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Perspective on Far Eastern Policy

ISSUE:  Autumn 1941

For the past eight years, and especially since the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Far Eastern policy of the Roosevelt Administration has been praised and condemned by a wide and highly vocal array of critics. The past summer has seen this policy projected into a decisive phase. The synchronized Nazi-Japanese attack on Russia, French Indo-China, and Thailand, and the economic and military steps taken in consequence by England, the Dominions, the Netherlands East Indies, and the United States broke down the last geographical as well as logical barriers between the European and Far Eastern wars and made them one—in very truth a Second World War. Thus our Far Eastern policy, though it always had been functionally integrated with our European policy in the calculations of the White House and the Department of State, was fused and blended with our European policy in a manner perceptible to the lay public. This development inspired a fresh reviewing and summing-up of the policy that seemed to be moving rapidly to some sort of conclusion.

Much of this criticism missed the point, since it was founded on confused and improper criteria. We are much too close to the events of the past summer to attempt a final judgment of the Administration’s Far Eastern policy. Probably the most valid of all criteria applicable to the pragmatic craft of diplomacy is “all’s well that ends well”; and the end in this case is not yet in sight. In the state of war that has prevailed since 1939, moreover, no one not possessed of the most reliable confidential military information can pretend to more than a priori knowledge of the facts, a hazardous basis either for action or for critical opinion. Even the professional experts themselves have been confounded now and then—by the performance of the Soviet armies, for example. It is impossible to correct this factual deficiency. But it is not impossible to examine and test the soundness of some of the outstanding critical principles by which our Far Eastern policy has been influenced from day to day.

The importance of such an exercise is difficult to exaggerate. To a marked degree the misfortunes of England and France can be ascribed not to ignorance of the facts but to a critical bias that caused a misconstruction of those facts. The British and French intelligence services knew about the Nazi military preparations, had a shrewd insight into the strategy that guided them, and duly reported their observations in London and Paris. But the governments in those capitals were obsessed with what Lieutenant-Colonel W. F. Kernan has recently called “The Defense Myth,” with its illusory bulwarks of sea power and underground fortification; and in consequence they failed to prepare against the ancient tactic of swift, mobile attack and the new weapon of air power. This is an extreme case in point, but it illustrates the danger that arises when facts are judged by improper criteria. A biased mind is often a greater liability than an empty one.

Perhaps the least valid of all criteria for measuring the Far Eastern policy of the United States are the opposing cliches of isolationism and interventionism. It is true that these cliches have acquired a certain relative significance in popular usage, but it is a purely relative significance, and of no value whatsoever as a constant or universally applicable norm. Isolationism as it is defined by some of its more hot-tempered opponents is a pure myth, not believed in even by its equally hot-tempered advocates. It is particularly inapplicable to American diplomacy in the Far East. In that quarter of the globe, as every schoolboy should know, the United States has played an “interventionist” role for over a century. That is to say, we have taken as active an interest in the political and economic affairs of the region as has any other Western power represented there; and the isolationists themselves have repeatedly acquiesced in our doing so. No less a member of their school than Senator Wheeler interrupted his opposition to the extension of service for conscripts to approve the President’s order freezing Japanese assets in the United States. What further or more vivid proof of the point is needed?

If isolationism is irrelevant and interventionism tautological, our Far Eastern policy cannot be proved good or bad by reference to either. Some more precise standard is required. I have already intimated that the pragmatic is the best of these; yet I do not imply that the end justifies the means. Such an ethic was shamelessly upheld in negotiating the Treaty of Munich. It is sometimes imputed to our Far Eastern policy. On the same day that it reported the freezing of Japanese assets, for instance, The New York Times proclaimed in a headline: “President Ends Policy of Appeasement That Failed with Tokyo.” The most active pressure group in the field has styled itself “The American Committee for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression.” Criticism of this type ranges all the way from “interventionist” charges of collusion with Japan in the murder of Chinese women and children to “isolationist” canards about the President trying to “get us into a war” to strengthen and perpetuate his executive power.

