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Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization

Nicholson Baker (2008)


(This is one book that I'd love to just put up in its entirety, but in honor of something Harbor day, most of the following excerpts concern the Roosevelt administration's cynical maneuvering of the Japanese into war.)


CAPTAIN PHILIP S. MUMFORD, a former British officer in Iraq, joined the Peace Pledge Union. He gave a speech about why. "What is the difference between throwing 500 babies into a fire and throwing fire from aeroplanes on 500 babies?" he asked. "There is none."
It was January 5, 1937. (66)

SECRETARY OF WAR HENRY STIMSON stood in an auditorium in the War Department. A blindfold—made from a strip of yellow cloth cut from a chair someone had sat on at the signing of the Declaration of Independence—was tied around his eyes. President Roosevelt, who had just made a speech, watched while Stimson reached into a ten-gallon glass fishbowl and pulled out a blue capsule with a number on it. He handed it to the president, who opened it, studied the slip of paper inside, and said: "The first number is one-five-eight." A woman screamed—her son was being drafted.
It was October 29, 1940. (245)

WALTER DURANTY, a reporter, was back in Honolulu after a trip to Japan, and he had a prediction. "Every day that I stayed in Tokyo my conviction deepened that Japan would not fight unless she was compelled to by the cutting off of her oil supply," Duranty wrote in The New York Times. A war carried grave risks, after all: "The flimsy wood and paper cities of Japan would be shockingly exposed to incendiary bombs," he said.
It was May 26, 1941. (332)

WILLIAM HENRY CHAMBERLIN, a writer, spoke at the Keep America out of War Congress. It was May 31, 1941. "A total economic boycott of Japan, the stoppage of oil shipments for instance, would push Japan into the arms of the Axis," Chamberlain warned. (333)

PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT was in the White House, talking to the Volunteer Coordination Committee, a war-preparedness group. It was July 24, 1941.
Sandbags may be necessary in certain parts of the country, he said. And we need to get the right information out. "There are a lot of things that people don't quite understand," he said. For example: "Why am I asked to curtail my consumption of gasoline when I read in the papers that thousands of tons of gasoline are going out from Los Angeles—West Coast—to Japan?"
The answer was very simple, said the president. "If we cut the oil off, they probably would have gone down to the Dutch East Indies a year ago, and you would have had war," he explained. "It was very essential from our own selfish point of view of defense to prevent a war from starting in the South Pacific. So our foreign policy was—trying to stop a war from breaking out there."
"Our foreign policy was"—Roosevelt had used the past tense, reporters noticed. (366)

AN EXECUTIVE ORDER emanated from Hyde Park, New York. It was July 25, 1941.
''In view of the unlimited national emergency declared by the President, he has today issued an Executive Order freezing Japanese assets in the same manner in which assets of various European countries were frozen on June 14, 1941."
A joint Anglo-American oil embargo followed. (368)

"JAPAN SMOLDERS OVER OIL THREAT" WAS the headline on page one of The New York Times. It was July 30, 1941. At a cabinet meeting with Roosevelt, Harold Ickes, the secretary of the interior, suggested an air strike. "I would like to see one of our latest models go to Siberia by way of Japan," Ickes said. "It could set fire to Tokyo en route by dropping a few incendiary bombs." (370)

THE JAPANESE believed that they were being encircled. It was August 7, 1941. "First there was the creation of a superbase at Singapore, heavily reinforced by British and Empire troops," said the Japan Times Advertiser. "From this hub a great wheel was built up and linked with American bases to form a great ring sweeping in a great area southwards and westwards from the Philippines through Malaya and Burma, with the link broken only in the Thailand peninsula. Now it is proposed to include the narrows in the encirclement, which proceeds to Rangoon."
There was no justification, the newspaper said, for Roosevelt's "wall of Pacific bases," or for the joint British-American encirclement.
Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, said he knew nothing about encirclement. If Japan said she'd been encircled, well, she'd encircled herself. (375)

A TANKER filled with aviation fuel left Los Angeles. It was August 14, 1941.
The tanker was headed past Japan to Vladivostok, Russia. Harold Ickes, Roosevelt cabinet member and petroleum coordinator—the man who'd talked about flying an airplane to Siberia to drop a bomb on Tokyo—made the announcement. More oil tankers were scheduled to depart, as well—some American, some Russian. Vladivostok, directly across the Sea of Japan from Japan, was getting aviation fuel, while Japan itself got nothing. The Japanese government made formal protests to the American government. (378)

Back at the big table at 10 Downing Street, Churchill told his cabinet that Roosevelt was definitely in. "The President had said he would wage war but not declare it," the war-cabinet minutes record. Roosevelt was expected to become "more and more provocative."
Churchill told his ministers: "Everything was to be done to force an incident." (381)

