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Origins of the Pacific War


Lithograph of Peace negotiations between Russian and Japanese delegations at Portsmouth, 1905

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Fair use may apply.

The Pacific War began on the morning of 7 December 1941 (Hawaii time) with Japanese landings in Malaya and the surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. However, tensions between Japan and the United States went back at least to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, when Japan astonished the world by soundly defeating Russia on both the land and the sea. What was less obvious was that Japan had exhausted its limited economic resources and was on the edge of bankruptcy, and the Russians were massing overwhelming force for a counteroffensive against the exhausted Japanese Army. President Theodore Roosevelt, who was an admirer of the Japanese, offered his good offices to both warring parties, and the Treaty of Portsmouth ended the war on terms that were generally favorable to Japan.

However, dissatisfaction with the peace terms was so great that there was rioting in Japan, with over 1000 killed or injured before the authorities were able to restore order under martial law. Although the treaty confirmed Japanese control of important assets (particularly railroads) in Manchuria, and gave Japan control of the Kwantung Peninsula, it did not provide for Russia to pay an indemnity. This dashed the hopes of many Japanese that Japan's economic woes would be cured by an infusion of Russian cash. The Japanese Government kept secret the financial difficulties that had brought Japan to the peace table, allowing the U.S. to become the scapegoat for the outcome of the negotiations. Combined with racist incidents against Japanese immigrants on the U.S. West Coast and laws prohibiting further Japanese immigration, this dissatisfaction created a rift between what had previously been friendly nations. The passage of a law in 1924 banning further immigration from Japan to the United States prompted ten thousand Japanese to gather in Tokyo and demand war with the United States.

  1. The First World War and the Washington Conference System.
  2. World Economic Depression.
  3. The Tangku Truce.
  4. The China Incident.
  5. Western embargoes and Japanese expansion.
  6. Collision course.
  7. Final peace negotiations.
  8. Could war have been avoided?


The First World War and the Washington Conference System.

The Russo-Japanese War marked the emergence of Japan as a modern state and regional power. Japan had signed a naval alliance with Britain in 1902 and subsequently fought on the Allied side in the First World War. With the Western powers preoccupied with the struggle in Europe, the Japanese attempted to take advantage of political chaos in China in 1915 by issuing the Twenty-one Demands, which if they had been accepted by China would have reduced that county to semi-colonial status. The Western powers reacted strongly against a move that would have severely curtailed their own rights in China, and Japan and China ultimately agreed to a reduced Thirteen Demands that gave Japan little except bad feelings with China and the Western powers.

The unprecedented loss of life in the First World War left most participants determined to establish an international order that would ensure that no world war ever broke out again. Much of the legal framework for the postwar international order centered on the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations. However, the Versailles Treaty sought to prevent Germany from ever returning to great power status, rather than reintegrating Germany into a peaceful community of great powers, and the refusal of the increasingly isolationist U.S. Senate to ratify the Versailles Treaty or join the League of Nations has been widely perceived as crippling the new international order from the start.

However, the United States never really went back to a fully isolationist stance. The State Department remained unofficially supportive of the League, and the United States took the initiative in international relations with the 1922 Washington Naval Conference. Aimed primarily at preserving the peace in the Pacific Ocean and east Asia, the conference resulted in a Four-Power Treaty, a Five-Power Treaty (more commonly known as the Washington Naval Disarmament Treaty) and a Nine-Power Treaty, as well as several minor agreements.

The Four-Power Treaty (between the United States, Britain, Japan, and France) was an agreement to maintain the status quo by respecting each other's Pacific territories, by seeking no further territorial expansion, and by consulting together in the event of a dispute. Its most important consequence was that the Japanese and British did not renew their naval alliance, which expired that same year. The alliance had been a source of pride to Japan, although the diverging interests of the two powers probably made its lapse inevitable. The Nine-Power Treaty (signed by the United States, Japan, China, France, Britain, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, and Portugal) was an agreement to give each other equal access to Chinese treaty ports and to respect the territorial and administrative integrity of the rest of China. It codified the long-standing "Open Door" policy of the United States into international law and reflected an agreement to assist the gradual transformation of China into a modern state. The Kuomintang, who initially opposed the Nine-Power Treaty as just another mechanism for maintaining foreign control, gradually came to embrace the Nine-Power Treaty as a framework through which to obtain foreign support for Chinese modernization and the end of extraterritoriality.

The Washington Naval Disarmament Treaty tacitly recognized Japan as a great power and as the world's third leading naval power. However, there was considerable resentment in Japan over the fact that the treaty  gave Japan just three battleships for every five British and American battleships. Many officers in the Imperial Navy considered this an affront to the Emperor and the honor of Japan. This faction became known as the Fleet Faction. Those who supported the treaty as realistic in the face of American industrial might, such as Yamamoto, became known as the Treaty Faction

The Washington system (as it was named by historian Akira Iriye) helped preserve the peace in east Asia until 1931, when the worldwide economic depression began to change the political situation in Japan.

World Economic Depression.