Such criticism should perhaps not be taken too seriously. Politics seems unable to dispense with the straw man technique. But flamboyant symbolism and irresponsible exaggeration have too long dominated American political writing. British pamphleteering, even in wartime, is far more sophisticated, more soberly aware of the complexity of statecraft, more objectively concerned with the merits of the argument. The whole discussion of British policy, even in its most hotly controverted spheres, is noticeably freer of the smoke of burning straw men and the noise of the ad hominem broadsides that obscure the American political arena. Better the smoke and din than the hypocrisy that sometimes lurks beneath the British restraint, but better still the intellectual maturity of the latter. This may be too much to expect of campaigners, columnists, and come-outers, but it is certainly not too much to ask of critics who aspire to more philosophical attainment.

To smear our Far Eastern policy with the yellow paint of appeasement requires either ignorance of the facts or deliberate distortion of them. The same is true of the imputation of collusion with Japan. There have been no Chamberlains or Daladiers behind this policy. The United States violated or failed to uphold no treaty pledges in pursuing it. We sold no nation down the river. Indeed, as the record will show, we steadily increased our assistance to China and our resistance to Japan in direct jeopardy of our own peace. And whereas the men who earned appeasement its current ill-fame sacrificed a small nation at a time when, in theory at any rate, they might have had powerful and willing allies in defending it; and whereas they expected positive benefits of peace and friendship to flow from their action, the Roosevelt Administration’s worst sin was to apply restrictions on Japan gradually instead of all at once. This was done in an utterly disillusioned spirit so far as any expectations of peace and friendship from Japan were concerned; furthermore, uiis modicum of caution was employed at a time when the Administration had no allies to help it out, and when its entire resources were devoted to bailing the men of Munich out of the consequences of their own acts in Europe. The Administration pursued this course as the government of a democracy in which the overwhelming majority of the people had expressed their opposition to war and whose military experts attested to the country’s unreadiness for it. Only by superimposing on these facts criteria shaped to fit a wholly different factual situation in Europe—one that emerged from a wholly different historical context—can the Administration be held guilty of attempted appeasement.

The cry that the President was trying to “get us into a war,” et cetera, et cetera, sounds tinny. By itself it is hardly worth consideration as a critical principle. Yet it is the vulgar oversimplification of a more serious conviction that the President is so devoutly wedded to the principles of the New Deal and the doctrine of collective security that he would plunge the country into war in their interest. Up to the middle of the past summer Mr. Roosevelt had yet to reveal under exactly what circumstances and upon precisely what reasoning he would take this country into a shooting war. For one thing, he could not do so until he was certain that a substantial majority of the people would not only follow his lead but insist that he assert it. That this situation had not arisen by midsummer was evident from the continuing majorities against war registered in public opinion polls, and from the President’s own reiterated expressions of hope that we could avoid it. For another thing, it was by no means certain to the President or to anybody else that the New Deal (or even collective security, for that matter) would profit by such action. At all events, the President’s own acts since the beginning of the Far Eastern war should suffice to refute the cavalier accusation that he was trying to force the issue for his own undisclosed and presumably insidious reasons. If that were true, it is difficult to explain why he passed up two such made-to-order opportunities as the sinking of the Panay and the bombing of the Tutuila.

