From Socialist Review, No.148, December 1991, p.20.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Fifty years ago this month, the US entered the Second World War. But their aims in the conflict were not self defence, as Raymond Challinor points out, but imperialist aggression
On 7 December 1941, Japanese pilots dive bombed the American naval base of Pearl Harbour. The result was devastating. President Roosevelt reacted angrily.
Monkeys: racist images of the Japanese
But the United States had already intercepted Japanese messages, and therefore knew an attack was pending. Prudently, the US navy had sent its most modern vessels to sea. The Japanese bombed a junkyard.
Deception and diplomacy go together under capitalism. The US government wanted to enter the Second World War. The trouble was that the majority of the American people saw the struggle as of no concern of theirs: they were peace loving and neutralist. Only a catastrophic atrocity would inflame passions, replacing the pacifist with warlike attitudes.
Why did Roosevelt and his advisers want to enter the conflict? In the autumn of 1941 the outcome of the war was far from certain. To most Western advisers, it seemed probable the Soviet Union would topple under Germany’s onslaught. This would leave Hitler free to march into the Middle East, where he would control most of the Anglo-American oil supplies.
Such a calamitous loss would probably smash Britain’s already fragile morale. Roosevelt envisaged a nightmare scenario, where the world would be ruled from Berlin, not Washington.
War provided the United States with the opportunity of dealing with two problems simultaneously. For if Germany was a threat internationally, Japan was a threat in the Pacific.
The British government’s policy arose from its desperately weak position. Above all else, it wanted to entice the United States to enter the war. In the meantime, however, while America remained a non-combatant, inevitably Britain’s preoccupation was with the struggle in Europe. It had not the resources to withstand Japanese pressure in the Far East. Consequently, Churchill resorted to appeasement, hopeful this would dissuade Emperor Hirohito from gobbling up British colonial possessions.
Even with the beginning of hostilities, Anglo-Japanese cooperation continued. In cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai, big commercial centres where key posts were held by Westerners, it was in their mutual interest to retain the existing structures. The Japanese government, wanting to exploit the parts of China its army had occupied and not having the time to train and replace top or middle management who happened to be white, adopted a conciliatory approach.
From the standpoint of British capitalism, it also made sense for them to keep the key jobs in these ports. Not only could money be made during the war but, when peace returned, British companies would be well placed to assert their predominant influence again.
On 22 June 1942, the manager of the Shanghai branch of a British export house succeeded in getting a letter through to his relatives in this country:
‘We are doing good business with our Japanese customers ... We are being exceedingly well treated here – no restrictions whatsoever and we have no complaints.’
The backers of British blood sports must have been cheered when their journal, Hare and Hounds, informed them that in Hong Kong the Japanese occupation authorities had permitted horse racing, an immensely popular sport in the colony, to continue, though they did stipulate 30 percent of the tote’s takings should go to the Japanese army.
All this is a world away from the experiences of the hapless prisoners toiling away – and dying – on the Burmese railway. Or, for that matter, soldiers involved in battle. The war was characterised by a savage barbarism, an unprecedented racism that acted as a justification for any atrocity.
The British media highlighted the war crimes of the enemy. The white skinned Europeans were clearly superior to the sub-human orientals. No criticism was made when Admiral Halsey ordered aircraft to machine gun survivors from torpedoed Japanese ships in the water.
But there was another voice in Britain, one of those opposed to the war. Journals like the Trotskyist Socialist Appeal argued that British imperialism was every bit as bad, if not worse, than its Japanese counterpart. Courageously, it printed a leaflet showing that British troops had used the same methods as the Japanese. A photograph of Burmese peasants, beheaded because of their opposition to the British Raj, was included to rub home the point. It led to outbursts of rage in the press. MPs called for the Socialist Appeal to be banned. But threats failed to silence it.
Equally, the New Leader, organ of the ILP, proclaimed its internationalist stand. The ILP’s Japanese counterpart had been smashed, its leaders executed in 1937, because it opposed Japanese aggression against China. Nevertheless, this did not prevent the New Leader editorial, immediately after Pearl Harbour, sending greetings and solidarity to Japanese socialists.
One article declared there were two Japans: the Japan of the reactionary emperor, about whose person superstitions had been woven into a reactionary religion, the industrial magnates who dominated the economy, and the warlords.
But there was also another Japan, of workers who formed clandestine organisations to fight for better living standards, of socialists who strived to overthrow the existing system of exploitation, and of those opposing the imperialist war. This second Japan was our Japan, the power that would ultimately contribute to the creation of socialism.
It was precisely this second Japan that Allied governments after 1945 wanted to prevent from triumphing. So, once Japan’s rulers had acknowledged their subordination to American imperialism, they were again re-established in power. Emperor Hirohito, the giant industrial concerns and the Japanese generals all were recalled to keep the lid on a discontented society. Those who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 were required after 1945, under Allied instructions, to attack the enemy at home – in other words, the Japanese working class.
Last updated: 11 June 2010