The State Department’s announcement on August 8 that the US government was going to impose sweeping new economic sanctions on Russia over the still mysterious and unresolved Skripal Affair was a truly fateful one. The famous Doomsday Clock of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists should have immediately been moved forward to one minute to midnight on receipt of the news. (It already is set at only two minutes to the midnight that signifies catastrophic global thermonuclear war.)
For the lesson of history is a clear one: Such sanctions do far worse than prevent constructive dialogue and efforts to settle major differences of policy and interest between great nations. When they are seen as an existential threat to the very existence of that nation, they drive the targeted country’s government to consider all-out war.
That is exactly how the trans-oceanic total war between the United States and Japan – the very first and so far thankfully only war that has seen the use of nuclear weapons against cities and human populations – began. And it was the United States that triggered it.
Japan had been remorselessly expanding into China and across the Pacific Theater for a decade and its ferocious war of conquest against China was already four years old and had claimed millions of lives by the summer of 1941.
It was then that US code breakers learned of Japan’s plans also to occupy the French colonial territories of Indochina – today the nations of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
In response therefore, and at the insistent urging of his assistant secretary of state for economic affairs Dean Acheson, President Franklin D. Roosevelt imposed a devastating embargo on the US export of raw materials that Japan could use for war.
This left the governing classes of Japan and its military chieftains with the choice of either ending their policies of ferocious imperialist aggression or of accelerating them and seizing the resource –rich territories of the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands in Southeast Asia to sustain their war economy. They chose the path of continued and intensified aggression.
That decision in turn led Tokyo’s war masters to adopt Combined Fleet Commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s daring plan to launch a surprise preemptive attack to destroy the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet at its base in Pearl Harbor. That strike launched the total war that destroyed Japan.
Roosevelt clearly understood – and said so at the time – that the new economic embargo could lead directly to war with Japan. As talks to resolve the crisis between Washington and Tokyo went nowhere and clearly deadlocked over the following six months, US Navy and Army chiefs in Washington, with Roosevelt’s knowledge and approval warned their forces in the Pacific to be prepared for war.
Nevertheless, the daring and effectiveness of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor took all US policymakers entirely by surprise. The Japanese sank all eight battleships of the Pacific Fleet (Six of them, remarkably were salvaged of which five participated with devastating effect in the 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf).
Roosevelt ironically had been seeking to provoke a naval war with Nazi Germany in the Atlantic. He regarded the Nazis as a far greater strategic threat to the United States than the Japanese. But both Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill catastrophically underestimated the capabilities of the Japanese army, navy and naval air force. Had they not made that mistake, they would not have been so ready to carelessly provoke Tokyo into a full scale war.
The lesson for all the armchair hawks who dominate the Republican and Democratic sides of both chambers of Congress today should be clear. US politicians and policymakers and pundits see their endless rounds of sanctions on Russia as a risk free, safe way to weaken, humiliate and eventually to undermine a country and economy whose capabilities they grossly underestimate and despise.
They could not be more wrong. Up to now, Russia has thrived in the face of all the sanctions Washington can muster against it and this state of affairs could well continue.
But if it does not, then Moscow policymakers and the Russian public will both look upon the sanctions as a deliberate attempt to re-inflict on them the collapse of society, chaos, corruption and suffering that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
President Vladimir Putin rescued the Russian people from that nightmare almost immediately on taking office first as prime minister in 1999 and then as president. But everyone over the age of 30 in Russia today remembers that awful decade of the 1990s all too well.
I visited Russia often during those years, saw the suffering of the Russian people and ached for their plight.
If the new, supposedly “super” sanctions to be imposed this November do threaten to plunge the Russian people back into that awful time of nightmare, they will therefore be seen as an existential threat to national survival.
If that happens, the clueless poseurs and policymaking clowns in Washington will risk setting off a terminal catastrophe for their own people and the entire world.