One Last Opportunity

Army Minister Tojo was growing vociferous about the necessity of preparing for war. In order to slow the momentum, Konoe arranged a meeting between Tojo and Higashikuni Naruhiko. Higashikuni was a liberal—some would say libertarian—prince who had spent much of his youth in Europe, mostly in France. He was one of the few vocal opponents of Japan’s going to war with the West. Because he was an army general, it was presumed his cautionary words to Tojo would be seriously considered. Higashikuni was also an uncle by marriage of Emperor Hirohito and a member of the imperial household, which strengthened his position. Tojo’s dedication to the imperial institution was known to be almost servile, as if to atone for his ancestors’ sins in fighting against the court-backed samurai.

Konoe’s timing was again baffling. The meeting came the day after the momentous imperial resolution for an early-October diplomatic deadline for a late-October war, so nothing short of its retraction by the emperor would have stopped Tojo from sticking to that decision. Tojo was said to have shed tears as he recounted to his junior staff Hirohito’s recitation of the peace poem. But he did not think the emperor was objecting to war. To him, the poem represented imperial encouragement for the military in the face of long odds.

Tojo was determined to travel the path that was mapped out for him—and to drag the nation with him if he must. “The United States in the end demands that Japan withdraw from the Tripartite alliance and join the Anglo-American camp,” he would say to Higashikuni. But even if Japan abandoned the fascists and joined the Allies, he continued, “the Anglo-Americans would surely attack Japan once they finished their business with Germany.”

Tojo’s perception of Western menace was highly speculative, but his fear was genuine and not uncommon. He believed that the liberal West was interested in brokering peace between Japan and China only because it had designs on Japan and wanted to become a hegemonic power throughout Asia. Secretary of State Hull’s pet project of spreading free trade and equal commercial opportunities had to be distrusted given America’s greater ambitions. Tojo also insisted that it was inconceivable for Japan to withdraw troops from China in light of “all the heroic souls who have fallen in Japanese wars,” repeating the phrase popularized by Matsuoka when he first emerged as a populist politician in the early 1930s. Tojo was echoing a pervasive military sentiment. But he was no ordinary soldier; he was the army minister, answerable to the cabinet. Blinded by his service allegiance, he refused to see that war was hardly inevitable or advisable. What defined Tojo was his tremendous single-mindedness about pursuing goals he deemed to be right and righteous. Could Higashikuni ameliorate his obstinacy, as Konoe hoped?

Higashikuni was a slim, effete man with the weak chin characteristic of highborn Japanese. He had pleasing, if plain, features, and unlike many of his army colleagues, he was clean-shaven. The cosmopolitan fifty-three-year-old did have the penetrating voice of a natural orator, which alone sufficed to make people pay attention the minute he opened his mouth. He said to Tojo that Japan’s situation reminded him of something that the French statesmen Marshal Pétain and Georges Clemenceau once told him. Both men had said the United States would eventually try to provoke Japan into a war. To the Frenchmen, this was an easily foreseeable geopolitical consequence of a power scramble for control of Asia. But it was equally inevitable that Japan would lose that war because of its relative material weaknesses. The best thing Japan could do was to be patient and to minimize its losses. Higashikuni then made his most important point: Since the emperor and the prime minister were both keen on reaching an agreement with Roosevelt, Tojo, as their army minister, should comply with that higher wish. If he could not follow a policy of nonconfrontation, he should quit his job.

Tojo was utterly unfazed by Higashikuni’s suggestion—one no doubt endorsed by Konoe, who didn’t want to confront Tojo directly—that he was being a troublemaker. He responded that if the ABCD encirclement of Japan continued, Japan was doomed to disappear. If Japan took a risk now, the chance of Japan winning a war was one in two. (He was right only to the extent that one could either win or lose.) Surely it was better to take that risk than to perish without resistance. Tojo’s emotions had clearly overcome his reason. He told the prince he had no inclination to put a stop to the war planning.

On September 8 and 9, Army Chief of Staff Sugiyama visited the palace to explain to Hirohito the tactical details of the army’s plan. The emperor wondered on both occasions what would happen if a military clash transpired on the Soviet-Manchukuo border after Japan went to war with the West. Sugiyama reassured him that the chances of anything happening in the winter months were slim, and if anything did happen, the army could always redirect its troops from China to the north. But the winter months would not last forever, and Japan could hardly afford to transfer men from China to fight the Soviet Union. (Within ten days of Sugiyama’s irresponsible words, the Japanese army launched Operation Changsha in its bid to control the south-central region of China, only to be met with fierce Chinese opposition.) Hirohito should have protested that waging another war was unimaginable. But instead, he told Sugiyama that he “understood the logistics behind” the decision, as if Hirohito saw it as a purely conceptual strategic exercise divorced from political realities. Perhaps he was still counting on the Konoe-Roosevelt summit.

Five times in September and on October 3, the army announced provisional unit formation and mobilization plans for the south. Its paratrooper unit, the key to conquering the Indonesian island of Sumatra, stepped up its intensive training. The unit was founded only the previous fall. Its organizers had had to rely on photographs of U.S. Army parachutes in order to make their own. Having trained at a free-fall tower in an amusement park, passing as university students enjoying what was still left of Japan’s leisurely activities, the paratroopers completed their first successful landing in late February.

The navy also intensified its preparations. War games for a southern invasion were carried out from September 11 to 20 at the Naval War College. A desktop simulation for an attack on Hawaii had taken place on September 16, but the Naval General Staff deemed the plan too risky and impracticable and rejected it.

AS JAPANS ARMED FORCES WERE desperately trying to parallel the war-ready rhetoric of its strategists and leaders, the United States almost went to war—in Iceland. When Germany invaded Denmark in April 1940, Iceland, near critical Atlantic shipping lanes, was tied to Denmark by the Act of Union. Britain dispatched forces to Iceland in May, and Canada sent reinforcements. Churchill hoped that the United States would take over Icelandic defense. By the spring of 1941, the Roosevelt administration had agreed to assume such responsibility in the event of U.S. war entry. Even after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, when Roosevelt’s hawkish strategists started calling for immediate deployment of U.S. troops to the region, Roosevelt remained cautious. He agreed to dispatch forty-four hundred marines on July 7, 1941, at the request of the Icelandic government. He was carefully circumventing the Selective Training and Service Act, whose future was still uncertain at that point. By sending professional soldiers rather than draftees—who were not allowed to serve outside the Western Hemisphere—he avoided antagonizing the public, sticking to his earlier pledge that their “boys” would not be made to fight in foreign wars. This would, however, be followed by Roosevelt’s critical decision during the Atlantic Conference, as we have seen, to allow U.S. armed escorts to protect all shipping as far as Iceland. This series of events was highly relevant to Japan. The U.S. preoccupation with the western Atlantic accounted for Washington’s initial willingness in the spring of 1941 to reach some kind of peace with Tokyo that would ensure that Japan stayed out of the imminent American war with the Nazis. Japan, of course, squandered that opportunity.

