“No Last Word Between Friends”

There is no last word between friends,” President Roosevelt, with the effortless charm of a patrician statesman, remarked to his two Japanese visitors. It was late on the morning of November 17, 1941. One of the visitors was Ambassador Nomura, a frequent guest at the White House over the past half year. The other was less familiar: Kurusu Saburo. Kurusu was much shorter than Nomura, who was as tall as many of his U.S. colleagues, but possessed an air of quiet authority. Everything about him was urbane and sophisticated. At fifty-five, he had a full head of slightly graying hair, neatly combed back. His well-cut suits, his fine mustache, his silver-rimmed glasses, his tipping of his hat to greet journalists, all spoke to his polished personality. But precisely because of his impeccable demeanor, Kurusu could seem somewhat distant, even cold, to those who did not know him. A seasoned diplomat, he had been dispatched by Tojo’s government as a special envoy to the United States and had arrived in Washington only two days earlier.

Kurusu’s new responsibilities had begun, in effect, on the night of November 3. Asleep after a pleasant if exhausting day of visiting museums and walking around old Tokyo with his son, an aeronautical engineer for the army, he was awakened at midnight by a policeman from a nearby police station. “Please report immediately to the foreign minister’s official residence,” said the policeman, who had been sent because the telephone line to Kurusu’s house was not working properly. Though Kurusu wondered at first if this summons might have something to do with his private antiwar pronouncements, it would soon become clear that he was mistaken. He hurried himself to Togo’s official residence. There he found, in a brightly lit room, the tense-looking foreign minister and several of his closest aides, all with equally serious faces.

Togo summarized the history of the informal talks between the United States and Japan, noting that the situation needed to be drastically improved at once. For that, Ambassador Nomura needed an able man with a proven track record in international negotiations. As Japan’s first consul general in Manila, Kurusu had established excellent Japan-Philippines relations and in 1919 famously prevented the passage of a bill that would have resulted in the confiscation of Japanese-developed agricultural properties. Though semiretired, Kurusu was eminently qualified. He was asked if he would go to Washington.

When Tojo took over the government from Konoe, Nomura requested to be sent back home, and not for the first time. Once again, he was turned down. One can only imagine Nomura’s frustration as he almost single-handedly continued to campaign for a peaceful settlement in Washington, where he was regarded as an outsider within his own embassy. His frustration might have gotten the best of him if he had known of the deadline for a diplomatic settlement. He had no idea that a specific date for war mobilization had been discussed in Tokyo, decided upon, reexamined, and then reapproved. With the new deadline set for the end of November, Tokyo could not afford to replace Nomura. Rather, the overworked ambassador would now be sent someone to assist him.

The official explanation for Kurusu’s dispatch was Nomura’s poor English; the truth was that Togo did not have a high opinion of Nomura as a diplomat. “In this dangerous emergency,” Togo later wrote, “one could not afford to discharge him or to be too hesitant.” That was why Togo “sent him almost excessively detailed instructions concerning the treaty formats, for instance, where the ambassador was weak.” Togo came to feel that the telegrams loaded with such instructions would not suffice.

In that midnight conference with Togo, Kurusu was briefed on the contents of Plans A and B, which were to be proposed to the United States in the coming weeks. When Kurusu returned home around two in the morning, he stunned his family by announcing that he would be leaving for the United States almost immediately.

Kurusu spent the next twenty or so hours trying to acquaint himself with the “informal conversations” held between Japan and the United States since the spring. Reading through documents and meeting with informed parties at the Foreign Ministry, he learned that the talks had, in fact, been thought to be going well at first. The definite turning point, it was clear to him, was the Japanese occupation of southern French Indochina in July. Kurusu was reassured by Yamamoto Kumaichi of the American Affairs Bureau that he would make every conceivable effort to persuade the military to halt its march to war should Kurusu recognize even a glimmer of hope for the success of the negotiations. Yamamoto had a good reason to think it could be done, remembering that Nagano had told him that “the navy would be glad to entrust everything to the Foreign Ministry.”

Later that evening, his departure imminent, Kurusu went to see Tojo. They had never met before. To Kurusu, the prime minister appeared relatively relaxed. He had changed from his usual khaki army uniform into a kimono, though it was still a rather formal one. Tojo told him that he had reported to the emperor about Kurusu’s special appointment. He went on to say that in his estimation “the chance of success in the negotiations with the United States is 30 percent.” But he felt there was still time. He believed that the United States was not yet prepared for war and that U.S. public opinion was clearly against it. The United States lacked natural resources such as rubber and tin, Tojo said, making it unlikely that it would jeopardize its access to Southeast Asia by going to war with Japan.