The President himself spoke a word on this issue, and there is no good reason for doubting either its wisdom or sincerity. He declared in an interview late last July, just before the freezing order and embargoes went into effect, that there had been “a method” in not extending the American embargo on aviation gasoline to cover all oil exports to Japan. England’s vital war needs required peace in the South Pacific. Had our entire flow of oil to Japan been choked off, Japan, in the President’s homely language, “probably would have gone down to the Dutch East Indies a year ago and you would have had war.” There was, therefore, “a method in letting this oil go to Japan, with the hope —and it has worked for two years—of keeping war out of the South Pacific for our own good, for the good of the defense of Great Britain and the freedom of the seas.” This plain statement gives the lie to all charges of appeasement or sinister personal motive. And it does something more. It points to another fundamental flaw in the critical apparatus of many armchair diplomatists: their failure to integrate our Far Eastern with our European policy. Time and again the Administration has been exhorted to do thus and so in the Far East, and censured if the advice went unheeded, in complete and utter disregard of the consequences of the action to our war policy in Europe. It seems strange that although the “two-ocean menace” and the indivisibility of peace have been outstanding talking points among the foes of isolationism, so many of these have persisted in treating the affairs of each region in vacuo.

The truth is that the two regions are separated from each other only in the topical categories of textbooks. No President can be long in office without discovering that most national policies amount to de facto compromises among the claims of competing interest groups. The very definition of interest and policy in national terms requires integration. The Far East has long been our back door to Europe. Since the beginning of the European war, Europe has been our front door to the Far East. Implicit in the President’s own statement, axiomatic in the logic of his total war policy, was the priority of American aid to Great Britain over all other policies save that of the defense of the United States itself. This has meant that the United States could undertake no action in the Far East that did not synchronize perfectly with the British war effort.

The equation was not compounded of pro-British or anti-Chinese sentiments. It was based upon the sound and compelling strategic principle of concentration. Napoleon and every great general before and after him taught that the principal objective of every army is the principal armed force of the enemy. The principal armed force of Germany is German, not Japanese. To defeat Japan would no more defeat Hitler than defeating Italy did, or than the German defeat of France defeated England. President Roosevelt discerned in the industrial and military colossus of Nazi Germany a far greater menace than Japan to American security, and the American people concurred in his judgment. The entire American defense program was adjusted to that view. The United States could not force the issue with Japan, for the British made it plain that they did not want a war in the Pacific that would divert American resources from their dire needs in the Atlantic, and so did Australia and New Zealand. The two Pacific Dominions have consistently been more cautious than the United States in their dealings with Japan. In 1921, be it remembered, Australia was all for renewing the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, as Lloyd George and Curzon had planned to do, and she was thwarted in this only by the United States and Canada. The point is not to reprove Australia (for whose attitude the strategy of the Pacific affords good reason), but to show that a critic who took into consideration all of the factors that had to be taken into consideration by the Administration could find unimpeachable principles of strategy, logic, and statesmanship to justify its Far Eastern policy—or at all events, to explain it more accurately than can be done by calling it appeasement.

Ignorance of the geography of the Pacific is indeed one of the major weaknesses of both friendly and hostile critics. The former are disposed to order the fleet to Singapore not only in defiance of the strategic principle of concentration, but also in disregard of the elementary problems of communications and supply. They would hesitate, no doubt, to order the fleet to cross the Atlantic and proceed through the Mediterranean to Bombay. Yet Singapore is as far from San Francisco in a westerly direction as Bombay is from New York in an easterly direction, and the route thither is menaced by a navy far stronger than Italy’s. To avoid this menace, the fleet would have to steer a circuitous course, proportionately increasing the difficulties of communication and supply. Our naval experts know how to make effective use of the British base, but their refusal to send the fleet there at the behest of some academic naval strategists did not lack for justification on the same terms, and with the identical purposes in view as those of the academicians.

The enormous distances of the Pacific impose a compensating limitation on J apan, however, and call for a sharper critical focus on her naval strategy. Excluding for the moment the new and all-important factor of air power, a Japanese naval conquest of the South Pacific is something for Orson Welles to contemplate. The East Indies themselves stretch nearly four thousand miles from east to west on both sides of the equator, meshed with channels and tortuous passages which determined defenders could render impassable for some time. To make her control of the South Pacific complete, Japan must not only capture Singapore and clean all resistance out of the Indies, but also invest the three Anzac bases of Port Darwin, Sydney, and Auckland, separated from each other by thousands of miles and as far removed from her main operating bases as Buenos Aires is from New York. There is no blinking the fact that Singapore is a key to this situation, but it is not the only key. The United States holds others which could keep the situation open for a long time, and draw Japan into a naval campaign far beyond her present capacity, after her putative conquest of Singapore.

