Commentary Magazine


Blame America First — World War II Edition

Today is the 68th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Roosevelt memorably described December 7, 1941, as a “date that will live in infamy,” but as the number of veterans and the witnesses of that war dwindle, its importance in the American calendar has declined. Though the solemn ceremonies in Honolulu’s harbor continue, as far as the New York Times is concerned, the subject of the Japanese surprise attack is nowadays only dragged out of mothballs to make a political point that reinforces its current view of the United States. Thus, the only mention of Pearl Harbor in the print edition of the paper came a day early in an op-ed that placed the blame for the naval disaster and America’s forced entry in that war on Roosevelt.

But not, as author James Bradley points out, on Franklin but on his cousin Theodore, whose presidential term ended nearly 33 years before the Japanese navy set out to sink our Pacific fleet. Bradley’s claim to fame is that he is the author of Flags of Our Fathers, a book that chronicled the lives of the five Marines and one sailor (Bradley’s father) who raised the American flag over Mount Suribachi during the taking of the island of Iwo Jima from the Japanese in February 1945. Bradley’s main theme was that the famous photograph and the patriotic fervor it generated were, in a fundamental sense, fraudulent. His book was the source of an overpraised and equally cynical film by Clint Eastwood (who followed it with a companion film that treated the Japanese side of the battle without the same sort of cynicism). Bradley followed that up with a subsequent book, Fly Boys, which took on the same mission of viewing the war against Japan with moral relativism, and then another new volume, The Imperial Cruise, which elaborates on his thesis that it was all somehow the fault of TR. The Imperial Cruise earned a favorable review from the Times last month.

This revisionist take on the history of World War II may seem familiar to those who have seen the way some have taken our generation’s Pearl Harbor — the 9/11 attacks — and sought to blame it on American foreign policy or support for Israel rather than on America-hating al-Qaeda terrorists. The sheer wrongheadedness of an argument that seeks to mitigate the guilt of those who actually committed these atrocities and instead blame the victims is insufferable. But while most Americans know enough about the contemporary world to dismiss such garbage out of hand, given the well-documented decline in our knowledge of our own history, Bradley’s assault on the first president Roosevelt deserves at least a brief refutation.

First, contrary to Bradley’s thesis, the Japanese needed no encouragement from TR to set them on an imperialist path. The 1868 Meiji Restoration in Japan launched a long period of military and industrial buildup that aimed to create a modern state that would have the power not only to resist Western pressures but also to make the country a regional power. The roots of Japan’s attempt to extend its empire over the entire Pacific in the 1930s and 1940s can be found in that event and the subsequent development of a political and military culture that saw service to the militarized state as a religious duty for all Japanese.

Bradley also accuses TR of siding with the Japanese in their 1905 war with tsarist Russia and thereby facilitating their imperialist ambitions and their brutal control of Korea. But a full decade earlier, Japan had fought a war with China over that same issue without any assistance or encouragement from Roosevelt. As for the peace treaty that Roosevelt brokered (and that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize), far from it being a case of the president openly siding with Japan, as Bradley alleges, the treaty was criticized by many Japanese because its restrained terms took some of the fruits of their military victory away from them, as most of Manchuria was given back to China. Bradley also omits the fact that it was Britain, not the United States, that was the principal military ally of Japan during this period.

We may well look back on the racist attitudes of Theodore Roosevelt and other Americans toward Asia a century ago with some regret. But the idea that our 26th president was in any way responsible for the creation of a Japanese state that viewed the subjugation of the Eastern Hemisphere as a divinely inspired mission for whom any atrocity or deceit was permissible is utterly devoid of historical truth.

While an earlier generation of historical revisionists blamed Franklin Roosevelt for Pearl Harbor because they thought he welcomed a Japanese attack that would convince Americans to join World War II, today’s revisionists have an even broader agenda. As with interpretations of our current battle with Islamists that seek to blame it all on our own sins, Bradley prefers to spin tales about Teddy Roosevelt rather than to face up to the truth about the Japan that his father fought. It speaks volumes about the state of the New York Times that its editors would choose this crackpot historian’s rant as their only acknowledgement of the anniversary of December 7, 1941.

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