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Was War With Japan Inevitable?

Collision Course — Washington Had a Diplomatic Solution to Prevent War With Japan. Why Was It Not Put Forth?

(Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

“A draft agreement promised a limited resumption of oil exports to Japan in exchange for a withdrawal of Japanese forces from southern Indochina. It was never passed along.”

By Dale A. Jenkins

ADOLF HITLER invaded Poland in September of 1939, precipitating a European war. Beginning in April of 1940, German forces captured Norway and Denmark. A month later Panzers rolled into the Netherlands, Belgium, France. Later that year, plans were hatched to invade Great Britain.

Amid the Blitzkrieg, the United States, although officially neutral, began to mobilize its army and navy. It would still take two years for these efforts to produce a meaningful force. The naval shipbuilding that started in 1940 would not put any ships in the fleet until the middle of 1942.

Initially, the Axis invasion of Russia in June of 1941 looked like yet another win for Hitler. The supposed best military minds in Great Britain and the United States thought the Third Reich would take Moscow by year’s end, that Russia would surrender, and that the Führer would perhaps make another invasion attempt against Great Britain in early 1942. The defeat of Great Britain would transform the Atlantic into a contested ocean and Germany might soon pose a direct threat to the United States.

Early on, President Franklin Roosevelt recognized Hitler as America’s mortal enemy, and he anticipated that the United States would eventually have to enter the European war. Japan, an ally of Berlin since 1940, had fewer resources than the United States (or even Germany). It was seen as the lesser threat.

The United States watch with growing concern as one European country after another fell to Hitler’s war machine. By 1941, America was arming for war with the Third Reich. (Image source:)

America’s army and navy commanders also expected the United States to enter the European war but counselled a policy of delay until the United States had time to rebuild its forces. They also stated clearly that a two-front war was to be avoided, while U.S. forces were to be amassed for the struggle.  As such, the United States should not take actions that could result in a war with Japan. They emphasized that Germany was the major threat and the first priority.

In 1940, Japan invaded northern Indochina. In July of 1941 it moved its army deeper into Southeast Asia, ultimately threatening Singapore. Roosevelt hoped to force Tokyo to withdraw through a series of economic measures.  The White House announced a qualified freeze on Japanese funds in U.S. financial institutions to prevent oil exports to Japan. Each request for funds transfer was to be evaluated. A denial to release money would punish Japan for the Indo-China occupation. However, if Japan changed course, funding requests for oil exports would be approved. Roosevelt said he wanted to bring Tokyo to its senses, not to its knees and was optimistic the policy would not lead to war with Japan.

Roosevelt’s policy towards Japan was headed up by Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Acheson, exceeding his mandate, imposed a total freeze on oil shipments from the United States. He expected this would force Japan out of southern Indochina. Japan, after all, imported almost all its petroleum; the bulk of it came from the United States. Washington even pressured other potential exporters to Japan to cut off the flow of oil, as well. The policy worked too well; Tokyo faced economic and military collapse. Washington might have softened its stance, but after years of European powers placating Hitler’s aggression having led to war, held fast. In effect, overruling Acheson smacked of appeasement.

From July of 1941 to late November, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull carried on unduly complicated diplomatic negotiations with Tokyo to halt further Japanese aggression and bring about a withdrawal of forces from southern Indochina. Yet for Japan’s military rulers, if a diplomatic solution could not be achieved, they were prepared to invade the Dutch East Indies to secure oil. To do so would require a preemptive attack on the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet, stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Japanese troops invade French Indochina. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

Independent of the oil cutoff, and after very comprehensive military and economic analysis,

After weighing its options, the Japanese leadership became convinced that the empire could not win a war with the United States. Its resources were paltry compared to the powerful U.S. industrial capacity. Defeat would be inevitable. Japan’s prime minister, Prince Fumimaro Konoe, struggled to achieve a diplomatic solution.

In August and September of 1941, Konoe tried desperately to schedule a summit meeting with President Roosevelt. He made a personal appeal outside normal diplomatic procedures. The prime minister was confident the two powers could come to an agreement. At one point, plans were in the works for a summit in Juneau, Alaska from Sept. 21 to 25.

Hull and Secretary of War Henry Stimson opposed a summit. Both men persuaded Roosevelt that initial negotiations should be carried out by junior diplomats. America’s ambassador to Tokyo, Joseph Grew, pursued an audience with the Japanese leadership. He later stated that had such a meeting taken place the Pacific War would have been avoided. The failure of Konoe to arrange a summit with Roosevelt led to the fall of his government. He was succeeded by War Minister Hideki Tojo. Foreign minister Shigenori Togo made continuous efforts to bring about a settlement. His coded messages to his diplomats in Washington emphasizing the point were intercepted and decrypted by U.S. intelligence, transcripts of which were available to Hull and Stimson.

