I’ve long wondered about the roots and causes of the Second World War. The standard narrative I was brought up with was that it was the evil, expansionist Japanese. (Of course, no English-speaking country is ever evil and expansionist – they just try to do business, which is of course good for everyone, and use military force only in the legitimate defense of their interests …)
A 5 Dec 2009 oped in the New York Times (James Bradley, Diplomacy that will live in infamy), however, comes up with a new person to blame for Japan’s actions in WWII – Theodore Roosevelt, US president from to 1908. Bradley’s starting point is wondering “why did the Japanese attack us in the first place?”
When Theodore Roosevelt was president, three decades before World War II, the world was focused on the bloody Russo-Japanese War, a contest for control of North Asia. President Roosevelt was no fan of the Russians: “No human beings, black, yellow or white, could be quite as untruthful, as insincere, as arrogant — in short, as untrustworthy in every way — as the Russians,” he wrote in August 1905, near the end of the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese, on the other hand, were “a wonderful and civilized people,” Roosevelt wrote, “entitled to stand on an absolute equality with all the other peoples of the civilized world.”
What happened next?
In a secret presidential cable to Tokyo, in July 1905, Roosevelt approved the Japanese annexation of Korea and agreed to an “understanding or alliance” among Japan, the United States and Britain “as if the United States were under treaty obligations.” The “as if” was key: Congress was much less interested in North Asia than Roosevelt was, so he came to his agreement with Japan in secret, an unconstitutional act.
So Japan’s early 20th century military adventures were encouraged by the US president. They developed and expanded their power in an environment where every other nation of consequence was behaving similarly. I say this not to excuse their militarism, but to point out that they were in effect simply emulating their peers, even being encouraged, as these events show, by those peers.
And the American president’s support emboldened them to increase their military might — and their imperial ambitions. In December 1941, the consequence of Theodore Roosevelt’s recklessness would become clear to those few who knew of the secret dealings.
As Christopher Hitchens has observed, writing in the Guardian,
as most historians are now beginning to agree, there were not two world wars but a single global war, which probably began with the Russo-Japanese conflict of 1905 (trigger of the first and best Russian revolution) and may not have ended until the reunification of Germany in 1989, only to start up again in the Balkans and the Caucasus in our own day.
I’m relaying Bradley’s observations for rather different reasons to his. He is finding someone new to blame for the pain caused by the Second World War. But I’m concerned to show that the causes for any particular conflict run far deeper than the immediate provocations that lead to the outbreak of hostilities. And also, that the participants in any conflict tend to mirror and emulate each other’s behaviour. Efforts to build peace demand long-term and insightful observation of hidden global and regional tensions, and sincere efforts to defuse injustice before wars are started.