< Chapter 8. Promises Contents Chapter 10. History and Prophecy >


Chapter 9. Blood and Gold

Almost by definition, our Western civilisation has its main focus on the Atlantic. There’s the warm and sunny axis from Spain to the Caribbean and South America. There’s the cold and foggy axis from Britain to Newfoundland and North America. Either way, the Atlantic is there at the centre. It’s easy to imagine that this is everything, and to forget the history that happened around the curve of the earth.

To us in the “West,” the crucial, devastating events of the past century are the two World Wars. It seems as though up until the turn of the twentieth century, everything was going fine. The states of Western civilisation fought wars in the nineteenth century, but they were much more limited, less devastating than those of the twentieth century.

In a sense, the First World War was really a civil war between the component states of Western civilisation, a crisis at the end of a century of expansion. And in a sense, the Second World War in Europe was, as predicted by Ferdinand Foch, really just the First World War continued, after a “twenty year armistice.” But there was another war, the other side of the world, that just happened to culminate at the same time. We call the final stage of that other war “The Second World War” too, but to a significant degree that was just a coincidence of timing.

Around the curve of the earth, two other civilisations tell a very different story about their crucial century, the years from about 1850 to 1950. The Chinese story runs from the humiliation of the Opium Wars, through years of disintegration, to eventual liberation by the Communist Party. The Japanese story runs from the humiliation of the Black Ships, through years of expansion, and ends with the hammer-blows of the first atomic bombs.

Neither of these stories is completely true, but that’s not the point — for the Chinese and Japanese their respective stories are central. From the perspective of the Atlantic, the stories are peripheral, so they are misunderstood and forgotten. Both of these stories take a dramatic, 180 degree turn in the early 1940s, due to an intervention by America. It’s an intervention that’s easy to misunderstand if you don’t appreciate the two stories of China and Japan that led up to it. It’s an intervention that still has repercussions today.

I want to use these less familiar stories from around the curve of the earth to illustrate some of the ideas we’ve seen in previous chapters. To what extent can establishment elites really plan and control their future? How bad can things get when tyrants have control? Can we really recognise psychopaths in positions of power? And where is all the gold? The interwoven stories of China, Japan and America are long, but revealing. Let’s spin the globe around and look more closely at those other stories.


Our tale starts in the United States — part of the Atlantic axis, but also facing the Pacific. The Americans have for a long time had a perspective on the Orient different to Europeans. President Theodore Roosevelt said in 1905 that “Our future history will be more determined by our position on the Pacific facing China than by our position on the Atlantic facing Europe.” He was not proposing a change of direction, but merely blessing the long-held sentiments of the American establishment which for over a century had made fabulous profits from the “China trade.” Unsurprisingly, this trade had been consistently supported by the United States government, and especially by the US Navy. note 98

Even at the turn of the nineteenth century the Americans were trading sea-otter pelts, from Oregon on the Pacific coast, for Chinese tea, silk, cotton, porcelain, furnishings and art-objects. Such “chinoiserie” was essential for fashionable Americans and Europeans. When the Americans stole California from Mexico in 1848, the importance of China and the Pacific loomed even larger. Japan, which had shut itself off from the world for two and a half centuries, became suddenly important too. American sailing clippers, the fastest in the world, still took five months to sail from China to New England around the southern cape of Africa. By contrast, a steam ship from San Fransisco could travel to Shanghai in six weeks. Japan was exactly en-route, Japan had fine harbours, and most important, Japan had coal. note 99

It was essential that Japan was “broken open” on terms favourable to the United States, and Commodore Perry of the US Navy was sent to do the job. Perry had been hoping for command of the prestigious Mediterranean squadron, and was disappointed to be given instead command of the Far East squadron. This would probably be his last appointment before he retired. Vain and humourless — one sailor wrote that “no one appreciates a joke less than he does” — suffering from rheumatism and probably malaria, Mathew Perry decided to make the most of his new job. note 100

The US Secretary of State was severely ill at the time, so Perry drafted his own orders and granted himself an extraordinarily wide remit. He was given the power to treat with the Emperor of Japan “without limitation.” Perry’s squadron of two steam ships and two sail set off in late 1852. They took eight months to sail down the Atlantic, across the Indian Ocean and via Singapore, Hong Kong and Okinawa to Uraga Bay, close to the Japanese capital Edo (now Tokyo). When the “Black Ships” dropped anchor in Uraga Bay, it was the end of Japan’s centuries-long seclusion.

Today, it’s only in science-fiction that we find moments like this, moments that in the nineteenth century happened in real life. The sailors on the ships, looking out at the alien shore might just as well have been in orbit on the Starship Enterprise. They were just as much in the unknown. For ordinary Japanese, with no warning of the ships, it must have seemed like the movie Independence Day — the ships were impossibly huge, driven by alien technology, apparently disregarding the forces of nature. The alien conquerors had arrived. Even today, in Japan the phrase “Black Ships” means only one thing: Perry’s ships.

Edo was at that time second only to London in size, with about one million inhabitants. Confusion and panic reigned. Everyone knew how vulnerable the city was to fire and to disruption of the rice-barges that brought food. People started to pack up their belongings and head for the countryside. The reaction of the Japanese establishment was equally confused, though more informed. They knew quite a bit about the outside world, and had advance warning of Perry’s expedition, although they chose to keep it quiet. Perry, on the other hand, knew essentially nothing about the political structure of Japan.

Japan had an “Emperor,” but although he had immense spiritual significance (being a direct descendant of the Sun god) he had no political power. He was tucked out of the way in Kyoto and left to conduct arcane rituals with his court. The real ruler of Japan was the Shogun, who had a very limited sovereignty over the many local lords. In a similar fashion to Louis XIV, the Shoguns encouraged obedience by insisting that the local lords and their families spend time at Edo, where they could be better observed and were effectively hostages. Although the first Shoguns, 250 years earlier, employed musket-armed soldiers as good as any in Europe, when they had brought the other lords to heel with European technology, they expelled the foreigners and started a process of disarmament. When Perry arrived, there were few guns left and the dominant weapon was the samurai’s sword.

The Shogun’s councillors had known about the increasing threat from the West for some time, even before they had specific news about Perry’s expedition. Japan was not entirely shut off from the outside world. After the Europeans had been expelled, the Dutch had been allowed to keep one trading post: Deshima Island, a small artificial island in Nagasaki harbour linked to the mainland by a guarded bridge. The Shogun’s main aim in excluding the Europeans was to keep out the Catholic church, which was quite sensibly considered a threat to sovereignty. (The modern Communist Party in China has exactly the same view.) Japanese Christians were persecuted until there were none left.

The Dutch were allowed a monopoly on the very minimal trade through Deshima Island because they were considered sufficiently anti-Catholic. As part of the deal they were required to provide an annual intelligence report about the external world. As the Japanese subsequently discovered, these reports grossly exaggerated the importance of the Dutch, but they were otherwise reasonably accurate. The recent foreign exploitation of China, which we will come back to in a moment, was a clear example of how things could go wrong. Much less clear was how to effectively resist the foreigners. The Shogun’s councillors debated this again and again. The situation was made more complex by the fact that when Perry arrived, the Shogun was very ill, near to death, and his chief councillor Lord Abe was trying desperately to hold things together and forestall what could easily become a civil war.

Perry knew nothing of this, but was determined to get the deal he wanted and not be brushed off. The Japanese, used to poking around foreign vessels that strayed into their waters, were driven off. American boats were sent out to survey Uraga bay, as though they already owned the place. Lord Abe issued orders not to provoke the Americans or give them any excuse to attack. Perry played the haughty ambassador, refusing to even meet minor Japanese functionaries in person. Perry had a letter from the American President addressed to the “Emperor of Japan” and he demanded to deliver it to someone of appropriate rank. The Shogun’s council debated what to do, and eventually Abe prevailed on them to accept the letter.

And so, on 14 July 1853, Perry and three hundred marines landed on a beach in Uraga Bay, and with the marine band playing “Hail Columbia,” marched up to a newly constructed building. Around the building and on the beach were maybe five thousand Japanese soldiers. Off shore, Perry’s ships were at battle stations, decks cleared for action and guns ready to fire. Hidden beneath the building, a group of Japanese assassins waited for the order to cut Perry down. The situation was tense. note 101

The Japanese dignitaries waiting in the building to meet Perry were actually the local governors, but they followed instructions from Abe to big themselves up. One pretended to to be the “First Councillor of the Empire.” Perry presented the letter from the American President. When the Japanese read it later, they were surprised to find that the letter was quite conciliatory in tone, and not really threatening at all. However, to avoid any confusion about his real intentions, Perry beefed up the President’s letter with three further messages of his own. note 102

In two codicils, Perry made threats and twisted the words of the President’s letter into something more menacing. The last message may have been spoken rather than written, but it was the clearest of all. Perry explained that if it came to war, the Americans would win, and to rub this in he presented the Japanese with a pair of white flags. When asked what they were for, Perry explained that when the Japanese were ready to surrender they should hoist the flags. The Americans would then stop firing. Perry announced that he would leave the Japanese to think things over, and he would be back in a few months to sign a treaty.

Perry made one further sortie up the bay, to within sight of Edo castle, and then scuttled off to Shanghai, to refit and refuel his ships, which after their extended voyage were in desperate need of maintenance. When he returned to Uraga Bay in the spring of 1854, he had an enlarged squadron of ten ships including the mighty Powhatan, the biggest and newest American warship. Perry pretended to the Japanese that this was still an insignificant fraction of the force he could call upon. In fact it was the biggest force the Americans had ever sent abroad. note 103

In the meantime events had moved on in Japan. The old Shogun had died, and unfortunately his heir was quite literally an idiot. Abe was left to baby-sit and try to wring some kind of agreement out of the Shogun’s council. Abe thought the best course of action was to play for time, to compromise but not give too much away, while learning from the West, importing Western technology and building up Japan’s defences. In an attempt to build a consensus Abe circulated a questionnaire to all the local lords and even to the Emperor, asking for advice. This backfired, since they took it as a sign of weakness and declared that there must be no compromise: the foreigners must be driven off and Japanese society preserved without change.

Abe instructed his negotiators not to give too much away, but to agree some sort of treaty with Perry. Abe also managed to keep a lid on the volunteers who were lining up to storm the American ships. Perry narrowly avoided death when a lone samurai assassin changed his mind at the last minute. Perry, oblivious to his near-death experience and itching for an excuse to shell Edo, tried to goad the Japanese into an attack, but they held back.

The turning point in the negotiations came when Perry gave up on his demand for open trade, and settled for access to a couple of ports for coal and supplies, plus an American diplomatic presence at Edo. Perry’s friends and relations in the China trade would have been much happier with open trade, but this was a start. This climb-down was just as well, because Abe had been quite willing to let the hot-heads attack the Americans if Perry had insisted on trade or tried to string out negotiations. note 104

Abe must have thought that he could sell this compromise to the Japanese establishment. The treaty was signed on 31 March 1854, but Abe kept the terms secret from the local lords and the Emperor for another year. When they discovered the truth they were incandescent. The Emperor issued the first imperial decree in hundreds of years. He instructed the people to melt down temple bells to make guns and to expel the foreigners. Abe had done his best, but things were starting to unravel.

America’s foot was in the door, but it took another man, the American consul to Edo, Townsend Harris, to barge it open. Playing on Japanese fears that the war then being waged by the British and French in China could easily be extended to Japan, Harris extracted Japanese agreement to open trade in the 1858 Treaty of Amity and Commerce. By then Abe was dead, and so was Perry. Japan began its descent into a decade of anarchy and civil war. note 105


It is at this point that we need to switch our attention to China, and to understand the true nature of the “China trade.” What was the Japanese establishment afraid of? To see what happened, we need to wind back the clock of history a few decades, to the start of the nineteenth century. Europeans and Americans were keen to buy tea, silk, cotton, porcelain and other art-objects from China. Tea was imported by Britain in vast quantities and had become the national drink, sweetened with sugar from Caribbean plantations. The problem for the merchants of the British East India Company and the American Russell and Company was how to pay for their Chinese imports. There was relatively little demand in China for Western goods, so the main thing being exported to China was silver bullion. Unfortunately, although tea was a self-renewing natural resource, silver bullion wasn’t. In modern terms we would say that the West had a “balance of payments problem.” note 106

The merchants came up with an ingenious solution: export to China some self-renewing natural resource for which there was a demand in China. Opium. This was at the time illegal in China, but addicts need their drugs, legal or not. The merchants arranged to grow opium in India and smuggle it into China where middlemen and distributors sold it to addicts. Using the proceeds they then bought tea and other Chinese goods for export.

Imagine drug-cartels, organised and efficient, sponsored by the governments of Britain and America. Imagine giant opium factories, under the control of a quasi-state: the British East India Company. Imagine smugglers operating hand-in-hand with corrupt drug-enforcement officials. Imagine the Chinese government begging the British to close the cartels down and save millions of addicts from their fate. Imagine the British and American establishment counting their profits and salving their consciences with charitable donations at home. This was the “China trade,” and when Perry stopped in Shanghai to refit his vessels, he lived in a house on the “Bund” owned by Russell and Company, one of the world’s leading opium cartels.

