What the Lead Up to Pearl Harbor Says About US-China Relations Today
Featuring Pre-WWII Self Reliance, Export Controls, Financial Sanctions, and Bad Intel
In the run-up to WWII, relations US and Japan raised a startling amount of themes that echo in today’s US-China relationship. Japan’s main foreign policy priority was to achieve self-reliance while the US believed such aims were inimical to their vision of the mid-20th century “rules-based order.” Bureaucracies fought over how to implement financial sanctions and export controls. Governments struggled to process murky intelligence and fundamentally misunderstood what made their adversary tick.
Stony Brook University’s Michael Barnhart, author of the 1987 Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search for Economic Security, 1919–1941, came on the podcast last week to discuss. Scholar’s Stage essayist Tanner Greer cohosts.
Transcription and editing by Callan Quinn.
The Pursuit of Self-Reliance and Economic Security
Jordan Schneider: What was driving this vision for self-reliance and economic security in Japan in the twenties and thirties?
Michael Barnhart: Let me give you some general background on how decision-making worked in imperial Japan. The Meiji Constitution, that is the constitution that the new Japanese elites threw up after they overthrew the old feudal Tokugawa regime, was very firm in stipulating that responsibility for the defense of the empire rested with the emperor. But the emperor was a figurehead. What that really meant was that national defense policy for Japan rested in the hands of the army and navy.
There was no civilian oversight. Whoever was prime minister had no say whatsoever in the defense policies that Japan pursued. If you want to talk about the making of Japanese national defense policy in the twenties and thirties, what we're really talking about is what the imperial army and navy want to do in the twenties and thirties.
When Japan overthrew the feudal regime and created the modern one, it very deliberately sent missions all around the world to study alternate forms of government and determine which ones were best suited - really copied - for Japan's purposes.
The navy took Britain as their model because in the 1880s the British Navy was top of the hill. The army though took Germany for its model because it concluded, due to the Franco-Prussian war that had resulted in the formation of Germany, that Germany had pound for pound, rifle for rifle the best military in the world.
That's great, except Germany loses the First World War. Whether they copied the wrong model becomes something of an obsession for the imperial Japanese army during, but especially after, the First World War. They come to a very alarming conclusion, but also one that is reassuring at the same time.
Japanese army studies find that pound for pound, rifle for rifle, soldier for soldier, tank for tank the German army was the best in the First World War. But Germany lost because of things that were beyond the control of the army itself.
The German war economy was dependent on too many materials that it had to import, materials that the British Navy would not permit it to import. So it was really the German economy that lost the war, the lack of self-sufficiency.
That was bad news for Japan because, if anything, Japan after the First World War is even more vulnerable to economic cutoffs than Germany had been before it.
The logical solution as far as the imperial army is concerned is that Japan has got to become self-sufficient. That means self-sufficient in two regards.
Firstly, Japan's got to become a modern industrial economy, which it was not in 1920. The chief Japanese export in 1920 is silk; salmon is second.
The second problem though for self-sufficiency is resources. Here's a country that imports 90% of its petroleum, overwhelmingly from the United States. At least for the Japanese navy, the number one enemy is the United States. These two things don't go together.
How is Japan going to become self-sufficient in oil or iron or optical quality quartz or any number of resources? The answer is territorial expansion, to expand the Japanese empire to include ready access to all of these materials. And that's what the imperial army sets out to do.
The navy has very different plans and ideas, and that's going to lead to a real problem for Japan because the army and navy can't agree on what defense policy should be.
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Invading China was Really Stupid
Tanner Greer: How does this lead to an invasion of China? If the goal is to be economically self-sufficient, this seems to work at cross purposes for waging a giant great power war.
Michael Barnhart: Over the long haul, invading China is exactly the wrong thing for Japan to do. It burns up the resource stock they already have. It antagonizes the United States and the West. Generally, it's overall a stupid move. Why do they do it? There are a couple answers to that.
The first one may not be so obvious. The imperial army in particular wants to create this self-sufficient economy with the army at the lead. There are lots of domestic obstacles to do that inside Japan. The constitution gives them complete control of national defense policy, but it doesn't give them complete control over politics.
Japan has elections and parliamentary parties. During these years, the parliament actively resists the army's efforts, especially army control over the Japanese economy. But if they invade Manchuria and create what really is a puppet state, that's a state under the army's direct control.
The army sees Manchuria as a model and a lab. They try out making an efficient state under military control. They can try and see what works in Manchuria.
Jordan Schneider: And what about the rest of China?
Michael Barnhart: To answer that question, we have to introduce another variable, which is the factions inside the imperial army. While the situation is pretty complex, there are basically two factions that are contesting for control in the early 1930s.
One calls itself the Imperial Way Faction and the other is the Control Faction, but I call it the Total War Faction. These two factions have very different ideas about how to proceed with the protection of Japan.
