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Pearl Harbor: Isolationism

It is a common held belief that America has historically been a nation driven by the ideology of isolationism. The best cases for these arguments are through our unwillingness to participate in either world war. The lynch pin being the events that happened in Pearl Harbor. I will try to dispel this theory in my essay. On December 7th, 1941 war was forced upon America by the Japanese assault on Peal Harbor, and declarations of war by Germany and Italy four days later.

It is a myth that Franklin D. Roosevelt was anxious to bring America into the war, and was prevented from doing so by the overwhelming isolationist spirit of the American people. The evidence shows that FDR was primarily concerned with his domestic policies and had no wish to join in a crusade against Nazism or totalitarianism or indeed against international aggression. He took no positive steps to involve the United States in the conflict. The war came as much a surprise-and an unwelcome surprise-to him as anyone else.

There is a persistent myth that he was forewarned about the Japanese aggression at Pearl Harbor, and did nothing to stop it, being anxious that American participation in the global conflict should be precipitated by the unprovoked act of aggression. That all kinds of warnings were in the air at the time is clear. But an objective survey of all the evidence indicates that Pearl Harbor came as a real and horrifying shock to all the members of the Roosevelt administration, beginning with the President himself.

It is also a myth, however, that Americas unwillingness to engage in World War Two-the polls show that around 80 percent of the adult population wanted America to stay neutral until the Pearl Harbor assault-sprang from a deep sense of isolationism, which was Americas pristine and natural posture in world affairs. This myth is so persistent that it has led in the 1990s to a demand to return to isolationism, as though it were Americas destiny and natural preference. So it is worth examining in a longer historical context.

There is nothing unique, as many Americans suppose, in the desire of a society with a strong cultural identity to minimize its foreign contacts. On the contrary, isolationism in this sense has been the norm wherever geography has made it feasible. A characteristic example of a hermit state is Japan, which tried to use its surrounding seas to pursue a policy of total isolation. China, too, was isolationist for thousands of years, albeit an empire at the same time. The British were habitually isolationist even during the centuries when they were acquiring an empire embracing a quarter of the worlds surface.

The British always regarded the English Channel as a cordon sanitaire to protect them from what they saw as the Continental disease of war. The Spanish too were misled by the Pyrenees, and the Russians by the Great Plains, into believing that isolationism was feasible as well as desirable. The United States, however, has always been an internationalist country. Given the sheer size of the Atlantic (and the Pacific), with its temptation to hermitry, the early colonists and rulers of the United States were remarkably international minded.

The Pilgrim Fathers did not cut themselves off from Europe, but sought to erect a City on a Hill precisely to serve as an example to the Old World. The original Thirteen Colonies had, as a rule, closer links with Europe than with each other, focusing on London and Paris, rather than on Boston or Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin had perhaps a better claim to be called a cosmopolitan than any other figure on either side of the Atlantic. He believed strongly in negotiations and in mutually advantageous treaties between nations.

Americas ruling elite was always far more open towards, interested in, and knowledgeable about the world (especially Europe) than the French-Canadians to the north and the Spanish- and Portuguese-Americans to the south. Despite the oceans on both sides, the United States was from the start involved with Russia (because of Oregon and Alaska), China (because of trade), Spain, Britain, and other European powers. Isolation in a strict sense was never an option, and there is no evidence that the American masses, let alone the elites, favored it, especially once immigration widened and deepened the ties with Europe.

It is true that the United States, through most of the 19th century, was concerned with expanding its presence in the Americas rather than with global policies. But exponents of America First, like John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and the Manifest Destiny chorus, were imperialists rather than isolationists. Between the two world wars, America sometimes appeared , in theory as well as in practice, isolationist, and much of the tragedy of World War Two is attributed to this.

But, despite rejection of the League, America was certainly not isolationist in the 1920s, though its intervention in international affairs was not always prudent, particularly in the Pacific. American interest in Asia had grown steadily throughout the 19th century, and it was not only, or indeed not primarily, commercial. It was religious and cultural too. There was something in Asian culture, it had been argued, that persuaded Americans that they had a mission to intervene and change it for the better.

An American idealogy that the United States is the greatest country and therefore other countries benefit by our cultural bombardment (coca-cola and nike for instance). By the end of the 19th century, there were over 3,000 American missionaries in Siam, Burma, Japan and Korea, and, above all, China. The one Asian country which resisted Americanization was Japan, and it symbolized this rejection of American cultural notions (though not its technology) by building an ocean going navy on a large scale. The United States did nothing to prevent the development of hostile US-Japanese relations.

