Title banner: Pearl Harbor Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal

Chapter III
Problems and Dilemmas of the United States and Eventual Preparedness for War


The gathering clouds of war in Europe and the Far East became more and more ominous to the United States during each of the half dozen years preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor. Because of our nation's firm commitment to peace there was much sympathy and concern among Americans for the victims of the aggression. In the early stages of unprincipled aggression abroad there seemed little need to worry about what was developing in other countries, or what our own welfare and eventual security might be. Yet as time went on and situations became more critical we found ourselves the only major world power that was not engaged in warfare. Even when our foreign trade and property were jeopardized and our citizens abroad were endangered we were reluctant to take decisive actions which might possibly embroil us in the worldwide conflict. Even while condemning the aggressor nations the large majority of our people demanded peace and neutrality for themselves.

As pressures mounted our diplomatic policy stood firmly for cooperative observance of law and order by all nations. Yet in most cases we found ourselves impotent in negotiating settlements for the benefit of world peace or our own interests. The unremitting efforts made by our country, as well as the efforts made by the victimized nations, proved that talk, discussion, and negotiation were almost futile. Aggressor nations are no more susceptible to logical argument than outlaws bent on plunder. Both operate by force of arms, and it requires force of arms to restrain them.

The major dilemma confronting the United States was whether to tolerate a wholly unsatisfactory world situation, or to resort to forceful intervention. Neither was acceptable nor really possible, but nevertheless the great prob-


lem of the United States was to determine how to restore peace and lawful practices among nations in a disrupted world without going to war. How to strengthen our diplomatic voice in the world without building a sufficient military force to back up adequately that voice was a real dilemma faced by our government.

A specific dilemma in the case of Japan's policy in China, the Secretary of State noted, was to come to amicable agreement with Japan but not at the expense of China.

A related dilemma was how to make preparations against the possibility of armed conflict when public opinion opposed military expenditures and seemed obsessed with the benefits of neutralism and perhaps by self-righteousness. These and other contradictory factors of our national life and well-being are touched upon in this chapter, as are the steps taken to reconcile opposing considerations.


For a dozen years or more after World War I the United States followed a program of drastic retrenchment in military preparedness. Much of this was quite in order because we had built up a gigantic military machine by the end of World War I, and there were in various stages of completion large naval building programs. The Washington Treaty for the Limitation of Naval Armament, signed in 1922 by the United States, Great Britain, Japan, Italy, and France was in this tradition.

But public opinion demanded much greater military curtailment to demonstrate America's support of the worldwide yearning for peace as exemplified by the various peace-keeping treaties of those years. Also, it is interesting to note that in the mid 1930's the Nye Committee of the United States Senate held numerous hearings to show that war was caused in large part by the manufacturers and vendors of armament and military equipment. It was pointed out that drastic reduction in the purchase of such materials would presumably tend toward peace.

Many peace organizations were active during those times in promoting general disarmament. In the absence of any over-all agreement among the world powers there was a strong feeling for "disarmament by example," the theory being that other nations would probably follow the strongest


nation in the world. Professional propagandists were likewise busy. The result was that throughout the 1920's the military forces of the United States were steadily reduced in effectiveness. Very few new ships were authorized, and manning levels in the military services were greatly curtailed. In short, the military services existed on a starvation diet.

However, when the economic depression began after 1929, the nation was fortunate that a portion of the Congressional appropriations for the National Industrial Recovery Act was assigned to a rehabilitation program in ship construction, but not without opposition from well-meaning organizations devoted to the hope of peace through disarmament. Included in this program of ship construction were a number of major vessels. The design and construction of such ships requires four to five years. But some of these became available and were of inestimable value in the early days of World War II. An important national benefit was the reactivation of the famished American shipbuilding trade which thus was available for the gigantic programs of production in the days ahead.

At this time there was no comprehension of the magnitude of the military needs which shortly would be thrust upon us. Of course, there was very little concern that such needs would require several years of lead time for the design, planning, development, and manufacture, or for the training of personnel for operation. The large portion of our population was determined to avoid war at any cost, and they were quite sure that the best way to avoid war was to avoid preparing for war.

Naturally the Congress reflected the viewpoint of public opinion. Although supporting most of the President's recommendations for national defense, in the late 1930's it acted otherwise repeatedly.

