The Past Is Not Quite Past

by Victor Davis Hanson

PJ Media

War II Thoughts

We can learn a lot about our present dilemmas through looking at the past. This month I’m teaching an intensive class on World War II, and again reminded how history is never really history. One lesson: do not judge past decisions by present considerations or post facto wisdom from a Western point of view, but understand them given the knowledge and thinking of the times from an enemy perspective.

We ridicule the disastrous Japanese decision to go to war against the American colossus on December 7, 1941. But that correct analysis enjoys the benefit of hindsight, and does not explain why rather intelligent militarists for some reason believed that they could win, or at least within six months of aggrandizement obtain a truce. That they could not, and destroyed their country in the bargain, is not the point. Nor is “fanaticism” a completely adequate exegesis for Pearl Harbor; logic of a sort is.

Why Did Japan Attack (or Rather Why Not)?

Let us count the ways: 1) The U.S. had not intervened in Europe, despite over two years of seeing Nazi Germany overrun its democratic allies in Western Europe and blitz London. The Japanese were convinced that we simply could not be provoked, or did not have it in us to fight for long under any circumstances;

2) It had just signed a non-aggression neutrality pact with Russia (tit-for-tat payback to Hitler’s earlier perfidy). That April 1941 deal ensured there would not again be a bloody August, 1939-like border war in which thousands of Japanese (50,000?) perished. So Japan would now have a one-front war against the U.S. and Britain; but the latter would have a two-front war against Germany (and Italy) and Japan;

3) The Japanese coveted oil, rubber, tin, rice, and other strategic commodities. And now the Dutch East Indies were without their colonial masters after the fall of Western Europe. Vichy France was compliant in Southeast Asia. In other words, a world of raw materials was at last at Japan’s doorstep, much of modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia and Southeast Asia, ready for the taking if it had a convenient short war. Britain was tied down in North Africa (soon to lose Tobruk), and Burma and then India were also ripe for the picking;

4) By late November 1941 Germany was at the gates of Moscow, Leningrad was cut off; the Crimea was to fall. German U-boats were reaching records in destroying British convoys. Not only would Hitler certainly win the European war, but there was a good chance that the Japanese might meet him either through Suez or in the Persian Gulf. And why fight Russia, when soon Russia would be no more?

5) The Chinese front was mostly quiet, long-term occupation either run by puppet governments or made easier by Nationalist-communist rivalries;

6) The U.S. was still in a depression, its industry under-utilized and its military infrastructure largely embryonic. It had a bad habit of lecturing Japan, embargoing Japan, but not proving to Japan that it had the force to deter Japan and the willingness to enforce its edicts;

Almost all six calculations within a few months (say after the pivotal Midway and Guadalcanal battles) proved flawed. But that again is not the lesson. At the time, the Japanese, being aggressive militarists, drew logical conclusions about their self-interests, which only in hindsight seem preposterous, and largely because of the phenomenal, but easily unforeseen response of the United States.

And Today?

We should remember the past these last few weeks as we watch U.S. foreign policy turned topsy-turvy.

Consider Obama’s outreach to Russia. He assumes Bush gratuitously polarized Russia, a state that otherwise had few post-Cold War preexisting problems with the U.S., despite its oil wealth, autocratic government, policy of serially assassinating dissidents at home and abroad, and loss of face with the breakup of the former Soviet republics. So we blamed Bush with the monotonous “reset” refrain. Then we threw the eastern Europeans under the bus with the vague “we have a better mobile missile system anyway” defense. Then we claimed a thankful Putin will appreciate such magnanimity and help on Iran.

Thinking Like a Russian

But we are looking at all this from our postmodern eyes. Try, as in the case of 1941 Japan, seeing it from theirs. Bush’s friends are now America’s expendables — whether a Poland, Israel, Honduras, Columbia, or Iraq’s Maliki. Bush’s enemies are now its friends or neutrals — suggesting that Obama agrees that to be angry with America, as Russia was, was once understandable, and during 2001-9 to be friendly with it logically suspect. All the past Russian sins from assassination to oil leveraging of Europe are now washed away as “Bush did it.”

So Putin starts off with the idea that his past trouble-making was understandable in Obama’s eyes, given they share a Bush antipathy. And given Obama’s U.N. speech that the powerful not only will not, but cannot dominate the weak, the Russians must smile “But why not?” or better, “Pray God, that this naïf really believes this!” (The U.N., remember, cannot even enforce a 15-minute limit for the crazy Gaddafi who rambled for 90 minutes without a single, “Stop!”)

Win, Win, Win!

So what will stop Russian aggrandizement, bullying, or even reincorporation of former republics? Only their own notion of self-interest, dangers, and cost-benefit analysis. It surely is not regional military deterrence. Most states in the way like Georgia or Latvia are small and weak. And Eastern Europe is essentially defenseless. NATO is toothless and would only be embarrassed if it promised guarantees of Article V protection to a Ukraine, since no Belgian or Italian would be willing to die for Kiev. The U.N. is not only irrelevant, but even more irrelevant the more Obama praises its human rights council, and chest-thumps about its importance. And the U.S? Well, well.

