I have read extensively on military history for many decades, particularly on World War II, and until I saw a recent magazine article alleging the above headline, I had never heard of this allegation.
There have been no lack of conspiracy theories about the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The most prominent one, of course, was that President Franklin Roosevelt knew the attack on Hawaii was coming but that he failed to warn military leaders because he wanted the attack to happen as an excuse to bring the US into World War II.
At that time, Nazi Germany had conquered almost all of Europe, had Great Britain backed into a corner and had invaded the Soviet Union in June, capturing hundreds of thousands of Russian prisoners and gulping up thousands of square miles of territory. Roosevelt was very keen of helping Britain but the idea that he would sacrifice the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet to get the country into the war is ludicrous. That would have meant he would knowingly begin a war while his forces were crippled. So that theory has been pretty much dismissed.
But what about the Soviets’ role? The Russians’ interest in goading the Japanese into attacking the United States was to avoid having to fight a two-front war, against Germany in the west and Japan in the east. If the Japanese went to war with America, it would not have time or resources to fight the Soviets, their thinking went.
The magazine article on which I am basing this column was “The Rise of Imperial Japan,” in the December-January issue of Military History Matters, a British publication that I subscribe to. It turns out the story was first brought to light in a 2012 book, “Operation Snow,” by John Koster.
The Russians would indeed have the need to make their eastern front safe. The Soviet Union and Japan had not gotten along for decades, had engaged in several clashes in east Asia and the Russians still remembered their humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese in a war in 1905 and ’06.
So the two countries signed a non-aggression pact in April, 1941, The agreement was also of benefit to the Japanese because they would not have to worry about the Russians attacking them while they were engaged against the Americans and British in the Pacific.
According to the theory behind Operation Snow, the Russians, to make sure Japan was occupied with fighting elsewhere, decided to secretly goad the Americans into imposing demands and sanctions that the Japanese would find unacceptable and, from their point of view, would have no alternative but to make a preemptive attack on the US.
So Harry Dexter White, a Soviet agent and chief advisor to Treasury Secretary Morgenthau, persuaded the administration to give Japan an ultimatum. If it did not withdraw its forces from China, which it had previously invaded, the US would cut off 90 percent of Japan’s oil supplies, a move that would utterly cripple the country, which had no petroleum resources of its own.
Roosevelt had been making last minute moves to find a peaceful path to the Japanese but White persuaded Secretary of State Cordell Hull into “sabotaging” the negotiations, according to the Operation Snow theory. In any case, the severe sanctions were imposed and weeks later Japan sent six aircraft carriers against Pearl Harbor.
The rest is history. It all may be true. My biggest question is why this contention hasn’t become much more widely known. But, 100 percent accurate or not, the story adds to the fascination that World War II still holds for so many.