However, not all the Chinese officials were corrupt. One official in Canton sparked the First Opium War in 1839 by seizing and destroying an opium shipment. The cartels protested at this infringement of their property rights. The Chinese authorities refused to pay compensation. The British said this was an affront to the principles of free trade, and declared that they would force the Chinese to see things the same way. British warships flattened China’s coastal forts, and British marines roamed at will, the Chinese powerless to stop them. The war ended in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanking, in which the Chinese ceded Hong Kong to the British, and opened five “Treaty Ports” to foreign ownership. In these “concessions” the Westerners could build their homes and warehouses, and most importantly enforce (or not enforce) their own laws. They were little pieces of Europe on the shores of China, sovereign territory run by the cartels.

Unable to stop the flow of drugs, the central Manchu government lost face and then steadily lost control of the country as aspects of its sovereignty were grabbed by other organisations. Corruption blossomed, respect for authority declined, local bandits gained power. The government had clearly lost the all-important “mandate of heaven” — it was unable to maintain order, the prerequisite for government in China. In 1850, popular discontent coalesced into the “Taiping” rebellion, which over the next 15 years claimed an astonishing 20 million lives. note 107

While the Chinese government was trying to suppress this rebellion, they simultaneously fell into another war with the Westerners, who insisted that the Chinese had not fulfilled their obligations under the Treaty of Nanking. Britain and France again defeated the Chinese, this time right outside the walls of Peking. The peace treaty in 1860 gave further Treaty Ports to the Westerners, plus the right to sail the length of the Yangtsee river and travel anywhere in China. Opium was finally legalised. The cartels had won. note 108

The Manchu government discovered after all this that they quite liked the Westerners. The European customs officials were much more honest in collecting import duties than the former Chinese officials, so the central government actually had more revenue than before. There was of course still the problem of the Taiping rebels, with their capital in Nanking. The Westerners wanted to keep the privileges they had just won from the Manchu government, so they made common cause with their recent enemies and helped the Manchus to retake Nanking. Around 100,000 people were killed as the last gasp of revolution was crushed.


So this is what the Japanese establishment feared. They knew the price of submission, and the price of defiance. Neither option looked good. After the Harris trade treaty of 1858 there were two strands of opinion in the Japanese establishment. One said that it was best to play for time and learn from the West. In another science-fiction moment, the Shogun’s council sent a party of 77 samurai across the Pacific to San Francisco in a little ship bought from the Dutch. These novel sword-carrying aliens were feted across the country, like a diplomatic mission from the Klingon home-world. Their real purpose was to learn all they could about the United States, and particularly to learn about military technology. note 109

The other strand of Japanese opinion said that the foreigners must be immediately expelled. The Emperor loudly supported this choice, perhaps out of frustration as the country descended further into chaos. The cry of gangs roaming the streets was “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians.” In truth there were few foreigners in Japan, but the body-count of foreign casualties slowly ticked upwards. In 1862, an Englishman called Charles Richardson failed to show sufficient deference to a Shimazu lord from Satsuma province in the south of Japan. The lord’s bodyguards killed Richardson at the side of the road.

The Shimazu lord didn’t care if he upset the Shogun’s relations with the foreigners. The Shimazu were were centuries-old enemies of the Shoguns, and at this moment of crisis for the Shogun government they wanted nothing more than to twist the knife. The Shimazu were anti-foreign, but they were even more anti-Shogun, as subsequent events demonstrated.

The British demanded an indemnity for the murder of Richardson and justice for his killers. The Shimazu lord ignored them. After huffing and puffing to no avail for two years, the British decided to settle the matter themselves by sending a squadron of warships. They bombarded the Satsuma capital, reducing much of it to ruins. The Shimazu lord was impressed. He paid the indemnity and punished Richardson’s killers, but he also decided that this was technology that he needed. While nursing a resentment against the Shogun, who he blamed for all his troubles, the Shimazu lord started to build a Satsuma navy using imported technology. note 110

A similar experience of defiance, bombardment and submission happened to the lord of neighbouring Choshu province, who also became a convert to the virtues of Western technology. Satsuma and Choshu armed themselves with foreign weapons and the civil war against the Shogun began in earnest. This civil war continued, on and off, until the death of the Emperor in 1867, an event celebrated across Japan with a bizarre epidemic of cross-dressing and drunken revelry.

When the new fifteen-year-old Emperor Meiji took the throne, the lords of Satsuma and Choshu declared a “restoration” of the Emperor’s ancient authority and an end to the rule of the Shogun. The boy-Emperor was of course at that time just a pawn, a respectable “shill” for the Satsuma and Choshu rebels who had just manoeuvred themselves into control of Japan. After a few quickly suppressed revolts, the whole country united behind the new Emperor. note 111

Now that the lords of Satsuma and Choshu were in power, they did the exact opposite of what they had been saying for so long. Rather than preserve the institutions of Japan and expel the foreigners, they ripped up the institutions and made-nice to the foreigners. All the formal social classes were abolished, with their hereditary restrictions on what jobs people could do. The other local lords were stripped of their power. The administration of the country was completely re-organised, in much the same way that Napoleon re-organised the administration of France when he gained power after the revolution. Where previously there had been local autonomy, now there was a highly centralised state with far more sovereignty than any previous government of Japan.

The Satsuma and Choshu armies became the core of the Japanese army, their navy the core of the Japanese navy. A national school system was introduced to reinforce the traditional moral values of obedience to authority and absolute loyalty to the Emperor. (At this time, the most important moral value in Japan was certainly authority/respect, followed closely by sanctity/purity and ingroup/loyalty. The moral values of fairness/reciprocity and harm/care, shared across the whole political spectrum in the West, fell into a distant last place.) note 112

Conscription was introduced for all twenty-one-year-old men. Like Communist regimes of the twentieth century, the government sent evangelists into the countryside to promote the new vision, with slogans like “Enrich the Nation, Strengthen the Military.” In truth, the population of Japan saw very few riches, but the military and the industrial base to support it expanded in an incredibly short time to rival that of European states.

In 1889, the country adopted a constitution based on that of Germany. It had democracy and a parliament, but who was really in charge? By then the Emperor Meiji was in his mid-thirties and presumably a player, not just a shill. Since the coup two decades earlier, a new generation had been taught to revere him and obey him. But the former rebels from Satsuma and Choshu were still there too, still a real power, still running the administration, still in control of the army and navy. They needed the Emperor, but the Emperor also needed them. The close relationship between Emperor and military, excluding civilian government from decisions on war and peace, was not something new that happened in the twentieth century, it was there from the start.


Before we look at the story of the subsequent Japanese expansion, we need to take a detour to Okinawa, the largest island in the Ryukyus which stretch like a necklace from southern Japan down to Taiwan. The story of Okinawa is truly sad and bizarre, but it illuminates many of the following events. Although apparently a distant client state of China, paying a token tribute to the Manchus, in reality Okinawa had been secretly ruled for centuries by the Shimazu lords of Satsuma. The Shimazu maintained a small cadre of secret police and enforcers who formed the real government of the country. Everything else was sham. Apparently happy and peaceful, the islanders smiled and received visitors with trademark courtesy before politely but firmly ushering them on their way. Visitors were surprised to find that the Okinawans were so peaceful that they had no weapons of any kind, not even daggers. note 113

In reality the island was a kind of prison camp, and the islanders little better than hostages or slaves — but slaves forced to keep their slavery secret. They had no weapons because their jailers didn’t allow them weapons. Although the island culture had always been hospitable, now the hospitality had a darker edge. The islanders didn’t want to risk further oppression if the truth was discovered. And the reason for all of this secrecy was that while Japan was “closed,” it wasn’t completely closed: there was still trade between China and Okinawa and between Okinawa and Japan. But all the profits from this trade went to the real middle-men, the Shimazu lords of Satsuma (minus a kick-back to the Shogun who knew the secret but let the trade continue in return for a cut of the business).

In 1878 this secret oppression by the lords of Satsuma ended when Japan officially annexed Okinawa. For the Okinawans, the oppression now became worse, as the Japanese set about energetically erasing Okinawan culture and traditions. Remember the history of Okinawa as you think about Japan’s subsequent expansion. The later episodes were not really new; they just happened in a different place.


The steam pressure had been building up inside Japan for years, but the pistons of military strength only really started to move in 1894, when Japan finally launched her first substantial war. Following a Japanese-sponsored attack on a Korean religious sect and subsequent reprisals against Japanese citizens living in Korea, Japan sent soldiers to “protect” its citizens. (A classic political attack.) note 114

Now, Korea had for centuries been a client state of China, independent but under the protection of the Manchus, so this was tantamount to invasion. China decided to also send troops to Korea. However, the 1,500 Chinese soldiers aboard the S.S. Kowshing, chartered from Britain, were all killed when a Japanese squadron ambushed the ship en-route.

Since the Second Opium War, the Manchus had lost further client states and Treaty Ports to the Westerners, but this insult from the “dwarf bandits” of Japan was too much. The Chinese declared war on Japan, but were then crushingly defeated by Japan’s shiny new military machine. In September 1894, the Japanese destroyed half the Chinese navy in one afternoon. The Japanese captured Port Arthur in Manchuria and Weihaiwei in Shantung. China sued for peace.

The Japanese forced the Chinese to give “independence” to Korea, and when Korea’s Queen Min objected, they sent a group of sword-wielding assassins and killed her. China also gave Japan the large island of Formosa (now Taiwan), the Liaotung peninsula and a substantial cash indemnity. note 115

Surprised by these developments, the European powers and Russia made the Japanese give the Liaotung peninsula back to the Chinese, but took Port Arthur and Weihaiwei for themselves. The Europeans then quarrelled with each other about who would get the biggest share of the loans that China was forced to take out to pay the Japanese indemnity. The Japanese had just joined the club of exploiters.


To understand the next development in Japanese expansion, we need for a moment to step back around the curve of the earth and see things from Britain’s point of view. In the closing years of the nineteenth century, Britain although “ruler of the waves” was nervous. “Perfidious Albion,” always holding back from permanent alliances, choosing to place her fingers now on one side of the balance of power, now on the other, looked around and noticed that she stood alone, without a friend. Observing Russian deployments in the Orient, Lord Salisbury said, “I don’t think we carry enough guns to fight them and the French together.” note 116

The British figured that they needed some friends, or at least fewer enemies, and they started by appeasing the United States. Despite British fantasies of a “special relationship,” the American establishment had never particularly liked Britain, and at times during the nineteenth century things had been quite unpleasant. But in 1898 the British applauded approvingly from the sidelines as the United States sent six battleships into Manila harbour before breakfast one morning and sank the Spanish fleet at their moorings. The Spanish gave up the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico which became American colonies. Britain then ceded the right to build a canal across Panama, withdrew her fleet from the Caribbean, settled various boundary disputes and generally made sweet noises in America’s ear. note 117

With one problem solved, Britain turned to the Orient, and fell into the open arms of Japan. In 1900, a combined force of American, British, French, German and Japanese troops marched on Peking during the “Boxer Rebellion,” and rescued their diplomatic legations from a 55 day siege. They found the Chinese guilty of crimes “against civilisation” and extracted further concessions, including a huge indemnity with China’s customs revenue as security. But while this excitement was happening, the Russians quietly slid a 200,000 man army into Mongolia and a squadron of their Baltic fleet into Port Arthur. note 118

So, in January 1902, Britain and Japan signed a naval treaty. Each promised that they would remain neutral if the other were involved in a war with one other country, but that if their ally was in a war with two countries, then they would come to their aid. Confident that the French would not now come to the aid of the Russians, in 1904 the Japanese launched a surprise attack on the Russian warships operating out of Port Arthur. The Russian Tsar decided to teach the upstart Japanese a lesson, and dispatched the whole Baltic fleet to get revenge. note 119

The Russian fleet’s journey was rather longer than it might have been because the British refused to let them use the Suez Canal, so they had to sail all the way down the Atlantic, around Africa and across the Indian Ocean. When the exhausted fleet finally arrived in the Orient, they were immediately attacked by the Japanese in the Tshushima Strait between Korea and Japan. The Russians lost all their battleships and most of their cruisers. Only one small cruiser and two destroyers made it to Vladivostok. The Japanese lost only two torpedo boats. Russia sued for peace, and gave the Japanese half of Sakhalin Island and their lease on southern Manchuria, including the South Manchurian Railway — later to be the scene of the Mukden Incident. Britain was rather pleased with its choice of ally and in 1905 elevated their naval treaty into a full alliance.

With Manchuria secured, the stage was now set for the Japanese to systematically plunder Korea. The Japanese first declared that Korea was a “colony.” Large numbers of Japanese entered the country, and created a new police force which worked hand in hand with secret police and organised criminals to crush Korean resistance. Then in 1910 Japan declared that Korea was now not even a colony, but fully part of Japanese territory. The oppression stepped up a gear and Korea was stripped bare of everything valuable, from rice to ancient porcelain. But the Japanese aimed at more than this. They didn’t only want to remove everything physical of value from the Korean peninsula, they wanted to remove the Korean people themselves. note 120

In the words of Korean historian Yi Kilbeck, “Japan’s aim was to eradicate consciousness of Korean national identity, roots and all, and thus to obliterate the very existence of the Korean people from the face of the earth.” Korean school-children were taught in Japanese by school teachers carrying swords. Nothing was allowed to be printed in Korean. People were supposed to speak only Japanese, even at home. Resistance was intense, but ruthlessly suppressed. Over the following decades, millions of Koreans were forced into slave labour. Korea had been turned into a giant concentration camp. The West made no objection.


