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Roosevelt and Japan

LAURENCE REES: What is your reading of Roosevelt's conduct in relation to the origins of the war against Japan?

ROBERT DALLEK: Roosevelt, I believe, was very eager to keep Japan at bay. He did not want to see a war with Japan. He was afraid it would be a terrible distraction from the war in Europe, and he did not want to get into a war with Japan. On the other hand, he felt he could not let Japan run wild because the sentiment in the United States about the fighting fronts was much more anti-Japanese than it was anti-German. People were much more preoccupied with what the Japanese were doing in Asia than they were with what was happening in Europe. And so Roosevelt feels he has to do certain things in order to demonstrate to his public that he is taking a firm stand, because people are very sympathetic towards China.

China is America’s favourite ally in World War Two, there’s this kind of sympathy; China’s never been an imperial power, like Britain, and after the attack on the Soviet Union it doesn’t have this communist system which is so anathema to what we have here in the United States. And so there is this sense that Japan is a prime enemy, and most disliked in the United States, so Roosevelt needs to put on certain embargoes; public opinion is never far from his mind. Now, he also does want to punish them for the kind of aggression they’re committing in China, there’s no question about it, but he doesn’t want to see a war with Japan and he’s balancing this. And, of course, what I remember is the famous conversation he has with the British Ambassador in November of 1941 when the British Ambassador asks him to go to Congress and ask for a declaration of war.

Now, Roosevelt, of course, in May of 1941, after the defeats in the Balkans - that were inflicted by, first, Mussolini, although he stumbles and Hitler has to come in - Roosevelt declares a state of national emergency. This gives him heightened powers and it raises the anxiety in the United States about this whole war business. When he’s asked by the British Ambassador in November 1941 about asking for a declaration of war, he said he could do it and he could get majority votes in the Congress, but it would be insufficient, because what he understood was that before you can fight a war in which you’re going to sacrifice blood and treasure to the extent which would be required in this global conflict, you needed to have a stable consensus in the United States for the fighting, you needed to have a rock bed commitment on the part of the public to fight this war, and it wasn’t there yet.

Now, Pearl Harbour was a godsend to him. Again, not because he contrived it, it was a genuine surprise. We had the fleet in Pearl Harbour and saw it as a deterrent to the Japanese. The Japanese saw it as a target and so they attacked. We were actually genuinely surprised by that attack. And, of course, we did have 'Magic', this ability to read coded Japanese messages, but, as the historian Roberta Wohlstetter once said in this famous book, ‘Pearl Harbour, Warning and Decision. A National Failure To Anticipate’ there was an awful lot of static showing the Japanese might attack at certain other points in the Pacific, Asia. And so we didn’t see the attack, but it was a godsend to Roosevelt because it instantly brought the country together. And he then made that famous speech ‘A date that will live in infamy’. And so it was very effective in unifying the country.