Biden Should Check Franklin Roosevelt's Record before He Sanctions Russia

When President Biden gave his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, he opened with a paean to plucky little Ukraine, vowing to help that country with everything short of direct military action.  He also pledged to live by our NATO treaty, to defend with troops any incursions into the sovereign territory of any NATO member country.  Was this the right thing to do?  Perhaps.  Was it the smart thing to do?  This is very much up in the air.

One of the best books on the Russian way of war — perhaps one of the best war novels of all time — is Tom Clancy's classic Red Storm Rising.  In this brilliantly crafted work of fiction, after their largest refinery is sabotaged by terrorists, Russia (AKA the Soviet Union) goes to war for oil.  This has the same effect on the Russian economy as the embargo is causing today.  As with the war in Ukraine, the result is a destructive non-nuclear land war in Europe that impacts the entire world.

While this casus belli may seem far-fetched, Japan went to war with the Western colonial powers in the Pacific in 1941 because of a crippling embargo.  There are similarities between what Japan did — and why — and what Russia seems to be doing today, and lessons there to be learned.

Around that time, President Roosevelt was trying to thread the needle between his desire to support democracy in Europe — along with China and the colonial powers in Southeast Asia, Britain, France, and Holland, while facing down isolationists and "America Firsters" in his own country.  Knowing he couldn't muster a majority in Congress to approve an "unprovoked" declaration of war against Germany in Europe and Japan in Southeast Asia, FDR pushed through — by small but vital margins — Lend-Lease, which allowed the U.S. to "loan" weapons of war to countries we supported, and a peacetime draft, which passed Congress by just one vote.  He also — not needing legislation — pushed through economic sanctions against Germany and Japan, long before the Americans' war began on December 7, 1941.

Obviously, any economic sanctions against Germany were ineffectual.  Imposing them only after the Third Reich invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, followed on September 3 by a declaration of war by Great Britain and France, was a case of too little, too late.  Germany did not depend, economically, on imports from the United States, and the Germans had already committed to unrestrained and aggressive warfare. 

Sanctions against Japan were another story — one Americans should ponder as we seek to control the Kremlin's aggressive actions.

Beginning in 1937, Japan launched an aggressive war against China, and almost from the start, the U.S. took a strong stance against the Japanese.  Earlier, in 1931, Japan had conquered Manchuria, turning it into the puppet state of Manchukuo.  The League of Nations — we weren't members, but we certainly supported this action — censured the Empire of Japan, which promptly resigned from the League of Nations.  The Japanese then went on to ignore all Western concerns about their arbitrary and unprovoked military land-grab.  So, when Japan staged a fake-news "justification" on Beijing's Marco Polo Bridge — which started the war in China in '37 — the ideas of sanctioning Japan had already been tried. 

Short of war, sanctions seemed like a good idea at the time.

Such sanctions began slowly, a kind of "proportional response," but they built up quickly in response to continued and specific Japanese actions.  So when Japan — acting after France had fallen to German invasion — moved troops into northern Indochina (later known as North Vietnam), with airfields in reach of Chinese targets not reachable from other locations, America imposed some initial and painful economic sanctions.  This was even though "Vichy France," the rump state that was created after the German conquest — in a kind of "shotgun wedding" — gave its "permission" to Japan to move in.  Japan ignored these early sanctions, but international tensions mounted.  This led to desultory "peace talks" between the U.S. and Japan, talks that ran right up until December 7, 1941.

The real sanctions — the ones that hurt — were imposed in the summer of 1941.  On July 24, Japan moved its army into southern Indochina (later South Vietnam).  This seemed clearly to be in preparation for launching invasions of British colonial Malaya, home of the world's chief source of rubber — including Singapore — as well as an invasion of Holland's oil-rich Dutch East Indies and America's commonwealth, the Philippines.  At that time, Japan — always resource-poor — felt it needed access to oil and minerals from the Indies, as well as rubber and ferrous metals from the British colonies of Malaya and Burma.  Cam Ranh Bay, a major port in French Indochina, was located just 800 miles from the Philippines and 800 miles from the British bastion in Singapore.

Two days after Japan acted, FDR froze — by executive order — all Japanese assets in the U.S.  When that didn't force Japan's immediate withdrawal from its newly occupied territories, on August 1, Roosevelt embargoed sales of strategic materials to Japan.  Britain and the Dutch East Indies followed suit.  It's clear that Roosevelt knew how dependent Japan was on U.S. exports, though perhaps he didn't appreciate this fact quite well enough.

At that time, Japan got 80 percent of its crude oil from America and another 8 percent from the Dutch East Indies.  This oil was strategically vital to power the Imperial Japanese Navy.  America was also the source of virtually 100 percent of Japan's refined, high-octane aviation fuel, so essential to its Army and Navy Air Forces.  In addition, Roosevelt embargoed all scrap iron shipped to Japan.  Not widely known, then or now, scrap iron was essential to Japan's domestic steel industry.  This steel was used for making guns, tanks, and armored naval ships. 

Japan was, at that time, a country ruled by a military dictatorship, one that had already amply demonstrated its aggressive intentions in China, Manchuria, and French Indochina.  Under this dictatorship, Japan had to make a critical decision.  For instance, Japan had oil stored at home sufficient for just three years of normal operations — but less than half that should war be declared.  Other strategic materials — ferrous metals, rubber, high-octane aircraft fuel — were also in short supply.  America knew this, and devoutly hoped Japan would do the "right thing" and back off, rather than pay the economic price of critical shortages. 

Rather than acquiesce to America's demands and cave in to our embargoes, Japan chose to fight.  Pearl Harbor, along with the invasions of Malay, Singapore, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines, were the immediate and direct result of those embargoes.  Japan's leaders knew the risk, but they told themselves they'd rather be destroyed in an honorable but unwinnable war than give in to demands of a dishonorable peace.  In essence, in trying to punish Japan for its aggression, FDR miscalculated, pushing proud Japan into a war it couldn't win.  That war eventually took 30 million lives — nearly double those lost in the war against Germany.

That was in 1941.  Today, America is again taking the lead in pushing ruinous sanctions against a proud and uncontrolled invader, Russia.  As we tried to protect China and Southeast Asia in 1941 through sanctions, we are now trying to protect Ukraine — and possibly other countries whose territory was once part of Imperial Russia or the Soviet Union — using the same tactics.

Will the Kremlin meekly back down in the face of such sanctions?  That remains an unknown.  While Japan in '41 had a superb navy, army and air force, it was too weak, and too far away, to present a truly existential danger to America.  However, Russia has one of the world's largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons, along with the aircraft and missiles needed to deliver them — strategically — to literally any place on Earth.  The Russians do present an existential threat to any nation bold enough to defy them.

Is this the right gamble?  Is brave little Ukraine worth risking our national existence?  Perhaps it is — but that's for others to decide.  What is concerning is that in making this gamble, President Biden may not be aware of the real risk.  Perhaps he should read up on what happened in 1941 when Japan's Prime Minister Tojo and Emperor Hirohito called FDR's bluff.

Ned Barnett is a military historian focusing on the 19th and 20th centuries.  He's been the on-camera historian for nine History Channel programs, back when the History Channel actually covered history.  He also wrote — for Newsweek Japan — an article justifying the use of atomic weapons to force a swift end to the war, saving 10 million Japanese lives in the process.  Founder of Barnett Marketing Communications and on the board of Path To Publishing, Barnett focuses on helping writers become successfully published, from coaching, editing and ghost-writing to publishing and promotion designed to profitably sell books.  He can be reached at, or 702-561-1167.

Image via Picryl.

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