What did the anti-war left want us to to in regards with Japan prior to World War 2?

A very common anti-war sentiment seen in both left and right wing circles, but lately I’ve read examples stemming from left leaning media that are summarized as such.

From the book The Fighting Sullivans: How Hollywood and the Military Make Heroes

In the Pacific the United States shared the blame for war. The Americans had been unwilling to defer to Japanese plans for racial and commercial hegemony in Asia, especially in China. From 1939 on the United States had coupled exhortation about Japan’s moral failings with growing economic sanctions that choked the Japanese. American officials had a hard time getting it into their heads that Japan might respond militarily, and certainly they underestimated the abilities of a nonwhite armed force. Thus, the United States recklessly pushed its adversary. December 7, 1941 displayed the aggression of the Japanese but also the meddlesome self-righteousness in the American national character and its results.

The whole “America goaded Japan to War” isn’t exactly a new statement, but while I know what the right wing wanted (complete isolationism and let Japan run wild in the Pacific as long as they didn’t interfere with our overseas possessions), however I don’t know what the various left wing viewers wanted us to do. People whom seem sympathetic to the Japanese out of the “White Imperialist Powers are always in the wrong against people living in their own backyards” angle. I’m referring to the MODERN histories of World War 2 though, not what people at the time thought.

What is this? What does this mean? Do you have examples?

Asuka–I think you are trying to impose Post-Modern ideas on the past.

Rethink this.

Which is a 2016 book, and the quote you provide is separated from the events by a lifetime (plus that passage is a kind of exaggerated take on that it was complicated, so Japan did not just one morning attack the USA for shits and giggles, nor did the USA rope-a-dope them into a fight: it was a slo-mo train crash years in the making that many even then saw coming). The “left” of 1941 was not the “left” of 2021.

Honestly I’m having a hard time teasing a coherent question out of this… but if you are referring to pacifist lefties such as the type that emerged in response to Vietnam, I don’t think they existed as any kind of appreciable force in the WWII era. Certainly they existed, but as much more of a fringe group than the 1960s. Republicans were broadly isolationist and opposed to a draft, Democrats were a mixed bag.

And I’m not sure I would even characterize Democrats of the time as “the left.” American Lefties of the 1930s-40s were more likely (than today) to be outright communists or socialists who openly supported the Soviets. They were mainly preoccupied with lobbying FDR to aid the USSR after Germany had invaded them.

To attempt to respond to the garbled OP, I don’t recall hearing about a significant leftist/pacifist movement in the U.S. prior to WWII that urged America to let Japan have its way, due to a belief that Japanese conquest was an improvement over Western Imperialism.

Any such beliefs in the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” would’ve been shattered by the extreme brutality exhibited by the Japanese military in its wars against neighbors, especially China, which had a lot of sympathizers in the U.S. back then.

I don’t believe this would not be “left wing” in any sense, but you might want to investigate the intentions of the “China Lobby” within the United States federal legislature about that time. Maybe remarks from the opposition would be what you want.

I don’t think the left/right poles were the same as you seem to think they were wrt this issue. AFAIK, there wasn’t an ‘anti-war left’, at least not a substantial group of lefties who were opposed to any sort of war prior to WWII. So, it’s going to be difficult to answer the OP in those terms.

Instead, there was a large number of isolationists, especially among the population, who basically didn’t want the US to get involved in another European war, especially as the last time we did it wasn’t a great experience for the US and we felt, rightfully IMHO, that the Europeans had set up the situation for yet another European war by their harsh post-WWI demands. There just wasn’t a lot of interest among the population for another seemingly pointless (from the US’s perspective) European conflict.

Those who set up the embargo against Japan thought this was a reasonable middle ground wrt the Japanese conquests, especially wrt China. There was a lot of anger among the population over the things Japan had or was doing in the far east, and it was felt by most that the US should do something…and an embargo would, in theory, hurt the Japanese and make them rethink further aggression. This is still part of US political philosophy today…we don’t really want a war, so we do economic things to try and make countries rethink aggression or what we don’t want them to be doing.

I don’t know of even modern historians who are sympathetic to what the Japanese were doing. There does seem to be a lot of historical revisionism wrt WWII especially wrt Japan, but I haven’t heard many sympathetic to what the Empire of Japan was doing. The ‘goaded Japan into War’ is bullshit unless they are just talking about including the US. Japan always intended further war, especially against the European colonial powers…it was always something they planned to do. They MIGHT not have attacked the US or included the US if they felt they could get away with attacks against European colonial possessions in Asia without a US response, but that seems unlikely…and even if that happened, this would be a solely US perspective…only we wouldn’t be at war after all. It’s probably true that the oil embargo did push Japan to attack the US, but that just meant Japan decided to include the US in the attacks. War was inevitable.

