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The following article on Japanese diplomacy before Pearl Harbor is an excerpt from John Koster’s Operation Snow: How a Soviet Mole in FDR’s White House Triggered Pearl Harbor. Using recently declassified evidence from U.S. archives and newly translated sources from Japan and Russia, it presents new theories on the causes of the Pearl Harbor attack. It is available to order now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 

In the lead-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoye determined that Japan could not hope to win a war with the United States. At the same time, he knew that pulling the Japanese Army out of China would invite his assassination and perhaps touch off a revolution against the emperor, whom they were sworn to defend.


On the American side, those who wanted peace in the Pacific— Ambassador Grew, the president, and most of the State Department—were undermined by Dean Acheson and Stanley Hornbeck, who both expected the Japanese to capitulate. Harry Dexter White and his puppet Morgenthau wanted war and were prepared to push all the necessary buttons. The secretary of war, Henry Stimson, also favored a tough stance with Japan, but the serving soldiers—General Marshall in Washington and Admiral Kimmel at Pearl Harbor—knew that America was not equipped for war. The high-performance P-38 fighter plane, the M-1 semiautomatic rifle, the Sherman tank, and the all-important 20-millimeter and 40-millimeter antiaircraft guns had been ordered but were not yet in general issue and would not be ready until the middle of 1942 or later. Even the Jeep was in short supply in the autumn of 1941. Soldiers and sailors still wore pie-pan tin hats instead of the deepdish helmets that would serve the American G.I. through Vietnam, and they carried bolt-action 1903 Springfield rifles with a slower rate of fire than the Winchesters and Henrys that the Lakota and Cheyenne wielded at Little Big Horn. The standard machine gun was water-cooled and weighed almost one hundred pounds. The standard U.S. tank had a 37-millimeter gun that bounced off German armor without piercing and threw its treads in a sharp turn. The generals urged the diplomats to stall for time.

The Japanese generals urged their own diplomats to temporize, even though they came to see war as inevitable unless the Americans restored the oil supply in return for concessions that the junior officers and the common people would tolerate. Japanese diplomacy before Pearl Harbor was to-the-point. Ambassador Nomura handed the U.S. State Department Japan’s offer for a stand-down on September 6:

The government of Japan undertakes:

  1. that Japan is ready to express its concurrence in those matters which were already tentatively agreed upon between Japan and the United States in the course of their preliminary informal conversations;
  2. that Japan will not make any military advancement from French Indochina against any of its adjoining areas, and likewise will not, without any justifiable reason, resort to any military action against any regions lying south of Japan [that is, the British, Dutch, and American colonies—Malaya, Indonesia, and the Philippines];
  3. that the attitudes of Japan and the United States towards the European War will be decided by the concepts of protection and self-defense, and, in case the United States should participate in the European War, the interpretation and execution of the Tripartite Pact by Japan shall be independently decided;

(That is to say, Japan did not feel obliged to join Germany and Italy if the European Axis declared war on the United States. The Japanese had assisted the British against the Germans during World War I, mopping up Germany’s Pacific garrisons and escorting Australian and New Zealand troops to Europe. Japan had no part in Hitler’s vicious hatred of Jews and had accepted tens of thousands of Jewish refugees. Indeed, the Japanese rather liked the French, had been loyal allies of the British, and, as mentioned previously, tended to sentimentalize the United States as a land of marriage for love. Japan’s allegiance to the Axis had only one basis: anti-communism.)

  1. that Japan will endeavor to bring about the rehabilitation of general and normal relationship between Japan and China, upon the realization of which Japan is ready to withdraw its armed forces from China as soon as possible in accordance with the agreements between Japan and China.

This was the key concession: Japan was willing to get out of China—though not Manchuria—as soon as the Chinese agreed to an armistice. For most Americans, including Cordell Hull, and for Chinese propagandists, the history of Sino-Japanese relations began with the Rape of Nanking. Japanese diplomacy before Pearl Harbor would therefore be somewhat futile.