The nine powers supporting the Washington system were linked economically as well as diplomatic. All adhered to a gold standard that helped make their currencies freely interconvertible and simplified international commerce. Most were capitalist democracies, and Iriye has described the system as "capitalism international" (Iriye 1987.) However, enthusiasm for this international economic order was less than universal. Japan had completely isolated itself (鎖国 sakoku, "locked country") from the outside world from 1633 to 1853, and this xenophobic attitude lingered in the Army, which feared that Japan's increased economic dependency on other nations left her vulnerable to foreign influences. The alternative was to expand Japan's sphere of influence in Asia to achieve autarky, that is, economic self-sufficiency.

The Great Depression shattered the gold standard and free trade that underlay the Washington system. It hit Japanese agriculture and light industry particularly hard. A million Japanese were unemployed by 1930 and silk exports were drastically reduced. Silk was Japan's major source of dollars, peaking in 1929 at $363 million dollars and employing some 2.2 million Japanese farm households. Japan began to run huge balance of trade deficits, and crop failure in 1934 in Tokoku prefecture led to half a million deaths from famine. Some 11,000 daughters of rural Japanese tenant farmers were sold into prostitution and while many of the sons emigrated to Korea and Manchuria.

Many enlisted men and junior officers in the Japanese Army came from impoverished rural areas of Japan, and the Army became increasingly parochial and ultranationalistic in its attitudes. Japan had seized control of Korea in 1910, and the Japanese had extensive extraterritorial rights in Manchuria, including the right to station troops along the rail concessions. The prospect of further expansion into the Asian mainland became increasingly attractive to Army leaders. The assassination of Prime Minister Hamaguchi by a right-wing fanatic in November 1930 was followed by similar acts that led some Japanese observers to describe the period from 1930-1936 as "government by assassination." Young Army officers of the radical Cherry Blossom Society, who attempted two coups d'etat in 1931, received relatively mild punishments.

It was against this background that a group of Kwantung Army officers, led by Ishiwara Kanji and Itagaki Seishiro, staged an incident on the South Manchuria Railway on 18 September 1931 as an excuse to seize control of all Manchuria. The conspirators blew up about 2 or 3 feet (a meter) of railroad track, blamed the explosion on the Chinese, and opened fire on Chinese forces in the area. Both Mukden and Changchun were seized within a day. The civilian government in Tokyo proved too feeble to check the Army, and thereafter the Army increasingly dominated the government, which was eventually brought under the control of a military oligarchy. Support for the army was widespread in the new mass media and among Japanese intellectuals disenchanted with capitalism and parliamentary democracy. As one Army officer candidly explained (Edgerton 1997):

There are only three ways left to Japan to escape from the pressure of its surplus population.... The first door,emigration, has been barred to us by the anti-Japanese immigration policies of other countries. The second door, to world markets, is being pushed shut by tariff barriers and the abrogation of commercial treaties. What should japan do when two of the three doors have been closed against her? It is quite natural that Japan should rush upon the last remaining door [territorial expansion].

Although the Japanese government tried to present the Manchuria Incident as a police action in support of the Washington system, the Chinese accused the Japanese of having violated the Nine-Power Treaty and other international agreements meant to prevent war, and rejected Japanese proposals for a bilateral settlement that would have bypassed the other great powers. The Chinese contention that more was at stake than a local dispute over treaty rights was punctuated by the Japanese bombing of Chinchow on 8 October 1931, after which it was clear that the Japanese Army meant to detach Manchuria and Inner Mongolia from China. This was confirmed by the Japanese proclamation of the independent state of Manchukuo on 18 February 1932.

In December 1931, the League of Nations appointed a commission led the Earl of Lytton to investigate the cause of the Manchuria Incident and make proposals on how to restore peace. Their report was issued on 2 October 1932. Although it was careful to maintain a neutral tone and to avoid branding Japan as an aggressor, the report largely supported the Chinese side of the dispute, concluding that the Japanese seizure of Manchuria was not a legitimate act of self-defense and that the new state of Manchukuo was a creation of the Japanese Army without significant popular support. The Japanese responded by withdrawing from the League of Nations on 27 March 1933.

The Tangku Truce.

In May 1933, representatives of the Kuomintang and Kwantung Army signed the Tangku Truce, which established a ceasefire line roughly along the Great Wall and a demilitarized zone immediately south of it. Although the Kuomintang insisted that this was purely a military truce and not a diplomatic settlement, it effectively acknowledged that Manchuria had been semi-permanently detached from China.

The Tangku Truce lasted just four years. During this interval, the Japanese promulgated what both critics and proponents described as an Asian Monroe Doctrine,under which Japan would take primacy in protecting foreign interests in China in return for recognition of the new status quo by the other powers. Chinese leaders were divided: One camp, under Wang Ching-Wei, argued for a rapprochement with Japan while focusing on developing unoccupied China. The other camp, led by Chiang Kai-shek's brother-in-law T.V. Soong, sought increased support from the Western powers, both for financing economic development and for resisting Japanese encroachments.

China found an unlikely partner in Germany, whose Nazi regime coveted raw materials from and access to markets within China, while Britain under the Chamberlain government briefly considered recognizing Manchukuo as a way to stabilize east Asia. The Roosevelt administration sent mixed signals: The Tydings-McDuffy Act of 1934 promised independence to the Philippines and suggested an American willingness to recognize a Japanese sphere of influence in east Asia, but the administration also insisted on retaining the 5:3 battleship ratio and supported the Vinson-Trammell Act of 1934 authorizing naval construction up to the treaty limits. The Silver Purchase Act of 1934, which authorized the Treasury Department to buy silver at better than market price, created so much pressure on China's silver reserves that China was forced off the silver standard, with serious consequences for Chinese economic development.

