Small Wars Journal

Tickling the Dragon’s Tail: Instigating War with Imperial Japan to Fight Nazi Germany and its Strategic Implications

Sun, 12/09/2018 - 9:36am

Tickling the Dragon’s Tail:  Instigating War with Imperial Japan to Fight Nazi Germany and its Strategic Implications

Brad Striegel

In 1946, Dr. Louis Slotin, a Los Alamos nuclear scientist, was conducting an experiment with fissile material to calculate critical mass, which is needed for the detonation a nuclear weapon.   The goal was to measure the amount of radioactivity needed to cause an atomic chain reaction without out actually causing a nuclear detonation.  However, in the process of manually placing the two half spheres made up of beryllium around a plutonium core, Slotin’s hand slipped and the two pieces joined together around the core which immediately caused a flash of light from a chain reaction.  Slotin immediately ripped the two pieces apart, saving seven others with him in the room from massive radioactive exposure, if not worse.  However, he absorbed nearly all the radiation emitted by the reaction and would die of radiation poisoning days later.  The experiment, known as “Tickling the Dragon’s Tail,” is a reference to the potentially unintended and catastrophic consequences of the risky methodology used in the experiment.

In the last 30 years a significant amount of documents have been discovered related to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that show a similar methodology was used by the  Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his administration in order to get America into World War II.  Roosevelt needed to unify a politically divided and isolationist America and instill an interventionist mindset to fight Nazi Germany.  The nation was equally divided in 1941.  Half of all Americans wanted to stay out of the war, the other half didn’t.  In anticipation of war, FDR initiated the first peacetime draft in U.S. history in 1940 but he still needed a good reason, or excuse, to fight Hitler and the Nazis.  He knew he could not get a declaration war approved by Congress with the current political situation.  In 1941 the U.S. was still neutral but German U-Boats and the U.S. Navy were already fighting an undeclared war in the Atlantic in the conduct of escorting merchant ships laden with war supplies to support Great Britain.  Most significant was the loss of the U.S.S. Reuben James and 100 of her 143 person crew on October 31, 1941.  This action, and other U.S. ship losses in the Battle of the Atlantic, were not enough to move the American public to want war. 

The McCollum Memo

One year before the sinking of the Reuben James, the director of the Office a Naval Intelligence for Far East Asia, Lieutenant Commander Arthur H. McCollum, developed courses of action to address the Axis threat in what would later be known as the McCollum Memo.  In it, he described the strategic threat presented by the Axis powers; Germany, Japan and Italy; the reluctance of the American public to enter another world war and the lack of U.S. military ground forces to assist in fighting Hitler in Europe.  In light of the current situation, he recommended leveraging diplomatic, economic and military instruments of power against Imperial Japan.  Overall, the McCollum memo outlined an argument for doing something to address Axis aggression over doing nothing at all.  Most of the military actions would be performed by the Navy.  The crux of McCollum’s argument and the courses of action he recommended, described what he believed needed to be done to begin to address the Axis threat as listed memo extract below: 

9. It is not believed that in the present state of political opinion the United States government is capable of declaring war against Japan without more ado; and it is barely possible that vigorous action on our part might lead the Japanese to modify their attitude. Therefore, the following course of action is suggested:

A. Make an arrangement with Britain for the use of British bases in the Pacific, particularly Singapore.

B. Make an arrangement with Holland for the use of base facilities and acquisition of supplies in the Dutch East Indies.

C. Give all possible aid to the Chinese government of Chiang-Kai-Shek.

D. Send a division of long-range heavy cruisers to the Orient, Philippines, or Singapore.

E. Send two divisions of submarines to the Orient.

F. Keep the main strength of the U.S. fleet now in the Pacific in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands.

G. Insist that the Dutch refuse to grant Japanese demands for undue economic concessions, particularly oil.

H. Completely embargo all U.S. trade with Japan, in collaboration with a similar embargo imposed by the British Empire.

10. If by these means Japan could be led to commit an overt act of war, so much the better. At all events we must be fully prepared to accept the threat of war.

According to Robert Stinnett, author of “Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor” there is no direct record FDR saw the memo but evidence indicates that if he didn’t see the memo, he was aware of the course of action as all 8 courses of action would be implemented by the FDR’s administration as all of them were implemented.  Stinnett had uncovered the McCollum memo through a Freedom of Information Act request, along with thousands of other documents that supported the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory.  A theory that was born before the attack, investigated in numerous inquiries and effectively validated through sheer weight of the public record.           

Sacrificing Americans to Save More Americans…and the Free World?

We face the delicate question of the diplomatic fencing to be done so as to be sure Japan is put into the wrong and makes the first bad move — overt move...The question was how we should maneuver them [the Japanese] into the position of firing the first shot...

