Was America’s War with Japan Avoidable?

Around 12:30 p.m. on December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt rose before a joint session of Congress. Beginning the most famous speech in a lifetime of famous speeches, a somber Roosevelt said, “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of Japan.” He continued, “The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with the government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.”

Roosevelt’s depiction of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as a surprise has guided American understanding of that terrible day ever since. But while Japan was undoubtedly the aggressor, Roosevelt’s portrayal of the United States as solemnly working for peace was more than a little disingenuous. The Japanese attack, which to the Roosevelt Administration was only surprising in its time and location, was the result of a decade’s worth of tension between the two countries. Over the course of that decade, and especially in the final six months before Pearl Harbor, diplomats from both countries had blundered opportunities to find a peaceful solution to these differences.

The Rising Conflict

For more than half a century after the first American contact with Japan in the mid-19th century, relations between the two countries had been friendly.  But the relationship began to deteriorate as American and Japanese interests in the Pacific began to overlap. The United States had gained a presence in the Pacific at the turn of the 20th century with its acquisition of the Philippines, Hawaii and Guam. Additionally, American officials viewed China as an essential market for American goods and created the Open Door Policy, which stated that no country should attempt to monopolize trade with China for itself.

Japan, too, had expansionist plans. From 1904 to 1905, Japan fought and defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, a battle over competing interests in Korea and Manchuria (what today is northeastern China). A decade and a half later, Japan was rewarded for its participation in World War I with control over former German colonies in the Pacific. The real trouble began in 1931, when rogue Japanese army officers created a pretense for an invasion of Manchuria and quickly won a string of battles. The Japanese government, which likely did not authorize the attack, nevertheless accepted its results and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932.

Japan’s rationale for this move was manifold. Historian Anthony Kubek observed that the Japanese recognized that “Soviet Russia was moving vigorously to establish Communism in China” and not only saw Manchuria as a geographical buffer between itself and Russia, but considered occupying it as a way to curb communist influence. Historian Paul Schroeder noted further that Japan, Asia’s most Westernized country, viewed imperialism as “a typically Western solution” to its internal political and economic problems. Underlying all of this was Japan’s desire for a Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, an imperialist dream of a Japanese led and dominated alliance of Asian nations.

More conflict between the Japanese and Chinese broke out in 1937, and by 1938 Japan had conquered a significant portion of the Chinese mainland, committing widespread atrocities along the way. Throughout this period, American officials protested Japanese aggression and supported the Chinese, but Schroeder wrote that “the United States did not seriously consider stopping the Japanese advance by force of arms, or consider Japan as an actual enemy, until the Far Eastern war had become clearly linked with the far greater (and, to the United States, far more important) war in Europe.” This link was forged on September 27, 1940, when Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy.

The Tripartite Pact

The Tripartite Pact had three main components: Japan would give Germany and Italy a free hand in Europe, they would in turn give Japan a free hand in Asia and the three countries would agree to declare war if one of them was attacked by a country not already at war (this last clause clearly aimed at the United States). American officials, who were more concerned with events in Europe, found the agreement problematic because not only did it appear that Japan had committed itself to any future war between the United States and Germany, they also interpreted the Pact as an agreement between the European fascists and the Japanese militarists to collaboratively conquer the world.

But rather than representing a philosophical alignment with the Nazis, the Pact for Japan was an attempt to achieve it own goals, particularly its Co-Prosperity Sphere, by capitalizing on events in Europe. The war in Europe, begun in 1939, had set Germany against three nations that had conquered Asian territory: the Netherlands, France and Great Britain. During the first year of the war, Japanese Prime Minister Mitsumasa Yonai had refused to ally Japan with Germany, but subsequent German gains cast that strategy into doubt in the eyes of Japanese militarists. Schroeder observed that by the summer of 1940, “With Holland overrun, France crushed, and Great Britain likely to fall, it seemed that the whole of the Far East could be brought under Japanese hegemony almost by forfeit.” But to achieve this hegemony, “Japan would do well to co-operate with the European conqueror of the colonial powers.” Japan’s alliance with Germany, then, was a bet that the Germans would win the European war and that Japan could profit by it.