On September 4, 1941, the waters off the coast of Iceland became a theater in an undeclared war between Germany and the United States. The Greer, a U.S. destroyer with a few military passengers and mail on board, was approaching Iceland at 8:40 a.m. when the ship was alerted by a British bomber that a German submarine was lurking in the vicinity. The British plane dropped four depth charges, which missed the target, and retreated after nearly running out of fuel. The Greer, without any authority to attack, opted to pursue the submarine rather than report back to base. Three hours after it was first detected, the German submarine came within 330 feet of the U.S. ship and released a torpedo, likely anxious to come to the surface as its batteries ran out. It, too, missed the target. The Greer then dropped eight depth charges, none of which did much damage to the submarine. A second torpedo from the German submarine went awry. A dozen more depth charges were dropped by the Greer and another reinforcement British bomber. The two sides came out of the very close encounter, which lasted about ten hours, unscathed.

The Greer incident was the first significant U.S. skirmish with a German submarine. In a powerful attempt at selling a war that Roosevelt was resolved to enter, the president used this episode in his September 11 radio address to mobilize public opinion against Hitler. He did not mention that the first depth charges were dropped by the British plane, enabling the German torpedo attack to be interpreted as an act of self-defense, nor did he mention the Greer’s insistent and unauthorized retaliation. (These details became clear after a Senate committee investigation the following month.) But his speech made abundantly clear his hatred of the Nazi regime. “This was piracy—piracy legally and morally,” he declared to the nation with a thespian’s intonation. “It was not the first nor the last act of piracy which the Nazi Government has committed against the American flag in this war. For attack has followed attack.”

Citing four other instances of suspected German attacks on U.S. ships and one on a Panamanian ship in the preceding months, Roosevelt warned that these were not isolated incidents but “part of a general plan.” These were acts of “international lawlessness,” he said, and constituted a “Nazi design to abolish the freedom of the seas, and to acquire absolute control and domination of these seas for themselves.” He continued:

This Nazi attempt to seize control of the oceans is but a counterpart of the Nazi plots now being carried on throughout the Western Hemisphere—all designed toward the same end. For Hitler’s advance guards—not only his avowed agents but also his dupes among us—have sought to make ready for him footholds, [and] bridgeheads in the New World, to be used as soon as he has gained control of the oceans. His intrigues, his plots, his machinations, his sabotage in this New World are all known to the Government of the United States. Conspiracy has followed conspiracy.… This attack on the Greer was no localized military operation in the North Atlantic. This was no mere episode in a struggle between two nations. This was one determined step towards creating a permanent world system based on force, on terror and on murder.

Roosevelt told the American people that note writing and other “normal practices of diplomacy” were no longer of use in dealing with Germany. To protect the line of supply of war materials to defeat Hitler, as well as to ensure the freedom of U.S. shipping on the high seas, the United States had to strike, without hesitation, at Nazi submarines and raiders. They were the “rattlesnakes of the Atlantic,” and “when you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him.” The time for “active defense” had come. This meant that U.S. ships could attack German submarines in waters vital to U.S. self-defense. Moreover, these vital waters would be defined by the U.S. government. Roosevelt also used this occasion to introduce the nation to his new program of allowing U.S. escorts of Allied shipping in the Atlantic, which he had approved at Placentia Bay and was going into effect in five days.

Roosevelt had confirmed his oratorical genius; a poll after this fireside chat indicated that 62 percent of Americans supported his shoot-on-sight policy regarding German vessels in the Atlantic. And yet, as the British ambassador to the United States, Lord Halifax, incisively reported to Churchill, the majority of Americans wished to stay out of the European war despite their approval of the president’s new Atlantic policy and their desire to defeat Hitler.

For some strategists in Washington, the possibility of war had become a pressing concern. At the behest of the army’s chief of staff, General George Marshall, a team of middle-ranking officers led by Major Albert Wedemeyer set out in July 1941 to prepare an extensive war plan, which would come to be known as the Victory Program. Completed by September 25, it projected the necessary scale of military and industrial mobilization and recommended strategic guidelines to defeat the Axis powers. The plan would prove indispensable within a few months, though until the very last minute, Germany was the country’s primary enemy in the eyes of these planners, and they urged leaders to hold Japan in check.

The Japanese government should have wondered if the day might soon come when Washington deemed “note writing” between Japan and the United States no longer a viable option and what might be done to prevent that deterioration. Instead, it planned for “active defense” on its own terms.

AFTER HEARING FROM Sorge that there was no risk of Japan attacking the Soviet Union, Stalin moved twenty divisions from the Far Eastern front to Moscow within the month of September. Stalin could now concentrate on his battle with Germany. He would ultimately reduce his troops in the Far East by half, and the situation on the Soviet western front would steadily improve.

That was all the more reason for Japan to reassess its approach to the United States. The pact that entrenched Japan in fascist company was entirely predicated on Germany prevailing. Japan’s strategic plans continued to rest on that assumption, even though many in the Army General Staff were taking note of the surprising resilience of the Soviet Union. Depite that, and the fact that they did not subscribe to a true fascist ideology, Japan’s leaders refused to do anything to extricate itself from the Axis alliance. This was presumably because nobody dared to own up to their mistakes in having uncritically endorsed German invincibility. Instead, Japan would remain a fascist power by association and would have a diminished chance of reaching any diplomatic settlement with the United States.

On September 10, Nomura met with Hull in his new apartment, in the famous Wardman Park Hotel, a fortress of a building with a thousand rooms built in commemoration of the end of World War I. He asked what Hull thought of the latest Japanese proposal (the one devised by the Foreign Ministry) for the preliminary agreement. Hull replied that this proposal “narrowed down the spirit and the scope of the proposed understanding,” whereas their earlier conversations “had related to a broad and liberal understanding covering the entire Pacific area.” It was, in short, a step backward.

The apparent narrowing down could only have reinforced Hull’s suspicions of Konoe’s feeble leadership and his inability to deliver any meaningful concessions. For Nomura, this meeting confirmed his view that Tokyo had to commit to concrete concessions before any summit could take place. Specifically, he warned his government that the issue of troop withdrawal from China was critical to the United States. The leaders in Tokyo had a difficult time openly accepting this view.