Ambassador Grew warned:

“It would be hazardous to base our national policy . . . [on our assumption] that our economic pressure will not drive Japan to war . . . War between Japan and the United States may come with dangerous and dramatic suddenness.”[1]

Tokyo was caught in a dilemma. The Japanese were aware that the United States was rebuilding its armed forces and was growing steadily stronger in the Pacific. At the same time, the cessation of oil imports was making Japan weaker. Feeling that their backs were against the wall, the Japanese leadership set a deadline in late 1941: Without a diplomatic solution that allowed a resumption of oil imports Japan would invade the Dutch East Indies to get oil, even if that meant war with the United States.

In late November, under pressure from the Tojo government, Japan’s army agreed to withdraw from southern Indochina. The decision removed a major impediment to a diplomatic breakthrough with Washington. A draft agreement prepared by Hull effectively promised a limited resumption of oil exports to Japan in exchange for a withdrawal of Japanese forces from southern Indochina. It was never passed along. Delivery of such a draft note in late November of 1941 surely would have resulted in a settlement. War with Japan would have been avoided. The Japanese carrier fleet, ready to move across the north Pacific Ocean to attack Pearl Harbor, would have been recalled.

Hull circulated copies of the draft agreement to the Dutch, British and Chinese governments. The British were skeptical but ultimately amenable to an agreement. However, Chiang Kai-shek was adamantly opposed. He wanted U.S. manpower and arms in the war to support China. He made strident objections to Hull and to everyone in Washington, including the press, that could influence the government. Chiang stated:

“If . . . there is any relaxation of the embargo or freezing regulations, or if a belief of that gains ground, then the Chinese people would consider that China has been completely sacrificed by the United States. . . . Such a loss would not be to China alone.”[2]

Secretary Hull succumbed to the pressures brought by another country he perceived as an ally, but whose interests and goals differed from those of the United States. The draft he had intended to give the Japanese, which surely would have resulted in an agreement and avoided war, was dropped. Hull substituted a different note with a more onerous list of demands, to be known forever as the Ten-Point Note. The Japanese government interpreted this as an arrogant ultimatum. The result was Pearl Harbor and war.

U.S. Naval officer and veteran Dale A. Jenkins is the author of the forthcoming Diplomats and Admirals: From Failed Negotiations and Tragic Misjudgments,To Powerful Leaders and Heroic Deeds,The Untold Story of the U.S. Navy’s Victories at Coral Sea and Midway.

[1] Grew, Joseph C., Cable to Secretary of State, Nov. 4, 1941, Ten Years in Japan, Lightning Source UK Ltd. (paperback) p.406.

[2] Foreign Relations of the United States Diplomatic Papers, 1941,The Far East, Vol. IV, Chapter VI, Document 482

To The Shores of Tripoli

 The Barbary pirates, the Americans, and the payment of ransom:

One of the flags of the Barbary pirates
"America's history with the Barbary States of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers had been fraught with broken treaties. In 1784, Barbary pirates (named for their fe­rocity and their sailors who armed themselves with knives in each hand and one clenched between their teeth) boarded an American brig, Betsy, and imprisoned her crew. They subsequently captured two more American ships and demanded $60,000 (today's equivalent of $12 million) in ransom. Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. Minister (Ambassador) to France, advised against paying. He believed the action would increase rather than decrease the depredations. Congress chose ransom, paying a yearly tribute until 1800, but peace remained tenuous.

"In October 1800, the bashaw of Tripoli, Jussuf Caramalli (Yusuf Qa­ramalli), sent a letter to President Adams demanding an increase in tribute monies. Caramalli threatened additional attacks on American merchantmen otherwise. Without waiting for a response either from Adams or Jefferson, who was inaugurated March 1801, the bashaw cut down the flagstaff of the American consulate in Tripoli on May 14, 1801, and declared war on the United States. It was understood that only bombardment and a full blockade could undermine the bashaw's power. Two years passed in a dangerous game of cat and mouse. U.S. Navy ships patrolled the Barbary Coast, taking prizes as often as possible, but more frequently watching the enemy slip away into the safety of its harbors.

"On August 24th, 1803, the Philadelphia anchored at Gibraltar, and from there, began patrolling the Barbary Coast to seize enemy vessels. Bainbridge and his officers and crew met with success, but the ports remained safe havens for enemy ships that could slip past their pursuers. On October 31, 1803, the Philadelphia sighted an enemy vessel approaching Tripoli harbor. Determined to capture it, Bainbridge opted for a dangerous maneuver, ordering his ship to sail at full speed despite a harbor entrance filled with reefs and shoals. Soundings were regularly taken when a shout of 'half-six'' (fathoms) rang out. A moment later, the Philadelphia's bow struck a reef with such force that she was partially grounded. Because Bainbridge had deep water astern, he ordered all cannons thrown overboard to lighten the ship's load; the water casks were also jettisoned. The efforts failed. As the bashaw's gunboats approached, Bainbridge command­ed that the magazine be drowned and holes pierced in the hull to scuttle the vessel rather than have it taken as a prize. At five o'clock, his men hauled down the flag, and the captain surrendered rather than risk the lives of the crew.