Meanwhile, back in China, the Manchu government was in 1910 finally close to collapse. Anti-Manchu secret societies, like Sun Yat-sen’s “Revive China Society” grew up in the 1890s, particularly after China’s first defeat by Japan. Reform by the central government was slow and grudging. It didn’t want to share what little sovereignty it had left. In 1898 the Chinese Emperor started a programme of reform, but he was quickly deposed in a coup led the Empress Dowager. Popular frustration condensed in 1900 into the Boxer rebellion. A violent protest movement rather than an organised revolution, the Boxer rebellion murdered around 200 Christian missionaries and 20,000 Chinese converts before converging on Peking. Their arrival prompted the Manchus to rather unwisely declare war on the Western powers and lay siege to the Western legations in Peking. You already know how that ended. note 121

Not quite alive, not quite dead, the Manchu government stumbled on. By supporting the Boxer rebellion they had shown how not to resist the foreigners. Chinese modernisers like Sun Yat-sen, just like the Japanese decades earlier, wanted to learn from the West so that they could retake China for the Chinese, but as a first step they wanted to throw out the useless Manchus. In 1905, seeing the writing on the wall, the central government offered to produce a constitution within five years followed by elections, but these proposals were overtaken by events. note 122

Sun Yat-sen had fled China to escape the retribution of the Manchus after a coup attempt in the 1890s. Since then he had travelled around the world raising money for the cause, and from Japan and Hanoi had continued to work against the Chinese government, organising insurrection after insurrection, in the hope that one might eventually reach a tipping-point and trigger a general rebellion. In 1910, Sun’s organisation attempted several coups while he was on a fund-raising tour of Europe and America. All of these symbolic attacks on the Manchus were put down, but each brought more and more recruits to the cause. Perhaps the fight could be won. note 123

Finally on 10 October 1911 one of these insurrections in Wuhan was joined by a mutiny of the garrison, and events snowballed. Within a month, nine provinces had rebelled against the central government. The Manchus sent their general Yuan Shih-kai to sort things out. He recaptured the original scene of the rebellion, but by then the rebels had moved their base to the Treaty Port of Shanghai. Half of China’s industry was at Shanghai, and half China’s trade passed through its port. The local powers threw in their lot with the rebels, and the situation was now more evenly balanced. note 124

Although the rebels considered Sun Yat-sen to be their leader, they didn’t actually have a clear leader on the ground — Sun was hurrying back but still not in the country. So the rebels made an offer to Yuan Shih-kai: join us, with your soldiers, and you can be President of the Republic of China. The Manchu Dowager Empress made a counter offer: stay with us and you can be Prime Minister of a constitutional monarchy. Yuan pondered these competing bids for his services, and decided to stay with the Manchus.

The Western powers held back from intervening in the conflict. After the Manchus supported the Boxer rebellion, the West had little love for the old regime. Perhaps the new Republic would be more cooperative. The country disintegrated into a fractal pattern of conflict: at the largest scale, the rebel army fought its way up-river to Nanking; in the middle, local oligarchs and warlords consolidated their feudal power; at the smallest scale, bandits stole livestock and settled old scores. note 125

In Peking, the Manchus left town and headed back to Manchuria, from whence their ancestors originally came. Sun Yat-sen finally arrived in China on 25 December 1911, and in recently conquered Nanking he was elected President of the Republic. Six weeks later, the Manchus formally abdicated, and left the north of China in the control of Yuan Shih-kai. He waited. After a few weeks, Sun and Yuan made a deal to unite the country: on 12 March 1912, Sun retired and Yuan Shih-kai became President of a Chinese republican government with its capital in Peking. In reality, the boiling froth of warlords, bandits and private armies would not subside for decades. For now, Yuan Shih-kai was merely the strongest strongman in China.


At this point an unexpected turn of events presented Japan with an opportunity. Since Japan was an ally of Britain, when the First World War broke out in Europe, it was natural that Japan would help Britain by seizing German territory in the Orient. But the Japanese wanted to keep their gains, however things turned out in Europe, and they hedged their bets. They convinced Yuan Shih-kai to agree that the Japanese could keep all the German concessions, and in return the Japanese supported his ambition to become next Emperor of China. The Japanese didn’t mind who appeared to be in charge, so long as they were the power behind the throne. (Unfortunately for them and Yuan, when he tried to declare himself Emperor, several provinces seceded and he had to cancel the decree. Yuan died a few months later.) note 126

Hedging their bets still further, the Japanese played on the fear that they might yet change sides. They extracted secret agreements from their allies in Europe and America, saying that when it came to peace negotiations, they would certainly keep their German winnings after the war. And so, when the deals were done at Versailles in 1919, the Japanese did rather nicely out of the First World War.

But not everything went well for the Japanese. The biggest upset, for them and their ally Britain, came at the Washington Naval Conference in 1922 when the Americans forced them to abandon their 20 year-old alliance. The Anglo-Japanese treaty, which guaranteed mutual support in case of war, was replaced by the Four-Power treaty, in which America, Britain, France and Japan agreed to settle their disputes by diplomacy. It guaranteed nothing. Britain gave up the fleet she needed to defend her empire and agreed to a much smaller fleet, equal in size to America, with Japan at a second-class 60% of the size. The deal was later described by historian Correlli Barnet as “one of the major catastrophes of British history.” It wasn’t much better for the Japanese. note 127

In part Britain made this choice because the British establishment was in love with America and believed that they had a “special relationship.” In part it was a horror of war and a sincere belief in negotiation through the League of Nations. But mostly, it was money. Half the British tax revenue was being used to pay interest on war loans to the Americans. If the British made a fuss, the Yankees might foreclose on the British Empire. Trying to make the best of a bad deal, in 1924 the British Chancellor said that “Japan is at the other end of the world. She cannot menace our vital security in any way.” It’s interesting to speculate on how the twentieth century might have unfolded if Britain had continued to be allied with Japan. Not only the story of Britain but also the interlaced stories of Japan, China and the USA would have turned out very differently. note 128


Back in China, towards the end of the First World War, Sun Yat-sen had returned to Canton after the death of Yuan Shih-kai. Without Yuan, the official government in the north had no more power than any other provincial warlord, and was in any case merely a puppet of the Japanese. Sun managed to blow life back into the embers of the republican “Kuomintang,” and established a rival government in the south. Looking at what had happened, and what might still happen, Sun Yat-sen saw that without its own military strength, the Kuomintang would always be at the mercy of shifting alliances between rival warlords. So with Communist Russian help, he opened a military academy at Whampoa, decorated with revolutionary artwork and inspirational slogans, to train a Kuomintang army. note 129

Head of this academy was Chiang Kai-shek: on-and-off participant in Sun’s turn-of-the century uprisings, recent visitor to Moscow and graduate of both the Imperial Chinese and Japanese military academies. (Chiang also had impeccable connections in the Shanghai underworld.) One way or another, Chiang would be a central figure in Chinese politics for the next fifty years. American general Joseph Stillwell later said that Chiang was “The most astute politician of the twentieth century. He must be or he wouldn’t be alive.”

The intricacies of Chinese political manoeuvring and military operations at this time are frustratingly fractal in nature: every part, no matter how small, seems to have the same complexity as the whole. Sun Yat-sen died in 1925, and became an iconic figure whose portrait was displayed everywhere, as if to signify a unity which no longer existed. The tension between the left-wing and right-wing of the Kuomintang had already been present in the military academy of Whampoa, but after Sun’s death this tension grew into open hostility and warfare, even as the Kuomintang steadily gained control of China. Chiang Kai-shek rose from head of the Kuomintang army to leader of the Nationalist Kuomintang government of China in Peking. note 130

However, Chiang never had control of the whole country. The boiling fractal froth of warlords, bandits and private armies was still there, only now with Chiang floating on top. He was a gifted politician, as able as anyone to cope with their rebellions and challenges, but Chiang also faced a deeper problem: the Communists. Originally the left-wing of his own Kuomintang party, but now a separate movement of their own, the Communists were dangerous because they were playing an entirely different infinite game from Chiang and the warlords. They didn’t seem to be motivated by profit or power — they claimed to be looking out for the interests of ordinary people, and unsurprisingly this made them enormously popular with ordinary people. These revolutionaries threatened to undermine the whole system of power in which Chiang precariously balanced. So, like other Chinese rulers before him, Chiang concentrated his main energy on destroying the revolutionaries, and continued to do so even while foreign armies roamed China.


And so we come around to the next step in Japanese expansion: the 1931 Mukden incident and the subsequent take-over of Manchuria. This is the place in the story where most Western accounts start, looking to explain how things went wrong, not really noticing that the fabric of history appears much the same on both sides. This wasn’t a change of direction for the Japanese, it was the direction. note 131

The Japanese had a lease on parts of Manchuria since their war with Russia in 1905, but they didn’t have sovereignty. They were just a tenant. Then in 1931, Chiang Kai-shek refused to renew the lease. The Japanese refused to leave, and tempers rose in local disputes.

The Japanese had tried in 1928 to provoke the Chinese by assassinating warlord Chang Tso-lin, but that plot fizzled out. This time, rather than rely on retaliation which might not come, the Japanese switched to a false-flag strategy and faked-up a Chinese bomb near the railway line at Mukden. Japanese troops fanned out across Manchuria, and Chiang Kai-shek ordered Chinese troops to fall back. The Chinese had many more troops, but they were poorly trained and widely scattered, no match for the disciplined, concentrated Japanese. Chiang used the age-old Chinese strategy of falling back before invaders while he continued his campaign to defeat his internal enemies, the Communists.

The Japanese declared that Manchuria was now the “independent” nation of Manchukuo, and to dress this up with an air of plausibility, they installed as emperor the naive and vain Pu Yi, formerly last Manchu emperor of China, ‘rescued’ by the Japanese from the clutches of the ‘evil warlords’ of Peking. In return for the title of emperor, Pu Yi handed over imperial treasures he had taken from Peking and signed whatever laws the Japanese wanted, regardless of the cost to his Chinese subjects.

Now under the control of the Japanese army, Manchukuo was intended to become a new centrally-planned Japanese colony. Over the next few years, dozens of new cities were laid out to receive colonists from Japan. But unlike Korea, where centuries of wealth were ready for plunder, Manchuria’s wealth was mostly in natural resources which needed more work and investment to extract them. The occupying Japanese army was impatient for faster returns, and chose a different way to make money — they took over the mantle of opium supplier to China. Steadily ramping up production in Manchukuo, by 1937 they were producing 90% of the world supply of illicit opium and heroin, bringing in around 300 million dollars a year. note 132

But by then, Western opinion had turned against the Japanese. While he had little alternative to withdrawing Chinese troops from Manchuria, Chiang Kai-shek could and did protest loudly to the League of Nations. He got support from American Secretary of State Henry Stimson, who was outraged by the Japanese move into Manchuria. American President Herbert Hoover was much more lukewarm, and was adamant in private that there would be no substantial action against Japan. note 133

Nevertheless, Stimson conceived and promoted the “Stimson Doctrine,” that the United States would refuse to recognise any political change made by force. This put the British in an awkward position. The British had never defended the territorial integrity of China in any meaningful way, and they didn’t want to start now. But the whole of British foreign policy was now predicated on negotiation through the League of Nations. The British had such a small military and such an exposed position in China that they could do little to defend their south-China possessions, let alone coerce the Japanese. Playing for time, they sent a man to investigate and write a report.

When Victor Lytton arrived in China with his team of investigators, the Chinese people were making their own, mostly non-violent protest against the seizure of Manchuria, in the form of an anti-Japanese boycott. Now, you might imagine that the Japanese would try to keep things quiet while Lytton wrote his report, but instead they did the exact opposite. In Shanghai, the Japanese provided themselves with the usual pretext, in this case the death of a young man singing Japanese patriotic songs on a Shanghai street, beaten to death by an irate mob. In a vastly over-the-top retribution, the Japanese launched planes from a waiting aircraft carrier to bomb Chinese civilians, and poured thousands of marines into the city. Westerners watched from their enclaves of “extra-territoriality” as the Chinese parts of the city were flattened and more and more Japanese and Chinese troops joined the fight. There were about 100,000 troops engaged on each side when they signed a ceasefire in May 1932. By then about 18,000 civilians had been killed and 240,000 homes destroyed. note 134

Victor Lytton presented his report to the League of Nations later in 1932. The report attempted to appear even-handed and not to come down on the side of China, but it did say that Manchukuo was just a Japanese puppet state with no popular support, and that the Japanese operations in Manchuria could not be considered “self defence.” When the League of Nations voted in 1933 to return Manchuria to China, Japan walked out. No more Mr Nice Guy. The Japanese army immediately advanced further into China, occupying Jehol and Hopei. Chiang Kai-shek accepted this as a fait accompli, since he was at that time too preoccupied with his “Fourth Bandit Suppression Campaign” against the Communists. note 135


Why were the Japanese behaving like this? In America, Henry Stimson confessed that he was “baffled and pessimistic.” When Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the Presidency in 1932, Stimson lost his job as Secretary of State. Roosevelt was a Democrat, Stimson a Republican. But in the depths of the Great Depression, Roosevelt found it hard to get establishment support for many of his policies. He was trying to reform America’s broken institutions, and the vested interests in the establishment were arrayed against him. So, when Stimson made some supportive speeches, Roosevelt invited him to lunch at the White House. Over a long lunch on 17 May 1934, Roosevelt told Stimson a quite extraordinary story. Roosevelt said that when he had been a student at Harvard in 1902, he had a Japanese friend, who had told him “an impressive tale of long-term ambitions.” This is what Stimson wrote in his diary afterwards: note 136

“This young Japanese boy had told him of the making in 1889 of the one-hundred-year Japanese plan for the Japanese dynasty, which involved the following steps in the following order :

“1. An official war with China to show that they could fight and could beat China.