“Be sure to give it your best effort,” Tojo said, “and come to an agreement.” To the diplomat’s dismay, he added: “But Japan could not possibly concede on the point of troop withdrawal.” If that concession were made, he would not be able to face the souls of the men who had died for the emperor in all of Japan’s modern wars. This was Tojo’s customary line, of course, which had prevented Konoe’s third cabinet from pursuing a diplomatic settlement with the United States. And yet Tojo was not as intransigent on this issue as his words suggested. He had helped Togo win some significant concessions from the militarists in the recent liaison conferences. Plan A promised at least a timed withdrawal from China; Plan B committed Japan to a swift withdrawal from southern Indochina as a preliminary step toward withdrawing from all of French Indochina and China. Tojo had indeed come a long way on the issue of troop withdrawal, probably because he understood its importance, despite his continued references to the heroic souls of the war dead.

Kurusu felt Tojo was too optimistic. He explained that he had agreed to the difficult mission in the belief that trying to avoid war was the service he was expected to render to the people of Japan as well as to the emperor. His mission was meant for the living, not the dead. “Will you be prepared to back up the diplomatic effort if an agreement were to be reached between the two countries, despite the expected opposition?” Kurusu asked. Tojo answered: “Yes, I surely will.” Japan’s top diplomat now quickly grasped the tremendous delicacy of the situation: Even though Tojo, as a soldier, could not overtly promise humiliating military concessions, Kurusu understood him to be saying that, in effect, he would be prepared to stomach them as long as Kurusu could engage the other side. This gave Kurusu some hope.

As they were wrapping up their meeting, Tojo told Kurusu that the negotiations could proceed only until the end of November. He said it in a chillingly casual manner. Togo had not mentioned that to Kurusu. With less than two weeks left, Kurusu belatedly realized, the true obstacle was the time frame.

DESPITE HIS UNQUESTIONED INTELLECT and experience, Kurusu was an unfortunate choice in a public relations sense. To the outside world, Kurusu was known only as the man who signed the Tripartite Pact, having been photographed next to Hitler at the height of German-Japanese friendship. He was actually strongly opposed to the pact but was obliged to sign it as Japan’s ambassador to Germany in the autumn of 1940. Kurusu never wanted the Berlin job and had turned it down several times. He was ready to retire after his tenure in Belgium, where he was posted from 1936 to 1939. His time in Brussels coincided with the outbreak and intensification of the China War under the first Konoe government. He tried in his capacity as ambassador to initiate a settlement of the China conflict through the mediation of the Belgian and French governments. He knew that Japan lacked any coherent plans for that war and, more damningly, an effective leader. The escalation, in his words, came about because “the government always allowed itself to be dragged along by the faits accomplis in the field without any prospects of long-term solution.” Worse, there was “no coordination within and between the army and the navy” and everyone was “preoccupied with saving face and evading responsibilities.”

Kurusu could not have envisioned that things would get so bad so fast when he and his family, along with a crowd of enthused spectators, welcomed the record-setting Kamikaze aviators at the Brussels airport in April 1937. Kurusu accepted the ambassadorship to Berlin in 1939 only in the hope that he might prevent Japan’s diplomatic course from going further astray. Once in Berlin, he continued to seek ways to settle the China War through the third-party intervention of Germany. But just as things seemed to be moving in the right direction, Konoe, in his second premiership, recognized Wang Jingwei’s China, thereby alienating Chiang Kai-shek forever.

Kurusu was soon left out of all key communications between German and Japanese officials. Hitler’s government judged that Japan could not be wooed sufficiently through Kurusu, and the agreement on the Tripartite Pact was hastily reached between Matsuoka and a German envoy visiting Tokyo. Nonetheless, because Kurusu was photographed standing side by side with Hitler, his reputation became forever tainted.

Kurusu was so disgusted by that and other experiences in Germany that he requested to be relieved of his post and was allowed to leave Berlin in February 1941. Back in Japan, he led the life of a recluse, turning down government appointments, including a position in Tojo’s cabinet. Kurusu, however, could not reject the emergency call to Washington. A peaceful settlement of U.S.-Japanese differences was something he truly desired. He was pro-Anglo-American at heart. Perhaps as the son of the successful industrialist who had developed the cosmopolitan port of Yokohama, he had the appreciation of mercantile liberalism in his blood. The port town served as the window to the world during Japan’s rapid modernization and was known for its unsentimental, practical people like Kurusu.

Kurusu also had a personal stake in the future of the United States and Japan. He was married to an American from New York City born to British parents (her father was an Anglican clergyman). Kurusu wanted to do everything in his power to avoid a war between the two countries that meant the most to his family. It was to be a perilous mission. There were some on the Army General Staff who openly said they wished Kurusu’s plane would crash. With such ill wishes behind him, he departed for Taiwan in the early morning of November 7.