The factual content of this question is so entangled and buried in political ideology that I don’t think it’s possible to separate the two. Moving to Great Debates.

Sorry for the lack of of clarification.

I’m referring to MODERN REVISIONIST histories of World War 2. If you spend any time talking about the Pacific War on the Internet you will eventually see people pop up with the whole “The United States was at fault for the Pacific War” angles. I know this because on the SDMB we had topics like this and a few posters definitely had weird “The United States only fought in World War 2 for racism” type ideas. If you ever bring up the Atomic Bombings you do get the weird anti-war left posters with the same ideas as I posted in the title.

Oh ok.

Jim Kirk saw to that.

So, are you asking what the current-day anti-war left says the US should have done wrt the embargo and, presumably, dropping the bombs on Japan? If so, you pretty much pegged it already and there isn’t much of a debate. I’ve seen the various arguments for why we shouldn’t have dropped the bombs on Japan, and can certainly get into that if you want to, but wrt the embargo I’d have to say that they probably haven’t thought it through much as far as WHY the US embargoed oil and what was actually going on wrt Japan and China. That said, and while I haven’t seen many anti-war lefty types talk about the embargo, my WAG is they felt we simply shouldn’t have gotten involved and should have never threatened Japanese access to oil. Like I said, this would be an assertion lacking context, but someone who is bound and determined to blame the US for the Japanese attacks would almost certainly frame it in terms of we shouldn’t have involved ourselves.

Is this what you are looking to discuss?

OK, now that we are in Great Debates…

IIRC, for starters, the extreme left then followed what the Soviet Union was saying, until they signed their no aggression pact with Hitler. On that front the American extreme left followed the biases that the Russians had including the distrust that they had for the Japanese as they were then a current and a historical enemy of Russia.

In the moderate left, as in the Democrats still involved in the New Deal, Roosevelt and others distrusted the Japanese years before the war, despite plenty of Japanese propaganda.

A lot of people though in the US preferred to be isolationists, that included people from all ideologies.

However, the ones that made more noise and did more than just demands for isolationism were the right wingers in America then, they had a lot of sympathies for the fascist way of doing things. They only changed their mind when the axis powers declared war to the US. People like Ford did not do anything to support the aid to Britain, and only decided to gear his company to defeat the Axis until after Pearl Harbor.

Henry Ford also opposed US participation in the war until the attack on Pearl Harbor and refused to manufacture airplanes and other war equipment for the British.[14] Father Charles Coughlin urged the US to keep out of the war and permit Germany to conquer Great Britain and the Soviet Union.[15] Asked Coughlin, “Must the entire world go to war for 600,000 Jews in Germany?”[16]

Isolationism was strongest in the United States, where oceans separated it on both sides from the war fronts. The German-American Bund even marched down the avenues of New York City demanding isolationism. The isolationists, led by the America First Committee, were a large, vocal, and powerful challenge to President Roosevelt’s efforts to enter the war. Charles Lindbergh was perhaps the most famous isolationist. Isolationism was strongest in the Midwest with its strong German-American population.

In the US, organizations like the American Peace Mobilization and veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade protested in opposition to the war, conscription, and the Lend-Lease Act. They said of Lend-Lease, “Roosevelt needs its dictatorial powers to further his aim of carving out of a warring world, the American Empire so long desired by the Wall Street money lords.”[17]

Its hard to determine what this group thinks without a clear example of who this group is. The closest that I have found to a cite for this type of argument is here.

Near as I can tell, the author argues that if Japanese were treated as equal partners on the world stage back after the Russo Japanese war and allowed to immigrate more freely to the United States and other places they might not have had to resort to their military expansion. I am highly dubious of this assertion but there it is.

What I have seen more commonly is comments about how racism fed into the way the war was conducted, with strong racist overtones to the propaganda war, Japanese internment, treatment of POWs etc.

I also found another cite that asserts that racism led to our seriously underestimating the capability of Japan, and so caused the disaster that was pearl harbor.

But I don’t see anybody who says that we were wrong to oppose the Japanese once they started raping Nanking.

As I understand it (and I don’t claim to understand it well, perhaps @TokyoBayer could enlighten us) much of Japan’s drive to militarism had to do with Japan’s desire to not become a colony of the western powers.