There were reasons for this. In the early 20th century California introduced race laws to prevent the settlement of Japanese immigrants and from 1906-8 the mass migration from Japan had been halted. American policy in the 1920s tended not merely to perpetuate Japanese-American hostility but to poison the relationship between Japan and Britain too. At Versailles, Wilson antagonized the Japanese by refusing to write a condemnation of racism(which had bearings on the situation in California) into the covenant of the League.

Under President Hoover, the American government continued to play a world role, with the object of preserving peace. But its actions were usually counterproductive. Hoover refused to veto the Smoot-Hawley tariff, which destroyed Japans American trade, 15 percent of its exports. That combined with the London treaty, which it signed reluctantly, completed Japans alienation from the West, and determined its rulers, or at any rate the military cliques which in effect ran Japanese army and naval policy, to go it on their own.

There followed the 1931 Japanese occupation of Manchuria and, in 1933, Japans departure from the League of Nations. Hoover made no positive moves to oppose Japanese expansion. When Roosevelt took over, he made matters worse. Hoover had helped to plan a world economic conference, to be held in London June 1933. It might have persuaded the have not powers like Japan and Germany that there were alternatives to fighting for a living . But on July 3 Roosevelt canceled it.

Thereafter the United States did indeed move into isolation, though it was not the only great and civilized power to do so in the 1930s. Nor was its move out of want but necessity. Among the victors of World War One, fear of a second, which would invalidate all their sacrifices, was universal. In the United States, the Depression, coming after nearly seventy years of dramatic economic expansion which had made it the richest and most powerful country on earth, abruptly reduced half the population to poverty.

In August 1935 Roosevelt passed the first Neutrality Act, which kept the U. S. officially and globally out of the war. This allowed America to rebuild its internal infrastructure, without having the glaring inevitability of war present in congress and the public eye. Roosevelts administration became infected by the spirit of isolationism, not out of national idealogy or arrogance, but out of panic at a nation and populace that now found its self bankrupt and desperate.

Roosevelt showed himself as lacking in leadership as Baldwin and Chamberlain in Britain, or Daldier in France. It is permissible to speculate that Theodore Roosevelt, with his clearer ideas of Americas responsibilities to the world, and his warmer notions of democratic solidarity, would have been more energetic in alerting the American people to the dangers which threatened them and the need for timely preparation and action, thereby saving countless American lives, and prodigious quantities of U. S. treasure.

As it was, not until November 17, 1941, after repeated confrontations with German submarines in the North Atlantic, and the actual torpedoing of the US destroyer Reuben James, did Congress amend the Neutrality Acts to allow US merchant ships to arm themselves and to carry cargo to belligerent ports. This was only three weeks before Pearl Harbor ended the tragic farce of American neutrality. Thus the United States was finally drawn into the war for the survival of democracy and international -6- law at a time and place not of its own choosing, but of its enemys.

Roosevelt had no real belief that Pearl Harbor was ever going to be bombed. The Japanese war preparations were a characteristic combination of breathtaking efficiency and inexplicable muddle. Gen. George Marshall, FDRs principal military advisor, had repeatedly assured the President that Oahu fortress complex, which included Pearl Harbor, was the strongest in the world and that a seaborne attack was out of the question. The plan of attack on Pearl Harbor, which involved getting a gigantic carrier force unobserved over thousands of miles of ocean, was the most audacious and complex scheme of its kind in history.

Nothing like it had ever been conceived before, in extent and complexity, and it is no wonder that Marshall discounted its magnitude and FDR brushed aside such warnings as he received. The Second World War was not started in secrecy and deceit. Roosevelt was not an ideologist, who saw salvation in forcing an isolationist country into international affairs. He was a President fraught with the problems of a panicked, economically debacled country. His entire focus was on the regrowth of the American infrastructure.

The fickle attitude of Japan, a country that occilated between threats of war and neutrality, between military and civilian control, were not taken seriously in leu of more prevalent problems. This is not to say, either, that the U. S. itself was a populace of isolationists. America had grown wealthy through international trade and exports, but the devastating implications of a war on an already strained people was too much. America joined the war, initially, in retaliation to the threat of war. It was forced, inadvertently, into war, not by Presidential conspiracy to overturn isolationist feelings, but out of self-defense.

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