NOMURA WOULD HAVE to continue on his own until midmonth, given the length of Kurusu’s journey. Togo gave Nomura an overview of Plans A and B. “The negotiations at hand represent our last-ditch attempt,” wrote Togo. “Our counterproposal is literally the final one in both name and substance.… If we cannot bring about a swift compromise, regrettably, it will only mean the collapse of the negotiations and the relations between the two countries.” While the actual deadline was zero hour of December 1, Nomura was told that an agreement had to be reached by November 25. Nomura was also kept in the dark about the significant military concession Togo had won for Plan B: the immediate troop withdrawal from southern Indochina. If all else failed, Togo reasoned, he could deal this card at the very last possible moment for maximum effect in the negotiations.

Nomura charged ahead. On November 7, he met with Secretary of State Hull and presented him with Plan A. Hull already knew its contents from intelligence sources but told the ambassador he needed some time to study and consider it. On November 10, Nomura met with Roosevelt. The president made no specific references to Plan A but used the term “modus vivendi” to describe what the two countries were trying to achieve. Roosevelt said that he, Nomura, and Hull “had only consumed some six months in discussing a solution of our relations and those of other countries in the Pacific.” More patience was necessary. A modus vivendi, in his mind, “was not merely an expedient and temporary agreement, but also one which takes into account actual human existence.” Nomura left the meeting sensing that the president was now considering a provisional accommodation of disagreements with Japan, rather than demanding their permanent resolution in the form of a complete and immediate policy shift.

From the U.S. perspective, given Roosevelt’s preoccupation with the war in Europe, deterring any kind of conflict in another, faraway theater made sense. Washington was in no hurry. Nomura was. In order to achieve something concrete before Tokyo’s self-imposed deadline, he needed a more definitive response from Roosevelt to the items listed in Plan A, which he requested from the president on November 10 and again from Hull on November 12. When Wakasugi Kaname, the minister-counselor, visited Undersecretary of State Joseph Ballantine on November 13, he said the “[Japanese] public was becoming impatient and almost desperate.” This was a gross misrepresentation, portraying Japan as if it were an informed and open democracy whose “public” knew of what was now at stake in Washington.

Wakasugi had told Ballantine that Tokyo considered their talks to be of a formal nature, since Ambassador Nomura presented his instructions from Tokyo to the president in person. The U.S. government, on the other hand, according to Ballantine, regarded their talks as “still being in a stage of informal exploratory discussions.” He elaborated that the U.S. government would expect to talk to China and other concerned parties, if need be, and “a stage of negotiations” between Japan and the United States could then and only then be reached.

On November 14, an exasperated Nomura dispatched a telegram to Togo. “If the situation allows,” the ambassador pleaded with the foreign minister, “we should not feel rushed by a matter of one or two months. We must sit back and look at the whole world in its entirety, and wait and persevere until we have a better idea of a future course.” This perfectly reasonable argument was almost beside the point, given the looming deadline, and irritated Togo because he knew, at heart, that Nomura was right.

On November 15, Nomura, accompanied by Wakasugi, met Hull in his apartment. Nomura was handed an oral statement and an unofficial draft of a proposed joint declaration by the United States and Japan on economic policy and equal commercial opportunities. Hull had not accepted the Japanese point that the equal opportunity principle should be applied to the rest of the world before it was enforced in China: “[Japan could not possibility expect] the United States to assume responsibility for discriminatory practices in areas outside of its sovereign jurisdiction, or to propose including in an arrangement with the United States a condition which could be fulfilled only with the consent and cooperation of all other Governments,” he explained. But he was at last engaging with a specific item outlined in Plan A. Wakasugi asked if Japan could get speedy U.S. replies on the remaining questions as well. Nomura asked whether one could now legitimately say that the “informal conversations” had passed an exploratory state and the two countries were engaged in formal negotiations. That would have had some impact in Tokyo. Hull responded negatively and asked Wakasugi to take careful note of what he was going to say. “If we are to work out a peaceful settlement in the Pacific area,” the U.S. administration could do so “only on the basis of carrying on exploratory conversations.” Only after Hull deemed it appropriate to go to “Great Britain, to China, and to the Dutch” would he feel comfortable to call “what took place thereafter a negotiation.” What would he say to his friends, he asked the Japanese, if those countries concerned read in the newspapers that he was formally “negotiating with Japan on matters affecting them without their being consulted”? At the end of the meeting, Hull sounded the encouraging note that as long as Japan’s peaceful intentions concerning nondiscrimination in commercial affairs as well as the Tripartite Pact became clear, Hull thought they “could sit down like brothers and reach some solution of the question of stationing Japanese troops in China.”