The Japanese had other motivations for signing the Pact. They hoped to improve their country’s tense relations with Russia, since the Russians were also allied with Germany. They further hoped that the Pact would help bring the war in China, which had become stalemated, to a conclusion on their own terms. The alliance, Japan believed, would improve their bargaining position over the China conflict with the United States, which was supporting the Chinese in their fight against the Japanese invaders.

Most importantly, the Japanese believed that the Pact would reduce the likelihood of war with the United States. This hope seems curious in light of Japan’s agreement to declare war on any country that attacked Germany, but Japan’s interpretation of this clause was much more flexible than it appeared. Indeed, it was more flexible than Germany wanted.

While the Japanese hoped to use the alliance with Germany to intimidate their enemies, they were not prepared to go to war on Germany’s behalf. In negotiations, Japan rebuffed German requests to agree to automatically declare war on the United States in the event of an American war with Germany. Instead, Japan attempted to explicitly stipulate its autonomy in deciding if, and to what extent, it would get involved in such a conflict. German and Japanese negotiators compromised on the public statement that they would aid each other in the event of an attack, while privately agreeing that Japan would be free to only enter a war if doing so corresponded to its own interests. In Japan, the Pact’s defenders cited this stipulation as evidence that the Pact reduced the chance of war with the United States. Without this assurance, the Pact would not likely have had the necessary support within the Japanese government.

Japan had allied with Germany on the basis of three assumptions: that Germany would win the war in Europe, that Russia would move into a closer alliance with the Axis and that the United States would be forced by the threat of a two-ocean war into compliance with Japanese plans in Asia. In short order, all of these assumptions would be proven wrong.

Japanese Expansion and American Reaction

Understanding Japan’s diplomatic and military decisions in this period is complicated by the country’s volatile political environment. Historian Thomas Fleming described the Japanese government as “torn between an expansionist army, a cautious navy, and moderate politicians who lived in constant fear of assassination by military extremists.” Japan’s increasingly aggressive decisions belied the considerable disharmony that existed among these factious groups on questions of war and peace.

In July 1940, Prime Minister Yonai resigned and was replaced by Prince Fumimaro Konoe (often spelled Konoye in contemporary sources). While Konoe was a moderate, his foreign minister, Yosuke Matsuoka, was a militarist who pushed for a more expansionist policy and advocated the alliance with Germany. The new administration’s first step was to station Japanese troops in northern French Indochina in late September 1940, just as the Tripartite Pact was being signed. Technically this move was the peaceful result of negotiations with the Vichy French government in Indochina (modern day Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), but in reality the Japanese only secured French agreement to their terms after threatening to invade. The United States responded to this development by embargoing scrap iron and some grades of petroleum, materials that resource-poor Japan needed.

Over the next several months, Japanese and American diplomats tried to negotiate a resolution to the growing tension between the two countries. Since the United States was supporting the Chinese resistance, Japan wanted America’s help to bring the war to a close, offering promises that Japanese troops would withdraw from parts of conquered China and that its interests in the region would be economic, not militaristic. And since American interests were still oriented towards Europe, America’s first priority was to gain Japanese assurance that the Tripartite Pact would not be invoked if the United States took more aggressive actions against Germany. But Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who led the American side of the negotiations, also took an increasingly rigid position on Japanese policy in China and considered the proposed Japanese concessions there insufficient to push China to discuss peace with Japan.

Meanwhile, Japan continued to face pressure from Germany to move against Allied possessions in the Pacific. Matsuoka traveled to Berlin in March 1941 to meet with top Nazis, who asked Japan to attack Singapore, a British posssession. But, according to Schroeder, Matsuoka was forced to tell the Germans that while he favored such a move, “he was hampered by strong pro-British and pro-American circles in Japan and by others who were very hesitant about any overt action which might bring the United States into the war.” Throughout these talks, the Germans held back a big secret from Matsuoka – their impending attack on Russia.