"The bashaw's men immediately swarmed aboard, carrying off anything of value they could find and forcing the prisoners into gunboats. One of the in­vaders attempted to rip a miniature portrait of Bainbridge's wife from his neck, but the captain fought this final indignity with such force that the would-be thief fell overboard. After that, Bainbridge and his officers and crewmen were delivered to the streets of Tripoli, where they were pushed and dragged through screaming throngs until they reached the royal palace. The route was lined with men hurling abuse at the 'Amerikanos.' Wounded, bloody, and ill-clad, the three-hundred-fifteen prisoners had no cognizance of how lengthy their captivity would become.

"When the news reached America four months later, [influential Philadelphian] Charles [Biddle] began formulating a plan for rescuing the prisoners [which included his brother]. Intending to outfit a 'fast-sailing vessel,' he also proposed captaining it. Wiser heads prevailed, one being Jef­ferson, who suggested that the idea, though noble, was ill-advised and might further endanger the captives. Charles acquiesced to the President's wishes, but he chafed under the directive and later regretted acceding to it. Adding insult to injury, the bashaw's men refloated the Philadelphia, pulled the cannons from the harbor depths, and moored the vessel a quarter of a mile from the royal residence. The American ship became a symbol of the bashaw's defiance. Refit­ted, the frigate could be used against the United States Navy.

"In a conference with his superiors, Lieutenant Commander Stephen Deca­tur hatched a plan to destroy the Philadelphia before it became an enemy vessel. Decatur's strategy was fraught with danger. He asked for volunteers to sail with him aboard the ketch Intrepid. Disguised as a merchantman, the Intrepid would enter Tripoli Harbor, whereupon its captain and crew would board the Philadel­phia and set it ablaze. Seventy-two men immediately presented themselves for duty. …

"On February 16, 1804, amid light seas and favorable winds, the Intrepid approached Tripoli harbor. A Sicilian pilot capable of conversing with the Trip­olitans had joined the crew. Below decks, there was scarcely room to move; the provision of salted meat had turned rancid, leaving bread and water the sole sus­tenance. A gale lasting six days had nearly sunk the ketch, but the severe buffet­ing aided the Intrepid's disguise. Decatur had also set out draglines, slowing the ketch's progress to appear afflicted in the extreme. All but twelve of his men were hidden, most lying flat on the decks. The captain's orders had been methodical: once he and his men boarded the Philadelphia, they planned to search it deck by deck, then set the frigate ablaze before returning to the Intrepid and escaping back out to sea. Speed was essential. There were other seemingly insurmountable obstacles, one being that gunboats and galleys surrounded the Philadelphia.

Burning of the USS Philadelphia as painted (1897) by Edward Moran. (U. S. Naval Academy, Annapolis)

"The Intrepid made its laborious way into the harbor. When the ketch came within hailing distance of the Philadelphia, the Sicilian pilot commenced a long discourse detailing his ship's travails. The Tripolitans stationed aboard the Philadelphia were fooled. They even sent a boar to aid the unfortunate pilot. The moment Decatur and his men were within reach of the Philadelphia, they swarmed up her chain plates and then raced through the ship as planned, killing as many of the enemy as possible.

"Within twenty-five minutes, Decatur had taken possession of the Phila­delphia. Then came the moment for which all had prepared. Taking torches to the tar and pitch, they set fire to the American frigate. Decatur and his men barely had time to jump down into the safety of their ketch before the Philadel­phia erupted in flame. The Intrepid was so close to the burning ship the blaze almost consumed it as well. Pulling clear at the last minute, the men gave three cheers for victory, which roused the bashaw's men stationed on the gunboats. They opened fire on the retreating ketch as the entire bay turned orange-red, reflecting the burning Philadelphia. Hearing the noise, the prisoners who knew nothing of Decatur's actions assumed the worst.

"Peace and the captives' release remained elusive. Not until autumn 1804 was an equally daring plan put in motion. William Eaton, the American Naval Agent for Barbary, had become acquainted with Caramalli's deposed brother, Hamet, in Tunis while serving as American consul. Aided by American marines and a ragtag mercenary force of Greeks and Arabs, Eaton and Hamet marched five hundred miles through the Desert of Barca. They captured the stronghold of Derna, south of Benghazi, on April 27, 1805. Fearing that Eaton's force would take Tripoli next, Jusuf Caramalli sued for peace.

"A treaty finally secured, the American prisoners were released on June 4, 1805. They had been imprisoned for twenty months. When the news reached the United States, patriotic fervor knew no bounds."

Biddle Jackson and A Nation in Turmoil The Infamous Bank War
author: Cordelia Frances Biddle  
title: Biddle, Jackson, and A Nation in Turmoil: The Infamous Bank War  
publisher: Oxford Southern