The following 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 May 1941, Secretary of State Cordell Hull—the statesman who would not accept German-Jewish refugees when their ship was stuck in a Cuban harbor—delivered to the Japanese, who had accepted forty thousand Jewish refugees, another lecture about Nazi atrocities. Maintaining their composure, ambassadors Saburo Kurusu and Kichisaburo Nomura proposed a modus vivendi— a temporary solution until a permanent agreement could be reached. Though suspicious of Hull’s grip on reality and his palpable racism, the Japanese diplomats acted in good faith because they did not want war any more than General George Marshall did. They agreed to pull out of southern Indochina as soon as their oil was restored and to leave Indochina completely once peace was made with China. In return,
The Governments of Japan and the United States shall cooperate with a view to securing the acquisition of those goods and commodities which the two countries need in the Netherlands East Indies.
The Governments of Japan and the United States mutually undertake to restore their commercial relations to those prevailing prior to the freezing of the assets [on July 26]. The Government of the United States shall supply Japan a required quantity of oil.
The Government of the United States undertakes to refrain from such measures and actions as will be prejudicial to the endeavors for the restoration of general peace between Japan and China.
Both sides stood to gain: Japan could not win a protracted war with the United States, and most Japanese wanted to get out of China with minimum loss of face, while keeping Manchuria and Korea and fending off revolution. The U.S. would avoid a war for which it was not prepared. Even Chiang Kai-shek, for all his hurt pride, would have been better off to strike an armistice with Japan and go back to fighting the Chinese communists. To everybody’s amazement—perhaps even his own—Hull replied that he would see what actions on Japan’s part would be necessary for the flow of oil to be restored.
Harry Dexter White—a Soviet Mole who served as a U.S. Treasury Department official—was badly shaken. The possibility that Hull would head off a war with Japan just when everything seemed so promising was utterly vexing. Writing frantically through the night, despite an incipient heart condition, White composed for Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau’s signature a memorandum to the president proposing a set of demands so likely, if accepted, to incite revolution in Japan that their rejection would be assured.
I must apologize for intruding on your pressing schedule with this hurried note. I have been so alarmed by information reaching me last night—information which I hope and trust to be mistaken—that my deep admiration for your leadership in world affairs forces me respectfully to call your attention to the matter that has kept me from sleep last night.
Mr. President, word was brought to me yesterday evening that persons in our country’s government are hoping to betray the cause of the heroic Chinese people and strike a deadly blow at all your plans for a world-wide democratic victory. I was told that the Japanese Embassy staff is openly boasting of a great triumph for the “New Order.” Oil—rivers of oil—will soon be flowing to the Japanese war machines. A humiliated democracy of the Far East, China, Holland, Great Britain will soon be facing a Fascist coalition emboldened and strengthened by diplomatic victory— so the Japanese are saying.
Mr. President, I am aware that many honest individuals agree that a Far East Munich is necessary at the moment. But I write this letter because millions of human beings everywhere in the world share with me the profound conviction that you will lead a suffering world to victory over the menace to all of our lives and all of our liberties. To sell China to her enemies for the thirty blood-stained coins of gold will not only weaken our national policy in Europe as well as the Far East, but will dim the bright luster of America’s world leadership in the great democratic fight against Fascism.
On this day, Mr. President, the whole country looks to you to save America’s power as well as her sacred honor. I know—I have the most perfect confidence—that should these stories be true, should there be Americans who seek to destroy your declared policy in world affairs, that you will succeed in circumventing these plotters of a new Munich.
White held nothing back in this hysterical missive, mingling religious imagery (inaccurately at that—Christ was betrayed for thirty pieces of silver) with the basest flattery.
The next night, White wrote a second memorandum, this time under his own name. He opened with the assurance that, if the president were to follow his advice and if the Japanese were to accept his proposals, “the whole world would be electrified by the successful transformation of a threatening and belligerent powerful enemy into a peaceful and prosperous neighbor. The prestige and the leadership of the President both at home and abroad would skyrocket by so brilliant and momentous a diplomatic victory—a victory that requires no vanquish, a victory that immediately would bring peace, happiness and prosperity to hundreds of millions of Eastern peoples, and assure the subsequent defeat of Germany!” White pointed out the hopelessness of a Japanese war against the
United States, Britain, the Netherlands, and probably Russia while Japan was already engaged in China. Then he proposed ten aggressive demands to be presented to Japan:
- Withdraw all military, Naval, air police forces from China (boundaries as of 1931), from Indo-China and from Thailand.
- Withdraw all support—military, political, or economic—from any government in China other than that of the national government. [This referred to Pu Yi, the last Manchu emperor of China, who was the Japanese puppet ruler in Manchukuo, Japan’s colony in Manchuria.]
- Replace with yen currency at a rate agreed upon among the Treasuries of China, Japan, England, and United States all military scrip, yen and puppet notes circulating in China.
- Give up all extra-territorial rights in China.
- Extend to China a billion yen loan at 2 percent to aid in reconstructing China (at a rate of 100 million yen a year).
- Withdraw all Japanese troops from Manchuria except for a few divisions necessary as a police force, provided U.S.S.R. withdraws all her troops from the Far Eastern front except for an equivalent remainder.
- Sell to the United States up to three-fourths of her current output of war material—including Naval, air, ordnance, and commercial ships on a cost-plus 20 per cent basis as the United States may select.
- Expel all German technical men, military officials, and propagandists.
- Accord the United States and China most-favorednation treatment in the whole Japanese Empire.
- Negotiate a 10-year non-aggression pact with United States, China, British Empire, Dutch Indies (and Philippines).
White proposed that these demands be presented to the Japanese with a short deadline for acceptance:
Inasmuch as the United States cannot permit the present uncertain status between the United States and Japan to continue in view of world developments, and feels that decisive action is called for now, the United States should extend the above offer of a generous and peaceful solution of the difficulties between the two countries for only a limited time. If the Japanese Government does not indicate its acceptance in principle at least of the proffered terms before the expiration of that time, it can mean only that the present Japanese Government prefers other and less peaceful ways of solving those difficulties, and is awaiting the propitious moment to attempt to carry out further a plan of conquest.
Japanese industrial interests and the Army were certain to reject the loss of Manchuria, and the idea that Japan should be forced to sell three-quarters of its military equipment to the United States on demand was an affront to Japanese sovereignty that would have triggered revolution. White passed a copy of the memorandum along to Hull, who had been considering a three-month truce and limited oil shipments for Japanese civilian consumption.
On November 26, the secretary of state presented the final American offer—the so-called “Hull note”—to the Japanese. If Japan withdrew from China and Indochina immediately and withdrew support for the puppet regime in Manchukuo, the United States would lift the freeze on Japanese assets. When he received the offer, Kurusu stated that the Japanese would be likely to “throw up their hands” at the demand that they withdraw from China and abandon Manchuria. The Hull note—based on White’s two memoranda—was, as far as the Japanese were concerned, a declaration of war.
The Americans did not see it that way—except for White.
“I personally was relieved,” Henry Stimson would recall, “that we had not backed down on any of the fundamental principles on which we had stood for so long and which I felt we could not give up without the sacrifice of our national honor and prestige in the world. I submit, however, that no impartial reading of this document can characterize it as being couched in the terms of an ultimatum, although the Japanese were of course only too quick to seize upon it and give that designation for their own purposes.”
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