A Summer of Change

The German invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941 was a crushing blow to Japanese hopes. Not only did the invasion divert Germany from what Japan had considered its impending victory over the Allies, but Japan’s relationship with Russia became immediately more complicated, despite a recently signed non-aggression pact between the two. Soon after the invasion, Germany asked Japan to invade Siberia in order to pinch the Russians from both sides, just as Germany and Russia had done to Poland in 1939. Matsuoka, ever more isolated within the government, favored the move and argued for it directly with Emperor Hirohito.

But Matsuoka’s pleas were ignored. Japan, it was decided, would take action, but would move its troops southward, further into Indochina, rather than northward towards Russia. Even this decision did not have the full support of the Japanese government. Schroeder wrote that Konoe “though opposing the step, agreed to it largely as a sop to Japanese militarist extremists who wanted to go much farther.” But despite this expansion, Matsuoka’s entire foreign policy, especially his alliance with the Axis, had been discredited and he was replaced by Teijiro Toyoda in July 1941.

Former president Herbert Hoover later wrote that the appointment of Toyoda, who was much less militaristic than Matsuoka, “should have been a signal…that the atmosphere was much more favorable for ending Japanese aggression and restoring freedom to China.” Indeed, some within the Japanese government believed that Toyoda’s appointment would be a signal to the United States that Japan was getting serious about peace talks. But when combined with its aggressive posture in Indochina, Americans perceived Japan’s renewed peace offensive as duplicitous, although Schroeder observed that the discrepancy more accurately reflected  “Japan’s chronic ambivalence in foreign policy and of the deep rift between the Court party and the Army.”

American officials, now concerned that Indochina would be a jumping off point for further Pacific aggression, responded with what amounted to a complete embargo of resources, most importantly oil, to Japan. Although the embargo was not official, Japanese assets in the United States were frozen and the Japanese had to procure a license for any purchases of American exports. Fleming observed that the effect of these policies was that, “The Japanese now had to obtain a license for any product deemed useful to their war machine and another license to unfreeze the dollars to pay for it. This meant they had to go to both the State Department and the Treasury Department, leaving ample room for maximum bureaucratic foot-dragging.”

This move was not without its critics, including the American ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, and high-ranking members of the Navy including Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold Stark. These officials warned that the move both increased the likelihood of war and shortened the time in which it could be avoided.

Japanese Offers and American Ambivalence

The economic sanctions on Japan have for decades been cited as a primary cause for the coming of war, with the more conspiracy-minded claiming that starting a war with Japan was the Roosevelt Administration’s primary goal. The reality, however, was that the sanctions had their intended effect – they made Japan ready to compromise in negotiations with the Americans.

Historian F. C. Jones reported that Admiral Osami Nagano, Japan’s Chief of Naval Staff, told Emperor Hirohito that the sanctions would cripple Japan’s military and “urged that everything possible be done to reach a quick settlement with the United States.” But just as the Japanese were becoming more willing to negotiate, the Americans demurred. After the sanctions, Jones observed, “it was Tokyo which pressed for a settlement, while Washington held off.”

In early August 1941, Japan made an unprecedented proposal – that Prime Minister Konoe travel to meet face to face with President Roosevelt to discuss peace in the Pacific. A personal meeting, Konoe believed, would enable the two sides to frankly discuss their most critical differences and reach a mutually agreeable settlement. Grew cabled Washington on August 18, strongly urging Roosevelt to agree to the meeting, writing, “The good which may flow from a meeting…is incalculable.” A day later he reported, “It is possible…that the Japanese government has been forced to take this unprecedented step by virtue of the fact that Japan is economically nearing the end of her strength,” but he also warned that “even if Japan were faced with an economic catastrophe, there is no reason whatever to doubt that the Government however reluctantly would with resolution confront such a catastrophe rather than yield to pressure from a foreign country.” In other words, peace appeared closer than ever, but so did war.

