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What We Knew Before Pearl Harbor

Published: December 3, 2011

We knew Japan would declare war on us. We didn’t know when or how, but we knew why.

Ever since 1931, the U.S. had been pressuring Japan to withdraw the army it had sent to conquer Manchuria and, eventually, all of China. America had tried exerting diplomatic pressure, but to no avail. The Japanese Imperial Government’s primary goal was to become the conquering ruler of Asia.

When diplomacy didn’t work, President Roosevelt reduced, then ended American export of machinery to Japan. When that didn’t work, he stopped all sales of American oil. Even though its operations in China were running out of gas, Japan persisted. Finally the government froze Japanese assets in the U.S. Roosevelt knew how the Japanese would respond when he signed the order locking Japan’s wealth in American banks. “This means war,” he told his chief adviser.

Washington expected a declaration of war from Tokyo, to be quickly followed by an attack on a distant base. In late November, 1941, the Defense Department ordered every military base in the Pacific to remain at high alert because “hostile action” with Japan was possible at any moment.

No one anticipated that, within a week, Japan would launch a massive, long-planned attack on our fleet before it even declared war.

However, readers of the Post knew that Japan was desperate and audacious enough to try something like it. Since 1939, they’d read articles by the Asian correspondent Hallett Abend, which chronicled the rising militancy in Japan. In the Post of March 4, 1939, he wrote about Japan’s vast security and espionage networks and the growing recklessness of its military. In August, he told readers how much Japan was willing to gamble on conquering China:

Japan’s foreign gold reserve, which in 1925 totaled about 2,000,000,000 yen, is now entirely exhausted…the yen is so shaky that Americans, British, French, and Dutch banks in Shanghai will not accept Japanese currency.

If Japan can succeed in carrying out her plans for grab in China, she may become one of the richest nations in the world within a decade. But there will be only very small profits, or no profits at all, so long as the Chinese continue their military resistance.

In April of 1941, he exploded the comforting myth that the Japanese would never have an effective air force because they simply couldn’t fly.

Japanese mothers all carry their babies on their backs, you know. Heads wobble around so much in infancy that adult Japanese have no sense of balance.

Very interesting—but nonsense, of course. The story is typical of the dozens of old wives’ tales going the rounds about the congenital unfitness of the Japanese as aviators.

It is believed that the Air Military Academy trained more than 700 new pilots during 1940, with the probability of a much larger class this year.

The present strength of the army’s air force…[and] the navy’s…gives Japan around 6000 pilots.

In September of last year, [Japan] had upward of 4000 efficient war planes. Since then she has been turning out about 250 planes a month, so that by the end of February of this year, allowing deductions for losses in China, Nippon’s war air fleet topped 5,000 planes.

In contrast, Abend admitted, there were no more than 7,000 military aircraft—and 40% of these were sluggish trainer planes.

Japan had planned on building several thousand more planes in 1941. However—

the shortage of alloy steels and the growing difficulty of importing machine tools has prevented this peak from being reached. The United States will sell Japan none.

Just two weeks before the Pearl attack, Abend gave a surprisingly accurate picture of Japan’s current position toward the U.S.

This untitled cartoon by Herbert Johnson appeared alongside Hallett Abend's April 19, 1941 article, "Yes, The Japanese Can Fly"


Japan is exasperated… She finds herself baffled and checked by the two things she fears most—the might of the American Navy in the Pacific, and the possibility of losing her vital trade with the United States. She must retain that trade at all costs. And she must not risk a collision with the American Navy. Yet, if she goes ahead and grabs everything she wants in the Far East, she will almost certainly risk trouble with our Navy.

Japan has jockeyed herself into a position where it is almost necessary to have all or nothing. If she decides that the United States is the barrier to the coveted all, Japan is quite capable of provoking a war with us, just as an individual Japanese commits hara-kiri rather than confess to failure.

America has studiously remained scrupulously neutral during more than two years of the China Japanese hostilities, even though American sympathies have been overwhelmingly on the side of the Chinese. This neutrality has been carried to the extent of continuing a trade in war materials and supplies with Japan. There is only one thing that would drive America to a reluctant abandonment of the neutral attitude. This would be deliberate and intolerable provocation on the part of Japan herself.

That “deliberate and intolerable” provocation arrived two weeks after this article appeared, and left 2,402 Americans dead.

The next time an enemy struck at America, the fatalities—all civilians—reached 2,996. This new enemy, though, hid his intentions even better than did Imperial Japan.

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