Did U.S. Racism Pave Way for Pearl Harbor?

By Charles Johnson

Move the date of Pearl Harbor one week one way or the other on the calendar, and I might not be here. My grandfather, Dwight Lyman Johnson, was a gunnery officer aboard the USS Oklahoma, who swapped his duty roster with a friend to spend the weekend with my grandmother on her birthday. Everyone he knew was killed on that day which shall live in infamy. The Japanese surprise attack left its mark on my grandfather, who fought in every subsequent major battle of the Pacific, winning the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and the Navy Cross, and retiring as a rear admiral in June 1958.

But as we mark the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor this week, it is worth recalling that the war in the Pacific didn’t need to happen the way it did. Had politicians followed the teachings of the Declaration of Independence - that all men are created equal - and not passed racist, exclusionist laws, it needn’t have happened at all.

Racist Democrats, in league with Progressive Republicans, all but guaranteed that the American-friendly government in Tokyo would topple by emboldening the Japanese military, alienating the Japanese people, and clinging to the “new science of politics” - eugenics - successfully if narrowly pioneered by Woodrow Wilson.

In May 1913, the newly inaugurated President Wilson refused to discuss allowing Japanese-Americans to naturalize. In his campaign the previous year, Wilson had cultivated anti-Japanese and anti-Chinese prejudice, while Theodore Roosevelt emphasized fairness. Roosevelt actually won the states where that prejudice was most pronounced - California and Washington - but Wilson won the election.

In short order Wilson appointed as his commissioner-general of immigration Anthony Caminetti, the California state senator who had been a major sponsor of the anti-Japanese Webb Alien-Land Holding Law of 1913, which banned Japanese land-holding. Wilson, during the election campaign, had deliberately avoided taking a stand on California’s long proposed racist laws that limited Japanese immigrants’ rights. He argued that states had every right to pass their own laws: “Nobody can for a moment challenge the constitutional right of California to pass such land laws as she pleases.”

This unwillingness to support Japanese Americans led to foreign-policy rows, just as Roosevelt had worried it might. Japanese ambassador Viscount Sutemi Chinda protested the California law in 1914; Wilson said he was constitutionally unable to do much about it. The Japanese consul general,Kametaro Ijima, also protested the California law, but Wilson ignored him. (Wilson implausibly blamed the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, for the growing discord between the two nations.)

Wilson’s stand was good politics - if poor constitutional thought and public policy. Wilson narrowly won California in his 1916 reelection race, defeating Charles Evans Hughes in the state by a mere 3,800 votes out of nearly a million cast. In 1920, Warren Harding made sure the normally Republican state didn’t tip to the Democrats again by endorsing anti-Japanese restrictions. He won not only California, but every county in the Pacific coast states.

Restriction was popular. Californians approved by a 2-to-1 margin a 1920 law tightening Japanese land restrictions - but opponents of such laws actually saw reason for hope in this, having feared that the initiative might pass by 10-to-1. The Tokyo-based American-Japanese Relations Committee went to work trying to increase “friendship and goodwill” between “the two neighboring nations of the Pacific.” But it was for naught.

On the international stage, too, Wilson rebuffed the Japanese. In February 1919, Japan’s delegation to the Paris Peace Conference proposed an amendment calling for racial equality and equality among the nations: “The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord as soon as possible to all alien nationals of states, members of the League, equal and just treatment in every respect making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.” The Japanese were clearly thinking of their countrymen in America. This proposal passed by a vote of 17-11-0.

But Wilson, as chairman of the conference, overturned it on the grounds that due to the existence of strong opposition, a unanimous vote was required. Japanese public opinion was very much in favor of the amendment, and the Japanese press attacked Wilson, referring to his “dangerous justice,” while cursing the “female demon within him.” With Japanese pride so affronted, the nation’s representatives pressed its territorial grievances with a keen intensity. After giving Japan most of the former German colonies in the Pacific, the Lansing-Ishii Agreement all but ceded China to Japan. In so doing, it set the stage for the Asian war - eventually the Asian theater of World War II - that began with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

 

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Charles C. Johnson is a writer based in Los Angeles and author of a forthcoming biography of Calvin Coolidge. You may contact him at chuckwalla1022@gmail.com.

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