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SUNDAY, MARCH 13, 2022 | 1B

What if Putin feels cornered by sanctions?


Your Turn
Lew Paper
Guest columnist

As the Russian assault on Ukraine moves forward to the horror of the world, there is reportedly a growing concern among American decision-makers that the sanctions and other commercial pressures on Russia will eventually make Russian president Vladimir Putin feel cornered and then lead to disastrous consequences for the world.

According to one account in the New York Times, American intelligence officials have advised the White House and Congress of Putin’s tendency “to double down when he feels trapped” and that one of his reactions might be a willingness “to take the war beyond Ukraine’s borders.”

As evidence of that tendency, those officials pointed to Putin’s recent announcement that he had elevated Russia’s nuclear arsenal to a “combat ready” status.

History provides ample support for that concern of American officials.

Foreign leaders — especially those bent on war — may have no compunction about expanding hostilities if the only alternative is economic capitulation.

There is no better example than Japan in 1941.

The United States had initiated sanctions against Japan in 1938 to reverse Japan’s military aggression in China. By the summer of 1941 — as Japan’s military incursions spread to Southeast Asia — those sanctions were broadened to prohibit the export of much needed oil to Japan as well as all other American-made products.

American officials hoped and expected that the sanctions would bring the Empire of the Rising Sun to its knees.

The sanctions did in fact cripple the Japanese economy. Rice was being rationed.

There was little gasoline for cars because Japan’s stockpile of oil had to be reserved for military uses, and so most of the few cars traversing Tokyo’s streets had to be fitted with a charcoal engine.

Even imported coffee was unavailable. It had been replaced by another brew, about which, the New York Times correspondent reported, “it was better not to ask too many questions.”

By the beginning of November 1941, American Ambassador Joseph Grew reported to Secretary of State Cordell Hull that American sanctions had achieved their intended goal: “the greater part of Japan’s commerce has been lost, Japanese industrial production has been drastically curtailed, and Japan’s national resources have been depleted.”

But Grew warned Hull that he should not take comfort from the result. “In Japan,” he advised the Secretary of State, “a psychology of despair leads characteristically to a do-or-die reaction.” And so, said the American ambassador, it would be “short-sighted” to believe that the sanctions would force Japan to yield to American demands.

Quite the contrary.

Grew stressed that Japan was prepared to initiate a “suicidal” war with the United States and that “armed conflict with the United States may come with dangerous and dramatic suddenness.” For Japanese leaders, said Grew, annihilation in a suicidal war with the United States was better than the humiliation of succumbing to American pressure.

Hull did not give much credence to Grew’s warning, and the rest, of course, is history.

To be sure, there are differences between the circumstances surrounding Japan’s leaders in 1941 and those surrounding Putin today. But there is a remarkable commonality.

By 1941, Japan’s relations with the United States — like Putin’s more recent relations with the United States — had been marked by long-standing hostility. (Japan was reviled by President Theodore Roosevelt’s compromise in 1905 for termination of the Russo-Japanese War because it deprived Japan of the fruits of its successful military campaigns, and, while working in China in the early 1900s, Hull adviser Stanley Hornbeck vividly remembered hearing about Japanese students talking about the “war which Japan was going to have with the United States.”)

Like Putin’s affiliation with China, Japan’s leaders believed they could find solace only with America’s enemies (and thus signed a Tripartite Alliance with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy in 1940). And like Putin, Japanese leaders’ personal pride had a higher priority than
their country’s economic well-being. None of this means that the United States and other countries should retreat from sanctions and other economic pressures against Putin and Russia. But it does mean that such sanctions and pressures could have unintended consequences.

It’s all a matter of remembering that forewarned is forearmed.

Lew Paper is the author of In the Cauldron: Terror, Tension, and the American Ambassador’s Struggle to Avoid Pearl Harbor.


