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

Diplomacy is the art of negotiation between different groups or states. War is often regarded as a consequence of the failure of diplomacy between powers. While there is some truth to this, the Second World War was fought between powers whose interests were so incompatible that it is difficult to see how better diplomacy could have averted the tragedy.

Both Japan and Germany, the strongest of the Axis powers, were led by men for whom racism was a defining ideology and who viewed war as desirable for its own sake. Their principal opponents,  Britain, Russia, and the United States, together with many of their less powerful allies, were racist by today's standards, but their political ideology was not defined by racism. Communism explicitly rejected racism, at least in theory, and many Western liberals believed that racism was incompatible with liberal democracy. Communist ideology saw war as a tool for the expansion of world Communism, rather than an end in itself, while Western liberalism was steeped in the theory of just war and rejected "wars of aggression," however nebulously defined. It is hard to see how these three world views could have reached any lasting reconciliation.

Diplomacy has traditionally been carried out by diplomatic missions residing in the capitals of the accredited states. Diplomatic missions between major powers are led by an ambassador and his permanent residence in the capital of the power to which he is accredited is known as an embassy. Diplomatic missions to minor powers are led by a minister and operate from his ministry. Formal diplomacy conducted by these missions are governed by an elaborate protocol.

Diplomacy is closely associated with intelligence gathering. Diplomatic missions are privileged to send and receive materials via diplomatic pouch that are immune from inspection. Embassies are considered extraterritorial (not subject to the laws of the state in which they are located) and diplomats are immune from arrest. However, the accredited government may declare a diplomat persona non grata for activities inconsistent with his diplomatic status, including espionage. Diplomats declared persona non grata must immediately leave the country. A power may waive diplomatic immunity and permit its diplomat to be tried and punished by the accrediting state, as took place when a clerk in the United States Embassy in London was found to be spying for the Germans, and Roosevelt waived his diplomatic immunity. However, this is quite rare, and it is more common for a power to punish its own diplomats for violations of local law.

When a state of war comes into existence between two powers, their diplomats are usually repatriated through the good offices of a neutral power. In the Pacific War, the neutral power was Sweden, and the liner Gripsholm was employed to exchange diplomats and interned civilians, usually at the neutral Portuguese ports of Goa or Lourenço Marques, Mozambique. However, before war broke out in late 1941, a force of 60 Kempei forced their way into the British embassy in Tokyo and arrested the head of the information department, Herbert Redman, over the protests of the British ambassador, who was struck in the face by one of the Kempei. Redman was brutally interrogated for 800 hours before being returned to the embassy compound and, eventually, repatriated with the rest of the legation.

The custom of exchanging diplomatic missions dated from a time when communications took days to months. By the time of the Pacific War, improvements in both transportation and telecommunications made it much easier for heads of state to communicate directly with each other, either by telegraph, telephone, or by traveling to meet each other. As a result, the heads of the major belligerent powers often bypassed their own diplomatic missions. Churchill and Roosevelt, in particular, carried out a long and regular correspondence that virtually ignored their own embassies. These leaders also held regular summit meetings with each other and (at times) Stalin and Chiang to plan Allied grand strategy.

In additional to formal diplomacy directly between powers, it is possible for diplomatic exchanges to take place through the good offices of a third power or through private channels. The former is the usual means of diplomatic exchange between belligerent powers. The Swiss acted as as such a third party during the final exchanges leading to the Japanese surrender in August 1945. Idealistic individuals, often clergy, sometimes undertake to negotiate between hostile powers as well. For example, on 9 April 1941, two Roman Catholic clerics, Bishop James E. Walsh and Father James M. Drought, sought to open new channels between the United States and Japan in hopes of averting a war. The Drought proposal was greatly at odds with the American position and served mostly to muddy the waters, leading the Japanese to believe that the United States was prepared to give up far more of its negotiating position than it actually was.

