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American reaction

LAURENCE REES: Then this all comes to a head when the Japanese move into Southern Indochina in July 1941, doesn’t it?  And between that moment and then Pearl Harbour it doesn’t seem like the Americans are treating this with perhaps the urgency that - in hindsight - the situation demanded.

AKIRA IRIYE: Well, I think chronology becomes very important. Initially the so-called Washington conversations began in the spring of 1941 and this was to feel each other out, so to speak, because the tensions had risen already by this time. In July 1939, long before the war came to Europe, and that’s an amazing thing, the United States notifies Japan that it was going to abrogate the existing Treaty of Commerce. That was a very grave step for the US to take because the United States had been more or less dragging its feet about intervening in Asian affairs, but by saying to the Japanese that they could no longer have the Treaty of Commerce that had initially been negotiated in 1911, what the Americans are saying is: you can’t have trade with us. I mean, once you have abrogated such a treaty Japanese trade with the United States would be at the mercy of the US; it could always stop it without violating the treaty. The notification came in July 1939, that is the first evidence you have, I think, that the US was beginning to take Japan seriously. And then with the Nazi-Japan Tripartite Pact 1940 and so on, the US attitude hardens, but then in the spring of 1941 some Americans, like Cordell Hull, do show some interest in some kind of negotiations with the Japanese just to feel the Japanese out, to see if the Japanese could be restrained at that point. Basically from the US point of view because Roosevelt is told by media advisors like Marshall that the US was not ready to fight a two front war and the United States had to focus on that time at defeating Germany first, and Marshall said it would not even be ready to fight against Germany, and therefore to undertake a two front war would be rather, extremely, difficult at this time.

So Roosevelt, maybe in the sense to gain some time, had some kind of informal conversations in Washington, but then the next phase in the chronology is June 1941 when Germany invades the Soviet Union and then it becomes very important for Roosevelt to prevent the collapse of Russia, because if the Soviet Union collapses and is occupied by Germans it would be devastating for the defence of Great Britain, what was left of Western Europe. So Roosevelt sought tremendous pressure on Japan not to attack the Soviet Union from the rear because he knew that some Japanese in the military were thinking about joining the Germans and attacking the Soviet Union from the rear from Siberia. If the Germans and Japanese combine their forces the Japanese felt that they could just do away with the Soviet Union and remove the Soviet threat to Manchuria under Japanese control.

Roosevelt, of course, knows that and tries to put pressure on the Japanese saying that if Japan did anything like that they would have to face strong US resistance. And in this picture from June to about September 1941 the United States is not interested in negotiating with the Japanese at all because what they’re interested in is making sure that Japan will not attack the Soviet Union, and they do that by stepping up US pressure, like the embargoing of Japanese oil that comes as a result of a Japanese invasion [of southern Indo-China]. But I think, the thinking is already there in June; to take a tougher stand towards Japan so that Japan would become very much worried about the possible US response to any act that Japan would commit either against Soviet Union or elsewhere. So the United States takes a very hard stand of no compromise on this - Japan [must] clearly make its policy not to attack the Soviet Union nor anybody else.

LAURENCE REES: Then there's the American oil embargo on Japan.

AKIRA IRIYE: The oil embargo arrives this time at the beginning of August, you’re right, it didn’t show up until August, and it coincides with the Japanese invasion of Southern Indochina, and I think at this point the US is not really saying very much. I think the implication is because Japan’s invasion of southern Indochina brought about the oil embargo, Japan would have to at least evacuate southern Indochina, possibly the whole of Indochina, if Japan wanted to begin to purchase oil again from the United States. China is not there yet in the picture at this point I don’t think. China comes into the picture in a mixed phase when the Japanese begin to plan the war against the United States. This is the September to December period.

