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

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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.



President Calvin Coolidge, in contrast, admired the Japanese throughout his political career. He and his administration did all they could to prevent some of the more unreasonable attacks against them, though to no avail. At a speech to the Roxbury Historical Society on Bunker Hill Day (June 17, 1918), Coolidge - then lieutenant governor of Massachusetts – listed the Japanese “reforms of our own times,” toward modernity, as part of the longstanding “conflict between privilege and freedom.”

In 1918, Hara Takashi became the first commoner to serve as prime minister; Coolidge’s invocation in the same speech of the Japanese experiment in democracy - he later ranked it alongside the American Revolution - is further evidence of his genuine belief that all mankind was capable of being ruled by “reason” rather than by “custom.” As he said of these reforms: “Class and caste and place, all the distinctions based on appearance and accident were giving way before reality. Men turned from distinctions which were temporal to those which were eternal. The sovereignty of kings and the nobility of peers was swallowed up in the sovereignty and nobility of all men. ... The rule of the people had begun. ... It was an example of the great law of human progress and civilization.”

And yet, progress was difficult for the Japanese and seemed to have definite limits, especially when the military, served not the civilian government, but the emperor. In 1921, the reformist Takashi was assassinated and Japan descended into a combination of military despotism and what one scholar called “government by assassination.” (“The '30s began early in Japan,” another historian noted.) A government of consent gave way to a government of compulsion and violence -and the peace went with it.

]In 1932, when 11 naval officers assassinated Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi for agreeing to the terms of a naval-limitations treaty, it signed in blood what had already become plain in fact: The Japanese military was firmly in control. The fear Capt. Frank H. Schofield expressed at Paris in 1919 turned out to be well founded: “Japan has no rival in the Pacific except America. Every ship built or acquired by Japan can have in mind only opposition to American naval strength in the Pacific.”

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court and the U.S. Senate eroded whatever hope there might have been of an accommodation on the issue of the rights of the Japanese nationals in the U.S. The case of Takao Ozawa, who argued his appeal to become an American citizen all the way up to the Supreme Court in 1922, was particularly poignant; his story was well-publicized and sensationalized in Japan. Ozawa had seemingly done everything worthy of praise by the standards of the time - he spoke English at home, worked for an American company, studied at the University of California, and even attended Christian churches.

But when he began applying for citizenship in 1914, successive courts denied his candidacy on the grounds that naturalization was available only to people of white or African descent. The Supreme Court conceded that Ozawa was “well qualified by character and education,” also noting the “culture and enlightenment of the Japanese people,” but still found against him, and them, on the grounds that the “science of ethnology” made clear that the Japanese were not Caucasians. Still, the Court made clear that it was simply following congressional intent and that its decision should not be taken as “a suggestion of individual unworthiness or racial inferiority” - which is exactly how the Japanese press took it.

California senator Hiram Johnson, a leading progressive in his day and a past candidate for the presidency, argued that the ongoing legislative efforts that restricted all immigration on an equal basis were wrongheaded because they failed to understand the distinctiveness of the Japanese. California’s other senator, Democrat James D. Phelan, agreed and pointed to what he called the “incontrovertible fact that the Japanese continue ever Japanese, and that their allegiance is always to Tokyo.” Phelan also said, even more bluntly: “A Jap is a Jap” – adding that unless something was done soon, the Japanese were fully “capable of taking the place of the White man.”

The perceived intelligence and ethnocentrism of the Japanese would prove their undoing when, in 1924, Congress tried its hand at anti-Japanese prejudice. The House Committee, for instance, inserted a provision to bar “aliens ineligible to citizenship” - the Japanese, post-Ozawa, among them - from entering America as immigrants. It even hired its own eugenics expert. Coolidge would be forced by public opinion and by the Congress to sign the Immigration Act of 1924. He tried, behind the scenes, to defeat its anti-Japanese provision, but his efforts failed.

In 1923, Japan’s already precarious government collapsed in the anarchic aftermath of a tremendous earthquake and typhoon that hit Tokyo and Yokohama, killing more than 143,000 people and injuring over 100,000. The earthquake led to an inferno, as open-fire grills toppled over and set the ground ablaze. The government broke down and anarchy ensued, as Japanese turned against Korean laborers, accusing them of poisoning water wells. In the panic, anyone who looked Korean was massacred. In the first act of his presidency, Coolidge dispatched the Navy’s Asiatic fleet to Japan to help in that country’s time of crisis.