Washington’s initial reaction to the proposal was unenthusiastic. Hull, particularly, disliked the idea, believing it to be insincere and pointless. But Roosevelt, who continued to be preoccupied with events in Europe, warmed to the proposal. In late August, Foreign Minister Toyoda sent a message to Kichisaburo Nomura, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, telling him “We have reached the point where we will pin our last hopes on an interview between the Premier and the President.” Konoe sent Roosevelt a personal letter, urgently requesting the meeting, to which Roosevelt reportedly replied, “I am looking forward to having approximately three days’ talk with Prince [Konoe].” For Japanese moderates, this was a very positive sign.

And none too soon. In Japan, Toyoda confided to Grew that a failure to secure a meeting between the two leaders would strengthen the pro-Axis elements within the government. But an unconvinced Hull worked to forestall the meeting, recommending that Roosevelt refuse to meet with Konoe until Japan agreed to Hull’s Four Points, a set of demands to Japan regarding equality, respect for national sovereignties and preservation of the status quo in Asia, principles that neither America nor its allies in the region strictly upheld. Hull’s suggestion, wrote  Schroeder,  “would effectively torpedo the conference, since whole idea behind it, according to the Japanese, was that agreements could be reached and undertakings assumed through a Leaders’ Conference which could not be made for political reasons through normal diplomatic channels and in talks held among subordinates.”

In early September, as American officials dragged their feet in officially agreeing to the meeting, Grew urged action. He reported that, in private conversations, Konoe had “conclusively and wholeheartedly” agreed to Hull’s Four Points. While acknowledging that this was an unofficial acceptance of Hull’s proposals, Grew encouraged Hull to accept it as a basis for the proposed meeting, writing, “only he can cause the desired rehabilitation to come about. In the event of a failure on his part, no succeeding Prime Minister…could achieve the results desired. Prince [Konoe] is therefore determined to spare no effort, despite all elements and factors opposing him, to crown his present endeavors with success…”

Later that month, with still no action, an increasingly desperate Grew tried again to convince Washington that the tide in Japan had turned, writing,

Japan is now endeavoring to get out of a very dangerous position in which it has enmeshed itself by pure miscalculation. …the impact upon Japan of developments abroad, has rendered the political soil of this country hospitable to the sowing of new seeds. If these seeds are now carefully planted and fostered, the anticipated regeneration of thought in Japan, and a complete readjustment of the relations between our two countries may be brought about.

Grew argued that American inaction or rigidity would discredit Konoe and his cabinet. “In such a contingency, ” he predicted, “the fall of the present Government and the coming into power of a military dictatorship which would have neither the disposition nor the temperament to avoid a clash with the United States would be the logical result…”

The British ambassador to Japan, Sir Robert Craigie, supported Grew in this conclusion. Writing to his superiors in London, Craigie observed,

The main difficultly appears to be that, while the Japanese want speed and cannot yet afford to go beyond generalizations, the Americans seem to be playing for time and to demand the utmost precision in definition before agreeing to any contract for a step of rapproachment…

My United States colleague [Grew] and I consider that Prince [Konoe] is sincere in his desire to avert the dangers towards which he now sees the Tripartite Pact and the Axis connection (for which he naturally accepts his share of responsibility) are leading Japan. …The Prime Minister has staked his political future on this move… Despite the Emperor’s strong backing, I doubt if he and his government…survive if the discussions prove abortive or drag on unduly.

The Fall of Konoe

Events in Japan soon proved Grew and Craigie right. In early September, Japanese militarists gave the moderates a month to secure the proposed Konoe-Roosevelt meeting. In August and September, Konoe and Toyoda, hoping to induce Roosevelt to agree to the meeting, submitted proposals that promised no further military expansion and that Japanese troops would pull back from Indochina and parts of China once peace with China was concluded. These proposals failed to impress Hull, who asked for more overt expressions of Japan’s desire for peace. In internal discussion, Konoe favored promising to completely withdraw troops from China within two years, but was overruled by his opponents, led by the soon-to-be infamous Hideki Tojo.

