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The New International, December 1941


Max Sterling

An Outline of the War


From The New International, Vol. VII No. 11, December 1941, pp. 307–10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


ON DECEMBER 7, 1941, Japan catapulted the United States into a declared and total war. In one day the United States moved from an undeclared and relatively modest shooting war to the greatest test of all-out war in its entire history.

The cataclysmic eruption in the Far East was predicted for years and was expected at any moment in the last few months. However, the recordings on the political seismograph which constantly registered the incessant rumblings in the Pacific areas were expected to continue to register in the same old way, from crisis to crisis. No one, it seems, was prepared for the sudden catastrophe.

In precipitating the United States into the war, the Japanese almost knocked out the American Pacific force quietly anchored in Pearl Harbor. Secretary Knox, returning from his investigations in Hawaii, admitted that the Army and Navy there were not on the alert. Whatever may be the findings of the special board of inquiry appointed to establish the responsibility for this condition, the root cause will be found not so much in the military sphere as in the political one.

Behind the military complacency and overconfidence was the much more serious political complacency and overconfidence. Certainly Washington did not expect that Japan would make any direct assault upon the United States at this time. The Japanese negotiators, Kurusu and Nomura, were not suspected of smoke-screening the preparations for the Japanese attack. Rather, their so-called “peace efforts” were taken at their face value and Secretary Hull spent considerable time in outlining to them the American position in the Far East in the hope of arriving at some form of agreement, if only temporary.

In fact, at one time during the “negotiations” it seemed to the State Department that some partial agreement was possible. Pearson and Allen revealed in the New York Daily Mirror that, not more than two weeks before the attack on Hawaii, Washington was prepared to offer Japan some relaxation of the economic embargo in return for Japanese assurances that it would not increase its forces in Indo-China, or make any further attempts at expansion. The plan, it seems, fell through because of strenuous objections from Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek.

The Driving Forces for Japanese Action

Under pressure from Great Britain and China, the State Department’s final terms to the Japanese government were a restatement of the American “principle” of the “open door” in the Far East. What Washington expected from Tokyo after this is hard to imagine but the last thing it was prepared tor was a direct thrust at the American colossus itself.

From the Japanese point of view capitulation to America’s “open door” was an obvious impossibility. The “open door” signified that Japan must surrender the Chinese market to her more powerful rivals. For Japan this meant her reduction to a second-rate power in the Pacific. Tokyo knows that she cannot compete there on equal terms with the United States and Great Britain. Japan has other ideas. By military and political control she intends to keep China for herself. As a corollary to this she plans to seize the rich territories of the southern and western Pacific – Indo-China, Thailand, the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, the Malay Peninsula, Borneo, the Philippines and even India and Australia.

This and more was the program outlined in detail for Japan about sixteen years ago by Baron Tanaka in his famous secret memorial. That program was drawn up as a protest against Japanese submission to the “open door” and the inferior Japanese naval ratio agreed to at the Washington Arms Conference of 1921–22, from which emerged the two nine-power treaties that were ratified in 1925 and in which these curbs on Japan were incorporated.

To understand the importance of the Tanaka document it must be remembered that the baron drew it up when he was Premier of Japan. It was in effect a repudiation of Japan’s prior agreement to the policy of the “open door” and the agreement to limit Japan’s navy as against the navies of Great Britain and the United States at the ratio of 3 : 5 : 5.

Thus, according to this program, which has been followed faithfully ever since, Japan’s domination of the Far East depended not only upon her control of the Chinese market but also upon her seizures of those rich territories containing the essential raw materials and food from which she could develop into a great industrial power capable not only of exploiting the Chinese market, but the world market as well.

The Tanaka document outlined not only Japan’s ambitions but the methods to achieve these. Of these methods, infiltration, colonization, economic penetration and conquest by stages have already been successfully carried through in the past ten years. Another method, “divide and conquer,” has also been utilized successfully. Thus, for example, Japan made friends with England in order to play this rival against America and Russia.