With the outbreak of war, formal diplomacy did not disappear, but it was increasingly overshadowed by direct negotiations between allied heads of state and by joint military planning among the military leaders of allied nations. The latter tended to remain focused on the task of winning the war, but the former could not avoid looking ahead to ask what the postwar world would be like.

Japan had long viewed Russia as her greatest enemy, and had seized control of Manchuria in 1931. However, in 1937, an incident at the Marco Polo Bridge outside Peiping had led to war between Japan and China. Chinese forces had proven no match for the Japanese, but the vastness of the Chinese countryside was beyond Japan's resources to subjugate, and the Kuomintang in Chungking and the Communists in northwest China continued to resist the Japanese. Japanese troops acted with sufficient brutality to arouse public opinion against them in the United States, and this became an important factor leading to war between the two nations.

War broke out in Europe in 1939 when Britain and France realized that Hitler could no longer be appeased. Both countries concluded that Hitler's demands on Poland were cover for naked aggression, and declared that any attack on Poland by Germany would be a casus belli. Hitler, having secured Russia's neutrality, attacked Poland anyway, and Britain and France honored their guarantees by declaring war on Germany. When France was decisively defeated in an unexpectedly swift campaign in 1940, leaving Britain alone against Germany, Japan saw an opportunity to expand into the European colonies of southeast Asia. She hoped in this manner to gain control of economic resources sufficient to make herself proof against blockade. She also hoped that the war in Europe would leave her with a free hand to complete the subjugation of China and, at an opportune moment, to seize territory from Russia in eastern Siberia.

The United States public was appalled by the actions of the Axis and inclined to assist the Allies, but there was a strong isolationist movement and little support for going to war. However, by 1941, Roosevelt had concluded that U.S. intervention was inevitable and he took actions clearly aimed at provoking an incident in the Atlantic that would bring the United States into the war. However, even the sinking of Reuben James with great loss of life was unable to stir the public. Meanwhile, American diplomacy in the Pacific seemed to be aimed at deterring Japanese intervention on the side of the Axis. Japanese adherence to the Tripartite Pact in September 1940, a few days after Japan occupied northern French Indochina, was seen as a provocation.

Japan scored a major diplomatic triumph with the Russo-Japanese Neutrality Pact of 13 April 1941. Russia recognized Manchukuo and Japan recognized Mongolia, each a satellite of the other power that had been detached from China. The pact allowed both powers to draw down their border forces, making them available for other theaters.

One of these was southern French Indochina, which Japan occupied in July 1941, and the United States responded with an oil embargo. At this point, war was all but inevitable, as the United States was unable to build up enough forces in the Philippines to act as an effective deterrent before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Japanese leaders had gone to war knowing that the Axis could not hope to defeat and occupy the United States. Their war plan called for the swift conquest of southeast Asia, the establishment of an impenetrable defensive perimeter, and then peace negotiated from a position of strength. The attack on Pearl Harbor so enraged American public opinion that a negotiated peace was out of the question, but the Japanese did not even try. They should have done so at the peak of their strength, in the spring of 1942, when they had captured all their initial objectives and had not yet suffered their first serious setback at Coral Sea. In early April 1942, the Japanese Foreign Minister became concerned that Japanese forces were overextended and urged the Germans to settle with the Russians so that the Axis could concentrate against the Anglo-Americans. His appeals fell on deaf ears, and the Doolittle Raid resolved the power struggle between Yamamoto and the Navy General Staff in favor of Yamamoto's ambitious Midway operation, which proved disastrous for Japan.

Thereafter Japanese diplomacy was limited to its relations with the other Axis, with Russia, and with various factions in China, as well as puppet governments in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. All these diplomatic efforts must be judged unsuccessful. The Tripartite Pact never became an effective alliance. Russia was not deterred from intervening on the side of the Allies in the last days of the war. Neither the Kuomintang nor the Chinese Communists ever agreed to anything more than unofficial truces with the Japanese. Japanese diplomacy towards its puppet governments was so clumsy, overbearing, and demanding that virtually all the Asian nationalist movements had turned against Japan by the time the war ended.

