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George Stern

The Pacific War Front

(March 1941)

From Fourth International, vol. 2 No. 3, March 1941, pp. 93–95.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Birds of prey have supplanted swallows as the harbingers of Spring. This year they herald new battles not only in Europe but in Asia too.

Preparations for extending the Far Eastern front of the Second World War are already far advanced. In anticipation of the German Spring offensive against Britain, Japan has been edging slowly southward. Its new establishments in Southern Indochina and on the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea have brought Japanese forces within seven hundred miles of Singapore, key to the Indies and the mastery of Southern Asia.

At the beginning of March, Britain and the United States, acting in close concert, successfully maneuvered Japan into a frightened pause. On March 1, the British announced the landing of a large Australian army at Singapore. This force, complete with air and mechanized units, moved at once to the Thai (Siam) frontier across which Japan might possibly attack Malaya by land.

A few days later General Marshall, US Chief of Staff, told a Congressional committee in secret testimony that the Far Eastern situation was “serious.” He disclosed that the Army was turning over some of its newest bombers to the Navy and that they were being flown to Pacific outposts. This “secret” testimony was allowed to filter to the press. The same week Congress appropriated the often-refused funds to fortify Guam and other Pacific islands. Finally, in the course of the Lend-Lease Bill debate, all efforts to limit use of US forces to the Western hemisphere were repulsed by the Administration on the grounds, openly stated by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, that such limitations would weaken US. policy vis-a-vis Japan.

While not as yet necessarily presaging immediate war action, these associated Anglo-American moves constituted a serious warning to Japan that the United States and Britain were ready to pool their Pacific forces to check Japan’s southward push. Since it is obviously Japan’s policy to go as far as it can without risking American intervention – at least in the present period – these moves temporarily halted Japan’s program. Conciliatory statements came from Tokyo. Reports of an immediate “crisis” were hotly denied. For a moment the shouting died down. Then Foreign Minister Matsuoka announced a journey to Moscow, Berlin, and Rome. The time has obviously come for Germany to plot a two-ocean strategy’ in view of the increased tempo of US participation in the war and Japan has to find out how far it can count upon US involvement in the Atlantic.

For it is clearly understood that the next moves await the march of events in Europe. The outcome of the German Spring offensive – or even of its opening phases – may largely determine in Tokyo and Washington the further tactics to be pursued in the unfolding battle for the wealth of Asia.

This battle lies primarily – in imperialist premises – between the United States and Japan for the legacy of Britain’s century-old domination in the Orient. Britain has already in effect accepted a junior partnership in a world-wide Anglo-American alliance. By this means the British ruling class hopes to salvage what it can of its embattled empire. But by this means also US imperialism is embarking deliberately upon a course of world conquest. Its British “friends” as well as its Axis enemies will be compelled to cede power and pelf to it. The outcome of the war in both oceans – again measured by imperialist premises alone – depends upon the effective role of US imperialism. In assessing American war strategy, it must always be kept in mind that a victorious Germany is a far more formidable opponent than Japan. The US war. machine will not be ready for several years to fight a war in both oceans on the scale necessary to win. Nevertheless, in whatever combination of strengths and circumstances and whether it be sooner or later, US imperialism is preparing for a showdown with Japan in the Pacific.

Japan, the Weakest Link

Taken by themselves, these two antagonists in the Pacific basin are so disproportionate in size and strength that the outcome of the struggle seems preordained.

Japan came late into the family of imperialist nations. Its capitalist development was a latter-day graft on a feudal-agrarian economy. A great military superstructure was erected, perilously overhanging a narrow economic base. From the ranks of an impoverished peasantry proletarian forces were recruited into industrial slavery. Their toil and sweat had to be made to compensate for Japan’s lack of all the vital elements of a heavy industrial economy. It has had to depend almost entirely upon imported iron and steel and largely upon imported fuel. The light industries it built have had to be fed with imported raw materials. Its textile plants have had to depend upon cotton imports from India and the United States. Its guns and warships have had to be hammered out of American scrap and have been lubricated and fueled with American oil. Especially since the outbreak of the war in Europe, this dependence upon American or American-controlled sources has pervaded all of Japanese economy.

Coming into a world whose markets and sources of raw materials had already in the main been divided among the older imperialist powers, Japanese imperialism had to resort almost at once to military adventures to extend its slim economic foundations. The history of Japanese efforts at continental expansion go back nearly half a century. Wars were fought against China in 1895 and against Russia in 1905. Korea was annexed and Manchuria converted into a “sphere of influence.”

By joining the Allies in the first World War, Japan acquired most of Germany’s Asiatic holdings. During the war it tried, with its infamous Twenty-One Demands, to convert China into a colony. Just after the war it tried to get a foothold in Maritime Siberia. From all these positions, Japan was compelled to retreat. US pressure exerted at the Washington Conference in 1922 forced evacuation of Shantung. The Bolsheviks drove Japanese interventionist forces from Soviet territory. The rise of the Chinese revolutionary movement during 1924–27 dictated a cautious and significant passivity on Japan’s part until the revolution was successfully crushed.

Still poor in production goods and bursting with consumption goods produced by sweated labor out of imported raw materials, Japan was less able than most of the capitalist powers to withstand the onset of the world crisis in 1929. The disappearance of free markets, the erection of tariff barriers, the ebb in world production, the collapse of world currencies, goaded Japan into fresh efforts to expand on the continent. The invasion of Manchuria began in 1931 and of China proper in 1937. However, in conditions of world crisis and economic dislocation supplementing and intensifying Japan’s own economic feebleness, these adventures proved abortive Instead they served only to intensify the strain on the Japanese economic structure.