By early October, with the internal deadline approaching and American responses unencouraging, Konoe, according to his secretary, “was at a loss to know what further he could do.” On October 16, Konoe resigned as prime minister. Reacting to the news, Grew wrote, “I knew that the failure of progress in the American-Japanese conversations would almost certainly bring about [Konoe’s] fall… [but] I had not looked for it so soon.” Konoe, too, was despondent over his failure, telling the Associated Press after the war, “I felt confident that if I had been able to see Mr. Roosevelt I could have established a basis for intervention of the [Emperor] in the rising war tide within Japan at the time.” Hoover subsequently wrote that “Postwar documents…show clearly that [Konoe] had commitments from the Emperor and the Navy that they would back him in any terms he might make to get peace, even to [the] defiance of the Army.”

In light of the negotiations, Grew later questioned whether his superiors really wanted peace, recalling that his messages urging Washington to negotiate with Konoe “seldom brought a response; they were rarely even referred to, and reporting to our Government was like throwing pebbles into a lake at night; we were not permitted to see even the ripples.” He concluded, “I could only assume that our recommendations were not welcome…” That peace may not have been the ultimate aim of officials in Washington is evidenced in a note by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, long a proponent of war with Japan, which stated his opinion that “while I approve of stringing out negotiations…they should not be allowed to ripen into personal conference between the President and P.M.”

Grew’s prediction that conversations with Konoe could normalize relations with Japan wasn’t given the chance to come true. His prediction that Konoe’s fall would bring about a military dictatorship in Japan proved tragically accurate. Tojo, the militarist, became prime minister.

Proposals, Counter Proposals and War

While Tojo and the militarists believed, just as some Americans did, that war was inevitable, Emperor Hirohito instructed him to try one last time to negotiate peace with the United States. Schroeder noted, however, that the two countries could not even agree on what they were negotiating, with the Japanese “urging that the United States recognize the ‘realities’ of the Far Eastern situation and the critical stage which the conversations had reached” while “American spokesmen, notably Roosevelt and Hull, answered arguments on ‘realities’ with little sermons on moral principles and long-range reforms.” Schroeder continued, “Beneath all the tension was the inescapable fact that Japan’s oil reserves were dwindling day by day and therefore that her time for decision between submission to the American demands and war was growing ever shorter.”

Japan’s last ditch effort to avoid war was two proposals, unimaginatively titled Proposal A and Proposal B, that were submitted to the United States on November 7th and November 20th. American officials, thanks to the work of codebreakers, not only knew the contents of both proposals before they were submitted, but also that they were, in Schroeder’s words, “Japan’s last countermove and that the alternative to [their] acceptance was war. They were also aware that the crucial issue in Tokyo was still the same – the problem of occupation of China – on which point the Imperial Army refused to give way.”

The first proposal committed Japan to “non-discrimination in trade” in compliance with the Open Door Policy, to an interpretation of the Tripartite Pact that would not require Japan to get involved if war developed between the United States and Germany and to the withdrawal of Japanese troops from parts of China upon the conclusion of peace between the two countries. Hull, knowing full well the height of the stakes, responded with yet another lecture.

On November 20, Japan submitted its second and final proposal. Proposal B was a modus vivendi, a short term agreement that sought to solve the most pressing matters while allowing time to continue negotiations on long-term goals. It offered a Japanese withdrawal from southern Indochina – a reversal of the move that had precipitated the economic sanctions in the first place – and promised a complete withdrawal from all of French Indochina upon the conclusion of peace between Japan and China. In the interim, Japan sought relief from the economic sanctions and the end of “actions as will be prejudicial to the…restoration of general peace between Japan and China.”