The factor of air power makes this conquest less and less likely, slowly but surely revising the strategy of the South Pacific in our favor. We have already achieved a qualitative air superiority over Japan many times in excess of our naval superiority, and it seems unlikely that Japan will ever be able to overtake this constantly increasing advantage. Were it not for the British priority, we should also have a quantitative superiority of still greater proportions. It is probable, even in present circumstances, that the combined English, Dominion, Netherlands Indies, and American forces concentrated in the area could put into the air fighting planes of superior quality and in numbers very nearly equal to those which Japan could bring here. Meanwhile, the experiences of Norway, Taranto, and Crete suggest the menace of this allied air force to the Japanese navy in those narrow seas. In other words, the constantly increasing importance of air power in modern warfare, and the steadily growing superiority of the United States over J apan in that department, added to the geographical factors already cited, tend to invalidate assumptions of allied or American impotence in the South Pacific. They hint, on the one hand, of more practical defensive measures against Japan than the sending of the fleet to Singapore, and, on the other hand, of the greater security of the American position in that region. Assuredly air stategy demands more space in the general criticism of our Far Eastern policy.

We have purposely omitted from these calculations the factors of the Chinese and Soviet armies. As this was being written, the heroic Chinese war of independence still constituted Japan’s major preoccupation, and therefore ranked as one of the most important elements in retarding a full-scale Japanese expansion in the South Pacific. So did the Siberian army of Soviet Russia, said to be virtually equal in quantitative strength to the divisions that Japan could muster against it, and of a qualitative superiority already proved in border warfare. The effectiveness of the latter depended to a degree on the success of its brother armies against the Nazi legions in the west which at that time had to be reckoned as potential. Nevertheless, added to the actual allied strength in the south, the actual strength of Chiang Kai-shek’s armies in China, and not forgetting the concentrated hammer-head of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, it loomed up in formidable dimensions. And the fact of its dependence on the outcome of the Russo-German struggle was one more argument for concentration against Hitler—for approaching the Far East via the front door of Europe, rather than, as in the old days, approaching Europe via the back door of the Far East.

Another critical principle that needs straightening out is the ideological. This has proved one of the least reliable of all clues to the present war, whether in Europe or the Far East. In every case, when it has been submitted to the acid test, national interest has triumphed over international ideology, Witness the Russo-German episode; Finland fighting for freedom with Hitler as an ally; British democracy in league with Soviet absolutism; the lukewarm participation of the singed Mussolini and the bankrupt Franco in the grand designs of their German warlord; the tragi-comic spectacle of American Communists trying to stay on the shifting party line. The latter-day efforts of the Nazi propaganda ministry to disguise the German war on Russia with anti-Communist ideology have been held up to well merited ridicule in England and the United States. Yet the citizens of these democracies are prone to deceive themselves with ideological assumptions of an opposite character. The real basis for unification of the European nations is opposition to Hitler, just as it was opposition to Napoleon in his day, and not the identity of political institutions and philosophies.

The same is true in the Far East, where opposition to Japanese imperialism is the unifying agent. It does violence to common knowledge to designate either China or Soviet Russia as a democracy, nor is it necessary to justify American co-operation with these nations on such palpably unhistoric ideological grounds. We hope that democracy will some day develop in these two countries; and their statesmen know that the mere iteration of pious democratic intentions is sure of a good American press. We can admit that public opinion in the American democracy, not to mention the amenities of the diplomatic profession, requires that distinctions be made between real objectives and stated objectives. Covering the former with apostrophes to Chinese and Russian democracy will satisfy no student of our Far Eastern policy and may even stir the suspicion among laymen that the critic who does so has something up his sleeve. Indeed, there are signs which indicate that the President and his advisers might have profited more by taking the public into their confidence on matters of Far Eastern policy—as the President did in his interview quoted above—than by showing them ideological mirages. Candor has been the President’s long suit in domestic politics. He has done more to educate the American public in political economy than any ten of his predecessors. He can scarcely blame his pupils if they ask for the facts of foreign affairs and grow suspicious when apostrophes to democracy are offered in substitute.