The Imperial Way Faction aren't really interested in economics or self-sufficiency. They don’t believe they’re ever going to be the economic equivalent of the West.
For them, the number one enemy is not China; it's the Soviet Union. It's the war that a lot of them fought as younger officers in 1904 and 1905, and they see a communist Russia as an even bigger threat than the old czarist Russia. The Soviet Union is strong, it’s vigorous, it's internally organized and it's driven by a coherent ideology. It's a real menace to the safety of Japan.
They stipulate that 1936 is going to be the year when they attack the Soviet Union. To do that, they’ve got to have a safe flank. Manchuria has got to be absolutely safe. That means that the Chinese threat to reunify Manchuria has to be dealt with. And so it's the Imperial Way Faction that says to preempt the Chinese nationalists and make them impotent.
The response of the Total War Faction is that this is nuts. They basically agree with the logic, but confronting the Chinese and the Soviets is just stupid. The Total War Faction tries to veto actions against both China and the Soviet Union.
This leads to a great deal of friction in the imperial army. There's no way to satisfy the growing tensions between the factions. It eventually gets solved by outright assassination. Imperial Way guys assassinate the head of the Total War Faction.
The Total War Faction appeals to the emperor. There are a whole host of trials where basically the perpetrators get off scot-free. But the emperor indicates that he wants the Total War guys in control of the army. They get that in essence by the mid 1930s but not completely. It's really the hotheads in the Imperial Way Faction that trigger the Marco Polo Bridge incident in 1937 and the wider war.
The Western Reaction to the Nanjing Massacre
Jordan Schneider: The Nanjing Massacre is maybe the first of Japan's actions in China that resonates past the folks who are freaking out at the State Department and makes it onto national and international news. FDR is talking about how there is an epidemic of world lawlessness and the world needs to quarantine it somehow or another.
What were the dynamics going on in the US side as they looked at what what Japan was doing in this time period?
Michael Barnhart: The quarantine business and Nanjing Massacre are a quintessential example of Franklin Roosevelt's touch for media relations. Long before Nanjing, and long before the quarantine speech, the United States Navy didn't like Japan very much. Japan was the number one enemy.
People forget Roosevelt was assistant secretary in the navy. In the First World War, he was very close to the navy and he felt it was part of his club. He too didn't like Japan very much and he was always looking for ways to get American public opinion into a stance that was not necessarily anti-Japanese, but that would allow him to pursue more active measures against Japan.
Then comes the Nanjing Massacre, almost tailor-made, because it's American Christian missionaries who relay the news of this back to the United States. This stuff is read in many American congregations throughout the land, and he just jumps on the wave.
It doesn't really fly much in Congress, but it does accomplish Roosevelt’s objective of setting the table for future concrete measures against the Japanese.
Jordan Schneider: Do you think with a different president that the actions in East Asia that Japan was taking wouldn't have made it on the radar at such a high level so early?
Michael Barnhart: Absolutely. When Japan invades Manchuria in 1931, Herbert Hoover is the president. And you have officials inside the US Department of State ringing alarm bells and saying that this is a challenge to the East Asian order, this is what will come to be known as appeasement and we can't let Japan get away with it.
They're already calling in 1931 for very harsh American economic pressure against the Japanese. Hoover just says to forget about it as it would mean war with Japan and there's nothing in the Far East that is of sufficient American interest to warrant a war.
Tanner Greer: One of the unique things about your book compared to a lot of the other literature out there, and one of the reasons why I go around waving your book at everybody in DC I can find, is the main characters for the most part are mid-level officials.
Most of the people in DC are never going to be a Roosevelt. They're never going to be the guy at the very top, but that's where most of the books and people who do foreign policy look at. But you look at this mid-level. How did you come to decide that these are the people we need to be talking about?
Michael Barnhart: Even when the president is paying attention - and we've had presidents who have not paid attention at all the recent past - even when we have a very active president who's paying attention to the minutia of domestic and foreign policy, it's just one guy.
The great majority of time, America's face to the world is not the president's. It's the mid-level bureaucrats, Grew in Tokyo or Hornbeck in the Far East, for example. These are people whose desk job is to focus on these particular issues.
When the president does turn his attention to these issues and asks for recommendations, they're in a position to say what can and cannot be done. That turns out to have very fateful consequences, particularly for Japan in 1940.
Factionalism in the US over Japan
Jordan Schneider: What are the equivalents to Japan’s Total War and Imperial Way factions in the US in terms of different theories that these bureaucrats have of Japan in the 1930s?
Michael Barnhart: The overwhelming consensus inside the Department of State, and this does not change from 1931 to 1941, is that Japan may be a giant but the giant has feet of clay.