Fort Myers News-Press.png


Opinion: Impeachment inquiry can learn lessons from Pearl Harbor


Lew Paper 

Published 2:44 p.m. ET Dec. 6, 2019 | Updated 2:45 p.m. ET Dec. 6, 2019 

Much of Robert Mueller's report and the impeachment inquiry being conducted by the United States House of Representatives has focused on warnings that Russia will probably try to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. Not everyone in the White House or the Congress is prepared to accept the credibility of those warnings - a situation that has eerie echoes of an earlier time when the White House and the Congress similarly discounted warnings from a seasoned diplomat about an imminent attack by a well-known adversary.

On November 3, 1941 - only a few weeks before Japan's attack on the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor - Joseph Grew, America's ambassador to Japan, sent a telegram to Secretary of State Cordell Hull to warn him that Japan was prepared to launch a "suicidal" war with the United States and that armed conflict could "with dangerous and dramatic suddenness." Neither Hull nor President Franklin D. Roosevelt took Grew's warnings at face value. To them, like most Americans, it was inconceivable that the small island nation of Japan would directly attack the United States. 


Grew knew otherwise. The principal driving force was the economic sanctions which the United States had imposed on Japan in an effort to curb its military aggression in China and Southeast Asia. The sanctions were successful in crippling the Japanese economy, and the Roosevelt administration assumed that a crippled economy would lead Japan to abandon its policy of military conquest.

Grew tried to explain to Roosevelt and Hull that their expectation reflected a mistaken view of the Japanese mindset. A crippled economy would not lead to Japan's submission but to a sense of desperation, and a sense of desperation would lead to war. For Japanese leaders, annihilation through a suicidal war with the United States would be better than the humiliation of succumbing to American pressure. 

And so, in his telegram of November 3, 1941, Grew explained that it would be an "uncertain and dangerous hypothesis" to believe, as some in the United States did, that war could be averted "by progressively imposing drastic economic measures ...." A Japanese attack on the United States might seem foolhardy, Grew continued, but “Japanese sanity cannot be measured by American standards of logic." 

Grew made many recommendations to Roosevelt and Hull to forestall the slide toward war. In the Ambassador's view, none of those recommendations was more important than a request that Roosevelt accept the invitation of Japan's Prime Minister to meet somewhere on American soil to resolve the two countries' differences. The President wanted to accept the invitation, but Hull convinced Roosevelt that no meeting should occur unless the two countries first reached an agreement - even though Hull believed that the chances of reaching an agreement "were no bigger than a gnat." 

Hull nonetheless spent untold hours meeting with Japanese representatives in Washington to explore a possible agreement - not because he thought an agreement was likely but because the United States needed time to build up its military arsenal. And so Hull dragged out the discussions with the Japanese representatives to delay any conflict in the Pacific. 

Grew knew nothing about Hull's strategy of delay, but in the fall of 1941 he reported to Hull that Japanese leaders were beginning to sense that the United States was not really interested in an agreement but merely playing for time. That perception, the Ambassador said, could be corrected if only the United States would specify the terms it wanted to include in any agreement.

Hull finally did give the Japanese a detailed proposal on November 26, but by then it was too late - especially because the proposal included terms that Hull knew would be unacceptable to the Japanese. And so Japanese leaders decided to go forward with the very decision that Grew feared - an attack on the United States in the misguided hope that a strike at Pearl Harbor would deal a crippling blow to the United States and allow Japan to succeed in a conflict that offered virtually no chance of success. 

It was a bittersweet outcome for the beleaguered American diplomat. He had long ago concluded that American policy in the months before Pearl Harbor was "completely inflexible" and that "his reporting to our Government was like throwing pebbles into a lake at night." But like the diplomats and intelligence officials warning about Russia's possible interference in the 2020 presidential election, he could do no more than express his opinions. Still, he was satisfied that he had left no stone unturned to warn his countrymen about what Japan might do. "If war should come," he confided to his diary at the end of November 1941, “I hope that history will not overlook that telegram (of November 3, 1941]...." 

Lew Paper is the author of In the Cauldron: Terror, Tension, and the American Ambassador's Struggle to Avoid Pearl Harbor, which was just published and from which this article is adapted.

This article appeared in the Fort Myers News-Press on December 7, 2019.

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