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Book Review: A Time for War


A Time for War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Path to Pearl Harbor
by Robert Smith Thompson (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1991); 449 pages; $24.95.

As the 1940 presidential campaign was approaching its conclusion, President Franklin Roosevelt — running for an unprecedented third term of office — delivered an address in Boston on October 30. He stated unequivocally his position on American participation in the war in Europe between Hitler’s Germany and Churchill’s England and in the conflict being fought between China and Japan: “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into foreign wars.”

And on October 23, in Philadelphia, Roosevelt had assured the American people: “There is no secret treaty, no secret obligation, no secret commitment, no secret understanding, in any shape or form, direct or indirect, with any government, or any other nation in any part of the world, to involve this nation in any war or for any other purpose.”

Most Americans, having taken the president at his word, were shocked and infuriated by the Japanese attack on American military installations at Pearl Harbor on December 7,1941. We were at peace, and, the president said, the government was doing everything possible to keep us at peace. The Japanese attack appeared unprovoked and dastardly. America was the innocent victim of naked aggression.

Historian Robert Smith Thompson, in his book A Time for War: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Path to Pearl Harbor, challenges this myth with irrefutable facts — facts that demonstrate that every one of FDR’s representations and promises to the American people on the war issue were lies and deceptions. Thompson shows that in the year following his election to a third term, Roosevelt followed a course of action that inevitably led to that “date which will live in infamy.”

Myth: President Roosevelt did his utmost to follow a path of neutrality in the Far East, wishing only to prevent the spread of war to American soil.

Fact: Beginning in 1937, following the Japanese invasion of China, FDR instituted a series of financial arrangements to assist China in its defense against Japan. He supplied money, military materiel and men (in the form of Chennault’s “Flying Tigers”) to prevent Japan from attaining any of its goals on the Asian mainland. He also instituted trade embargoes on the Japanese that threatened their economic survival unless they would surrender to United States’ demands that they withdraw from China and French Indochina.

Myth: President Roosevelt had no desire or designs for instigating a war with Japan. He used every method to find common ground with the Japanese government.

Fact: FDR entered into secret agreements with the British, Dutch and Australian governments to form an alliance to resist Japan in East Asia. He shipped long-range bombers to China, Australia and the Philippines that would be able to strike the Japanese home islands. And, in early 1941, under instructions from FDR, a plan was designed for initiating an aggressive war involving the firebombing of Japanese cities in 1942. In the fall of 1941, the Japanese tried to offer a variety of peace plans to the U.S. to forestall war, but the president refused to consider any of them, including an offer by the Japanese Prime Minister to meet FDR, anywhere the president chose, to find a way to prevent war.

Fact: On January 27, 1941, the American ambassador to Japan warned Washington that the Japanese were planning an attack on Pearl Harbor, if negotiations broke down. Later in 1941, a Korean lobbyist, considered a reliable source of information, twice warned that an attack on Pearl Harbor was being planned during November and the first week of December 1941, including December 6, the American code-breakers had intercepted Japanese messages that clearly pointed to an imminent attack on the Hawaiian Islands. These intercepted messages were seen by FDR and other cabinet members.

These are the facts behind the myths about the events leading up to the attack on Peal Harbor. Professor Thompson quotes FDR as saying in 1942: ‘I am Perfectly willing to mislead and tell lies if it will help win the war.” It is clear that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was willing to mislead and tell lies to the American people in order to enter the war as well.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).