We seventh graders who lived on December 7, 1941 will always remember the Day that Will Live in Infamy, marking the day of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. I can never forget the time when several Los Angeles policemen escorted several of my Japanese-American friends in tears out of our classroom to be re-united with their parents and shipped to remote relocation camps in one of the most shameful acts enacted by the U.S. government in World War II.
We had no reason to doubt that the plotters behind the sneak attack were led by a buck-toothed Japanese admiral named Isoroku Yamamoto. That's because the government told us so. His image as a cunning enemy appeared in innumerable newspapers across the country. Time Magazine published a cartoon of Yamamoto as an arch villain, a personification of "Oriental treachery." Allegedly, he was said to have boasted that he would dictate surrender peace terms in the White House. All of this and more was spelled out by a U.S. Naval historian named Ian W. Toll in an op-ed article that appeared in the New York Times on Wednesday.
At the outset, Yamamoto was portrayed as a fire-breathing war-monger who plotted the sneak attack on the U.S. But Toll has set the record straight. The supposed villain claimed all along that victory over the United States was impossible. Toll described Yamamoto as one of the most colorful, charismatic and broad-minded naval officers in the Imperial Navy. He graduated from the Japanese Naval Academy. He traveled widely in the United States before the war, spoke adequate enough English as a student at Harvard University for two years, read American history voraciously after World War I, including several biographies about Abraham Lincoln; none of which has ever appeared in the American press.
According to Toll, the naval historian, Yamamoto despised the Japanese Army. He was known for his anti-war views, arguing there was "no chance of winning the war with the United States." In August 1939, he was named commander in chief of the highest sea-going command in the Japanese Navy, and while he opposed war with the U.S., he actually planned the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. But despite his temperate views, Yamamoto was not a great strategist. He was responsible for the Japanese defeat in the Battle of Midway and the campaign to re-capture the island of Guadalcanal. But while Yamamoto's naval strategy was faulty, he was a major factor in setting the ground for the anti-war temperament that helped Japan to emerge from the shattering defeat in World War II. Surprising as these revelations are, so too are the questions about U.S. veracity when it goes to war.