Hull was again unmoved, believing that American acceptance of the proposal would be tantamount to partnering with Japan in its war in China. In this opinion, Hull ignored that the proposal was intended to address only the most immediate concerns and left the rest, including the situation in China, open to further negotiation. Furthermore, wrote Schroeder, the war in China continued

mainly because the United States, determined that Japan should not have her way in China, was sustaining the Chinese war effort and refusing to approve the Japanese peace terms. The reason for the war’s continuance was not simply an obstinate refusal on the part of Japan to stop fighting, but the American insistence on terms which the Japanese considered tantamount to complete surrender, and therefore unacceptable.

The idea of a short-term agreement had advocates in the United States. Even before Proposal B was submitted, Roosevelt favored a modus vivendi proposal of his own, stipulating the flow of some goods, namely rice and oil, to Japan in return for Japan not invoking the Tripartite Pact should the United States go to war with Germany. This proposal, which would have lasted for six months, was gutted by the State and Treasury Departments thanks in no small part to the efforts of two covert communist agents, Harry Dexter White and Laughlin Currie. Even in its revised and neutered form, representatives from other countries, particularly China, objected and the modus vivendi was abandoned. American officials now braced for the coming war, with Stimson writing after a meeting of the War Council on November 25, that the United States’ goal was now to figure out “how we should maneuver them into firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.”

The modus vivendi scrapped, Hull’s official response to Proposal B was a 10 point ultimatum which, in addition to outlining several steps towards the restoration of economic relations, stipulated the immediate withdrawal of Japanese troops from China and Indochina. Nobody within the government believed the proposal would be accepted, containing as it did demands which Schroeder wrote had never before been “presented…in so bald and sweeping a fashion.”

In Japan, Stimson’s problem of maneuvering Japan into firing the first shot was solved. The militarists had set a deadline for an agreement for November 25th, which had been extended to November 29th. But the American response made it clear that no agreement was forthcoming, and so the moment of decision, to fight or submit, had arrived. Japan, as Grew predicted, would fight. The day of infamy would come.

Why Did Negotiations Fail?

In the years since World War II it has been assumed that war between Japan and the United States was not only unavoidable, but that Japan’s incorrigible aggression was the sole cause for it. And while it cannot be denied that Japan was aggressively expansionist during this time, American diplomats’ failure to avoid war has been mostly forgotten, as have the questions of whether or not war with Japan accomplished America’s diplomatic goals.

Much of the failure was due to Hull’s inflexibility in demanding that Japan immediately and totally submit to America’s terms, a strategy that was especially tragic in the latter stages of negotiations. Schroeder observed that by November 1941, “Japan was clearly asking for less” than it previously had, while “the United States was demanding more.” Early in the negotiations, America’s goals of neutralizing Japan’s relationship with Germany and curbing its expansionary movements in the Pacific were, in Schroeder’s words, not only “in accordance with America’s broad strategic interests; both were reasonable, attainable goals.” But just as Japan became more willing to negotiate on these points, Hull made America’s top priority the immediate evacuation of all Japanese troops from China, a goal which Schroeder believed “was not in accord with American strategic interests, was not a limited objective, and, most important, was completely incapable of being achieved by peaceful means and doubtful of attainment even by war.”

Hull did not appreciate, as Grew did, that Japan’s situation was markedly different beginning in June 1941 than what it had been at the beginning of the year. Japan’s diplomatic alliances had been a disaster, there was no decisive victory over the Chinese in sight and American sanctions threatened to cripple its military and economy. Grew believed, wrote Schroeder, that “enough awareness of failure existed in the government of Japan in late 1941 to enable it to make a beginning in the process of reversal of policy – but not nearly enough to force Japan to a wholesale surrender of her conquests and aims.” It was perhaps the start of a change in Japanese policy, and the United States had the opportunity to offer support to those inside Japan who could effect that change. Yet Hull, obsessed with reforming Japan immediately, offered the moderates no support, and ignored his own country’s immediate interests in the process.

Schroeder concluded,

In the attempt to gain everything at once, the United States lost her opportunity to secure immediately her essential requirements in the Far East and to continue to work toward her long-range goals. She succeeded only in making inevitable an unnecessary and avoidable war – an outcome which constitutes the ultimate failure of diplomacy.

