"The navy cannot afford to fight. There is a feeling that, if possible, the navy would want to avoid a Japanese-American war. If we pass up this opportunity, war will be impossible to avoid."The die was cast nearly three months earlier. On September 6, 1941, an imperial conference was held in Tokyo with the Emperor, prime minister, foreign minister, finance minister and the army and navy ministers, along with their chiefs of staff. The outcome was Hirohito's approval of "Essentials for Carrying Out the Empire's Policies", a document agreed to three days earlier by the members of his government. It provided:
- Rear Admiral Takamatsu Nobuhito to his brother, Emperor Hirohito; November 30, 1941, seven days before Pearl Harbor
1.The empire would not refrain from war with the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands and would prepare for war.The attached document contained Japan's negotiating demands and limits of concessions, including:
2. While those preparations moved forward, the empire would try its utmost in diplomatic efforts with the United States and Britain, guided by an attached document.
3. If diplomatic efforts did not succeed by early October, the empire would launch a war at the end of October with the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands.
Noninterference by the United States in Japan's war settlement with ChinaBy placing war preparations ahead of diplomacy, the September 6 conference set Japan on the path towards Pearl Harbor, despite the private misgivings of many of those in attendance, including Hirohito, a story told in riveting fashion by Eri Hotta, in her 2013 book, Japan 1941: Countdown To Infamy. While most of the author's research is not new, she has pieced it together into a compelling narrative.
A request to close the Burma Road [Nationalist China's main line of supply to the outside world]
Japan's promise not to use French Indochina as a base for further military advances into SE Asia
As long as the Soviet Union remained neutral regarding Japan, Japan would not use force against it.
(Eri Hotta, from Random House)
Ms Hotta is clearly distressed by her story; of a government blundering its way into a conflict with the United States, making choice after choice that narrowed its options, panicking when faced with deadlines it had needlessly imposed upon itself, with no coherent strategy for achieving victory and with most of the major players having little confidence in achieving it in any case. With its emphasis on not saying publicly and directly what many thought privately, the system as described by Hotta, led to disaster for Japan, as she concludes:
Japan's leaders must be charged with the ultimate responsibility for initiating a war that was preventable and unwinnable.By the summer of 1941, Japan had been at war in China for four years; a conflict it anticipated winning quickly. Instead, its army was bogged down, inflicting defeat after defeat on Chaing Kai-Chek's forces, but with little long-term gain to show for it, while suffering significant losses, and at great economic cost. The thoughtless way Japan entered into war in 1937 was to be duplicated in 1941, even as the principals in those discussions knew the 1937 decision was a mistake and refused to draw the obvious lessons.
In preparation for the September imperial conference, the army and navy chiefs of staff were called to a meeting with Hirohito on the prior afternoon to explain the war plan. Hotta reports the following interchange between Army Chief of Staff Sugiyama and Hirohito, whom she describes as "displaying the incisiveness he was capable of when utterly compelled - which did not happen often", when the emperor inquired of the duration of the planned war:
Sugiyama: Sir, we intend to complete [our mission] in the South Seas in three months.Sugiyama had no good response yet, once again, the implications were not engaged by the participants.
Hirohito: When the China Incident broke out, you were our army minister. I remember you telling me then that the conflict would be over in about a month. But after four long years, it hasn't ended!
Sugiyama: China has a huge hinterland. That was why we couldn't carry out our plans as we had originally envisioned.
Hirohito: If you say that China has a huge hinterland, the Pacific Ocean is even bigger. On what basis are you now telling me three months?
How had Japan reached this situation in September 1941? Partly due to its baffling governmental structure which seemed designed to maximize the ability of its members to avoid clear responsibility, and to the role of the "all-powerful" emperor, which, in reality, was limited by his courtiers who wished to shield Hirohito and the reputation of the throne from the dangers of Japanese politics. Government cabinets consisted of both civilians and military, and technically all ministers reported individually to the emperor, including the army and navy ministers. Parliament had been neutered through a series of actions in the 1920 and 30s, and the military carried inordinate power in decisions.
Partly due to history. Since the late 1800s, Japan sought territorial expansion on the Asian mainland. In 1910, it annexed Korea, beginning a brutal occupation that only ended in 1945, and which Koreans resent to this day. In 1931, the army launched a coup in the northeastern China province of Manchuria (see The Mukden Incident), taking over the entire region and establishing a puppet government. Six years later, the army used an incident near a bridge outside Peking to launch an attack on the rest of China. That war was to last eight years, creating a quagmire for Japan and resulting in the death of more than ten million Chinese soldiers and civilians due to combat, torture, massacre, biological warfare, starvation and flooding.