Coolidge also, as titular head of the American Red Cross, appealed to the American people to address the catastrophe:

"While its extent has not as yet been officially reported, enough is known to justify the statement that the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama, and surrounding towns and villages, have been largely if not completely destroyed by earthquake, fire and flood, with a resultant appalling loss of life and destitution and distress, requiring measures of urgent relief. Such assistance as is within the means of the Executive Department of the government will be rendered; but realizing the great suffering which now needs relief and will need relief in the days to come, I am prompted to appeal to the American people, whose sympathies have always been so comprehensive, to contribute in aiding the unfortunate and in giving relief to the people of Japan."



Coolidge asked for $10 million in donations, and by December the American people had given $12 million - an unprecedented amount, equivalent to more than $150 million today. Some in government had even considered giving Japan control of the Philippines, but Coolidge dismissed the idea. It was far better for the American people to help the Japanese people. But while the American people helped the Japanese, their congressional representatives worked to undo years of diplomatic work.

Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes insisted that the Japanese-exclusion clause of the 1924 Immigration Act violated the terms of the “Gentleman’s Agreement” of 1907 and would lead to a diplomatic row between Japan and America, the two powers set to dominate the Pacific. The informal arrangement, negotiated at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt in response to the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco that led to the segregation of Japanese schoolchildren, provided that Japan would reduce emigration to America if Japanese children already in the U.S. were integrated in the schools.

The Japanese government agreed to the deal out of fear that it would otherwise be subjected to a humiliating law akin to the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Osaka newspaper Asahi Shimbun argued that the act would be unacceptable to the Japanese precisely because the Japanese people were superior to all other Asian peoples. The Japanese people resented being “lump[ed] together with the Chinese or Hindus as undesirable aliens,” wrote journalist - and future Japanese prime minister - Tanzan Ishibashiwrote.

The 1924 Immigration Act threatened to undo important diplomatic work, as Coolidge lamented on May 26, when he told Congress:

"I regret the impossibility of severing from it the exclusion provision, which, in light of existing law, affects especially the Japanese. I gladly recognize that the enactment of this provision does not imply any change in our sentiment of admiration and cordial friendship for the Japanese people, a sentiment which has had and will continue to have abundant manifestation. The bill rather expresses the determination of the Congress to exercise its prerogatives in defining by legislation the control of immigration instead of leaving it to international arrangements."

While Coolidge was clear that he supported restrictions on Japanese immigrants - and indeed all immigrants - as far as their numbers were concerned, he opposed actual exclusion. He worried that Congress had embarrassed his government in its relations with Japan. He found “this method of securing [exclusion] ... unnecessary and deplorable at this time. ... If the exclusion principle stood alone, I should disapprove it without hesitation, if sought in this way, at this time.”

Coolidge consistently stressed that the decision to exclude all Japanese was particularly bad at “this time” and that he did not want to “wound the sensibilities of a friendly nation.” What remains unknown is whether Coolidge thought it a wise policy at any time. Because he supported the bill’s other provisions limiting immigration, he signed it. It was, as a historian has put it, “another step on the road to war” – something Coolidge could not have known.

On April 21, 1924, 15 major newspapers in Japan published a joint declaration condemning the law. “It is very clear that the anti-Japanese bill which was passed in both houses is unfair and immoral. ... If the bill becomes a law, there will be no recourse other than to regard it as the defined will of the American people, and, as a result, it will injure deeply the traditional friendship between the nations.”

America’s friends in Japan were stunned. Leading pro-American intellectuals Nitobe Inazō, diplomat and author of Bushido: The Soul of Japan (1900), and Uchimura Kanzō, one of Japan’s leading Christian evangelists, were isolated. “No words can express my pain and sorrow (and indignation, too) at the grave and disastrous consequences of what I cannot but characterize as the mad and thoughtless act of the American Government in its dealing with the Japanese question,” Uchimura wrote. Japan’s foreign minister, Matsui Keishirō, wrote to the British embassy that  “the Japanese people ... would not submit tamely to the insolence of America.”

A Japanese man committed hara-kiri outside the American embassy in Tokyo. Two letters were found near his body. The first, written to the ambassador and the American people, read, “I request by my death the withdrawal of the Japanese exclusion clause.” The second was far more forceful, asking his nation “to rise up to avenge the insult embodied in the action of America.”

The Japanese press, seizing upon the suicide and playing to their new military masters in Tokyo, predicted a great race war.

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