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Chomsky on Pearl Harbor By: Paul M. Postal
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, December 06, 2004


What does the forced removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003 have to do with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941?  One was a justified form of self-defense, the other an act of naked agression -- but it all depends on whom you ask.  Like all of political history, these events remain subject to debate.  In a posting on his blog, MIT academic Noam Chomsky attempted to smear the US's 2003 military operation by connecting it to the Pearl Harbor attack.

Given Chomsky's well-known opposition to the exercise of American power, it's hardly surprising that his diatribes in recent years have targeted President Bush's antiterrorist doctrine of preventive war.  Chomsky found a convenient parallel, in his thinking, between Bush's attack on Iraq's dictator and Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. So, at a blog entry of October 24, 2004  (at
http://blog.zmag.org/index.php/weblog/entry/how_to_fight_terrorists), Chomsky writes:

"As for "pre-emptive strike," there has been a formal consensus on this since the UN Charter and the Nuremberg Tribunal.  The formal consensus, the supreme law of the land in the US, bans the resort to force with narrow exceptions: when authorized by the Security Council, or in response to armed attack until the Security Council acts, in the latter case when "the necessity for action is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation." These principles were established because of explicit international rejection, led by the US, of doctrine that now prevails: that resort to force is legitimate if we "know"-that is, have some reason to believe-that someone has the intention of attacking us.  That doctrine would, for example, justify Japan's attack on US military bases in Pearl Harbor and Manila.  The Japanese could read the US press, with its lurid discussion of how US bombing could exterminate this inferior and vicious race by burning down Japan's wooden cities, and they knew that flying fortresses capable of bombing Japan from Pearl Harbor and Manila were coming off the Boeing Assembly line, so they "knew" that there was a serious threat of extermination, not just terror.  Therefore, according to the "Bush doctrine," shared by Kerry and elites generally, Japan had every right to bomb Pearl Harbor and Manila.  In fact, they had a far stronger case than the one enunciated by Colin Powell, etc.: that "intent and ability" suffice to allow the US to attack a country, committing the "supreme crime" of Nuremberg, which encompasses all the evil that follows-the crime for which any participants, such as the German foreign minister, were hanged."

Much here deserves comment, including the question of legal constraints on US action putatively deriving from the UN Charter and the Nuremberg Tribunal and the implication that President Bush and many of his high officials and advisors should be hanged.  But I must defer to those with some expertise on such matters.  What one needs no expertise to understand is the debased quality of Chomsky's view that Japan's attacks on the Phillipines and Pearl Harbor could be seen as justified by the Bush doctrine.  For this purpose, it is not even necessary to recall the political and historical context of the Japanese attacks -- namely, that they were a continuation of a policy of aggressive war and atrocities beginning in China in the 1930s andinvolving previous aggressions against British, Dutch and French holdings in Asia.  One can forget all that and pretend that Japan and the United States were simply two otherwise peaceful powers facing each other in the Pacific.

In such a framework, Professor Chomsky's logic is quite clear.  He wishes to undermine Bush's doctrine justifying preventive war by showing that its historical application would see a surprise attack against America revealed as a justified, reasoned move on the part of the Japanese -- moreover, one vastly more justified than the US invasion of Iraq.  Using this logic, Chomsky hopes to expose the doctrine as a groundless pseudojustification for American aggression.

Chomsky's interpretation hangs on a specific claim: that the existence of US Boeing B17 flying fortress bombers loomed as an existential threat to Japan.   The professor cites no evidence that the threat of these aircraft motivated Japan's attacks; he cites no Japanese sources, no American ones. This need not matter for his point, however.  One can merely take the argument as a hypothetical.  Chomsky's goal, after all, is not to provide a historical argument about the causes of the attack, but only to prove the illegitimacy of the Bush administration's policies.

Chomsky essentially argues that the US B17 bomber force of 1941 was -- to use Cold War terminology -- a first-strike weapon capable of devastating Japan.  Given the tacit assumption that the Japanese had no analogous weapon system capable of deterring the US, Chomsky implies that the Japanese attack might be interpreted as pragmatic and justified.

But the facts, as usual, are against Chomksy.  His claim that japan could have viewed the B17 as a threatening first-strike weapon is not only unsupported but absurd.  Google's search engine provides a swift rebuttal: Data shows that the actual rangeth of a loaded B17 could not have permitted it to effectively bomb Japan -- not even from the Phillipines, lying at a distance of about 1800 miles from Japan.  Raids starting from airfields near Pearl Harbor would have involved flights of twice that distance.  And yet, most accounts specify the relevant range of a B17 with a full bomb load as 2000 miles or less.  Since the range of an aircraft is the distance it can fly with a full fuel load before running out of fuel, a bomber can -- Kamikaze suicide pilots aside -- only raid targets at a distance of, at most, half its range (its combat radius).  In the case of the B17, raids from the closer base in the Phillipines mentioned by Chomksy would have dropped their bombs in the water, not on Japanese cities.

Technical range limitations are not the only thorns in Chomsky's theory.  Of actual B17 bombers, there were few in 1941.  The US had no more than 150 such aircraft available at that point (see "B17 in  Pacific Theatre" at
http://home.att.net/~jbaugher2/b17_20.html). At http://www.acepilots.com/planes/b17.html it is observed that of these, just 35 were stationed in the Philippines, 19 at Clark Field, Luzon and 16 at Del Monte, on Mindanao. Sixteen were in the Panama Canal Zone.  And six were approaching Hickam Field on the morning of December 7th, 1941.  Thus the existential threat invoked by Chomsky amounted to less than 50 B17s stationed in the Pacific.  Recall that the huge raids B17s later made against Germany involved up to 1000 aircraft.  Even if they could have reached Japan, a fleet of at most 150 planes, carrying the modest bomb loads of early B17s (two to three tons), could in no sense have been regarded as an existential threat to Japan, even ignoring the air defenses Japanese air force and ground antiaircraft fire would have provided.

After WWII started, the US did in fact seek to bomb the Japanese home islands as soon as possible, for symbolic and home morale reasons.  Had the then-existing B17s been an effective tool for such bombing, they probably would have been used.  But instead, the US was forced to improvise the famous attack by General Dolittle, which involved the dangerous and unprecedented launch of US Army B25 light bombers carrying derisory bomb loads -- from an aircraft carrier, no less.

At no time in the war did B17s bomb Japan.  The real bombing campaign against Japanese home islands did not begin until the capture of islands capable of serving as air fields for the bigger and more powerful B29, a plane boasting twice the range of the B17.  Note that these aircraft never used the Phillipines or Hawaii as bases for raids, either; after all, the range of the more formidable B29 was only 3250 miles.

Thus, Chomsky's argument collapses from all sides.  Rather than offering a fact-based account to justify the view that pre-WWII B17s could have been taken by rational Japanese planners as a potential first strike weapon capable of destroying their nation, Chomsky simply concocted a fantasy based either on his ignorance of military capabilities at the time or his utter indifference to these facts.  Nothing in Chomsky's theory demostrates any relevance of the Bush doctrine to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor or its motivations.  The professor's argument only reflects his dogged efforts to spread the dishonest anti-American propaganda for which he made his name.  If there are genuine objections to the Bush doctrine, text written by Noam Chomsky is of the last places to look for them.



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