When Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7th, 1941, he was only following the misguided philosophy of an American admiral who lived a century earlier. This is not to excuse the crime of the day President Franklin Roosevelt said "will live in infamy," only to explain the warped philosophy of blind patriotism behind it. The American admiral was war hero Stephen Decatur, for whom several U.S. cities are named, and it was he who uttered the famous words: "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be right; but right or wrong, our country!"
Apparently, Decatur didn't bother his head with moral issues of right or wrong; he was prepared to wage war for America no matter whether it was a just war or not. By contrast, Abraham Lincoln did not adhere to that philosophy. When President Polk claimed Mexico attacked the United States and declared war, Lincoln stood up on the floor of Congress and challenged the president, as much as calling him a liar. Show me "the spot" on American soil where the blood was spilled," Lincoln said, meaning that the first battle took place on Mexican soil as a result of an American invasion of her neighbor, shortly to be robbed of more than half of its territory.
Many Americans believe to this day his blind patriotism made Decatur a great American. Yamamoto, who studied at Harvard as a young man and later worked in Japan's Washington embassy as naval attache, was an omnivorous reader who undoubtedly knew all about Decatur. He understood America as did few foreigners. He knew enough about America's industrial might not to want to take up arms against it. When Japanese warplanes sank the gunboat U.S.S. Panay in the Yangtze River in 1937, it was Yamamoto who apologized, claiming the attack was an accident. Only it wasn't. It was deliberate. The Japanese military was thirsting for a war against America and its well-trained pilots were spoiling for a fight. In case the U.S. didn't get the message, a bomb (which failed to explode) landed on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in nearby Nanjing, China's capital. The sinking of the Panay was no more an accident than the sinking of the intelligence vessel U.S.S. Liberty by the Israelis during the Six Day War. The stars and stripes flew in plain sight.
Yamamoto warned Japan's military leaders they would fight America at their peril. In a speech before the war to students at the high school he attended he lauded aviator Charles Lindbergh, saying that his solo flight across the Atlantic was typical of America in that it was an adventure based on science. In the same speech he said that Japan should not go to war with America. In these utterances, his admiration for America and Americans peeped through his rhetoric. About that time inside the Admiralty, he predicted famously that during the first six months of a war his forces would run wild in the Pacific but after that he could not be responsible for the outcome because of America's industrial prowess. He also prophetically wrote a friend before the war he expected to see Tokyo reduced to a pile of ashes three or four times by American bombers. Japanese cities were constructed largely of flammable materials, wood and paper. In fact, events turned out worse than Yamamoto predicted. In the firestorm of March 9, 1945, more than 97,000 civilians were incinerated in Tokyo, and to a lesser degree more than 60 Japanese cities shared Tokyo's fate as a result of B-29 incendiary raids. The horror of the Tokyo firestorm was followed five months later by the ultimate area bombing of civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Yamamoto also knew that Roosevelt's New Deal had invested heavily in building new shipyards for the expected war. While it is widely assumed that "America wasn't ready" for World War II, in fact no nation was ready in every military area, and America was better prepared than most. Hitler lacked a surface navy and could not cross the English Channel to invade; Japan lacked decent tanks and long-range bombers, etc. But the battleships that helped turn the tide against Japan at Guadalcanal in November, 1942, the U.S.S. Washington and the U.S.S. South Dakota, were laid down in the Thirties under the New Deal and arrived in the Pacific in the nick of time. During that titanic contest, U.S. shipyards outproduced Japan's by a factor of close to ten to one. When war came, Yamamoto could see that the U.S. was replacing its losses; he knew that he could not. He carried his ceremonial sword with him in the cockpit of a warplane that was taking him to visit the front lines in 1942 in New Guinea, perhaps recognizing there was an excellent chance he would not survive the journey. His plane was, in fact, shot down by waiting U.S. fighters whose pilots had advance knowledge of his flight as U.S. intelligence had broken the Japanese military code.
Isoroku Yamamoto could have resigned his commission before the outbreak of the great Pacific war. He had a long and brilliant naval career. Early on he lost two fingers of his left hand on a cruiser fighting the Russian navy in 1905 at the battle of Tsushima, which marked the first great triumph of an Oriental fleet over a European power. Yamamoto had studied the tactics of Japanese admiral Heihachiro Togo who commanded that fleet. The surprise Japanese attack on the Russians at Port Arthur in 1904 was not lost on him, either, and Yamamoto planned the Pearl Harbor assault with that in mind. He was also aware of how carrier-based British airplanes crippled the Italian navy at its Taranto base in 1940, and believed that by combining massive carrier assault with surprise he could deal America's Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor a mortal blow. But he never believed Japan could defeat America. He was anything but enthusiastic about fighting America, just as he opposed the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the invasion of China in 1937. In the end, Yamamoto struck because he was a Japanese nationalist at heart and anything his country commanded him to do he would do, right or wrong. The outcome of that philosophy killed 2,400 American servicemen in Hawaii. In his cadet days, Yamamoto had carried a Bible with him and, presumably, could distinguish right from wrong. If there is a lesson to be drawn from this, perhaps it is that some day, individuals of every nation will stand up and insist that morality is more important than the kind of blind loyalty to the State preached by Admiral Decatur and executed by Admiral Yamamoto. #
(Sherwood Ross is a Florida-based public relations consultant who formerly worked as a reporter for major dailies and as a columnist for wire services. He has written two plays on life in Japan in the 1930s, "Baron Jiro," and "Yamamoto's Decision," read at the National Press Club. Contact him at Email address removed)