CHURCHILL GAVE a speech about the meeting he had had with President Roosevelt, whom he called his great friend. It was August 25, 1941.
Churchill also talked about Hitler for a while, and then he turned to Japan. President Roosevelt was laboring with infinite patience to arrive at a fair settlement between Japan and the United States, Churchill asserted. "We earnestly hope these negotiations will succeed," he said. "But this I must say: That if these hopes should fail we shall, of course, range ourselves unhesitatingly at the side of the United States."
The Japanese newspaper Nichi Nichi said, "What Churchill said about peaceful settlement is nothing but a big lie." (384)

THE JAPANESE PRESS was angry over the ships filled with oil and aviation fuel that were on their way to Russia. One newspaper, Yomiuru, said that the United States was "flaunting this oil in Japan's face by sending it past our shores to Vladivostok."
Colonel Hayto Mabuchi, chief of the press section of the Japanese army, gave a speech on the radio. Britain and the United States were engaged in an economic war with Japan, and Japan was faced with "slow death," Colonel Mabuchi said. "If Japan cannot reach a peaceful settlement through diplomatic negotiations Japan must break through the encirclement fronts by force." It was September 2,1941. (387)

The next day, Roosevelt gave what came to be known as his "shoot on sight" speech. An American flush-deck destroyer, the Greer, had shadowed a German V-boat while a British plane dropped depth charges. The U-boat fired torpedoes at the Greer; the Greer depth-charged back. Nobody was hit. "Roosevelt," said a German communique, "is endeavoring with all the means at his disposal to provoke incidents for the purpose of baiting the American people into the war." (394)

HERBERT HOOVER gave a speech on the radio. There were about forty million children in the German-invaded democracies, he said, and the blockade was killing them: "Their pleas for food ascend hourly to the free democracies of the west." It was October 19, 1941.
Hoover cited two recent reports. One was about hunger in Belgium, and one was the report by Dr. Szoszkies about hunger in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. In Warsaw, Hoover said, the death rate among children was ten times the birth rate, and corpses lay in the street. America was now, by failing to compel England to change its policy, a moral participant in the blockade.
"Is the Allied cause any further advanced today as a consequence of this starvation of children?" Hoover asked. "Are Hitler's armies any less victorious than if these children had been saved? Are Britain's children better fed today because these millions of former allied children have been hungry or died? Can you point to one benefit that has been gained from this holocaust?" (411)

[In 1996 then-UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright was asked by 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, in reference to years of U.S.-led economic sanctions against Iraq, “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”
To which Ambassador Albright responded, “I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it

THE CITY OF TOKYO, the third-largest city in the world, where six and a half million people lived, had a practice air-raid blackout. It was October 22, 1941.
"Japan does not go to America or any nation with hat in hand but stands conscious of its power for peace or war," said an editorial in the Japan Times Advertiser. Peace was still possible, though. "The trouble so far has been with malign propaganda," said the editorial; British and American newspapers had catered to the public's appetite for sensation. "The public mind has been steered to mistrust, suspicion, and downright hate." (415)

EDGAR MOWRER, the journalist, was in a bar in Manila, having a drink with a man who worked for the Maritime Commission. It was late October 1941, and Mowrer was on a spy mission for Colonel Donovan.
"You will pass as a newspaper correspondent," Donovan had told Mowrer. Mowrer had already been to Singapore, Java, Thailand, Burma, Chunking, and Hong Kong. Now he was in the capital of the Philippines.
The maritime man in the bar, Ernest Johnson, said he had a daughter in San Francisco. He didn't expect ever to see her again. "The Japs will take Manila before I can get out," Johnson said.
"Take Manila?" said Mowrer. "That would mean a war with us."
Johnson nodded. "Didn't you know the Jap fleet has moved eastward, presumably to attack our fleet at Pearl Harbor?" (415)

Hitler often claimed, said Roosevelt, that he had no designs on the Americas. But Roosevelt had evidence to the contrary. "I have in my possession a secret map made in Germany by Hitler's government," he said. The map showed existing boundaries obliterated, the Panama Canal absorbed, and Latin American countries turned into "vassal states" of Germany. "This map makes clear the Nazi design not only against South America but against the United States itself." He did not show the map. (420)

A REPORTER asked President Roosevelt what he thought about being called a liar and a faker by the Germans. It was October 28, 1941. Roosevelt said it was a "scream." A reporter asked to see the secret German map. Roosevelt said he couldn't show it, for fear of compromising his source. A reporter asked where the map was. Roosevelt said it was in some basket on his desk.
The map did not, in fact, show Hitler's plan to partition South America and conquer the western hemisphere. It showed routes in South America flown by American airplanes, with notations in German describing the distribution of aviation fuel. It was a British forgery. (421)

