Japan won’t compromise on withdrawing from China
Private sector level Japan-U.S. negotiations that had begun in late 1940 became government-level negotiations in May 1941, and they continued until the last minute before the war started. Why did Japan decide to go to war at an Imperial conference meeting in the presence of the Emperor on December 1, 1941? At the meeting, it was decided that “the negotiations have failed to reach a conclusion and the Empire will wage war against Britain, the United States and the Netherlands.”
There were a number of turning points in the negotiations. The first began when Father James M. Drought and Bishop James E. Walsh of the United States offered to mediate between Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in late 1940. Drought, former Finance Ministry bureaucrat Tadao Ikawa and the War Ministry’s Army Affairs Section chief Hideo Iwakuro agreed to render the Tripartite Pact an effective dead letter and to conditionally withdraw troops from China. Based on this agreement, Drought compiled a draft proposal for mutual understanding between the two countries in April 1941.
With Drought’s proposal, diplomatic negotiations began between Japanese Ambassador to the United States Kichisaburo Nomura and U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Hull notified Nomura that he wanted to use four principles as the basis of the negotiations:
But Nomura did not present Hull’s proposal to the government in Tokyo. Furthermore, the government mistakenly took Drought’s draft proposal as the official U.S. proposal. Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, after returning from an overseas trip, became angry because the negotiations were carried out without him and changed the proposal significantly.
In June 1941, as the war between Germany and the Soviet Union broke out, the Soviet Union joined an alliance with the United States and Britain. As a result, the United States gained the upper hand in negotiations. As Japan’s military continued to advance in southern French Indochina, the United States imposed an oil embargo on August 1. Hull wrote, “From now on our major objective with regard to Japan was to give ourselves more time to prepare our defenses.”
Even under such circumstances, Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe did not give up. The Prime Minister appointed the Navy’s Teijiro Toyoda to replace Matsuoka as Foreign Minister. On August 8, Konoe notified War Minister Hideki Tojo and Navy Minister Koshiro Oikawa that the Prime Minister wanted to seek a breakthrough by holding direct talks with Roosevelt. With agreement from Tojo and Oikawa, Konoe, through Ambassador Nomura, sent his idea to Hull, bringing Tokyo-Washington negotiations to avoid war to a second stage.
Konoe secretly met with Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Koichi Kido to discuss his plans—in the event that an agreement was reached in the proposed summit, he would send a telegram to Tokyo and obtain direct approval from the Emperor so as to contain opposition from the military.
But former Foreign Minister Hachiro Arita believed that Konoe should have sought to control the military himself, writing “Instead of thinking about going to Honolulu [for a summit with Roosevelt, Konoe] should have discussed [controlling the military] directly with the Emperor; and a breakthrough could have been achieved.”
On August 9, 1941, Roosevelt met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill aboard a ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The two leaders later announced the Atlantic Charter and criticized the invasions by the Axis countries. Roosevelt promised Churchill that he would issue a warning to Japan. This statement concluded: “If the Japanese Government undertakes any further steps in pursuance of the policy of military domination through force or conquest in the Pacific region upon which it has apparently embarked, the United States Government will be immediately forced to take any and all steps of whatsoever character it deems necessary in its own security notwithstanding the possibility that such further steps on its part may result in conflict between the two countries.”
After the talks with Churchill, Roosevelt told Ambassador Nomura that he would accept summit talks with Konoe. The Prime Minister began preparations to visit the United States. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew approached the U.S. State Department to initiate the talks. However, Stanley K. Hornbeck, Special Adviser on Far Eastern Affairs at the State Department, and others strongly opposed the summit. Hull told Nomura that before setting up the summit, the Japanese government should first express its views on whether it was ready to withdraw from China.
What were the intentions of the U.S. side?
A September 23, 1941, memorandum written by Joseph W. Ballentine, a State Department Japan expert, stated that accepting a Japan-U.S. summit was not advisable for Washington. He wrote that although summit talks would slow down Japan’s military activities, the United States would have to take the opinions of Britain, China and the Netherlands into consideration, and if the Soviet Union’s resistance stiffened against Germany, Japan might come closer to U.S. proposals.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain extended support to the Soviet Union and tried to prevent Japan from attacking the Soviet Union from the east. If the Soviet Union could escape attack from Japan, it would be able to transfer its elite troops stationed along its borders with Manchuria west for the war against Germany. Moscow learned that Japan decided to postpone war against the Soviet Union in August from Richard Sorge, a German spy working for the Soviet Red Army, and passed the information to the United States.
At a conference in the Imperial presence on September 6, Konoe sought the possibility of withdrawing Japanese troops from China as a compromise with the United States. But he stepped down as prime minister because he faced strong opposition from War Minister Hideki Tojo.
Under the Emperor’s view for averting a war, however, the Cabinet of Tojo, which succeeded the Konoe government, developed two plans of compromise for the United States. Japan-U.S. negotiations then entered a third phase.
On November 7, Ambassador Nomura presented one of the plans to the United States. However, knowing Japan had a second, or final, compromise plan from the successful reading of Japan’s codes, the United States did not respond. Japan presented the second plan on November 20. It focused on moving Japanese troops stationed in southern French Indochina to northern French Indochina.
In response to the second plan, Roosevelt considered a provisional, compromise agreement which sought the reduction of Japanese troops in northern French Indochina with a three-month deadline and the start of negotiations to rebuild trade relations. The plan envisioned but did not mention Japan’s withdrawal from China. Briefed on the possible agreement by Secretary Hull, China’s Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek was enraged, saying the United States was trying to sacrifice China. Britain supported China’s stance. Meanwhile, news of a Japanese fleet heading south from Taiwan reached Washington. The last chance for Japan and the United States to reach a breakthrough through negotiations had passed.
On November 26, Hull handed Nomura and Saburo Kurusu, a special envoy to Washington, copies of the U.S. basic response to the Japanese compromise plan. The response later came to be known as the Hull Note by the Japanese side. This called for Japan to “withdraw all military, naval, air and police forces from China and from Indochina” and not to support the regime of Wang Chao-ming. It also requested Japan renounce its Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo later said, “I was shocked and became giddy” when he learned about the note. Elite Army officers in the field viewed it as “tenyu” or Heaven’s help (for a pro-war campaign).
When handing Nomura copies, Hull said that the note was not meant to call for an immediate withdrawal from China. However, Togo did not envision utilizing Hull’s comment to rebuild a suitable environment for restarting negotiations.
Hull told U.S. War Secretary Henry Stimson that the matter was now in his hands, along with Navy Secretary Frank Knox. Nonetheless, the United States did not at that time foresee Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.