Throughout the 1930s, the United States became more disenchanted with Japan. It furiously denounced the occupation of Manchuria, and the China war that began in 1937 evoked a great deal of American sympathy for the Chinese (don't underestimate the impact of Pearl Buck's 1931 novel, The Good Earth, the best selling novel in America for two years, and its successful 1937 film adaptation, in creating a favorable image of China).
At the same time, the militarization of Japan proceeded apace, fed by a growing fear of encirclement by its perceived enemies; the United States, the British Empire, the Netherlands and the Soviet Union. To neutralize this threat, Japan grew closer to Nazi Germany. After the fall of France in June 1940, Japan saw an opportunity to improve its position in Southeast Asia and occupied the northern part of French Indochina (what was later North Vietnam and Laos) on September 23, 1940.
Japan's move prompted immediate retaliatory action by the United States just three days later - increasing economic support to China and embargoing scrap metal exports to Japan. The following day, Germany, Italy and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, After realizing it would not be able to invade Britain, Germany became the driving force in arranging the Pact, seeing an alliance with Japan as a way to deter the U.S. from entering the European war, while Japan viewed it as providing a balancing alliance against its enemies and improving its negotiating position with the U.S. Initially opposed to the alliance, the navy assented once it was clear that the Pact did not automatically require Japan to participate in a war if Germany was attacked, and by the promise of a large budget increase.
It was an enormous miscalculation. Japan's membership in the Tripartite Pact convinced the American government that Japan was an enemy and the goal of U.S. negotiations became to obtain Japanese repudiation of the Pact. These miscalculations were only to grow over time, a curious situation in light of the American connections of many senior government officials. For instance:
(Prime Minister Konoe from britannica)
- Prime Minister Konoe, head of government for most of the period from 1937 to 1941, whose eldest son attended Lawrenceville Prep and then went on to Princeton.
- Foreign Minister Matsuoka emigrated to America as a 13-year old, living in Portland and Oakland with American families, with whom he remained close, converting to Methodism and obtaining a law degree from the University of Oregon, graduating second in his class.
- Admiral Yamamoto, planner of the Pearl Harbor attack, attended Harvard from 1919 to 1921, was posted to Japanese embassy in Washington from 1926 to 28, a great admirer of the U.S., who personally identified with Abraham Lincoln.
For that reason, FDR did not want to trigger a war with Japan and, in the event of war involving both Germany and Japan, it was already agreed that America's primary effort would be directed to the defeat of Germany (the figure often used was 85% of American resources for the European conflict). Even within this framework, there was an ongoing tension between FDR and the military. FDR's aggressive diplomacy, including embargoes, raised fears among the military that our diplomatic actions were too far ahead of our relatively weak military capacities in the Pacific, and they worried that if war did come, our forces would be overwhelmed.
The critical turning point was July 1941. On June 22, Germany, to Japan's surprise, attacked the Soviet Union. Initial reports anticipated a decisive Nazi victory and the attack also eliminated the risk of any Soviet attack against the Japanese army in Manchuria (for more on this, read The Secret of Khalkin Gol). The government saw an opportunity to further bolster its strategic position in Southeast Asia, deciding to occupy the southern portion of Vichy French Indochina. It was viewed as a low risk, high return operation that would provide access to more natural resources and bringing Japanese forces within range of the strategic British naval base at Singapore and the oil fields of the Dutch East Indies.
Even then, not every element of the government did not agree with the Indochina action. Though the language of the document approved at the imperial conference on July 2, included this stirring passage, "The Empire shall not flinch from war with Britain and the United States", the navy was not in agreement, though it did not voice its dissent at the conference. After the meeting, the Vice Navy Minister recorded this conversation:
"I was surprised [at the 'shall not flinch' passage] and asked Navy Minister Oikawa about it. He said he was against war, but considering the army's general preoccupation with the north . . . we had to say that much to stop the policy from slipping out of [the traditionally south-inclined] navy's control."Throughout these months, Minister Oikawa was to repeatedly express his reservations about the drift towards war, but mostly privately, and even when doing so in conference, always tempering his comments. Though constantly complaining, he refused to resign, which would have sent a strong signal to the emperor, and triggered the fall of the cabinet.
(Navy Minister Oikawa)
In advance of the formal occupation, President Roosevelt met on July 24 with Nomura, Japan's Ambassador to the U.S., telling him that if Japan refrained from entering southern Indochina, he would obtain declarations from China, Britain, the Netherlands and the U.S., declaring all of Indochina neutral and thus reducing Japan's fear of encirclement. This proposal never reached the cabinet in Tokyo.