“2. The absorption of Korea.

“3. A defensive war against Russia.

“4. The taking of Manchuria.

“5. Taking of Jehol.

“6. The establishment of a virtual protectorate over northern China from the Wall to the Yangtze.

“7. Encircling movement in Mongolia and the establishment of the Japanese influence through instructors as far as Tibet, thus establishing a precautionary threat against Russia on one side and India on the other.

“8. The acquisition of all the islands of the Pacific including Hawaii.

“9. Eventually the acquisition of Australia and New Zealand.

“10. Establishment of Japanese — (using a word indicating a rather fatherly control, which the President said he could not quite remember) over all of the yellow races, including the Malays. In this way the young man said they would have a definite point of threat against Europe.

“When young Roosevelt asked him what they were going to do to the United States, he said that the United States need not have any fear; that all they would do in the new hemisphere would be to establish outposts, one probably in Mexico and another perhaps in Peru ; otherwise they would leave us alone. But we must remember that they were a temperate zone people and they must have Australia and New Zealand to expand in. The President commented in how many particulars this plan revealed to him by the young Jap, who was a highclass member of the Samurai caste in Japan, had been confirmed by subsequent events — this having been told to Roosevelt several years before the Russo-Japanese War.”

This is a strange story, isn’t it? What are we to make of it? First of all, I think we have to accept that Stimson wanted people to think that this is what Roosevelt believed. Why else would Stimson publish it in his autobiography in 1948? By then the Second World War was over, Roosevelt was dead, and Stimson presumably wanted to show that Roosevelt had been anti-Japanese even back then. Perhaps Stimson wanted to try set the record straight, since he had earned himself a reputation as a bit of a hawk, not because he wanted war, but because he was “a pacifist who loved peace so much he was always ready to fight for it.” (Stimson had been Secretary of War during World War I and Roosevelt brought him back as Secretary of War in 1940, even though they were on opposing political parties.) note 137

Did Stimson believe the story himself? He had every reason to think that Roosevelt might have come across such a story in his youth. Roosevelt’s family had deep connections with the Orient. Roosevelt’s grandfather, Warren Delano, had made his first fortune as senior partner of Russell and Company in the 1840s. He returned to the USA immensely wealthy and settled into the highest echelons of American society. Over-leveraged in the crash of 1857, he nearly went bankrupt, but recouped his fortune by returning to the “China trade,” this time concentrating exclusively on opium. note 138

Things went so well that Delano chartered a clipper, the Surprise, to bring his family out to join him in China. (This was the nineteenth century equivalent of chartering a 747 for a family trip.) The story of the Surprise entered family legend — Roosevelt’s mother Sara entertained successive generations of offspring with the sea shanties she learned as a child on the four month voyage, and Roosevelt himself had a wooden model of the ship on the table behind his desk and two more pictures on the wall. Given this fondly remembered connection to the Orient and Roosevelt’s own place at the epicentre of the American establishment, it was entirely plausible that he might as a young man in the privileged cloisters of Harvard have been told that story about Japan.

But why would Stimson feel he had to make Roosevelt’s attitude clear? Surely his record would speak for itself? Unfortunately (and no-one understood this better than Stimson) that’s not the case. It’s almost impossible to find what Roosevelt really thought about anything. This is not an accident. Roosevelt committed almost nothing of significance to paper. He didn’t allow notes to be taken at Cabinet meetings. When his presidential library was being dedicated in June 1941, someone asked why he was in such good spirits. He replied, “I am thinking of all the historians who will come here thinking that they’ll find answers to their questions.” The historians found that the record had been swept bare. note 139

Roosevelt was eventually revered by the vast bulk of the American population because he saved them from destitution during the Great Depression, but his self-confessed deception and deviousness attracted the bile of American politicians from Communists to Fascists. They called him “That Man,” or even “that megalomaniac cripple in the White House.” The wealthy regarded him as a “traitor to his class.” He seemed to have no principles, acting purely out of pragmatism. Writer H. L. Mencken said, “If he became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he so sorely needs, he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House backyard come Wednesday.” note 140

He was also willing to take risks that would give other politicians sleepless nights. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin said he was “one of the few statesmen in the twentieth or any other century who seemed to have no fear at all of the future.” And although he could be charming when he wanted, he could also be heartless. For example, historians David Bercuson and Holger Herwig relate the following exchange between Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, from Christmas 1941: note 141

Had he called Marguerite “Missy” LeHand at Warm Springs, she asked Franklin. Surely, his former social secretary, confidant and “surrogate wife,” to whom he had given half his estate in a new will just the month before, after she had suffered a stroke, was waiting for the sound of his voice wishing her a Merry Christmas. FDR replied, as cold as ice, that he had not phoned Missy and that he had no intention of doing so. Deeply hurt, Eleanor later tearfully confessed to her friend, Joseph Lash, that her husband “seemed to have no bond to people. Not even his children. Completely political person.” note 142

Perhaps, like me, you are starting to get a bad feeling about Roosevelt. In 1941, Stimson muttered to himself in his diary that two-thirds of Roosevelt’s troubles came from his “topsy-turvy, upside down system of poor administration.” Roosevelt didn’t really administer his government in the usual way, he worked through a swarm of informants, advisers and proxies, each told part of a story and sent off to do some part of Roosevelt’s will. No one except Roosevelt had the whole story, and no one really knew what Roosevelt thought. note 143

But everyone knew that Roosevelt could very quickly change his feelings about people, and perhaps this was because he never actually had feelings to start with, just strategies for winning and getting what he wanted. Perhaps H. L. Mencken was closer than he knew when he compared Roosevelt to Stalin, saying, “The smile of the sonofabitch in the White House and the smile of Holy Joe in Moscow have a great deal in common.” We’ll never really know, but perhaps Roosevelt was a ‘successful psychopath.’

Where does that leave us as we try to make something of the story he told to Stimson over lunch that day in 1934? Roosevelt’s subsequent actions and statements over the following years are certainly consistent with the story. But it could still be a lie, convincingly told by a ‘successful psychopath’ so he could get what he wanted. Or it could be the truth. It’s hard to say.


Meanwhile, the Japanese were certainly playing out their part in the story perfectly. In 1934 the “Amau Doctrine” proclaimed that Japan was the “guardian of peace and order in East Asia,” and that China had no right to “avail herself of the influence of any other country to resist Japan.” These were not just empty words — the Japanese military-imperial complex continued its penetration of northern China, making local arrangements with the warlords and smuggling yet more opium into the country. Chiang Kai-shek passively fell back, because he was entirely focused on his “Fifth Bandit Suppression Campaign” against the Communists. With 700,000 Chinese troops and the help of German military advisers, he finally cornered the Communists and settled down to starve them out or massacre them. Unfortunately for Chiang, the remaining 90,000 Communists broke out of the siege, scattered to escape Chiang’s aircraft, and over the next year walked 5,000 miles to set up base in distant Shensi province in the north. After the “Long March” Chiang never again came so close to destroying the Communists. note 144

Back in America, in April 1935, Roosevelt invited anti-war activists Clarance Picket and Harry Fosdick to tea in the White House. The US Navy was planning its biggest ever naval exercise, with 160 ships and 450 aircraft, near the Aleutians and Midway Island. When they could get a word in edge-ways between Roosevelt’s reminiscences, Picket and Fosdick tried to convince the President to call off the exercise. It was a long way from American shores and seemed likely to provoke Japan. Roosevelt responded with a version of the story he told to Stimson about Japan’s long-term ambitions. The exercise went ahead. Japanese Admiral Kanji Kato said it was like “drawing a sword before a neighbour’s house.” note 145

The next dramatic step in Japanese expansion came in July 1937. This was intended by the emperor and his military advisers to be a limited 90-day campaign to seize control of the north of China, the way they had in Manchuria and Korea. The war started with the “Marco Polo Bridge incident” — Japanese troops garrisoned near the Marco Polo Bridge outside Peking claimed they had been attacked by nearby Chinese troops. The Japanese retaliated. This undeclared war swiftly escalated. The Japanese dive-bombed a Chinese university. This time, Chiang Kai-shek declared that China would not surrender further positions or cede territory, but the Japanese advanced nevertheless. note 146

Chiang opened up a second front in August 1937, moving his best German-trained troops down to Shanghai. He hoped that a battle which threatened the “extra-territorial” international concessions in Shanghai might produce an incident involving foreigners or foreign property. Perhaps the British or Americans could be drawn into the fight. Over the next three months, around 250,000 people died as Chiang attempted to win the sympathy of world opinion. He succeeded — the picture of a crying baby sitting on the railway tracks in the ruins of Shanghai remains one of the classic war photos — but there was no foreign intervention. The remnants of the Chinese army finally withdrew in November to Nanking. note 147

This was the first of several retreats up the Yangtze river. Again following the classic Chinese strategy of retreating before the invader, Chiang soon withdrew to Wuhan, then finally far inland, beyond the Three Gorges, to Chunking in Szechuan province. From here he continued to claim that he ruled China, while the Japanese had de facto control of the coastal heartland. But Chiang had achieved victory of a sort, because he never surrendered, never came to an agreement with the Japanese legitimising their conquest. A million Japanese soldiers were still pinned down in China, fighting a war that should have been won in three months, against an enemy who wouldn’t give up.

In the coastal heartland of China, the Japanese military-imperial complex settled into the familiar rhythm of rape, murder and pillage. By December 1937, Chiang’s government had gone, but the city of Nanking still held out against the invaders. Emperor Hirohito, Meiji’s grandson, appointed his uncle prince Asaka Yasuhiko to take charge of the assault and sack the city. Out of everything else, before and after, the “Rape of Nanking” still stands out as a breathtaking example of inhumanity. After the city was taken, its inhabitants were systematically tortured and murdered. In a few weeks, 300,000 people were killed. Between 20,000 and 80,000 women of all ages were raped. People were machine-gunned, bayoneted, doused with petrol and set on fire. Officers organised a beheading competition. Although the details were probably little different from the sack of a thousand cities throughout history, this time there were photos. (The Japanese took their souvenir snapshots to be developed at camera shops in Shanghai, and copies leaked out to the world’s press.) note 148

While the Japanese army had its boot on China’s neck, a highly organised team of imperial thieves went through the victim’s pockets, repeating the patterns of Korea and Mongolia, but this time firmly under the control of the imperial household. In Mongolia, a distressing fraction of the spoils had been siphoned off by army commanders for their own personal benefit. This time the looting was carefully supervised by imperial officials under the direction of the emperor’s brother prince Chichibu.

The same combination of secret police and organised crime that stripped Korea went to work on China. Civilised for thousands of years, China had tremendous wealth, almost all of it very carefully hidden. China had been looted before, but never this systematically. Around 6,000 tons of gold was taken from Nanking alone. Officials and the wealthy were killed, kidnapped, coerced into giving up their treasure. Over the following years, the looters came back again and again, to pick up what they missed on earlier sweeps. A special cadre of antiquarians combed through China’s libraries and museums. Japanese Yakusza worked with the secret police, supplying Chinese gangsters with drugs in return for gold. The proceeds of all these operations were carefully checked by Chichibu and other members of the imperial household before being crated up and sent to underground vaults in Japan. As before, ordinary Japanese people saw no benefit from this treasure trove, didn’t even realise it existed. The tyrants of the military-imperial complex fully lived up to the maxim “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people.” note 149


But their plans were about to run off the rails. From our own position, looking back on these distant intertwined stories, it is tempting to surrender to the “narrative fallacy” and imagine that events must have been sweeping along towards Pearl Harbor and an inevitable war between Japan and the United States. Let’s try not to make that mistake. The Japanese didn’t intend to fight the Americans, certainly not then. Although they had seized Pacific islands from the Germans twenty years before, their bases were inadequate for war against America — the islands had no oil storage, no dry-docks or repair facilities, no airfields or hangars. Although the Japanese had more aircraft carriers than the Americans, Japanese warships were designed for short range operation, and when away from base they relied heavily on tankers to refuel them at sea. The Japanese were equipped for exactly the wars they had been fighting, on the coasts of mainland Asia. note 150

Did America intend to fight Japan? Although some people, like Stimson, felt strongly about Japanese aggression, the American people were too preoccupied with their own problems in the Great Depression, too wary of entanglement in foreign wars, to do anything except talk about trade sanctions and embargoes. And of course, from the perspective of the Atlantic, which many Americans shared, more dangerous events were unfolding in Europe.