The most serious opposition to Japanese encroachments on China during the Truce came from Russia. In July 1934 the 7th Comintern Conference at Moscow called for a global struggle, a Popular Front, against fascism. The Soviet Union joined the League of Nations that same year and began strengthening its defenses in east Asia. However,Russian signals were also mixed: An agreement was signed in February 1934 for the sale of the Chinese Eastern Railway to Japan.

The best opportunity for a settlement between China and Japan came during the Okada cabinet of 1934-1936, whose Foreign Minister, Hirota Koki, made a serious effort to improve Sino-Japanese relations. The Japanese legation in Nanking was elevated to a full embassy as a symbolic gesture and negotiations took place in Nanking and Tokyo. The Japanese Army, concerned as always with the traditional Russian enemy, expressed a willingness to stop encouraging separatists in northern China and reach a settlement with the Chinese. However, the Japanese demand for recognition of Manchukuo and the Chinese insistence that Japan abide by the Washington treaties could not be reconciled.

Japanese relations with the rest of the international community continued to deteriorate. A newspaper publisher was assassinated by an ultranationalist in Tokyo in 1935 because the publisher had sponsored a visit to Japan by an American all-star baseball team. ("To hell with Babe Ruth" became a battle cry during the Pacific War.) In December 1935, Japan announced that it would not renew the naval disarmament treaties, set to expire in December 1936.  In November 1936 Japan entered into the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany and Italy. Intended as a response to the Soviet call for an anti-fascist Popular Front, the pact had the effect of further alienating the United States and Britain. The Imperial Army had already concluded by June 1936 that it should prepare to fight "a great decisive war with the United States" (Hoyt 1993).

Meanwhile anti-Japanese sentiment in China continued to build, as was demonstrated by the attempted assassination of Wang Ching-wei in November 1934 and the establishment of an anti-Japanese separatist government in Canton. The Sian Incident of December 1936 forced Chiang to suspend his campaign against the Chinese Communists and pledge to concentrate on resisting Japanese imperialism.

The appointment of Konoe Fumimaro as Prime Minister of Japan in June 1937 put an end to any further policies of international economic cooperation. Konoe was a proponent of autarky, believe that the unequal distribution of resources could not be solved by international trade and industrialization but only by direct control of resource-rich regions (Iriye 1987):

We must overcome the principles of peace based on the maintenance of the status quo and work out new principles of international peace from our own perspective.

Konoe's imperialistic philosophy quickly undid all the efforts by Hirota to reestablish a peaceful framework for the Far East.

Photograph of aftermath of a Japanse bombing raid in China

National Archives. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The China Incident.

The end of the Tangku Truce quickly followed the appointment of Konoe as prime minister. On 7 July 1937, a Japanese company on night maneuvers was fired on near the Marco Polo Bridge outside Peiping. The Japanese commander, Mutaguchi Renya, was a hyperaggressive officer who believed that weakness was provocative, and he responded with a counterattack to drive the Chinese back to their barracks.

The local Chinese warlord, Sung Che-yuan, worked out a cease-fire with the Japanese on 11 July 1937. However, Konoe adopted a belligerent public posture towards the Chinese, while Chiang rejected the truce, preferring instead to call on the signatories of the Nine-Power Treaty to enforce its provisions. Japanese intelligence learned that Chiang was sending in reinforcements, and the Army General Staff responded by ordering in reinforcements from Kwantung Army and Korea. Thus what was initially a minor incident was rapidly escalated. By 8 August, the Japanese controlled Peiping and Tientsin and some 200,000 Japanese troops had been mobilized. 

On 8 August 1937 a naval officer from the Japanese Special Naval Landing Forces trespassed into a Chinese-controlled airport outside Shanghai and was shot dead. Again, a relatively minor incident was quickly escalated. Chiang ordered additional troops to the area, and the Japanese landed their own reinforcements on 11 August. On 13 August the two sides opened fire on each other, and thereafter the Japanese and Chinese fought a full-scale undeclared war in northern and central China. It seems likely that Chiang deliberately provoked the attack in an attempt to force the Western powers to intervene on China's behalf, but only Russia responded, with supplies arms and "volunteers" to China. The Japanese in turn had entered the war with no clear objectives and, in modern terminology, no exit strategy. The Japanese government finally spelled out its terms to German mediators on 2 November, with demands of an autonomous Inner Mongolia, a demilitarized zone in north China administered by a pro-Japanese Nanking official, an end to anti-Japanese activities, and adherence to the Anti-Comintern Pact. However, Chiang continued to demand compliance with the Nine-Powers Treaty as a precondition to further negotiation, while the Japanese terms hardened after the fall of Nanking to include demilitarization of central China, an indemnity payment, and recognition of Manchukuo.

