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Paul Schapiro

How Roosevelt Maneuvered Us into War

(12 July 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 28, 12 July 1948, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War 1941: A Study in Appearances and Realities
by Charles A. Beard
Yale University Press, 1948, 614 pp., $5.60.

When Professor Charles A. Beard, America’s most distinguished academic historian, heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he knew, from his study of diplomatic history, that there was more behind it than Roosevelt stated in his war message to Congress. He was resolved to begin immediately an investigation of how the United States got into the war.

He was considerably aided by the disclosures which were made as each section of the government tried to clear itself of responsibility for the disaster at Pearl Harbor. First Roosevelt’s hand-picked commission exonerated the administration high-ups and put the blame on General Short and Admiral Kimmel, the army and navy commanders at Pearl Harbor. Then army and navy boards shifted, the major responsibility from their fellow brass hats to the politicos in Washington, including, by implication, Roosevelt. Truman next stepped in and said that it was Congress’s fault for having blocked Roosevelt’s “preparedness” program – although the record shows that Congress voted more money for the military from 1933 to 1941 than Roosevelt had asked.

As a result of all of these charges and counter-charges there was a good deal of pressure on Congress to make its own inquiry. The Republicans were not at all adverse to exposing a Democratic administration. In trying to prove that it had given Short and Kimmel sufficient warning, the administration divulged part of the secret history of the origin of the war. This belied Roosevelt’s picture of a sudden, unexpected, treacherous Japanese attack made while relations between Japan and the United States were peaceful.

Drive to War

Thousands of documents, such as the personal messages exchanged between Roosevelt and Churchill, are still secret. But enough has come out for Beard to demonstrate conclusively that, while the Roosevelt government was assuring the American people that its foreign policy was designed to keep the United States out of war, it was consciously driving toward war.

As early as October 8, 1940, Roosevelt was publicly proclaiming “again and again and again” in his election campaign “your President says this country is not going to war.”. At the same time he told Admiral Richardson, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, who was inquiring about the government’s perspectives to know how to deploy his fleet, that “as the war continued and the area of operations expanded sooner or later they [the Japanese] would make a mistake and we would enter the war.” And on January 21, 1941, he replied in a: similar vein to a letter by Grew, the ambassador to Japan. Grew had stated that, unless the United States would withdraw from Greater East Asia and the South Seas, “(which God forbid), we are bound eventually to come to a head-on clash with Japan.” Roosevelt replied: “I find myself in decided agreement with your conclusions.”

“An Act of War”

Roosevelt, however, regarded war with Japan as only one phase of the struggle between the two imperialist camps. His main interest at this time was to “speed up” “our participation in the conflict” raging in Europe, as the Committee to Defend America by aiding the Allies was demanding. This committee, which had secret relations with Roosevelt and his administration, served as an advance corps of drum-beaters. All this time Roosevelt was publicly arguing that such measures as Lend-Lease would keep the country out of a "shooting” war. He dismissed as absurd the charge made during the Lend-Lease debate that he contemplated using war vessels to escort merchant ships and that this would involve shooting. Soon, however, American naval patrols were sweeping half-way across the Atlantic, cooperating with the British in tracking down German submarines. On July 11, 1941, a secret navy order called for convoying, which Roosevelt had denied considering and which Secretary of the Navy Knox had characterized as “an act of war.”

When the destroyer Kearny was torpedoed, Roosevelt went to the radio to proclaim: “We have wished to avoid shooting. But the shooting has started. And history has recorded who fired the first shot. In the long run, however, all that will matter is who fired the last shot. America has been attacked.” This was clearly intended to be a bugle-call to war. The Democratic platform of 1940 had pledged that American forces would not fight in foreign lands “except in case of attack.” “Now,” as Arthur Krock of the N.Y. Times, a leading war mongrel, gleefully noted, “the President has officially declared that ‘America has been attacked.’ Therefore, by the very text of the platform pledge, the promise against dispatch of our armed forces ‘outside the Americas’ as well as the rest of the promise can be held to be automatically cancelled.”

Turned Sour

The bugle-call turned sour, however, when wide-spread suspicions were confirmed by leakages in the press arid later by enforced official admission that the Kearny, far from having been attacked without provocation, had been torpedoed only after it had loosed a number of depth charges on a pack of German submarines while on convoy duty. The fiasco was so complete that Krock evidently decided that the back-firing of Roosevelt’s charges of “attack” made the future use of such occurrences impossible. He reviewed the facts of this and two other incidents. He showed how in each case Roosevelt lied, and called upon him to proceed on his course boldly and without subterfuge.

Roosevelt, however, knew that he needed to be able to say that the United States had been attacked in order to suppress antiwar sentiment. On November 25, 1941, according to the notes which Secretary of War Stimson made for his own use, Roosevelt and his War Cabinet took up the question “how we should maneuver them [the Japanese] into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.”