We are desperate to court Russia. But nothing they have done with Iran had anything to do with Bush, but everything to do with the idea that whatever is bad for the U.S. is good for an ascendant Russia.

Here’s what the Asia Times quotes a Russian expert about our recent courtship, “An influential voice in the Russian strategic community, Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, forewarned not to expect anything very much. ‘The US, of course, has a right to hope for various compromises on this issue, but I do not think Russia will make them. We are not interested in spoiling relations with the rising power of the region [meaning Iran]. Breakthroughs cannot be expected yet,’ he said.”

And here’s what the Asia Times quotes of those administration hopes, “A delighted Michael McFaul, the White House’s senior advisor on Russia, trumpeted, ‘We’re at a different place in US-Russia relations.‘”

In other words, we think Russia in the past was offended by Bush, unfairly ostracized, and simply needed rapprochement to reenter the family of nations as a good actor, and now we have a different, and much better relationship.

But the notion of not spoiling “relations with the rising power of the region” seems better to explain why Putin would sell reactor materials to a Holocaust-denying nut intent on getting a bomb. It may be that in the Russian view, now that an unpredictable Bush is gone, things are looking up.

Consider Russian calculation: A nuclear Iran causes the U.S. all sorts of headaches, along with its Sunni Arab allies. There is money to be made in arms and nuclear sales. Nuclear Iran — or the efforts to stop it — will cause havoc in the oil-exporting region, and such uncertainty can only help raise the price of oil for what is now the world’s largest oil exporter (7.4 million Putin barrels sold per day abroad).

In other words, Iran is a win/win/win deal for a Russian dictatorship, always was and probably will be. We wonder why is Putin causing trouble, or why did Bush offend him? The only proper question is why not cause trouble without much risk if you’re an ex-KGB thug?

Trouble means lucrative trade with rogue oil states that want to buy blow-‘em-up stuff from Russia.

Trouble shuts up the self-important, moralizing Western Europeans.

Trouble sends a message to former subjects.

Trouble means the U.S. is tied down with a nuclear power threatening Israel and the pro-U.S. Arabs.

Trouble means billions of dollars in new oil profits as global prices soar.

Trouble means showing the world’s onlookers that the Obama hope-and-change rhetoric is a good way to get yourself in a lot of trouble, and reminds others that Russia is a dependable if not thuggish regime to have on your side. (When the Wehrmacht approached Moscow in late 1941, “civilized” European neutrals like Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Spain and Portugal all started to horse-trade with the sure winner Hitler, angling for trade, cash, borderland, the clearing of old grudges, etc — without a whit of care that he was killing millions of Russian civilians and murdering on sight the Jews of Poland and the Ukraine.[By late 1944 these same “civilized” states were damning Hitler and now angling with the allies.]). So yes, the past is helpful.

Footnote on World War II

There are plenty of inexplicable things about WWII, especially the Pacific “second” theater. If one were to examine in depth the First Marine Division, it is almost inexplicable that a mere few months after Pearl Harbor it could go head-to-head with battle-hardened Japanese brigades in Guadalcanal, without adequate air and naval support, and beat the Japanese on their own turf. Where did such men come from? For the answer about the Old Breed, read E.B. Sledge.

And where in just a few months, by say late 1943, did all these brilliant designs and new planes come from? The Hellcat, Corsair, Helldiver, Lightning, etc., that were not just as good as Japanese head-start models, but suddenly far better? How did an American aeronautical industry, without wartime experience, design and produce the world’s best fighters (cf. the Thunderbolt and Mustang) in less than 30 months? And more amazingly, how does a peacetime country in a little over two years begin to produce hundreds of B-29s and an entire fleet of Essex carriers ex nihilo? It’s quite inexplicable. Each time I restudy the Pacific theater it become even more mysterious, absolutely inexplicable. I wish only that Obama had not spent his Sundays lapping up liberation theology from Rev. Wright but had read instead With the Old Breed,Guadalcanal Diary, or Goodbye, Darkness to understand why his country is what it is, and why it ensures him such a forum of respect and influence.

Footnote on Guantanamo

Now that Obama has apparently broken his promise and won’t close Guantanamo within the year, a kindergarten question arises: did he think Bush/Cheney dreamed up a Stalag to torture people and win them leftwing hysteria?

Is it just possible that after 9/11 they quickly learned there were no good choices in dealing with the epigones of Mohammed Atta — they were neither criminals to be tried nor soldiers in uniform to be accorded the Geneva protections (as Eric Holder once himself chest-thumped)? In such a nether world, Guantanamo was always a bad choice among worse alternatives. That is proven by Obama’s failed nine-month long quest to dream up something better. Now that Guantanamo has no more campaign value, Obama apparently has thrown the old Close-the-Gulag under the bus too.

Yet Obama did a lot of damage in the meantime, demagoguing the facility and besmirching the careful work of those who must guard the sort of people who, as we saw the last week in the U.S., are trying to kill us.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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