Oil resource needs led to Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack on Dec 7, 1941

December 7 is one of those days that are supposed to live in Infamy, because of the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on that day in 1941.  In school we are taught Japan’s intention was to ensure the U.S. didn’t enter the war, but that instead they woke a sleeping giant and that giant won the war, turning the tide of battle not only in the Pacific but in Europe.  What if that’s not the whole story, and that instead what instigated Japan’s attack was a skirmish in the global Oil War?

Pearl Harbor, October 1941 (Wikimedia)

Fossil Oil is an extremely energy dense substance full of highly valuable chemicals, and for the last 150+ years its presence has caused a number of problems for humanity.  One of which is wars fought for control of or access to fossil oil resources.

On this day of remembrance of December 7, 1941, it’s useful to revisit how fossil oil supply agreements caused Japan to launch that infamous attack on the U.S.

Japan didn’t have the indigenous fossil oil supplies necessary to fuel its war machines.  Instead, Japan imported its oil from the United States.

In the Summer of 1941, Pres. Roosevelt froze Japan’s assets in the U.S. forcing Japan into having to secure licenses for each shipment of goods (including oil) from the U.S. to Japan.  That move gave the U.S. leverage over Japan’s whole operation, but Roosevelt didn’t use that lever to reign in Japan’s ambitions.  However, Japan sought to secure a supply of fossil oil that was outside of U.S. control.

Japan wanted to invade the Dutch East Indies, because of its rich oil deposits, and had previously invaded Indochina seeking to cut off transportation routes to China.  To counter these moves the U.S. moved the Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Hawaii and beefed up its presence in the Philippines.

Japan’s expansion into South-East Asia (Indochina a.k.a. Vietnam, and the Dutch East Indies) left them vulnerable to the U.S. military, which wasn’t a problem so long as Japan and the U.S. weren’t at war with each other.  However, Japan’s expansion caused Roosevelt to warn against making further moves.  The reality for Japan was that without a source of fossil oil, their war machine would have ground to a halt by the end of 1941.

During the Summer of 1941, the U.S. did cease oil exports to Japan putting pressure on Japan to do something.  Either pull back or move forward into South East Asia.

U.S.S. Arizona burning after the attack
(Wikimedia)

The attack on Pearl Harbor was meant to disable the Pacific Fleet preventing the U.S. from taking any significant action in the Pacific for awhile.  That would leave Japan free to secure oil supplies in the Dutch East Indies, and perhaps the whole war would be over before the U.S. could mount a response.

The U.S. response that occurred is well documented elsewhere.  It’s safe to say that Japan underestimated America’s ability to respond, given the subsequent events.  What I want to focus on is the oil supply and oil war aspects to this story.

It’s clear from this history (thanks to Wikipedia and an article on Salon for help) it’s clear that Japan’s access to fossil oil was critical to their chances.

It wasn’t just Japan whose war-making plans were dependent on fossil oil resources.  The same held true for Germany and Italy.  One of Germany’s first moves was to make a beeline for Romania, a country with significant fossil oil supplies.  The conquering of Romania was followed by making a beeline for the Caspian Sea region, and the significant oil supplies in that area.  And, as we all know, that left German forces vulnerable to the Russian Winter, dooming Germany’s over-stretched war effort.  I haven’t checked to be sure, but it’s likely the German/Italian foray’s into North Africa was to secure those fossil oil supplies as well (Libya, Algeria, etc still are rich in oil today).

This seems obvious once you think about it — military forces need gasoline and diesel fuel to power the war machines.  That makes fossil oil access a strategic war asset.

Oil is humanity’s primary transportation fuel – at this time.  That means warships, warplanes, tanks, all the war machines, are powered by Oil.  Well… the U.S. and certain other countries have been building nuclear powered warships for some time, perhaps to give the war machine some independence from the fossil oil strategic vulnerability.

But it’s not just the war machine that has to be kept supplied.  It’s the economy back home, because a country has to continually resupply its military forces to keep their war going.  Again, modern economies are powered by Oil.  That makes supply of fossil oil to the home country a strategic war asset as well.

That makes control over oil fields, oil refineries, and so forth, a vital target for any war plans in the modern era.

For example – today’s grave threat to the peace is the Islamic State – and IS’s independence and ability to act on its own is due to their control of oil fields in the area that’s theoretically Eastern Iraq.  IS’s sale of oil from those fields is funding their war effort.

Another example is that the first act of American troops entering Baghdad in April 2003 was to surround and protect the Oil Ministry and Oil fields.  They didn’t protect the national museums against looters, museums containing artifacts from the earliest era’s of human history.  (the Cradle of Civilization was in the land now known as Iraq)  Somehow those artifacts weren’t worth protecting, but the oil fields were.

As long as our economies and war machines are dependent on fossil oil, we’ll keep fighting oil wars.

As oil supplies are starting to dwindle, that should mean an ever-higher urgency to fight over access to fossil oil supplies of all kinds.

Coincidentally, or not, the U.S. military top brass have been talking openly for years of the need to disentangle the U.S. from dependency on fossil oil fueled machines.  It’s not for any environmental purpose, but because of the strategic vulnerability we’ve been discussing.

Ending fossil fuel dependency will mean we humans have one less thing to fight over.  But would that mean an end to all war?  Unfortunately ….

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

Leave a Reply