In the years following the war, several prominent Americans concurred in this opinion, among them former president Hoover and Generals Douglas MacArthur and Albert Wedemeyer.

This tendency to subordinate American interests to goal of reforming other countries did not originate (nor end) with Hull. Diplomatic historian George Kennnan observed that this “moralistic-legalistic approach to international problems….runs like a red skein” through America’s foreign policy in the 20th century. This approach, Kennan said, assumes that “instead of taking the awkward conflicts of national interest and dealing with them on their merits with a view to finding the solutions least unsettling to the stability of international life, it would be better to find some formal criteria…by which the permissible behavior of states could be defined.”

But, he continued, this method of diplomacy, even as purports to secure peace, “makes violence more enduring, more terrible, and more destructive to political stability than did the older motives of national interest.” Rather than undertake diplomacy on vague moral terms, Kennan wrote that American diplomats should have had “the modesty to admit that our own national interest is all that we are really capable of knowing…”

With this in mind, Kennan remarked,

surely it cannot be denied that had FDR been determined to avoid war with the Japanese, he would have conducted American policy quite differently, particularly in the final period… He would not have tried to starve the Japanese navy for oil. And he would have settled down to some hard and realistic dealings with the Japanese, instead of letting them be deluged and frustrated by the cloudy and unintelligible moralisms of Hull.

Kennan, as mainstream a commentator as one could find, concluded that “a policy carefully and realistically aimed at the avoidance of a war with Japan…would certainly have produced a line of action different from that which we actually pursued and would presumably have led to different results.”

Other Considerations

Even if war was not ultimately avoidable, it was in America’s interest to delay its onset for as long as possible. After the war, General George Marshall testified that he and Admiral Stark expressed a desire for the administration to agree to a modus vivendi that would delay the coming of war by a few months. Marshall and Stark believed that American forces were not prepared to prosecute a war in the Pacific, concerns borne out by heavy American losses at the beginning of the war. This unpreparedness was in part due to Roosevelt’s policy of shuttling as much aid as possible to Soviet Russia, even at the expense of his own forces. Hull himself admitted that the two officers “pleaded for more time.”

It is further possible that even a slight a delay could have prevented a Japanese attack altogether. Historian Lloyd Gardner observed that the German army’s failure to take Moscow in December 1941 would have cast further doubt on the earlier Japanese belief in a Germany victory in Europe. Armed with this new evidence, the moderates in Japan might have had even more ammunition to alienate and discredit the militarists and their partnership with the Nazis.

It might be objected that focusing solely on American interests would have harmed the Chinese, especially if it meant forcing them to come to peace terms with the Japanese invaders. But the coming of the war, and even the winning of it, did not obviously advance the interests of Chinese citizens. Schroeder wrote,

What China required above all by late 1941 was clearly an end to the fighting, a chance to recoup her strength. …[Chinese leader] Chiang Kai-shek could hope only for an end to the war through the massive intervention of American forces and the consequent liberation of China. …Chiang’s hopes, however, were wholly unrealistic…the Washington government never intended in case of war to throw America’s full weight against Japan in order to liberate China.

Indeed, from Pearl Harbor until the defeat of Germany, American officials prioritized the defeat of Hitler over the defeat of the Japanese, the European theater over the Pacific. Supplies to the European powers, including Soviet Russia, took precedence over supporting the Chinese throughout the war, even as the Chinese government struggled not only against the Japanese, but also Chinese communists who had been waging a civil war against the nationalist government since the 1920s.

While America’s diplomacy was purportedly for the benefit of China, that was not its effect. Schroeder concluded, “If…the task was one of doing concrete good and giving practical help where needed, especially to China, then the American policy falls fatally short. For it can easily be seen not only that the policy followed did not in practice help China, but also that it could not have been expected to.”

Moreover, the war’s ultimate result, the destruction of Japan, also destroyed the balance of power in the Pacific, and it was into this vacuum that the Chinese communists stepped, supported by Soviet Russia and encouraged by an unwitting United states. The communist regime would go on to cause the deaths of more than 40 million Chinese and aided in the spread of communism to other Asian countries. In retrospect, it’s not at all obvious that the outcomes of American diplomacy in the Pacific were preferable in the long run to the alternatives.

