Pearl Harbor and the America First Committee

Published: 1995-03-01

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David Hoggan received his Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1948. His academic career included teaching posts at the University of California at Berkeley, San Francisco State College, and the Amerika Institut of the University of Munich. Hoggan was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1923, and died in Menlo Park, California, in 1988. He addressed the Sixth IHR Conference in 1985.

Doubtless the most important of his numerous books is The Forced War: When Peaceful Revision Failed, a detailed study of the origins of the Second World War based on his doctoral dissertation on German-Polish relations in 1938-1939. The Forced War was first published in German in 1961, and in the US in 1989 by the IRR. (This 715-page hardcover book is available from the IHR for $35, plus $3.50 shipping.[check www.ihr.org for current availability and price; ed.])

This essay first appeared in American Mercury magazine, Winter 1966, pp. 38-41.

During the more than 27 months that Great Britain and Germany were at war prior to the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt never ventured to advocate publicly that the United States actually ought to enter that conflict on the British side. Historians of the future will no doubt regard this as one of the most significant facts of the Second World War period.

The fact that Roosevelt did not dare to tell the people of his own country what he really wanted should be a source of inspiration and understandable pride for American patriots during the present period of unprecedented maladjustment in international relations.

'America First' for Peace

There is no paradox at all in the fact that Americans prominent in every phase of national affairs joined together in the Spring of 1941 to organize the America First movement on behalf of the preservation of American neutrality. They distrusted Roosevelt's endless public assurances that he did not desire active American participation in the war. They were aware that the inconsistent neutrality policies of President Wilson during the First World War – those double standard policies which held Germany to "strict accountability" and condoned the most flagrant violations of international law on the part of the British – had produced the entirely unnecessary American involvement in that earlier conflict. They were confronted by President Roosevelt's more than dubious neutrality policies aid to Great Britain short of war, and, after June 22, 1941, similar aid to the Soviet Union.

America First knew that the American people were not seeking direct involvement in the European conflict. The flood of petitions to the United States Congress from individual citizens and private organizations were overwhelmingly in favor of American neutrality. The Gallup and Roper public opinion polls of Roosevelt's own partisans conceded as late as November 1941 that eighty percent of the American people were opposed to involvement in the war.

Wayne S. Cole in Senator Gerald P. Nye and American Foreign Relations (1962) points out (p. 227) that "Americans persuaded themselves that the Monroe Doctrine, unilateralism, and nonintervention in European affairs – that is isolationism – were responsible for the security they enjoyed." This meant that a prominent America First leader, such as Nye, was sustained in his work by the conviction that, whatever the content of Roosevelt's private thoughts, success in the effort to preserve American neutrality meant the realization of the cherished aspiration of the overwhelming majority of American citizens. Nye knew that American Isolationism – like the "Splendid Isolation" foreign policy of Great Britain in the days of Lord Salisbury prior to the Anglo-French entente cordiale of 1904 was a policy of independence and strength rather than one of weakness.

Japan's Attack

The America First movement was enjoying immense popularity during the Autumn of 1941, and its leaders were hopeful that an adequate instrument could be created to defend American neutrality. It was well known that the illegal and discriminatory policies of the Roosevelt administration against Japan had produced serious tension in Japanese-American relations. On the other hand, Germany, a more powerful country than Japan, had been subjected to similar discrimination from Roosevelt over a much longer period without having retaliated. The America First leaders, despite the alarmist propaganda emanating from the Roosevelt camp, did not consider that Japan was a serious military threat to the United States.

The Communist-inspired ultimatum note which American Secretary of State Hull presented to the Japanese negotiators at Washington, DC, on November 26, 1941 – the event which produced the final Japanese decision to launch a military attack against the United States – received some publicity in the American press, but there was no realization on the part of America First leaders that the note would produce war between the United States and Japan. It seemed too obvious from the American perspective that such a conflict would not be in the interest of Japan.

The Germans were likewise surprised by the Pearl Harbor attack. The official note to Germany announcing the Japanese decision, although dated December 3, 1941, was not presented at Berlin until the day of the attack.

Stalin's Interest Served by Japan

History reveals that the Pearl Harbor attack was in fact in the special interest of Stalin. The Japanese decision not to support Germany against the Soviet Union received further confirmation. The attack was a fearful blunder on the part ofJapan in answer to Roosevelt's deliberate provocation. The entire Japanese strategy was predicated on the gratuitous assumption that the Soviet Union would soon crumble in defeat without Japan having raised a finger to contribute to that result. Japanese military and diplomatic opinion at the time was divided on the advisability of attacking the United States. Needless to stress, the Pearl Harbor attack would never have taken place at all had the Japanese leaders anticipated the many difficulties subsequently encountered in the Soviet Union by the German armed forces.

