The American Who Gave Us Pearl Harbor - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The American Who Gave Us Pearl Harbor
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

While most Americans commemorate the anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 — what President Franklin Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy” — most Americans are probably not aware that the infamy of Pearl Harbor included a Soviet covert operation designed to influence Japan to attack the United States instead of the Soviet Union so that the Soviets would not face a two-front war. The covert operation was code-named “Snow,” and it involved a high-level Treasury Department official named Harry Dexter White.

The best accounts of Operation Snow are John Koster’s book Operation Snow: How a Soviet Mole in FDR’s White House Triggered Pearl Harbor and Benn Steil’s The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order.

In the mid-to-late 1930s, Harry Dexter White was the Treasury Department’s director of the Division of Monetary Research. White had attended Columbia University in 1922, then switched to Stanford in 1923, where he graduated with a degree in economics. He studied for his Ph.D. at Harvard and became a political “progressive.” According to Whittaker Chambers, sometime in 1935 White started working for the Soviet Union by obtaining Treasury documents for Chambers who in turn provided them to Col. Boris Bykov, a Soviet military intelligence officer who ran a cell of spies and agents of influence in Washington, D.C. When in the late 1940s Chambers showed federal investigators the famous “pumpkin papers” that he had hidden on his Maryland farm, some were documents passed to Chambers by White.

White’s greatest value to the Soviets, according to both Koster and Steil, was not as a “spy” but rather as an “agent of influence” — a person who could make policy or influence policymakers to take measures that benefited the Soviet Union. And in the late 1930s, Stalin’s greatest foreign policy priority was to avoid a two-front war against Germany in Europe and Japan in Asia. Operation Snow, Koster writes, was initiated by Soviet intelligence to enable the USSR to “fend off a German attack from the west” by neutralizing the Japanese threat from the east. “A war between Japan and the United States,” Koster writes, “would achieve that goal nicely.” What the Soviets needed was “a friend in the U.S. government with enough influence over American policy to subtly but effectively provoke that war.”

Steil quotes a retired GRU (Soviet military intelligence) colonel named Vladimir Karpov who wrote in 2000 that White helped provoke the war between Japan and the United States by persuading Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and the State Department — and through them FDR — to tighten the economic screws (including the oil embargo) on Japan for its aggression in China and to make demands on Japan that they were certain to reject in the negotiations leading up to Pearl Harbor.

What Steil calls the “key ultimatum” from the U.S. to Japan sent in late November 1941 was authored by White. It included demands that Japan withdraw all forces from China and Indochina. Koster notes that the ultimatum also insisted that Japan withdraw its support for the puppet regime it had installed in Manchuria in 1931. White accompanied his draft of the ultimatum to Morgenthau with a letter that he asked Mogenthau to provide to the president that warned that accepting anything less would amount to a “Far Eastern Munich” and “dim the luster of American world leadership in the great democratic fight against fascism.” Steil notes that it is “beyond dispute” that Japan made the decision to go ahead with its Pearl Harbor attack after receiving the White-inspired ultimatum, which Koster writes was considered by Japan to be a “declaration of war.”

A day after the Pearl Harbor attack, Harry Dexter White was promoted to assistant treasury secretary. He was now in a position to help the Soviets both during and after the war, and, according to Koster and Steil, that is what White did. Of course, aiding the Soviets during the early war years was in America’s interests since Soviet soldiers did the bulk of the ground fighting against Hitler’s armies in Europe. But as the war was coming to an end, the need to aid the Soviets — whose armies were occupying eastern and central Europe — was less urgent. According to Koster and Steil, White had a hand in drafting the so-called Morgenthau Plan, which proposed to de-industrialize Germany after the war, effectively imposing a “Carthaginian peace” on the country that stood between the Soviets and Western Europe. Fortunately, War Secretary Henry Stimson and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill persuaded FDR against it. White also attempted to persuade FDR to grant loans on more favorable terms to the Soviets. White succeeded, however, in furthering Stalin’s interests by turning over duplicate currency plates to the Soviets, thereby enabling the Soviets to circulate more than 78 billion marks in occupied Germany that were redeemed by the U.S. government, enabling Stalin, in Steil’s words, to raid “the American Treasury for $300-$500 million.” White was one of many “progressive” Americans who served Soviet interests after infiltrating the U.S. government under what James Burnham characterized as the “careless scepter of Franklin Roosevelt.”

Koster and Steil note that after the war, the FBI learned about White’s Soviet contacts and attempted to warn the Truman White House and State Department about them, but Truman, as he would do when informed about Alger Hiss’ treachery, dismissed the reports and subsequently nominated White to head the International Monetary Fund. White later quit the IMF after allegations of his work for the Soviets surfaced. Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers named White as a Soviet agent. White was summoned by and appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, denied any involvement with the Soviets, and a few days later suffered a heart attack and died. Koster suspects that White committed suicide by taking an overdose of heart medicine that triggered the heart attack.

More evidence emerged against White when the Venona intercepts were declassified and released. Steil writes that 18 separate Venona cables refer to White by his Soviet code names, and those same code names later appeared in the notes of Soviet KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin.

Soviet and Japanese forces had clashed on the Mongolian-Manchurian border in mid-1939, with the Soviets getting the better of the fighting.

In August 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed, giving the Soviet Union some breathing room to work to diplomatically avoid a two-front war. Operation Snow was an important part of that Soviet effort. Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. Stalin rightly feared that a Japanese attack in the east could mean the end of his regime. Stalin knew, however, that Japan lacked the resources to fight both the Soviet Union and the Anglo-American alliance simultaneously. Harry Dexter White helped the Soviets shape U.S. policies that undermined ongoing, intense negotiations between Japan’s foreign ministry and the U.S. State Department that were designed to avoid a Pacific war.

Koster concludes that “Harry Dexter White gave us Pearl Harbor.”


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