Nov. 26, 1941. June 20, 2019. These two dates were pivotal nodes in modern history.
Six Japanese carriers weighed anchor on the 1941 date, 11 days away from Hawaii. While expecting a modus vivendi that would have maintained peace, Japan had gotten an ultimatum instead.
On the second date, Donald Trump ordered an aerial attack on Iran, which may well have led to another major global war. Fortunately, within minutes of launching, that mission was canceled. War was averted for the moment.
There are many parallels in the roads leading up to both events — lessons one should hope we had learned.
In both cases, certain elements in American leadership set up the circumstances leading to war. We had and still have the power to avert wars, having far more power economically, militarily and politically to control situations. Yet rather than averting crises, we tend to aggravate them. We seem to use our strengths not to avert war but to nudge others toward it.
The long road toward war between the United States and Japan began in 1925 and broadened with sanctions throughout the 1930s. The final push was a McCollum Memo, which outlined eight steps through which the United States could join in the war in Europe, ongoing since 1939. We came in through the back door by forcing Japan, then allied with Germany, into a corner. Winston Churchill had had an inspiration whereby he would “drag the United States into the war.” Those are his exact words, shared privately.
Among the points in the McCollum Memo: basing the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor instead of San Diego, and imposing trade sanctions against Japan that would progressively tighten a noose around its neck. The final step, implemented in July 1941, imposed a total embargo on all petroleum exports.
Japan then had but two choices: Negotiate with the Americans to lift the embargo or prepare for war and seize the oil resources in Indonesia. The civil government worked on the former. The army and navy dwelt on plans for the latter. It was a poor second option, the Dutch being allied with the United States. They knew it was practically impossible to win in an extended war and were pinning their hopes on a successful diplomatic settlement. Unknown to most, it was foredoomed. Churchill had exploited the special relationship and essentially twisted President Franklin Roosevelt’s arm to ensure failure and U.S. entry in the war.
Churchill’s primary concern was that Britain’s decline not occur on his watch as prime minister. He would have the major rivals, Germany and the Soviet Union, grind each other down before committing Allied resources and men, despite Stalin also being an ally.
He would also manipulate the power most likely to eclipse his, the United States, to join in defeating Germany. Never mind that the fifth party, Japan, had also been a British ally through the first two decades of the 20th century and a protege since the mid-19th century.
Extreme pride, jingoism and geopolitics were behind the actions of Churchill, with no qualms in betraying allies and striking blows for war rather than peace. With much shared history, the United States seems to be following in a similar pattern today.
The history of U.S.-Iran relations began in 1953, not 1979, as the current crop of pro-war planners would have us think.
In that year, the CIA engineered a coup against the democratically elected Mossadegh and installed a hated shah who would oppress his people with authoritarianism and a secret police force. The shah maintained close ties with the West by providing easy access to national oil resources, as did the Saudis, whose repressive regime we also still support.
We had established similar ties to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, whom we would later also betray. Saddam was a CIA protege and carried out a decadelong proxy war against Iran. This was a primary factor in the Iranian Revolution and the kidnapping of American hostages in 1979.
In the decades since, “diplomacy” with Iran has been more akin to bullying, unsubstantiated accusations, arbitrary sanctions and threats. Is it any wonder that they are reluctant to “negotiate” with the Trump administration?
Are these plans for negotiations not unlike the “negotiations” with Japan in the summer of 1941? Are we condemned to repeat history, not having learned?
We like to think of the United States as “a Christian country.” Yet internationally, we not infrequently flip over from “Love your enemy” to actions that create enemies out of former friends.
Paul Tengan lives in Ester.