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America’s relationship with Japan

LAURENCE REES: What I find hard to fully understand is this: it is the Japanese movement into Southern Indo-China that triggers the American sanctions in the summer of 1941. But then, in the the subsequent discussions with the Japanese, the Americans don't just say 'you have to pull out of Indo-China' they start saying 'stop your aggression in China'. But the Japanese had been in China since 1937, fighting a war of aggression, and anyone who knew the Japanese leadership knew it was an impossibility that the Japanese would agree to pull back out of China. So I don’t understand how anybody in America could think that demand wouldn’t lead to a situation of dangerous intransigence?

ROBERT DALLEK: I think the feeling in the United States was that Japan could never defeat us. How could they possibly defeat the United States? We are such a larger power, we have such industrial potential. Would they be so foolish as to attack us, to go to war with us? We’ll mop them up and they can’t really fight all that effectively. So we have to take a tough line with them. American public opinion wants it and Congress is happy to see this happen. Take a tough line with them and it’s not going to lead to war. That, I think, is the perspective of the time, of the moment, though of course it was absolutely wrongheaded.  And of course the same thing with the surprise attack at Pearl Harbour, we misread the Japanese and we underestimated what their capacity was.

LAURENCE REES: So what’s behind that American view? Is it arrogance or is it arrogance tinged with racism - what’s behind it?

ROBERT DALLEK: Both, both. I think there’s arrogance, I think there’s racism, and it’s demonstrated by the fact that in February 1942, after the Pearl Harbour attack and we get to war with Japan, what do we do? We incarcerate - the Roosevelt administration incarcerates 110,000 Japanese Americans, 90 percent of whom were citizens.  The Supreme Court of the United States later said it was the greatest violation of civil liberties in the country’s history. Unheard of that it was done. Why? Because on the West Coast there was racism and there was a degree of psychologically striking back at Japan. We were on the defensive, we were ripped up at Pearl Harbour, we had been driven out of the Philippines, the British are losing Burma and the Japanese are on the march: how can we inflict defeat on them? Well, you incarcerate Japanese Americans. They’re “Japs” you see, and there is this racism at the time. Of course, there was tremendous racism in Japan toward Westerners and you know there was a kind of race war that went on in that World War Two.