Going to War with Japan, 1937—1941. By Jonathan G. Utley. Tennessee. $22.50.
Almost 25 years before Tokyo’s assault on Pearl Harbor Lenin delivered an emotional lecture in which he predicted that Washington would “inevitably come to war with Japan over a carve up of the Pacific. This war has been brewing for several decades,” While it was almost certain that Tokyo and Washington would pull out all the propaganda stops to camouflage carefully their deliberatly aggressive policies “behind a smoke-screen of lofty ideals championing the rights of small nations,” there was not the slightest shred of doubt, concluded the father of the Russian Revolution, that posterity would unequivocally condemn them as nothing more than naked “aims of conquest.”
Did Lenin prophetically distill the essential character of the Japanese-American confrontation when he voiced his Marxist analysis of world politics or were the roots of the crisis that finally transpired on Dec. 7, 1941 an infinitely more complex blend of factors? For Clio at least, the jury is still out, with history’s bone of contention still largely unresolved.
What were the exact causes of the Japanese-American schism? The answer, arguably, dates back to 1905 when Tokyo entered the hall of great power politics after inflicting a humiliating defeat at Tsushima on the naval forces of Czarist Russia. From this point onward, Japan’s ambitions in Asia began to conflict with the Far Eastern foreign policy objectives of the United States. Although Tokyo and Washington at first publicly suppressed their mutual apprehension and suspicion, the passage of time neither concealed nor bridged the gulf separating their vastly dissimilar goals.
Between Tsushima and Pearl Harbor, successive generations of diplomats, politicians, academics, and concerned citizens on both sides of the Pacific expressed alarming concern about the massive concentration of black clouds looming large on the horizon. One of the least known of those who utilized their initiative in a personal quest to avert the gathering storm was Sidney Gulick, an American theologian, preacher, and peace activist whose “Christian internationalism” and pacifist philosophy “championed” harmony among nations by promoting “goodwill and understanding between the United States and Japan.” Furthermore, observes Sandra C. Taylor in her model biographical portrait,
Gulick’s life is significant for other reasons. It illuminates several aspects of Japanese-American relations heretofore obscure. . . .
A dedicated Christian, Gulick never lost faith in the ultimate triumph of justice, which he defined in terms of equity— equal treatment for all peoples, a fair share of the world’s economic resources, and acceptance of racial variation and other cultures. His life underlines again the importance of searching for alternatives to conflict and striving to create a milieu of international and interracial justice and goodwill. Although the search for peace is inherently less dramatic than the alternative, the road to war, as mankind edges ever closer to the brink of oblivion it is an even more important story to tell, for in it may lay clues to our survival.
Perhaps the most critical phase of Gulick’s professional life occurred in the years following the 1908 Gentlemen’s Agreement in which envoys from Japan and the United States agreed on specific methods to voluntarily restrict the influx of Japanese immigration into America. The exchange of diplomatic notes—ostensibly set in motion to quell clamoring nativist American domestic demands for legislation directed at halting the manifold “evils” associated with the arrival of the “Yellow Peril” to the New World—outraged Gulick, who wasted no time in assailing the treaty as a moral abomination and a shameful blot on the good name of the United States. Almost immediately, “Gulick threw himself with incredible vigor into the cause of a just immigration reform.” Employing a wide variety of tactics—ranging all the way from testimony before congressional hearings to encounters with high ranking Japanese representatives—Gulick worked assiduously to overturn the Gentlemen’s Agreement, always remaining faithful to his noble ideals and everywhere “determined to secure justice for the Japanese.”
The Japanese invasion of Manchuria, however, considerably altered Gulick’s chances for success and placed him at a distinctly defensive (and frequently uncomfortable) disadvantage. Unable to modify his laudatory appraisal of Japan to the point where he could openly level criticism against Tokyo’s military aggressions and atrocities on the Asiatic mainland, Gulick instead opted out for an ethically questionable, if dubious, approach that saw him clutching straws in a vain attempt to justify Japan’s expansionist ambitions as a necessary—albeit tragic—act of national economic survival. Always quick to point an accusing finger at American leaders who oversaw a geopolitical area of influence not at all different to Japan’s euphemistic “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” Gulick insisted that the “United States should recognize its own imperialistic heritage before condemning Japan. . . . Gulick was no apologist, but he was a special pleader, and despite his motives one must conclude that by the mid-1930’s he had been forced to overlook and condone much in order to deny that Japan’s course was aggressive or imperialistic.”
When Sidney Gulick died in 1945 at age 85, he left, at best, an uncertain legacy. While not always in full accord with Gulick’s overall strategy, Taylor is generally sympathetic with his efforts, noting that he “was a man of God who sought peace in a hostile world.”
Despite Gulick’s best intentions to ease and eradicate Japanese-American tension at the diplomatic round table, Tokyo and Washington came to violent blows. Interpretations as to who or what exactly precipitated the strained relations to the breaking point have been examined and reevaluated almost from the first days of the conflict. Initial efforts by both nations to pin blame on each other were later replaced by the less destructive, though by no means tranquil, partisans from the academic community. This fierce battle of words among scholars has pitted the so-called traditionalist school (which placed guilt exclusively on the shoulders of Japan’s foreign policy architects) against the revisionists who questioned almost every facet of the conventional (and official) wisdom with their thought-provoking questions. Shades of opinion vary considerably among both groups but, for the most part, research on the origins of the Japanese-American imbroglio (with a literal handful of exceptions) has fallen in either of these two intellectual camps.
