The Hull Note

There is no question that diplomacy, by the nature of its craft, requires patience. But Tokyo’s self-imposed deadline for a U.S.-Japan understanding made the business of waiting exceptionally difficult, even for a seasoned diplomat. Kurusu, desperate for an answer from Hull to Plan B, submitted the previous day, visited the secretary of state at his apartment on November 21. It was now his turn to take a bold initiative, Togo be damned.

Kurusu handed Hull a draft letter pledging that Japan would act independently of its Tripartite Pact partners in the event that the United States went to war in Europe. It was presented as a strictly private proposal, but one that essentially mirrored the Japanese government’s existing position. Indeed, Kurusu simply copied a passage from Togo’s November 20 instructions on how to explain the government’s stance on the Tripartite Pact. Togo had prohibited its immediate use; Kurusu and Nomura were “to refrain from presenting this explanation [to the United States] until an agreement is reached.”

Togo did not want any references he made to Japan’s exit from the fascist alliance to fall into U.S. hands. Should a U.S.-Japanese agreement fall through, he feared that it could be used for propaganda purposes by the U.S. administration to publicly drive a wedge into the enemy coalition. But Kurusu did not see any point in keeping this critical piece of information from the United States, as he strongly sensed that Tokyo’s renunciation of the Tripartite Pact now could just possibly tip the balance of the negotiations. Kurusu suspected a written promise that Japan had “in substance” left the Tripartite Pact would mean a great deal more to the United States if it came from the very signer of that pact. Thus he presented Hull with his personal note:

As Your Excellency is fully aware I am the one who signed the said treaty under the instructions of my Government; and I am very happy to make the following statement which I trust will serve to eradicate the aforesaid false impression [regarding Japan’s Tripartite Pact obligations]

It goes without saying that this treaty can not and does not infringe, in any way, upon the sovereign right of Japan as an independent state.

Besides, as Article III of the Pact stands, Japan is in a position to interpret its obligation freely and independently and is not to be bound by the interpretation which the other high contracting parties may make of it. I should like to add that my Government is not obligated by the aforementioned treaty or any other international engagement to become a collaborator or cooperator in any aggression whatever by any third Power or Powers.

My Government would never project the people of Japan into war at the behest of any foreign Power; it will accept warfare only as the ultimate, inescapable necessity for the maintenance of its security and the preservation of national life against active injustice.

I hope that the above statement will assist you in removing entirely the popular suspicion which Your Excellency has repeatedly referred to. I have to add that, when a complete Understanding is reached between us, Your Excellency may feel perfectly free to publish the present communication.

Upon reading this statement, Hull said he wanted to show it to someone else and asked Kurusu if he could keep it. Kurusu, encouraged by this response, asked if that someone was the president. The answer was no. Did the secretary mean to present it at a cabinet meeting? Again, no. Hull volunteered no more information, but Kurusu took the risk and left the document in Hull’s hands.

As far as Kurusu was concerned, his thirty-minute meeting with Hull provided some hope. Hull even engaged him in the kind of small talk for which Roosevelt was better known. “You came all this way, Ambassador, so it would be proper for me to invite you to a meal or to a round of golf,” Hull told Kurusu. “But you know how busy we all are. And I find that golfing takes too much time anyway. I have come to believe that the game is not compatible with the affairs of state.” Hull seemed unusually cheerful and compassionate. He complimented Kurusu on his clever use of the term “outshine” in describing the effective dead-lettering of the Tripartite Pact. He then went on to reminisce about his experiences working with Japanese delegates at the 1933 London Economic Conference with apparent nostalgia and fondness and even hinted at some sympathy for Japan’s desire to create a regional order. (After all, Hull’s Four Principles, too, were an attempt—though a more peaceful one—at creating a semblance of a regional order in Asia.) He said he could understand the concept very well, though he thought that East Asian Coprosperity Sphere was a rather clumsy name for it.

More important to Kurusu, Hull appeared to genuinely appreciate his and Nomura’s efforts to reach a diplomatic solution, in spite of the tremendous pressures and restrictions placed upon them by the hard-line elements back home. Hull lamented that he was only too familiar with the frustrations of not being able to conduct diplomacy unfettered by various political obstructions. Hull was finally seeming to open up to Kurusu, and that was very good news. Shaking Hull’s hand upon taking his leave, the Japanese envoy noticed that Hull had a fever. “Please, do take care of yourself,” said Kurusu, and left, having played, with no certainty of its success, the only card he felt he still possessed.

Hull’s memorandum of his tête-à-tête with Kurusu was extremely brief and not encouraging from the Japanese perspective:

I looked at the paper and then asked Mr. Kurusu whether he had anything more on the whole subject of a peaceful settlement to offer. He replied that he did not. I said that I did not think this would be of any particular help and so dismissed it. This was virtually all that was said of importance.

