Tojo erases ‘seeds for avoiding war’: Japan-U.S. War
Those mainly responsible
Why did Japan initiate hostilities against the United States without rationally assessing whether it had the material capacity to fight such a war? Senior Army officers who supported the idea of going to war included Chief of Army General Staff Hajime Sugiyama, Vice Chief of Army General Staff Osamu Tsukada, and chief of Operations at the Army General Staff Shinichi Tanaka. At the mid-career level, chief of the Operations Section Takushiro Hattori and chief of the Military Affairs Section Kenryo Sato, among others, supported the war. In the Navy, Chief of the Naval General Staff Admiral Osami Nagano and mid-career officers such as chief of the Second Section of the Naval Affairs Bureau Shingo Ishikawa advocated going to war with the United States.
Despite having some qualms about such a war, many military and political leaders were persuaded by war proponents. Asked by War Minister Hideki Tojo about the prospects for victory against the United States, Navy Minister Koshiro Oikawa replied he was not confident the United States could be defeated.
Shigetaro Shimada, Oikawa’s successor, and chief of the Navy Ministry’s Naval Affairs Bureau Takazumi Oka did not clearly state where they stood. Then the chief of the War Ministry’s Military Affairs Bureau Akira Muto told Oka the Army would follow the Navy if it declared “the Navy does not want a war.” But Oka rejected this proposal, and a chance to avert the war was lost.
In December 1940, a year before the war started, the second Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe started negotiations with the United States to avoid a war. However, Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, who gambled that concluding the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in September 1940 was in Japan’s interests, took a different course of action from the Konoe Cabinet and concluded the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact with Soviet leader Josef Stalin in April 1941. Japan-U.S. negotiations initially started as talks between figures in the private sector. However, Matsuoka strongly opposed these efforts. The negotiations became deadlocked because the Army opposed withdrawing its troops from China, which was one condition for peace put forward by Washington.
Konoe dismissed Matsuoka and sought to break the stalemate through direct negotiations with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Konoe, however, faced strong resistance from War Minister Tojo against any military withdrawal from China, and stepped down in October 1941 as he had done in January 1939. After the fall of the second Konoe Cabinet, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Koichi Kido strongly pressed for Tojo to succeed Konoe. Since the second Konoe Cabinet, Kido had become deeply involved in choosing prime ministers. The Tojo administration was established, but Kido’s recommendation turned out to be an error of judgment. Kido told Tojo that he had a message from Emperor Showa to scrap the policy of seeking war against the United States and, for a time, Tojo charted such a course. However, Tojo was also unable to stop the slide to war because, just as in the previous Cabinet, war advocates dominated the opinions of the Army and Navy.
Meanwhile, Teiichi Suzuki, President of the Cabinet Planning Board, which was tasked with planning the nation’s wartime economy, was also heavily responsible for Japan’s going to war with the United States. Suzuki was in a position to object, or at least raise doubts, about Japan’s capability to conduct a war from the viewpoint of military-related supplies. In fact, Suzuki reportedly said at the time of the Konoe Cabinet that Japan would become unable to obtain oil even if it occupied oil facilities in the Dutch East Indies because the bases likely would be destroyed by the enemy. However, he did an about-face during the final assessment on the national strength immediately before the war’s start and said Japan would “be able to sustain itself with effort” in terms of oil supply. Saying that he was convinced that opening a war “would be advantageous for Japan in terms of maintaining and boosting the nation’s strength,” Suzuki supported the pro-war forces.
The main responsibility for the decision to start the war against the United States rested with the ministers of the Tojo Cabinet, including the Prime Minister himself, Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo and Finance Minister Okinori Kaya, all of whom were in a position to advise the Emperor. It is known that Togo and Kaya actually tried to persuade Cabinet ministers to try to avoid the war. On the other hand, the Navy was preparing for an operation in Hawaii. Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet Isoroku Yamamoto went ahead with the Pearl Harbor attack that has often been described as a “gamble.” The delayed delivery to the U.S. State Department of a memorandum effectively declaring war on the United States was caused by mistakes at the Japanese Embassy in Washington. This caused the escalation of anti-Japan sentiment and a growing perception in the United States of “the sneaky Japanese.”