Surprise Party

excising any negative references to the Japanese. While I can appreciate the

sentiment, this move does the audience a major disservice. In the decades

leading up to this battle between colonial powers in the Pacific, negative

references played a central role. Ignoring this in the name of Asian box office

receipts places December 7, 1941 in a vacuum. Pearl Harbor provides no context

so, I’d like to try.

The build-up to Pearl Harbor began two decades prior to the attack when, in

1922, the U.S., Britain, and Japan agreed that the Japanese navy would not be

allowed more than 60 percent of the capital ship tonnage of the other two

powers. As resentment grew within Japan over this decidedly inequitable

agreement, that same year, the United States Supreme Court declared Japanese

immigrants ineligible for American citizenship. This decision was followed a

year later by the Supreme Court upholding a California and Washington ruling

denying Japanese the right to own property. A third judicial strike was dealt in

1924 with the Exclusion Act which virtually banned all Asian immigration.

Finally, in 1930, when the London Naval Treaty denied Japan naval hegemony in

its own waters, the groundwork for war (and “surprise attacks”) had been laid.

Upon realizing that Japan textiles were out-producing Lancashire mills, the

British Empire (including India, Australia, Burma, etc.) raised the tariff on

Japanese exports by 25 percent. Within a few years, the Dutch followed suit in

Indonesia and the West Indies, with the U.S. (in Cuba and the Philippines) not

far behind. This led to the Japanese claiming (correctly) encirclement by the

“ABCD” (American, British, Chinese, and Dutch) powers. Such moves, combined with

Japan’s expanding colonial designs, says Kenneth C. Davis, made “a clash between

Japan and the United States and the other Western nations over control of the

economy and resources of the Far East and Pacific . . . bound to happen.”

WWII, in the Pacific theater, was essentially a war between colonial powers. It

was not the Japanese invasion of China, the rape of Nanking, or the atrocities

in Manchuria that resulted in the United States declaring war on the Empire of

Japan. It was the attack of three of America’s territories‹the Philippines,

Guam, and Hawaii (Pearl Harbor)‹that provoked a military response.


On July 21, 1941, Japan signed a preliminary agreement with the

Nazi-sympathizing Vichy government of Marshal Henri Pétain, leading to Japanese

occupation of airfields and naval bases in Indochina. Almost immediately, the

U.S., Britain, and the Netherlands instituted a total embargo on oil and scrap

metal to Japan‹tantamount to a declaration of war. This was followed soon after

by the United States and Great Britain freezing all Japanese assets in their

respective countries. Radhabinod Pal, one of the judges in the post-war Tokyo

War Crimes Tribunal, later argued that the U.S. had clearly provoked the war

with Japan, calling the embargoes a “clear and potent threat to Japan’s very


Which brings me to those negatives references I mentioned earlier.

Self-censorship in the name of profits will mislead movie-goers about the high

level of anti-Japanese racism cultivated by the “greatest generation.” The

Japanese soldiers (and, for that matter, all Japanese) were commonly referred to

and depicted as subhuman‹insects, monkeys, apes, rodents, or simply barbarians

that must be wiped out or exterminated. The American Legion Magazine’s cartoon

of monkeys in a zoo who had posted a sign reading, “Any similarity between us

and the Japs is purely coincidental” was typical. A U.S. Army poll in 1943 found

that roughly half of all GIs believed it would be necessary to kill every

Japanese on earth before peace could be achieved. As a December 1945 Fortune

poll revealed, American feelings for the Japanese did not soften after the war.

Nearly twenty-three percent of those questioned wished the U.S. could have

dropped “many more [atomic bombs] before the Japanese had a chance to

surrender.” Eugene B. Sledge, author of With the Old Breed at Peleliu and

Okinawa, wrote of his comrades “harvesting gold teeth” from the enemy dead. In

Okinawa, Sledge witnessed “the most repulsive thing I ever saw an American do in

the war”‹when a Marine officer stood over a Japanese corpse and urinated into

its mouth. Perhaps Edgar L. Jones, a former war correspondent in the Pacific,

put it best when he asked in the February 1946 Atlantic Monthly,  ”What kind of

war do civilians suppose we fought anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood,

wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians,

finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and

in the Pacific boiled flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for

sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers.”

 And then there was the man who’d eventually give the order to drop atomic bombs

on Japanese civilians: “We have used [the bomb] against those who have abandoned

all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare,” Harry Truman later

explained, thus justifying his decision to nuke a people that he termed

“savages, ruthless, merciless, and fanatic.”

 Rationality in the Pacific was so rare during WW II that, ironically, it

required as a mouthpiece none other than prominent racist Colonel Charles A.

Lindbergh, Jr. Repelled by what he saw and heard of U.S. treatment of the

Japanese in the Pacific theater, the aviator spoke out. His sentiments are

summed up in the following journal entry: “It was freely admitted that some of

our soldiers tortured Jap prisoners and were as cruel and barbaric at times as

the Japs themselves. Our men think nothing of shooting a Japanese prisoner or a

soldier attempting to surrender. They treat the Jap with less respect than they

would give to an animal, and these acts are condoned by almost everyone. We

claim to be fighting for civilization, but the more I see of this war in the

Pacific the less right I think we have to claim to be civilized.”When Lindbergh

left the Pacific and arrived at customs in Hawaii, he was asked if he had any

Japanese bones in his baggage. It was, by then, a routine question

Like most Hollywood spectacles, Pearl Harbor is devoid of context. There’s only

one line alluding to U.S. economic and legislative provocation prior to December

7, 1941 and no hint at all of the internment camps and atomic bombs yet to come.

After three hours, World War II is still “The Good War,” America’s honor remains

untarnished, and the summer movie season is in full swing.


Surprise, surprise.

Mickey Z. (Michael Zezima) is the author of Saving Private Power: The Hidden

History of “The Good War” (Soft Skull Press, 2000), on which this article is

based. He can reached at [email protected] 

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