'America First' Stunned by Pearl Harbor

Although the implications of Japan's decision in terms of Japanese interests has been the subject of some study, the nature of the impact of the Pearl harbor attack on the America First movement has been entirely ignored. No doubt the principal reason for this neglect is the fact that the German and Italian declarations of war against the United States took place only three days after official circles in Berlin and Rome learned of the Pearl Harbor tragedy. The fact remains that the impact of the Pearl Harbor attack as such on America First raises a dramatic problem of cause and effect.

Hitler's fatalistic decision to support the Japanese request for a German declaration of war against the United States to declare war, as they had done in April 1917, or as the British had done in August 1914 and in September 1939. The fundamental reactions of Hitler and of the America First movement to the Pearl Harbor attack seem to be identical, but this ignores the factor of timing. On Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop's advice, Hitler was still seeking a way out from war with the United States after the Pearl Harbor attack, and his decision to support Japan was not made until after he had studied the seemingly unanimous reaction in America that war between the United States and Germany had become inevitable. This point is missed by Saul Friedlaender in Hitler et les Etats-Unis, 1939-1941 (1963; American edition, 1966.)

The America First leaders and Hitler, together with the overwhelming majorities of the American and German populations, had shared the same desire to keep the United States out of the European conflict. Why did the Pearl Harbor attack, which involved the United States in an Asiatic conflict, suddenly produce the fatalistic assumption on the part of America First that American participation in the European conflict was inevitable?

Catastrophe Produced Paralysis

The news of the Pearl Harbor attack did nothing to divert the Roosevelt camp from their primary interest in the European conflict. Senator Tom Connally of Texas, a consistent supporter of Roosevelt on questions of foreign policy, told American newsmen after he had participated in a White House conference on the day of the attack that "a declaration of war between Germany and the United States is in the offing, either by America or by Germany, in accord with the axis pact." The assumption that Roosevelt after all had managed to push the United States into the European conflict by means of the back door in Asia received official public emphasis from the earliest moment.

America First leaders hastened to go on record in favor of supporting the conflict with Japan, which was only natural under the circumstances. What is surprising is the fact that careful surveys of the December 1941 Congressional Record and newspaper press confirm that not even one of them came out in favor of drawing a distinction between the separate conflicts raging in Asia and Europe.

The following dubious statement by Senator Wiley on December 8, 1941, was never questioned by America First: "America has been attacked in a dastardly manner and war declared on her by Japan. This is undoubtedly pursuant to the tripartite agreement between the Axis powers, Germany, Japan, and Italy." On the same day, the New York Times, a newspaper which had constantly opposed America First, declared it to be unlikely that Hitler welcomed the Japanese move and the prospect of open war with the United States.

Here was both the cue and the challenge to recall America First to its purpose of preventing an American war in Europe on behalf of Communism despite the Pearl Harbor disaster, but there was no response. Psychological unpreparedness destroyed a great patriotic movement at the very moment when it was confronted with its supreme challenge. No further effort was made to prevent the formal alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union which has proved to be disastrous for the world.

Had any America First leader managed to surmount the stunning impact of the Pearl Harbor attack, he might have sounded a clarion call in America on behalf of the prosecution of the limited war in Asia without additional involvement in the European conflict. One clear voice might have broken the spell which held millions of Americans in its grasp. A vocal response of this kind in America might have convinced the leaders in Berlin and Rome that all was not lost so far as the efforts to keep the United States out of the European conflict were concerned. Admiral Raeder told Hitler after the Pearl Harbor attack that the Japanese blow against the American fleet at Hawaii could not be regarded as a decisive victory. The United States were in a position to build new fleets in a manner which was not possible for Japan. Local war in Asia need not have produced an alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union in Europe.

Despite its ultimate failure, the America First movement of 1941 has left an indelible record of truth so far as the real American attitude toward involvement in the late European conflict is concerned. The will to enter that war prior to the Pearl Harbor attack was the will of minority groups only and not the will of the American people as a whole. The failure to challenge Roosevelt's European aspirations during those crucial few days after the Japanese attack was the product of shock produced by circumstances in which no Europeans had participated. The recognitions of these historical facts is of great importance today for the establishment of normal relations between the United States and the various European countries.


"Only aim to do your duty, and mankind will give you credit where you fail."
—Thomas Jefferson


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Author(s): David L. Hoggan
Title: Pearl Harbor and the America First Committee
Sources: The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 15, no. 2 (March/April 1995), pp. 30-32; first published in American Mercury, Winter 1966, pp. 38-41.
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Published: 1995-03-01
First posted on CODOH: Dec. 17, 2012, 6 p.m.
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