December 7, 1941
Today's NYTimes Op Ed page had an interesting piece for Pearl Harbor Day on the unsuccessful efforts by the architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, to dissuade his country from war against the United States in 1941.
Excerpts from the Op Ed piece by Ian Toll:
During the Second World War and for years afterward, Americans despised Yamamoto as an archvillain, the perpetrator of an ignoble sneak attack, a personification of “Oriental treachery.” Time magazine published his cartoon likeness on its Dec. 22, 1941, cover — sinister, glowering, dusky yellow complexion — with the headline “Japan’s Aggressor.” He was said to have boasted that he would “dictate terms of peace in the White House.”
Yamamoto made no such boast — the quote was taken out of context from a private letter in which he had made precisely the opposite point. He could not imagine an end to the war short of his dictating terms in the White House, he wrote — and since Japan could not hope to conquer the United States, that outcome was inconceivable. . . .
In the course of his naval career, he traveled widely through the United States and Europe, learning enough English — mostly during a two-year stint at Harvard soon after World War I — to read books and newspapers and carry on halting conversations. He read several biographies of Lincoln, whom he admired as a man born into poverty who rose to become a “champion” of “human freedom.”
From 1926 to 1928 he served as naval attaché in Washington; while in America, he journeyed alone across the country, paying his way with his own meager salary, stretching his budget by staying in cheap hotels and skipping meals. His travels revealed the growing power of the American industrial machine. “Anyone who has seen the auto factories in Detroit and the oil fields in Texas,” he would later remark, “knows that Japan lacks the national power for a naval race with America.” . . .
And yet even in the final weeks of peace, Yamamoto continued to urge that the wiser course was not to fight the United States at all. “We must not start a war with so little a chance of success,” he told Admiral Nagano. He recommended abrogating the Tripartite Pact and pulling Japanese troops out of China. Finally, he hoped that the emperor would intervene with a “sacred decision” against war. But the emperor remained silent.
On Dec. 7, 1941, all eight battleships of the Pacific Fleet were knocked out of action in the first half hour of the conflict. More than 180 American planes were destroyed, mostly on the ground, representing about two-thirds of the total American military aircraft in the Pacific theater. The Japanese carriers escaped with the loss of just 29 planes.
The Japanese people exulted, and Yamamoto was lifted in their eyes to the status of a demigod. Now he could dictate his wishes to the Tokyo admirals, and would continue to do so until his death in April 1943, when American fighters shot down his aircraft in the South Pacific. . . .Yamamoto intuitively knew that sneak attacks often end up poorly for the aggressor because of the intense passions and mobilizations they engender. Yamamoto knew that the Pearl Harbor attack really had to deliver a knock-out punch, or it would go horribly wrong. You can see this dynamic playing out today at card tables all across the state. As a newly installed ruling party in 2011, the Republicans in Wisconsin chose to govern in juggernaut fashion, including their infamous "dropping of the bomb" on public employees and school teachers:
But perhaps the most important part of Yamamoto’s legacy was not his naval career at all, but the part he played in the boisterous politics of prewar Japan. He was one of the few Japanese leaders of his generation who found the moral courage to tell the truth — that waging war against the United States would invite a national catastrophe. As Japan lay in ashes after 1945, his countrymen would remember his determined exertions to stop the slide toward war. In a sense, Isoroku Yamamoto was vindicated by Japan’s defeat.
"This is an exciting time. This is — you know, I told my cabinet, I had a dinner the Sunday, or excuse me, the Monday right after the 6th. Came home from the Super Bowl where the Packers won, and that Monday night I had all of my cabinet over to the residence for dinner. Talked about what we were gonna do, how we were gonna do it. We’d already kinda built plans up, but it was kind of the last hurrah before we dropped the bomb. And I stood up and I pulled out a picture of Ronald Reagan, and I said, you know, this may seem a little melodramatic, but 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan, whose 100th birthday we just celebrated the day before, had one of the most defining moments of his political career, not just his presidency, when he fired the air-traffic controllers."