Europe was re-arming, which was a mixed blessing to America. It was good news for American businessmen and their employees, still staggering out of destitution. Orders came rolling in. The American establishment thought that on balance Hitler might be a good thing, might one day take care of their mutual arch-enemy the Communists. When businessman Thomas Watson of IBM was given a medal by Hitler, he was proud to wear its swastikas on his chest. But anti-war activists were fearful about German ambitions in Europe. note 151

Unlike many Americans, Roosevelt was more concerned about the Pacific. In 1937 he told his adviser Sumner Welles that he was far more preoccupied with the threat of Japan than the threat of Germany. This was a threat that would be met first by the US Navy, in which Roosevelt took an intense and personal interest. In a 1938 story the New York Times said, “The Navy is being run from the White House these days.” It was well known that the White House was stuffed to overflowing with nautical memorabilia, but this was not just show. Roosevelt was expert on issues of ship design and armament and he maintained tight control over the promotion of senior officers. While America did not intend to fight Japan, what about Roosevelt? Let’s see how the story unfolds. This might just be the greatest scam of the twentieth century. note 152


In Europe, the second half of Western civilisation’s civil war opened with Germany’s Nazis taking control of Austria in spring 1938, followed in the autumn by Czechoslovakia, after Britain and France agreed to stand back. In August 1939 the Nazis and Communist Russians signed a non-aggression pact which paved the way for their next conquest: Poland. The British and French warned the Nazis not to invade; the Nazis invaded anyway. In September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany, despite the fact that there was nothing they could do to prevent the fall of Poland. Europe entered a “phoney war,” with the enemies dropping leaflets and the occasional bomb, without much real warfare happening. The feared gas attacks and mass casualties didn’t happen. The war was, if anything, boring. Finally, in April 1940, the war turned hot when when Britain and Germany both invaded neutral Norway. note 153

Meanwhile, in the Pacific, Admiral James Richardson’s fleet of American warships had just finished their spring exercises in Hawaii. Normally they would return to their bases in California, at San Diego, San Pedro and Long Beach, but this year he was instructed keep the fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Richardson thought the move west was provocative, and disruptive, since it took the fleet away from its training and repair facilities, its dry-docks, and the families of the sailors. note 154

Richardson complained, but his boss, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold Stark, blew him off with a variety of half-baked reasons, and one or two reasons that almost made sense. Stark said, “You are there because of the deterrent effect which it is thought your presence may have on the Japs going into the East Indies. You would naturally ask — suppose the Japs do go into the East Indies? What are we going to do about it? My answer to that is, I don’t know.” But Stark didn’t have to know. Both Stark and Richardson were dancing to someone else’s tune: Roosevelt’s. Most irritating to Richardson was an order for him to issue a press release saying that he himself had asked to keep the fleet in Hawaii. He did as he was told, but he wasn’t happy about it. Richardson needed to talk to the man calling the tune, so he asked for a meeting at the White House.

Back in Europe, the slow-motion war suddenly came to life in May when German paratroops captured the “impregnable” Eben Emmel fortress in Belgium. Twenty five years before, the Germans had cheated by invading France through neutral Belgium. Now, to everyone’s surprise, they did the same thing again. A few weeks later in June, the Nazis captured Paris and the French surrendered. The British expected, and soon received, an aerial attack preparing the way for invasion. The British prime minister had arranged stocks of mustard gas, and was ready to spray it on the invasion beaches, though his generals warned that this might tend to alienate American sympathy and invite retaliation against the British population. note 155

In the event, the gas wasn’t necessary, since a symbolic attack on Berlin by a force of British bombers convinced the Nazis in September 1940 to switch from military to civilian targets. The British prime minister declared, “I personally believe that the spectacle of the fierce struggle and carnage in our Island will draw the United States into the war.” But this was just window dressing.

In fact the thing most likely to draw the Americans into the war was money, just as it had two decades before. At the start of the war, when Britain totalled up her disposable assets, she had about 770 million pounds to spend (about 1.8 billion dollars), far less than in the previous war. The Americans had imagined that Britain was still rich, and on that basis they had by the autumn of 1940 accepted orders for 10 billion dollars of war materiel. These were the orders that were pulling America out of economic depression, but when the American establishment finally saw the British accounts, they were apoplectic — Britain was bankrupt. They were going to have to support Britain, one way or another, just to get their money back. (In 1941, the Americans made the best of the situation and forced the British to sell their remaining American assets at knock-down prices.) From this point on, although Britain appeared to be independent, and pretended to be independent, it was in reality just a client state of America. note 156

So in September 1940, when it became clear that the British would not be immediately defeated, Roosevelt agreed to “lend” the British 50 obsolescent 20-year-old destroyers, which Britain desperately needed to protect her Atlantic convoys. In return Britain “lent” America eight bases around the Atlantic, on 99-year leases — American “concessions” in the British empire, like the British “concessions” in the Chinese empire 100 years before. note 157

Roosevelt also managed get Congress to pass the first peace-time draft law in American history, though by the narrowest of margins: one vote. Now, young men could be called up and trained for the military, even though there was no enemy yet. A poll showed that 88% of Americans agreed with isolationists Charles Lindberg and Henry Ford. They wanted to keep out of Europe’s wars. Roosevelt told parents in a radio broadcast that “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” But privately he said, “Of course we’ll fight if we are attacked. If somebody attacks us, then it isn’t a foreign war, is it?” note 158

On Friday 4 October 1940, Roosevelt was talking on the phone about a newspaper article he had recently read — a Japanese spokesman had called for the United States to “demilitarize its bases at Wake, Midway and Pearl Harbor.” For once, we get to hear Roosevelt’s candid reaction, because he had recently had a voice-activated recorder installed in the Oval Office, and often forgot to turn it off. Roosevelt was angry: “God! That’s the first time that any damn Jap has told us to get out of Hawaii. And that has me more worried than any other thing in the world.” note 159

Perhaps it was a coincidence of timing, but on the next Monday, Arthur McCollum, the Head of the Far East Desk in Naval Intelligence, delivered a five page memo detailing why and how to trick Japan and the American public into war. (This memo lay hidden for over 50 years until historian Robert Stinnett discovered it in 1995 in an archive of McCollum’s papers. All other copies had been destroyed.) Here are the concluding paragraphs: note 160

9. It is not believed that in the present state of political opinion the United States government is capable of declaring war against Japan without more ado; and it is barely possible that vigorous actions on our part might lead the Japanese to modify their attitude. Therefore, the following course of action is suggested:

  1. Make an arrangement with Britain for the use of British bases in the Pacific, particularly Singapore.

  2. Make an arrangement with Holland for the use of base facilities and acquisition of supplies in the Dutch East Indies.

  3. Give all possible aid to the Chinese Government of Chiang-Kai-Shek.

  4. Send a division of long range heavy cruisers to the Orient, Philippines or Singapore.

  5. Send two divisions of submarines to the Orient.

  6. Keep the main strength of the U.S. Fleet now in the Pacific in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands.

  7. Insist that the Dutch refuse to grant Japanese demands for undue economic concessions, particularly oil.

  8. Completely embargo all U.S. trade with Japan, in collaboration with a similar embargo imposed by the British Empire.

10. If by these means Japan could be led to commit an overt act of war, so much the better. At all events we must be fully prepared to accept the threat of war.

McCollum was intimately familiar with Japan — he was born in Nagasaki to American missionary parents, and spoke Japanese before he spoke English. He had joined the US Navy at age 18 and served as a naval attaché in Tokyo. (Bizarrely, while he was there he had a part-time job as dance instructor to the future Emperor Hirohito). No one understood better how to wind up the Japanese establishment, and no one was more aware of the dispositions of the Japanese military. note 161

McCollum was a familiar figure to Roosevelt — since early 1940 he had been the source of the reports which Roosevelt received every few days, summarising Japanese communications intelligence. Mostly these reports were delivered via the President’s naval aide, but when McCollum had something especially juicy he came to the White House and gave it to Roosevelt in person. (Roosevelt didn’t keep any of these reports or any record of them, so when people later asked what the President knew, there was nothing to find in the White House.) note 162

McCollum’s memo was addressed to Walter Anderson and Dudley Knox — Roosevelt’s key naval advisers. Anderson was Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence, and met with Roosevelt several times a week. Although there’s no firm evidence, it’s hard to believe that Anderson and Roosevelt didn’t discuss McCollum’s proposals, that they hadn’t in fact asked him to make those proposals. They certainly acted together over the next few months to decisively put the proposals into effect. note 163

The next day, Tuesday 8 October, Admiral Richardson met with Roosevelt again, to try convince him to move the fleet from Hawaii back to California. (He had tried before, in July, but to no effect.) Roosevelt was insistent that the fleet would stay at Pearl Harbor, and made it clear that he was willing to sacrifice a Navy ship if that was the price to provoke Japan into war. Roosevelt said that sooner or later the Japanese would commit an overt act against the United States, and the nation would be willing to enter the war. Richardson made it clear that he wouldn’t stand to have his men used as bait to tempt the Japanese. A couple of weeks later a White House leak predicted that Richardson would soon be removed from his post. A few months later, in February 1941, the prediction came true. note 164

We need to take a brief detour at this point to see what was in the communications intelligence reports that McCollum continued to feed to Roosevelt every few days. In 1940 the Office of Naval Intelligence had in its service one of the most amazing groups of hackers in the history of the world. A lot has been made of the impressive British triumphs against German crypto systems, but the American achievements were even more extraordinary. We don’t know all the details, because whole libraries of key evidence are still secret, many decades later. The people involved mostly took their knowledge to the grave, under the threat of imprisonment and loss of their veteran’s benefits if they talked. note 165

Nevertheless, we do know quite a lot. The United States had a ring of radio listening stations around the Pacific. American operators at these stations were expert at teasing information out of Japanese transmissions. They used Radio Direction Finding — RDF — to find what direction each transmission came from. Triangulating on a map of the Pacific, they could plot bearings from several stations to get a fix on each transmitter. Different radios, transmitting their dot-dash signals, had different sounds, “radio fingerprints,” no two alike. The operators used their ears and oscilloscopes to pick out one from another. Even without decoding their messages, Naval Intelligence could track Japanese ships around the Pacific. note 166

But the American crypto hackers had also had stunning success. Perhaps best known is the almost unbelievable attack by crypto über-hacker William Friedman on the machine crypto-system which the Americans called “Purple.” This was used only for the most secure Japanese diplomatic messages, and only the most important Japanese embassies had the machine. Starting in 1938, Friedman and his team of hackers reverse engineered the machine and by August 1940 had recreated it on paper, having only ever seen encrypted messages. The Americans built their own machines to Friedman’s design and they worked — they could read Purple. (In a strange coincidence, when the Americans finally captured a Japanese Purple machine near the end of the war, they discovered that both machines used the same telephone exchange components.) note 167

Lesser Japanese consulates, such as the one in Hawaii, did not have the Purple machine, so they had to use a second tier of codes, called the “J-series” by the Americans. The crypto hackers had been cracking these codes for a long time, and in spite of minor changes in 1941, they continued to read and translate them within one day of transmission. But often they didn’t need to crack the code at all, because Naval Intelligence tracked the couriers who delivered new code books and, posing as customs agents, quickly photographed their pages and resealed the boxes. (For diplomatic messages requiring less security, the Japanese used another even weaker code — this was called “PA” by the Americans. Needless to say they could crack this code easily too.) note 168

And then there were the Japanese naval codes. The diplomatic codes revealed Japanese intent, but the naval codes told in detail what the military was doing right now and where it was going next. The shin code used by merchant ships was obtained by “the direct method” — agents paid 40,000 dollars to a Japanese radio operator for copies of the code books. The other naval codes were cracked by a team in Washington led by America’s other crypto über-hacker, Agnes Meyer Driscoll, known as “Madame X.” She and her team used IBM statistical machinery to peel open the radio call-signs, ship movement reports and “5-Num” system of code-words. They circulated a manual on how to solve the 5-Num code, with several revisions in 1941, by which time their solution also included codes from 57 pages of the original Japanese code-book obtained by “the direct method.” note 169

McCollum collated information from all these sources and passed it on to Roosevelt. It was in this way that Roosevelt found that the Japanese consul in San Francisco was congratulating himself on having evaded the American embargo on oil exports to Japan. Roosevelt had announced an embargo in July 1940, but refrained from enforcing it until the spring of 1941. If the Japanese were going to attack, they would need fuel. Around 80% of Japanese petroleum came from the United States, so the Japanese scurried to fill up while supplies were still available. Naval Intelligence tracked the Japanese tankers as they sailed from California back across the Pacific to the main naval storage depot at Tokuyama on Japan’s Inland Sea. note 170

The Japanese had never before made serious preparations for war against America, but in the autumn of 1940, with vast armies still bogged down in China, they started to make contingency plans. Peace was preferable, but if worse came to worst, they must be ready for war. In November they appointed Isoroku Yamamoto to operational command of the Imperial Japanese Navy. He sketched out his strategy for a war against the United States and the Western powers in the Orient. Japan would need to seize their resource-rich colonies, particularly the Dutch East Indies with their oil-fields. Yamamoto’s war plan opened with a surprise air attack on Pearl Harbor. note 171


In the new year, as predicted by the earlier leak in Washington, Roosevelt fired Admiral Richardson, who would not agree to use the Pacific fleet as bait. On 1 February 1941, Roosevelt appointed Admiral Husband Kimmel as Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet. He was a patsy, unaware of the drama that he had stepped into. Richardson promised Admiral Stark, Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, that he wouldn’t pass on his concerns to Kimmel. “I shall keep my lips sealed,” he said. He didn’t tell Kimmel why he had been replaced, just hinted at a disagreement with authorities in Washington. note 172

A few days earlier in Tokyo, Yamamoto had started circulating his Pearl Harbor attack plans around trusted naval officers. However, there was a leak, and concerned whispers chased around the Tokyo diplomatic community. United States Ambassador William Grew was alarmed, and sent a dispatch to Washington: note 173

My Peruvian colleague told a member of my staff that he had heard from many sources including a Japanese source that the Japanese military forces planned in the event of trouble with the United States, to attempt a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor using all of their military facilities. He added that although the project seemed fantastic the fact that he had heard it from many sources prompted him to pass the information.

