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Japan Turns Against the U.S.

Published: December 4, 2014

When Japan crossed the Manchurian border to invade China in 1937, it expected an easy conquest. But two year later, its army had fallen far behind schedule, and success was nowhere in sight.

“Japan has thrown her full military strength into China and has not been able to clinch a victory,” Hallett Abend reported. (“Japan Picks On Uncle Sam,” November 25, 1939) “Nor has she been able to make any profit from the venture. The expenditure of manpower and of money goes on and on, and seems destined to continue indefinitely. Japan cannot accept blame for this failure — some other power must be made a villain for the piece.”

The imperial Japanese government needed foreign enemies to remain in power Since the 1920s, it had become increasingly totalitarian, dedicated to growing its empire through military conquest. But its plans for conquest required a firm hold on power at home. By asserting that foreign governments were planning to conquer Japan, the government could keep the state in a permanent state of readiness. Foreign threats also justified suppressing democratic opponents in the government and forcing more of the population into military service.

Russia had been an attractive enemy. (The two countries had remained at odds since Japan had emerged as the surprise victor in the 1905 Russo-Japanese war.) The Soviet army in Siberia presented a constant threat to Japan’s armies just across the border in Manchuria. In 1938, the two countries had fought a battle over this border. When they clashed again in 1939, the Russians soundly defeated the Japanese who now kept a safe distance from the Soviet army.

Great Britain, the dominant colonial power in Asia, was a natural enemy. And now British interests in China were complicating Japan’s attempt to sweep across the country. And in the Pacific, the British fleet was a serious threat to Japan’s navy.

In 1939, the Japanese identified a new enemy. That year, the U.S. had revoked its 1911 trade agreement with Japan, hoping it could pressure Japan to end its China venture and scrap its New Order program for East Asia. “The abrogation of the trade treaty has scared and angered Japan,” Abend wrote. “She fears being cut off from her main sources for essential war supplies, and is dumfounded at the threat of having to lose her best market for her major export, silk.”

Chinese Relief Poster

Japan’s growing hostility toward the U.S. was their response to America’s growing support for the Chinese. Many Americans helped gather donations for the people of China who were fighting the Japanese invaders. Some, like the United China Relief, which produced this poster, drew parallels between China’s struggle for sovereignty and America’s own revolution.

The war in Europe had already hurt Japan’s export market. With European nations busily arming themselves, Japan found it difficult to purchase weapons for its China venture. Meanwhile credit from European sources was drying up, which left the U.S. as its last source for resource. Japan’s reliance on American oil was a point of particular vulnerability. So the Tokyo government decided to push back at the U.S.

The Japanese press, which was strictly controlled by the Imperial government, began running stories about American aggression against Japan, hinting that the U.S. was planning to attack the islands.

“Uncle Sam is now regarded by the Japanese public as the big bad man of the world,” wrote Abend. “No mention is made of the two years of American official patience and forbearance, during which there were more than 600 flagrant violations of American rights and properties in China. The Japanese public has no knowledge of the fact that more than 600 American protests are on file in Tokyo, and that few of these cases have been adjusted. The list grows longer every week.”

Despite its anger at the rape of China, America continued trading with Japan. The U.S. had “overwhelming sympathy” for China, Abend wrote, but it remained committed to neutrality. And American businesses continued selling steel and oil to Japan’s forces.

Abend’s article concludes with an observation I’ve often found in articles of this time, all of which anticipate the climax of Japan’s opposition to the American presence in the Pacific. “only one thing … would drive America to a reluctant abandonment of that neutral attitude. This would be deliberate and intolerable provocation on the part of Japan herself. Common sense should lead Japan to reverse her anti-American campaign.”

As long as Japan could keep buying oil, it wouldn’t want common sense.

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