-- Secretary of War Henry Stimson (Diary Extract)

The recommendation to move the U.S. fleet in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands was extremely contentious with the commander of the West Coast Fleet, Admiral James O. Richardson.  Richardson advised FDR that stationing the bulk of the West Coast Fleet at Pearl Harbor would not only antagonize Imperial Japan but put the fleet at high risk of attack by them.  Roosevelt eventually fired Richardson for his protests and subsequently reorganized the U.S. Fleet into the US Atlantic Fleet and the US Pacific Fleet in February 1941, the latter being stationed at Pearl Harbor. 

Pearl Harbors risk for attack had already been espoused by General George S. Patton when he was stationed there as an intelligence officer in the pre-war years as well as Admiral Harold E. Yarnell, who, in 1932, launched a mock training attack on Pearl Harbor with his aircraft carriers and demonstrated the vulnerability of the naval base from Japanese attack.  Additionally, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan informed Washington in January 1941 that he had obtained intelligence of a pending attack on Pearl Harbor in the coming months.  There was even a fictional book published in 1925 called “The Great Pacific War” that predicted the attack.     

On November 25, the U.S. Navy ordered all “transpacific shipping (South) through the Torres Straits, CINCPAC and CINCAF provide necessary escort.” Stinnett documents this order as the “Vacant Sea” order, effectively clearing the Northern Pacific of vessels that might discover the Japanese fleet.  It was issued by Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, Rear Admiral Royal Ingersall.   Instead of patrolling North, U.S reconnaissance missions were directed to patrol in South.  On that same day FDR telegraphed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “We are likely to be attacked next Monday, for the Japs are notorious for attacking without warning…We must all prepare for trouble, possibly soon.” 

All the while the senior Army and Navy commanders in Hawaii, Major General Walter Short and Admiral Robert Kimmel, were denied key intelligence reports that may have affected their actions in preventing the eventual attack.  However, both commanders were advised to be prepared for hostilities with Japan on several occasions.  One of the most notable messages, known as the famous “Do - Don’t message” was sent on November 27th by both the Navy and Army to all commands. The Army warning message, approved by General George Marshall, stated,

Japanese future action unpredictable but hostile action possible at any moment. If hostilities cannot, repeat cannot, be avoided the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act. This policy should not, repeat not, be construed as restricting you to a course of action that might jeopardize your defense. Prior to hostile Japanese action you are directed to undertake such reconnaissance and other measures as you deem necessary but these measures should be carried out so as not, repeat not, to alarm civil population or disclose intent. Report measures taken.

On November 29th, Secretary of State Cordell Hull reportedly met with UP journalist Joseph Leib. Hull told the reporter of the planned attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese and that FDR was aware of it.  Hull also provided copies of intelligence intercepts of the impending attack to Leib. Leib rushed to get the story published but his bureau chief didn’t believe it.  Leib finally managed to get the United Press foreign cable to pick up the story but only two news paper published any part of it.  Ironically it was a Hawaii news paper, the Hilo Tribune Herald and Honolulu Advertiser that ran the story November 30th with the headline “Japan May Strike Over Weekend!”

On December 6th and 7th decoded messages in Washington would be significantly delayed indicating an imminent attack on Pearl Harbor.  Warnings were sent to Hawaii via a slower and unsecure Western Union telegram instead of a more secure and faster scrambler phone.  General George Marshall's actions on these communications would be a highlight of the Roberts CommissionMarshall’s actual whereabouts on December 6th and 7th would never be fully verified to this day.

Whether by accident or design, there is overwhelming evidence the FDR “Tickled the Dragons Tail” by implementing the 8 courses of action in the McCollum memo.  Like Dr. Slotin, FDR was either taking a calculated risk, or just out right gambling, that his provocative actions would achieve a desired effect without incurring unnecessary damage in the process of doing so.  In FDR’s case, the effect was to unite the country to fight Nazi Germany.  Slotin wasn’t planning on dying or hurting his friends in his experiment.  He clearly had to know there was significant risk in his actions to achieve the desired result, yet he disregarded safety precautions in his experiment.  We don’t know what FDR’s threshold was, if he had one, for U.S. casualties caused by a Japanese first strike on U.S. forces in the Pacific.  However, the end result was that multiple U.S. territories were captured or attacked; a U.S. led allied army in the Philippines was destroyed; the Pacific Fleet was in ruins and multiple thousands of U.S. personnel were killed or wounded. 

