Pearl Harbor

Noam Chomsky

Excerpted from Chronicles of Dissent, 1992

QUESTION: Alexander Cockburn likes to tell the joke that the two greatest disasters that befell U.S. power in the twentieth century were the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and your birthday, both on December 7. About the Pearl Harbor attack: you have a kind of non-traditional view of the events leading up to that.

CHOMSKY: I wrote about it a long time ago, in the 1960s. What I think is not very far from what is actually in the scholarly literature. First of all, let’s be clear about what happened. It’s not quite the official picture. About an hour before Pearl Harbor, Japan attacked Malaya. That was a real invasion. The attack on Pearl Harbor was the colony, the military base on a colony of the United States. An act of aggression, but on the scale of atrocities, attacking the military base on the colony is not the highest rank. The big Japanese atrocities in fact had already taken place. There were plenty more to come, but the major ones, the invasion of China, the rape of Nanking, the atrocities in Manchuria, and so on, had passed. Throughout that whole period the U.S. wasn’t supportive, but it didn’t oppose them very much.

The big issue for the United States was: will they let us in on the exploitation of China or will they do it by themselves? Will they close it off? Will they create a closed co-prosperity sphere or an open region in which we will have free access? If the latter, the United States was not going to oppose the Japanese conquest.

There were other things going on in the background. By the 1920s, which was of course the period when Britain was still the dominant world power, Britain had found that they were unable to compete with Japanese manufacturers. Japanese textiles were outproducing Lancashire mills. As soon as that became evident, Britain dropped its fancy rhetoric about the magnificence of free trade. Nobody supports free trade unless they think they’re going to win the competition. Britain hadn’t supported it before it had won the industrial game, and it was now going to withdraw its support. In 1932 there was an important conference in Ottawa, still the British Empire then, remember. There was an empire conference and they basically decided in effect to close off the empire to Japanese exports. They raised the tariff 25 percent, or something absurd. This in effect closed off India, Australia and Burma and other parts of the British Empire. Meanwhile the Dutch had done the same thing. This is the 1930s. The Dutch had done the same with Indonesia, the Dutch East Indies. The United States, which was a smaller imperial power at that time, had also done the same with the Philippines and Cuba. The Japanese imperialists’ story was they were being subjected to what they called A, B, C, D encirclement: America, Britain, China, which was not being penetrated properly, and the Dutch.

There was some truth to that. The Japanese idea was: they’re just denying us our place in the sun. They’ve already conquered what they wanted, and now when we’re trying to get into the act as latecomers, they’re closing off their imperial systems so we can’t compete with them freely. That being the case, we’ll go to war.

It didn’t happen like that mechanically. The invasion of Manchuria preceded the Ottawa conference, but these things were going on. There was an interaction of that sort which continued up until 1941. The Japanese were being constrained by the imperial powers. They were carrying out more aggression to create for themselves a domain that they would control. That aggression led to more retaliation from the imperial powers. Things got pretty tight.

At the end there were negotiations between the United States and Japan with Cordell Hull, [who was the U.S.] Secretary of State, and Admiral Nomura. They went on until very shortly before Pearl Harbor, and the issue was always basically the same: will Japan open up its imperial system to U.S. penetration? At the very end they actually made some kind of an offer to do that, but they insisted on a quid pro quo, namely, that the United States reciprocate. That led to a very sharp response from the Americans. They’re not going to be told anything by these little yellow bastards, is what it came to. Shortly after came Pearl Harbor.

There is a complicated interaction throughout the Pacific War. Had the Japanese not been so murderous and near genocidal in their conquest of Asia, they might have had more Asian support. They did gain a lot of support in the countries that they invaded, like Indonesia. A lot of the Asian nationalists supported them. It was only when they showed themselves to be so utterly brutal that they lost most but not all of that support. They were regarded in essence as liberators, getting rid of the white man who’d been on our neck forever. So it’s a complicated story.