From the initial stages of the U.S.-Japan negotiations, the presence of Japanese troops in China was surely an issue, but its importance seemed to have grown enormously in American eyes of late. In May, Hull was certainly more accommodating on Japan’s military occupation of China, at least off the record, and Nomura had conveyed that impression to Tokyo. The banker and amateur diplomat Ikawa Tadao had noted that Hull even suggested rephrasing Japan’s ostensible purpose for its military occupation of China from “anticommunist occupation” to “peacekeeping occupation.” That change would enable Japan to continue to occupy the Chinese island of Hainan, which faced no immediate Communist threat.

The developments during the summer of 1941—the German attack on the Soviet Union, Japan’s advance into southern Indochina in the face of Roosevelt’s proposal, its insistence on remaining in the fascist camp, and the subsequent intensification of U.S. public opinion against Japan—appeared to have eliminated such conciliatory U.S. inclinations regarding China. Unlike with Czechoslovakia, China could not be sold down the river. Negotiating a U.S.-Japanese understanding without settling the China question had now become, in Sumner Welles’s words, like “asking whether the play of Hamlet could be given on the stage without the character of Hamlet.” If Konoe had proposed, as outlined by his friends, that “Japan in principle agrees to withdraw its troops from China,” things might have been quite different. Konoe had only himself to blame for that.

Following Hull’s rejection, a liaison meeting on September 20 passed another presummit proposal to be submitted to Washington. The reworked proposal was identical in its basic outline to the September 6 version, specifying that the United States would broker a peace between Japan and Chiang Kai-shek’s regime without interfering in Japan’s initiatives to resolve the China War in the meantime; Japanese assets would be unfrozen and normal trade restored; and Japan would not venture beyond French Indochina.

The new proposal included more detailed demands regarding the terms of any peace with China and was far firmer in tone, reflecting the prowar strategists increased involvement. Sensing an even further narrowing of his government’s scope, Nomura felt there was nothing in the new proposal to help him in his negotiations. It clearly revealed the limits of his influence over Tokyo and the limits of Konoe’s courage.

Nomura was particularly troubled by one Japanese condition for its desired peace with China. Tokyo continued to insist on the merger of the governments of Chiang Kai-shek and Wang Jingwei, the Japanese puppet loathed by Chiang. There was no way the United States would agree to that. Nomura also sensed that any pleading for Japan’s regional interests in Asia would be counterproductive, only adding to U.S. alarm. He sent a telegram to Tokyo: “I do not believe that this proposal will do.” Again, Nomura’s appeal was dismissed.

AT LEAST ONE military insider was appalled by the excessive interference of his bakuryo colleagues in the drafting of such diplomatic proposals. “The general staff is an organ that should be dedicated to the nation’s defense and mobilization,” Ishii Akiho of the Army Ministry’s Military Affairs Bureau later lamented. “Why [it] quibbled so relentlessly with a diplomatic document, I do not understand.”

Even Admiral Toyoda, a foreign minister who was essentially a military partisan, had to admit that the “new” plan of September 20 did not represent a compelling proposal for Washington. He nonetheless passed it on to Ambassador Grew as a reference material, which was then relayed to the State Department by September 27.

WITH NO DISCERNIBLE PROGRESS being made for a Konoe-Roosevelt summit, Saionji Kinkazu was not sure what he should be doing to help. The prime minister had appointed him an adviser presumably because he trusted him unconditionally. Saionji reciprocated his trust, worked hard on Konoe’s projects, and, most recently, helped draft Konoe’s aborted proposal. The exhilaration he felt about the proposal only a few weeks earlier had faded. Saionji had experienced Konoe’s mercurial temper and dithering too often and was frustrated, though he still believed Konoe’s desire for a summit meeting was heartfelt.

In late September, Saionji received a telephone call from his best friend, Ozaki Hotsumi. Ozaki had just come back from a two-week lecture trip in Manchukuo. It had been a busy summer for the journalist and spy. That evening, Saionji and Ozaki dined together in a Japanese inn, exchanging their views on Japan’s negotiations with the United States. Ozaki was thoroughly pessimistic. He felt the Americans did not trust the current Japanese leadership. The United States was unlikely to take any Japanese proposal seriously, he said, including the proposal for a summit meeting. Saionji told him that, at Konoe’s request, he had participated in drawing up a new proposal, one Saionji hoped might still move things along.

On September 24, Ozaki invited Saionji for a drink at the same Japanese inn. The summer was lingering, and the two felt like a beer. (Unlike many others, they could still afford it. According to the official rationing schedule in Tokyo, as of April 1941, each household could purchase only two to four bottles of beer every six months.) They met in a private dining room, though there was nothing furtive in the air. Saionji brought with him the draft of the proposal that he and his friends had produced at the foot of Mount Fuji, the one Konoe failed to present. Ozaki had not asked to see it, but it seemed only natural for Saionji to share it with his best friend. Ozaki read through the draft without comment. He then begged off from a dinner Saionji had arranged with other friends and left, presumably to keep Sorge informed. This meeting added one more count to the charge of espionage Saionji would later face.

The next day, September 25, started out sunny and mild, with the temperature hanging in the seventies, but by early afternoon it was rainy and cold. The liaison conference that day only increased the gloom for Konoe. Chiefs of Staff Sugiyama and Nagano now jointly made a case to do away with the vague early-October deadline and set a specific date for the termination of diplomacy.

The timing of the opening of war is hugely dependent on our tactical requirements. Therefore, we cannot afford to waste another day before passing a final judgment on the success or failure of the U.S.-Japan diplomatic negotiations. We need to choose between diplomacy and war by October 15 at the very latest.

With the chiefs’ new and more exacting demand, Konoe began to panic, albeit quietly. He declined to stay on for a customary luncheon organized by the high command and took his key cabinet ministers back to the prime minister’s residence. “Is the October 15 deadline a very rigid demand?” he asked of the foreign, navy, and army ministers. The query was really directed at Tojo, who sided with the chiefs of staff regarding the need for immediate war preparations. Tojo scoffed at Konoe and said that the matter had been formally decided in an imperial conference—early October was to be the end of Nomura’s mission in Washington.

Adept at masking his innermost feelings, Konoe was not the easiest man to read. But the change in him after the liaison conference did not go unnoticed. A bakuryo officer in the War Guidance Office, taking his turn keeping the group’s journal, noted the following day: “Superficially, it appears that yesterday’s request by the high command [to set a mid-October deadline for diplomacy] had not created a huge sensation. But facts beg to differ. Prime Minister Konoe seems to have undergone a tremendous change in his state of mind.” Konoe’s ostensible desire to have everyone save face was really a failure to confront opponents, and it had taken its toll. It was finally becoming clear to him that the United States was not keen on the summit. Konoe, terrified, instantly began to act on his strongest instinct: self-preservation.