America had a strong sense of mission in its relations with China, and American public sympathy ran with the Chinese. Allegations that the Japanese had deliberately bombed American compounds displaying the American flag inflamed American public opinion. However, the American public were not prepared to risk war over China. Cordell Hull, the American Secretary of State, tried to steer a middle course of "no confrontation, no withdrawal, and no assent" (Utley 1985). This became a razor's edge as Japan drifted into the Axis camp and sought to establish a closed economic sphere in east Asia. This put Japan at odds with the American commitment to a liberal commercial world order based on free trade and competition, a commitment Hull championed as the best hope for a peaceful, prosperous world. While Roosevelt allowed Hull to make a virtual fiefdom of foreign policy, Hull was often caught between lower level officials who sought a conciliatory policy towards Japan and others who wanted the United States to take a harder line. The "doves" included Assistant Secretary of State Hugh Wilson and Division of European Affairs head J. Pierrepoint Moffat, while the "hawks" were led by Stanley Hornbeck, head of the Far East Division, who was strongly pro-Chinese. The "doves" argued that Europe was the proper focus of diplomatic attention, that the United States had no compelling interests in Asia, and that the country could afford no distractions there. The "hawks" responded that the U.S. had a moral obligation to both China and the Philippines and that a failure to check Japanese ambitions would endanger crucial interests in southeast Asia. It was Hull's style to listen as both sides thoroughly argued their positions, then make his own decision.

Hull also had to tread carefully regarding U.S. relations with the British. The two countries were increasingly aligned in their interests in the Atlantic and Europe as the threat of Germany increased under the Nazis. However, the Americans were wary of British attempts to get the Americans to underwrite British interests in Asia. The British did not have enough naval power to simultaneously deal with Germany in the North Sea, Italy in the Mediterranean, and Japan in the Far East. This was one motivation for the old Anglo-Japanese naval alliance, and with this alliance dissolved and Japan as a potential enemy, Britain looked to the United States to maintain the existing order in the Pacific. This was something Hull and the Roosevelt administration were not willing to do.

On 5 October 1937, in response to the crisis at Shanghai, Roosevelt gave his "Quarantine Speech" at Chicago. This undercut much of Hull's diplomacy by exacerbating tension between the United States and Japan and implying that the United States was now prepared to take a leadership position in confronting Japan. Inevitably, a conference was called in Brussels to consider the question of Japanese aggression in China. Roosevelt had apparently not thought out the implications of his speech and gave the American representatives few instructions. The Japanese refused to attend the conference, the State Department "doves" watered down proposals for sanctions, and the conference adjourned almost at once without taking any concrete action.

The U.S. Navy under Admiral Yarnell had strong views about its duties in China, and when the Japanese captured Nanking, the U.S. Asiatic Fleet gunboat Panay was stationed 27 miles (43 km) upriver, standing by to assist American nationals and to "show the flag" without (it was hoped) unduly provoking the Japanese. These hopes proved vain when the ship was attacked by Japanese aircraft and artillery on 12 December 1937, which sank the gunboat, killed two of its crew, and wounded fifty others. Roosevelt briefly considered a distant naval blockade of Japan in concert with the British, two of whose police had just been beaten by a Japanese patrol at Shanghai; but a Japanese apology and offer of an indemnity defused the incident. When the Monocacy was asked by the Japanese to leave Kiukiang, on the grounds that the city was about to become part of a war zone, State again was inclined to accede but the Navy argued vociferously that the gunboat should remain on station. The question became moot when the Japanese mined the Yangtze and reversed themselves, insisting the gunboat remain at Kiukiang. Out of fuel and damaged by splinters from nearby mine explosions, Monocacy was eventually permitted to return to Shanghai. where the outdated gunboat was decommissioned.

The U.S. Army did not share the Navy's view of the importance of China or the Pacific. The Army had written off the Philippines in the event of war with Japan as early as 1906, though the Navy contingency plan, Orange, called for their recapture following an advance across the central Pacific. Army leaders felt that American forces should withdraw into the eastern Pacific to avoid provoking Japan and diverting effort from the crucial European theater.

The beginning of 1938 saw Germany abandon its support for China and align itself with Japan. Japan in turn withdrew recognition of the Kuomintang government of China and began efforts to establish a puppet government, an action that "was tantamount to a declaration of war" (Iriye 1987), but the search for a Chinese Franco to lead the puppet government proved frustrating. A decision on 16 February by the Japanese Cabinet to attempt to "localize" the conflict was essentially ignored by the Army, which proceeded to expand the scope of the fighting to Hankow, Hsuchow and Canton.

Western embargoes and Japanese expansion.

On 3 November 1938, Prime Minister Konoe issued a statement calling for "a new order for ensuring permanent stability in East Asia" (in Iriye 1987). This amounted to a formal repudiation of what was left of the Washington system.  On 11 November the Roosevelt administration responded with a "moral embargo" against Japan which, while not legally binding on American businesses, was voluntarily joined by enough exporters to effectively end export of aircraft and aeronautical technology to Japan. This satisfied most Americans that "something was being done" without much inconveniencing Japan, which by 1938 was making little use of imported aircraft. However, the embargo was a blow to Japanese pride, and the Japanese began to speak of the growing rift as Taiheiyo-no-gan ("Cancer of the Pacific").

