(Main image: The USS West Virginia burning in Pearl Harbor, taken on Dec 7, 1941. Photo: US Navy/AP)
On the morning of Dec 7, 1941, Japanese naval forces launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States’ naval base in Hawaii. While it shocked the world, the question later emerged: How much did British Prime Minister Winston Churchill know about the attack?
Churchill had been dining at his Chequers residence when he received the news. After the fall of France in 1940 during WWII, it was left to Britain to face an intimidating Nazi force. The PM badly needed the US as an ally, but America had taken an unyielding isolationist position.
While sympathetic to the British cause, then-US President Franklin D. Roosevelt relayed to Churchill that the American public was against involving its nation in another war, and that only a direct attack on America would sway the opinion of the public and politicians alike.
When the attack on Pearl Harbor took place, the US was immediately committed to joining the war against the Nazis and the Japanese.
Documenting his own history of WWII, Churchill wrote upon hearing about the attack: “Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful”.
There has long been two main versions of the conspiracy theory that Churchill knew in advance of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The first posits that both Churchill and Roosevelt had advance knowledge of what would happen but decided to sit on the information. The second version proffers the notion that Churchill knew but kept the intelligence from his American counterpart.
John Bell Smithback’s Asia Betrayed lays out in fascinating detail the build-up to the events at Pearl Harbor, painting a rich and intricate portrait of the Japanese offensive on Malaya and Singapore.
The book also examines the malignant genius of the Japanese generals who managed to outwit British forces and make them surrender, despite Japan’s beleaguered forces being vastly outnumbered and thin on resources.
As Smithback notes, “Only when he was a prisoner of war would General Percival learn that at the moment of his surrender Yamashita’s army was out of food, it had no more ammunition, and if the battle for Singapore had continued for even another three or four more days, Yamashita and every last one of his loyal soldiers would have proved their allegiance to their Emperor by committing suicide.”
Although the conspiracy that Churchill (and possibly Roosevelt) knew about the bombing of Pearl Harbor has been debunked by notable historians such as Dr Anthony Best of the London School of Economics, Asia Betrayed asks the reader to consider a number of dubious coincidences and questions that appear to give no easy answers.
Smithback’s book is bold at times, given the reverence Churchill is still afforded today, and there are also plenty of passages that are deeply moving that make the reader think deeply about the human consequences of political decisions taken by those far removed from the action.
In describing the hellish fate of the prisoners in Singapore’s Changi prison at the hands of the Japanese, Smithback tells their story so vividly that one gets the feeling one is living the history alongside the tortured souls, who were forced to construct the infamous “Death Railway” line devised by Japanese engineers to transport troops and supplies from Bangkok to Burma (now Myanmar).
Here’s a sample – by no means the worst of Smithback’s harrowing descriptions of the brutality meted out to prisoners by the Japanese guards:
“Those who could rise up at dawn from their hard bamboo beds to work knew that their days were numbered, and they didn’t care. Their bodies were rotted with ulcers, bloated with beriberi, shrunken with dysentery and consumed with fever.”
At the end of WWII, Asia Betrayed shines an intense light on the atomic bombing of Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and highlights the potent in-fighting between Japan’s politicians and her generals, as they come to blows over whether the destruction of the cities should lead to Japanese surrender.
Japan finally waved the white flag, the nation’s surrender confirmed by an emotional speech delivered by the Emperor Hirohito. Thus the Japanese Empire had conceded defeat following the devastating interventions of American forces – for which Churchill was no doubt eternally grateful.
To ask whether Churchill deliberately strategised to pull America into the war, the answer is different depending on who’s asked. For Smithback, there’s no doubt that the “masterful politician and brilliant conniver” played a deft and deadly hand in his attempts to save Britain from ruin.
In Asia Betrayed, Smithback offers an absorbing book that delivers enough juicy intrigue to bring many questions to the forefront of our minds.
Asia Betrayed: How Churchill Sacrificed The Far East To Save England
Author: John Bell Smithback
Publisher: Earnshaw Books, nonfiction history