In a private conference with Kido in the late afternoon of September 26, Konoe spoke of quitting the government. Schoolmates at the Peers Academy, the two men had literally rubbed shoulders with one another growing up, standing side by side in assemblies. “If the military insists on the October 15 deadline to begin war,” Konoe complained to Kido, “I do not have any confidence. I have no other choice but to think of resigning.” Kido responded:

You are the one who called the September 6 imperial conference [that set the early-October deadline for diplomacy]. You cannot leave that decision hanging and just disappear. That’s irresponsible. Why not propose a reconsideration of the resolution? You cannot start talking like that before crossing swords with the military. To leave the mess this way is irresponsible.

Kido’s strong admonishment kept Konoe from resigning. Instead, he fled to a villa in the ancient samurai capital of Kamakura, only thirty miles away but safely enclosed by a range of mountains and the sea. He did not emerge from it until October 2.

With the prince absent from Tokyo, Foreign Minister Toyoda had to lobby for a Konoe-Roosevelt meeting on his own. Rather than heeding Nomura’s advice to try to fundamentally reorient Japan’s policy and come up with a more enticing plan, Toyoda had passed on to U.S. ambassador Grew an insufficiently reworked proposal for a presummit agreement, as we have seen. Assuming that the ambassador had tremendous influence over the president because they were old friends, Toyoda hoped to gain from Grew some behind-the-scenes intervention. But by adding another diplomatic channel and treating it as if it were a more powerful line of communication to the White House, Toyoda, in effect, discredited Nomura.

Toyoda pleaded with Grew on September 27 to explain to Washington the complicated workings of Tokyo’s leadership, making excuses for Konoe’s and his own lack of mettle to confront and negotiate with domestic opposition. He insinuated that the “official” presummit proposals from Tokyo should not be taken as the limits of concessions Konoe could make in Juneau.

In a lengthy eleven-point communication on September 29, Grew wrote to Roosevelt that he had been “emphatically told on numerous occasions” that prior to the proposed meeting and formal negotiations, it would be “impossible for the Japanese Government to define its future assurances and commitments more specifically than hitherto stated.” One reason for this, he explained, was that

former Foreign Minister Matsuoka, after his retirement in July, recounted in complete detail to the German Ambassador in Japan the course of the Washington conversations up to that time. Because many supporters of Matsuoka remain in the Tokyo Foreign Office, the fear has been expressed that these men will not scruple to reveal to both the Germans and the Japanese extremists any information which would render the present Cabinet’s position untenable. Although certain basic principles have been accepted provisionally by the Japanese Government, the definitions and formulae of Japan’s future objectives and policy … are so abstract or equivocal and are open to such wide interpretation that they rather create confusion than clarify commitments which the Japanese Government is ready to undertake.

Grew therefore advised that the United States should trust Konoe’s good intentions and arrange a summit. He suggested as much in a carefully cushioned double-negative supposition:

[I do not] consider unlikely the possibility of Prince Konoye’s being in a position to give President Roosevelt directly a more explicit and satisfactory engagement than has already been vouchsafed in the course of the preliminary conversations.

Grew further stressed that a gradualist approach should be pursued. He agreed with Toyoda that “the only alternative … is an attempt to produce a regeneration of Japanese thought and outlook through constructive conciliation, along the lines of American efforts at present.”

Foreign-policy makers are famous for referring to recent crises to inform their next move. To some members of the U.S. administration, Grew’s communication urging “constructive conciliation” must have smacked of appeasement. No matter how different the Japanese situation was from Hitler’s Third Reich in the autumn of 1938, the Munich Conference was too fresh and too disheartening a memory to be easily dismissed. Though Toyoda did a remarkable job painting a false picture of the Konoe cabinet being surrounded predominantly by pro-Matsuoka, pro-German enemies, he could blame only so much on his predecessor. With or without Matsuoka, Japan could not escape identification with the Nazi regime. It was, after all, an Axis ally. Grew, aware of this, insisted that the method he was advocating to Washington was “not so-called appeasement.”

Konoe, alas, hardly had the kind of track record to convince Washington that he could be trusted. Both Konoe and Toyoda continued to suggest that Konoe would bring satisfactory, even surprising, concessions with him to Juneau. The U.S. administration remained unconvinced.

Konoe had first come to attention in the West as the author of a jingoistic article speaking against the “Anglo-American” dictatorship of the Paris Peace Conference in early 1919. He was prime minister when the China War broke out in 1937 and was responsible for its escalation, including Japan’s brutal conquest of China’s major cities and industrial areas, most notably Nanjing. He was the prime minister who formally approved the establishment of Wang Jingwei’s puppet regime. He pushed for Japan’s alliance with Germany and Italy. “If the United States continues to deliberately misread the true intentions of Japan, Germany, and Italy,” he said in a press conference after the Tripartite Pact was signed, “we won’t be left with any other choices but war.” Konoe felt none of these words or deeds affected his credibility. He was a prince after all. He was also deluded.

THE SEPTEMBER 25 LIAISON meeting that set off Konoe’s sense of gloom had also stirred up Navy Minister Oikawa’s greatest fear—that of a titanic naval war with the United States. True, in trying to oust Matsuoka, the usually overcautious and reticent Oikawa boasted, in a conference in late June, that “the navy is confident about war with Britain and the United States.” Oikawa was then merely trying to force the southern Indochinese plan through. “If you are confident enough to fight Britain and the United States,” responded Matsuoka, “how much more extra trouble would it be for you to fight the Soviet Union, too?” With his wit not up to Matsuoka’s sarcasm, he could only reply in earnest: “Don’t you see if the Soviet Union joined, that means one more extra country for us to fight?” Exactly three months after his exchange with Matsuoka, Oikawa faced the likelihood of Japan having to confront all those enemies.

To his credit, Oikawa, unlike Konoe, openly resisted the navy and army chiefs of staff when they tried to set a mid-October diplomatic deadline at the liaison meeting of September 25. He hoped to slow, if not put a stop to, the momentum for war. Army Vice Chief of Staff Tsukada, the most hawkish voice in liaison conferences since the north-south debate, was clearly unhappy with Oikawa’s obstruction. A fanatical believer in Japan’s inherent greatness, he was convinced that Japan’s war, a necessary one, was based not on rational, strategic thinking but on the “morally just spirit of our divine land.” Though many Japanese, both military men and civilians, were socialized to a certain extent into accepting this pseudoreligious view of Japan’s national destiny, the level Tsukada had taken it to was alarming for a senior strategist. After the meeting, he complained to his subordinates that Tojo should urge Oikawa to come to his senses so that they could all get on with war preparations—as if Oikawa were the one without any common sense. Still, even Tsukada had to concede that Japan could not fight the United States if the navy was not willing.

