In honor of the 65th anniversary, HNN has a Pearl Harbor extravaganza this week. There’s a little recap, and the obligatory zombie error smackdown, which are fine. The article by George Feifer, though, is considerably more challenging: he argues that Pearl Harbor is a direct result of Perry’s opening of Japan.
Think about that one a minute. The argument, roughly, goes like this: by forcing Japan to recognize its technological and cultural inferiority, by humiliating the nation, the US put Japan on a path of competitive militarization and power expansion directed at mirroring and surpassing specifically US power, which ultimately resulted in the clash of empires which never coincides with anything convenient in the academic calendar. He even argues, echoing Ishiwara Kanji, that the US shouldn’t have been surprised, given how the US-Japan relationship begins, by the result.
I don’t find that argument any more convincing than the ones which argue a straight line between Pearl Harbor and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are some interesting assertions — not much in the way of evidence, but it’s a short piece — about the military commanders involved, Ishiwara Kanji and Yamamoto Isoroku, but it’s a long way from poetic justice to historical causality. You can’t draw straight lines across broad fields of contingencies. To fixate on the US-Japan relationship, to the exclusion of Japan’s other unsatisfactory international relationships, to fixate on Perry as the cause to the exclusion of basic facts of geography in an age of geo-politics, to distill a complex of policy and principle down to a simplistic vengeance “served cold”, may make for a satisfying narrative, but doesn’t — it seems to me — adhere to any of the principles of good historical logic which we’re supposed to model for our students and leaders.
Feifer is actually doing more than just arguing a long causal chain; he’s also drawing parallels between the opening of Japan and the US intervention in Iraq: misleading public statements about goals (“The shipwrecked-sailors issue was the weapons-of-mass-destruction boondoggle of its day”), cultural supremacism, imperialistic zeal (he compares Commodore Perry with Vice President Cheney, which really puts the “conservative” back in “neo-con”) and the role of coal as the oil of the 19th century. You could find those four elements — really only three: supremacism, imperialism and resource security — in lots of 19th and 20th century interventions. He ends with the portentous lines: “The galled people with the punctured conviction of their own superiority took special pleasure in the sinking of four ships on Battleship Row: the number with which Perry first menaced them. Shouldn’t that prompt thought about the unintended consequences of using force?” The implication here is that even if our adventurism in Iraq turns out well inthe short or medium term, it’s likely to come back to bite us eventually. While I’m sympathetic to this argument in some forms (and I know how hard it is to find a good closing line, too), its overreaching: ultimately there are no uses of force which don’t have possible unintended consequences.
If the Americans hadn’t gotten Japan to sign treaties, others would have — Russians, British — and it would have been no less humiliating. If the Americans hadn’t colonized the Pacific, the Spanish and Dutch and British would still have been there. If the Russians hadn’t been agressive in northeast Asia… well, they wouldn’t have been Russians, and then we’re talking way-out counterfactuals. Japan had a lot of reason to feel threatened, a lot of nations looking down at them, and its success made conflict over resources and territory very likely. Single lines don’t connect all these dots.