Leaving aside the matter of whether FDR had specific foreknowledge of the Pearl Harbor attack, there is no question that the attack was hardly the "bolt from the blue" it has long been presented to Americans as being. An outgrowth of colonial rivalry, the Pacific side of WWII came in the wake of a long deterioration in U.S.-Japanese relations and was precipitated by FDR’s cutting off of oil shipments to Japan, an act practically guaranteed to lead to war.
In 1932, the Ottawa Conference cut off Japanese trade with the British Commonwealth, including India. Three years later Japan was forced to curtail shipments of cotton textiles to the Philippines while U.S. imports there remained duty free. (At the same time, U.S. tariffs on many Japanese goods surpassed 100%.)
Squeezed out of concessions throughout Asia by better-established rivals, Tokyo complained of American, British, Chinese, and Dutch encirclement strangling its economy and denying it a day in the imperial sun.
Short of revolution at home, Japan’s only way out was direct control of its own trade routes. So in 1937 Tokyo began its conquest of China in earnest, wiping out 140,000 Chinese civilians at Nanking while proclaiming a desire to promote economic development and prevent Communist domination of Asia.
Four years later negotiations between Admiral Nomura and Secretary of State Cordell Hull broke down over the Japanese request for equal trading rights in Latin America in return for allowing U.S. capital penetration of China. Hull was deeply shocked at the insolence of little yellow men demanding equality with their Nordic superiors.
On July 2, 1941 the Japanese decided to move troops into southern Indochina. Washington, having broken Tokyo’s purple code, immediately knew of the decision. On July 21, 1941 Japan signed a preliminary agreement with the Vichy government of Marshal Henri Petain, leading to Japanese occupation of airfields and naval bases in Indochina. Almost immediately, the U.S. and Britain froze all Japanese assets in their countries. Radhabinod Pal, one of the judges in the post-war Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, later noted that the U.S. embargo presented a “clear and potent threat to Japan’s very existence.”
On July 24, 1941 FDR informed the Japanese Ambassador that if Japan would refrain from putting troops in southern Indochina Roosevelt would use his influence to have Indochina neutralized. But this message failed to reach the Japanese Foreign Ministry until July 27.
On July 26, 1941 Tokyo disclosed its intention to move troops into southern Indochina. The U.S. promptly froze all Japanese assets in the U.S. With Japan importing 90% of its oil, half of that from the United States, Admiral Richmond Turner, Director of the War Plans Division of the Navy Department, stated that it was “generally believed that shutting off the American supply petroleum [to Japan] will lead promptly to an invasion [by Japan] of the Netherlands East Indies.” FDR publicly stated that this reaction would be a justification for war. The New York Times characterized the U.S. move as “the most drastic blow short of war.”
For the Japanese military, it was “now or never.” The Western powers controlled and were choking off access to the raw materials on which Japan's national existence depended. With Washington refusing to lift its embargo unless Tokyo surrendered Chinese territory it had fought for years to conquer (Note: Washington objected to being shut out of the China market, not Tokyo's atrocities there), Japan was left to choose between submitting to U.S. demands or going to war to obtain the oil and other vital raw materials available in the East Indies and Southeast Asia.
Contrary to U.S. political folklore, Japan’s subsequent attack was launched on a U.S. naval colony in Polynesia, not U.S. territory. And it cannot properly be described as a surprise. Given the hopeless impasse in negotiations that preceded it, the Roosevelt Administration was well aware disaster was on the way.
Furthermore, the Pacific War was not a contest between democracy and fascism, as Americans have long been taught. Neither the British nor the U.S. had ever entertained democracy for Asian peoples and FDR’s idea of a cure for Japanese imperialism was worthy of Hitler: in hopes of eliminating their presumed congenital “barbarism” he expressed interest in a plan to crossbreed Japanese with “docile” Pacific Islanders. Meanwhile, the notoriously brutal and corrupt Chiang Kai-shek - practically a prototype of fascist leadership - remained a U.S. ally throughout the war. British historian Christopher Thorne has commented that, “if the term ‘fascist’ is to be employed in a non-European context for the 1930s, to no regime is it more appropriate to attach it than that of the Kuomintang in China.”
In spite of the democratic rhetoric employed for strategic reasons, a racist attitude permeated the entire U.S. war effort. U.S. troops committed atrocities in the field similar to those carried out a generation later in Vietnam, and press coverage depicted the Japanese as monkeys, rats, and lice who deserved whatever they got. What they got was succinctly summarized by war correspondent Edgar L. Jones: “We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off enemy wounded, tossed the dying in a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers.”
Such atrocities did not appear in American news reports, which focused laser-like on Japanese brutality. Japanese atrocities garnered more attention in the U.S. than the mass killing of Europe’s Gypsies, Jews, homosexuals, mental patients, and prisoners of war, which received scant attention.
Unfortunately for U.S. nationalist romantics, Washington's atrocities cannot be attributed solely to brutal wartime conditions. In November 1940 - well before Pearl Harbor - FDR was "simply delighted" at air force general Claire Lee Chennault's plan to "burn out the industrial heart of the (Japanese) Empire with fire-bomb attacks on the teeming bamboo ant heaps of Honshu and Kyushu." A year later, U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall called on his staff to prepare plans for “general incendiary attacks to burn up the wood and paper structures of the densely populated Japanese cities.” With the war barely underway in January 1942 Admiral William Leahy, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote an internal memo stating that “in fighting with Japanese savages all previously accepted rules of warfare must be abandoned.” Abandoned they were. When the war wound down three years later hundreds of thousands of Japanese were burned, blasted, and irradiated to death in the most devastating air attacks in human history.
"Japan was provoked into attacking Pearl Harbor. It is a travesty on history even to say that America was forced into the war. It is incorrect to say that America ever was truly neutral even before America came into the war on an all-out fighting basis.”
--------British Production Minister Oliver Lyttelton
“We did not go to war because we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, I hold rather that we were attacked at Pearl Harbor because we had gone to war.”
--------Arthur Sulzberger, Publisher, New York Times
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Jones, Edgar L., The Atlantic, February 1946