By the time the Second World War broke out, Japanese conquests in the Far East were beginning to cause serious alarm to all her rivals. The war brought Japan new opportunities but also new dangers. The European powers fighting for their lives against the German onslaughts could pay only partial attention to their interests in the Far East. In view of this situation Japan felt that without external obstruction she could finally put an end to the Chinese war and at the same time move in on the Far Eastern possessions of the Allied European powers. The fall of France gave her Indo-China and she began also to eye the possessions of The Netherlands, the Dutch East Indies.

How World Relations Affect Japan’s Conduct

But the World War did not eliminate outside interference. From the very beginning, American imperialism intensified its interest and activity in the Far East. She became the main barrier to the realization of Tokyo’s ambitions. Her real alliance with Great Britain and her allies in the war promoted the same kind of a unity with these powers to frustrate Japan in the Pacific. Hence, the World War presented Japan not only with opportunities for expansion but also with a united front of her enemies.

Japan, however, did not intend to be denied her glorious opportunity. As against the unity of the ABCD powers, Japan countered by allying herself with Germany, a power without any immediate interests in the Far East. To many this seemed to be an alliance for prestige purposes only. “In what way,” they asked, “can Germany, a land power thousands of miles removed from Japan, be of use to the latter?” But Japan staked everything upon this alliance.

She has staked everything upon it because it is an error to suppose that Germany cannot contribute to Japan’s fight. If we have in mind merely a transfer of men and supplies from Germany to Japan, then undoubtedly there can be little contribution in this sense. But this by no means exhausts the rôle that Germany can play as an ally of Japan. In a much larger sense, from the point of view of the world strategical pattern, Germany is not only useful to Japan – she is absolutely essential. Actually the fate of Japan depends in the long run upon Germany’s own fate in the war.

It is not only a question of dividing the enemy and of synchronizing their respective moves in the Far East and on the European front. Important as this is, what is even more important is that these blows must be successful. Only then can Japan and Germany break out of their present bounds which doom them to ultimate impotence in the materials with which modern wars are waged. Oil, rubber, minerals, food, the shipping lanes to Africa and Asia – these are the materials that can become available to them only through the conquest of Singapore and Suez, Gibraltar and the Philippines, the Caucasus and the Dutch East Indies, Malaya and the Middle East. The conquest of these areas will for the first time lay the basis for the self-sufficiency which they dream about. Moreover, in the wake of such victories, India and Australia are militarily endangered. Here indeed the Axis powers of the East and West can meet, forging that contact which can surely defy the Allies for years to come.

These are bold conceptions unparalleled in world history. But how could it be otherwise for the “have not” nations who set themselves no less a task than that of uprooting the hegemony of established world empires?

The German-Russian War and the Japanese Attack

We can see now that this joint plan of Hitler and the Mikado had the best chance of succeeding prior to the former’s decision to invade Russia. With the rest of Europe in his palm and Stalin friendly, the stage was neatly set for Hitler to strike, at the very height of his power, at the British Empire in Africa and Asia. Conjointly also, the Japanese war lords could have attacked with full fury in the Pacific. Hitler’s invasion of Russia brought dismay and confusion into the Japanese camp. The latter had to be assured that the Russian campaign would be a short one, that the main strategical concept would be postponed only for a short time and in the end the Axis powers of the East and the West would share between them the additional Russian prize.

For the fulfillment of these promises Japan waited, passing from hope to anxiety as she watched the German performance on the battlefields of Russia. In the meantime, not only the German but the Japanese situation deteriorated. The Allied economic embargo threatened her with slow strangulation. The German decision to attack Russia turned out to be a political and military blunder of the first magnitude.

Costly indeed was Hitler’s underestimation of Russia’s capacity to resist. Stalin’s collapse did not come about with the approach of winter. In five and a half months, against the most bitter resistance, the Wehrmacht drove onward for 550 miles along a 2,000 mile front to within sight of Moscow itself. Despite this achievement, the descent of the bitter Russian cold froze the German blitzkrieg in its tracks. For the first time the tremendous German war machine found itself hopelessly bogged down. The lightning warfare that felled nation after nation proved inadequate for the conquest of a country whose spaces are those of a continent.