In early October 1938, Hull had had the American ambassador in Tokyo, Joseph Grew, warn the Japanese of the "great and growing disparity" between Japanese treatment of American interests in China and American treatment of Japanese interests in the United States. It was a veiled threat of American sanctions if the Japanese did not relax their pressure on American interests in China. The Japanese responded with an offensive around Hong Kong and a radio address by the Japanese Prime Minster, Konoe Fumimaro, attacking Western imperialism in China and declaring that Japan mean to establish "a new peace fabric in [the] Far East on the basis of justice.... If the Powers understand the real intentions of Japan and devise a policy in accordance with the new situation in the Far East, Japan does not grudge to cooperate with them for peace in the Far East" (Utley 1985).  This speech marked a troubling shift in tone, from an emphasis on permitting Japan to settle the China Incident to a demand for Western acquiescence as Japan carved out a permanent sphere of influence in the Far East. The U.S. protested but took no immediate action. Both the "doves" in the State Department and the Army leadership felt that as long as Japan was bogged down in China, she could not expand elsewhere; and until there was a direct threat to American interests elsewhere, nothing should be done that might risk war with Japan.

On 10 February 1939 Japan seized Hainan and a month later laid claim to the Spratly Islands. The western powers correctly interpreted this as the opening feelers of a Japanese move south.

American public opinion continued to harden against Japan. Walter Judd, an American medical missionary in China, denounced the "blood trade" in a nationwide radio broadcast (Utley 1985):

The airplanes bombed and machine-gunned us day after day, but it never made me feel any happier about it to know, all through that first year of the war, how many of the planes were from my country. One-third of all the stuff they drop down to kill, maim, and destroy comes from the scrap-iron yards and steel mills of my country. I have worked hours on end, night after night, removing these things from the bodies and brains of Chinese men and women and children. I never could say it was none of our business when we were supplying almost everything except the pilot.

By June 1939, Gallup polls showed that 72 percent of Americans favored an embargo on war materials shipped to Japan. At the same time, events in Europe caused the United States to soften its neutrality laws in April 1939, permitting "cash and carry" purchases by belligerent powers — a move that generally favored the Allies in Europe, but put China at a disadvantage relative to Japan. A proposal to further modify neutrality laws to embargo any nation in violation of the Nine Powers Treaty (Japan was the obvious target) went nowhere. However, on 15 April 1939, Roosevelt simultaneously sought assurances from Germany that it would not attack any European power and announced that the bulk of the U.S. Fleet would be moved to the West Coast.

The "China Incident" also increased the alienation between Japan and Britain, which had begun with the lapse of their naval alliance and the British move towards the U.S. that accompanied the naval disarmament treaties. By 1939, the Japanese Army, frustrated by its inability to wrap up the war in China, found a convenient scapegoat in the British territorial concessions in China. Many Japanese officers were incensed at the continued presence of armed Caucasian troops in Japanese-occupied China. The British had substantial investments and trade in China, largely based on the Kuomintang fapi, which was in competition with the Japanese-backed puppet currency. Furthermore, the Japanese believed, with some cause, that Kuomintang guerrillas were operating from the British concessions. The British policy of interning captured guerrilla leaders, rather than trying them as criminals, was a particular point of contention. Matters almost came to a head in the spring of 1939 at Tientsin, but the British Ambassador to Japan, Sir Robert Craigie, was able to negotiate a settlement. The Craigie-Arita agreement of 24 July 1939 has been characterized as a stunning blow to American policy in China (e.g. Utley 1985).

Two days later, the United States served notice that it would abrogate the 1911 Treaty of Commerce and Navigation in six months. This would remove legal obstacles to formal embargoes by the United States. This alarmed Grew, who foresaw that any truly crippling embargo against Japan would drive her to seize the resources of the Netherlands East Indies, even if this meant war with the United States. While on leave in the United States during the summer of 1939, Grew spoke to influential Americans of two Japans: The moderate Japan had legitimate complaints that should be addressed so as to strengthen its hand against the extremist Japan represented by the Japanese Army. On his return to Japan, on 19 October 1939, Grew gave a luncheon speech to influential Japanese in which he warned that the United States would not continue backing down indefinitely. Grew meant to give the moderates an incentive to challenge foreign policy.  Grew explained that Japan's New Order in the Far East was perceived as a direct attack on the American vision of a liberal economic order based on free trade and competition. Grew proposed that Japan make some modest concession, such as reopening the Yangtze to foreign traffic, in exchange for opening negotiations on a new trade treaty.  Acceptance of this proposal, Grew believed, would strengthen the hands of the moderates and lead to further concessions. His proposal went nowhere, in part because the United States was still a long ways from actually imposing an embargo.

Although a "moral embargo" of aluminum, magnesium, and molybdenum was imposed in December 1939, enabling legislation for a binding embargo did not pass into law until July 1940, following the collapse of metropolitan France. The United States did not even increase tariffs, as required by a 1930 U.S. law regarding trade from countries with which the United States did not have a trade agreement, because the Roosevelt Administration was able to find a loophole based on an executive proclamation dating back to the Ulysses S. Grant administration! Even when the embargo legislation was finally passed, it was framed in terms of restricting exports of commodities and materiel required for the United States' own defense buildup.