Not everyone in the army shared Tsukada’s single-minded desire for war. There had been a renewed sense of hesitation brewing in the army, notably among those in the Army Ministry’s Military Affairs Bureau. Because the bureau was responsible for the allocation of resources within the army and for setting the overall tenor of army policy making in consultation with the general staff, its chief was the third most influential man in the Army Ministry (after the minister and vice minister). On September 29, bureau members gathered in the office of the chief, Muto Akira, to discuss possible future scenarios in some detail. The terrain was familiar. The army couldn’t publicly concede to Washington’s demands—especially the withdrawal of troops from China—but in Muto’s mind, war would be even more deplorable. “The likely prospect might be war after all,” he said. “But you see, one misstep and war can end up destroying the state. I just cannot make up my mind for war. I don’t want war, all the more so since the emperor also said so [by reciting the poem].” Muto had heartily supported the war against China when it broke out in 1937, but he had come to realize it had been a “misstep” for Japan. He knew another one could wreck it.

The same day, Yamamoto Isoroku, the commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, sent a warning to Chief of Staff Nagano. Though he had been studiously planning a devastating attack on the United States for the past ten months, Yamamoto remained convinced that winning a battle or two would not ensure a victory in a long and protracted war. Hence his assessment to Nagano:

Our war games suggest that the southern operation should settle more or less in four months, but at the cost of losing sixty planes. Certainly, there would be many more losses that are not related to actual combat. This means that we would have to replenish a sufficient number [of aircraft] in order to continue fighting.… If we were to fight at our present level of strength, [the only chance for our ultimate victory is] to achieve considerable success in initial battles.

Yamamoto surely wanted to prove to the world that he was capable of pulling off “considerable success.” That was the boastful gambler in him. But a rational Yamamoto advised Nagano:

If I might add … it is evident that a U.S.-Japanese war is bound to be protracted. The United States will not give up fighting as long as Japan has the upper hand. The war will last for several years. In the meantime, Japan’s resources will be depleted, battleships and weaponry will be damaged, replenishing materials will be impossible.… Japan will be impoverished.

He then famously concluded: “A war with so little chance of success should not be fought.” The hesitations of the top commander of the navy, a strategic mastermind, proved that the momentum for war set by the general staffs was fairly detached from Japan’s strategic reality. The military’s push for war was far from universal. Konoe’s only hope, other than an invitation from Roosevelt, was to exploit such differences of opinion. In the early evening of October 1, Oikawa was summoned by Konoe to the Kamakura villa to which he had retreated. Konoe asked the navy minister what he thought of the new development calling for a firm deadline for diplomacy. Oikawa responded:

Your Excellency, you say that you are definitely against war. [But not going to war] would require being prepared to swallow all the U.S. demands in order for us to normalize our relations.… If you have made up your mind to go down that route, the navy will back you up fully, and the army should follow.

Konoe, visibly happy, told Oikawa that he felt reassured.

In Tokyo, Oikawa then met with Navy Chief of Staff Nagano, who, according to Vice Navy Minister Sawamoto, agreed to lend his support to the policy of war avoidance, which suggests that Nagano’s hard-line statements in liaison conferences should not be taken at face value. Oikawa, for his part, had always been diffident about the potential war with the West and must have welcomed this emerging agreement with Konoe and Nagano with a sigh of relief. Foreign Minister Toyoda, a navy admiral, also agreed that diplomatic settlement with the United States should be pursued. He was regretting the hastiness with which the imperial conference had set a diplomatic deadline—after only one liaison conference. Konoe now felt brave enough to emerge from his self-imposed exile and return to Tokyo.

ON OCTOBER 2, Ambassador Nomura was summoned to Hull’s apartment at 9:00 p.m. He was handed a statement urging Japan to accept the secretary of state’s Four Principles, which, again, were (1) respect for the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of each and all nations, (2) support for the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries, (3) support for the principle of equality, including equality of commercial opportunity, and (4) nondisturbance of the status quo in the Pacific except as the status quo may be altered by peaceful means. Hull then asked Japan to present the United States with “a clear-cut manifestation of Japan’s intention in regard to the withdrawal of Japanese troops from China and French Indochina.” As for Japan’s affiliation with the Axis powers, he said, “It would be helpful if the Japanese Government could give further study to the question of possible additional clarification of its position.” Most emphatically, there would be no summit until there was “a meeting of minds on essential points.” Nomura was repeatedly reminded that the administration believed that “no patchwork arrangement would meet the situation of establishing peace in the Pacific area.” Nomura was also told that Washington believed that to minimize adverse public opinion it needed to “insure the success of any meeting that we might hold.”

Nomura, asked by Hull to comment on the document, initially expressed fear that his government would be disappointed. Hull’s Four Principles were demanding of Japan a fundamental change in the nation’s outlook impossible to achieve on such short notice. The United States itself had taken, and was still taking, its time to become a righteous power, after all. Its unequal treaties with Japan (which had expired only in 1911), its alliances with Britain and other old imperialist powers, and its policies toward people of color all made U.S. professions of high moral standards seem hypocritical to many Japanese.

The logistics of withdrawing all Japanese troops from China were challenging. Because of the Soviet proximity to Inner Mongolia and northern China, some in the Japanese army believed that signs of Japanese retreat would prompt an imminent Bolshevist advance—fears that would be proved correct in four years’ time.

The most practical solution in Nomura’s mind was to hold a summit meeting at which all these issues could be discussed. He told Hull again that his government was earnest and sincere in its desire for such a meeting. He also said that because of the domestic situation in Japan, it was difficult for the government to commit to anything in advance of the talks. Nomura stressed that the Konoe cabinet was in a “comparatively strong position” and that he did not think there was a very high likelihood of reactionary groups coming into power. Nomura was trying hard to explain Konoe’s characteristic unwillingness to confront his opponents head-on—which, paradoxically, gave his premiership power and longevity—without fundamentally discrediting Konoe’s leadership. This was hard to do.

THE OCTOBER 4 LIAISON conference, the first since Nomura’s unsatisfactory conversation with Hull, lacked vigor. Nomura’s telegram reporting Hull’s communication had not been completely translated by the time of the meeting, so it could not be discussed in detail. The leaders instead expressed their general opinions. Army Chief of Staff Sugiyama warned that the ultimate decision to dispense with diplomacy should not be delayed:

[We] cannot afford to waste time. If the decision doesn’t get made soon and we waste more time, we’ll end up not being able to launch a war at all, either in the south or in the north. We won’t have to decide today, but we must decide [soon].

Immediately after Sugiyama finished, Navy Chief of Staff Nagano said: “It is no longer time for discussion. We should [set a timetable for war] right away!”