The Japanese army deliberately destroyed competitive Chinese industrial plants to leave the market open for Japan’s products. Business men and traders swarmed in after the invading hordes. Yet it proved impossible for Japan to realize on its heavy investment in military operations. Manchuria, occupied nine years ago, has paid no dividends. In China proper Japan has proved unable to consolidate its extensive military gains. Instead Japan itself has been drained of its meager resources. Japanese war and armament expenditures for the current year are budgeted at about eight billion yen-seven times more than in 1937. More than three quarters of this is being covered by inflationary methods which are steadily depressing the already low standard of living. In January, 1941, a leading Japanese economist estimated that the standard of living in Japan had declined 40 per cent from the 1937 level.

Despite this, the logic of expansionism compels the Japanese to extend themselves still further. The turn of events in Europe during 1940 opened up dazzling opportunities for expansion southward at the expense of France and Britain-opportunities which might never again be presented. Although already involved hopelessly in China with a million men in an army of occupation and billions in material, Japan is trying to grasp its opportunity. Banking upon a complete defeat of Britain and involvement of the United States in the Atlantic, Japan is reaching out for the fabulous wealth of the Indies, for the total mastery of Asia.

Thus at the threshold of incomparably more costly and dangerous conflicts with major imperialist rivals, Japan is a weakened power incapable of sustaining a single major defeat. It must depend not upon its main strength but upon transitory strategic advantages deriving from Pacific geography and Nazi victories in Europe. Moreover, it is doubtful whether it can exploit even these advantages without running even greater risks than defeats in battle. Even if the course of the war in Europe lessens the effectiveness of Anglo-American resistance in the Pacific, in Japan itself the worker? and peasants and masses generally are straining at insupportable bonds. The regime of the Mikado and his generals and his admirals has perhaps least chance of all to survive the convulsions of the present war. Japan is the weakest link in the imperialist chain that holds the peoples of the Pacific enslaved.

The Yankees’ Advantages

Stemming from a gigantic heavy industrial base woven into might units by a powerful financial mesh, US imperialism has been able in the main to wage its battles on the world market with financial rather than military weapons. The peoples of Cuba, the Philippines, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, and of China too can testify that this has not always been the rule but, by and large, the United States has been able to fight with super-imperialist methods. It used to be called dollar imperialism. It now goes by the name of good neighbor policy. Only now, in the midst of a titanic world conflict, is it being compelled to enforce its claims by brute strength.

The qualitative difference between Japanese and US imperialism can perhaps be illustrated best by reference to China. Japan has had to send its armies into China actually to destroy the budding Chinese industries which might compete with their Japanese counterparts. The United States, on the contrary, is capable of ultimately dominating Chinese economy by providing it with capital goods and draining off super-profits by direct or indirect financial control. Unconsummated inter-imperialist rivalries have so far blocked this course, but it is for this that the United States has for fifty years been the proponent of the “Open Door” in China. It is this perspective that makes China the great potential reservoir for capital investment over which the great powers must inevitably come into conflict.

Because Japan cannot tolerate competitive industrial development in China, it cannot come to mutually satisfactory terms with the Chinese bourgeoisie. It can offer them places as salaried clerks and salesmen. US imperialism, on the contrary, can in theory allow considerable room for Chinese bourgeois enterprise. It can afford it as an overhead charge. That is why the Chinese bourgeoisie rests its hopes today upon successful US intervention in the Pacific and the development of China as an American economic and financial dependency.

But this perspective – and it does not apply only to China – is conceivable only with a return of relative capitalist stability on a world scale. Such stability can be achieved now only through domination of the world by a single power or bloc of powers. The epoch of capitalist decline is unable any longer to support the old rivalries, the old antagonisms, the old divisions of territory and spoils. Capitalism can survive only in the super-concentrated form of totalitarianism. Thus the present war – which is being fought to decide who shall be master of the globe. The United States will achieve this mastery only by defeating Germany in Europe and Japan in Asia and this means years of extended and exhausting conflict in both hemispheres on military and economic fronts. In this conflict, the war between Japan and the United States may well be reduced to the proportions of a single episode, like the crushing of France.

However that may be, the qualitative difference between Japanese and US imperialism gives the latter an important political advantage. The United States can appear before the subject peoples of Asia as a “liberator” concerned with their freedom and growth. To the Chinese masses especially, the United States could present itself as a rescuer come to strike off the fetters made in Japan. What the Chinese people have to learn now is that victory over Japan won solely through US intervention would open the way not to freedom but to fresh enslavement under new slavemasters. Totalitarian world control will be no picnic for anybody. The standards of present-day exploitation will be standards of plenty by comparison with what is to come. The people of China are fully capable of winning their own freedom through a genuine national revolutionary struggle against the invaders and the native exploiters. In such a struggle they can utilize imperialist antagonisms instead of becoming the hapless victims of interimperialist conflict. Japan is their main enemy today. But the “friend” who will come from across the Pacific to “help” them will become the main enemy tomorrow. For that transformation they have to be prepared, or else suffer new defeats.

American workers rightly sympathize with China’s fight against Japan. This does not mean they can support US imperialist intervention in the Pacific. They will be for independent material aid to China by every possible means. But to support an American imperialist adventure in the Pacific is to help tighten the bonds that hold the people of this country, of China, and of Japan, in capitalist enslavement.

Actually the greatest hope of liberation for the people of China and the other subjected lands of Asia does not reside in extension of the imperialist war to the Pacific, or the substitution of US imperialist domination for the British, the Japanese, the German. It resides in the victory of their own national revolutions and of the workers’ revolution on a world scale. It is not a change of imperialist masters that the world needs. It is the end of imperialism and the establishment of a world socialist federation.

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