For example, in 1938 the House of Representatives barely defeated the proposed Ludlow constitutional amendment which would have required a popular vote as a prerequisite to a declaration of war by the Congress. Except for the strong representations made by the President and the Secretary of State this proposal would probably have been passed.[1]

Near the end of 1938 Secretary of War Woodring reported that despite improvements made, the United States stood eighteenth in relative strength among the standing armies of the world. In 1939 Congress refused to


modify the prohibition against U.S. merchant ships trading with friendly nations under attack, but did allow these countries to buy our war materials on a cash and carry basis.

Although the Congress approved calling up for active duty the Reserves and the National Guard, in August 1940 it was required that they be used only within the Western Hemisphere or in United States territories. As late as August 1940 Congress passed the first peacetime Selective Service and Training Act in our history by a small margin, but with the same restrictions as for the Reserves and National Guard. At about the same time Congress defeated a bill for improving the defenses of Guam, on the basis that the United States should not do anything to provoke or irritate Japan.

So while some progress was made in building up the national defense forces, public opinion was divided as to the advisability of doing anything which had the appearance of warlike measures. Except for the strong leadership and insistence of the President and Secretary of State, backed by U.S. naval and military leaders, our military structure might well have been quite impotent in late 1941 when World War II broke upon us.


In a world beset with ever-increasing international outlawry, the diplomatic workload of a leading world power committed to peace and legal procedures among nations was enormous. The United States exerted every means to impress upon the offending nations the importance of peaceful processes and the avoidance of violence. Secretary of State Cordell Hull was a patient and reasonable man. He continuously emphasized the inviolability of treaties and agreements among the nations if peace and orderly progress were to be maintained. The logic of his arguments was clear to most people. And let it be said that his work during those critical years bears the stamp of excellence in building a framework of definite action which later could be properly taken. Together with President Roosevelt, the State Department took progressive steps toward exposing international outlawry, and in time toward taking specific action to oppose it. We might list a few of the most important steps which were taken. Many of the specific measures taken pertain primarily to problems in the Atlantic, but of course are clearly related to the problems presented by the Japanese in the Pacific. Many


of the steps taken by government officials were for the purpose of informing the American people of the implications of the world conflict, and alerting them to possible involvement if principles of peace and honor were to be preserved.

a. Freedom of trade and commercial activity as guaranteed by treaties and agreements were the subject of frequent notes and discussions. The situation became crucial when freedom of the seas became involved. Ultimately the United States took decisive action by instituting a naval patrol in the Atlantic in 1941.

b. When public opinion seemed willing to overlook violations of American rights in 1938 Secretary Hull warned that our security would be menaced if we abandoned our legitimate principles because of fear or unwillingness. Only by meeting our responsibilities and making our proper contributions to the firm establishment of a world order based on law "can we keep the problem of our own security in true perspective . . . ."[2]

c. When war broke in Europe in 1939 the United States declared its neutrality and also declared a Limited National Emergency. The embargo on the export of arms under the Neutrality Act was repealed in November 1939 so that some aid could be rendered to Great Britain and France.

d. In order to exert a restraining influence on Japan's warlike policies it was decided that the fleet exercises in May of 1940 would be held in the Hawaiian area. The Fleet remained in Hawaii after the maneuvers. This was a diplomatic decision, which was not concurred by all military leaders.

e. On 19 May 1940, President Roosevelt said, "We are shocked and angered" by the over-running of the Lowlands by the Germans and he said that it is a mistaken idea that the American republics are wholly safe from the impact of the attacks on civilization in other parts of the world. [3] A month later, on 20 June 1940, the Secretary of State stated that, because of the imminent fall of France, never before has there been such a powerful challenge to freedom, that we could meet it only by retaining an unshakable faith in the worth of freedom and honor, of truth and justice, of intellectual and spiritual integrity, and by determination to give our all for the preservation of our way of life. [4]

f. When the Japanese bombed Chinese civilians the United States declared a "Moral Embargo" against Japan. The American government


appealed to manufacturers and exporters of aircraft parts and armaments not to send these products where they would be used against civilians.