Photograph of FDR and Hull

FDR and Cordell Hull, chief architects of American foreign policy.

National Archives #208-PU-17ST-7A. Via Utley (1985)

The United States emerged from the First World War with public opinion in favor of returning to the country's traditional isolation. There was a strong feeling that American intervention had been a mistake driven by Allied propaganda and the profiteering of arms manufacturers. As a result, the United States Senate never ratified the Versailles Treaty and the United States did not join the League of Nations. Neutrality laws were passed that prohibited any activities that might entangle the United States in another foreign conflict, including the shipping of arms to belligerent powers.

Public opinion in the United States turned against Japan in the 1930s as a consequence of the actions of her Army and Navy in China. 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 turned towards the Axis and sought to establish a closed economic sphere in east Asia that directly contradicted American commitment to the Open Door. The Open Door in turn was one manifestation of a liberal commercial world order based on free trade and competition that Hull championed as the best hope for a peaceful, prosperous world.

Roosevelt seems to have been ambivalent towards his own Secretary of State. As a former Senator from Tennessee, Hull was politically important to Roosevelt, who drew much of his support from the South. Roosevelt generally allowed Hull to run his own department, but Roosevelt was close to Sumner Welles, who as Under Secretary of State was Hull's number two man, and sometimes allowed Welles to undermine Hull. However, Roosevelt resisted the urging of his Treasury Secretary, Morgenthau, that Hull be appointed to a Supreme Court vacancy in February 1941 and replaced with the more hawkish Henry Stimson. Matters came to a head in 1943, when Hull arranged the leak of the fact that Welles had propositioned two African-American Pullman car porters in 1940. Welles was forced to resign, but Roosevelt all but shunned the State Department thereafter, and not a single senior State Department official was included in American delegation to the Teheran Conference of November 1943.

Strong isolationist feelings prevailed up to the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Though a majority of Americans favored aiding the Allies in Europe, a roughly equal majority opposed direct intervention. Though some of the neutrality legislation was repealed to permit American arms to be sent to the Allies, the Roosevelt administration had to tread very carefully in its dealings with Allied governments. However, as war loomed, the American military leadership held secret talks with the British in Washington, D.C. (the American-British Conversations or ABC of February 1941) and with the British and Dutch at Singapore (the ABD talks of 21-27 April 1941). These conversations did not go well, with the American military leaders wary of British proposals to bring U.S. forces under British control if war broke out in the Far East, and the British frustrated by the American military leadership's sensitivity towards the isolationist views of much of Congress.

In August 1941 Roosevelt met with Churchill off Newfoundland in what became known as the Atlantic Conference. Churchill attempted unsuccessfully to persuade Roosevelt to announce that he would ask Congress for a declaration of war if Japan attacked British possessions in the Far East. A milder ultimatum was rewritten at Hull's instigation to make no mention of conflict between the U.S. and Japan and instead emphasize the ongoing negotiations between Hull and Japanese ambassador Nomura.

However, public opinion in the United States was enraged by the attack on Pearl Harbor, which ended isolationism overnight and destroyed any possibility of a negotiated peace in the Pacific. The final Japanese surrender was all but unconditional, with negotiations limited to the exchange through the Swiss Government of vague guarantees that the Emperor would be retained as a figurehead.

Once war broke out, the formal diplomatic corps was all but submerged in the vast numbers of military planners, purchasing agents, propagandists and intelligence agents whose tasks in support of the war effort involved negotiations of one sort or another with foreign governments. Roosevelt "presided serenely over bureaucratic chaos" (Smith 1985), to the immense frustration of many of his subordinates.

