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Militarism and War, World War II

Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Vichy government, British Malaya, Japanese aggression, Midway Island

The outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 encouraged the Japanese leadership to consider expanding military and political influence into Southeast Asia. Japan urgently needed the region’s natural resources, including oil and rubber, for its war effort. In 1940, after France and the Low Countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) had fallen to the Germans, the government of Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro announced Japan’s intention to build a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” a self-sufficient economic and political bloc under Japanese leadership. In September 1940 the Konoe cabinet concluded the so-called Axis Pact, an alliance with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, and received permission from the Nazi-backed Vichy government in France to move troops into northern French Indochina (the area that is now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). The Japanese also tried to negotiate an economic and political foothold in the Dutch East Indies, whose colonial government had declared itself independent of the fallen home government of the Netherlands.

Escalating Japanese aggression created friction with the United States, the only major nation not yet involved in war. In 1937 U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt called for a “quarantine” against the “disease” of international aggression. The United States sympathized with the Chinese nationalists and wished to keep the resources of Southeast Asia available for the embattled British. Japan was heavily dependent on the United States for vital strategic material, such as petroleum, steel, and heavy machinery, so the Roosevelt administration gradually imposed embargoes on such goods. Negotiations aimed at settling differences between the two countries began in April 1941, but when the Japanese moved troops into southern Indochina in July, the United States responded by placing a complete embargo on oil. Britain, countries belonging to the Commonwealth of Nations (an association of states that gave allegiance to the British Crown), and the Dutch East Indies followed suit.

The U.S. oil embargo threatened to bring the whole Japanese military apparatus to a halt when its limited oil reserves were used up. Rather than face the humiliation of giving in to U.S. economic pressure, in early September the Konoe cabinet decided to continue negotiations while at the same time preparing for war. All attempts to reach a diplomatic accommodation with the United States failed, including a proposal for a summit meeting between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Konoe. In October Konoe resigned, and General Tojo Hideki, Japan’s minister of war, became prime minister. Tojo formed a cabinet in preparation for war.

On December 7, 1941 (December 8 in Japan) a Japanese naval and air task force launched a devastating surprise attack on the major U.S. base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The Japanese also launched simultaneous attacks in the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, Midway Island, Hong Kong, British Malaya, and Thailand. The following day the United States declared war on Japan, as did all the other Allied powers except the USSR. Nevertheless, Japan maintained the offensive in Southeast Asia and the islands of the South Pacific for the next year. By the summer of 1942, Japanese forces had occupied the targets of their first attack, as well as Burma (now known as Myanmar), Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, and several islands in the Aleutians off Alaska. Japan’s forces were also striking toward Australia and New Zealand through New Guinea, New Britain, and the Solomon Islands.

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