A Word on Conspiracy Theories

A critical treatment of the lead-up to Pearl Harbor can’t be closed without considering the conspiracy theories that surround American diplomacy of the period. The most prevalent is the so-called “Back Door to War” theory, the idea that Roosevelt, unable to get Americans to sign on to another war in Europe, duped Japan into attacking the United States in order to enter World War II by “the back door.” Proponents of this view cite circumstantial evidence that, while inconclusive, is hard to completely ignore.

It must first be acknowledged that Roosevelt undeniably did want to enter the war in Europe and it is true that members of his administration viewed war with Japan as a way to accomplish that goal. In June 1941, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes told Roosevelt that “there might develop from the embargoing of oil to Japan such a situation as would make it not only possible but easy to get into this war in an effective way.”

In this light, Roosevelt’s decision to move the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor in the summer of 1940 can be interpreted as intentionally inviting a Japanese attack. The fleet’s commander, Admiral James O. Richardson objected to the decision, saying that the fleet should be kept in San Diego and doubting that it would be much more than a sitting duck at Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt fired Richardson over these objections, and Richardson in turn held Roosevelt personally responsible for the nearly 3,000 lives lost during the subsequent Japanese attack.

Also perplexing are the breakdowns in communication in the hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the week leading up to it, Americans decoded messages that indicated that an attack was coming, although the date and place were not clear. By the morning of December 7, there were enough indications of an imminent attack that the commanders at Pearl Harbor should have been alerted if for no other reason than to take precautionary measures. But critical communication delays prevented commanders at Pearl Harbor from being informed of the threat.

Despite these abnormalities, the Back Door to War theory is unproven, and likely unprovable. Given the opinions of people like Ickes and Roosevelt’s obvious desire to enter the European war, the suggestion of a scheme to trick the Japanese (and Americans) into war is not entirely implausible. But the weight of evidence required to conclusively prove that accusation does not exist, and is contradicted by other factors.

One other theory that bears consideration is the role of communists in fostering war between the United States and Japan. In 1935, William Bullitt, then America’s ambassador to Russia, wrote to Hull that it was “the heartiest hope of the Soviet Government that the United States will become involved in war with Japan.” Bullitt predicted that the Soviets would like to see Japan “thoroughly defeated and would then merely use the opportunity to acquire Manchuria and Sovietize China,” predictions that proved more than a little accurate.

By December 1941, dozens of communists had infiltrated the Roosevelt Administration, and these secret agents undermined American interests in favor of the Soviets’ throughout the war. Some of these agents, including Harry Dexter White, worried in November 1941 that Roosevelt’s modus vivendi idea would result in peace between the United States and Japan, and worked to undermine it. When Hull responded with his ten point ultimatum to Japan, virtually rejecting Japan’s final peace offer, the points were similar to, and perhaps based on, a memo drafted earlier in the year by White. Anthony Kubek theorized that communists working within the American government sought to get the American-Japanese war started in order to reduce the risk of a Japanese attack on Russia, thus freeing up Russian troops fight the Nazi onslaught. There is some evidence that Richard Sorge, a communist spy in Tokyo, worked towards this same goal through his influence within the Japanese government.

The communist conspiracy, like the Back Door to War theory, remains unproven, and it’s not clear that communists within the government had enough power to actually determine, rather than merely influence, American policy. The rejection of the modus vivendi was, after all, not primarily due to communist influence, but to the opposition of representatives from other countries.

While there are troubling questions raised by both of these theories, neither is necessary for a critical view of American diplomacy in the lead-up to war with Japan. Chances for peace and for securing American interests were missed, regardless of speculations of the motivations of the people involved.

Note: This article is part of a series on World War II. Click here for the complete series and here for a selected bibliography

(Cover photo courtesy Los Angeles Times)