In the Office of Naval Intelligence, McCollum was directed to provide his analysis. McCollum knew his Japanese history, knew that surprise attacks were standard operating procedure, knew that goading the Japanese into such an attack was part of his own plan. Nevertheless, on the day Kimmel took up his new job, McCollum informed him that, “The Division of Naval Intelligence places no credence in these rumors.”

Kimmel’s fleet had within it a flotilla of nine battleships, and Roosevelt made a rather curious appointment: he promoted his close adviser, the Naval Intelligence chief Walter Anderson to the rank of Rear-Admiral and made him “Commander Battleships,” in charge of this flotilla. It was not a popular appointment — a lot of people didn’t like Anderson. Stark apologised to Kimmel: “The appointment was forced on us by the White House. Anderson is a good man to handle the battleships, but I do not commit myself one inch beyond that.” Stark warned, “Don’t promise Anderson a promotion. He’s always looking ahead for a new job.” note 174

The difference between Kimmel and Anderson is further illustrated by their choice of quarters. Kimmel chose to live a short walk from his headquarters, in a house with a magnificent view of the harbour, including “Battleship Row.” Anderson, Commander Battleships, chose to live out of sight a safe distance away, the other side of Diamond Head. note 175

Anderson knew all about the cryptographic triumphs back in Washington, but he told his new commander nothing. Anderson did, however, take time to call on the local FBI office and reminded them not to investigate the espionage being run out of the Japanese consulate. (The FBI had first been warned off back in October, told to discontinue their investigation and leave the job to Naval Intelligence. Annoyingly independent-minded, the FBI special agents continued to snoop on the Japanese in their spare time.) Clearly Anderson was rather more than a loyal subordinate to Kimmel. He was something closer to Roosevelt’s enforcer in Hawaii. note 176

Kimmel sensed that he was out of the loop. He asked Stark to keep him informed of secret intelligence, but Stark made no commitments. Kimmel tried again, tried to establish that he would be informed “immediately of all important developments as they occur by the quickest means possible.” He wasn’t. After the war, Kimmel said, “I can’t understand, may never understand, why I was deprived of the information available in Washington.” Kimmel was the patsy. note 177


Japan and Germany had signed an alliance the previous autumn, and in April 1941, Japan squared things away diplomatically by signing a neutrality pact with Russia. Then to the surprise of Japan and Stalin, but almost no one else, in June the Nazis invaded Russia. This took the pressure off Britain to some extent, but things continued to deteriorate in the Orient.

Roosevelt had ordered a few provocative covert sorties by US warships, called “pop-up cruises.” In July, the Japanese made a formal protest when one of these “pop-up cruises” was spotted by the Japanese in the Bungo Strait, the entry point to Japan’s Inland Sea. The Japanese gave chase to two darkened cruisers, but lost contact when they disappeared behind a smoke-screen. note 178

Then, just as set out in McCollum’s plan, Roosevelt induced the Dutch to reject all demands from the Japanese for more oil from the Dutch East Indies. The Dutch actually reduced the quantity available and insisted that the Japanese pick it up in their own tankers, which were in very short supply. Then Roosevelt imposed a genuine embargo on the Japanese, and seized all Japanese assets in the United States. In 1941, Japan was consuming 3.5 million tons of oil a year (2 million tons for the navy, 0.5 million tons for the army and 1 million tons for civilian use). They had stocks of 7 million tons — two years supply. note 179

In the United States, contracts were let for construction of a huge new naval fleet built around 100 carriers. (In 1941 Japan had 10 carriers, America only 7.) This new fleet would be ready in 1943 — two years time. Unless they acted before then, the Japanese would be on their knees at just the time this vast armada was ready to sail.

And so in July, the Japanese ordered a world-wide recall of their merchant fleet, a first necessary preparation for large-scale naval warfare. Roosevelt learned of this in his regular reports from McCollum, and to slow the progress of Japanese ships departing from Atlantic ports, Roosevelt closed the Panama canal. The closure was disguised by blaming it on water leaks in the Panama transit locks. note 180

The prospect of war was obvious to everyone. At the end of July 1941, the Honolulu Advertiser ran a feature story in its magazine section, with drawings illustrating what an air attack on Pearl Harbor might be like. The writers probably based their story on the naval exercise conducted by Admiral Ernest King in 1938, in which his carrier aircraft mounted a surprise attack from north, but it wasn’t really a new idea. Naval officers had been discussing the theory such an attack for twenty years. note 181

Japanese reconnaissance in Hawaii also stepped up a gear in August. The Japanese “outside man” at the consulate had been scouting observation points around Pearl Harbor since he arrived in the spring. (He had been identified immediately on arrival by Naval Intelligence who put a tap on his phone line. The FBI agents were not supposed to be paying attention, but they also staked him out anyway.) The “outside man” was far from discreet — he travelled to his observation points in a flashy Packard automobile and used his expense account to fund a lifestyle of hard drinking and prostitutes. note 182

In August, the “outside man” made his first bomb-plot of the harbour, specifying where each ship was moored, and sent this to Tokyo using the J-series diplomatic code. Naval Intelligence, as always, intercepted and decoded it. The “outside man” was so pleased with his work that afterwards he went on a drinking binge and got picked up by the police. The FBI men told Washington about the suspicious activity, even though they weren’t supposed to be watching. But the “outside man” was allowed to continue with his mission, and sent several updates over the following months. Naval Intelligence in Washington knew exactly what was happening. No one told Kimmel. note 183

In September, Japanese merchant vessels started to receive their movement orders from the Imperial Navy. Warships and aircraft were recalled from China. (In an attempt at communications secrecy, the recall orders were issued by courier, but many of the units acknowledged their orders by radio.) Naval Intelligence followed the units as they were marshaled into task forces and worked out their order-of-battle. note 184

Not many people wanted war. Most Americans didn’t. Many Japanese didn’t either. Fumimaro Konoye, the Japanese Prime Minister, arranged an extremely secret meeting with Joseph Grew, the United States Ambassador. Peace was possible, everything could be sorted out, if Konoye could meet with Roosevelt, perhaps in Hawaii. Konoye had a ship ready to sail. When they reached an agreement he would radio a message to the Emperor and all the war preparations could go into reverse. Grew was excited and immediately sent a dispatch to Washington, backed up by numerous follow-up messages including a personal letter to Roosevelt. note 185

In Washington, Roosevelt also appeared excited at the prospect of meeting Konoye. Roosevelt loved cutting through procedure, sorting things out personally in ad-hoc meetings. It was just his kind of thing. But then in an instant he changed his mind, agreed that this wasn’t the proper way, that negotiations should instead go through the State Department. The opportunity was lost. In mid-September, Konoye narrowly survived an assassination attempt. In mid-October he resigned, and the Emperor picked as his replacement General Hideki Tojo, a good man for a war.

Ambassador Grew in Tokyo had an informant in the Imperial palace, so in early November he was able to report to Washington on the decision of a conference with Emperor Hirohito. The Japanese wanted to negotiate a deal, but saw no alternative to war if the Americans didn’t drop their embargo. The plan was set: invasions in south-east Asia coupled with the “screening movement” of Yamamoto’s fleet striking Pearl Harbor. To make sure of his information, Grew sent his naval attaché on a “holiday” with his wife to the Inland Sea. On his return the attaché told Grew about the furious preparations he had observed on the Inland Sea and the military bases around its shore. Grew sent Washington a strongly worded warning. note 186

In the White House, Roosevelt started to cover his tracks. Before 12 November, visits by his naval aide, bringing Naval Intelligence reports from McCollum, had been recorded by the White House usher in the visitors log. The aide continued to deliver the padlocked leather pouch marked “For the PRESIDENT,” but now he came at breakfast while Roosevelt was still in his pyjamas, so the visits weren’t recorded. But at Roosevelt’s insistence, the pouch now contained not just condensed interpretations, but “raw intercepts” of Japanese communications. note 187

Of course, Roosevelt was not the only recipient of these intelligence reports. A handful of other people in Washington were on the circulation list, including General George Marshall, head of the army. On 15 November, he met secretly with seven newspaper reporters in the Munitions Building in Washington. Swearing them to secrecy, he told them that he expected war “in the first ten days of December.” How could he be sure? “We know what they know, and they don’t know we know it,” he said. There was no reason for Marshall to inform Admiral Kimmel, but it is very strange that Marshall neglected to pass on his predictions to General Short, the army commander in Hawaii. note 188

As their Hawaii attack force began to assemble at Hitokappu Bay in the Kurrile Islands, Japanese diplomats in Washington tried one last time to negotiate a deal. Roosevelt’s excuse for imposing the full embargo that summer had been the movement of Japanese troops into French Indochina. (The French Vichy government — which was recognised by the USA as legitimate — had initially agreed, but then the Japanese had moved in far more troops than they promised.) The Japanese offered to go back to the previous status quo: they would withdraw those troops and the United States would lift the embargo. Could a temporary “modus vivendi” be arranged? Roosevelt knew from the intercepted diplomatic messages that this was the Japanese final offer, that the alternative was war. note 189

The American military liked the idea of a “cooling off period,” a temporary peace in the Pacific. A few days earlier, General Marshall and Admiral Stark had advised that they were not ready for war with Japan, that this would take resources away from the Atlantic, that even further Japanese attacks on China, Thailand or Russia “would not justify intervention by the United States.” It was true that America was not ready for war with Japan. But with his behind-the-scenes predictions of war, Marshall clearly expected war to come soon, ready or not. note 190


In Hawaii, Admiral Kimmel was still out of the loop, but he was determined to be prepared. Maybe he had a premonition. Naval Exercise 191 had been scheduled for several months, but Kimmel made it more than just an exercise. On Wednesday 19 November, Thanksgiving eve, Kimmel convened an urgent conference of warship and air commanders by blinker light, to avoid radio transmissions which might be intercepted by the Japanese. All leave for the weekend was cancelled — Exercise 191 would start on Friday morning. All ships were warned that genuine hostile warships might be encountered at any moment, and a warning code was arranged to signal the presence of the enemy. note 191

In the exercise, part of the fleet played an attacking carrier force approaching from the north. As explained by historian Robert Stinnett:

In a bizarre series of coincidences, Yamamoto and Kimmel selected the identical launch area — the Prokofiev Seamount, an extinct underwater volcano about 200 miles north of Oahu. Their timing and planning borders on mutual clairvoyance. Each used Kaena Point, a promontory on Oahu’s north shore, as the benchmark, decided on Sunday for an early-morning launch time, and marked two Oahu targets: Pearl Harbor Naval Base and Kaneohe Naval Air Station on Oahu’s windward side. note 192

Kimmel’s fleet chased around the sea north of Hawaii over the weekend, but didn’t bump into the Japanese. They were still at their assembly area in Hitokappu Bay. Kimmel was exactly two weeks early. Then on Monday 24 November, Kimmel called off the exercise early when he received a message from Washington saying negotiations with Japan were very doubtful and “utmost secrecy necessary in order not to complicate an already tense situation or precipitate Japanese action.” Kimmel took this as an injunction not to be provocative — exercises have often been used to disguise preparations for real attacks — and the fleet sailed back to Pearl Harbor. note 193

But Kimmel didn’t give up entirely. Later that Monday afternoon he approved a plan for a task force of 25 ships including the carrier USS Enterprise and battleship USS Arizona to search north of Hawaii for eight days starting on Thursday 27 November. (They would probably have found the Japanese attack force.) But before he could put the plan into effect, Washington issued a “Vacant Sea” directive, ordering all US and allied shipping out of the north Pacific. As later explained by Rear Admiral Richmond Turner, “We were prepared to divert traffic when we believed that war was imminent. We sent the traffic down via Torres Strait, so that the track of the Japanese task force would be clear of any traffic.” note 194

