How a Soviet mole in FDR's inner circle triggered Pearl Harbor – and its dire relevancy to our conflict today.
On December 7, 1941, 353 Japanese aircraft delivered a shocking blow to a complacent United States. The losses at Pearl Harbor were heavy, but heavier still was the loss of that sense of distance that had come with the American banishment of European empires from the hemisphere.
Japan had woken a giant and the events of that day led to a changed foreign policy and a changed nation. The impact of that attack would lead the United States to becoming a world power with bases around the world ready to meet any attack. The unspoken element of American foreign policy after that day was to prevent another Pearl Harbor from taking place.
Nearly seven years later, Harry Dexter White, a senior official in the Roosevelt Administration, appeared to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Numerous witnesses, including Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, had implicated White in involvement with the Communist Party and the Soviet Union.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings were another Pearl Harbor exposing the political vulnerability of the United States to Communist infiltration.
Harry Dexter White, a Harvard PhD and Assistant Treasury Secretary, had played a major role in creating the World Bank and the IMF. Shortly after his testimony, in which he denied all Communist activities, White suffered a heart attack. A few days later he died at his farm after supposedly overdosing on a heart medication that has also at times been used as a poison. Whether that overdose was an accident, a suicide or a murder remains unknown.
In “Operation Snow: How a Soviet Mole in FDR’s White House Triggered Pearl Harbor,” John Koster draws a link between the event and the personality, alleging that Harry Dexter White was involved in orchestrating a conspiracy to draw the United States into a war.
There is little doubt that Harry Dexter White had acted as a Communist agent; that much has been confirmed both by American and Soviet intelligence figures. While the newspapers of the day cheered White’s testimony, his involvement and activities are clear and undeniable. And in “Operation Snow,” John Koster adds more information based on declassified documents.
Nor was White alone. The governments of the United States and the United Kingdom were rotten with traitors and fellow travelers. Names such as Alger Hiss and Kim Philby have become signposts on the black road of Communist betrayal.
There is also little doubt that the Soviet Union benefited from Pearl Harbor. Had Japan pushed into Russia, as Hitler wanted it to, then the Soviet Union would have lost the war and the Axis would have been able to finish off the United Kingdom at its leisure, before formulating plans for dealing with the United States.
During this pivotal period, Washington, D.C. was rife with British and Soviet agents closely monitoring the United States government. Of these two groups, the Soviet agents were far more dangerous than their British counterparts like Roald Dahl.
Japan’s interests however lay to the east. Ever since Commodore Perry had sailed into Uraga Harbor, the Land of the Rising Sun had looked to equalize its power relationship with the United States. With the British largely beaten in Asia and the Russians dying in huge numbers, the only power that could still threaten its dominion over Asia was the United States.
Japanese atrocities in China had sickened most Americans. And from a more practical standpoint, America still had significant interests in China and Japanese expansionism would not end there.
An American oil embargo gave Japan only two options; to end its imperial expansion or to attack the United States. The Roosevelt Administration expected Japan to back down, the way that the Clinton Administration expected North Korea to back down and the way that the Obama Administration expects Iran to back down.
The trouble with such ultimatums is that genuine aggressors rarely back down. Instead they attack.
In “Operation Snow,” Koster describes White’s push for maintaining the oil embargo on Japan as a ploy for drawing Japan into a war. Communist agents certainly did a great deal of damage during that period and Harry Dexter White no doubt contributed to the tensions between America and Japan, but the war was also largely inevitable.
Japanese militarists had been planning a war with the United States for some time, and even if the breaking point had not been reached on December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor, it would have happened somewhere else. The outcome of the war might have been different, but there is little doubt that at some point America and Japan would have collided in the Pacific.
While “Operation Snow” is an excellent assessment of Communist intrigues in the United States and sheds new light on the activities of Harry Dexter White, a subject that has long been neglected, it lacks an equal willingness to directly examine the ruthlessness and hunger for war on the Japanese side.
Koster suggests that Emperor Hirohito risked assassination by his own officers. This is highly unlikely to have happened at the hands of the military establishment, as opposed to rogue Communist officers, regardless of the provocation. Even during the Kyujo Incident, there was no serious thought given to harming the emperor. And if the Japanese military could not harm Emperor Hirohito even as he was preparing to surrender to the United States, it is highly unlikely that they could have harmed him over earlier more moderate efforts at averting war.
Imperial Japan was not compelled into war with the United States. Nor was it unjustly victimized in that war. Japanese war planners had overestimated their odds of victory, but they understood that the road they were walking would end in war. And they were prepared to commit every conceivable atrocity within the scope of that war. To the last days of the war, the Japanese military establishment that began the war could not conceive of turning back. Those who did quickly fell out of favor and lost influence.
Imperial Japan, like Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, wanted national greatness, international power and territorial expansion at any cost. They were willing to kill millions to achieve their goals, and while they lost their conquests, the millions did die.
During those crucial decades the United States was largely blind to the threat of the Soviet Union, but it was less blind to the threat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Had the United States been as aware of the third threat as it was of the first two, then China might have become a free nation and Eastern Europe would have been free to develop along with Western Europe.
Communist agents like Harry Dexter White were instrumental in preventing the United States from becoming aware of that third threat. And the willingness of leading government officials to blind their societies to that third threat foreshadowed the troubles with Islam that we face today.
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