By then war had broken out in Europe, preceded by the stunning announcement of the German-Russian non-aggression pact. Stalin had observed the attempts at appeasement in Europe with alarm, and concluded that the Soviet policy of a United Front had failed. This opened the door to a Russian-Japanese non-aggression pact that ensured Russia would remain neutral in the event of war in the Pacific. "Now [the Versailles and Washington] structures were gone, and the world was entering into a period of anarchy and confusion" (Iriye 1987).

The fall of France and Holland in the spring of 1940 radically changed the picture in the Far East. The Western powers were no longer in a position to adequately protect their colonies, with the Netherlands East Indies in perhaps the weakest position of all. Japanese Foreign Minister Arita's declaration on 15 April 1940 asserting that Japan had a special interest in seeing that oil continued to flow from the NEI was seen as laying the diplomatic groundwork for Japan to take possession of the Dutch colony. Hull promptly responded with a note that the United States also had interests in the NEI and could not ignore threats to its independence. At the same time, the Pacific Fleet was moved to Hawaii. If the United States was unprepared to go to war over China, it was more willing to go to war to protect Southeast Asia, whose resources were thought to be critical to the Western powers now fighting Germany.

These developments finally prompted the United States to embargo sales of scrap iron and aviation gasoline to Japan, on 22 July 1940. Both were considered critical for the United States' own defense buildup and were embargoed on that basis. Initially only gasoline with an octane rating of 87 or greater was embargoed, and only number 1 heavy melting scrap, which accounted for only 20 percent of exports to Japan. Since most Japanese aircraft engines could operate on 86-octane gasoline, the effects of the embargo were relatively mild, and the Japanese began ordering all the 86-octane gasoline they could find. Japanese gasoline purchases in the U.S. had totaled 1.2 million barrels in 1939; in the six months following the July 1940 embargo, gasoline imports from the U.S. rose to 3.4 million barrels.

Faced with disaster in Europe, Britain agreed the same month to close the Burma Road and withdraw most its forces from China. The Japanese promptly took control of the British financial district in Shanghai, which until then had been "the last open chink in the 'open' door in China" (Utley 1985).

The Japanese Navy ordered preliminary fleet mobilizations and the activation of emergency war programs in August 1940 and began to speak of war with the United States if a "favorable opportunity" came about. The mobilization order was issued in strict secrecy and Evans and Peattie (1997) argue that its importance in moving Japan closer to the United States has been overlooked by historians. Instead, a postwar myth grew up of an Imperial Navy that was more moderate and pro-Western than the facts bear out.

Japan responded to events in Europe by occupying northern French Indochina and joining the Tripartite Pact in September 1940. The combination of events was probably coincidental but appeared highly provocative. The United States responded by extending the embargo to include all scrap iron. The accession of Japan to the Axis is widely viewed as a critical development, but the United States had already come to view Japan as a co-conspirator with the "bandit" nations of Germany and Italy and there was little immediate change in U.S. policy.

By the start of 1941, both Japanese and American diplomacy had backfired. The U.S. had attempted to deter Japan with the transfer of the fleet to the Pacific and with the gasoline and scrap embargoes, but Japan had responded by preparing to take control of the resources of southeast Asia. Japan in turn had attempted to deter Washington with her adherence to the Tripartite Pact, but this had only hardened the attitude of those in the Roosevelt Administration who saw Japan as a "bandit nation."

Collision course.

In November 1940 the Japanese appointed Admiral Nomura Kichisaburo as ambassador to Washington. Nomura was respected by American naval officers, and there is every indication that he was a genuine advocate of peace and friendship between his country and the United States. However, his task was an unenviable one. His counterpart as American ambassador in Tokyo, Joseph Grew, had nine years' experience in Tokyo, though he never mastered the Japanese language (his wife spoke it fluently). A shrewd observer, he was dedicated to peace, but nonetheless recognized that a collision between the United States and Japan was becoming more and more certain (Prange 1981):

With all our desire to keep American out of war and at peace with all nations, especially with Japan, it would be the height of folly to allow ourselves to be lulled into a feeling of false security. Japan, not we, is on the warpath.... If those Americans who counsel appeasement could read even a few of the articles by leading Japanese in the current Japanese magazines wherein their real desires and intentions are given expression, our peace-minded fellow countrymen would realize the utter hopeless of a policy of appeasement. In the meantime let us keep our powder dry and be ready — for anything.

On 27 January 1941 Matsuoka Yosuke, the Japanese Foreign Minister, gave a speech in which he said (ibid.):

The Co-Prosperity Sphere in the Far East is based on the spirit of Hakko Ichiu, or the Eight Corners of the Universe under One Roof.... We must control the western Pacific.... We must request United States reconsideration, not only for the sake of Japan but for the world's sake. And if this request is not heard, there is no hope for Japanese-American relations.

That same month, the Japanese Navy carried out Operation S, a naval demonstration meant to overawe the French in Indochina that also provided opportunities to gather intelligence.

In March 1941, concern over Germany's successes in the Battle of the Atlantic prompted the Roosevelt administration to put pressure on American shipowners to shift their tanker fleets to the North Atlantic. This had the effect of denying Japan the use of these same tankers to transport the petroleum products Japan was continuing to purchase in the United States.

