Home Are Trade Sanctions Ever Worth It: Part III

Are Trade Sanctions Ever Worth It: Part III

In tonight’s post, I’d like to focus on the role that trade sanctions played in the U.S. involvement in WWII. In so doing, I’m going to probably hew more closely to the historical rather than the analytical, but I will do some sheer praxeological analysis of sanctions later on in the week.

I think that, to start off with, it’s important to contextualize America’s entry into the Second World War within the wider history of the twentieth century. In order to do this, I’m going to draw on the historical findings of primarily John V. Denson in “Roosevelt and the First Shot: A Study of Deceit and Deception” in Reassessing the Presidency: The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom and Robert Higgs in his “How U.S. Economic Warfare Provoked Japan’s Attack on Pearl Harbor” and “Truncating the Antecedents.”

In order to appropriately broach this topic, it’s necessary, as Higgs notes, to appreciate Japan’s place in the world leading up to the Second World War. Since the end of the 1800s, the industrialized Japanese economy had been an isle of substantial growth in the east. As many of us know, however, Japan is a small island state with a limited raw materials supply. As such, their economy relied increasingly on imports from abroad. (This should all be taken as a value-free assessment; the following statements should in no way be taken as an endorsement of the Japanese military-industrial complex or of any of the major military powers involved in WWII).

At the same time, America was under the rule of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had, for whatever reason, a sharpened interest in aiding the Allied powers in their war effort against Germany. FDR, however, was hindered with regards to this by an American consciousness that was still wary of international conflict after the WWI era just two decades earlier. It would have been politically unworkable for FDR to ask Congress for a declaration of war against any nation that had not actively attacked the United States, no matter what sort of regime it was running at the time. (It should also be noted that many were not fully aware of the gravity of Nazi atrocities until years later).

In an effort to quietly circumvent this unfortunate reality, Roosevelt attempted to supply aid to the British and the French in any way that he could. According to John W. Wheeler-Bennett–King George’s biographer–in 1939, for example, Roosevelt made secret agreements to King George VI to “set up a zone in the Atlantic to be patrolled by the U.S. Navy, and the king’s notes show that Roosevelt intended to sink German U-boats and await the consequences.” Unfortunately for Roosevelt, Hitler refused to take his bait, leaving the former without a pretense on which he could reasonably declare war.

In June of 1940, Henry L. Stimson became secretary of war. Stimson, as Higgs notes, was a supporter of sanctioning the Japanese. The United States eventually began pursuing such measures. From Higgs:

In 1939, the United States terminated the 1911 commercial treaty with Japan. “On July 2nd, 1940, Roosevelt signed the Export Control Act, authorizing the President to license or prohibit the export of essential defense materials.” Under this authority, “on July 31st, exports of aviation motor fuels and lubricants and No. 1 heavy melting iron and steel scrap were restricted.” Next, in a move aimed at Japan, Roosevelt slapped an embargo, effective October 16, “on all exports of scrap iron and steel to destinations other than Britain and the nations of the Western hemisphere.” Finally, on July 26, 1941, Roosevelt “froze Japanese assets in the United States, thus bringing commercial relations between the nations to an effective end. One week later Roosevelt embargoed the export of such grades of oil as still were in commercial flow to Japan.

As Higgs goes on to note, the United States began intercepting intelligence suggesting Japan’s distress and consideration of aggressive action as early as July 31st, when American forces intercepted the following message from Japanese Foreign Minister Teijiro Toyoda to Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura:

Commercial and economic relations between Japan and third countries, led by England and the United States, are gradually becoming so horribly strained that we cannot endure it much longer. Consequently, our Empire, to save its very life, must take measures to secure the raw materials of the South Seas.

In a perhaps unrelated note, President Roosevelt stated publicly the following September that he would “not participate in foreign wars and we will not send our army, naval or air forces to fight in foreign lands outside of the Americas, except in case of attack .” On November 25, 1941, just thirteen days before Pearl Harbor, secretary of war Stimson famously wrote in his diary as follows:

There the president…brought up entirely the relations with the Japanese. He brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked, perhaps [as soon as] next Monday, for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning and the question was what we should do. The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.

Later, after the war, Stimson also revealed the following to a congressional committee investigating the attack:

If war did come, it was important, both from the point of view of unified support of our own people, as well as for the record of history, that we should not be placed in the position of firing the first shot, if this could be done without sacrificing our safety, but that Japan should appear in her true role as the real aggressor…If there was to be war, moreover, we wanted the Japanese to commit the first overt act.

There is an almost obscene amount more of historical detail that could be provided here. Denson harvests multitudinous sources to suggest that Roosevelt secretly implicated the United States in the war before Pearl Harbor in a number of other ways, and also provides a strong evidence for the fact that top officials in the government knew about the attack before it occurred, and chose not to act on that information. For more on that, however, I encourage readers to look into Denson’s essay in Reassessing the Presidency , as my intention here is not to fully recapitulate the American involvement in the Second World War.

Instead, I wanted only to provide a compelling enough picture that the United States was interested in provoking attacks to get them into the war, in order to make the observation that the state decided that sanctions would be the most efficacious means of making this happen . It should be clear that, far from the unquestionably “peaceful” means that sanctions are typically seen to be, there is an act of force behind them that often leads to war. I will go into this further in my praxeological examination of sanctions later this week.

And, again, none of this should in any way be taken as defense of or apologism for the state of Japan. It has merely been written in order to provide evidence for the idea that sanctions can provoke hostilities more easily than they can provoke capitulation to demands, and that this reality is often a factor in their consideration.

As Bastiat once said, “if goods don’t cross borders, armies will.”