Summary of "United States-Japan Relations Leading to Pearl Harbor"

Summary of

United States-Japan Relations Leading to Pearl Harbor

By Alexander George

This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Alexander George, "United States-Japan Relations Leading to Pearl Harbor," chap. in Forceful Persuasion: Coercive Diplomacy as an Alternative to War, (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1991), pp. 19-23.

In July 1941, the U.S. threatened Japan with an oil embargo unless Japan withdrew from China. Rather than withdraw from China and abandon its imperialist aspirations, Japan chose to attack the U.S. while it still had the oil reserves needed to wage war. George argues that in this case "coercive diplomacy provoked the adversary into a decision for war."[p. 12]

George points out that, although the U.S. was also pursuing various deterrence strategies against Japan, the threat of an oil embargo was a more ambitious strategy of coercive diplomacy. The threat of embargo was intended not to deter Japan from taking some considered action, but to compel them to withdraw from a current activity.

George suggests a number of reasons why coercive diplomacy not only failed, but actually provoked war in this case. First, U.S. officials failed to recognize that Japan had more at stake in the matter than did the U.S. As the situation progressed, the U.S. sharpened its demands, which in turn sharpened Japan's resistance. Second, the U.S. strategy relied almost entirely on threats, and made very little use of incentives. This left Japan to choose among almost equally unacceptable options. Finally, misperceptions, miscalculations and ambiguous signals between the U.S. and Japan contributed to the escalation of the conflict.