The U.S. Underestimated Japanese Military Power

The U.S. generally viewed Imperial Japan as an inferior culture with an inferior military.  While the pre-WW II Navy was far readier for combat than the U.S Army, the U.S. Navy was inferior to the Japanese Navy.   Japan had ten carriers before the Pearl Harbor attack while the U.S. Navy had seven, three of which were part of the Pacific fleet.  Japan had the feared Long Lance Torpedo while the Navy had faulty Mark 14 torpedo.  The Navy would not achieve parity with an equally capable torpedo until they reversed engineered a Long Lance torpedo in 1943.  Then of course there was the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a magnificent fighter plane that would not be overmatched until captured Zeros were analyzed and lessons learned from it were integrated into the F6F Hellcat and U.S. fighter pilot training curriculum.  Lastly there was the warrior code of Bushido, which inspired Japanese Soldiers to fight ruthlessly and often to the last man.

Due Imperial Japan’s conquest of the Pacific and its tyrannical treatment of the countries under its rule, war with Imperial Japan may have been inevitable.  As such, the 8 courses of action implemented in the McCollum memo before the Pearl Harbor attack may have just accelerated the declaration of war that FDR wanted.    He was faced with a tough situation and time was not on his side.  What would have happened if FDR kept his campaign promise to keep the U.S. out of war?  Would the U.S. have suffered a direct attack from the Axis powers on the mainland?  Would we have recovered economically from the double whammy of the Great Depression and the potential loss of friendly European and Asian trading partners ruled by the Axis powers?  Would Great Britain have fallen, there by denying the Allies the strategic launch pad to liberate Europe?  These were the strategic dilemmas FDR faced in 1941 but did the ends justify the means?  The historical record shows in several published instances that the Roosevelt administration wanted Japan to commit the first act of war and was therefore willing to willing accept a number of U.S. casualties in the delicate process of “Tickling the Dragon’s Tail. 

In using this methodology, it can be assumed the administration wanted Japan’s first strike to occur with as few U.S. casualties as possible.  The ideal scenario would have involved Lieutenant Kermit Tyler; the Officer-in-Charge at the Pearl Harbor Intercept Station, alerting all military bases in Hawaii of the approaching enemy air armada after Army radar operators on Northern Oahu reported it to him.  Had Kermit not mistaken the radar contact for a B-17 bomber formation, Army Air Force Pursuit Squadrons could have been alerted and intercepted the Japanese Bombers while ground based anti-aircraft defenses would have been ready to defend their bases.  The fleet inside Pearl may have been able make at least a partial sortie out of the harbor as well.  Had the Japanese attack been spoiled by the U.S military, the Pacific fleet may have escaped serious damage and been immediately employed to relieve the besieged U.S. forces in the Philippines, Marianas and Wake Island.  The reality was the U.S. had suffered so much damage at Pearl Harbor that, when combined with the lack of U.S military readiness overall, it would not be able to launch its first counter-offensive until the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.  The first offensive against the Japanese wouldn’t occur until the Guadalcanal campaign in August 1942.  Fortunately, the three Pearl Harbor based aircraft carriers were not present when the attack occurred, and the Japanese failed to strike the submarine pens, dry docks and fuel storage facilities at Pearl which would have forced fleet basing and repair back to the West Coast.                          

Don’t Under Estimate Dragons

There are some who, uh, feel like that, you know, the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is: bring 'em on! We got the force necessary to deal with the security situation."

-- President George W. Bush, July 2, 2003

Today, the U.S. has several Dragons to contend with, to include; Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Radical Islamic Terrorism and Narco-Terrorism in Mexico.  When dealing with Dragons one must first be ready with the right weapons and protection.  When dealing with Dragons we must also be careful how we approach them.  When we established short range nuclear missiles in Turkey in the 1960’s the Russians responded by placing nuclear missiles 90 miles off of our shore in Cuba, almost causing World War III.  We sail warships through the straits of Taiwan, which doesn’t make the Chinese very happy.  A former President encouraged terrorists to attack us, and attack us they did.  The Department of Defense’s implementation of Dynamic Force Employment is similar to the “Pop Up” cruises employed by FDR’s administration to execute courses of action D and E in the McCollum memo.  However, such actions can antagonize potential enemies to the point of hostilities and such employments must be carefully considered for their possible consequences.  This is not to say the U.S does not don’t need a strong defense.  It does, as there are Dragons trying to intimidate and attack us.  We have to be careful when we tickle Dragons, which is the hard part.

In retrospect, Imperial Japan under estimated the American Dragon.  The war destroyed Japan and could have caused nearly the entire population to commit national suicide in defense of their islands.  While B-29 bomber sorties were killing as many Japanese in each mission as a single B-29 atom bomb strike, it was the psychological impact of the atom bomb strikes that made the Japanese realize that arming every man, woman and child to fight U.S. forces to the death was foolish.  The third atom bomb made for the Japan nuclear strikes was never used, but its plutonium core would later kill Dr. Slotin when he “Tickled the Dragon’s Tail.”

About the Author(s)

Brad Striegel is a U.S. Army (Active Guard Reserve) Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve who is currently serving as a Functional Area 50 - Force Manager. His articles are the author's opinions and not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. Army.