g. In September 1940 American Ambassador Grew reported that Japan felt that she had a "golden opportunity." Japan, he said, was a predatory power and a fully opportunist nation seeking to profit through the weakness of others. She has been deterred from taking great liberties with interests of the United States because she respected our potential power, and she trampled on our rights in exact ratio to the strength of conviction that the United States public would not permit that power to be developed and used. [5]

h. Embargoes and sanctions against Japan were frequently considered and carefully evaluated as to risk of provocation. However, in July 1940 the Export Control Act authorized the President in the interest of national defense to prohibit or curtail the export of certain war materials, including scrap metal and oil.

i. In January 1941 President Roosevelt declared in his State of the Union Message to Congress that American security was threatened, that we supported resolute people resisting aggression, and that our own security would "never permit us to acquiesce in a peace dictated by aggressors or sponsored by appeasers." [6]

j. In March 1941 Congress passed the Lend Lease Act and appropriated seven billion dollars to aid friendly nations. President Roosevelt made a statement that this action ended any compromise with tyranny and the forces of oppression. [7]

k. On 27 May 1941 the President declared an "Unlimited National Emergency." A major objective was to authorize naval action to prevent the aggressors from gaining control of the seas. [8]

1. Following attacks on American merchant and naval ships in September and October 1941 President Roosevelt stated: "History has recorded who fired the first shot." We had sought no shooting war with Hitler, but we were not willing to pay for peace by permitting Hitler to attack our ships when they were on legitimate business. [9]

m. On 21 October 1941 Secretary Hull stated with regard to the Congressional authorization for American merchant vessels to carry cargoes to belligerents that the "paramount principle of national policy is the preserva-


tion of the safety and security of the nation;" and the "highest right flowing from that principle is the right of self-defense." [10]

n. On 17 August 1941 President Roosevelt and Secretary Hull conferred with Japanese diplomats and delivered a note which contained the statement that the government of the United States "finds it necessary to say to the Government of Japan that if the Japanese Government takes any further steps in pursuance of a policy or program of military domination by force or threat of force of neighboring countries, the Government of the United States will be compelled to take immediately any and all steps which it may deem necessary toward safeguarding the legitimate rights and interests of the United States and the American nationals and toward insuring the safety and security of the United States." [11]

o. On 1 December 1941 Secretary Hull stated to Japanese diplomats that the United States would give all the materials Japan requires if the Japanese leaders will show some movement toward peace and discontinue bellicose threats and bluster. [12]

Thus it is seen that American diplomacy was active throughout the decade preceding Pearl Harbor, in endeavoring to restrain the aggressors on the one hand, and on the other, to educate the American people regarding the issues at stake and the threat to their freedom and security.


As the people became informed of the progress of events in Europe and Japan, and were alerted to the effects on American interests and principles, they gradually assumed stronger views against the three aggressor nations. Yet despite the actions of those nations, the clear mandate of the people was to refrain from war or the appearance of war.

There were wide differences of opinion as to the rightness or wrongness of every nation's actions, including our own. Some of these were based on race, nationality, or personal experience. Others were influenced by paid propaganda outputs in this country. But the great majority of the people were sincere and honest in their desire to avoid warfare if at all possible, and were willing to make concessions and even sacrifices to that end. There


Image: USN NR&L (MOD) 18250 Rear Admiral Claude C. Bloch, USN, Commandant, Fourteenth Naval District on 7 December 1941.
USN NR&L (MOD) 18250
Rear Admiral Claude C. Bloch, USN, Commandant, Fourteenth Naval District on 7 December 1941.


were some who deprecated the mild and patient manner of the State Department over the years, and felt that any nation which violated our legitimate pursuits or hazarded our nationals abroad should be sternly dealt with. Such persons criticized the State Department for writing notes rather than acting forthrightly and forcibly.

The unprovoked bombing of USS Panay and three merchant ships in 1937 by the Japanese hardened the American viewpoint, as did the brutal attacks on missionary hospitals in China, and the terror-bombing of the Chinese people.

There was strong opposition to the exportation of scrap metal and oil to Japan before these items were embargoed in 1940 and 1941 especially when these commodities were in short supply in the United States. Yet Ambassador Grew stated that economic sanctions were more likely to cause war than to avoid it. This was one of the dilemmas which the Administration had to face. The Japanese, he explained, could not be bluffed or forced into submission. They would not "back down" as the Oriental psychology would consider this a "loss of face."