When Roosevelt imposed an embargo on exports to Japan at the end of the previous July, he did so in the face of his naval experts advice, that this would almost certainly lead to? an early attack by Japan on Malaya, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines in a search for oil. At the Atlantic Conference in August, the public announcement stated that no commitments had been made except those authorized by the Lend-Lease Act. Yet Roosevelt and Churchill had secretly agreed to occupy the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands and to send parallel diplomatic warnings to Japan to halt its expansion in Asia. Roosevelt believed, says one of Sumner Welles’ private memoranda on the conversations, that “by adopting this course any further move of aggression on the part of Japan which might result in war could be held off for at least thirty days.” After Japan had received the warnings, with their threat of war if she struck out for oil in the Pacific, she initiated negotiations to which the United States responded, by what the British Ambassador to Japan called “a policy of stalling.”

Approaching Crisis

At the end of November, however, the crisis could no longer be staved off. American intelligence was intercepting and decoding messages from Tokyo to the Japanese ambassador regularly. It learned that Tokyo, desperate to reach a settlement, was sending him two proposals, one to be used for bargaining purposes, the other, “a last effort to prevent something from happening,” as it phrased it.

Hull replied to the first proposal with a memorandum the demands of which went far beyond even the warning note of August. They required Japan to get out of China and Indo-China. It was as impossible for Japanese imperialism to do this as it was for American imperialism to abandon its interests in the Pacific. The very thought of this had caused Grew to exclaim piously, “God forbid!”

Roosevelt well knew this. He told his War Cabinet on November 25, the day before the delivery of the memorandum, wrote Stimson in his private notes, that “we were likely to be attacked perhaps (as soon as) next Monday [December 1], for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what we should do.” It was then that it was decided to maneuver the Japanese into firing the first shot. On November 27, a wire was sent to General Short:

“Negotiations with Japanese appear to be terminated to all practical purposes with only the barest possibilities that the Japanese Government might come back and offer to continue. Japanese future action unpredictable but hostile action possible at any moment. If hostilities cannot, repeat cannot, be avoided the U.S. desires that Japan commit the first overt act.”

A Pearl Harbor

Stimson now became nervous under the strain. He advised Roosevelt that “the desirable thing to do from the point of view of our own tactics and safety was to take the initiative and attack without further warning. It is axiomatic that the best defense is offense. It is always dangerous to wait and let the enemy make the first move” – that is, he advised Roosevelt to do what the Japanese government was later to do at Pearl Harbor – and to do this without calling upon Congress for a declaration of war. However, it was decided that the tactics of maneuvering the Japanese into attacking first were to be continued.

The War Cabinet was able to follow each stage of this maneuvering. On November 28, it intercepted a message to the Japanese ambassador in which he was instructed that Hull’s memorandum was a “humiliating proposal” which could not be used as “a basis for negotiations” but that he was not “to give the impression that the negotiations are broken off.” It was now Japan’s turn to stall for a while, but it did not know that in doing so it was being out-tricked. On December 4 or 5, the Japanese ambassador received orders to burn all records, a sure indication of imminent war. When Roosevelt got word of this, he asked his naval aide, “Well, when do you think it will happen?” And on December 6, the evening before the Japanese attack, Roosevelt told Harry Hopkins in front of his naval aide’s assistant, who had just brought him part of an intercepted Japanese message breaking off negotiations: “This means war.” When finally the news of the Japanese attack came, Stimson wrote in his diary: “My first feeling was of relief that the indecision was over and that a crisis had come in a way which would unite all our people. This continued to be my feeling in spite of the news of catastrophes which quickly developed.”

Psychological Barrage

The war against Germany and Japan, then, was preceded by a psychological barrage against the American people to break down their anti-war resistance by insidious propaganda, reassuring promises and nerve-racking alarms. By these means, the masses were softened up for the big blitz.

In giving a detailed account of this psychological barrage, Beard has rendered a valuable service. He has enabled us to understand better the techniques of the new campaign led by Marshall, a member of Roosevelt’s inner War Cabinet, to prepare the United States for war against the Soviet Union. Beard’s last-chapter plea for a return to a “system of limited government fortified by checks and balances” to safeguard the country against totalitarian militarization is, however, unrealistic. A government with limited powers was only possible in a time of expanding capitalism, when competition, which required certain liberties, was the rule. The giant trusts which dominate the United States today require a highly centralized government, as authoritarian as possible.

The drive toward war is not to be stopped by putting reliance on capitalist politicians or thinking to go back to an earlier stage of capitalism. It can only be stopped by the determined struggle of the workers; led by their own party, in a fight which must ultimately result in the overthrow of capitalism.

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