History19 Nov 2007 02:11 pm
The Battle of Midway, fought in early June of 1942, was a turning point in the Pacific War. Seven months prior, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese Imperial Army attacked the American naval base in Pearl Harbor. This is the moment that launched the war between the United States and Japan, and Midway was the moment that turned the conflict in America’s favor. However, like the infamous conclusion of the Pacific War – the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the beginning of the war is controversial. Did Japan attack the United States unprovoked, or did FDR press them into attacking?
This issue has been debated for half a century now, but one of the most fascinating exchanges on the subject took place in November and December of 2000 in the letters pages of the Times Literary Supplement. Arguing that FDR provoked the attack was Gore Vidal, novelist, provocateur, T.V. icon, and one of the greatest English-language essayists alive. Arguing that Japan acted unilaterally was Clive James, novelist, provocateur, T.V. icon, and one of the greatest English-language essayists alive. This was going to be an interesting debate.
Vidal’s argument is that FDR was anxious to go to war against Nazi Germany, but couldn’t do so with the entire electorate against him. (After the horrible losses of World War I only two decades earlier, nobody was eager to enter another European war.) The only thing that could draw the US into war was an attack by an Axis Power (Germany, Italy or Japan): if one of the Axis powers attacked the United States, the others would be obliged by the treaty among them to join in that conflict. In other words, an attack by Japan would force a war with Germany. As his primary bit of evidence that FDR was trying to provoke the Japanese, Vidal cites a November 26, 1941 telegram in which the U.S. president issued an ultimatum to the Japanese government: withdraw from China and renounce the pact with the Axis powers, or the United States would continue its oil embargo of Japan. This, Vidal concludes, gave Imperial Japan no option but war. Furthermore, FDR knew exactly what he was doing.
James’ response was thorough and devastating. In his formulation, “Japan was provoked into war by the Japanese Army.” FDR did not demand that Japan withdraw from China; he demanded that Japan withdraw from French Indo-China (today’s Vietnam) which they had invaded the year before in order to block all imports into China. In return, FDR offered to stop interfering in Asian affairs altogether. Furthermore, the Axis powers were obliged to enter into war on each other’s behalf if they were attacked first. If Japan attacked the US unprovoked, Germany and Italy would have no obligation to attack. In fact, Japan did not support Germany against the USSR after Hitler invaded that country during “Operation Barbarossa” in June 1941.
James had a reason to be passionate on this point: a native Australian, he lost his father in the war, and was well aware throughout his childhood that Imperial Japan had its sights set on his home as well. He had another reason as well: Clive James regarded Vidal as one of his greatest influences, and was horrified to see his mentor fall so low. As it happened, Vidal had lower to go yet. A year after the exchange between Vidal and James, the United States was attacked again: on September 11, 2001, in Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., and New York City. Once again, Vidal was there to claim that the U.S. government saw it coming all along.
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