76 Years Ago –Another Pearl Harbor?

by Stephen Bryen

On December 7th upcoming Americans will remember the Pearl Harbor attack.  In 1941 Japanese aircraft and submarines carried out an attack that devastated the U.S. fleet at anchor and lined up at Pearl Harbor.

Results of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941

Japan’s objective was to neutralize the U.S. naval operations in the Pacific that could threaten the expansion of her influence and access to vital resources, especially oil.  Because the U.S., with help from the Dutch had cut off or significantly reduced Japan’s access to oil, few in Washington doubted that Japan would attack the United States.  Indeed, the only question was where.

Many scholars, trying to work through the historical record that is today available (many critical documents are still classified) believe that the Roosevelt administration saw little choice but to bait the Japanese into war.  In 1941 American politics was dominated by non-interventionist and isolationist attitudes, epitomized by the America First Committee.  America’s hero Charles Lindbergh played a leading role in America First, and he warned Americans about the superiority of Germany, especially German air power that was already on display during the Spanish civil war.

Lindbergh’s assessment was accepted by Washington.  America was woefully prepared for any conflict especially its land army which lacked modern tanks and mobile weapons.  There were only two bright spots for the United States: in the 1930’s and culminating in the Two Ocean Navy Act in 1940 America was rebuilding the navy.  The fruits of the rebuilding would revitalize American naval strength, but not until 1942 or 1943.  Another bright spot was aviation for, while the United States was behind Germany in deploying modern fighter aircraft, it was not that far behind.  The U.S. was already supplying Britain with aircraft under Lend Lease which got going in March, 1941.   America was also developing bombers, the most important the B-17 Flying Fortress.  Throughout World War II the B-17 carried out more than half the bombing sorties and proved itself to be a robust and capable machine. A total of 12,731 B-17’s would be build before and during the war, but the fact there even was a B-17 was a near thing, because it was more costly than cheaper (but less robust and effective) competitors. 

During pre-war austerity the B-17 program got underway in 1937.

Roosevelt took a major gamble in shutting down vital trade with Japan, figuring it would start a war which the Axis powers would be obliged to join.  The idea was that a Japanese attack would change American politics, undermine the America Firsters, and put the U.S. into a global war.

Looked at objectively it was a huge gamble and rather premature given the overall weak state of America’s military forces.  And the Japanese first attack against America (which was hardly a surprise) was much more devastating that Roosevelt or anyone in the War Department anticipated.  Indeed it was so much a mess that behind the scenes the administration worked assiduously to cover up their complicity and culpability, destroying vital documents and classifying others in such a way that they likely would never be released.  Congress tried to get some of the materials as early as 1946 and again in 1995, but did not tap into the rich resource of highly classified electronic intercepts of Japanese coded messages that would help tell the tale.  Some independent researchers, most notably Robert Stinnett were able to untangle some of the evidence and lay hands on certain of the vital documents, but still with major gaps.

Pearl Harbor was the biggest attack on American soil in modern times, only exceeded by the Twin Towers and related attacks on September 11, 2001. (Comparatively, at Pearl Harbor there were 2,403 dead and 1,178 wounded; on September 11th there were 2,606 dead and more than 6,000 wounded.)

Should we be worried about another Pearl harbor type event, this time potentially with nuclear weapons?  North Korea is promoting just this threat and, based on public reports is well along on developing long range rockets (the latest test of a rocket that flew 50 minutes and splashed down in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ) that can probably reach any target in the United States. (In the latest test the rocket flew very high but intentionally not very far.)  As part of its rocket tests the North Koreans were no doubt testing the rocket payload reentry, an important step in having credible missile delivery systems.  Remember the poor results Iraq had in firing Russian-built by range extended SCUD missiles at Israel.  All of them tumbled in the air (oddly enough making them hard to hit), but also meaning that they were grossly inaccurate and partially non-functional, especially if any carried chemical agents.

The next step for North Korea maybe is to figure a way to test a real atomic or hydrogen nuclear warhead on a rocket.  Some think such a test is far off, but where that test takes place remains a matter of total speculation.  

The United States and others including even China and Russia are putting increasing pressure on North Korea to back off its missile and nuclear programs, something the North Koreans keep signalling they will not do.  The economic noose around North Korea has been tightened, and it will be increased.  And the U.S. has put considerable military muscle into South Korea and in the seas surrounding the Korean peninsula.  There is no modern precedent to move three aircraft carrier task forces into position confronting the North, nor is there any modern precedent to exercise long range strategic bombers such as the B-1 in the face of Kim Jong-un.

Even so the North Korean dictator continues to confront the United States and others (especially Japan).  China is deeply worried where all this will lead, and so are the Russians.  Will anyone blink or will the impasse and struggle continue?

North Korea may not have much time.  Pouring its scarce resources into weapons of mass destruction leads to starvation of the Korean people and  could provoke revolution at home.  While it is true that Kim holds all the firepower, he also has to make sure his military and police don’t revolt.  The stage is set for a possible coup d’etat, although previous attempts to seize power have been headed off  by Kim and led to brutal retaliation, the big change is that the Great Powers, and especially the United States today are closely engaged and could take steps to encourage such an upheaval.   As I have argued elsewhere, the U.S. should be showing its interest in sponsoring a replacement regime in exile, or short of that signalling it is willing to support revolutionary regime change in North Korea.

Just as during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, the question is time and timing.

It must have been Roosevelt’s judgement that Hitler’s domination of Europe and preparations to invade England was a threat too great to be tolerated.  Roosevelt never anticipated the debacle of Pearl Harbor, but there isn’t much doubt that his policies set the stage for the attack.  Nor is there much doubt today that the situation over North Korea may have already crossed the rubicon of tolerability. Trying to smoke out Kim and pushing him to abandon his weapons of mass destruction won’t work.  As North Korea’s economic situation become more severe, as they will Kim may well decide that he has to do something dramatic.  That could prove deadly even if it does not initially involve nuclear weapons.  

The time window is collapsing.   The room for maneuver continues to narrow.  Will there be another Pearl Harbor?