Why the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and The Dutch East Indies

In the years leading up to the outbreak of the Pacific war the Japanese had invaded northeast China and the escalating conflict between China and Japan influenced U.S. relations with both nations. The United States was the main supplier of oil, steel, iron, and other commodities needed by the Japanese military. This meant that the Roosevelt Administration could restrict the flow of military supplies into Japan and so force Japan to halt its aggression in China. After January 1940, the United States combined a strategy of increasing aid to China through larger credits and the Lend-Lease program with a gradual move towards an embargo on the trade of all militarily useful items with Japan

Unable or unwilling to control the military, Japan’s political leaders sought greater security in August, 1940 by establishing the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. By doing this they openly proclaimed Japan’s intention to drive the Western imperialist nations from Asia. The real aim of this Japanese-led project was to become independent of supplies from the West and not, despite all propaganda, to “liberate” the long-subject peoples of Asia.

In quick succession the Japanese government signed a ‘Tripartite-pact’ with the aggressor powers Germany and Italy and a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union. Then, on July 24, 1941 came an ‘agreement’ with Vichy France that allowed the Japanese to use the French Indochina bases. They promptly occupied the great naval anchorage Camranh Bay and soon afterwards Saigon. Having covered their flanks the military were now looking south…

Thoroughly alarmed by this growing threat in South-East Asia, the United States responded on July 26 by temporarily halting diplomatic negotiations with Japanese representatives, instituting a full embargo on all export of oil, steel and scrap iron to Japan and freezing Japanese assets in U.S. banks. In one stroke Japan lost 75% of its overseas trade. Worse, she was left with oil stocks barely sufficient for three years of peace or not even half that period in wartime.

The Japanese Prime Minister Konoye called in Ambassador Joseph Grew and secretly offered to give up Indochina and China, except for a buffer region in the north to protect Japan from the Soviet Union. In return he asked the U.S. to broker a peace with China and opening up the oil pipeline. Konoye told Grew that Emperor Hirohito knew of his initiative and was ready to give the order for Japan’s retreat.

But the US state department spurned the offer and did not inform president Roosevelt until much later; Konoye fell from power and was replaced by General Hideki Tojo.

General Hideki Tojo arriving at Nichols Field, Manila, late 1942

General Hideki Tojo arriving at Nichols Field, Manila, late 1942

Having to choose between the death of the empire or to fight for its life, Japan decided to fight. Emperor Hirohito approved the the operations plan for a war against the Western Powers on November 5, 1941. And one of its most important objectives was to seize the Dutch East Indies, producer of oil, bauxite, coal, rubber, copra, nickel, timber, quinine, as well as important foodstuffs such as sugar, rice, tea, and coffee.

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