Liveblogging World War II: April 9, 1943
Noted for April 9, 2013

Hey, Benn Steil, You Know Who Else Said the U.S. Was Tricked into World War II?

You would think that the past six years would have led Benn Steil to rethink his beliefs that (a) Jacques Rueff decisively refuted Keynesian economics in the 1940s by demonstrating the truth of Say's Law, and (b) that Bernanke's inflationist policies were going to lead in short order to a collapse of the dollar and an explosion of inflation. But no. He doesn't mark his beliefs to reality at all.

Now Eric Rauchway informs me that he has gone the full Pat Buchanan--he is arguing that the U.S. was tricked into World War II.

You know who else said the U.S. was tricked into entering World War II to benefit the Bolsheviks and the Jews?

Eric Rauchway:

On Harry Dexter White and Pearl Harbor — Crooked Timber: Steil thinks [Harry Dexter] White was not only a Soviet spy, but that he caused US intervention in World War II to benefit the USSR. The story that Steil gives is dubious on its face. An NKVD officer, in his memoirs fifty years onward, remembered having lunch with White in May 1941 and asking him, “Did the United States recognize the Japanese threat, and was it determined to do something to counter Japanese aggression?”

Now, there are problems with the story…. [T]he date is May 1941 – this is the month after the Soviets signed a neutrality pact with Japan, and a month before the Germans violated their neutrality pact with the Soviets. There is therefore no obvious reason why the Soviets should at this point want the US to go to war with Japan, let alone be anxious for it, as they are in Steil’s account. To be sure, one might concoct an explanation as to why this might be so, but Steil doesn’t, and should.

White did, in mid-1941, write a memorandum about US relations with Japan…. [H]e was not at the center of US-Japan negotiations…. Steil’s argument is that the concessions which White’s memo asked of Japan “were unrealistic; the Japanese would never accept them. This, at least, was what Soviet intelligence was counting on.” Thus, if the White memo were presented to Japan it would ensure a war – that’s what the Soviets meant to happen. White thought the opposite, saying he aimed at “the successful transformation of a threatening and belligerent powerful enemy into a peaceful and prosperous neighbor.” So if he was acting as a Soviet agent because the Soviets wanted the US at war with Japan, he was not acting very effectively….

Steil says that “That White was the author of the key ultimatum demands [to Japan, i.e., those of November 26] is beyond dispute.” Clearly this statement is untrue; historians do not generally believe that White was the author of this document. Moreover, it is not “beyond dispute” either that this document was “the key” document, or even an “ultimatum” in the run-up to Pearl Harbor. As Roberta Wohlstetter writes,

…the documents of these critical days in November make clear that history has many candidates for the “initial incident” in the last moments of tension before war, and what finally sparks the explosion is largely a matter of accident. When Secretary Hull presented his Ten Point Note, the Pearl Harbor task force had been under way for 24 hours.

So, contrary to Steil, I do not know of any reading of the scholarship, however charitable, that can justify Steil’s use of the phrase “beyond dispute”….

The tale that White played an instrumental role in causing the Pearl Harbor attacks is so far from “beyond dispute” that cursory attention to scholarship would have tempered any such declaration…. These stories about White originate with [Anthony Kubek and others] who thought US involvement in World War II was a terrible idea.

The war against Japan upset the whole structure of the international balance of power in Asia. The United States destroyed the one power that was able to check the flow of that Red tide in the Far East.… With the fall of Japan the last barrier to Russian domination of the Far East was removed.… The present Soviet military might, which threatens our national security, is the direct product of billions of lend-lease aid, coddling of Communists in high places in the American Government and failure to understand the basic drives of world Communism.