ON NOVEMBER 16, Togo responded to Nomura’s telegram that urged abandoning a deadline. “Regrettably,” wrote Togo, “because of various existing factors, we cannot wait and persevere until we know better what the world would look like in the future.… We cannot alter the fact that we will need to reach a compromise in this negotiation speedily.”

The day before, Kurusu had finally arrived in Washington. In Tokyo, Togo had given him elaborate instructions concerning various formats in which Plan B—in the event of Plan A’s failure—was to be presented to the White House, each offering slightly different terms. The first of the three versions of Plan B was the one decided on at the imperial conference of November 5, which pledged (1) no further military advance into East Asia and the South Pacific, (2) cooperation to secure the needed resources from the Dutch East Indies, (3) reversion of commercial relations to the conditions before the U.S. freezing of Japanese assets, and (4) no U.S. interference in a Sino-Japanese peace. In this version, Japan’s preparedness to withdraw from Indochina, to make concessions on nondiscriminatory commercial policy, and to explore the Japanese interpretations of the Tripartite Pact were all listed only as “additional remarks.”

In the second version, the first four headings remained the same, and these three “additional remarks” were upgraded to formal headings (numbers 5 to 7, respectively). These new headings also had various qualifications in the form of “additional remarks,” the most notable of which were the conditions attached to troop withdrawal: Japan would be willing to transfer its troops from southern French Indochina to the north immediately “in case of an agreement being reached” between the United States and Japan.

The third version, which Togo believed would have the greatest favorable impact on Washington, clearly stated under heading 5 (rather than as an “additional remark”) that Japan would be prepared to “transfer the existing Japanese troops stationed in southern French Indochina into northern French Indochina.”

The most critical job entrusted to Kurusu, then, was to make sure that the different versions are used to maximum effect, according to Togo’s orders. Nomura and Kurusu had next to no diplomatic freedom.

Right before he left Tokyo, Kurusu stopped by the U.S. embassy. He wanted to thank Joseph Grew for arranging a transpacific Clipper flight to carry him to Washington. “Are you bringing a new proposal?” Grew asked him with apparent eagerness. Still fresh in his memory was his attempt over the summer to convince his government to let Konoe have his chance at a summit meeting. Grew had insisted then that although no definitive deals could be made on paper in advance, the prince was sure to bring terms favorable to the United States in person. He had hoped that Kurusu was bringing some notable concession. “No,” Kurusu responded. Grew was visibly discouraged. Together with a tearful Mrs. Grew, he wished Kurusu the best of luck.

Kurusu wondered if the U.S. administration would be kindly disposed toward him. Not only had he signed the Tripartite Pact, albeit unwillingly, but he also lacked the political importance of a cabinet member. Would he be able to impress upon the Americans that the Japanese leadership truly wished to avoid a military confrontation? Would Plan B, in whichever form, be sufficient if it came to that?

On November 17, Kurusu, led by Hull and accompanied by Nomura, walked over from Hull’s office in the State Department to the White House to meet Roosevelt for the first time. Though not exactly relaxed, the atmosphere was not especially tense, either. Kurusu came out of the meeting encouraged by what he saw as U.S. willingness to continue the “conversations.” He communicated to Roosevelt that his arrival represented not added pressure but an extra effort on the part of Japan to find common ground. In describing the Japanese point of view, Kurusu pleaded with the president to see the situation from the Japanese “frame of mind.” That was when Roosevelt remarked, “There is no last word between friends.”

The phrase had a particular resonance with the Japanese. Roosevelt had repeated the words spoken almost three decades earlier by Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to Chinda Sutemi, the Japanese ambassador to the United States. Chinda’s historic service to the two countries was to bring cherry trees and have them planted on the banks of the Potomac. But for the Japanese, Chinda’s name was equally linked to California’s Alien Land Law of 1913, which he spoke out against. The law, mainly aimed at the burgeoning Japanese community, prevented foreign nationals who were not eligible for citizenship from owning property. (The Naturalization Act of 1870 stipulated that all people of Asian descent not born in the United States were ineligible for citizenship.) Chinda’s protest to President Wilson did not produce a satisfactory result; the state law proved to be only a precursor to the federal Immigration Act of 1924, which included the Asian Exclusion Act.

To many Japanese, these measures were a clear manifestation of the ingrained racism of white Americans toward nonwhite peoples. Such exclusionary measures in part propelled Japanese to emigrate elsewhere, and were used, self-servingly, as a pretext for Japan’s imperialist expansion into the rest of Asia. Despite various setbacks in their diplomatic relations over the years, however, Japan, as a government, had always found solace in Bryan’s diplomatic mantra when dealing with the United States. Kurusu was deeply moved by Roosevelt’s citing it.

