Pearl Harbor and the longue duree

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.


  1. I agree with you, Jonathan, that no single line of causation emerges from the historical record as Feifer would have his readers believe, but I don’t think that pointing out the imperialistic ambitions of other countries is a particularly compelling counterargument. The fact that Britain, France, or any number of other powers might have forced Japan to engage diplomatically eventually if the U.S. hadn’t doesn’t change the reality that Perry and Townend engendered a great deal of anger and discontent. I’m not arguing in favor of Feifer’s piece, and I haven’t (yet) read his book. But it does seem fair to me to foreground the act of “opening” Japan in terms of various kinds of cultural consequences (though perhaps in a less sweeping way) even if the alternatives might have been even worse.

  2. I’m quite curious about his book myself.

    I’m sorry, though, I just don’t see how his argument stands up. Even in terms of “cultural consequences” (which I agree are his strongest suit), he’d have to account for at least some of the contingencies or be forced to admit that Perry’s intervention was being used as a rationalization by the Japanese, rather than being a proximate cause.

    And if, as you suggest, “the alternatives might have been even worse,” then he has a responsibility to admit that up front, and to avoid fatuously ahistorical conclusions.

  3. I didn’t find his argument very convincing either.

    Merely because a particular historical event was contingent on the occurrence of some previous event does not mean that it inevitably followed said event. OK, so maybe we cannot realistically imagine Pearl Harbor happening WITHOUT Perry opening Japan, but I can imagine any number of scenarios in which Perry opens Japan and the Pearl Harbor attack never occurs. You could unravel the chain at so many points.

    Feifer acts as if primary motivation for the attack was some basically emotional desire for revenge over the Black Ships, while completely ignoring the situation at the time, when the US was cutting off Japan’s fuel supplies and war had been considered all but inevitable at least throughout 1941.

    Japan is FAR from the only country humiliated by Western Imperialism, or even American Imperialism, but it is the only one I can think of off the top of my head that actually waged a competitive conventional war against a former oppressor. If the path from that early humiliation, through industrialization and economic development to a final act of revenge was so inevitable, where are the other cases? Why was Japan’s humiliation so special, so cosmically intense, that they went where so many other countries did not?

  4. OK, so maybe we cannot realistically imagine Pearl Harbor happening WITHOUT Perry opening Japan

    Actually, I have an easier time with that than with the converse: Pearl Harbor was one of those historical events that, in retrospect, seems overdetermined by multiple factors: imperialism, technology, resource security, geography, racialism and nationalism, migration….

    Of course, if you’re willing to ignore intervening contingencies and take a really long view, you could probably find a triggering humiliation as the point-of-origin for almost any conflict. Those other humiliating colonial experiences? Wars waiting to happen.

  5. To be fair to Feifer, I don’t think he’s saying that Pearl Harbor was simply a consequence of chance emotion. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect Perry must have been taught in naval strategy while the Pearl Harbor officers were rising through the ranks. On the other hand, the intellectual and ideological positions that came to power after Perry had been a strong undercurrent for decades, or some could argue over a century. Any event that undermined the bakufu’s status quo would probably have led to the same result. I agree with J. Dresner that Pearl Harbor seems destined by too many factors to have been avoidable had Perry not gone. Plus, what record would we have of Okinawa without his diary and illustrations?

  6. Apologies for my long delay in responding to Jonathan Dresner’s comment about my “Why We Should Remember Our Role in Forcing Open Japan When We Commemorate Pearl Harbor,” published on December 4th. Apparently Mr. Dresner is a careless reader or a devotee of the old trick of refuting an argument not made by an author but by the refuter, who has put it in the author’s mouth. Nowhere did I argue the nonsense that a single connects “all these dots,” or, specifically, that “Pearl Harbor is a direct result of Perry’s opening of Japan.” On the contrary, I took pains to state that “that wasn’t the whole truth – not nearly the only cause of the ‘sneak attack…” With so many real issues to discuss and debate, what’s the use of that kind of challenge? Is it a new (or old) form of academic spin?

  7. In his original article, George Feifer wrote: The wallop to her self-esteem by the unabashed imperialist’s naked bullying led more or less directly to more pain in Pearl Harbor. During the 88 years between those events, the Japanese never forgot their humiliation by the mighty East Asia Squadron that turned their lives upside down. The pleasure of revenge – unknown and unsuspected by Americans – swelled their jubilation in 1941, when their forces at last hit back, righteously as they saw it.
    Sure, there’s a “more or less” in there. It doesn’t help: I stand by my reading of the article and by my genuine curiousity with regard to the larger arguments in his study of the opening of Japan. I’m particularly struck by his reference to “the color’s usual implication” with regard to the Black Ships; I admit that I’ve never paid that much attention to color associations in Japan and wonder whether the color really carried the same weight pre-bakumatsu.

  8. I just read the book and agree that the causal connection between Perry’s black ships and Pearl Harbor is overplayed, particularly as it appears to be in service to of a cautionary message about blowback from the Iraq invasion. The book is quite enjoyable until he starts in with Freudian analysis of Japan’s wounded ego. Is Perry’s visit also to blame for the atrocities in Nanking and the Russo-Japanese war? How about the depression which left the people of Japan hungry and certainly looking for a way towards prosperity? And ignoring the strategic aspects of the attack on Pearl Harbor in favor of personal grudges and engaging in numerology (4 battleships sunk = 4 Black ships) only weakens the argument.

    There is no doubt that people have long memories, but to be honest, most people have long forgotten WWI in favor of the intervening battles and it would be difficult to drum up an attack now based on anything Kaiser Wilhelm ever did.

    Drawing parallels and decrying gunboat diplomacy is fine, but the final chapters of the book exploring the psychological effects of Perry’s actions needs more supporting evidence to be taken seriously.

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