Yamamoto’s fleet was on its way. The Japanese carriers, escorts, tankers and submarines had departed Hitokappu Bay about an hour before Kimmel received the “Vacant Sea” directive. As they were setting off they transmitted various movement reports and other coded messages. Naval Intelligence listening stations monitored these transmissions, plotted their positions using RDF, decoded many of the messages and put the resulting data into the intelligence pipeline leading via McCollum to Roosevelt. note 195

Kimmel didn’t have access to the intelligence available centrally in Washington, but he went in person to visit the crypto hackers at Naval Intelligence in Hawaii. They had intercepted and decoded many messages indicating that the various assembled Japanese task forces were on the move. So on Tuesday 25 November, Kimmel sent a priority message to Washington with this information, but got no response. note 196

At breakfast time on Wednesday 26 November, Stimson phoned Roosevelt to discuss these Japanese movements. Roosevelt angrily claimed that he hadn’t seen that report (which seems unlikely), and said it changed the whole situation because it indicated bad faith on the part of the Japanese, who were still negotiating and hoping for a “modus vivendi,” an interim peace agreement returning to the previous status quo. What did Roosevelt and Stimson really think? Probably that now, with the Japanese fleets on their way, all that was necessary to guarantee war was to make the Japanese negotiators an offer that they couldn’t possibly accept. note 197

That afternoon, Roosevelt’s Secretary of State presented the Japanese with a ten point proposal, but it was quite unlike what had been discussed a few days earlier. Now it was more like an ultimatum — for example it insisted on Japan withdrawing from China and supporting Chiang Kai-shek’s government. The Japanese were dumbfounded. Roosevelt’s biographer, Jean Smith, says, “To this day there is no satisfactory explanation” for Roosevelt’s apparent change of heart. Certainly, if you believe that Roosevelt was innocent, there’s no satisfactory explanation. But if you believe that Roosevelt was the operator running the whole scam, it all fits together quite nicely. note 198

Later that same day, Admiral Stark put paid to any possibility of Kimmel sending a task force north to scout for the Japanese. Stark ordered Kimmel to use his carriers to ferry army pursuit planes to Wake and Midway islands. And so, when the Japanese attack came, the carriers USS Enterprise and USS Lexington along with 17 of the fleet’s newest escorts were still at sea. The impressive but obsolescent 25-year old battleships still moored in Pearl Harbor bore the brunt of the attack. note 199

On Thursday 27 November, Kimmel finally got a kind of reply from Washington to his Tuesday warning: Rear Admiral Royal Ingersol, standing in for Admiral Stark who was off with ’flu, sent an official war warning to all Naval commands. The warning authorised “appropriate defensive deployment.” But this was dangerously vague, and when Stark got back to the office on Friday 28 November he sent a revised version. Stark said, “If hostilities cannot repeat cannot be avoided the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act.” Stark told Kimmel to inform only minimum essential officers, and to not alarm the civil population or disclose intent. Stark emphasised that Kimmel was to “Undertake no offensive action until Japan has committed an overt act.” The army commander on Hawaii was also placed in the same rather odd position of being told that an attack could be imminent, but to do nothing out of the ordinary. note 200

In Washington, Roosevelt continued to cover his tracks. He suggested to a meeting of his cabinet on Friday 28 November that he should send a special telegram to Emperor Hirohito, to try pull back from the brink of war. The message asked Hirohito to “Give thought in this definite emergency to a way of dispelling the dark clouds.” Would this make any difference? Certainly not if Roosevelt didn’t send it — which he didn’t for over a week, waiting until it was just too late. Stimson was rather more candid in his diary, debating with himself the question of “how to maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.” note 201


Over the next few days Kimmel pressed his local Naval Intelligence staff to find out where the carriers were now, the carriers which had recently departed from Hitokappu Bay. They couldn’t tell him. To be charitable, we might excuse this as incompetence, but that doesn’t seem likely. Although the local listening station in Hawaii intercepted many Japanese radio transmissions, someone in Naval Intelligence chose not to pass on the RDF reports to Kimmel. (Even today, hundreds of pages of RDF logs still remain hidden in secret archives.) note 202

The convenient fiction that the Japanese fleet was on “super radio silence” has been used over the decades to explain how a surprise attack was possible. But as an explanation it has the disadvantage of not being true. After a flurry of radio broadcasts on departure, transmissions from the fleet continued sporadically throughout their voyage. For example, following a typhoon which scattered the fleet over the horizon, on Sunday 30 November the carrier Akagi broadcast on 4.960MHz to the tankers so they could regroup. This was on such low power that normally it would have been undetectable more than 100 miles away, but unfortunately one of the largest solar storms of the century was in progress, turning the ionosphere into a gigantic radio mirror in the sky, bouncing the signals thousands of miles. note 203

Over the next few days, the passenger liner SS Lurline, en route from San Francisco to Hawaii, also logged several Japanese transmissions with an RDF bearing to the north-west. Japanese ships were retransmitting messages sent from Tokyo. When the SS Lurline arrived in Hawaii, the radio operator presented an RDF transcript to Naval Intelligence. (There is no trace of that transcript, but when the SS Lurline next docked in San Francisco on 10 December, Naval Intelligence boarded the ship and confiscated the original radio log. It should still be in the naval archives, but it was removed some time in the 1970s by unknown naval personnel.) note 204

It’s also relevant that Tokyo continued to transmit many messages to the fleet. Although that didn’t directly indicate where the fleet was, Naval Intelligence didn’t tell Kimmel a particularly pertinent fact: these transmissions were moving to higher and higher short-wave frequencies. Kimmel would have immediately understood what that meant — higher frequencies guaranteed better reception at longer distances. The fleet had been sailing for over a week and was getting further and further from Japan. Hmm. I wonder what their target could be … note 205


In Tokyo, following a final conference with Emperor Hirohito on Monday 1 December, Admiral Yamamoto sent his own war warning to the whole Japanese fleet:

Climb Mount Nitaka, 1208 repeat 1208. note 206

This was the prearranged signal for war to start on 8 December, Tokyo time. (Mount Nitaka was the highest mountain in the Japanese empire, and the phrase “climb Mount Nitaka” colloquially meant “undertake a great task.”) It’s not entirely clear whether the message was sent in code or in plain text — the archives are still sealed — but it was certainly intercepted by Naval Intelligence. The next day in the Philippines, Admiral Thomas Hart cleared all American warships out of Manila Bay and sent them south to the Dutch East Indies. Kimmel was still out of the loop.

On Wednesday 3 December, Japanese diplomatic posts in the United States were told to burn all their code books except for the lowest grade diplomatic code, which the Americans called “PA.” (An exception was made for the embassy in Washington which was instructed to also keep its “Purple” machine for now.) The American crypto hackers could read all the Japanese diplomatic codes, but PA was the easiest. note 207

So, when on Saturday 6 December, the Japanese “outside man” at the Hawaii consulate was asked for a final anti-aircraft status report on Pearl Harbor, his reply should have been especially easy to decode. His message to Tokyo concluded with a final piece of helpful advice:

There are no barrage balloons up and there is an opportunity left for a surprise attack against these places.

Naval Intelligence in Hawaii intercepted all the messages from the consulate that week. From the message indicators, they could tell which were spy messages and which were routine business messages. They decided to decrypt only the routine business messages and they told Kimmel nothing about the spy messages.


The same Saturday afternoon in Washington, Naval Intelligence obtained 13 parts of a message sent from Tokyo to the Japanese embassy, encoded using Purple. With help from Army translators, they decrypted and translated the whole thing in one hour. It was the main text of a declaration of war, with two further parts expected later. Naval Intelligence arranged for distribution around Washington. Roosevelt’s naval aide was notified to expect delivery that evening. note 208

Around 8pm or 9pm Roosevelt finally sent the message that he discussed with his cabinet over a week earlier, the one asking Emperor Hirohito to “Give thought in this definite emergency to a way of dispelling the dark clouds.” The message went to Ambassador Grew in Tokyo, but Grew would still be waiting for an audience when the bombs started to fall on Pearl Harbor. note 209

Roosevelt’s naval aide presented the Japanese declaration to the President at around 9:30pm. “This means war,” said Roosevelt. Harry Hopkins, the President’s close adviser, said it was too bad that we couldn’t strike the first blow, to prevent being surprised. Roosevelt said, no, we can’t do that — we are a democracy and a peaceful people. Roosevelt tried to call Admiral Stark, but he was at the theatre. They finally spoke at midnight. According to Stark, Roosevelt said that “affairs with Japan were in a very critical condition,” but he didn’t suggest that any action be taken. note 210

Early in the morning of Sunday 7 December, the final two parts of the Japanese declaration came off the teleprinter at Naval Intelligence in Washington. Fed through the Purple machine, one part was in English, declaring that further negotiation was impossible. The other part was in Japanese, and when translated it said that all previous parts of the message should be delivered to the United States government at 1pm Washington time. (That would be 7:30am in Pearl Harbor, the time of the attack.) note 211

McCollum took copies of the messages to Stark, who appears to have done nothing, even though several hours remained before the deadline. An officer from Naval Intelligence, not waiting for a car, ran the four blocks to the White House, and at 10am Roosevelt’s naval aide handed him the messages in his bedroom. The President made no comment. “I had no sense that he was alarmed,” said the aide.

Another officer tried to take the messages to General Marshall, who had not seen any of them yet and seemed that morning to be moving in slow motion. Marshall said he would come and see the messages, but he took 75 minutes for a 10 minute journey. Then he read them all from the start, very slowly, ignoring pleas to turn to the end and notice the deadline. Then he phoned Admiral Stark. Marshall said he was going to alert army commanders. Should he alert the navy too? Yes, that’s a good idea, said Stark. Would you like to use my, more powerful, navy transmitters, asked Stark. No, that’s okay, said Marshall. But Marshall’s army transmitters could not make contact with Hawaii, so the warning was sent by commercial telegram. It didn’t arrive in time to do any good.

In the White House, Roosevelt was playing host to the Chinese Ambassador. Roosevelt read aloud the message he had sent the previous evening to Emperor Hirohito. He was pleased with the sound of his words. He paused at one point and said, “That will be fine for the record.” When the ambassador left, Roosevelt toyed with his stamp collection, sorting though the envelope of new stamps which the state department sent him each week. note 212

At Pearl Harbor, the bombs began to fall. There were last-minute cock-ups which no one could have predicted, adding to the disaster. An army radar station should have given early warning, but it was the duty officer’s first day on the job, and he couldn’t believe anything dramatic would happen. What were the chances? The operators watching their oscilloscopes were alarmed by what they saw, indicating a huge number of approaching planes, but the officer made light of it and sent them to have their breakfast. Over 3,500 people died. Four battleships were sunk and four damaged. note 213


That evening Roosevelt met with his cabinet and recounted what had happened. He “could hardly bring himself to describe the devastation.” He seemed to have physical difficulty getting out the words and twice asked to “find out for Gods sake, why the ships were tied up in rows.” note 214

Eleanor Roosevelt went ahead with their regular Sunday-evening supper — the White House staff had Sunday off, and every week she cooked sausage and scrambled eggs for two dozen guests on a hot plate in the upstairs dining room. The President usually made cocktails, but tonight he had more urgent matters to deal with. Afterwards, the White House usher asked one of the guests, radio newsman Edward Murrow, to stay behind for a private meeting with the President. note 215

Also waiting to see Roosevelt was special-ops expert William “Wild Bill” Donovan, summoned to the White House from a Sunday afternoon football game in New York. They joined Roosevelt for a midnight chat over beer and sandwiches. Murrow never revealed what was said, though he said it was the biggest story of his life, and he agonised over whether to tell it or to forget it. Donovan later hinted at what was said. Roosevelt was not as surprised by the attack as the people around him, and the attack was not unwelcome. Roosevelt was most concerned to know whether his midnight guests thought the public would now back a declaration of war with Japan. Yes, they told him, yes they would. The next day Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan. It was almost unanimous, only one vote against.


Admiral Kimmel, the patsy, became the scapegoat for the whole disaster. He was rapidly relieved of his command and demoted, as was the Army commander on Hawaii. Admiral Stark, though less innocent, was another high-level fall-guy. According to Richardson, “The President said that he did not give a damn what happened to Stark so long as he was gotten out of Washington as soon as practical.” Stark was removed and then forced into retirement. note 216

In south-east Asia, the Japanese won a series of surprisingly quick victories, and were initially welcomed as liberators, freeing Asian people from Western colonial oppression. None of the victories was more surprising than the capture of Singapore from the British — perhaps the most humiliating defeat in British military history. A large but mind-numbingly badly led British garrison surrendered to a smaller but determined and effectively led Japanese army. About 80,000 British troops surrendered in February 1942. Their subsequent experience as prisoners of war was extremely unpleasant. note 217

The first real check to Japanese momentum came in July 1942 at the Battle of Midway. Admiral Yamamoto had set a clever trap to lure in and destroy the remainder of the American fleet. Unfortunately for him, the crypto hackers of Naval Intelligence were still reading the Japanese naval codes. Rather than being lured in, the Americans themselves set an ambush and in a few critical minutes changed the course of the war by sinking all four of the waiting Japanese carriers.