Hitler’s troubles were not limited to Russia. The British in Libya, supplied with an ever growing accumulation of American planes and tanks, staged their own kind of blitzkrieg against the inferior forces of General Rommell. No time seemed to be so unpropitious and inopportune for Japanese entrance into the war. The Allies, and especially the United States, imagined that, under these baleful circumstances, Tokyo would be more than willing if they accommodated her in what seemed to be a desire to stall. Though preparations increased on both sides, this seemed to be mutually agreeable. Even local actions, such as an attack on the Burma Road, were not anticipated with too much alarm. The “democracies” felt confident of meeting the situation with their own measures. The important thing was to gain time, the precious element that would sooner or later shape the Allied war machine to that preponderance which could finally take the measure of a better prepared opponent.

However, Washington failed to take into account three factors: Japan’s desperation, her appreciation of the time element that was working against her and Germany, and the belief that her success was possible only on the basis of an Axis world plan of attack. Neither Germany nor Japan had any intention of being stalled while within Great Britain and the United States the great armies, air armadas and naval fleets were being forged for the knockout blow against them. Time not only permitted the building up of these weapons for the Allies. In the interim the precious reserves of oil and other valuable supplies of the Axis powers were being used up. Hence the first condition in the global strategy of the Axis dictated the release of considerable German forces from the mire of Russia. Upon fulfillment of this condition, Japan could attack.

The Axis World Strategy

This is what actually happened. The Japanese swoop on Hawaii was followed almost immediately by Hitler’s announcement that he would abandon for the winter the German offensive against Moscow. Tokyo took the plunge in the Pacific in the confident belief that the German army would be able to stabilize the Russian front preliminary to a serious thrust against the main enemies, Britain and America. As an earnest of their common struggle, Hitler followed up the Mikado’s declaration of war upon the United States and Great Britain with his own declaration against America and they mutually pledged themselves never to negotiate a separate peace with the Allies.

In the light of such a common, integral strategy on a world scale Japan’s frontal attack upon the United States makes sense. The military advantage of an attempt at an initial knockout blow is obvious. For Japan, as for Germany, there was, of course, no other choice. The tactic of the military offensive has been forced upon them by the position they occupy relative to their potentially stronger enemies. Preliminary to their offensive they lived in the atmosphere of war preparations which they effected on a gigantic scale while their rich enemies carried on the profit-making “business as usual.” The quality of their armament was determined by their offensive strategy. It is this offensive, imperative for the poorer “have not” nations, that their richer rivals call “aggression.” But aggression alone is not enough. Whatever chance of success there is for the “aggressor” nations must result from an “aggression” so bold and sweeping as will speedily overwhelm their more complacent enemies and allow them no chance for recovery.

What, after all, is the blitzkrieg if not this kind of bold aggression in which the strategy of a continuous offensive is carried to its highest point by the fullest utilization of those offensive weapons produced by our civilization? It is no accident at all that Germany made the world plane and tank conscious, while Japan demonstrated at Pearl Harbor and in the fighting now going on in the Pacific that the old rules regarding naval power need considerable revision in view of the extraordinary rôle of the airplane.

The Grand Sweep of the World War

The military advantage that Japan scored by its blitzkrieg in the Pacific revealed that the United States was not immune to the defensive “Maginot Line” mentality that was so characteristic of the Allies. Only in this case the “Maginot Line” happened to be in the middle of the Pacific, at Hawaii. As Hanson Baldwin pointed out in the New York Times, the complacency of the Army and Navy at Pearl Harbor had its counterpart in the political attitudes in Washington. The Japanese, of course, understood that their “invasion” would unify in support of the war the hitherto diverse elements on the American political scene. They could not help this any more than Hitler could not help depressing his own people by his declaration of war against the United States. It was the political price they paid for the promotion of their offensive war plans.