UNITED STATES NEWS, a magazine, published a map of the Far East. Long red arrows and tiny red bombers converged on a bull's-eye in the middle of the map. The tiny red bombers were shown flying in from Guam, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. The bull's-eye was Tokyo. It was October 31, 1941. (423)

IN TOKYO, Ambassador Joseph Grew sent a long telegram to the State Department, hoping someone there would heed it. Washington's imposition of severe economic sanctions might force Japan to risk "national hara-kiri," Grew warned. "An armed conflict with the United States may come with dangerous and dramatic suddenness." It was November 3, 1941.
In his diary the next day, Grew wrote: "If war should occur, I hope that history will not overlook that telegram." (425)

HELMUTH VON MOLTKE was at a meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin with twenty-four men. They discussed a legal decree that would expropriate the property of deported Jews. Twenty-four of the twenty-five wanted to approve the decree; Moltke opposed it.
The men were chameleons, Moltke wrote his wife: "In a healthy society, they look healthy, in a sick one, like ours, they look sick. And really they are neither one nor the other. They are mere filler."
It was November 8, 1941. (428)

DAVID "BUNNY" GARNETT, the novelist who wrote The War in the Air, arrived at Frances Partridge's house for a weekend visit. Garnett's son had joined a rescue squad in the Royal Air Force; he would be going out in boats to pick up floating airmen. "Bunny frankly desires to keep his sons out of danger, yet he is behind the war effort in every other way," Partridge wrote in her diary.
She talked this inconsistency over with her husband. "The primary fact is that wanting other people's sons to be killed to get the sort of life you want and believe desirable is horrible," she felt. (429)

ROOSEVELT'S ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF, George Marshall, had some reporters—from Time, Newsweek, the Times, the Herald Tribune, and three wire services—into his office for a briefing. "We are preparing an offensive war against Japan," Marshall said. He told the reporters about the Chinese air bases, and he said that there were thirty-five B-17s in the Philippines, with more on the way. Shuttle bombing from the Philippines to Vladivostok was under consideration. The aim was to "blanket the whole area with air power." Keep it a secret, he said. It was November 15, 1941. (431)

HENRY STIMSON was writing in his diary. He, Knox, Stark, Hull, and Marshall had been in the Oval Office with the president, batting around a problem that Roosevelt had brought up. The Japanese were likely to attack soon, perhaps next Monday, the president said. "The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves," Stimson wrote. "It was a difficult proposition." It was November 25, 1941. (433)

HENRY MORGENTHAU was with the secretary of the navy, Frank Knox, when he got a damage report on Pearl Harbor. "Knox feels something terrible," Morgenthau wrote in his diary. "They have the whole fleet in one place—the whole fleet was in this little Pearl Harbor base. They will never be able to explain it." (445)

IN WASHINGTON THAT NIGHT, Edgar Mowrer couldn't sleep. He thought, The man in the bar in Manila was right! And if a member of the Maritime Commission knew the destination of the Japanese fleet, why had the President, why had Knox and Stimson and Hull who were expecting war, not known it and taken the necessary precautions?"
And then Mowrer realized: "Nothing but a direct attack could have brought the United States into the War! Here was the 'break' for which both Churchill and T. V. Soong had been waiting." (445)

PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT read a preliminary copy of "Washington Merry-Go-Round," a widely syndicated newspaper column by Drew Pearson and Robert S. Allen. Pearson and Allen said that Pearl Harbor was the "largest naval defeat in this nation's history." Roosevelt was vexed—he was suppressing all details of the disaster—and he asked J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, to get in touch with the columnists and threaten to take away their press privileges. Hoover met with Pearson and Allen, and they withdrew the column. It was December 12, 1941. (455)

LIFE MAGAZINE published an article on how to tell a Japanese person from a Chinese person. It was December 22, 1941.
Chinese people have finely bridged noses and parchment-yellow skin, and they are relatively tall and slenderly built, the article said. Japanese people, on the other hand, have pug noses and squat builds, betraying their aboriginal ancestry. "The modern Jap is the descendant of Mongoloids who invaded the Japanese archipelago back in the mists of prehistory, and of the native aborigines who possessed the islands before them," Life explained. The picture next to the article was of the Japanese premier, Hideki Tojo. (460)

The title comes from Franz Halder, one of Hitler's restive but compliant generals. General Halder told an interrogator that when he was imprisoned in Auschwitz late in the war he saw flakes of smoke blow into his cell. Human smoke, he called it.
I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists. They've never really gotten their due. They tried to save Jewish refugees, feed Europe, reconcile the United States and Japan, and stop the war from happening. They failed, but they were right. (474)

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