Roosevelt appeared more than responsive to Kurusu’s efforts. He sounded most amenable on the topic of China, claiming to understand the sensitivities and logistical difficulties of immediate troop withdrawal from the Japanese point of view. Though he did not know whether such a diplomatic term existed, he expressed his willingness to act as an “introducer” between China and Japan. The United States would not “mediate,” let alone “intervene,” in the terms of a peace agreement but would merely bring the two negotiating parties together, just as Japan had requested.

So far, so good. Kurusu sensed that the most problematic topic from Roosevelt’s perspective, superseding the China withdrawal issue, was Japan’s status in the Tripartite Pact, and he moved on to that subject now. It would be difficult for Japan to disengage itself from the pact, at least in a formal sense, Kurusu admitted. But if Japan were to reach a “general understanding” with the United States, that understanding would surely “outshine” the Tripartite Pact, making it a dead letter. For the U.S. leaders, who were fundamentally against the Nazi regime and its ideology, this claim, made by the very man who signed Japan’s pact with Hitler, was diffucult to appreciate. Never one to hold back his thoughts on this topic, Hull intervened at this point to express his vehement disagreement with what Kurusu had just said.

At the meeting’s end, Kurusu thought it had been an overall success. Nomura was reassured by his younger colleague’s social and linguistic fluency. Their dispatch to Tokyo accordingly reported some signs of significant U.S. keenness. But this optimistic impression was not shared by the other side. Hull could not contain his displeasure when he wrote a memorandum summarizing the meeting. He would not accept anything less than Japan’s formal abandonment of the Axis alliance. He was dismissive of Kurusu’s “specious attempt to explain away the Tripartite Pact.”

Joseph Grew was always willing, and went out of his way, to try to comprehend and communicate the Japanese perspective. Hull, though he was showing tremendous patience, was more inclined to listen to Stanley Hornbeck of the State Department, a staunch believer in using a stick rather than a carrot as far as Tokyo was concerned. Hull had said in a previous meeting with Nomura that it would be very difficult for him to “make the people of this country and the people of all peaceful nations believe that Japan was pursuing a peaceful course.” Japan, after all, “was tied in an alliance with the most flagrant aggressor who has appeared on this planet in the last 2,000 years.” If the government of the United States “went into an agreement with Japan, while Japan had an outstanding obligation to Germany,” Hull believed he “might well be lynched.”

Given Hull’s aversion to the Nazis and, by extension, their “friends,” Kurusu’s appointment as a special ambassador was viewed skeptically by the secretary of state. Kurusu didn’t help himself by declining Hull’s invitation to continue to discuss the Tripartite Pact, among other things, immediately following the meeting with Roosevelt. This was a decision that Kurusu would come to regret deeply, though he never gave a clear explanation of why he had turned Hull down. Perhaps he felt he needed an extra day to prepare for the meeting or, more likely, to wait for further instructions from Togo. He also must have been physically exhausted from his long journey. Whatever the reason, Hull’s opinion of Kurusu from that day forward would be forever fixed, as he recorded in his memorandum of their meeting:

All in all, there was nothing new brought out by the Japanese Ambassador and Ambassador Kurusu. Ambassador Kurusu constantly made the plea that there was no reason why there should be serious differences between the two countries and that ways must be found to solve the present situation. He referred to Prime Minister Tojo as being very desirous of bringing about a peaceful adjustment notwithstanding he is an Army Man.… The President frequently parried the remarks of Ambassador Nomura and also of Ambassador Kurusu, especially in regard to the three main points of difference between our two countries [equal trade opportunities, the China withdrawal, and the Tripartite Pact]. There was no effort to solve these questions at the conference.

Looking back in 1948, Hull said he “felt from the start that [Kurusu] was deceitful.”

INCREASING REPORTS in Washington of Japanese politicians making bellicose public speeches were not going to make Kurusu’s mission any easier. Tojo’s policy speech in the Diet on November 17, just as Kurusu was getting started, was particularly damaging because of the wide publicity it received. Tojo was addressing the first “parliamentary” session to be recorded and filmed. (Japan’s parliamentary system, as noted, had been defunct since the formation of the Imperial Rule Assistance Association under Konoe’s second premiership.) It was broadcast on NHK and then released as a news reel to the general audience the following day. A student of Nazi propaganda, Tojo made an active attempt to rouse and mobilize the Japanese nation through the use of audio and visual media.