The Japanese were taken aback by the ferocity of the American response; freezing Japan's assets in the U.S., naming General Douglas MacArthur to head the new U.S. Army Forces in the Far East command and, most importantly, embargoing petroleum exports from America to Japan. This was potentially devastating, as more than 90% of Japan's oil supplies came from the U.S., and without adequate supply its navy would be immobilized.
Though many in government realized a mistake had been made, and a withdrawal could have be done easily, particularly as no blood had been spilled in the occupation, no one person took it upon themselves to push for it. Hotta writes:
Despite surface bravado, there was now a growing sense within the military that the southward advance had been an error in judgment. Although no leaders would assume blame for the mistake, they would have conceded to a reversal, especially if diplomatically arranged.Typical of the confused and contradictory approach were the statements of Navy Chief of Staff (and former Navy Minister) Nagano to the emperor, when they met to review the war plan on July 31. Nagano told Hirohito he was opposed to war with the U.S., as well as to Japan participating in the Tripartite Pact, but also said, "If our petroleum supplies were cut off, we would lose our stock in two years", so there was "no choice but to strike", though "I am uncertain as to any victory".
Misgivings and bad news continued to mount in August. Prime Minister Konoe told a confidant :
I have made a big mistake on Japan's relations with China. I am so ashamed and cannot face up to my ancestors. I do not want to repeat such a mistake. And I want to avoid war with the United States at all costs.The same month, Army Minister Tojo, who became Konoe's successor as PM on October 17, received a report from the War Economy Research Office finding that America's industrial economy was 20 times the size of Japan's (other estimates placed it as much as 50 times bigger). A prolonged war with the U.S. was unwinnable for Japan.
Near the end of the month, a team from the Total War Research Institute met with the cabinet at Konoe's home. For six weeks they had investigated the country's war making capabilities and run a simulation of a U.S.-Japan war. Over a period of more than ten hours, they reviewed, in detail, their findings with the top government officials, concluding that Japan would definitely lose a war with the United States after winning a few initial battles. Yet this unwinnable war was made inevitable by the imperial conference decisions just ten days later.
The dual track thinking and a growing sense of panic continued beyond September 6, as government ministers realized they had trapped themselves by the war encouraging decision made at the imperial conference.
Even as the plans for Pearl Harbor were advancing, Admiral Yamamoto was telling naval staff, "a war with so little chance of success should not be fought." On September 29, he told Chief of Staff Nagano:
. . . it is evident that a U.S. - Japanese war is bound to be protracted. The United States will not give up fighting as long as Japan had the upper hand. The war will last for several years. In the meantime, Japan's resources will be depleted, battleships and weaponry will be damaged, replenishing materials will be impossible . . . Japan will be impoverished.(Yamamoto)
Hotta writes that the liaison conferences between the services "were becoming a tragic farce of keeping up appearance for appearances sake". Chief of Staff Nagano told Minister Oikawa privately on October 2 that he preferred to avoid military confrontation, but at October 4 liaison conference demanded, "We should [set a timetable for war] right away!".
Two days later Navy leaders met and agreed it was "folly to start a war with the United States" and the army should begin withdrawing forces from China.
On October 7, the Army and Navy Ministers met. Regarding the war plan, Tojo told Oikawa, r"If the navy is not confident, we must reconsider it." The following day, Tojo lamented to the Navy Minister:
"We've lost tens of thousands of lives over the China Incident. To withdraw seems an unbearable option. And yet if we do go to war with the United States, we will lose tens of thousands more. I am thinking about withdrawing troops, but I just cannot decide."At almost the same time, the commander in chief of Japan's army in China sent a message to Tokyo urging it to accept U.S. demands and settle the war with China.
"We must continue to seek a diplomatic settlement", PM Konoe said on October 12, "I have no confidence in a war such as this". The same day, Foreign Minister Toyoda, who succeeded Matsuoka in August, bluntly told Konoe, "If I am allowed to be brutally frank, the imperial conference resolution [of September 6] was impetuous."
In a climatic meeting on October 14 Konoe met with Tojo, informing him:
I am greatly responsible for the China Incident. . . I simply cannot agree to starting yet another great war whose outlook is very vague. I suggest that we now concede to the U.S. withdrawal formula and avoid opening fire between Japan and the United States. We really need to end the China Incident.(Hideki Tojo from wikimedia)
By now, Tojo had made his decision - no withdrawal from China. It was a matter of honor, in light of the thousands of dead Japanese soldiers in the war, as well as the disgrace if the army admitted it could not win the China war, and was thus responsible for Japan backing down to the demands of the United States. As Hotta puts it:
The navy would not say it did not want war . . . The army, which would bear the bulk of public humiliation of troop withdrawal . . was accusing the navy of not clearly stating its opposition to the new war so that the army, too, would have to admit its weakness by saying it could not fight.Tojo endeavored to find another path towards the same result, without the army making the recommendation, visiting the imperial palace to meet with Lord Kido, Keeper of the Privy Seal, and eminent advisor to the emperor. Tojo urged Kido to seek resignation of the entire cabinet and they agreed, according to Hotta, "that to avoid war they had to ensure that the next prime minister would move away from the problematic imperial resolution". Tojo recommended Prince Higashikuni for the position since the Prince was known to have strong antiwar views and, as the emperor's uncle, the prestige to carry out a change in course. Kido rejected the suggestion, not wanting the imperial family involved in such a controversial decision. Once again, no one in power position - whether in the imperial family, the civilian leadership, army or navy, was willing to take the lead in changing what was seen as a disastrous course of action.
