“America is Hard to Get Along With”: Moe Berg, the Barnstormers, and Conflict in the Pacific

In 1934, seven years before the United States entered World War II in response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, relations between the US and Japan were strained at best. The so-called “Manchurian Incident” three years prior had created a direct conflict of interest between the Japanese, who were seeking to combat the global Depression by extending control over raw materials in northeast Asia, and the Americans, whose efforts to mitigate the economic crisis were strictly isolationist, meaning they would no longer accept Japanese immigrants or Japanese trade. “Unofficial diplomats” on both sides were eager to ease the tension growing as a result of these opposing agendas, yet little progress was made as Japanese and American foreign policies continued to diverge (Davidann). The Japanese especially felt that the Americans were hypocritical in their stance against a Japanese presence in Manchuria—after all, the United States clearly had few qualms about their own involvement in Latin America—, and resented their inconsistencies regarding racial equality and mutual disarmament (Davidann). It was within this period of deterioration that one important commonality grew between the two nations—a love of baseball, and hero-worship of its stars. While this shared cultural phenomenon might have been viewed by idealists as a way to finally bridge the gap over the Pacific, certain hindsight reveals that even amidst an exercise in goodwill, the US was worthy of suspicion in their diplomatic efforts. The presence of one strangely gifted American baseball player who participated in the “barnstorming” tour of Japan along with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig demonstrated, retrospectively, that there would be no amiable relations that did not give the US the upper hand.

Morris Berg, Moe for short, was born in 1902 to a family of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who had relocated to Harlem, NY. He excelled at sports in high school, and continued playing both basketball and baseball during his career at Princeton University, where he studied seven languages including Greek, French, Latin, and Sanskrit. After Princeton, he signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers which was anything but the start to an impressive career. His initial batting average was .186 in the summer of 1923, and it quickly became apparent that his star shortstop status at Princeton had not translated to the majors after he committed 22 errors in that same season (Fitts). After a chance transition to catcher in the 1927 season, his performance improved and he was eventually selected to travel to Japan and instruct college players as part of friendly international outreach. While there, he developed familiarity with the katakana alphabet and became infatuated with the country. Berg jumped at the chance to return to Japan in 1934 as a member of the American All-Star team, but information that came to light after World War II (in which he would later participate as a member of the OSS) suggested he may not have jumped so much as been deployed.

Most likely via connections made during his time at Columbia Law, the US State Department had taken notice of his linguistic prowess, and someone had seen the opportunity for intelligence gathering where most others had only anticipated an exotic outlet for major league baseball (Berger). Berg arrived in Japan with a 16-mm Bell and Howell movie camera, and a letter introducing him to “the American Diplomatic and Consular Officers” signed by Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Presumably, the camera was meant for him to gather highlight footage in order to fulfill a contract with Movietone News by providing source material for newsreels, but rather than appearing on theatre screens, the footage he returned was analyzed by the US military in preparation for air raids on Japan during World War II (Fitts). So, even while adoring Japanese fans crowded the All-Star team as they took their first steps into Tokyo, they were already being taken advantage of for their enamoring with the American celebrities. Surely, in this context, the remark made by Japanese consul general Tamura Teijiro not long after the barnstormers’ tour that “America is very difficult to get along with” (Davidann) can be well understood. Though the Japanese were not aware at the time, the All-Star tour, which was well-intentioned by those in the sporting community, had been made into an espionage operation by the American government—clearly a violation of the unspoken codes of sport.

In many ways, Moe Berg’s mission on the barnstormers’ tour was reflective of the harsh reality that would eventually culminate in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941: America would never trust an expansionist Japan, and the Japanese could never trust a manipulative Western power. Despite relationships built through avenues such as baseball, the nations’ foreign policies were deadlocked in a conflict that would only be resolved through the brutality of World War II.

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Suggested reading:

Davidann, Jon Thares, Ph.D. “Cultural Diplomacy in US-Japanese Relations, 1919-1941.” Cultural Diplomacy. http://www.culturaldiplomacy.org/academy/pdf/research/books/cultural_diplomacy/Cultural_Diplomacy_in_U.S._-_Japan_Relations,_1919-1941_-_Jon_Thares_Davidann.pdf.

Fitts, Robert K. Banzai Babe Ruth: Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan.  Univ Of Nebraska Press, 2013.

“Moe Berg.” Moe Berg | Society for American Baseball Research. Accessed March 28, 2018. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/e1e65b3b.

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