The Nation's Pulse

Religious Isolationism and Pearl Harbor

The pacificism of the post-World War I era would no longer do.

By 12.7.11

Send to Kindle

In the American psyche there's never been an event like Pearl Harbor, 70 years ago this week. Of course, 9/11 comes closest, but it followed decades of America's strategic involvement in the world as a superpower, including the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, and later the Persian Gulf War and Balkans' conflicts, among others.

Pearl Harbor followed two decades of virtual U.S. strategic isolation from most of the world's great conflicts. Most Americans had recoiled from World War I by firmly adhering to isolationism, non-interventionism, pacifism, or various combinations of all three. Clergy of the dominant Mainline Protestant churches, post-WWI, flocked to pacifism, reinforced by the liberal, utopian, "Social Gospel" theology then ascendant in the churches. A 1931 survey showed 54 percent of nearly 20,000 clergy rejecting war. A 1934 survey showed nearly 70 percent doing the same, with Methodists the most pacifist.

Methodism was then America's largest Protestant denomination and closely followed this trend. After enthusiastically backing WWI, the church in 1924 declared war the "supreme enemy," while insisting "selfish nationalism, economic imperialism, and militarism must cease." Methodist bishops visiting President Calvin Coolidge in 1926 urged "avoiding military alliances of a political and military character." In 1928 the church renounced "war as an instrument of national policy." 

A prominent dissenter to Methodism's increasing pacifism in the 1920s wondered if Britain's hypothetical intervention on behalf of massacred Armenians under the Turks might be a "high act of ethical devotion." This clergy also suggested "to allow atheistic Russia to overthrow American civilization would be a worse crime than war." But this view was in the minority for church elites. In 1936 Methodism declared it did "not endorse, support, or purpose to participate in war." The bishops confidently asserted that any objector to the church's anti-war stance had "none other refuge" within Protestantism.

In a 1939 message to the Methodists, President Franklin Roosevelt noted the "trampling under foot of the sacred right of freedom of conscience" around the world while pledging the U.S. would continue to "sustain before all the world the torch of complete liberty." At the church's governing General Conference that year, FDR's 1936 presidential opponent, Republican Alf Landon, a Methodist and delegate, condemned FDR's step away from neutrality and recommended "further discussion" with Hitler. Landon warned: "Let's stop fooling the people that economic quarantines and economic assistance mean anything other than sending American boys into the cockpit of Europe to fight." But Landon, a non-interventionist who was not a pacifist, angrily disagreed with most delegates who endorsed conscientious objection to U.S. military service. In 1940, even as Hitler was overrunning France, Methodism, reiterated it "will not officially endorse, support, or participate in war."

The most prominent Methodist and churchman of that time was the Rev. E. Stanley Jones, long-time distinguished missionary to India, friend to Mahatma Gandhi, and best-selling author, whom Time magazine later recalled as the best known American preacher other than Billy Graham. Jones had loudly denounced Japan's invasion of China while also frenetically negotiating to prevent U.S. war with Japan. His solution: give imperial Japan the island of New Guinea to compensate for her withdrawing from China and to accommodate Japan's "surplus population."

New Guinea, Jones argued, had only 600,000 people but could fit 20 to 40 million. It was then evenly divided between the Dutch and Australia, "neither of whom needed it," and whom America would financially compensate. Himself an international celebrity, Jones marketed his novel idea to prominent officials, including Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson and the Dutch and Australian ambassadors to the U.S. He claimed he found a "good deal of sympathy," though the Dutch ambassador insisted "no part of the Dutch Empire is for sale!" The Australian ambassador politely noted his country would fear Japan's being at its border.

Later, Jones advocated a partial lifting of the U.S. oil embargo against Japan to induce negotiation. Ostensibly the British ambassador, Lord Halifax, was receptive and even "threw me a kiss" as Jones watched Halifax head to a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State. Jones also met with the Chinese and Japanese ambassadors to the U.S., who were mostly respectful but noncommittal. On December 3, 1941, he met with FDR at the White House, passing along the counsel of the Japanese ambassador that the President appeal for peace directly to the Japanese emperor. The delighted Japanese then promised Jones a dinner party on December 8 and added: "The Embassy is your home."

Japanese Ambassador Kichisaburō Nomura told Jones, as Jones recalled: "Thank you for what you are doing. Those who try to reconcile others are doing the work of Heaven for it is Heaven's work to reconcile us." After the December 7 Pearl Harbor attack, Jones faulted the U.S. for giving Japan an ultimatum to withdraw from China without a quid pro quo, such as New Guinea.

"Japan is the immediate cause of this war," Jones concluded. "But America has her responsibility in the remote causes that led up to it." Oddly, years after the war, Jones was still pushing the idea of giving defeated Japan New Guinea. He claimed that Douglas MacArthur and John Foster Dulles, when he met them, were receptive. More likely, they were polite.

Of course, Japan invaded New Guinea, with the rest of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, after Pearl Harbor, inflicting untold savagery everywhere. In his new book, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, British journalist Max Hastings reports that more than 1 million Vietnamese were starved to death during their own Japanese occupation. Japan starved all its territories to ship food to the homeland. Elderly Vietnamese told him those several years were worse than subsequent decades of war with the French and U.S. They represented only a tiny percentage of imperial Japan's millions of victims.

In 1944, Methodism's governing General Conference revoked its pacifism. Noting over 1 million Methodists were in the U.S. armed forces, it declared: "We are well within the Christian position when we assert the necessity of the use of military forces to resist an aggression which would overthrow every right which is held sacred by civilized men." But the motion passed the clergy delegates by only 1 vote.

Religious pacifists in the innocent years before Pearl Harbor imagined the world, like their then well-run denominations, was innately orderly and susceptible to good will and reason. They had forgotten the savage power of human evil. Pearl Harbor reminded America then, as it should today, especially religious utopians, that peace and decent order are the hard exceptions rather than the rule for our fallen world.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.