The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was mainly about oil — Indonesian oil. And oil is still in the center of global insecurity with climate disruption as an added danger; in fact, there is a lot of overlap in the cast of characters. First a few preliminaries on why I am saying that in the context of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Every August, on the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki U.S. public opinion divides sharply into two camps. One side, pointing to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the ferocity with which the Japanese militarists prosecuted the war, believes the atomic bombings were justified because they ended the war and saved half a million allied soldiers’ lives (as President Truman claimed in his memoir). The other, pointing to official statements, including that of General Leslie Groves, who directed the Manhattan Project, say the war was essentially over and the atomic bombings were essentially a message to the Soviets about the postwar world order in the context of a U.S. atomic monopoly. (The Soviets were U.S. allies in World War II; nonetheless, Groves had said “There was never from about two weeks from the time I took charge of this Project [in 1942] any illusion on my part but that Russia was our enemy” He further said that “The Project was conducted on that basis.” See A World Destroyed, p. 62.)

My own view of the bombings is somewhat more complex; it is laid out in an August 2012 talk I gave in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In this blog I want to explore the connections between events before Pearl Harbor and subsequent events including the atomic bombings. I do think that, when all is said and done, the bombings were unjustified even in a war in which all sides killed civilians in large numbers. The timing of their use is a critical factor. The atom bombs were used as soon as they were ready without waiting to see if the Japanese would surrender upon Soviet entry into the war. That this was likely to happen was a widely held view among the Allies, including by President Truman. The U.S. invasion of the main islands of Japan was not due to start till November 1, 1945. The bombings, of course, happened on August 6 and 9, 1945. The Soviets declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945.

Since about the start of the twentieth century Japan’s ambition was to become an imperialist global power, an Eastern counterpart of Britain, another island state and long a global imperialist power. Japan waged war on Russia and won. It conquered Korea.

But Japan had no oil. (Neither did Britain. But Britain, along with their Soviet allies had already invaded Iran in August 1941 to secure wartime oil supplies.) As is well known, oil had become central to modern war machines – for ships, tanks, aircraft….No oil, effectively meant no capacity for conquest on a continental scale.

The U.S. was at that time an oil exporter and a principal supplier to Japan. But as Japan expanded its war into China and Southeast Asian countries (themselves ruled by the French and the British until Japanese occupation), tensions with the United States rose. The United States itself nurtured Pacific region ambitions as evidenced by the conquest of the Philippines and the overthrow of the Hawaiian queen decades earlier. In mid-1940, the United States moved its Pacific fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor. It also eventually embargoed oil exports to Japan.

The Japanese militarists now had a choice: they could occupy Indonesian oil fields and continue their conquest of China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia; or they could give up their imperialist ambitions. They chose the first course; the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor stood in the way. The United States had known that the fleet may be a target when it was moved — indeed, Admiral James O. Richardson was removed from command in February 1941 because he opposed the move, feeling the fleet would become vulnerable to attack. Admiral Husband E. Kimmel was installed in his place. Ironically, he had written in very the same month that “a surprise attack (submarine, air, or combined) on Pearl Harbor is a possibility…” He said he would take steps to “minimize damage” make the attacker “pay.” He, in turn, was relieved of his post ten days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It is one of the bizarre facts of history and a commentary on that time that the casus belli in 1941 was the United States trying to prevent Japan from getting at Indonesian oil, when Indonesia was a Dutch colony and Holland itself was occupied by the Nazis.

President Roosevelt made the decision to pursue the atomic bomb with vigor on October 9, 1941, almost two months before Pearl Harbor. Einstein, like many other scientists, did not want Hitler to have a monopoly of the bomb, which is why he wrote to President Roosevelt in 1939 recommending a bomb project. But that project had been languishing in the backwaters of war research until a British scientific effort, organized as the MAUD Committee, concluded in mid-1941 that a uranium bomb was feasible. At about the same time, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union; the Nazis advanced with stunning speed.

Vannevar Bush, an MIT engineering professor and Vice-President, was the head of the Roosevelt White House’s Office of Science and Technology Development. He was in charge of critical wartime military R&D well before the United States entered World War II in December 1941. One of his goals was to make sure that the scientific and technological efforts of the United States during World War II were available for use during that war. Until mid-1941 he had been more interested in radar than the atom bomb. But once he made up his mind about the bomb, he convinced Roosevelt to commit vast resources to it. The die was cast. If it worked, he would help ensure the bomb was used in World War II.

Preventing a Nazi atom bomb monopoly and nuclear blackmail had been a principal reason, and for many the only reason, to develop a U.S. atom bomb. But sights soon turned eastward. The first official discussion of an atomic bomb target was held by the Military Policy Committee of the Manhattan Project, on May 5, 1943. The Committee was headed by Vannevar Bush. His deputy was James Conant, the President of Harvard University. Groves was a member. On that date, they decided to not target Germany. They were nervous that if the bomb was a dud, Germany might reverse engineer it and use it. Germany’s expertise in matters nuclear was well-known; indeed the first fission reaction was the result of an experiment in Germany in 1938. While many brilliant German and other European physicists had emigrated to Britain and the United States, the Germans still had Werner Heisenberg, known worldwide as one of the most brilliant in an age of brilliant physicists.

The target would be the Japanese fleet based at the island of Truk in the Pacific Ocean, the Committee decided on May 5, 1943; if the bomb were a dud it would sink. Bush had already made a similar decision in relation to the “proximity fuze” — which could be called the first smart bomb. Bombs carrying the fuze were not to be used over enemy territory to prevent reverse engineering. It is a testament to Vannevar Bush’s power that, until the Battle of the Bulge at the end of 1944, they were not.

As confidence rose that the bomb would work, Japan itself became the target. In September 1944 Churchill and Roosevelt discussed the possible use of the bomb against the Japanese. Despite much research, I have found no document specifying targets in Germany or any documentation after May 5, 1943 about preparations to use the atom bomb in the European theater. Groves, in preparing Secretary of War Stimson for his late April 1945 briefing of the newly installed President Truman, wrote that “The target is and was always expected to be Japan”.

There is more to the story of course, as I recounted in my August 2012 talk. Suffice it to say here, as we struggle to create a fossil-fuel-free world and as the U.S., British, Iranian nuclear crisis heats up, that oil, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are part of a deadly, tangled dance that is not yet over.