Nagano, of course, had told Oikawa two days previously that he preferred to avert a military confrontation with the West. Though Nagano was the master of speaking out of both sides of his mouth, all of Japan’s leaders did it to a certain extent, switching effortlessly between public and private personas without feeling dishonest. Moreover, such a habit of double-talking—encapsulated by the phrase honne to tatemae, or “true voice and façade”—had a tendency to be regarded as a virtue used to stave off embarrassing social situations. Nagano’s bullying, almost thug-like public personality predominated whenever he spoke on behalf of the high command, representing Japan’s strategic interests. Oikawa’s efforts to oppose war on behalf of the navy—and Japan—became all the more difficult in the absence of any collegial support in liaison meetings. And because Oikawa intrinsically understood the importance to Nagano of keeping up his façade as a confident navy chief of staff, and also because Oikawa was a weak man, he would not call Nagano out. The liaison conferences were becoming a tragic farce of keeping up appearances for appearances’ sake. In the face of such misplaced priorities, the fate of the Japanese nation was secondary.

No words from Oikawa were recorded that day, presumably because he kept silent. In January 1946, in a roundtable discussion attended by former senior naval officers, he said that he believed the prime minister, not navy representatives, should have taken the lead in shifting the government’s policy away from war. The suspicion that Konoe was trying to assign all the responsibility for a policy switch to the navy put Oikawa on guard, and made him even more reticent than usual around this time. A dedicated and narrow-minded military man with no grasp of the world beyond the naval institution, Oikawa refused to risk being blamed for avoiding war, not accepting that his lack of assertiveness was, in large part, a sign of cowardice. Oikawa was not alone in deluding himself—everyone in the leadership took part in this utterly futile game of passing the buck.

At the same postwar roundtable, Vice Navy Minister Sawamoto sympathetically spoke of the delicacy of the situation that had confronted Oikawa. As hard as it was to imagine in 1946, he said, in the fall of 1941 one simply couldn’t have said: “The navy cannot fight.” This would have been demoralizing to officers at sea. Again, with military leaders taking a position against Japan’s best interests, the idiocy of protecting one’s own and institutional positions had gone much too far.

Another roundtable attendee, Inoue Shigeyoshi, a self-described radical liberal and a close associate of Admirals Yonai and Yamamoto who was sidelined from Tokyo’s decision making in 1941, did not accept such postwar explanations and asked Oikawa directly: “The navy should have fought it all out with the army [over the war decision]. Instead, [by going to war] we ended up losing everything, including the army and the navy. Why didn’t you [do or say anything]?” He pressed: “Are you saying that you didn’t oppose the war because Konoe should have instead?” Oikawa feebly defended himself: “How could the navy have contained [the hard-liners] when the prime minister could not?”

Inoue felt it would have been well within Oikawa’s power to stop the march toward war. He could have quit his post, and the navy could have refused to appoint a new minister—who had to be chosen from admirals on active duty. The navy could then have delayed the deadline for war. That neither Oikawa nor other top navy leaders employed this tactic shows that regardless of what was said after the war, no one used his power—or courage—to resist a war he knew would be calamitous for Japan.

The liaison conference of October 4 accomplished nothing. The more time that passed, the greater the courage required for anyone to say no to war. On October 5, the navy held a top-level meeting between the ministry and the general staff and managed to agree that “with unflinching resolve, the prime minister should meet the army minister,” in order to “discuss with him the extension of the time limit for [U.S.-Japan diplomatic] negotiations and relaxation of our conditions [to the United States].” Vice Minister Sawamoto had originally suggested that the prime minister, army minister, navy minister, and foreign minister should attend the conference, but Oikawa was reluctant to take part, presumably because he did not want to be seen as the sole opponent of going to war.

Oikawa’s fear was not unwarranted. The Army General Staff now mistakenly believed that Konoe had come to support the war option, simply because he hadn’t expressed strong opposition. The army’s middle-ranking bakuryo strategists, now gearing themselves up for war, attacked Oikawa for the navy’s seeming indecision. The October 5 entry of the War Guidance Office journal conveyed their feelings:

The prime minister appears to have decided for war. He is holding separate meetings with his key ministers this evening. There are those among us in the general staff who are all excited and feel relieved. Our only enemy is the navy minister.

Konoe met with Tojo early that evening to try to talk him out of war. The venue was Konoe’s favorite private villa, Tekigaiso, on the western outskirts of metropolitan Tokyo with a scenic view of Mount Fuji. He liked to conduct his most intimate political business there. This, however, was to be Tojo’s show from beginning to end. “The United States demands us to leave the Tripartite Pact, to embrace its Four Principles unconditionally, and to stop our military occupation. Japan cannot stomach all these,” Tojo said.

“The central issue is troop withdrawal [from China]. Why not agree to withdrawal in principle but leave some troops for the purpose of protecting resources?” said Konoe.

“That sort of thing is called scheming,” Tojo said.

Konoe, exasperated, changed his tactics. “Let us consider the atmosphere of the imperial conference,” he said, referring to Hirohito’s hesitation when he read the poem. He asked if Tojo thought a war with Britain could be fought without inviting U.S. involvement. The idea had surfaced of late in certain parts of the navy, betraying their fundamental unwillingness to confront the United States. Tojo rebuffed Konoe. He said that “after a great deal of research,” the high command had already reached the unequivocal conclusion that “from the perspective of naval strategies, a separate war could not be fought.”

Both armed services held independent meetings the next day, October 6, without discussing Japan’s readiness for war. At the top level, Sugiyama saw Tojo in the evening and confirmed his opposition to conceding to any of the U.S. demands, while insisting on committing the government to an October 15 diplomatic deadline. They agreed that the Army General Staff should “categorically” stop the navy’s possible attempt to “back out of war.”

The navy’s top-level meeting was attended by the navy minister and vice minister, the chief and vice chief of the Navy General Staff, and the chief of the Navy Ministry’s Military Affairs Bureau. Nagano was brought up to speed on the last meeting, which he’d missed. Their evasive public attitude notwithstanding, the navy leaders had managed to form a broad consensus the previous day that it was “folly to start a war with the United States.” Furthermore, they agreed “in principle” to a withdrawal of Japanese forces “from the parts [of China] where peace and stability were assured, one by one.” This would surely enrage the army. According to Vice Minister Sawamoto, Oikawa was

half coaxing himself to make up his own mind and half talking to the chief of staff [Nagano] for encouragement when he said: “Is it all right, then, that I venture to have a quarrel with the army?” To this, Sugiyama answered: “I doubt the wisdom of it.” This put a brake on the navy minister’s decision, which had taken him considerable courage to reach, and spoiled the atmosphere of heightened [antiwar] morale in an instant.

