, but no necessity.

Intentionally taking no action to prevent the disaster at Pearl Harbor would be not merely Machiavellian statecraft of a most extreme order, it would be a crime. In order for a crime to be proven, means, motive, and opportunity must generally be shown. Roosevelt, with his imperious control of the state and enabling acts of Congress, certainly had the means to provoke an attack. He did not have the opportunity, as that would require Japan’s participation; he did spur the attack with the cutoff of oil deliveries to Japan causing them to eye the oil-rich Dutch East Indies, whose seizure could only be prevented by the US Pacific Fleet, conveniently located by Roosevelt’s command in Hawaii. But the motive is the most difficult issue: would Roosevelt want war with Japan even if it did not include Nazi Germany in the bargain?

Roosevelt, like any politician, was interested in remaining in power. He boasted that no one would ever be able to repeal his Social Security program, and under threat of his court-packing plan, the Supreme Court upheld it in Stewart Machine Co. v. Davis. Even so, he faced rising political opposition. In a fascinating article nominally about the election of 2010, we learn about similarities of this election year to 1946. Then, a large Republican majority overturned 16 years of Democratic dominance of Congress; now, an anti-incumbent movement threatens to shear the “two wings of the same bird of prey” that is the military-industrial State.

The reasons for the Republican sweep in 1946 do have bearing on today: “In September 1945, less than a month after the surrender of Japan, (Harry Truman) called for continued price controls, a full-employment bill, a higher minimum wage, a public- and private-housing bill, and only limited cuts in the high wartime tax rates. In December 1945 he called for national health insurance… (A) Democratic president was proposing and a Democratic Congress was considering proposals to substantially increase the size and scope of government beyond previous peacetime limits. The Democratic 79th Congress did not come as close to passing such proposals as the more heavily Democratic 111th Congress has done, but the prospect existed then as it does now that a more heavily Democratic Congress might do so.” Whether the anger at government spending has any effect this autumn is up in the air. More interesting is somewhat of a footnote in the article.

Writing about long-pent-up demands for a return to normalcy, the article states: “In Britain, the 1942 Beveridge Report urged creating a welfare state after the war… In the United States, Franklin Roosevelt in his January 1944 State of the Union address echoed the Beveridge Report… (H)e called for ‘steeply graduated taxes, government controls on crop prices and food prices [and] continued controls on wages . . . Government should guarantee everyone a job, an education, and clothing, housing, medical care, and financial security against the risks of old age and sickness.’” Standard New Deal stuff, all. But would FDR be able to do so?

“Roosevelt, who declared after Pearl Harbor that he was no longer Dr. New Deal but was now Dr. Win the War, was clearly contemplating returning to his former role after the war was over. This despite the fact that in his second term the New Deal was proving unpopular. Gallup polls from 1937 to 1940 saw majorities opposing Roosevelt’s never-enacted “Third New Deal” and supporting cuts in government spending, favoring curbs in the power of labor unions, and opposing welfare programs. Majorities said that New Deal programs were deterring businesses from creating jobs. Roosevelt was evidently calculating that government’s success in the war effort would transform public opinion, as it indeed did in Britain.” (emphasis added)

War, as Randolph Bourne declared, is ever the health of the state. Roosevelt’s state was looking sickly from 1937 on; indeed, this loss of public support probably caused him to back off the court-packing plan in 1937. He needed a way to revive his flagging popularity and social programs, and he sought it in war. His motive was not the noble sacrifice of Stinnett, or a crusade against Nazi evil: it was the worst sort perquisite-maintaining backroom dealing that he could muster. But it fit perfectly the needs of the political animal, and explains better than anything his desire for war. LikeGeorge Washington Plunkitt, he had “seen his opportunities, and he took ’em.”


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