The Americans are acutely aware of exactly the same thing that the imperial army is worried about. Japan is a long way from self-sufficiency and it's going to be pretty easy to put pressure on the Japanese given their economic vulnerability. So easy, in fact, that the prevailing judgment is that the Japanese will never even risk a war against the Americans because it would be so economically catastrophic to them.
Jordan Schneider: What are the policy options that get debated over as we pass into 1938 and 1939?
Michael Barnhart: One is simply to do nothing. The people in the Department of State whose concern is Europe and are worried about Nazi Germany argue for doing exactly that.
Too bad if China gets conquered, it’s a shame if Japan creates an empire in East Asia, but that's not going to endanger the national security of the United States. But a Nazi Germany victory in Europe? That's something that we really have to worry about.
With the combined resources of Europe, we're looking at the physical conquest the United States. So the Europeanists in the State Department say to leave the Japanese alone. They're inconsequential.
Then the Far Eastern specialists, they didn’t call it East Asia back then, they have exactly the opposite view. They say that if you engage in appeasement in Asia, you weaken the case for foreign policy in Europe. We've got to be consistent across the board.
These are the debates that really preoccupied the State Department, and Roosevelt when he paid attention to them, from 1938 right through to Pearl Harbor.
Export Controls: Why Japan Couldn’t Get Optical Quality Quartz
Jordan Schneider: So what did the policy end up being? What sort of measures did the US government put on Japan as we go through the later half of the 1930s and up to 1941?
Michael Barnhart: There's a terrific irony in this, especially given what we just talked about, because the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 allows the imposition of export controls in the United States.
The original idea behind those export controls was to ensure that Nazi Germany didn't get its hands on strategically important goods. And secondly, the Western democracies, Britain and France, would have priority in getting a hold of their strategically important goods.
But the way it worked out is that it was Japan that was hurt the most by these export controls because Japan was less self-sufficient than Germany had been. For example, banning the export of optical quality quartz hurts Germany a little but Germany has other resources. Japan does not.
Jordan Schneider: I love reading these debates on what level of gasoline should we sell them? It has parallels of one-to-one with what level of nanometer we should allow Huawei to buy services from.
Michael Barnhart: That's something the bureaucrats debate. Roosevelt's never going to worry about that, but the Treasury and the State Department do.
Jordan Schneider: I did love the weird interdependencies that the US had from Japanese imports. You talk about how the army at one point was stressed out because they made their parachutes from Japanese silk.
Does This All Sound Familiar?
Tanner Greer: One of the things I often think about when I read this book is to what extent there are general lessons that can be taken from it versus things that are specific to this exact historical circumstance.
I wonder if there's any thoughts you have on general lessons to be taken from how you understand and interact with an opaque, hard-to-understand, authoritarian-trending system, from your historical study?
Michael Barnhart: You need as much information as you can get. You need to send US officials to the Beijing Olympics, for example. You want as many American professionals gathering information in China.
They don't have to be government officials. They can be journalists, they can be private citizens, but just ears to the ground to figure out how decisions get made. Who are the key levers? Who do you need to know?
If I were a czar put in charge of this, the first priority would be to get information and figure out how decisions get made inside China.
Because if you don't know that, you risk running into the same problems that the Americans ran into.
Jordan Schneider: Which is why all the funders out there listening should reach out to make the ChinaTalk open source CCP class a thing!
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Quote: "... the prevailing judgment is that the Japanese will never even risk a war against the Americans because it would be so economically catastrophic to them."
I thought this was interesting as well, because that is exactly what Japan ended up doing. So, I chased down that whole story in a two-part post on Pearl Harbor. Here is the second post, which tries to look at how Japan prepared for the attack and highlights is was more of a desperate gamble to end up in a better spot when, inevitably from Japan's viewpoint, the US entered the war.
"Japan relied heavily on imports from the United States to fuel its prewar industrial growth, most specifically on oil and metals. In the runup to World War II, tensions escalated between the two countries as Japanese aggression in China and Southeast Asia progressed.
Starting in 1939, the Roosevelt administration began implementing embargos on raw materials. The first embargoes were for aircraft construction materials, followed thereafter with increasingly critical metals until a final blow was dealt with an oil embargo in 1941. At the time, the United States was the source for 80% of oil imports in Japan, and without that trade-based lifeline, Japan was set to bleed down its store of oil reserves over the next twelve months.
Up until that point, Imperial Japan had relied on diplomatic routes to attempt to ease the vise of America’s embargo, but the restrictions on oil made it clear that the Roosevelt administration intended to punish Japan for its aggressiveness and reverse the gains Japan had made militarily. Violent conflict seemed inevitable at that point, with the Japanese military believing itself a superior people destined to control the lands it was invading while at the same time recognizing that the United State’s military strength could not be challenged head-on.
The military turned to the Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Admiral Yamamoto..."