Briefly, thus: From about 1600 on, Japan had a policy of excluding foreign influence from its soil and political system, which was semifeudal at the time. Starting with the 19th Century, there were increasing contacts with the west, culminating in Commodore Perry’s expedition to “open” Japan to commerce with America. Nationalist Japanese looked at the technology gap that had opened up between Japan and the West, and considered it possible if not likely that Japan would soon become a target for colonization - and, seeing what that meant for neighbors like China, the Philippines, Indochina and Indonesia, wanted no part of it. Japan saw itself as having too many similarities to other colonized areas; technological, economic and political backwardness and western racial attitudes classified Japan as ripe for being colonized, so they needed to change this.

So Japan embarked on a crash course of learning technology, science, arts and the like from the west, though the shogunate in nominal charge of Japan was unable to manage this transition effectively. When the emperor was restored to political power, this process continued and accelerated. A national dialect was standardized, public schools under the central government were established, industries were established and expanded, railroads and steamships built. By 1895, only two generations removed from Perry’s expedition, Japan was strong enough to fight and win a battle against the Qing dynasty of China over the Korean peninsula, which Japan craved as a colony, both for the region’s natural resources and for the status of having an overseas colony - one pattern the Japanese noticed was that nations which owned colonies were not generally colonized themselves.

But the western powers - particularly Russia - wanted their own chunk of the Korean pie, and forced Japan to make some postwar concessions. Japan attempted to negotiate mutual spheres of influence in east Asia with Russia, but was unsuccessful; they attacked Russian interests (and their Eastern Fleet) in 1904, and beat them soundly the next year. When Roosevelt mediated the end of the war with the Treaty of Portsmouth, many Japanese felt that he cheated them out of a war indemnity and the entire Russian Far East, which they expected as spoils of war. In truth, Japan’s economy was ready to collapse from the strain of war, and those expectations were far outside Japan’s capabilities to enforce, but the sense of total victory followed by only nominal concessions worsened Japan’s view of the United States.

Japan had secured a treaty with Britain before the Russian war, as a counter to possible French aid to their ally Russia. The reciprocal clause of this treaty was activated when Britain went to war over Belgium’s neutrality in 1914, at the start of World War I, pulling Japan in on the side of the Allies against the Central Powers. Germany had some small Pacific colonies at the time, and Japan snapped them all up. Some Japanese naval forces also participated in battles in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean alongside the Royal Navy.

At the Paris Peace Conference, Japan saw itself among the victors ready to take a rightful role among the powers of the globe. So they proposed a racial equality clause that would ratify their final indicator as a target for colonization: their race. This would have meant no discrimination against nationals of other League of Nations members on the basis of race, thus overthrowing the discriminatory laws of the U.S. and many British Commonwealth nations. Naturally, this was a nonstarter for Woodrow Wilson, both personally and as someone who needed southern Democratic votes in the Senate for ratification of the treaty. Australia also was particularly vociferous in rejecting the proposed clause.

The rejection of the clause meant that, again, Japan didn’t have a way to distinguish itself from the colonized, which meant they saw themselves, again, as a possible target for colonization. The solution, as they saw it, was a military strong enough to take even more of its own colonies and defend them and the homeland from other powers. Their two previous successful wars, against China and Russia, would serve as the models for future wars against China (again) and, this time taking the role as the western power, the United States.

So - could things have changed, if the clause had been passed? Well, it’s certainly unfortunate that in U.S. domestic politics at the time, the internationalists’ main allies were the racists, so there was no way it could have come about. Also, Japanese militarism was already well established, and the constitutional provision that allowed the Army or the Navy to bring down any government meant that it would have been difficult for a civilian to bring the military to heel.

But, if the western powers could have accepted the clause, and bargained its acceptance for the Japanese relinquishing concessions in China, it certainly would have been a more moral finish to the Versailles process. To give the Japanese the reassurance that they were looking for, along with free trade in the Pacific rim to obtain the resources their economy needed might have given them the space to dial down the militarism.

But, as with most counterfactuals, there are no guarantees.

If the OP actually wants to know what random posters on the internet are saying today, then none of this history matters.

The only place to try to get a clue, I suppose, would be to research those who condemn the use of atomic bombs and see how they look at the events leading up to it.

The U.S. unquestionably treated everything about Japan with unconcealed racism during the war but it’s difficult to make a rational argument that allowing Japan to continue slaughtering millions of Chinese is an anti-racist statement.

How people retrofit that into revisionist policy I can’t imagine. Can the OP provide any examples at all of what’s been said?

Thanks, that was very interesting.

Sounds more like the “F*** You, I Got Mine” right than the anti-war left was opposing getting involved.

Not in my leftist circles.


The atomic bombings is a separate issue from going to war. I don’t see the connect, you can think one was a bad idea (not that this anti-war leftist does) and not the other.