Nevertheless, history records few alliances as successful as that between the British and Americans during the Second World War. The two countries shared a common language and many cultural elements, and both were liberal democracies, albeit with different political institutions. However, many of the serious disagreements that did exist between these two powers were centered in the Far East. Britain was determined to retain its Far East empire. The United States was fundamentally opposed to imperialism and was uninterested in restoring British prestige in its lost colonies. This led to some stormy infighting, particularly over the proper Allied objectives in Burma.

Relations with Australia and New Zealand were generally amicable. These two Commonwealth nations felt betrayed by the British failure to hold Singapore, and they turned to the United States for assistance with their defense. Australian troops fought alongside Americans in New Guinea and elsewhere and Australian and New Zealand warships operated virtually as a part of the United States Navy.

The United States was considerably less successful in its relations with China and Russia. Cooperation with China was severely hindered by the choice of Stilwell as Chiang's American adviser: Stilwell was an excellent infantry soldier and fluent in Chinese, but he was almost entirely lacking in tact. Chiang seemed to think he held all the cards, including the implicit threat to come to terms with the Japanese if the Americans failed to meet his demands. In the end, this backfired on Chiang. The Americans turned to the Russians to eject the Japanese from the Asian mainland, and the Russians effectively turned control of Manchuria over to the Chinese Communists. This was the beginning of the end for the Kuomintang on the mainland.

The Americans were almost completely unsuccessful in their efforts to encourage the Kuomintang and Communists to cooperate against the Japanese. Mao had calculated that Japanese successes against the Kuomintang were to the advantage of the Communists, and the few Western visitors to the Communist base areas (such as the Dixie Mission) were dazzled by a carefully constructed facade. Almost nothing came of these contacts.

Ironically, by the time the Russians intervened against Japan, the United States had already dropped its second nuclear bomb and Russian intervention was no longer entirely welcome. The Japanese surrender came quickly enough to prevent the Russians from seizing Hokkaido, but American diplomacy was unable to keep the Russians from seizing the Kuriles and Karafuto after the cease-fire.

Britain had been threatened by German forces just a few miles across the English Channel, and by bombers a few thousand feet overhead, for a year and a half by the time war broke out in the Pacific. As a result, the Far East was never much in public consciousness during the war. British strategists understood that it would ultimately be the advance across the Pacific by United States forces that would defeat Japan, and the chief British objectives in the war were to restore Britain's lost colonies and lost prestige. This meant that British forces in southeast Asia were chronically short of supplies, since the Americans had no interest in subsidizing British imperialism. Britain did succeed in recapturing Burma, but the war ended before Britain could regain Singapore. British prestige was not fully restored, and the days of the British Empire in the Far East, including India, were numbered.

Russian diplomacy in the Pacific was unusually cynical. Stalin supported the Kuomintang rather than the Chinese Communists because he calculated that the Kuomintang were in a better position to keep the Japanese bogged down in China. Likewise, the Russians often acted in a way that suggests they did not want to see the United States defeat Japan too quickly. For example, on 6 October 1944, the Japanese Ambassador in Moscow learned from the Soviet Foreign Office that the U.S. 14 and 20 Air Forces would shortly be making attacks designed to isolate the Philippines, a clear indication of where the next Allied move would be in the Pacific.

Chinese diplomacy prior to the Pacific War naturally sought to build an anti-Japanese bloc. Chiang first sought an alignment with Germany, then the Soviet Union, and finally the Western powers. The alignment with Germany was frustrated by the Anti-Comintern Pact of November 1937, which led to the withdrawal of German military advisers, the cancellation of arms contracts, and the recall of the German ambassador in June 1938. The Chinese then turned to the Russians, who signed a mutual nonaggression pact on 21 August 1937, at the height of the Second Battle of Shanghai. Russian aid followed, including $173 million in loans. However, the Nazi-Soviet Pact chilled relations with the Russians, though Stalin continued to see the Kuomintang as a useful counterweight against Japan. Chiang found himself in a dilemma: The West was finally becoming apprehensive of Japanese aggression, but Chiang feared to further alienate Moscow by aligning with the West. Matters came to a head when China failed to veto the motion to expel Russia from the League of Nations following the Winter War of 1939-1940, and Russian assistance to China slowed to a trickle.