Jonathan G. Utley’s Going to War with Japan is merely the latest example of this phenomenon. The opening thesis is deceptively simple and straightforward. What we have here is a modern-day saga of sheriff versus outlaw with the United States—not altogether surprisingly—cast in the role of a gallant hero on a white horse courageously blowing the whistle on an indiscriminantly lawbreaking Japanese bandit. Utley entertains absolutely no doubts about the Pacific origins of the Second World War. American foreign policy— directed by President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull—ardently wished “to avoid confronting Japan”—a phrase which Utley repeats almost verbatim on numerous occasions throughout the entire text. The Pacific War erupted in 1941 because opportunistic and unscrupulous Japanese leaders were culpable of territorial expansion and “blatant aggression.” It is impossible to assign responsibility for the war on the United States, insists Utley, since American policy toward Japan was based on “principles of right conduct.” The Japanese, on the other hand, never wanted peace; had they truly desired a bloodless resolution to their grievances with Washington, then surely Tokyo could have gone out of its way to subscribe to the American formula for peace. Unfortunately for all the peace-loving nations of the earth, Japan preferred war for the basic reason that “the people who mattered in Tokyo had no interest in a settlement on anything other than Japan’s terms. . . .”
Even though Utley begins his study by adhering to the stale idea that Japan was the sole culprit for the events that finally culminated at Oahu, he nevertheless enters several caveats that tend to demolish or, at very least, seriously dent and impair the credibility of his opening premise. Thus what begins as a clear statement of purpose against the Japanese rapidly swings over into something substantially different, and the result is a study which becomes consistently inconsistent—an intellectual no man’s land of diametrically opposite interpretations held together only by two hard-bound covers.
The idea that the U. S. -Japanese war was a clear-cut case of good Americans caught in a life-and-death struggle with bad Japanese—a view unanimously shared by F.D.R. and almost all of his political and diplomatic entourage—was too simplistic and, as it turns out, self-defeating. The sole major exception to this view was Ambassador Joseph C. Grew, America’s chief representative in the Japanese capital who, for more than a decade, bombarded Washington with reports and telegrams that repeatedly urged a more balanced and pragmatic—as opposed to moralistic—approach to Japan’s expansionist policies, which, in Grew’s opinion, arose from potentially explosive domestic population pressures and vital strategic and national security considerations. While Grew never left himself open to charges of apologizing for Japan’s grandiose imperial visions, he never shirked from expressing dismay about the conduct and direction of U.S. foreign policy—decisions such as the 1940 and 1941 embargoes that, in Grew’s astute estimation, merely exacerbated already dangerously frayed relations. According to Utley, it was the United States’ great misfortune that “Grew’s approach of trying to see both sides of the question simply did not exist in the [American] capital.”
U. S. policy toward Japan is further subject to Utley’s critical investigation. Washington’s strict peace demands for a complete and unconditional Japanese withdrawal from the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” was much like trying “to reach for the moon” and America’s persistence on this point was “a grave tactical error” and an “unachievable” goal. The author further finds merit in Grew’s contention that the United States was “being too hard on Japan.”
The Japanese, as Utley now wants us to believe, wanted to avoid a fight with the United States and were certainly willing to pay almost any amount to come to terms with Washington. From the perspective of the Japanese, however, giving up a coveted sphere of influence—which, as it turned out, all other great powers jealously took for granted—proved too exorbitant a price tag. From the standpoint of world power politics and its accompanying amoral philosophy, Washington’s determination to push Japan out of Asia “was asking too much” and “totally mistaken.” When Washington “turned a cold shoulder” and pointed thumbs down on Japan’s plan for an economic empire (a stomping ground which the U.S. curiously allowed, and still maintains, for itself in Latin America), both nations found themselves “on a collision course that even statesmen of great flexibility would find it difficult to avoid.”
In the final chapter, Utley seeks to set the record straight by finding out exactly “What Went Wrong” with a refreshing analysis that leaves behind the morality play discussed in the opening pages of Going to War with Japan. Here the author redeems himself with an act of contrition which repudiates the U.S. State Department’s version of events. “The Japanese-American conflict,” concludes Utley, “grew out of two mutually exclusive views of world order. . . .”
Since each nation equated its own system with national survival it is tempting to conclude that this was a conflict not susceptible to peaceful resolution and that it could be resolved only on the field of battle. Yet neither side wanted to fight the other. Japanese leaders looked upon the massive economic and military resources of the United States and concluded that almost anything would be better than a war with such a great power. American leaders, while not respecting the Japanese, saw America’s real interests in Europe and wished to avoid war in Asia. This mutual desire for peace meant an opportunity for diplomacy.
The purpose of diplomacy is to find a way for nations with conflicting interests to resolve their differences other than on the battlefield, and if not to resolve those differences at least to learn to coexist with them. By this criterion, American foreign policy managers failed. During a period of more than four years they were unable to guide either American or Japanese policy in a direction that would avoid war.
With these closing lines, Utley recants by ending his study with something much more profound and provoking then the cliche-ridden “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil” picture of a pristine America suddenly confronted with a Japanese bully. Still, a comprehensive history of Japanese-American relations during the 1930’s remains to be written.