By 1941 the great majority of our people were quite aware of Japan's unprincipled behavior, but still regarded the Japanese people with some sympathy and with considerable admiration for their industriousness, objectiveness, arid national loyalty. But the ever-increasing tempo of Japan's depredations and the belligerent demands of their government changed attitudes of sympathy and admiration into anxiety and antipathy. When Japan took virtually full control of Indo-China in the summer of 1941 and demanded that Thailand grant special concessions, the American people approved our imposition of an oil embargo. Nevertheless public opinion tried hard to take these aggressions in stride, and it remained for the Japanese to solidify public opinion completely by the surprise attack on the American flag at Pearl Harbor.


The American public seemed in large part to be naive regarding the full implications of the European War and the Sino-Japanese War. Our high government officials, however, were quite aware of the threats to American interests and eventual security. It soon became crystal clear that the basic contest was between the forces of predatory authoritarianism and the free


nations of the world. Therefore, regardless of personal attachment to one country or another, the effort and influence of the United States were naturally directed toward restraining the predatory powers and assisting the free nations. This diplomatic position became increasingly active and forceful each year as events became more threatening.

Our endeavors to render material support to the beleaguered free nations required some military protection. As the contest widened, the need for defense indicated the importance of greater military potency. Thus the American stance against world aggression gradually developed from the diplomatic stage to the economic, and finally to the military, culminating in the United States becoming, clearly, if not formally, allied with the free nations against the Axis Powers.

We have already mentioned some of the more significant measures of diplomacy; now we might consider a few of the more important steps taken to render assistance to the friendly nations.

a. American trade with China had been of importance to both countries for many years, and was essential to China in resisting Japan's depredations. From the start of the conflict we furnished assistance to China by shipping important materials to meet economic and military requirements. Such assistance to China was characterized by Japan as "an unfriendly act."

b. The Neutrality Acts of 1935 and 1937 placed a rigid embargo on the export of arms to all belligerents, and thus had an injurious effect on friendly nations which were comparatively deficient in military equipment with which to resist the aggressors. At various times President Roosevelt and Secretary Hull endeavored to persuade Congress to amend the Acts favorably to the victimized nations, but to no avail until November 1939 when the Acts were partially repealed. Although the Congress continued to stand firm for military neutrality, the apathy and complacency of the people were challenged and gradually broken down because of the shockingly predatory events abroad.

c. In June 1940 President Roosevelt reported that the United States would provide surplus material resources to Great Britain and France, and pointed out that this was in our self interest. In justifying this action he stated that we as a nation were concerned that "military and naval victory for the gods of force and hate would endanger the institutions of democracy in the western world," and that our sympathies were with these nations that were giving their lifeblood in combat against these forces. [13]


d. In September 1940 the American government agreed with Great Britain to transfer fifty old-type destroyers in exchange for long-term leases of certain bases in the Western Atlantic and Caribbean. These bases would be essential in case of war, which they eventually proved to be.

e. In December 1940 it was plain that the European aggressors intended to dominate all of Europe and ultimately the rest of the world. President Roosevelt proclaimed that the United States would act as the "Arsenal of Democracy," and stated that we must help defend the free world by furnishing needed materials. In January 1941 the President asked Congress to authorize the lending of arms and other assistance to such nations when this was vital to the interests of the United States.

f. Despite the bitter protests of isolationists Congress passed the Lend Lease Act in March 1941 and appropriated seven billion dollars to put it into effect. This Act permitted all direct military aid to Great Britain.

g. By 1941 the loss of British ships to German submarines exceeded the rate of production in the shipyards of both Great Britain and the United States. In order to deliver to Great Britain the material aid required, the United States instituted a naval patrol force to protect British ships in the Western Atlantic.

h. On 30 October 1941 Roosevelt informed Stalin of his decision to grant the Soviet Union up to one billion dollars of Lend Lease Aid to counter Hitler's invasion of Russia.

i. By November 1941 it was clear that the survival of Great Britain was essential to the whole free world, and therefore the United States removed virtually all restrictions on arms shipments to that nation.

j. In spite of continued protests of Japan we had for several years assisted China by furnishing military equipment for shipment over the Burma Road, which by 1941 was the only open route to China as all others had been blockaded by Japan.


