By proposing a total oil embargo on North Korea, President Trump is taking a page out of former President Franklin Roosevelt’s war playbook as a way to get a war going with the communist regime. Roosevelt used the same strategy against Japan to successfully get the United States embroiled in World War II.
As war clouds loomed in Europe during the late 1930s, the American people were overwhelmingly opposed to another U.S. intervention into a European conflict. They had seen the horrific consequences of U.S. intervention in World War I and the last thing they wanted was for the United States to go through another interventionist disaster in Europe.
In the absence of U.S. interventionism in World War I, it was a virtual certainty that the warring parties would have entered into a negotiated settlement, one in which there were no winners. By the time the U.S. entered the war, all the combatants had suffered millions of casualties with virtually no territorial gain on the part of anyone. Given that that they were all financially broke as well, a negotiated settlement was the only realistic outcome of the war.
By bringing fresh troops and new armaments into the conflict, the U.S. intervention radically changed that equation. It produced the total defeat of Germany, resulting in the Treaty of Versailles, some of whose provisions, postwar historians and others concluded, was highly unfair and unjust toward Germany. It was the provisions in the Treaty of Versailles on which Hitler partly relied to garner support among Germans in his rise to power.
World War I also brought about the communist takeover of Russia as well as communist attempts to take over European countries, including postwar Germany, which was rife with crisis. Hitler’s fierce anti-communism, which would rival the passionate anti-communism of U.S. officials after World War II, also fueled his rise to power.
And then there was President Wilson’s justification for inducing Congress to declare war on Germany. U.S. intervention would ensure that this would be the “war to end all wars” and the war to “make the world safe for democracy,” Wilson claimed.
Given that World War I produced Hitler, Stalin, and another big European war within a relatively short period of time, Americans overwhelmingly said “No!” to entering into World War II. Harkening back to America’s founding principle of non-interventionism, Americans vehemently opposed U.S. entry into another European war.
The problem is that President Roosevelt, like President Wilson, was bound and determined to embroil the United States into the European conflict. Figuring that he was smarter and wiser than the American people, he concluded that the United States would not survive if it did not enter the war and defeat Nazi Germany.
Roosevelt, however, faced a big obstacle: the U.S. Constitution, which bars U.S. presidents from initiating wars even if such presidents are smarter and wiser than the citizenry. Deciding to remove the power to initiate wars from the president, the Framers delegated the power to declare wars to Congress, not the president.
Given the overwhelming sentiment against another U.S. intervention in Europe, Roosevelt knew that he had no chance to do what Wilson had done — secure a declaration of war against Germany from Congress.
However, that didn’t stop Roosevelt. He knew that if he could provoke Germany into initiating an attack on the United States, he could exclaim to Congress, “We have been attacked! We are innocent! This is a day of infamy! We need to defend ourselves! Now give me my declaration of war!”
That was when Roosevelt embarked on a series of actions intended to provoke Germany into attacking the United States. Not only did he began furnishing England and the Soviet communist regime with armaments and supplies, he had U.S. ships searching for German submarines and reporting their location to British warships, in the hopes that the Germans would fire on the American ships.
It didn’t work. The last thing Germany wanted was another war with the United States. Germany refused to take Roosevelt’s bait.
That didn’t stop the indefatigable FDR. Failing to get Germany to attack, he began looking to the Pacific as a “back door” for getting the United States into the European war. His aim became to provoke Japan into attacking the United States in the hope that Germany, which had a mutual-defense treaty with Japan, would end up declaring war on the United States.
That’s when he came up with his oil-embargo strategy against Japan, the same type of total oil embargo that Trump now wants to impose on North Korea. With his oil embargo, Roosevelt succeeded in maneuvering Japan into attacking the United States.
The situation was this: Japan’s army was occupying China. Armies need oil. Without oil, the Japanese military would be forced to cease its occupation of China and withdraw its forces back to Japan. That was an untenable position for Japan.
Thus, Japan was faced with a choice: Withdraw from China or secure a secure supply of oil by invading the Dutch East Indies. Ordinarily that would not have posed a difficult choice for Japan, but there was one problem with invading the Dutch East Indies — the possibility and even the likelihood, some Japanese officials believed, that this would draw the United States into going to war against Japan.
Thus, the reason that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor was not as a first step toward invading and conquering the United States, as American schoolchildren are taught. Japan’s aim was much more limited: to knock out the U.S. Pacific fleet in order to inhibit its ability to interfere with Japan’s impending invasion of the Dutch East Indies to secure a supply of oil.
That’s why the wily FDR made sure that there were battleships concentrated at Pearl Harbor — to serve as bait for the Japanese. Of course, he was also wily enough to ensure that the Navy’s carriers were conveniently removed from Hawaii in the days preceding the Japanese attack.
We also should keep in mind that by the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the United States had secretly broken Japan’s diplomatic code and understood full well that the Japanese were preparing for war. In fact, it’s also probable that the U.S. officials had also broken Japan’s military code and that they were monitoring Japanese military communication in the run-up to the attack on Pearl — U.S. military officials will still not disclose their 70-year-old records relating to Japan’s military codes on grounds of “national security.”
With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR was able to essentially exclaim: We’ve been attacked! We are shocked! This is a day of infamy! We had no idea! We are innocent! We have no choice but to defend ourselves! Now give me my declaration of war!
More important, Germany immediately declared war on the United States, which gave Roosevelt what he really wanted and what the American populace and their elected representatives in Congress had so ardently opposed: a congressional declaration of war against Germany and America’s entry into World War II.
That’s precisely what will happen if North Korea, faced with massive starvation and a breakdown of society from a total oil embargo, retaliates in desperation with a military attack on South Korea and on U.S. forces located in South Korea. Like Roosevelt, Trump will exclaim, “We’ve been attacked! We’re shocked! North Korea has been begging for war! We are innocent! We must now defend ourselves against communist aggression, just like during the Cold War. But unlike Wilson and FDR, I don’t need no stinking congressional declaration of war. Together with the Pentagon and the CIA, I can do whatever I want.”