There is one ideological ground in the Far East—the racial—on which even scholars and statesmen sometimes go astray. It has been so long assumed that the American immigration laws and our refusal to recognize the principle of racial equality were among the chief obstacles to good relations between the United States and Japan, and that the removal of this obstacle would earn such considerable rewards of Japanese gratitude that the proposition is taken for granted by many critics. Apparently it is not true, for Japan has not scrupled to ally herself with the Nazi racists whose kindest words for the Japanese before Goebbels put his censors to work were gelben Affen. This would seem to suggest that there were certain tangible things that the Japanese cared more about than mere ideological niceties—imperial conquests for which they would swallow their racial pride.

There are, of course, many basic principles of Far Eastern policy other than those chosen for discussion here that could stand careful appraisal. Periodic re-examination of these would do much to ensure a more discerning, just, and constructive criticism of our Far Eastern policy and thus, if our faith in the democratic process is sound, improve the quality of that policy itself. In the economic realm, for example, the Second World War is part cause, part result, of trends which are at present only dimly discernible but which will almost certainly modify our commercial relations with eastern Asia. All of the strategic potentialities that we have itemized do not add up to the probability that the Western nations can regain their lost influence on the continent of Asia and either defend the territorial integrity of China or re-establish their economic concessions, spheres, and privileges in that country. Extra-territoriality is already a thing of the past. A victorious Japan would certainly exclude the Westerners. So would a victorious China. Industrialization is bringing its tools, crafts, and weapons to the Orient, to India and Malaysia as well as to China, slowly closing the door on the white entrepreneur. The national planning of the Western nations themselves, which are building their own national, regional, imperial, or hemispheric self-sufficiency, remorselessly spurred on by science and technology even when not inspired by political faith, completes the process. Never again will the open door and the territorial integrity of China suffice by themselves to guide our Far Eastern policy.

We cannot see into this problematical future; we cannot say exactly what working principles should lead us toward it. Politics admits of few real “solutions.” Things happen and men give a name to them. Most treaties merely recognize trends already in motion and faits accomplis. It is probably a sound critical principle to expect no “solution” of the problems of the Pacific but rather a continuous day-to-day proposing and disposing, negotiating and bargaining, the true essence of diplomacy and international relations. The most that can be hoped for with any confidence in the process is that the nations involved will deal with each other in good faith, tolerance, and a will for peace. While this fundamental will is lacking, no international organization, no matter how elaborate its architecture, can succeed. Given it, the most primitive association will function smoothly. How to implant the will? “Once negotiations are possible, anything is possible,” said Talleyrand. The United States, as this is written, is still able to negotiate with every nation of the Pacific. It still directs its primary attention to the succor of Great Britain. If the principles we have suggested are sound, and if we may borrow a final one from Talleyrand, the burden of proof rests upon those who wish to alter this situation.

The situation may be altered soon and violently, nevertheless, by precipitate action on the part of Japan. The burden of proof does not seem to weigh very much in Tokyo. It might suddenly be cast aside on any one of a score of abrasion fronts between the United States, Great Britain, and Japan. If it is, if the war of economic sanction, political alliance, and military maneuver in which the great naval powers of the Pacific were engaged during the past summer has developed into actual armed conflict by the time that this appears in print, the principles herein set forth will apply with equal validity to the shooting war. Only if a succession of stalemates turns the Far East into the decisive front in the Second World War will the logic of these principles forces American hostilities with Japan and American aid to Britain into a different equation.


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