Pearl Harbor Attack Anniversary: James Bradley on America’s Meddling with China

On the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks, Flags of Our Fathers author James Bradley explains how the U.S. under Teddy Roosevelt first meddled in Asian affairs—and why we’re playing a dangerous game in doing so again.

I always assumed that my father—John Bradley—had raised two American flags on the island of Iwo Jima because of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor 69 years ago today. But unbeknownst to my dad, 88 years before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy had eyed Iwo Jima as a potential staging area for naval operations aimed at China.

In 1853, U.S. Navy warships entered the North Pacific with the largest show of naval power the area had ever seen. The three neighboring countries—Japan, Korea, and China—had been at peace with one another for centuries.

The Navy’s goal in 1853 was to make Japan into what a Japanese prime minister later called “America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Pacific” in order to compete for influence in nearby China. The pretext given to the American public was that the Navy was on a humanitarian mission to halt mistreatment of American whalers shipwrecked on Japanese shores.

Twenty years later, in 1873, Japan launched its first modern overseas military foray—an invasion of Taiwan. The rationale was to threaten China, thus allowing Japan to wrest the island of Okinawa from China’s orbit, an idea cooked up by the Japanese foreign ministry’s first foreign employee—a retired American Civil War general. The excuse was that the Taiwanese had abused Okinawan civilians. The Japanese invaders sailed on American-made ships with U.S. Navy advisers. In 1894, Americans applauded as a newly militarized Japan attacked China to promote “peace and stability” on the Korean Peninsula.

Then in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt secretly urged Japanese leaders to develop a “Japanese Monroe Doctrine for Asia.” Roosevelt encouraged the Japanese navy to seize “a paramount interest in what surrounds the Yellow Sea, just as the United States has a paramount interest in what surrounds the Caribbean.” Unknown to Congress and his own State Department, Theodore Roosevelt agreed to a secret, unconstitutional treaty with Tokyo allowing the Japanese military to seize Korea and initiate their Japanese Monroe Doctrine for Asia.

When the United States and Japan later quarreled over who would control China, war broke out. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt condemned that day of infamy, not realizing that the Japanese navy had modeled their Pearl Harbor attack after a similar surprise naval operation in Korean and Chinese harbors 37 years earlier. In 1904, when word of Japan’s first infamous sneak attack reached him, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote secretly, “I was thoroughly well pleased with the Japanese victory, for Japan is playing our game.”

The U.S. Navy is continuing Theodore Roosevelt’s game in Asia. In June, North Koreans fired on and killed three Chinese civilians on their northern border and Washington viewed it as a minor incident. In November, when North Korea tragically killed four South Koreans, President Barack Obama led the China-bashing and dispatched thousands of warships, tens of thousands of troops, and billions of dollars of high-tech weapons to the coast of China.

And that’s just the tip of the U.S. Navy’s spear. At a time of record American deficits, the Navy is spending billions of dollars on “war games” with Asian allies ringing China. Indeed, on his recent tour of the region, President Barack Obama mimicked this military encirclement strategy as he visited only “Asian democracies” surrounding China, while criticizing Beijing at every stop.

China presents no military threat to the U.S. With almost five times the population of the U.S., China spends less than one tenth as much as America on its military. In contrast to the U.S., China has no troops stationed outside its borders and wages no far-flung wars of choice. Recently the Pentagon—over China’s wary objections—authorized the transfer of $6.5 billion in weapons to Taiwan. Even with the billions we have spent supporting China’s breakaway island, Robert D. Kaplan—senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and national correspondent for The Atlantic—noted in The Washington Post: “The United States cannot credibly defend Taiwan.” China has peacefully woven Taiwan into a web of profitable trade relationships, with more than 250 airline flights between the two countries each week.

Rather than admitting the unlikelihood of Chinese military action against American interests, Washington seized upon potshots from an impoverished Chinese ally—North Korea—where millions boil tree bark for lunch as a reason for hugely expensive war games in waters uncomfortably close to Beijing. Imagine our feelings if a fleet of Chinese nuclear submarines were discovered in waters near New York and Washington. China is not a third-world country rising. China was the richest country in the world for most of human history. About 400 years ago, China stumbled when it missed the Industrial Revolution. Now we are witnessing the world’s traditional economic champ returning to its accustomed rank.

President Obama wants to double American exports within five years. Robert Roche—chairman of the Board of Governors for the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai—recently pointed out: “China’s potential is so great for U.S. exporters that capturing one additional percentage point of China’s import market translates to $11.3 billion in additional exports and over 75,000 American jobs.”

Smart salespeople make lasting friendships. China sends about 100,000 students a year to study in the United States, while only about 13,000 American students go to China. If starting tomorrow, America reacted with Sputnik-urgency to learn the Mandarin language and sent many more thousands of American students to China, we would be well positioned in what will be the largest economy in the world. It costs only about $11,000 for an American high-school student to spend one year making friends in China, much more cost effective than armed American troops playing war games on the outside and spying on China.

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China sends about 100,000 students a year to study in the United States, while only about 13,000 American students go to China.

The U.S. Navy rejected Iwo Jima as a staging area in 1853, and instead chose neighboring Chichi Jima, where George Herbert Walker Bush—a 21-year-old U.S. Navy pilot—would barely escape execution in 1944. “ I wish to see the United States as the dominant power on the shores of the Pacific Ocean,” Theodore Roosevelt once said. My mother told me that for the first four years after he returned from the battle of Iwo Jima, my father cried in his sleep but she did not understand why. After all the games in the North Pacific, maybe we never will.

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James Bradley is the author of The New York Times bestsellers Flyboys and Flags of Our Fathers and the son of one of the men who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima. He lives in New York.