The Western forces inched their way back across the Pacific in a series of naval engagements, air-raids and ghastly jungle battles. For ultimate Western success, it was vital that China remain in the war, that Chiang Kai-shek’s government hold out and not make a separate peace with Japan. America loaned China hundreds of millions of dollars, and shipped vital war materiel into China. American General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell became Chiang’s Chief of Staff, and for a time, was officially in command of China’s army. (In reality Chiang maintained control behind the scenes, and as always was more concerned to keep on top of domestic rivals than defeat the invaders.) The Japanese, skirting around Chiang’s inland holdout, conquered almost all of Burma and made it to the gates of India, but no further. note 218

One step behind the conquering Japanese armies came the usual ruthless and systematic looters. Support for the “liberators” rapidly vanished. Hoshino Haoki, an aide to Emperor Hirohito, said, “There are no restrictions on us. These were enemy possessions. We can take them, do anything we want.” The thieves seized the contents of bank vaults and temples. Under threat of death or torture, they took gold, silver, jewels, anything valuable. They issued a “scrip” currency, and used this “monopoly money” to buy everything else at prices they named themselves. There was no sense that the Japanese were settling in as masters of a running concern. They were in a hurry, eager to strip out everything of value as quickly as possible. note 219

The Japanese also took people. Millions were cast into slavery, used as labourers in mines and construction projects. (They were sometimes paid token wages, but only in worthless “scrip.”) Women were taken to be sex slaves for the soldiers. Prisoners of war were treated with particular cruelty — their death rate in captivity was over 1 in 4. When they were transported by sea, POWs were packed into “hell ships,” with death-rates similar to the notorious Middle Passage of the African slave-trade. These ships were supposed to be specially marked so as not to be accidentally torpedoed, but the Japanese didn’t bother. However, the Japanese did use the white paint and giant green crosses reserved for hospital ships to protect the treasure-ships carrying their loot back to Japan. note 220


When the war ended, it came more suddenly than expected. Roosevelt died in April 1945, leaving his Vice President, Harry Truman, to unravel the patchwork of personal arrangements by which Roosevelt ran things. Stimson took Truman to one side after his first cabinet meeting and told him about another secret project staffed by über-hackers: the “Manhattan” project to build an atomic bomb. It was the first Truman had heard of it.

Victory in the European war was by then inevitable, it was just a question of time. Russian troops had advanced to within a few dozen miles of Berlin. But American troops grinding their way towards Japan had only reached as far as Okinawa, where they had to fight for every building, every hole. Civilian casualties were perhaps as high as 1 in 3, numbers boosted by mass suicides near the end. (Japanese soldiers encouraged the Okinawans to believe that they would be subjected to rape and murder by the Americans. There was nothing left to pillage — the island was a wasteland.) After the battle, the survivors were surprised to find that the Americans were in fact a lot nicer than they expected.

Plans had been drawn up for an invasion of the Japanese mainland from the south, called “Operation Olympic,” but there was no realistic chance of it going ahead, because intelligence from the crypto hackers and experience from Okinawa indicated that American losses would be catastrophic. At the other end of Japan, the Russians had promised to declare war on Japan no later than 8 August 1945 — three months after the end of the European war. They were ready to re-take Manchuria and Sakhalin Island then fight their way down towards Tokyo.

The alternative to invasion would have been simply to blockade and starve the Japanese out. The Americans had drawn up a plan for strategic bombing, targeting 56 railway yards and 13 bridges. Coupled with a naval blockade, the result would have been famine, because Japan needed the railways to bring rice to their population. This was the same threat that Admiral Perry had held over the Japanese in Edo 90 years before. By the spring of 1946, all food in south-west Honshu, home to half the Japanese population, would have been eaten. People would be forced to flee or starve to death where they were. There would be chaos, disease, civil war. Whatever else happened, the imperial establishment would certainly lose control of the country. note 221

It didn’t work out that way because a couple of days before the Russians were due to enter this war, Truman decided to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The Russians declared war on schedule. A few hours later, America dropped another atomic bomb, on Nagasaki. Emperor Hirohito decided to surrender.

The Japanese had floated surrender terms before, but always with conditions, and Roosevelt had insisted on unconditional surrender. This time the Japanese asked for only one condition, that they be allowed to keep their Emperor and the imperial institutions. Personally, I’m not convinced that Roosevelt would have agreed. Would Hirohito have surrendered without this condition? Maybe not, even if that meant more atomic bombs. But Roosevelt was dead and Truman wanted to end the war. The condition seemed harmless and there had been enough death.

And so on 2 September 1945, American and Japanese representatives met on an American battleship moored in Uraga Bay to sign a formal surrender document. Just in case the symbolism of the location was lost on the Japanese, General Douglas MacArthur had a special flag flown in from Annapolis, to be displayed prominently behind the new conquerors. It was the original 31-star United States flag from Admiral Perry’s flagship. In a sense, this was the ending that Perry had been looking for all along. note 222


This is the place where the hundred-year story of Japanese humiliation, victory and defeat conventionally ends, the dawn of a new and better era ushered in by the conquering Westerners. In practical terms, General MacArthur became a new Shogun. America ruled Japan as a vassal state for the next six years, exercising sole control and shutting out her wartime allies. Japan granted the United States numerous “concessions” in which the Americans could station garrisons, as they continue to do even today. (In contrast, in the European war, the defeated Germany was ruled jointly by her conquerors. The border between the occupying armies of Western and Russian civilisations became the “Iron Curtain” of the cold war. But that’s another story.)

We need to let the story of China run for another five years before it reaches a similarly solid conclusion. Chiang Kai-shek had survived the Japanese invasion and conspiring rival warlords, but even with vast American help he had put up only a weak fight against the Japanese. As always, he wanted to conserve his resources for the next war against his internal rivals, the Communists. By contrast, the Communists had fought enthusiastically against the Japanese, they were stronger and they enjoyed much more popular support. With the war against the Japanese over, Chiang’s position gradually crumbled. The Americans didn’t notice what was happening to their wartime client until it was too late. In December 1949 Chiang was chased out of mainland China to recently liberated Taiwan, where his government lived on under the protective wing of the Americans.

Maybe the best way to see the Communist victory is as a closing bracket matching the opening bracket of the Taiping Rebellion one hundred years earlier. Finally, the country was re-unified and the foreigners expelled. This victory looks like a satisfactory ending to a story of humiliation followed by defeat after defeat. Unfortunately the Chinese did not live happily ever after. Ten years later, the “Great Leap Forward” attempted to create a society without property or money, but actually created a famine that killed 40 million people, although this was hidden from the world for a long time. (The Communist party continues to rule China, but has transformed into something rather strange, neither communist nor a party, but rather a half-secret quasi-state controlling the state of China from within. But again, that’s another story.)


Let’s draw these intertwined stories properly to a close by reconsidering the questions I posed at the start of this chapter. To what extent can establishment elites really plan and control their future? How bad can things get when tyrants have control? Can we really recognise psychopaths in positions of power? And where is all the gold?

The story of Japanese expansion over the reign of Emperor Meiji, from 1868 to 1912, looks like an organised plan, a plan that worked. Only with central organisation and vigorous cheer-leading could the Japanese people be convinced to work very hard, for little personal gain, to equip one of the best military forces in the world. While the ordinary people sacrificed a great deal, the establishment elite and their leader, the Emperor, did very well for themselves.

Did the establishment elite get what they planned? The only way we could really answer that would be if we knew what they actually planned. Although Roosevelt’s tale of Japanese long-term ambition still seems plausible, we have no way to tell whether or not he just made it up. And even if that was originally their plan, it would have to be changed to cope with unfolding events, such as the disintegration of China, the set-back of the Washington Naval Treaty, new technology like the aircraft carrier. In the end, the Japanese establishment was undone by the unexpected marvels worked by the crypto hackers of Naval Intelligence and the physics hackers of the Manhattan Project — technical developments that could not be predicted.

How bad can things get when tyrants have control? Clearly, really very bad indeed. The rule of the Japanese military-imperial establishment over their conquests was uniformly hellish. Their infinite game seems to have been based entirely around taking stuff away from other people by force. Some infinite games can co-exist, but an infinite game of theft is bound to upset other establishments in other states, and provoke some kind of reaction.

The evidence, though well hidden, seems to point at Roosevelt being the skillful operator who tricked an unwilling Japan into the Pacific war. The escalating sequence of American provocations led the Japanese to conclude that they had no alternative to war. The Japanese attack on on Pearl Harbor was then followed by retribution when the American people united behind Roosevelt. Provocation, reprisal, retribution. A perfect “political attack,” the scam of the century — and, I think, in the final reckoning a Good Thing. Better by far than the despotic empire that the Japanese establishment would have imposed on Asia and the Pacific.

Can we recognise psychopaths in positions of power? It’s easy to apply that label to people who cheerfully watch over murder, the way some of the Japanese did, but not necessarily correct. It might be more accurate to say that their sense of ingroup/loyalty was so strong, their contempt for outsiders so great, that they were unable to see non-Japanese as human beings.

Was Roosevelt really a ‘successful psychopath’? That would certainly explain the divergent views about him, why he presented very different impressions to different people, how he could turn his back on people in an instant. It would explain a lot. It would explain how a man who apparently did so much good could also take the huge gamble of provoking Japan into war while the United States was still quite unprepared. (The result was never as certain as it appears in retrospect.) It would explain how he could let thousands of people go innocently to their deaths at Pearl Harbor. Psychopaths don’t care about your feelings, don’t really even understand them. They do things for selfishly unemotional reasons. They like to “win,” and don’t much mind who suffers. Afterwards when we look at what happened, we can sometimes find that they actually did some good, almost by accident.

And finally, where is all the gold? At the end of the war, the Americans discovered great hoards of gold, silver, precious stones and other treasures in Japan. And this was only counting what they found in ordinary warehouses and vaults — doubtless there was even more loot hidden in secret tunnels and mines. A few such hidden caches came to light in the Philippines — tunnels filled with gold ingots stacked in piles taller than a man. At the end, the Japanese had not been able to move their loot by sea, even in their fake hospital ships. So they hid the remaining plunder in dozens of tunnels dug in the Philippines using slave labour, presumably thinking they might come back one day and get it. Even if it took a hundred years, the treasure would still be there, patiently waiting for them. note 223

The Americans were left in a quandary. The previous year, in a meeting at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire, they had imposed on their allies an agreement about the post-war financial structure of the world. The United States had 60% of the world’s official gold reserves, and in future the dollar alone would be backed by gold, and other currencies would be defined in terms of the dollar. A new gold standard, at one remove. This arrangement gave the Americans a dominating influence over the finances of the world. But if the size of looted Japanese treasure was revealed, it would throw those financial arrangements into confusion and fatally weaken America’s dominating position. To this day, there is no declassified record of the gold and other valuables found in Japan after its surrender. The archives are still closed. note 224

In any case, how would this treasure ever be restored to its rightful owners? Many of them were now dead, or had previously been hiding their wealth from their local governments. Much of the gold had been melted down and re-cast, so it was untraceable. The American establishment decided that it was simpler and better not to tell, but instead to keep for itself the loot it had found, a vast slush-fund outside the control of the official United States government. The rest of the loot, maybe most of the loot, was left where it was, and they didn’t pry any further.

So in 1951, the Americans produced a peace treaty with Japan, ending the occupation. The British had said to the Americans that, “We regard the payment of Japan’s ‘gold pot’ reparation as one of the points on which it is essential for us to be firm.” But Britain was now a client state of America, and under American pressure the British gave up their claim. Article 14 of the peace treaty said: “It is recognised that Japan should pay reparations to the Allied Powers for the damage and suffering caused by it during the war. Nevertheless it is also recognised that the resources of Japan are not presently sufficient.” A convenient lie. The Americans also down-played the suffering of the POWs and slave labourers, and on their behalf renounced any future claims for compensation. note 225

General MacArthur, the “Foreign Shogun” handed the country back to the Emperor, with a new constitution and a new parliament. Behind the scenes, the Japanese establishment was little changed, old sins quickly forgiven. In 1957, the wartime minister of munitions, Nobusuke Kishi, became prime minister. (For comparison, the Nazi German minister of munitions, Albert Speer, would remain in Spandau prison for another decade. Different standards applied to Japan.) note 226

After that, what happened to the treasure? Where is all the gold? It is impossible to say with any confidence how much gold there really is in the world, and probably foolish to speculate. The official reserves must surely be only a faction of the true total. Some of the American share of the loot was deposited in banks around the world and used to finance shady enterprises. Ferdinand Marcos, for a while dictator of the Philippines, recovered a significant quantity of gold, which he too deposited in Western banks. When he was overthrown and run out of the country, he was upset to discover that the banks refused to honour his goldsmith’s tickets. A considerable amount of treasure remains buried in the Philippines, but presumably the bulk is still hidden somewhere in Japan.


< Chapter 8. Promises Contents Chapter 10. History and Prophecy >


Version: DRAFT Beta 3. Copyright © Stuart Wray, 29 December 2011.