The Past Is Not Quite Past

War II Thoughts

We can learn a lot about our present dilemmas through looking at the past. This month I’m teaching an intensive class on World War II, and again reminded how history is never really history. One lesson: do not judge past decisions by present considerations or post facto wisdom from a Western point of view, but understand them given the knowledge and thinking of the times from an enemy perspective.

We ridicule the disastrous Japanese decision to go to war against the American colossus on December 7, 1941. But that correct analysis enjoys the benefit of hindsight, and does not explain why rather intelligent militarists for some reason believed that they could win, or at least within six months of aggrandizement obtain a truce. That they could not, and destroyed their country in the bargain, is not the point.  Nor is “fanaticism” a completely adequate exegesis for Pearl Harbor; logic of a sort is.

Why Did Japan Attack (or Rather Why Not?)?

Let us count the ways: 1) The US had not intervened in Europe, despite over two years of seeing Nazi Germany overrun its democratic allies in Western Europe and blitz London. The Japanese were convinced that we simply could not be provoked, or did not have it in us to fight for long under any circumstances;

2) It had just signed a non-aggression  neutrality pact with Russia (tit-for-tat payback to Hitler's earlier perfidy). That April 1941 deal ensured there would not again be a bloody August, 1939-like border war in which thousands of Japanese (50,000?) perished. So Japan would now have a one-front war against the U.S. and Britain; but the latter would have a two-front war against Germany (and Italy) and Japan;

3) The Japanese coveted oil, rubber, tin, rice, and other strategic commodities. And now the Dutch East Indies were without their colonial masters after the fall of Western Europe. Vichy France was compliant in Southeast Asia. In other words, a world of raw materials was at last at Japan’s doorstep, much of modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia and Southeast Asia, ready for the taking if it had a convenient short war. Britain was tied down in North Africa (soon to lose Tobruk), and Burma and then India were also ripe for the picking;

4) By late November 1941 Germany was at the gates of Moscow, Leningrad was cut off; the Crimea was to fall. German U-boats were reaching records in destroying British convoys. Not only would Hitler certainly win the European war, but there was a good chance that the Japanese might meet him either through Suez or in the Persian Gulf. And why fight Russia, when soon Russia would be no more?

5) The Chinese front was mostly quiet, long-term occupation either run by puppet governments or made easier by Nationalist-communist rivalries;

6) The U.S. was still in a depression, its industry under-utilized and its military infrastructure largely embryonic. It had a bad habit of lecturing Japan, embargoing Japan, but not proving to Japan that it had the force to deter Japan and the willingness to enforce its edicts;

Almost all six calculations within a few months (say after the pivotal Midway and Guadalcanal battles) proved flawed. But that again is not the lesson. At the time, the Japanese, being aggressive militarists, drew logical conclusions about their self-interests, which only in hindsight seem preposterous, and largely because of the phenomenal, but easily unforeseen response of the United States.

And Today?

We should remember the past these last few weeks as we watch U.S. foreign policy turned topsy-turvy.

Consider Obama’s outreach to Russia. He assumes Bush gratuitously polarized Russia, a state that otherwise had few post-Cold War preexisting problems with the U.S., despite its oil wealth, autocratic government, policy of serially assassinating dissidents at home and abroad, and loss of face with the breakup of the former Soviet republics. So we blamed Bush with the monotonous “reset” refrain.  Then we threw the eastern Europeans under the bus with the vague "we have a better mobile missile system anyway" defense. Then we claimed a thankful Putin will appreciate such magnanimity and help on Iran.

Thinking like a Russian

But we are looking at all this from our postmodern eyes. Try, as in the case of 1941 Japan, seeing it from theirs.  Bush’s friends are now America’s expendables—whether a Poland, Israel, Honduras, Columbia, or Iraq’s Maliki. Bush’s enemies are now its friends or neutrals—suggesting that Obama agrees that to be angry with America, as Russia was, was once understandable, and during 2001-9 to be friendly with it logically suspect. All the past Russian sins from assassination to oil leveraging of Europe are now washed away as “Bush did it.”