Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Pacific War was About Oil

In the latter part of his life, U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover predicted that the next wars the United States fought would be over access to oil. His conclusions proved remarkably accurate. The last ten years have seen the U.S. involved in conflicts in the Middle East, source of some of the world’s largest oil reserves.

For several decades, the U.S. has been a net oil importer. As local reserves diminished, it proved too easy to just replace them with foreign purchases. The point that modern industrial society cannot support itself without reliable sources of energy seemed to be forgotten. Then the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970s shattered our illusions. The United States had become an an oil “have-not.”

Japan faced an energy crisis in 1941 that led directly to their attack on western colonies in the Far East. Since the opening of Japan to world trade by Admiral Perry in the mid-Nineteenth Century, the country had been striving to become a modern industrialized nation. From an archaic feudal society, the country made a great leap forward into the modern world. Desiring all the trappings of a major power, Japan turned to Germany to build her army and to Great Britain to construct an up-to-date navy. Consultants from all over the world helped develop their heavy industry.

Japan lacked one key ingredient to fulfill their aspirations—a local supply natural resources. Like many nations, they were forced to purchase them abroad. The U.S. was a major player in this trade, becoming Japan’s major source of oil and the scrap iron required to produce steel. While fostering world trade, these imports created a balance of payments problem for the Japanese. They successfully negotiated this situation until the 1920s.

The Great Depression hit Japan particularly hard. The hardships being endured prompted many ultra nationalists in the armed forces to advocate seizing the needed resources from their neighbors. Everything they needed waited just over the horizon. As more and more recruits joined their ranks, these aggressive thoughts were translated into action. The semi-autonomous Kwantung Army in Korea invaded and occupied Manchuria with its rich mineral deposits. When the League of Nations protested, Japan walked out.  Then, in 1937, Japan invaded China itself,

beginning a protracted conflict.

Long committed to its “Open Door” policy concerning China, the U.S. protested. Inspired by Pearl S. Buck’s novels and Hollywood movies, many Americans held romanticized views of China. The Japanese, however, persisted in their conquests. Sentiment built in the Roosevelt administration to impose sanctions on Japan.

When Japan occupied French Indochina (now Vietnam) in 1941, Washington finally acted, freezing Japanese assets in the U.S. This had the immediate effect of shutting off exports to Japan.  The U.S. oil tap was suddenly turned off. The finite reserves of petroleum products within Japan became a wasting asset.  Japan’s civilian government began negotiations with the U.S., attempting to find an acceptable resolution to the crisis. The ultra nationalists in the Army began pushing for a military solution.

One faction advocated invading Siberia. Hitler’s armies were, after all, at the gates of Moscow. The navy argued for a quick strike to the south. The lightly defended Dutch East Indies (Indonesia today) possessed a mammoth oil industry exploiting huge underground reserves.  The oilfields on Tarakan Island yielded crude so pure that it could be burned in boilers without refining. The Royal Dutch Shell refinery at Balikpapan in Borneo was the world’s third largest, producing sufficient product to satisfy the navy’s entire needs.

Two major obstacles fell in the way of the southern plan: The British forces stationed at Fortress Singapore and the U.S. forces in the Philippine Islands. Britain was stretched to the limit in her war with Germany, but the U.S. was not yet a belligerent. Roosevelt had moved the U.S. Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor, where it could respond quicker to trouble in the Philippines.

The brilliant General Tomoyuki Yamashita devised a workable plan to capture Singapore from inland. Navy Admiral Yamamoto’s staff conceived the idea of destroying the U.S. Pacific Fleet in port at the outset of hostilities, delaying America’s intervention. Then Washington further shocked Tokyo with a demand that Japan withdraw from China before sanctions would be lifted. The civilian government in Tokyo collapsed, and General Tojo became Prime Minister. Faced with the humiliation of withdrawal or exhaustion of fuel supplies, Tojo argued for war. With the Emperor’s approval, the date for hostilities to commence was set.

For the first six months, Japan ran wild in the Far East, seizing all the territories in their ambitions. Ironically, the Dutch Oil executives adopted a “scorched earth” policy. Nothing was to be left to the invaders. They plugged oil wells, blew up pipelines and set fire to their precious refineries. When the Japanese invaded Balikpapan, they found only burnt, twisted wreckage at the oil facilities. The enraged Japanese commander ordered the massacre of the entire Caucasian population. Some were beheaded. Most were machine gunned in the surf. A similar massacre of Dutch males occurred in Tjepu, Java.

Japan soon had the oilfields back in operation and new refineries constructed. Oil was not a problem again until U.S. submarines sank a large percentage of their tankers later in the war.

The philosopher, George Santayana, observed that nations that do not study history are doomed to repeat it. After three wars to assure oil supplies, the U.S. should develop its newly discovered oil reserves and strive for energy independence.

Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels released and for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from  Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One taking place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun is set in the war in the Pacific.

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