Review of Sidney Pash's "The Currents of War: A New History of American-Japanese Relations, 1899-1941"

tags: books, book reviews, The Currents of War, Sidney Pash

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of "The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad."

In recent decades the study of social history has superseded the investigation of more traditional topics such as political and diplomatic history. This trend has also been encouraged by the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, the recent crisis in the Ukraine and Crimea re-emphasizes the significance of international diplomacy and how diplomatic failures and misunderstandings may lead to war. Within this contemporary context it is well worth taking a look at diplomatic historian Sidney Pash’s new book on the relations between Japan and the United States leading to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Pash, a former Fulbright Fellow in Japan and an associate professor of history at Fayetteville State University, argues that war between Japan and the United States was not the inevitable clash of two expansionist empires in the Pacific. Instead, Pash maintains that diplomatic miscalculations and assumptions, especially on the part of the United States, produced a conflict that might have been settled at the negotiating table.

Observing that following the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 the victorious Japanese emerged as the greatest threat to the American Open Door in China, Pash asserts that beginning with the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt the United States developed strategies to contain Japanese expansion. According to Pash, this containment policy was based upon four pillars: maintenance of the balance of power, military deterrence, diplomatic engagement, and economic coercion. In the final analysis, Pash believes that the decision to abandon diplomatic engagement in favor of economic sanctions culminated in the Pacific War.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the emphasis in American foreign policy was upon diplomatic engagement in which agreements such as Taft-Katsura, Root-Takahira, and Lansing-Ishii sought to limit Japanese expansion while recognizing their interests in China and Korea. However, Pash insists that the Washington Conference of 1922 was an attempt to contain and even roll back Japanese expansion rather than diplomatically engage with Tokyo. The Washington agreement unraveled in the early 1930s under the pressure of war between China and Japan. Encouraged by the Open Door and American missionary activity in China, the United States supported China in this conflict. Pash concludes that the collapse of the Washington Conference order “meant the end of a spirit that, whatever its limitations, was predicated on the belief that diplomatic engagement and cooperative diplomacy could contain Japan more effectively than economic sanctions and military deterrence. After 1933, Washington had no such illusions, and for eight years the Roosevelt administration consistently shunned Tokyo’s efforts at a Japanese-American reapproachment and actively opposed efforts by the British and the Chinese to improve their relations with Japan” (85).

Pash tends to place the blame for this approach upon the State Department, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Far Eastern Affairs State Department division head Stanley Hornbeck, and a rather detached Franklin Roosevelt. In fact, in placing primary responsibility upon the State Department, Pash cleverly titles one of his chapters, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Department.” Hull and Hornbeck sought to implement their strategy by discouraging negotiations between Japan and China, believing that continuing embroilment in a Sino conflict would limit Japanese expansion into Southeast Asia. In addition, the State Department perceived efforts at Japanese-American reapproachment as disingenuous and even dangerous, asserting that Japan could best be contained through military deterrence which included naval replenishment programs and a strengthening of American and European bases in the Pacific. The assumptions of the State Department were supported by Secretary of War Henry Stimson who concluded that the threat of American bombers based in China would prevent a Japanese assault on the Philippines. The bottom line was that the State Department was convinced that a more aggressive posture on the part of the United States would halt the Japanese who were not interested in a disastrous war.

Thus, Pash chronicles the economic sanctions employed by the United States in 1941 which were perceived as a means through which to roll back Japanese expansion as well as drive a wedge between Tokyo and their Axis allies. The international situation also encouraged the belief that Japan would not dare launch an attack following the Soviet’s halting of the German offensive on the Eastern front, which strengthened British resolve and security. Furthermore, American public opinion, which was increasingly opposed to Tokyo’s expansion and any appearance of appeasement, offered little restraint to establishing a more aggressive policy toward Japan. The State Department, meanwhile, maneuvered to avoid the Japanese offer of a summit between Roosevelt and Prime Minister Fumimara Konoe that might have avoided war, and the department also ignored the advice of the American Ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew that Japanese officials were willing to negotiate a settlement. Instead, the United States continued to pursue economic sanctions against Japan, assuring that “denied access to critical raw materials, and facing a physical collapse, Japan gambled all on a desperate war in which its worst fears were confirmed—humiliation, defeat, and foreign occupation” (183).

Pash’s history of relations between Japan and the United States leading to the Pacific War is a cautionary tale that policymakers would do well to revisit. Pash argues that conflict in the Pacific was not inevitable and was the product of decisions made by American diplomats and leaders. The miscalculations made by policymakers not only contributed to the devastation of World War II but also the instability in Asia which culminated in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. While common soldiers pay the price for mistaken policy assumptions, Pash argues that it is foreign policy elites who make these decisions. The Currents of War, thus, draws upon traditional diplomatic sources maintained by State Department officials rather than history from the bottom up. In addition, Pash does not attribute racial motivation which he does not discover in the documents. He concludes that American diplomats assumed, “Japan would fold, not because the Japanese were Asian and therefore different, but because, like Americans, they would never start a war that could end only in their utter ruin” (113). Pash certainly recognizes the importance of business interests to American foreign policy in the vein of William Appleman Williams, but he is not an economic determinist, emphasizing more traditional diplomatic concepts such as the balance of power and containment. The narrative constructed by Pash is based upon a detailed reading of diplomatic correspondence, primarily from American rather than Japanese documents, and is accessible to general readers, although The Currents of War is not necessarily an easy read. But it is important one which deserves the attention of citizens, policymakers, and historians. Just as in 1941, the stakes for diplomatic blunder remain high.     

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