Why Start a War? Why Fight Dirty?

An interesting query came across H-Japan a while back, but it never got much discussion, so I thought I’d see if we could pique some interest here.

Date: Fri, 24 Mar 2006 02:12:37 -0500
From: “William D. O’Neil
Subject: Query: Japanese policy-making and negotiating stance in the Pacific War

My query has to do with Japanese leadership expectations and policy-making at the outset of the Pacific War.

As is well understood, no one in power in Japan on the eve of the Pacific War expressed any confidence in the nation’s ability to defeat the United States or Britain. While there was no clearly enunciated unified policy, it appears that most policy-makers aspired to gain a negotiated settlement with the United States after inflicting initial defeats on American forces in the Western Pacific and after Britain had been conquered or forced from the war by Nazi Germany.

It is very widely supposed, of course, that the “treacherous” attack on Pearl Harbor so inflamed American opinion as to render a negotiated settlement infeasible. Many, moreover, criticize the Japanese leadership for not having foreseen this. Some argue, on the other hand, that the military advantages attending success in destroying the U.S. fleet could reasonably have been seen as sufficient to justify running risks regarding negotiating positions in making peace.

This is where I start having a problem: the “negotiated settlement” was impossible long before the Pearl Harbor attack, the two sides having fundamentally opposed negotiating goals. Japan wanted the US to abandon the “Open Door” approach to China and take a laissez-faire amoral attitude towards exports to belligerents; The US wanted Japan to attack something to justify joining the war in Europe. While public opinion in the US was not in favor of joining the wars against Japan or Germany before Pearl Harbor, neither was it in favor of enabling them. It’s not entirely clear to me, actually, that the Japanese military would have been satisfied, long term, with the end to the embargos: the doctrine of autarky conflicted with reliance on US, UK and Dutch possessions for vital resources.

Another action or set of actions early in the war seems to have carried at least equivalent risks to Japan’s chances of negotiating a peace — the Japanese Army’s treatment of western and colonial prisoners of war and civil populations.

I can’t think of a case in modern history where governments otherwise motivated to reach an negotiated settlement nonetheless held back on account of civilian or military mistreatment. Anyone? However, the question of civilian control over military atrocities is not, unfortunately, entirely stale, so let’s proceed.

On the face of it, it seems that one must call on one or more of seven hypotheses to explain Japanese policies in this regard:

Hypothesis 1: Policy-makers were simply caught entirely unawares by the behavior of the forces in the field. This of course would imply that the leaders were very far out of touch with the realities of what their forces were doing (and had already done in China) and were thoroughly insulated from any news in this regard.

Hypothesis 2: It was regarded as simply unavoidable if action was to be taken at all. For instance, could military leaders have believed, as pre-modern generals often did, that to try deny the troops their “rights” to pillage, rape, and slaughter would at best be ineffective and at worst could turn them against their leaders?

Hypothesis 3: It was part of a calculated policy of terror, conceived in the expectation that the military benefits of enemy demoralization would outweigh any risks to negotiating position. Again one thinks of pre-modern examples.

Hypothesis 4: Policy-makers failed to envision a strong negative reaction from publics in the U.S. and Britain in response to such actions.

Hypothesis 5: Policy-makers believed that any negative public reaction would have little or no effect on policy decisions.

Hypothesis 6: Everyone took a position of bureaucratic rationalism carried to an extreme — that the process of getting the westerners to the peace table was entirely someone else’s business.

Hypothesis 7: Those involved simply took a thoroughly unthinkingly fatalistic view — something along the lines that the success or failure of negotiations was all in the hands of the gods to such an extent that it made no sense for them to concern themselves with such matters.

I would be very interested in any evidence or evidence-based arguments regarding this.

None of these hypotheses goes a long way to explaining “the Japanese Army’s treatment of western and colonial prisoners of war and civil populations” and the conflation of Peal Harbor with seven years of imperialistic conquest and management makes it hard to address any of them directly. #3 and #4 are standard components of the Pearl Harbor historiography; #5, #6 and #7 are impossible to sustain based on the intense interest within the inner circles of Japanese governments during the China and Pacific campaigns in negotiation. #2 and #3 create a false contrast with “modern” military practices, which is only sustainable in a pretty tautological definition of the issues.

Thinking it through, I realize that — first and foremost — these hypotheses assume that we don’t know what central policies towards captive colonial populations and POWs were. It also assumes that these policies and atrocities played a role, or should have played a role, or were thought to have played a role, in the stalemate on negotations from 1942-1945, and I have never run across any evidence of that.

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