The military capabilities of the United States in the early 1930's were small compared to what might be required to match the powerful forces of the Axis. This fact was fully realized by responsible government officials, but public sentiment was quite fixed in opposition to any warlike gestures, including the buildup of armament. Furthermore, the economic depression


affected expenditures for military preparedness. Yet, paradoxically, it was the depression which permitted significant improvement in preparedness. This was because the National Industrial Recovery Act provided funds for industrial activity which would give jobs to the unemployed. President Roosevelt knew that the building of armaments, particularly ships, made jobs in nearly every phase of industry, and therefore in 1934 he exercised the authority granted by Congress and ordered the construction of thirty-two naval vessels. This was the first significant step in preparing for the needs of World War II, and hindsight proves that it was a fortunate and indispensable step.

Other steps were taken as the grim events abroad pressed on the national consciousness and brought a change in the public attitude toward military preparedness. Some of the more important were the following:

a. In 1934 the Vinson-Trammel Naval Bill authorized the navy to build up to treaty limitations. This did not provide funds for construction but indicated Congressional opinion as to the need for correcting our naval deficiencies.

b. In 1937 President Roosevelt announced that the Navy was proceeding with the construction of two new battleships, the first since the 1922 treaty. These were Washington and North Carolina which rendered valiant service in World War II. The Army also received new equipment, and an increase in officers and men from 118,000 to a new limit of 158,000.

c. In his January 1938 message to Congress the President recommended increasing our defenses to insure reasonable security against worldwide pressures and assaults. Congress authorized a twenty percent increase in ships for the Navy and appropriated for two new battleships and two aircraft carriers. Debate in Congress showed that much doubt existed on the need for these increases, and some isolationist groups suspected that the real purpose was to aid Great Britain. Secretary Hull replied that neither extreme internationalism or extreme isolationism was desired, but that inaction meant aiding the lawless nations. [14]

d. Again, in his January 1939 message to Congress, the President recommended further strengthening of the national defense, especially in air power, and the mobilization of industry for quantity production.

e. When France sued for an armistice with Germany in June 1940 the United States insisted that the French fleet should not be surrendered to Germany, and received assurances accordingly.


f. Just before the surrender of France in June 1940 President Roosevelt asked Congress for authority to build 50,000 military airplanes, and stated to Congress that nations unable to defend themselves were easily subjugated. Old defense systems, he pointed out, were inadequate if American liberties and principles were to be maintained. [15]

g. Following the fall of France the President requested Congress to appropriate five billion dollars for further increases in defense. This was granted on 27 August 1940. At the same time Congress authorized calling up the Reserves and National Guard for active duty. In July 1940, forty-five additional warships were ordered for the Navy Department.

h. In the summer of 1940 the President recommended to Congress the authorization for a "Two Ocean Navy," which was approved.

i. The first peacetime Selective Service and Training Act in United States history was passed in September 1940, and in August 1941, when the international situation was very foreboding, Congress extended the period of service to one and one-half years. But this was done by only a one vote margin in the House of Representatives.

In keeping with Congressional authorizations and appropriations for the building up of national defense, many important steps were taken in 1940 and 1941 to improve American power on land, sea, and air. For instance, there were ordered or authorized for the Navy in 1940:

Iowa class battleships of 45,000 tons

5 Montana class battleships of 56,000 tons (None of the ships were ever finished.)

6 battle cruisers of about 27,000 tons (None were completed.)

11 aircraft carriers of 27,000 tons

40 cruisers

115 destroyers

67 submarines

Many auxiliaries and small craft

With the exception of the larger battleships and the battle cruisers most of these vessels were expedited following the Pearl Harbor attack, and together with other ships which were ordered later, formed the irresistible force which vanquished the Japanese Navy.



1 Peace and War, p. 52 . (President Roosevelt wrote to the Speaker of the House on 6 January 1938, and Secretary Hull warned on 8 January 1938 that this proposal would hamstring the Government.)

2 Ibid., p. 55 . (Secretary Hull's address in Washington, D.C. on 17 March 1938.)

3 Ibid., p. 73 .

4 Ibid., p. 78 .

5 Ibid., p. 92 .

6 Ibid., p. 95 .

7 Ibid., p. 96 .

8 Ibid., pp. 101 and 102 .

9 Ibid., pp. 110 and 112 .

10 Ibid., p. 111 .

11 Ibid., pp. 123 and 124 .

12 Ibid., p. 139 .

13 Ibid., p. 74 .

14 Ibid., pp. 53-55 .

15 Ibid., p. 79 .

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