- - Thursday, December 5, 2019

The causes of the attack on Pearl Harbor are many and complex, meticulously explored and presented here by Lew Paper, author of five well-received books and numerous articles for a variety of publications. 

The underbrush through which Mr. Paper cuts his way, consisting of diplomatic communications — or perhaps, more accurately, frequently unanswered communications — as well as numerous diplomatic meetings, at which nothing is ever resolved — would be challenging for any writer. But Mr. Paper, with an eye for character and an easy narrative style, manages to keep his subject interesting.

Working from voluminous primary source materials, Mr. Paper’s narrative centers on the career of Joseph Grew, a seasoned veteran of the diplomatic corps of the old school, and his nearly decade-long tour as our ambassador to Japan, running from 1932 to Dec. 8, 1941. With the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the existence of a state of war between the United States and Japan, he was arrested and with the embassy staff interned there until August 1942, when he was repatriated to the United States. 

As ambassador, his was a tour shaped by an almost constant effort to prevent war between our two countries. That effort, complicated by problems of communication, cultural differences, and the existence of governmental factions in both Washington and Tokyo that appeared to prefer war to any form of compromise, provides the thematic substance of Mr. Paper’s book. And even though we know how it’s all going to end, Mr. Paper manages to add a measure of suspense to the narrative — a tribute to his abilities as a writer. 

In Washington, the hardline seemed to run through the State Department, where Secretary of State Cordell Hull was the ultimate recipient of most of Ambassador Grew’s frequent communiques, reports and recommendations. Grew also knew FDR, had been to school with him, was on a first-name basis, and communicated with him personally from time to time. (Grew, an outdoorsman who as a young man had a famous encounter with a tiger in India, was also a favorite of Teddy Roosevelt’s.) But Grew respected the chain of command, and even when his advice was ignored or misinterpreted, he refused to presume on his personal relationships to attempt to put things right.

As the decade unrolled the atmosphere in Japan became increasingly frantic — riots, assassinations (after his car was attacked, Grew began carrying a handgun). There were periodic rearrangements and realignments of governmental factions, the most warlike led by the War Minister Tojo Hidecki, who with the coming of war would be named prime minister, and those like Konoye Fumimaro, the prime minister during the last days of Grew’s tenure, who believed war would destroy their nation and were desperate to arrange discussions at the highest levels to prevent that war. (At times Emperor Hirohito, who Mr. Paper shows us was an active participant in the policy discussions, seemed to favor such discussions.)

Grew dutifully forwarded those requests to Washington. But they seemed never to make it beyond the State Department. From Washington’s point of view, the problem between the United States and Japan boiled down to two basic opposing positions: The United States demanded that Japan cease its expansionist military activities in Manchuria, the rest of China and throughout Southeast Asia; while the Japanese refused to do so, in part justifying their refusal on the need to secure the resources and raw materials essential to their national well-being, which we’d either ceased selling to them or embargoed. This was especially the case with their petroleum supplies. 

But in the end, unable to reach an agreement with Washington — or even succeed in convening a serious meeting to attempt to do so — Tokyo found a more congenial partner in Berlin, and in 1940 signed the Tripartite Pact with German and Italy. And for a time, this new alliance (albeit forcing Mussolini to distort his visual Rome-Berlin Axis metaphor) scored impressive military victories.  

But over the longer term, it bode ill. When Japan declared war on us with the Pearl Harbor attack, we responded by declaring war on them. This forced Hitler, under the provisions of the Tripartite Pact, to declare war on us, opening the immediate possibility of a new front he didn’t need, bringing us full tilt into the war in Europe, where FDR had always wanted to be. And within five years, the war was over. 

Thus, it’s no stretch to say that Pearl Harbor guaranteed an Allied victory.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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By Lew Paper

Regnery History, $29.99, 438 pages

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