Oikawa’s weakness of character was clear for all to see. He’d gotten to his present position by not making enemies and by the default of seniority when his predecessor, Yoshida Zengo, became ill. It took only Nagano’s vague opposition to dampen Oikawa’s courage because he was diffident about confronting the army in the first place. And nobody else tried to help Oikawa regain his ground.

The army’s War Guidance Office log of October 6 reporting on a joint army/navy meeting of midlevel officers, summarized where things stood:

The army and navy are still in disagreement. The army is saying that there is no hope [for diplomacy]. The navy still thinks there is hope, saying that if [the army] would only reconsider the question of military occupation [and withdraw troops from China and Indochina], there would be hope. We are left to wonder what the Navy General Staff is thinking [by suggesting such nonsense]. It was only the day before yesterday, at the liaison conference, that [Nagano] declared there was no longer any time for “discussion.” But what now? … The navy is an enigma.… One cannot but feel anger [at the navy’s suggestion] …. [One navy division chief says] he anticipates the loss of 1.4 million tons of vessels.… [Another] wonders if there is a way to avoid attacking the Philippines [so as to avoid risking U.S. intervention]. What are they talking about at this stage? The navy is selfishly trying to nullify the sacrosanct decision made at the imperial conference. Unspeakable! How irresponsible the navy is! How untrustworthy! The navy is actually destroying our nation!

Though it is hard to judge how representative this staff officer’s views were of the entire army, what is clear is that there were serious interservice tensions.

The navy’s unusually frank admission in this forum was made by the chief of its Operations Division, Fukudome Shigeru:

As far as losses of ships are concerned, [it is believed that] 1.4 million tons will be sunk in the first year of the war. The results of the new war games conducted by the Combined Fleet [show] that there will be no ships left for civilian requirements in the third year of the war. I have no confidence [in this war].

The following day, October 7, the ministers of the two armed services finally came face-to-face. In a cabinet meeting, Tojo announced: “I know it is painful to your ears, but I must say this. Today’s economy is not a normal economy. Nor is the current state of diplomacy.… It should be our top priority now to fight our way through.” He then conferred with Oikawa one on one. He insisted, as Sugiyama had, that the army would not allow Japan to accept Hull’s Four Principles. Nor would it be possible, in his view, for Japan to withdraw troops from China entirely or immediately.

Oikawa suggested that it was the army that should reconsider its uncompromising posture. He pointed out that the U.S. proposal of October 2 was not as rigid as it appeared on paper and that there was still hope for a diplomatic settlement. Tojo asked specifically if the navy had not changed its mind about the September 6 imperial conference resolution. Oikawa replied: “No, our mind hasn’t changed. As far as our resolve for war is concerned, we’ve still got it.” Perhaps for Oikawa, “resolve for war” did not automatically lead to war. It was an evasive and dangerous attitude nonetheless, especially when Tojo was seeking straightforward clarification.

Tojo did not let Oikawa off the hook. Should a war actually come to pass, he pressed, did the navy minister have confidence in victory? Oikawa now replied with some measure of honesty, revealing his honne (true voice): “That, I am afraid, I do not have.… If the war continues for a few years, we do not know what the outcome would be.… What I have said should not go beyond this room.”

Tojo, the foremost proponent of war within the year, now became surprisingly conciliatory. “If the navy is not confident,” Tojo told Oikawa, “we must reconsider it. What must be reversed must be reversed, though it of course has to be done with the humble admission of our greatest responsibilities.” This meant that the responsible ministers in the cabinet should all resign.

However awkwardly and uneasily, the navy and army ministers were getting closer to the elusive heart of the matter: Japan—most vitally the navy—was not ready to fight the war mapped out by the hastily passed resolution of early September. But just as this tenuous meeting of the minds was emerging between the two ministers, Navy Chief of Staff Nagano continued to talk tough; next to him, as we’ve seen, Oikawa was regarded as timid and overcautious. When Nagano met his army counterpart, Sugiyama, that day, Nagano pushed harder for war. But even he could not help occasionally revealing his doubts:

NAGANO: I don’t think matters can be settled diplomatically. But if the Foreign Ministry thinks that there is still hope, I am in favor of continuing negotiations.… That doesn’t change our belief that October 15 should be the day of decision for war or peace. [At the same time] we must be careful not to miss any strategic opportunities.… [We must prepare for war as we negotiate because] we wouldn’t be able to fight if [the government leaders] came to us [later] and said: “We have tried our best with diplomacy, and we didn’t succeed. Now it’s your turn.…”

SUGIYAMA: But am I to understand that the navy is not confident about war?

NAGANO: What? Not confident about war? That is not true. Of course, we have never said that victory is assured. I’ve told the emperor this too, but we are saying that there is a chance of winning for now. As far as the future is concerned, the question of victory or defeat will depend on the total combination of material and psychological strengths.… If you follow the navy minister’s belief that it would be difficult to fight, well, that kind of attitude would put to question the need for any military preparations.… As far as the deadline for deciding between war or no war is concerned, the navy wouldn’t mind extending it a bit.… But that’s not the army’s position, is it? You seem to be charging right ahead.

SUGIYAMA: That’s not true. We are going about it very cautiously.…

NAGANO: It’s not for nothing that the emperor reached the September 6 decision.… We musn’t now hesitate to pour more soldiers into southern French Indochina.

SUGIYAMA: I agree with you completely.

That evening, Tojo again saw Konoe at Tekigaiso. This was the meeting that Oikawa had insisted Konoe conduct alone. As he had two nights previously, Konoe suggested that if Japan would agree to a troop withdrawal from China in principle—the timing would depend on the actual field conditions—diplomacy might succeed. “We absolutely cannot do that,” responded Tojo. Konoe pointed out again that in his mind the question of troop withdrawal stood as the major obstacle to peace:

As far as the Four Principles are concerned, we should accept the principle of equal opportunities. There are, of course, special interests in China due to our geographical proximity, but that could be acknowledged, I believe, by the United States. As for the Tripartite Pact, to pledge [Japan’s withdrawal from the pact] on paper would be difficult, but I am optimistic that something could be worked out in a direct meeting with the president. There remains only the question of military occupation. Could one not go easier on military occupation and not call it that? What would you do if this question alone became the stumbling block of the negotiations? Can we not find a way to stick to the substance of military occupation and still agree to troop withdrawal?

Tojo responded that the overall problem was much more difficult than Konoe tried to make it sound. Tojo thought it was wishful to think that the United States would agree to Japan’s special regional interests in regard to China. Besides, he refused to voluntarily commit the army to such a huge concession when all other issues, including the realization of a summit meeting itself, were in doubt. To this, Konoe could say only: “Military men take wars too lightly.”