It’s the Japanese Emperor and all the high command, the politicians, who begin to say that things were becoming quite untenable. Japan was not attacking the Soviet Union because of fear of American retaliation and not getting oil from the United States. If it decided to get its own oil, Japan would have to face the US countermeasure as well. And so there is a sense that Japan is being closed in; there’s no place to manoeuvre or expand. This is the 9th of September and that’s when they come to the recognition that the Soviet Union, China, the United States, the British Empire, they’re all part of the same picture, the same picture of what they called the A,B,C,D encirclement. Japan sees itself as being encircled by A, the United States of America, B, the British, C, China, and D, the Dutch. Somehow the Russian picture is not there because at that time the Soviet Union and Japan had just signed a treaty of neutrality so they forget about the Soviet Union for the time being, even though many of them are saying, well, we should forget about the neutrality treaty and attack the Soviet Union. But even if they were to forget the Soviet Union there is this vision of Japan being encircled. So to get out of this there would be either war, and if there’s going to be war it would not seem to be the continuation of war against China but the, A, B and D part of the A,B,C,D alliance would have to be also part of the picture, because by this time they had come to the recognition that A and B and C and D could not be separated out. So if they’re going to continue to try to conquer China then they have to take on the United States, Britain, the Dutch and so on.

This is, of course, a mind boggling kind of equation, but that’s what they decided, or else they try to negotiate some kind of arrangement, modus vivendi, and that’s the origin of the negotiations that are in Washington. The United States now is willing to negotiate, I think in part because Roosevelt sees that the Soviet Union is not going to succumb to Germany and so the worry about the Soviet Union is much less than it was in the height of the crisis in June, July, August. He could now try to show that he could be flexible. He could negotiate, because the military continue to say that they are not ready for war against Japan or against Germany. Also I think he feels that if this leads to Japan’s evacuation of south-east Asia and the promise not to attack the British Empire or the Dutch Empire then it might be worth agreeing to the resumption of oil shipments to Japan. Initially he’s not talking about or thinking about China; that would [also] be Japan’s strategy, that is to somehow see if the A,B,C,D encirclement could be separated out so that Japan would negotiate with the United States, that would include British and the Dutch, but China would be still there.

From Roosevelt’s point of view this was strictly expediency because Marshall and the military want him to at least give them more time, just a few more days, even three months they said would be adequate, to make preparations. But they were not ready for a war right away, so I think from Roosevelt’s point of view, if he could negotiate with the Japanese and gain three months or six months the US would be in a much better position. So then this become a tactical issue and it boils down to south-east Asia and oil. By November there is the famous final negotiation, the final proposal from the Japanese in November in which the Japanese say, okay, we agree not to attack the Dutch Indies, we agree to evacuate from Indochina, but then you have to give us your oil once again.

That’s the famous modus vivendi agreement that the United States was inclined to agree to. Roosevelt was inclined to say that, okay, this might sound like a nice deal at least for a few months, but in the end the United States rejects that. This is the so-called Hull Memorandum. Cordell Hull presents the Japanese ambassador with this Hull note of November 26th which says that there’s no agreement between the United States and Japan unless you also evacuate from China. So China comes into the picture at the last moment and so historians have wondered why, when there was almost an agreement on south-east Asia, why did you bring in China, because the US must have known that once you mention China the Japanese were not going to accept that.

Hull said, in his memoirs after the war, that he did not quite mean it as an ultimatum, what he meant was, well, let’s talk about it, let’s talk about China and see how the Japanese respond to that, because earlier on, the Japanese had said something like, we are willing to evacuate from China in 25 years, so it was not as if the Japanese had never said they would give up China. They did have something called Proposal A which included a promise to evacuate China in 25 years. Now, Hull said that was ridiculous, but maybe by bringing China into the picture the United States and Japan might come to some agreement. I know there’s no evidence for that, but he might have thought that, well, in maybe instead of in 25 years, the Japanese might evacuate in five years, or something like that.

But more important is the fact that Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek, they were just so adamant; because Roosevelt shows this understanding - [that] they had almost agreed upon a modus vivandi with the Japanese - to the prime ministers of Britain and other countries, but the Chinese, obviously they are very upset about that.  Churchill immediately cables Roosevelt saying, don’t do that because you’re selling China down the river.  He says you cannot come to any agreement with Japan that sacrifices China, and obviously Chiang Kai-shek feels the same way, and public opinion would probably have disliked that kind of arrangement.

So I guess by this time the thinking is such that this kind of an oil for south-east Asia deal would not have been acceptable to American public opinion, to the US congress, US allies and so on. So in the end Hull presents this memo which he says was not an ultimatum, but from  Japanese point of view it was an ultimatum. And the Americans knew because they had been reading all these secret Japanese cables and they knew that they were viewing this as an ultimatum and that the Japanese government had said that if no agreement with Japan had been reached by the end of November then Japan was going to initiate military action. So the presentation of this must have impressed Hull and Roosevelt and possibly been the last straw from Japan’s point of view. They also knew that the Japanese were issuing orders for their armed forces to begin their military action, and the only thing is that the Americans did not know when or where Japan was going to attack. That’s the Pearl Harbour story.