Before Hirohito’s accession, however, Japanese progressives had courageously supported Chinese liberators like Sun Yat-sen. Chiang Kai-shek himself had studied in Japan, as had thousands of other Chinese. Japan had seized Manchuria for crass economic reasons, but by 1941 the Japanese knew they would not conquer the rest of China and were looking for a way out of an increasingly unpopular war.

Instead of leaping at Japan’s offer to back out of its war with China and its tacit dismissal of its alliance with Nazi Germany, Hull, relying on Hornbeck, pronounced the proposal vague and unacceptable. On September 15, the United States—which could read Japan’s encoded diplomatic cables—intercepted a message from Nomura to Konoye that terminated hopes of a meeting between the prime minister and Roosevelt:

Whatever we tell to Secretary Hull you should understand will surely be passed on to the President if he is in Washington. It seems that the matter of preliminary conversations has been entrusted by the President to Secretary Hull, in fact he told me that if a matter could not by settled by me and Secretary Hull it would not be settled whoever conducted the conversations. Hull himself told me that during the past eight years he and the President had not differed on foreign policies once, and that they are as “two in one.”

Hull’s representation to Nomura of his relationship with the president was, of course, preposterous. Hull’s resentment of Roosevelt’s reliance on Morgenthau and Welles was palpable, and it probably sabotaged Konoye’s desperate grab for peace.


Failed Attempts at Japanese Diplomacy Before Pearl Harbor

Konoye’s peace proposal was dead on arrival. At Konoye’s final cabinet meeting, the war minister, General Hideki Tojo, summed up the disgrace of Konoye’s failure and the further danger of any more concessions to the predatory Americans. “The heart of the matter is the imposition on us of withdrawal from Indochina and China. . . . If we yield to America’s demands, it will destroy the fruits of the [Second Sino-Japanese war]. Manchukou [Manchuria] will be endangered and our control of Korea undermined.” On October 16, the cabinet was dismissed and Konoye was replaced by Tojo, the future scapegoat.

After the war, when Konoye had attempted suicide and Tojo, who had failed in his suicide attempt, had been hanged for war crimes, Americans reinvented Japanese history. Konoye the peaceful, so the story went, had been pushed aside by Tojo the militarist. In fact, Konoye had given up in despair when Roosevelt declined to meet with him or to accept the best terms that Konoye could offer without provoking a rebellion at home. Tojo had planned no militarist takeover. He was a rather modest man, known for his vast respect for the emperor and more famous for his memory for detail than for any vision or brilliance. His nickname was kamisori—the razor—because he could sort out details of careers and promotions more quickly than most of his peers. His parents were not nobles or high-ranking samurai, though his father had become a lieutenant general through sheer diligence, and his own grades were respectably mediocre. Tojo owed everything to the imperial system and the Army. His most important qualities were humility and loyalty. Though he had three sons and four daughters, he reached into his own pocket to help friends in need. His house in the Tokyo neighborhood of Setagaya-ku was respectable but ordinary, and his wife and children were decent, likable people without pretensions. Tojo was the perfect helmsman for the ship of state as it sailed into a war it could not win—and the emperor knew it.

Tojo himself was so modest that when he was summoned to the palace, he thought the emperor was about to rebuke him and prepared to abase himself. When he was asked to become prime minister in place of Konoye, he tried at first to refuse but eventually accepted out of devotion to the emperor and the system that had made him a general instead of a craftsman or farmer.

“I don’t know much about Tojo as a man,” the former prime minister Koki Hirota, “the man in the ordinary suit,” told his sons Hiroo and Masao just after Tojo’s appointment. “However, it seems that he listens to what the lord privy seal has to say. . . . [B]y now, a pure figurehead would only do more harm. The Army will have to take responsibility itself. If he’s put in a position where he has no choice but to get the Army to agree to holding diplomatic negotiations, Tojo isn’t likely to do anything too rash.”


This article on Japanese diplomacy before Pearl Harbor is part of our larger selection of posts about the Pearl Harbor attack. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to Pearl Harbor.

This article is from the book Operation Snow: How a Soviet Mole in FDR’s White House Triggered Pearl Harbor © 2012 by John Koster. Please use this data for any reference citations. To order this book, please visit its online sales page at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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