Would FDR have gotten a declaration of war without Pearl Harbor?

5/14/2012 • Ask Mr. History, Pearl Harbor

Franklin Roosevelt had warned the Japanese after they occupied French Indochina, that any attack on British or Dutch possessions would be considered an unfriendly act. Would he have been able to get a declaration of war from Congress if they had ONLY attacked British and/or Dutch possessions?

– Albert Burgess


Dear Mr. Burgess:

Theoretical questions are always problematic, but given the amount of isolationist sentiment against the popular outrage against Japanese expansionism in China, the odds are that Congress would still have balked without a more direct act against American interests (such as Pearl Harbor). The Japanese incursion into Indochina was bloodless, a case already with precedent. When the Germans and Italians belatedly sent aircraft to aid Iraqi Colonel Ali Rashid el-Galieni’s revolt against the British, the Vichy French looked the other way as their planes staged through Palmyra. Roosevelt made no public response to that less-than-neutral act, but after the British had crushed the Iraqi revolt Winston Churchill ordered British Commonwealth and Free French forces into Lebanon and Syria, overran them and put them under Free French administration from June 1941 on.

About a month after the Japanese entered and started establishing bases in French Indochina, neighboring Thailand, perceiving the weakness of the French, began a series of military operations aimed at seizing territory from the French holding. The French put up a better fight than expected, but eventually the Japanese, seeking hegemony in the entire region, stepped in to preside over negotiations. This ended the fighting in January 1941 and on May 9 a treaty was signed, with the Thais gaining some of the territory they had sought. The war and its brokered conclusion was a diplomatic coup for the Japanese, but on December 8, 1941 their troops also overran Thailand. As with French Indochina, they had not officially conquered the kingdom, but in practice, as in Indochina, they established military bases from which to proceed with their conquest of Burma.

By then, of course, Pearl Harbor had been hit and Congress had almost unanimously voted to declare war.




Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group

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