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

Originally published under Ask Mr. History. Published Online: May 14, 2012 
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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
Weider History Group

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2 Responses to “Would FDR have gotten a declaration of war without Pearl Harbor?”

  1. 1
    Rudy says:

    Yes, eventually the Japanese would have sunk one or more of our merchant or naval ships, and continue to expand across the Pacific. Hitler's uboats would also have attacked our ships. For Congress to not have declared war would have become a foolish and costly blunder. Even today, a Democratic president and his Democratic supporters are buying votes while bankrupting our country and reducing our defense to pay for socialist spending. China and Russia are arming up to the teeth while there is no threat during these peaceful times. It's the 1930's all over again, except for the new players. It will be too late for the U.S. to rebuild its military and defense when aggression begins. The next war will be lost before our country wakes up. A heavy rain storm of missiles and bombs will leave our country in a smothering ruins.

  2. 2
    Mike H. says:

    I think that the direct attack on the Phillipines, Guam, and American Samoa (on Dec.8, 1941 because of the international date line) left no doubt that ours was a nation at war. Pearl Harbor made it much closer to home, of course; but all three of those other places were defended by US troops (US/Filipino troops in PI)…and that attack, coupled with the Japanese Empire's rather tardy declaration of war on us, would have pushed the situation into war easily enough. Pearl Harbor sealed the deal for sure, though.

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