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