Thus the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor again brought forth from the democracies the cry “aggression,” which is the sole element in their moral arsenal. It is significant that this cloak, “defense against aggression,” is an article worn only by the “democracies” and though they have worn it threadbare, they do not remove it, for nothing adorns them underneath. This does not prevent them from undertaking some aggressions of their own when necessary as in Iran, Dakar and Timors.

The war now rages on two great fronts, in the East and in the West, and the Axis strategy is to break through in these sectors to the sources of self-sufficiency and eventually to bring the two fronts together. For Japan this means not only the capture of Hong Kong and the Philippines, but above everything else the conquest of Singapore. Whoever has Singapore controls the gateway to the riches of the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, the territories of the China Sea and the Southwestern Pacific and possibly also those of the Indian Ocean.

For Germany the first task is to stabilize the Russian front. If the Russians permit the Germans to achieve this, the logic of the war map dictates to them that they move swiftly toward the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Caucasus. If success crowns the efforts of both Japan and Germany then India is destined to be the meeting ground of the Eastern and Western wings of the Axis.

Once the decision was made to establish a winter defensive line, the German armies in Russia were obliged to draw back their vulnerable spearheads and retreat to strong defensive positions. Naturally the Russians are attempting to exploit this retreat to the maximum. How successful they will be in their attacks on the retreating Germans remains to be seen. However, there is no reason to believe, unless the Wehrmacht has deteriorated considerably, that the Russians will be overwhelmingly favored over the Germans in their winter operations.

The expectation is rather that the Germans will be able to hold the Russians. No German crack-up appears to be visible in the near future. The exhortations of Hitler and Goebbels to the German people for greater sacrifices, their appeals for winter clothing to the German soldiers in Russia, their warnings that this will be a long and hard war, their disclosures of German failure in Russia and even the taking over by Hitler of the supreme command of the army following the resignations of von Brauchitsch and other German generals should not be construed as the approaching end of the German war effort.

Germany is still far removed from those conditions, militarily and on the home front, which led to her surrender in the last World War. It is important to remember that before Germany collapsed in 1918, 65 per cent, or seven million of her eleven million soldiers were casualties and the German people were literally starving. Despite her present military losses and the undoubted suffering of her people, Germany today does not by any means approximate this state of affairs. On the contrary she is still in a very strong position to wage effective warfare against her enemies.

At any rate Stalin is certainly not convinced that the Germans, even in their retreat, are a considerably weakened enemy. They are not so weak that he can afford to risk a simultaneous war with Japan. The outbreak of war between the latter and Stalin’s allies found Moscow warily on the sideline and only in spiritual solidarity with Great Britain and the United States. Evidently even at this stage, holding the Germans is a full-blown job and may yet require additional reinforcements from Siberia. Who knows when the German steamroller will turn around again?

The Unity of the Allies

That Germany and Japan, acting together on the basis of a world plan, represent a tremendous danger to the Allies is recognized by both Churchill and Roosevelt. Against such unity of action on a planetary scale the latter are compelled to devise their own united world plan. Churchill lost no time in corning to Washington in order to achieve this. The large retinue of experts that he brought along with him indicates that the Allied leaders consider this a serious and unpostponable task. Naturally the diverse elements that make up the democratic camp, and their different interests, will render impossible an ideal setup such as one supreme world commanding staff to which all are subordinated. In all likelihood what will emerge from the discussions between Roosevelt, Churchill and the representatives of Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek is a working understanding of their world operations which will be based in part on the entire world war picture and in part on the national needs and desires of the respective partners. The military commands that will be set up necessarily will have to conform to the geographical areas of the fighting, and the leadership of these respective commands will be in the hands of those who have the main forces and interests in these areas.

Churchill’s statements while in the United States are not without interest. In his speech to Congress he had to admit that perhaps until 1943 the Allies will have to remain on the defensive both in the East and in the West. It is only then that they will have built the air, land and sea forces that will be able to take the offensive over great distances against the military might of the Axis powers. Until then, he warned that the Allies must be prepared to surrender further positions to the enemy.