In 1940 Chiang began the "Peace Offensive," an effort to solidify American support for China by convincing the United States that China was about to capitulate to Japan. Chiang saw to it that the Americans became aware of German efforts to mediate a settlement with Japan that included Chinese adherence to the Tripartite Pact. Chiang also exerted considerable pressure on the United States to reject a settlement with Japan that would have taken Japan out of the Tripartite Pact in return for concessions in China. However, it was the attack on Pearl Harbor that cemented the alignment with the United States.

U.S. diplomacy towards China was hindered by the enormous difficulty of providing any meaningful aid to China and by American insistence that the Kuomintang and the Communists should forget their differences and focus on defeating the Japanese. The United States had experienced peaceful changes of government for most of its short history, and even the experience of the American Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction taught Americans the wrong lessons about the schism in China. Few Americans comprehended how bitter was the division between the Kuomintang and Communists or how hopeless it was to expect either side to voluntarily yield any power to the other. U.S. diplomacy was further hindered by the tendency for T.V. Soong, the Foreign Minister and brother-in-law of Chiang Kai-shek, to water down communications from Washington to make them more palatable to Chiang.

Relations reached a low point on 29 June 1942 when Chiang presented the Americans with his Three Demands, which were minimum conditions for China to stay in the war: Three American divisions deployed to reopen the Burma Road; 500 combat aircraft deployed to China; and 5000 tons of supplies by air each month. It was months before the Himalaya airlift was able to supply 5000 tons per month; the aircraft strength of 14 Air Force was only about 200 aircraft as late as January 1943; and no American ground forces except Merrill's Marauders ever fought in Burma. Though Chiang was eventually persuaded to moderate his demands, they had the effect of neutralizing much of the leverage that would otherwise have been provided by Lend-Lease.

The Chinese Communists had their own foreign policy that never strayed far from the Russian line. With the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Mao condemned the war in Europe as unjust, and regarded any alliance with the West against Japan as a temporary tactical expediency in the larger struggle against imperialism. When Russia was invaded by Germany, any war against Fascism was now a just war, and alliance with the West a step towards a better world of peaceful coexistence.

Thereafter both the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists sought Western intervention that they believed would favor their side in the internal struggle. The climax of this effort for the Communists came with the Dixie Mission in June 1944. This provided the Communists an opportunity to put on a carefully staged propaganda show for the visiting Americans. However, the Dixie Mission was submerged by other events, particularly American general Patrick Hurley's abandonment of an agreement with the Communists in favor of a closer alignment with the Kuomintang. In a heated December 1944 interview with Colonel David Barrett, head of the Dixie Mission, Mao vilified Chiang and tried to blackmail the Americans with the threat of turning to Russia or England for aid. This backfired badly, and Communist relations with the United States rapidly deteriorated thereafter.

American leaders were divided in their views towards China. At one extreme was a clique of Far East specialists in the State Department, led by Stanley Hornbeck, who saw China as the most important issue in U.S. foreign policy and who blinded themselves to Chinese weakness. At the other extreme were American personnel based in China itself, led by Ambassador Clarence Gauss, who characterized favorable American propaganda about China as "rot" (Smith 1985). In the middle was Roosevelt and his advisers, who found Hornbeck's words useful for propaganda purposes but whose actions towards China reflected doubts about how great a role she could play in defeating Japan.

Major Allied diplomatic conferences










Felton (2009)

Hastings (2007)
Hsiung and Levine (1992)

Kehn (2008)

Marston (2005)
Morison (1958)

Peattie et al. (2011)
Prange (1981)

Romanus and Sunderland (1953)

Smith (1985)

Smith (2007)

Utley (1985)

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