On October 17, Tojo, packing up his office in anticipation of the dismissal of the entire government, was summoned to meet with Hirohito and stunned to be asked to become prime minister. Lord Kido's flawed reasoning in recommending the appointment was that since Tojo had been the most insistent the September 6 declaration, he would be best suited for the task of reversing and, indeed, Kido met with Tojo and Navy Minister Oikawa to inform them, "I must stress that it is the emperor's wish that in formulating the nation's policy, you would not be a slave to the September 6 imperial resolution." Seeming to further help things along, Tojo's picks for finance and the new navy minister (replacing Oikawa), only agreed to serve after being assured the new prime minister was committed to avoiding war with the U.S.
Yet Tojo was to prove incapable of changing course because he still resisted the army taking the initiative and blame for policy change, a failure compounded by his lack of insight into how Japan's negotiating strategy would be perceived by the U.S.
The September 6 decision was reconsidered in daily liaison conferences from October 23 through 30. Japan 1941 recounts the dreary, frustrating, and confused discussions, which seemed to constantly circle around the key issues, but never land. It is as though the participants felt the decision was out of their control, though all of the deadlines and negotiating positions were of their own creation. A final, 17-hour conference on November 1-2, set November 30 as the final deadline for negotiations. In a final fittingly inept move, Japan's negotiators in America were given two plans, A and B, to present. Only if Plan A was rejected (and it was clearly unacceptable to the U.S.), were the negotiators to present proposals from Plan B, and it was only explicitly with Tojo's permission that they were allowed to discuss the only aspect of Plan B which would get the attention of the other side - a pledge to immediately withdraw from southern Indochina (permission that was never granted, though the Japanese negotiators, disobeying instructions, informally presented it to Secretary of State Hull on November 18). Further complicating the task of the Japanese negotiators is they were not initially told of the November 30 deadline.
On November 25, Secretary Hull prepared a response which provided for (1) a three month truce; (2) Japan's immediate withdrawal from southern Indochina; (3) reduction of northern Indochina forces to 25,000; (4) US unfreezing Japan assets; (5) resumption of economic relations. But it was never delivered. Instead, on November 26, the Japanese negotiators were presented with what is known as the Hull Note containing a series of stiff and uncompromising U.S. demands, which even if subject to negotiations would take months to resolve. Why the change? Both China and the British opposed the terms in the November 25 draft but, more importantly, the U.S. had just received reliable intelligence that Japan was moving naval, air and army forces into areas south of Taiwan, in what was apparently the initial move of a military onslaught. Combined with increasingly militant public speeches by Japan's cabinet members, and the interception of Foreign Minister Togo's message to the Japanese embassy that after November 29, events would proceed "in an automatic fashion", FDR viewed the entire Japanese negotiating position as a sham. The President informed his advisers that Japan would likely attack the United States on December 1.
(Japan moves south)
Although the U.S. had uncovered Japan's move south, it failed to detect six Japanese carriers leaving northern Japan on November 26 under radio silence; their objective - Pearl Harbor.
At a November 29 lunch with emperor, Admiral Yonai, convinced of the disaster a war with America would bring, spoke up, "Excuse me for speaking my mind in crude ways, but I think we mustn't become utterly poor in our quest to avoid becoming gradually poor". The following day, Hirohito's brother conveyed his warning, but the countdown to war was on, and those who could have stopped it believed they were powerless to do so.
In frustration over the failure of diplomacy, in which the key issue of contention, the war in China, was known by the Japanese government to be a mistake, Japan set a course for war, with the forlorn hope that initial success against the United States would drive it to further negotiations, demonstrating, as Yamamoto warned on September 29, a fundamental misunderstanding of the American psyche, and knowing that their country was doomed if the war was prolonged.
For more on the early phases of the Pacific War, read Tarawa.
For the ending of the war, read Downfall: Ending The War With Japan.
For the nature of the war in the Pacific, read With The Old Breed.