I love history. It reads like a bad novel. History has so many oddities, improbabilities and strange coincidences that, if you didn’t know it was true, you’d think it was all fake. For example, today is the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. (FYI: you can’t just say “Pearl Harbor” anymore; nobody knows what you’re talking about.) Whatever you call it though, aside from the American nuclear attack on Hiroshima three and a half years later, Pearl Harbor was the most important event in the 20th century. It turned a European civil war into World War II, ended the worst economic depression in history and catapulted smalltown Americans onto the global stage – a role they’ve never been comfortable with. That’s the thing about history though it’s full of unintended consequences that very few people see at the time. I doubt very much if many Americans — even today — realize that the attack on Pearl Harbor was not the opening salvo in a carefully orchestrated Japanese plan to dominate the Pacific. In fact, I think they’d be surprised to learn that, in general, the Japanese didn’t even want to go to war with the US (they were much more interested in Britain) and the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor was actually the direct result of a half-forgotten battle near the nowhere village of Nomonhan stuck somewhere on the Mongolian border.
Depending on how much time you’ve got, you can trace what Franklin Roosevelt called “December 7th, a day that will live in infamy” all the way back to a cold night in 1930, when a couple of Japanese colonels, stationed in Kwantung, China , got into the sake and hatched a plot to invade Manchuria. Ishawara Kanji and Itagaki Seishiro, the particular colonels, knew what every person in Japan knows to this day. Japan is a small bunch of islands that can hardly feed itself. It has no natural resources, and unless it dominates international trade, it will always be at the mercy of every bullyboy with an attitude who happens to stroll by. Remember, it was the American, Commodore Perry who dramatically pointed this out in 1853, when he sailed into Tokyo Bay, pointed his cannons at anyone who poked their head up, and suggested the Japanese sign a treaty he just happened to have lying around the quarterdeck. Anyway, Ishawara and Itagaki got to talking and decided that Japan needed a dependable source of raw materials (which, by coincidence, was going begging just across the border in Manchuria.) They came up with a cunning plan, and on September 18th, 1931 manufactured an “incident” with China that sent Imperial Japanese troops across the border. The Pacific Ocean, Pearl Harbor and America were never on the agenda.
In the 1930s, Japanese politics was so complicated it’s almost impossible to understand. For example, the Japanese Emperor, Hirohito, who, as a living god, commanded absolute obedience from every Japanese citizen, never actually issued any orders just in case they weren’t obeyed. However, in a nutshell, there were two political factions: the army (who saw the future intimately tied to mainland Asia) and the navy (who wanted a crack at the European imperial powers, Britain, France and the Netherlands.) For most of the decade, the army dominated the government in Tokyo. They saw China falling apart at the seams and figured with a few armoured divisions, some airplanes, and maybe a little poison gas here and there, they could take advantage of the situation. China would become a Japanese province with a vast pool of subservient labour and a ready market for Japanese goods. They also saw the resources of Manchuria dwarfed by the almost limitless expanse of Soviet Russia, which (once again) was now just across the border. Remember, also, Japan, with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, was member of the Anti-Comintern (anti-communist) Pact. They saw the Soviets as their natural enemies. Besides, quite a few senior army officers had been young soldiers when Japan slapped the snot out of Russia back in 1905. They didn’t see any problem with pointing their tanks north again. It was quick and easy and handy to the homeland.
In 1932, Japanese troops reached the border between Manchuria and Soviet Mongolia. The well trained victorious Kwantung army didn’t really see any need to slam on the brakes when their natural enemy, the Soviet Union was just an imaginary line away from getting its ass kicked a second time. Over the next seven years, there were hundreds of very bloody “incidents” in the undeclared border war. These “incidents” escalated over time until 1939, when a bunch of Japanese officers (without permission from Tokyo) decided to get serious and see just how tough these Soviets were. They sent a couple of divisions to occupy the disputed territory.
The battle of Khalkhin Gol went back and forth for a couple of months. However, times were changing for the Soviet Union. They were in the middle of negotiating a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, which they signed in August, 1939. This gave them the freedom to send a lot of soldiers and armour — that weren’t going to be needed against Germany in Europe — to the Far East to settle scores with Japan. They were commanded by General Zhukov (the guy who would go on to defend Stalingrad in 1942 and take the Nazi surrender in Berlin in 1945.) He massed over 50,000 Soviet troops, complete with tanks and airplanes, in an offensive assault in August. He encircled the Japanese forces, at a village called Nomonhan, and when they wouldn’t surrender, destroyed them. It was a humiliating defeat and it broke the back of the army’s independent power in Tokyo. The way north was now blocked by a resurgent enemy, the Soviet Union and a back-stabbing ally, the Germans. It was the navy’s turn to run the show.
Japan still needed raw materials, and the only other convenient place to get them was in southern Asia where the Europeans, preoccupied by their own war in Europe, were hanging on to their colonies by prestige alone. There was rubber in British Malaysia and oil and gas in Indonesia (the Dutch East Indies.) The problem was, in the ocean, directly between Japan and Jakarta, was The Philippines, an American colony. Japan could not run the risk of having their military cut off from the homeland by a belligerent American navy, possibly based in the Philippines. They needed to neutralize American sea power in the Pacific before they could go after the resources of the crumbling European empires. And where was the America Pacific fleet based? Pearl Harbor!
And the rest, as they say, is history.