Tojo insisted that the September 6 resolution was sacrosanct and that the October 15 deadline had to be honored. “You say that military men take wars too lightly. Occasionally,” Tojo said in one of his most memorable (and previously cited) utterances, “one must conjure up enough courage, close one’s eyes, and jump off the platform of the Kiyomizu.” Jumping into the abyss was all well and good if one were talking only about oneself, Konoe responded, “but if I think of the national polity that has lasted twenty-six hundred years and of the hundred million Japanese belonging to this nation, I, as a person in the position of great responsibility, cannot do such a thing.”

Beneath his bravado, Tojo’s doubts lingered. The following day, Oikawa visited him to find out how his meeting with Konoe had gone. “We’ve lost tens of thousands of lives over the China Incident. To withdraw [from China] seems an unbearable option,” said Tojo, looking pained. “And yet if we do go to war with the United States, we will lose tens of thousands more. I am thinking about withdrawing troops, but I just cannot decide.”

The most ironic aspect of Tojo’s fixation with those who had perished in China was that senior Japanese commanding officers in China were strongly urging Japan to avoid war with the United States. In early October, the commander in chief of Japanese forces in China, General Hata Shunroku, dispatched an officer bearing his message to Tokyo. Hata argued that the Japanese nation had already been drained of its fighting resources and should therefore accept the U.S. demands and settle its war with China once and for all. Tojo was fully aware of the toll the China War was taking on Japan. But as his subsequent actions would repeatedly show, dead souls always seemed to count more for him than living ones.

Hull’s damning postwar assessment of Tojo as “rather stupid” with a “small-bore, straight-laced, one-track mind” was not inaccurate, yet the reasons for Tojo’s internal conflict in the fall of 1941 were slightly more complex. As a professional soldier, he considered troop withdrawal a humiliating defeat. His inflexible way of being and set of principles kept him from allowing Japan to accept Hull’s Four Principles. Most damagingly, Tojo—and most other military colleagues alike—did not seem to understand how provisional international understandings worked, that practical details were often fudged. Or he was simply incapable of diverging from his precise military way of life.

OCTOBER 12, Konoe’s fiftieth birthday, was no festive occasion. Still tempted to resign at any moment, the prime minister decided to make one last attempt to buy time for diplomacy by holding a conference with the foreign minister, the army minister, the navy minister, and the general director of the Cabinet Planning Board, Suzuki Teiichi, a retired lieutenant general close to both Konoe and Tojo. In this small group, Konoe felt he had the best chance of making an impact.

At two o’clock in the afternoon, Konoe convened the meeting in the beautiful reception room of Tekigaiso. Though the house was built in a traditional Japanese style, the room’s décor was eclectic. The furniture was Chinese, and the large windows, the door, and the ceiling were latticed in an art deco fashion. “We must continue to seek a diplomatic settlement,” he told the attendees. “I have no confidence in a war such as this. If we were to start a war, it has to be done by someone who believes in it.”

Oikawa kept his views vague and insisted that the decision to start—or stop—a war was entirely Konoe’s. “We are at the crossroads of pursuing a diplomatic approach or war,” he said. “The deadline is approaching. The prime minister has to decide. If he decides not to go to war, that would be fine by [the navy].”

As so many times in the recent past, Oikawa should have told his colleagues what he sincerely believed. Besides, he was wrong in relegating the decision to Konoe alone. Under the constitution, the prime minister did not have the executive prerogative to decide between war and peace—the whole cabinet had to agree. Especially because the success of Japanese operations against the Western allies depended on the navy, Oikawa’s fact-based opposition would have carried tremendous weight. And, as the “radical liberal” Inoue would point out five years later, Oikawa had the power and responsibility to question the cabinet’s war decision and, if necessary, to simply resign his post. It is no surprise that Oikawa, still again, could not in certain circles risk disgracing himself or the entire naval service.

Oikawa felt he could be evasive because he was convinced that Konoe would carry the ball. At half past midnight the night before the conference, two men had called on him at the navy minister’s official residence so unexpectedly that he greeted them in his pajamas. They were Tomita Kenji, the chief cabinet secretary sent as Konoe’s emissary, and Oka, the chief of the Navy Ministry’s Military Affairs Bureau. Tomita said he hoped the navy would make a clear case against war so that the prime minister would not be put on the spot.

Oikawa, supported by Oka, dodged the issue. He told Tomita that the matter was essentially a “political” problem.

It’s not up to the military to say that we can or cannot go to war. That decision is a political one, to be made by the government. If the government decides on war, the military will have to follow, no matter how disadvantageous that war may be. Tomorrow, at the conference, I will repeat that, as the navy minister, I will go along with any decision the prime minister makes.… Prince Konoe would then have to take charge, stating that he would like [diplomatic] negotiations to continue and [to stop the war preparations].

When Oikawa hit the ball back into Konoe’s court at the conference, he believed the navy had given Konoe carte blanche to declare that the war option had to be abandoned once and for all. He had told Konoe, at their secretive meeting in Kamakura, that the prince had to be “prepared to swallow” U.S. demands if he really wanted to give diplomacy a chance and that the navy would support his decision. Konoe may have had the desire to forestall the war, but he didn’t have the nerve to say it. He also believed that ultimately it was the navy’s responsibility, not his. That was why, at the very last minute, Konoe had asked Tomita to extract from Oikawa a clear commitment that the navy would directly intervene. Their dealings had turned into a bigger farce, courage utterly and devastatingly missing.

When Konoe could not pass the responsibility on to Oikawa, he had little else to say. The last thing on his mind at this small conference was to question his own wisdom in having endorsed the imperial conference decision. Foreign Minister Toyoda was the only one who came close to scrutinizing the subject. He faced up to their joint “mistake” and urged the continuation of diplomatic talks. “If I am allowed to be brutally frank, the imperial conference resolution [of September 6] was impetuous,” he said. “We did it even though the relevant documents reached us only two days before [and decided it after only one liaison meeting].”

Now Tojo became vexed with Konoe. In response to Konoe’s statement that he had “no confidence in a war such as this,” Tojo barked at him: “You surprise me. What do you mean you have no confidence? Isn’t that something you should have brought up when we decided on the ‘Essentials for Carrying Out the Empire’s Policies’?” Tojo insisted that the government had to stick to the September 6 resolution simply because it had been decided. He was, as ever, forceful in his indictment of others, not betraying for a moment the internal conflict he had recently revealed to Oikawa. He was showing his public face, his tatemae. “This is unbelievable!” he exclaimed. It was too late now to alter such an important and, most significant to him, “imperially sanctioned” resolution, regardless of the vaguely expressed imperial opinion.

This meeting would be remembered as the Tekigaiso Conference, known not for what it had achieved but for what it had not. October 15 was only three days away.

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