THE EMPIRE OF JAPAN AND AMERICAN ISOLATIONISM
*For centuries, the Japanese had made an effort to avoid contact with and contamination by westerners. Then, in 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy forced Japan to open its ports and markets to western commerce. Not wanting to be conquered like the rest of Asia, the Japanese launched an incredible programme of modernisation, going from a feudal society to a modern nation capable of defeating Russia in a major naval war within fifty years.
*Japan joined the Allies late in the First World War, mostly so it could capture unguarded German colonies in the Pacific. The Japanese joined the League of Nations and created a two-part constitutional monarchy. The Emperor was seen as a god, but the daily operations of government could be handled by the Diet. This worked more or less as it was supposed to, with one problem—the military had too much power in government, essentially a veto power in the cabinet.
*Many politicians were corrupt, however, and in the economy had problems, just as many did in the 1920s. Many Japanese, especially in the military, were unimpressed by democracy, and, like the fascists used murder and extreme nationalism as political tools to gain power—although the leaders of Japan throughout the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s would all be legitimately elected. The Japanese people chose their course, although partly because they were misled by their leaders.
*The Japanese had a small empire after WWI ended. They owned Korea, Formosa, and had a significant presence in China’s Manchuria province. However, Japan is a resource-poor island, and the Japanese needed more iron, coal, and other minerals. In 1931, the Japanese staged an explosion along a railroad in Manchuria, and immediately invaded to establish peace. They set up a puppet government led by an heir to the Manchurian dynasty of China, and told him what to do in the new country of Manchukuo. The League of Nations criticised Japan, so they walked out of the League.
*In 1937, the Japanese invaded China from Manchukuo. It was a brutal process. The most infamous atrocity was the ‘Rape of Nanking,’ in which over 100,000 civilians were killed or brutalised.
*The United States, unwilling to go to war, passed a series of Neutrality Acts to keep us out of the war, but the Soviets and the British sent weapons and supplies to the Chinese under Chiang Kai-check and Mao Tse-tung. Even when a US ship, the Panay, was bombed accidentally by the Japanese during their attacks on China, the US did nothing.
*Japan was well on its way to creating its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, or Asia for Asians, with the Japanese on top.
*In September 1940, the Japanese signed the Tripartite Pact with Italy and Germany, joining the Axis. Japan also began to move into Vichy France’s colonies in Indo-China. The next year, Japan and the Soviet Union would sign a neutrality pact.
*While Japan expanded and Hitler rose to power, the United States did very little.
*Americans felt they had learned their lesson in 1918, and many believed in isolationism—staying out of the world’s affairs. A series of Neutrality Acts banned the US from selling weapons or loaning money to any warring nation.
*Roosevelt wanted to help the Allies, though, as he despised totalitarianism. In 1937, he convinced Congress to allow a way around the Neutrality Acts called ‘cash and carry,’ under which foreigners (mostly British) could buy any weapon they could pay for in cash and take away themselves.
*America became more involved in international affairs once the War began with the invasion of Poland. France’s rapid collapse in particular frightened Americans, as the saw lonely Britain standing against the might of Hitler.
*Roosevelt asked Congress for ‘all aid short of war,’ and got Congress to approve the ‘destroyer deal’ on 2 September 1940. Thereby, the United States gave Britain five old US Navy destroyers in return for permission to build naval bases in some of Britain’s colonies.
*Isolationists formed the America First Committee in 1940 to combat Roosevelt’s attempts to get the US into war, and including such famous figures as Charles Lindberg.
*In 1940, Roosevelt did something no president had ever done before. With the threat of war looming overhead, he ran for and won a third term as president, promising voters ‘Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.’
*Even the aid he had given Britain thus far was not enough. Therefore, in December 1940, FDR proposed the idea of Lend-Lease, lending our neighbour our firehose so he can put out the fire in his house before it spread to ours. Under the March 1941 Lend-Lease Act, more than $49 billion in money and equipment would be given the American allies. Technically it was loaned, but most was never paid back, nor did we expect it to be. This let Britain get brand-new American planes right off the factory assembly lines as soon as they could be hauled to Canada.
*In 1940, Japan, now a member of the Axis, began to push into Indo-China. The United States, who had protested but otherwise left Japan alone in order to avoid war, now cut off American exports of oil shipments and certain metals to the Japanese, hoping it would force them to stop attacking their neighbours.
*Instead, the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies, which were rich in oil, rubber, tin, and other valuable resources.
*In Japan, a new prime minister was appointed in October 1941. His name was Tojo Hideki, and he supported going to war with the United States, and began to make plans.
*The United States had cracked the secret Japanese code, and knew that the Japanese were going to attack the United States somewhere in the Pacific, but expected it to be in the Philippines.
*December 7th, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
*On Sunday morning at 7 o’clock, the Japanese launched an attack on the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor just outside Honolulu, Hawaii. By 9.45, 2,400 Americans would be dead and 1,200 more wounded, and eight of our nine battleships, as well as many other ships, would be damaged or sunk, some with men trapped inside who took days to die of starvation.
*Shortly afterwards, the Japanese ambassador brought a message that was supposed to have been delivered earlier. It made demands that the US would have been forced to refuse, after which war would have been declared. Because it got there late, the Japanese were correctly accused of a sneak attack, and the United States Congress declared war on Japan on 8 December, 1941. Even the America First Committee supported the war now. Only one person in the entire Congress was opposed: Jeannette Rankin of Montana.
*On 11 December 1941, Germany and Italy, to help their ally Japan, declared war on the United States. Over two years after the invasion of Poland, the United States was involved in the Second World War, a war, Roosevelt said, to make the world safe for Democracy.
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This page last updated 10 November, 2003.