But from Japan’s point of view all negotiations ended when Hull presented the memorandum. One could agree with Hull, as he says after the war, that it was not really an ultimatum, it was simply another way to continue the negotiations. And there are some people in Japan who say that Japan should not have viewed it as an ultimatum but that they should have pretended at least that there was still one stage in the negotiation and they should have come back to Washington with a counterproposal like saying, for example, we can’t quite agree to evacuate China right away, because that’s what Hull was saying, but we’ll do it, if not in 25 years maybe in a few years. Or that we could evacuate from China properly but we’re going to keep our troops in Manchuria, because Hull is very evasive about that- whether he took China as 'China and Manchuria' or not. So it may very well be that it could have been some kind of a temporary arrangement in which the Japanese say they would pull out from China but they’re going to keep Manchuria, which would have been from the Chinese point of view totally absurd.

But Hull might have said, well, just for the time being that might be helpful. There are all kinds of scenarios one could think about, but by jumping to the conclusion that the Hull memorandum was a rejection of any negotiated settlement, which technically speaking was not an ultimatum, Japan decides to go to war.

LAURENCE REES: Where it seems illogical, is if Roosevelt is being told by the military keep the negotiations going for a few months, why let Hull put forward what will appear to be an ultimatum? Moreover, an ultimatum that the Japanese will never accept.

AKIRA IRIYE: That’s right. I think Hull is said to have told Stimson that it’s going to be war, now the matter is in your hands now. In other words, diplomacy has ended and he is saying that now it’s going to be war or military conflict. So I don’t know if Hull knew that the army and navy had told the President that they were not ready, but in any event, from Hull’s point of view, it seems that when Japan did not respond right away to his memorandum of November 26th Hull must have come to the conclusion that the Japanese were no longer interested in negotiations. Therefore the only outcome of this should be a war and that’s what he tells Stimson and Stimson and others are aware from intercepted cables that Japan was getting ready for war.

LAURENCE REES: But from a Japanese perspective you say: 'Hold on, this isn’t something new that we’re in China, we’ve been in China for many years, with you still selling us oil. But now you suddenly say stop, get out of China'.

AKIRA IRIYE: I think you’re right, unless they’d changed their mindset, so to speak. I mean, they had been so committed to this kind of continental expansionism and south-east Asia expansionism. They could not give up oil and give up south-east Asia at the same time, you’re right, and the only solution to this would have been some kind of fundamental agreement from the US point of view that would include oil, trade, south-east Asia, China, everything. That’s what Hull is proposing in this memorandum. There’s a sense that we should re-conceptualise and reformulate our approach to Asia and the Pacific, that’s opened up in the ocean with regards to free trade. He’s been accused of being too terribly dialogistic and moralistic, but there is some sense to it.

I’m somewhat more sympathetic, much more sympathetic, to Hull in retrospect, than the Japanese at the time were. I think they would have responded to Hull’s memorandum the way you just described it now, that from their point of view this must have been terribly incomprehensible. In the long span of our 20th Century history, because I do think that Japanese behaviour in 1930s was reprehensible and unjust and so on, I think now it was good that Hull put down the principles that would have to be the basis for ultimate Japanese peace.

LAURENCE REES: Had they cut off the oil by now?

AKIRA IRIYE: They had cut it off.


AKIRA IRIYE: A defacto embargo. Technically speaking there was no embargo, what happened was that after the abrogation of Treaty of Commerce each time Japan wanted to buy something they had to apply for an export license, and the export licenses would be denied to Japan now. It could have been changed. The Treasury Department could have said, in this instance the export license could be granted to Japan.

[But] the Japanese navy really would need oil for ships as there was only a two or three year supply of oil. If it was not going to the Dutch East Indies, if it was not going to count on American oil, then the navy would simply have to fight, and that’s going to be the end of an Imperial Navy and it would be committing suicide.

I think one can understand how it is difficult to see why they jumped to the conclusion that the only way out would be war against the United States, because everyone knew that no such war could be won. It’s a real dilemma. I mean, they could not accept the Hull memorandum and they could not hope for any kind of victory against the United States either.