In his new book Asia Betrayed, John Bell Smithback sets out to prove that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (with the connivance of US President Franklin Roosevelt) through treachery and deceit lured the Japanese militarists to attack and invade British, Dutch and American possessions in the Far East so that the United States could become a full belligerent with Britain against Germany.
Smithback believes that Churchill conspired with FDR to lure Japan into “firing the first shot” of the Pacific War.
This is an old, discredited conspiracy theory that was given new life by the release of British Public Records Office documents related to the suspected espionage activities of Lord William Forbes-Semphill, a British aristocrat and friend of Churchill’s who served in the Admiralty during the early years of the Second World War, and who was with Churchill when the Prime Minister met with FDR on ships off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1941.
Semphill, a World War I pilot and naval air power visionary, was sent by Britain in the early 1920s to help Japan develop its naval air arm. According to published reports in the UK, Semphill and Frederick Rutland, another British World War I ace, were later suspected of providing secret intelligence that aided the Japanese Navy in planning and executing their attack on Pearl Harbor and other locations in the Far East.
Smithback believes that Churchill conspired with FDR to lure Japan into “firing the first shot” of the Pacific War. Roosevelt for his part imposed economic sanctions that threatened Japan’s supply of oil. Smithback accuses Churchill of deliberately placing a secret analysis of the poor quality of British defenses in Hong Kong and Singapore on an unarmed vessel, the SS Automedon, and anticipating that the ship would be captured by a German warship and the secret document would make its way to Japan. “Japan took the bait,” he writes, “and followed through.” “Courtesy of the SS Automedon, Japan’s warlords had all the information they needed …”
[I]n the hands of the Japanese, the summary information taken from the S.S. Automedon solidified the preparations being made by the Tokyo planners to bomb Pearl Harbor and strike south, safe in the knowledge that Britain did not have the means of defending its colonies.
According to Smithback, the scheme was finalized at the Churchill-Roosevelt meeting near Newfoundland, which is remembered most for the signing of the Atlantic Charter. The author even theorizes that Churchill brought Semphill to that meeting because he knew “he would need a scapegoat for what was about to happen to Britain’s colonies in the Far East.”
Strategic ruthlessness there certainly was.
All good conspiracy theories are based in part on historical facts. Winston Churchill certainly wanted the United States to enter the war to help defeat Hitler and the Axis powers. President Roosevelt wanted to come to Britain’s assistance, but would not become a full-fledged belligerent until he had the support of the American people; a Japanese attack on the United States would solve that problem. Both Churchill and Roosevelt knew from intelligence sources that Japan was likely to strike somewhere in the Far East. US war plans envisioned a Europe-first strategy if it entered the war, reasoning that Hitler’s Germany posed more of an existential threat than Japan.
Smithback points to the “astonishing lack of military preparation” by the British in Hong Kong and Singapore, and the Americans in the Philippines and Hawaii, as evidence of more than errors of judgment. “Something happened,” he writes, “somebody knew.” “The entire Asian situation,” he continues, “had the earmarks of strategic ruthlessness on an unprecedented scale.”
Strategic ruthlessness there certainly was. War leaders who lack this quality are doomed to failure. Churchill recognized that Germany, not Japan, posed an existential threat to Britain and its empire, and acted accordingly. Churchill’s “betrayal” of the Far East was nothing more than a sensible prioritizing of interests. For Churchill, England’s survival was paramount.
Moreover, Japan did not need to be “lured” into attacking British and American possessions in the Far East. Japan’s expansionist policies and commitment to establishing a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere dated back to at least 1931. Japan’s military and political leaders preached a perverted version of Shintoism and the code of bushido to inspire its soldiers and dehumanize its enemies.
There was a covert operation to influence US policy in an effort to worsen US-Japanese relations in the late 1930s called “Operation Snow”, but it was orchestrated by the Soviet Union, not Great Britain. It involved well-placed Soviet agents in the Roosevelt administration advising the president to embargo oil to Japan and seize Japanese assets in the US. Smithback does not mention this either because he is unaware of it or it does not fit into his anti-Churchill narrative.
Smithback devotes much of the book to recounting the horrors inflicted by Japan’s military on allied POWs and civilians in Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma, and other Far East lands conquered by Japan. He also explores the events leading up to Japan’s surrender, including the firebombing of Japanese cities and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
He sides with those historians and scholars who believe that the atomic bombs saved American and Japanese lives by ending the war without the necessity of invading the Japanese home islands. He also lays much of the blame for Japan’s disastrous expansionist policies at the feet of Emperor Hirohito.
But in the end, the chief villain of Smithback’s book is Churchill, who he describes as “the person responsible for the abandonment of the people of Asia.” It is a judgment unsupported by history.