Though Tojo said that Japan’s political situation was now “critical,” the speech, lacking as it was in specific details, was not particularly news to the Japanese. It broadly pointed out that things were not going so well because Japan continued to be bullied by those who didn’t understand Japan’s peaceful intentions. He thanked the soldiers fighting in China and reassured the nation that the fall of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime was near and that, in light of the unstable condition of the Soviet Union since June, certain measures were being undertaken to safeguard Japan’s northern frontiers. As for the south, Tojo insisted that Japan was forced into the occupation of northern French Indochina because “Britain, the United States, and the Netherlands had stepped up their exclusionary economic policies against Japan.” Japan’s occupation of the southern half of Indochina was meant as an additional “defensive step” to counter these policies. But that, too, was “received with suspicion and fear by those same countries, which led them to freeze Japanese assets and enforce a de facto total sanction.” This, in his view, “was an aggressive and hostile action tantamount to an armed conflict.”

Tojo told the nation that his government was still trying its best to bring about a peaceful resolution, but he also suggested that it was not going to be easy. Therefore, the nation had to come together as one, “no matter how the situation might develop,” for the sake of a brighter future for Japan, for Asia, and for the world. He ended his speech by thanking the Japanese for their mobilization effort and expressed his respect and gratitude to the “heroic souls of the war dead” for protecting their nation.

Tojo’s speech was given to preface a ceremonious bicameral approval of a new policy accompanied by a special increase in the military budget, which was, in the words of the reporter Otto Tolischus, characterized by “something of that super-deftness in language that often baffles translators.” Tolischus’s report for The New York Times on November 18, 1941, quoted Tojo’s speech as follows:

To settle the troubles in East Asia as speedily as possible and to secure co-prosperity among East Asiatic nations forever and thereby contribute to world peace are the immovable national policies of the Japanese Empire. The government is requested to effect a break in the current critical situation while properly meeting the situations at home and abroad and thereby not make a single mistake in the execution of the national policies.

The Japanese could not have been too alarmed by the forcefulness of this resolution or of Tojo’s speech. Such strong language had lost its impact through habitual overuse. To the extent that it introduced the people of Japan to Tojo’s voice, the speech was a success. Tojo’s distinct, affectedly formal way of talking—characterized by his fondness for the words “therefore” and “thus”—became so familiar to the Japanese ear that schoolchildren soon started imitating him.

The impact of this well-publicized session was greater in the United States. These were no utterances of peace-loving politicians. While claiming to prefer peace, Japanese leaders from Tojo down seemed to be doing everything in their power to prepare for war and to blatantly publicize their warlike intentions. Tolischus observed that the policy speeches delivered by Tojo and Togo in the Diet “make it evident that a final showdown between Japan and the United States is at hand.” Though Togo was quoted as saying that “amicable conclusion of the negotiations is by no means impossible,” the reporter conveyed that “the general impression in both foreign and diplomatic quarters here” was that the speeches “contributed nothing toward that peaceful settlement in the Pacific which, Japan says, she desires.”

The next day, November 19, Tolischus dispatched another report, citing a speech made by Shimada Toshio. The veteran politician and former minister of agriculture explained the current policy as vital to treating the “cancer of the Pacific [that] lies in the minds of arrogant American leaders who are seeking world hegemony for themselves and are meddling even in Europe by assisting Britain.” It was Japan’s mission to remove this cancer by wielding a big knife and to carry on with its “disinterested holy war.” Most chillingly, he added that “there are other ways to make such a party understand.”

In Washington, it seemed that Japan had decided to go to war. There were almost no Americans left in Tokyo now. For some time, despite the diplomatic tensions and the China War, the number of Americans residing in Tokyo had been on the rise, reaching its peak of more than a thousand in June 1940. But in November 1941, there were only two hundred U.S. nationals left, the lowest figure of the past three decades.

Kurusu had far more than his own tainted public image to overcome in Washington.

DESPITE U.S.-GERMAN HOSTILITIES, the United States was keeping out of Hitler’s war. Following the Greer incident, the U.S. destroyer Kearny was torpedoed by a U-boat off the coast of Iceland on October 17, causing eleven deaths. Roosevelt spoke then as if a war were imminent, but he did not follow up with a request for a congressional declaration of war. On October 31, the United States suffered another blow when a U-boat attacked the destroyer Reuben James, acting as part of the convoy escort force, near Iceland. It sank, and 115 men perished. Again, there was no request for a declaration of war; in fact, Roosevelt’s reaction to this disaster was surprisingly measured. He was ever mindful of domestic isolationist opposition, antiwar public opinion, the country’s unpreparedness for war mobilization, and, increasingly, the uncertainty of the U.S.-Japanese relations in the Pacific.