Churchill’s observations are certainly no over-estimation of his opponents. Whatever faith he has in the coming superiority of the Allies is based upon the undeniable fact of their economic superiority and the great military potential. This war is above all a war of machines. The relatively isolated Libyan theater demonstrated, as though in a laboratory, that victory or defeat was related to the degree in which the opposing and numerically equal armies were mechanized both on the land and in the air.

Fortunate it was for the Allies that those who possessed these weapons from the beginning found that they could quickly overrun nations but not continents. In that sense the blitzkrieg is a failure. Hitler has found this out in Russia and Japan will find this out in the Pacific. Even if the Axis powers should meet in India, they cannot win. Though it take years, the American colossus and what remains of the British Empire will seek them out even if they have to go across to Russia, China or to the depths of Africa to do it. Naturally, Churchill and Roosevelt hope that Japan and Germany will never meet in India and they will undoubtedly try to hold the key points in the Pacific against Japan while keeping Germany from breaking out of the bounds of Europe. The next great battles of the war will rage around these objectives.

Revolt as an Offensive Weapon

What about those internal forces that are gathering to uproot Hitler in the near future? This is one of the first questions that Churchill attempted to answer upon his arrival in Washington. It is in fact an illusion that he quickly punctured. To look to the occupied countries for forces strong and mature enough to overthrow Hitler is to overlook what is historically true: that the forces of revolt can be successful only when the repressive forces themselves are reeling. And this, Churchill explained, is to be accomplished primarily from without by the armed might of the Allies. We might add to this that Churchill certainly doesn’t want any revolts, even against the enemy, without powerful Allied armies on the scene to make certain that these revolts are kept well within bourgeois limits. This is the plan, not only of Churchill and Roosevelt, but of Stalin too, who has offered his cooperation toward this miserable end and even more openly than the others.

Yes, Stalin’s war aims are not only to keep himself in power. His agreement with Sikorski, the reactionary Polish leader, and with Churchill is intended to make him a participant in the common Allied scheme to set up again in Europe a new Versailles of pro-Allied capitalist nations such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia which, together with Russia, are to guarantee the eternal subjection of a disarmed and helpless Germany in the interests of British and American imperialism. Stalin has even suggested an international army (of which he will be a part) of the victorious Allied nations to guarantee this capitalist relationship in Europe. The coming revolts in a world that will be war-exhausted may very well, in their flood, engulf the capitalist pattern worked out by Churchill and Stalin. But who is there that does not see that among the forces on the capitalist side will be Stalin’s Comintern preaching and fighting, not for the program of socialism, but for the Four Freedoms.

When, therefore, the SWP advises Stalin that he should conduct the war by revolutionary means, they are bound to be disappointed. In this war, at any rate, the “workers’ state” can employ nothing but Allied methods for conducting the war. They warn Stalin that without a revolutionary program he will lose the war, but he has more faith in his own methods and the aid of his Allies. When the Russians are losing, The Militant announces that it is because Stalin purged his military leaders and pursues the war by non-revolutionary methods. When, on the other hand, they are winning, these people proclaim that it is because Russia is a “workers’ state.”

Rather than speculate upon the vague and unreal possibility of the “democracies” eventually turning against Stalin and the fear that Stalin will lose the war, the SWP should ponder well the reactionary meaning of a victorious Stalin and his Comintern, promoting, together with the imperialists, the counter-revolutionary aims of world capitalism. This is the real danger that confronts the workers and colonial peoples of the world.

The danger of the Stalinist supported capitalist counter-revolution becomes all the more pronounced as the arena of the war widens to include the explosive area of the intensely exploited colonial peoples. New millions of victims are being added to the hosts of war sufferers. In the battle of continents, it is unthinkable that out of these unendurable fires that sweep over our planet there will not be forged those mighty forces that will push aside all who would keep them perpetually shackled in the chains of imperialist violence and misery.

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