Missing overall picture
How was the policy to advance to southern French Indochina decided? We will trace the developments on the basis of a series of national policy guidelines adopted at the time.
For example, a “policy guideline concerning French Indochina and Thailand” decided by the Imperial Headquarters-Government Liaison Conference on January 30, 1941, stated that Japan would carry out necessary coercion and use military force against French Indochina if there were no alternative in order to follow through on its demands on French Indochina and Thailand. Japan wanted to establish advance bases in French Indochina and strengthen military cooperation with Thailand in order to implement the southern expansion policy. It is possible to see in this guideline Japanese military leaders’ intention to advance.
Next, a “guideline for southern expansion policy” agreed between the Army and Navy on April 17, stipulated that Japan would use military force for its survival and self-defense if threatened with extinction by embargoes on exports of natural resources imposed by Britain, the Netherlands, the United States and others, or through encirclement if the United States, solely or in cooperation with Britain, China and the Netherlands, put pressure on Japan.
These phrases remind us that the strengthening of embargoes against Japan, and the economic blockade against Japan by the “ABCD encirclement” (American, British, Chinese and Dutch), led to the start of discussions about military advancement to French Indochina.
On June 25, 1941, the Imperial Headquarters-Government Liaison Conference endorsed a “guideline concerning the promotion of southern expansion policy.” It stated that Japan would demand that France allow Japan to build or use air bases and port and harbor facilities in specified areas of French Indochina and station troops in southern French Indochina as required. Japan threatened to carry out this initial objective through military force if France rejected its demands.
With the guideline, the policy for advancement to southern French Indochina was decided. On June 22, 1941, the Russo-German War started. The staff of the Army and the Navy was excited at the outbreak of the war and discussions became heated over whether Japan should launch a pincer drive on the Soviet Union in expectation of Germany’s victory or start advancing to colonies in Asia held by Britain, France and the Netherlands.
The “national policy guideline related to the development of the situation” was established following the outbreak of the Russo-German War. It was discussed at a meeting between the Imperial Headquarters and the Government on June 25 and was officially endorsed at the Imperial conference in the presence of the Emperor on July 2.
On the basis of the “guideline concerning the promotion of southern expansion policy,” an order was made to prioritize the southward advance—strengthening the military posture first for the southern advance and also trying to solve the northern problem, or a possible clash with the Soviet Union, through military means if the Russo-German War developed in favor of Japan.
The expression “Japan is prepared for military action against Britain and the United States if necessary” was in the draft of the “guideline concerning the promotion of southern expansion policy.” The expression was finally deleted from the guideline, but it was included in the “national policy guideline related to the development of the situation.” With this, the advance to southern French Indochina was taking shape.
Meanwhile, what were the attitudes of leaders of the government and the military during this period?
Those who met in the presence of the Emperor on July 2 included Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe, Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, War Minister Hideki Tojo, Chief of Army General Staff Hajime Sugiyama, Navy Minister Koshiro Oikawa, Chief of Naval General Staff Osami Nagano. One expert suggested, “They had no consistent prospects or objectives for military action, nor an accurate grasp of situations and the influence given to Britain and the United States.”
It was Nagano who strongly reiterated the necessity of advancing to southern French Indochina. He said at an Imperial Headquarters-government session on June 11: “It’s necessary to establish bases in French Indochina and Thailand. We should resolutely attack those who would obstruct our objective.”
Sugiyama also said at an Imperial Headquarters-government meeting on June 16, 1941: “As the rainy season is drawing near, we need to start building bases as early as possible.”
On the other hand, Matsuoka, warning that the advance into southern French Indochina could trigger a war against the United States, strongly opposed the action. He said the southward advance would break the agreement of August 30, 1940, that was concluded when Japan advanced into northern French Indochina, and would therefore be a violation of international good faith.
After the Russo-German War began, Matsuoka asserted that Japan should suspend the advance to southern French Indochina for six months and head north to fight the Soviet Union instead, which left other officials dumbfounded. His real intention is said to have been merely to stop the southern expansion.
“The policy to dare a war against Britain and the United States if necessary,” stated in the “national policy guideline related to the development of the situation,” was endorsed at the Imperial conference in the presence of the Emperor on July 2, and was proposed by the Navy reportedly with the aim of balancing the Army’s determination to advance to the north.
When Oikawa was asked by Vice Navy Minister Yorio Sawamoto about the meaning of the wording of “Japan is prepared for military action against British and the United States if necessary,” he answered: “My opinion is that Japan should avoid the war. But the Army insists that Japan should advance to both the north and the south. Without modifying the language, it would be quite impossible to control the Army’s movement.”
What Oikawa was saying is that the Navy’s policy was just rhetoric. According to a veteran historian, important national policies were decided “in the conflict, competition and maneuvering with the Army” without real “resolution to begin a war” and without objectively assessing international situations and national strengths and without discussing seriously the chances of winning.
In that sense, the Army was not an exception and it is unlikely that most of its leaders were determined to begin the war.
Konoe, in his heart, opposed the advance to southern French Indochina and the war against the Soviet Union. Once the Russo-German War started and the plan to contain the United States with Japan, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union broke down, Konoe thought that Japan should hurriedly try to mend the relationship with the United States, even if it sacrificed the relationship with Germany to some extent.
But at an Imperial Headquarters-government meeting on June 30, Konoe said that if the high command decided to advance into southern French Indochina, he would follow it, agreeing to the southern expansion policy. He considered the advance into southern French Indochina to be the price that would have to be paid to contain the drive for war against the Soviet Union.
Imperial Headquarters Staff Officer Shiro Hara commented after the war: “Konoe consistently took an attitude of rarely discussing anything in meetings and of deciding on nothing even if things were discussed. This is because former Foreign Minister Hachiro Arita severely criticized Konoe as surrendering without fighting at all.”
The Army dispatched a large number of troops for the Kwantung Army in mid-June 1941 in the name of security along the Manchurian and Inner Mongolian borders and the prevention of Soviet aggression. It was called the “Kwantung Army Special Grand Maneuvers,” but was considered a virtual preparation for war against the Soviet Union.
The Navy opposed the maneuvers, but Shinichi Tanaka, chief of the Operations Bureau of the Army General Staff, and others, who were supporters of the northern expansion policy, talked Tojo into endorsing the maneuvers. When War Minister Tojo and Chief of Army General Staff Sugiyama reported to Emperor Showa on July 7, the Emperor asked them, “Do you believe it is possible to cope with the war against China with troops dispatched all over, to the north, in China and French Indochina all at once?”
On July 21, France broadly accepted Japan’s demands for military advance and the use of bases in Indochina. The United States reacted strongly to Japan’s move by criticizing it as an effort to conquer surrounding areas, and it decided on July 25 to freeze Japanese assets in the United States.
However, Japanese troops began to land on southern French Indochina and put the whole of French Indochina under its control on July 28. Meanwhile, the United States took retaliatory measures by planning an embargo on oil exports to Japan on August 1.