In the wake of the Reuben James incident, a resolution to repeal sections of the Neutrality Acts was passed by the Senate on November 7, followed by the House on November 13. Both votes were close (50–37 in the Senate and 212–194 in the House), which justified Roosevelt’s continued caution. The United States could now arm its merchant ships and travel to combat zones carrying any type of cargo. Just as Washington’s legislators were finally acting to remove legal obstacles to entering the war they thought likely in the Atlantic, things were beginning to heat up in the Pacific, too. Japanese troops in French Indochina increased by the day. In response, Britain and the United States stepped up their defenses in Malaya and the Philippines. There was an unsettling atmosphere in the South Seas.

Yet again, Soldier U was directly affected by Japan’s new mobilization plan. He had been called up for a possible attack on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, which, as we know, never took place. Instead, he was assigned to oversee the training of his less experienced comrades in northern Manchuria into early fall, all the while fighting constant hunger and bedbugs. In late October, he and his unit were sent to the Russian-developed cosmopolitan city of Harbin in southern Manchuria. There he was given a spade and pickax and made to engage in rigorous construction work, day in and day out for forty days, to help build army bunkers. The effort left him with a chronic limp in his left leg. In mid-November, his unit was ordered to leave Harbin immediately; he could not even say good-bye to his sister-in-law, a Harbin resident. Nonetheless, Soldier U and his friends departed the railroad station with light hearts. They believed that their “provisional call” had finally come to an end and that they were being sent home. They remained cheerful throughout the three-day journey in packed train cars.

Their spirits sank when they arrived in Dalian, a major Manchurian seaport. They were ordered to exchange their winter clothes for summer ones and were given masks and gloves made of mosquito nets. They had no idea where they were being taken, but it was clear they were not going home. They boarded a big ship, along with a few other units. At sea, they lived on a little bit of rice, supplemented with seaweed, which hardly satiated their hunger. They felt it getting hotter as each day passed. The ship finally stopped. The rumor was that they were in the Taiwan Strait. As the men climbed on deck, they were astonished to see an impressive fleet of Japanese navy vessels. After all the ships were refueled, they set out together. The navy escort, which included warplanes and warships, made the soldiers feel safe. As the temperature rose even higher and their thirst and hunger grew, Soldier U still had no idea where he was going.

This southward mobilization represented only one aspect of Japan’s offensive program. Earlier, on November 7, the Navy General Staff had issued the first order for war mobilization. On November 10, ten sailors were selected for a special submarine mission to aid the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor. The mission involved five midget submarines, each bearing two men and two torpedoes, which would act as “manned torpedoes.” They had limited range, and once they were inside the harbor, the chance of survival for the crews was deemed extremely small. Yamamoto, averse to any strategies that presupposed the death of his sailors, had repeatedly rejected the plan over the previous months. But the young officers who developed it insisted on its execution. Finally, Yamamoto gave in—on the condition that the officers would continue researching the possibility of a safe return and would pledge themselves to maximizing that possibility.

What would effectively be a suicide mission was thus approved. This echoed the whole rationale for the war decision itself: As long as there was even the slightest chance of success, it was a gamble worth taking. On November 18, having completed their final exercise, a group of six aircraft carriers ultimately bound for Hawaii left for Hitokappu Bay, located at the northernmost end of the Japanese island chain. The carriers would set off from there so as to avoid being spotted by other ships. Fifty-four-year-old Vice Admiral Nagumo Chuichi commanded this First Air Fleet. An old-school fleet commander with no experience in aviation to speak of, he was appointed solely on the basis of seniority.

THAT SAME DAY in Washington, Nomura and Kurusu met Hull. Hull was as strident as he had been the previous day about the inadvisability of Japan’s remaining in the fascist alliance. He said once again that he could not understand why Japan should be so adamant about honoring its treaty with Hitler. Germany did not exactly have a great track record as far as honoring friendships was concerned. Hull impressed on the Japanese envoys that so long as Japan remained a fascist ally, he did not know whether “anything could be done in the matter of reaching a satisfactory agreement with Japan.” He said that the United States could “go so far but rather than go beyond a certain point it would be better for us to stand and take the consequences.” He was not about to compromise what he regarded as his most basic moral principles. Kurusu could only repeat that an agreement between Japan and the United States would “outshine” the Tripartite Pact, and he begged Hull to understand that “big ships cannot turn around too quickly, that they have to be eased around slowly and gradually.”

Then came by far the most remarkable moment for Nomura in his dealings with Washington. Nomura suggested to Hull that Japan would withdraw its troops from southern Indochina so that the two countries could “[go] back to the status which existed before the date in July … before [the U.S.] freezing measures were put into effect.” Nomura was playing his trump card—the concession Togo had obtained from the military. Kurusu had likely informed him of it.

Hull appeared unmoved by Nomura’s suggestion. He expressed his misgivings that Japan might simply divert the withdrawn troops to its advantage, “to some equally objectionable” places, and said that it would be difficult for his government to remove the embargo unless it “believed that the Japanese were definitely started on a peaceful course and had renounced purposes of conquest.” Nomura persisted. He explained that the Japanese people were sick of fighting in China and that the U.S. government could be assured of Japan’s sincere intention to take a first tangible step toward peace.