On 16 June 1941, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes tried to stop oil shipments to Japan on the purported grounds that a shortage of petroleum products was hampering defense work. Though Roosevelt quickly called off the embargo, Ickes and assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson began work on a proposal to require export licensing of all oil exports. At the same time, proposals were floated in the Roosevelt administration to begin preemptive purchases of cobalt, mercury, chromium, and carbon black to keep them out of the hands of the Japanese, both to put economic pressure on Japan and to prevent Japan acting as a purchasing agent for Germany. Chilean copper had already been preemptively purchased, in February 1941, but as an essential defense commodity. Supplies of the other commodities were ample and the preemptive purchases would have marked a shift to open economic warfare. Roosevelt ultimately declined to support the proposed policy.

The path to war was set on 2 July 1941, at a Conference in the Imperial Presence. The conference decided on a policy of southward expansion or "Southward Ho!" (Prange 1988) while keeping Japan's options open in case of a Russian collapse. The conference report noted:

In carrying out the plans outlined in the foregoing article, we will not be deterred by the possibility of being involved in a war with England and America.

The Japanese government might have eased much of the tension in the Pacific and avoided war with the United States by denouncing the Tripartite Pact at this time. Such a response to the unexpected German invasion of Russia, which began just ten days earlier, would have been justified under international law and could have decisively distanced Japan from the Axis in Europe. However, Konoe could not bring himself to reverse policy so dramatically, believing this would destroy is political credibility. Instead, the Japanese set themselves on a collision course with the United States.

Photograph of Japanese troops entering Saigon

Wikipedia Commons.

Matters came to a head when Japan occupied southern French Indochina on 21 July 1941 (Operation FU). Ten days later American intelligence intercepted and decoded a message from the Japanese Foreign Ministry to diplomats abroad stating that (Prange 1981):

Commercial and economic relations between Japan and third countries, led by England and the United States, are gradually becoming so horribly strained that we cannot endure it much longer. Consequently, our Empire, to save its very life, must take measures to secure the raw materials of the South Seas. Our Empire must immediately take steps to break asunder this ever-strengthening chain of encirclement which is being woven under the guidance and with the participation of England and the United States, acting like a cunning dragon seemingly asleep. This is why we decided to obtain military bases in French Indo-China and to have our troops occupy that territory....

This convinced American leaders that Japan's assurances that the occupation of French Indochina was not as a springboard for further conquests were false. The United States, Britain, and the Netherlands responded with a complete oil embargo. This was not originally Hull's intent, which was to restrict export licensing just enough to increase pressure on Japan. However, while Roosevelt was attending the Atlantic Conference, Acheson managed to transform the restricted licensing scheme into a complete embargo, and Roosevelt declined to reverse it on his return in November. Roosevelt likely feared that the Japanese would interpret a reversal as a sign of crumbling American resolve, but he was likely also influenced by polls that showed that 67 percent of the American public believed that it was better to risk war than allow Japan to become more powerful. The Japanese were almost completely dependent on foreign oil, and the embargo threatened to strangle the Japanese economy. This was one of the immediate causes of the Pacific war.

American policy at this point was in disarray. American foreign policy emphasized the vital importance of Southeast Asia to sustain the Allied effort in Europe. At the same time, American military policy ignored the area and wrote off any serious defense of the Philippines. Roosevelt did nothing to reconcile the two policies; the dilemma was simply too painful. It was not his best moment. In the end, American policy rested on a bluff that the Japanese were fully prepared to call.

Starting in July 1941, an effort was made to make the Philippines defensible. This began with MacArthur, who believed (or claimed to believe) that the Philippine Army he was training could be brought up to a standard of quality sufficient to hold off a Japanese invasion. This contradicted years of staff studies. But so painful was the dilemma facing American leaders that skepticism was abandoned, helped along by the much inflated expectations for the B-17 Flying Fortress, whose capabilities were greatly overestimated prior to its first trial of combat. Over one hundred B-17s were benchmarked for the Philippines in the hope that they would be a powerful deterrent to Japan.

By August 1941 the Japanese were withdrawing all their merchant shipping into the sea lanes immediately around Japan, a fact that U.S. Navy intelligence was quick to pick up.


Photograph of Stimson with Kurusu and Nomura
Wikipedia Commons. Fair use may apply.

Final peace negotiations.

During the last months of 1941, Nomura engaged in fruitless negotiations with the U.S. Secretary of State, Cordell Hull. Though the two men respected each other and earnestly sought to avoid a war, their positions were irreconcilable. The United States wanted Japan out of China. Japan wanted a free hand on the continent. The Japanese government continued to negotiate because the Emperor insisted on it, and because the Japanese leaders knew how risky war with the United States would be. The United States continued to negotiate because they did not want preparations for possible involvement in the European war to be disrupted by a Pacific war, and because it was thought that time was on the side of the United States, which were rapidly rearming and sending reinforcements to the Philippines. There was an almost naive hope on the part of Roosevelt, Churchill, and MacArthur that Philippine reinforcements could deter Japan from going to war.

On 18 August 1941 Japanese Foreign Minister Toyoda proposed to American ambassador Joseph Grew that Prime Minister Konoe and President Roosevelt meet face to face to resolve the differences between the two countries. Though Roosevelt was initially enthusiastic about the proposal, the likelihood that any real concessions by Konoe would cause the collapse of his Cabinet, and the inability of Roosevelt to make binding commitments without the advice and consent of the Senate, made the proposal unworkable, and it was quietly dropped. It could not have helped things that an attempt was made on Konoe's life by four young radicals on 18 September 1941.