Nomura proposed to seek a détente—the easing of immediate tensions—rather than striving for a complete, idealistic plan that could hardly be agreed upon, let alone carried out, anytime soon. It was his way of demonstrating to Washington that Japan took the business of creating a modus vivendi—Roosevelt’s idea—very seriously. By the end of the meeting, Hull had come around to promising that he would consult with the British and the Dutch about the new Japanese proposal. This was a sign that, in Hull’s earlier words, the discussions were progressing beyond the “exploratory conversations” toward “formal negotiations.” The two Japanese negotiators were greatly encouraged by the prospect.

KURUSU SENT a message to Tokyo immediately after this meeting with Hull. He wrote compellingly that both he and Nomura thought Washington was open to negotiations and that it would be foolish to resort to some reckless, irreversible action simply because the other party would not at once agree to all of Japan’s proposed terms. Kurusu’s communication also emphasized that Roosevelt and Hull were becoming firmer in their demand for Japan to sever ties with Germany. Though it might be impossible for Japan to leave the pact right away, he felt Japan had to show a clearer sign that it was moving toward parting ways with Hitler. Given the time constraints placed on the negotiations, Kurusu argued, it would be wise to continue pursuing an agreement along the lines of Nomura’s latest proposal and to withdraw from southern French Indochina. The more conditions Japan attached to its proposal, the more difficult it would be for the two governments to engage in a meaningful exchange. He ended the message by saying that he and Nomura would like to reach some kind of an understanding with Roosevelt before November 22, when the president was due to leave Washington.

For the next two days, everything seemed to take an upward turn for the Japanese envoys. They kept receiving informal news that the Roosevelt administration was considering Nomura’s proposal seriously. On the morning of November 19, Father Walsh, one of the two priests who had set the U.S.-Japan “informal conversations” in motion earlier that year, visited Kurusu at the Japanese embassy. Because of his close ties with Frank Walker, Roosevelt’s postmaster general and a devout Catholic, he claimed to have access to insider information. Walsh congratulated Kurusu on the near completion of his mission, saying that the United States would probably accept Nomura’s proposal.

Encouraged, Nomura and Kurusu visited Hull in his apartment later that night. Hull seemed optimistic indeed. He expressed his view that an agreement on this matter “might enable the leaders in Japan to hold their ground and organize public opinion in favor of a peaceful course”—though, he also sympathetically conceded, turning public opinion around “might take some time.” The representatives of the two governments were finally speaking the same language and seemed about to take a concrete first step toward their shared objective.

THAT HOPEFUL ATMOSPHERE was dampened in an instant with the arrival of a telegram from Togo to Nomura, dispatched on November 20. Togo was furious that Nomura had veered from his meticulous instructions and taken such a diplomatic initiative. Since Togo still hadn’t received a U.S. reply to Plan A, he had not yet authorized his Washington team to present Plan B. Nomura, said Togo, had no business separating the issue of Indochinese troop withdrawal from the other items in Plan B and turning it into a stand-alone proposal.

Togo’s outrage could partly be explained by what he regarded as the impudence of a nonprofessional diplomat. A proud man, he treated the talks as his own and the diplomats in Washington as mere conduits for his orders. In Togo’s mind, Nomura’s action was a typical case of an envoy forgetting that “his duty is to carry out orders” and promising the other side too much. Perhaps he was venting frustration, facing the reality that it was unlikely the military would unilaterally concede to a troop withdrawal. (The army, especially, wanted something in return, like a favorable settlement of the China War.) Perhaps he was simply exhausted and demoralized. Whatever the reasons, Togo was determined to sabotage Nomura’s initiative instead of trying to further negotiate with the military, even though he had been promised Tojo’s support.

“There is absolutely no room for such maneuver,” Togo told the ambassadors in Washington. It was “regrettable, given the delicate situation at home,” that Nomura should have gone beyond his brief. Togo instructed him to immediately submit Japan’s so-called Final Proposal, a version of Plan B that entailed (1) no military advance beyond Indochina, (2) cooperation to secure resources from the Dutch East Indies, (3) reversion of commercial relations to the conditions prior to Japan’s southern Indochinese occupation, (4) no U.S. intervention in a Sino-Japanese peace, and (5) withdrawal of Japanese troops from southern Indochina. The China issue was reintroduced after all. Nomura’s attempt to get the diplomatic ball rolling had failed. “If we cannot gain U.S. approval for this plan [Plan B],” Togo had written, “we will simply have to accept the eventuality of talks falling apart.”

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