By 4 September 1941 the Japanese position had hardened into a demand that the United States and Britain give Japan a free hand to settle the China Incident, in return for which Japan promised not to use French Indochina as a base for operations against the Western powers and to withdraw troops from China and French Indochina once the China Incident was settled to her satisfaction. These terms could not be reconciled with the American position, which had hardened into a demand Japan pull out of China immediately and completely.

Japan's decision to go to war was not final until shortly before the Pearl Harbor attack. Although the Army's attitude had hardened by 6 October 1941, when the Army High Command concluded that there was no hope of an acceptable settlement; war was inevitable; and no softening of the Japanese position could be contemplated, the Army grudgingly allowed the Foreign Office until 15 October to continue trying.  On that date, the Japanese Cabinet tendered their resignations to the Emperor en masse. The Emperor was advised to name Tojo as the new premier, which put the Army firmly in charge but also meant the Army could not escape political responsibility for the looming crisis. Tojo was also known to be devoted to the Emperor, who hoped Tojo would respect his wishes to exhaust every possibility for a negotiated settlement. However, the Emperor and the Japanese Government agreed on 5 November 1941 that the nation would go to war if an agreement with the U.S. to relax the oil embargo was not reached by the end of the month.

By November it was clear that no comprehensive settlement was possible, but there still remained the possibility of a modus vivendi, a temporary agreement that might preserve peace a little longer. The Japanese prepared two plans for such a temporary accommodation. Plan A was submitted on 10 November 1941 but made few concessions and was rejected by Hull. Hull made no counterproposal, seemingly baffled how next to proceed. The Japanese brought forward their plan B on 20 November 1941, which basically called for a return to the status quo ante July 1941 in return for the end of U.S. support for China; but Hull characterized it as (Prange 1981):

... condonement by the United States of Japan's past aggressions, assent by the United States to unlimited courses of conquest by Japan in the future, abandonment by the United States of its whole past position in regard to the most essential principles of its foreign policy in general, betrayal by the United States of China, and acceptance by the United States of a position as a silent partner aiding and abetting Japan in her effort to create a Japanese hegemony in and over the western Pacific and Eastern Asia.

Though Tojo seems to have held out hope of a peaceful settlement longer than most Army generals, he escalated tensions on 17 November 1941 in a speech to the Diet. He declared that no third power (an obvious reference to the United States) would be permitted to interfere in Japan's settlement of the China Incident. The speech was met with thunderous ovations by the members of the Diet, who New York Times correspondent Otto Tolischus described as "so belligerent that the government seems moderate by comparison" (Hoyt 1993).

On 26 November 1941 Hull handed the Japanese ambassadors a ten-point note summarizing the final American position. The Hull Note was intended to make the record clear rather than serve as a basis for negotiation; Hull later admitted that "we had no serious thought that Japan would accept our proposal." The next day he told Secretary of War Stimson that "I have washed my hands of it and it is now in the hands of you and Knox — the Army and the Navy." By then the Japanese Navy had already sortied for war. The Pearl Harbor strike force, which sailed from Hittokapu Bay on 27 November 1941, had orders to turn back if a negotiated settlement was reached. No settlement was forthcoming, in part because U.S. intelligence had detected preparations for a Japanese move against southeast Asia. The attack went forward, and Japan was plunged into a disastrous war that would destroy the old Imperial order.

Could war have been avoided?

Historical "what-ifs" are problematic, and no certain answer to this question can ever be given. The United States could have acquiesced to Japan's actions in China, but the fear that this would be followed by Japanese expansion into southeast and south Asia, with grave consequences for the Allied struggle against Germany, was not unreasonable given the actual subsequent course of events. Japan could have withdrawn from China and detached herself from the Tripartite Pact, but the humiliation this would have entailed for the Japanese Army was not something the Army was likely to ever accept.

It has been suggested (e.g. by Utley 1985) that, had American negotiations been handled more adroitly by the Roosevelt administration, Hull's policy of "no confrontation, no withdrawal, and no assent" might have been maintained long enough to avoid war, while leaving Japan so bogged down in China that the threat of Japanese southward expansion would not have materialized before the German reversal of fortune. On the other hand, China might have collapsed, freeing large Japanese forces for a move south and east and making the task of defeating Japan much harder than it historically was. The freed Japanese forces might also have moved against Russia, eliminating the Eastern Front before it could become the grave of the German Wehrmacht.

Human events have a momentum of their own. It is the opinion of this author that the last clear chance to avoid a collision in the Pacific came at Munich in 1938, not in Washington or Tokyo in 1940-1941, but this too is a conjecture that can never be established for certain.

References

Barnhart (1987)

Collingham (2011)

Costello (1981)

Drea (2009)

Edgerton (1997)

Evans and Peattie (1997)

Fleming (2001)

Hotta (2013)

Hoyt (1993)

Iriye (1987)

Larrabee (1987)

Miller (2007)

Prange (1981)

Utley (1985)

Watt (1989)

Willmott (1982)


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