When Kurusu and Nomura visited Hull the next day, November 22, the secretary of state had recovered from his cold and was his usual professional self. He gave no specific answers regarding Plan B. Instead, he expressed his distrust of Japan’s peaceful intentions. He condemned Japan’s entry into southern Indochina in the summer even as he was discussing the possibility of reversing it with Nomura. He said that oil purchased by Japan the previous spring “was not used for normal civilian consumption,” as Hull had been led to believe it would be. He also made note of the increasing volume of anti-Anglo-American statements in the Japanese press.

Hull wondered why there was “not some Japanese statesman backing the two Ambassadors by preaching peace.” Would it not be possible, the secretary inquired, “for a Japanese statesman now to come out and say that Japan wanted peace”? Wouldn’t Japan “like to have a peace which she did not have to fight for to obtain and maintain” even though there was “much confusion in the world because of the war situation”? Why had Japan “pushed everything it wanted all at once into its proposal,” he asked, “[when] a peaceful movement could be started in thirty or forty days by moving gradually”? He indicated that he much preferred Nomura’s single-item approach to Togo’s Plan B.

Hull also pointed to the blatantly obvious “danger arising from blocking progress by injecting the China matter in the proposal.” This confirmed what Nomura and Kurusu had feared from the beginning: “The carrying out of such a point in the Japanese proposal would effectually prevent the United States from ever successfully extending its good offices in a peace settlement between Japan and China.” By including the noninterference condition in the peace between Japan and China, the chances of Plan B ever moving forward were greatly diminished.

Nomura would not give up hope. Some response—any response—from the United States represented continued engagement. As long as there remained a remote chance of peace, he believed, a right-thinking government would not abandon diplomacy. Nomura felt that if he could get the United States to address even one aspect of Plan B directly, negotiations could carry on, despite Tokyo’s deadline, which was only three days away. That was why Nomura asked Hull whether there were any points in the current Japanese proposal that the United States would either accept or like Japan to consider modifying. Alas, no clear reply was forthcoming. Hull said that he could not “carry the whole burden” and asked if the Japanese government could not wait until he had the time to confer with the representatives of other concerned parties (the Dutch, the Chinese, and the British). Not desiring to press Hull too much and alienate him even further, Nomura agreed to wait.

On the same day, Nomura received a telegram from Togo informing him that the negotiation deadline of November 25 had been mercifully extended to November 29. But there were to be “absolutely no more changes beyond that date.” The situation would then press on “in an automatic fashion.” The telegram explained that the extension was given because of “the waiting time necessary for the whole [diplomatic] procedure to complete.” Within the given time, the Japanese diplomats were told to secure “not only the official signing but also the exchange of official documents with Britain and the Netherlands.” Togo attached a draft of the official documents to be exchanged and signed by the concerned parties. This was unlikely to be put to use, and Togo knew it. But it was the formal procedure.

ON THE EVENING of November 25, Hull prepared a U.S. reply that proposed a truce, requesting Japan’s immediate withdrawal from southern French Indochina (the concession already outlined in Plan B) and the reduction of Japan’s northern French Indochinese troops to twenty-five thousand. In return, the United States would unfreeze Japanese assets and resume economic relations with Japan, albeit with some restrictions. The duration of the modus vivendi would be three months, but an extension could be initiated by either party.

However uncompromising Hull’s moral ground, and whatever his personal views of Japan or its diplomats, he remained a pragmatic and extremely patient negotiator with the Japanese. And his new plan reflected his continuing effort to find a compromise—a modus vivendi, as suggested by Roosevelt to the Japanese—that would allow the United States more time to prop up its defenses in the Philippines and prepare itself for an anticipated war in Europe. By the morning of the next day, Hull had completely scrapped the plan. There were several explanations for this sudden shift. One was that the Chinese and the British opposed a U.S. compromise with Japan (the Dutch supported Hull’s modus vivendi). Hull’s own postwar explanation was that “the slight prospect of Japan’s agreeing to the modus vivendi did not warrant assuming the risks involved in proceeding with it, especially the risk of collapse of Chinese morale and resistance, and even of disintegration in China.” But given its timing, the most powerful reason for the reversal was almost certainly the report of Japanese troop mobilization in the South Seas, especially the movement south of Taiwan, which had led the Roosevelt administration to conclude that Japan was poised to strike any day.

It was, of course, no secret that both countries were already mobilizing in the South Seas. And Roosevelt knew of Togo’s November 22 communication informing the Japanese embassy that things would proceed “in an automatic fashion” after November 29. Based on this intercepted communication, the president reportedly told his advisers on November 25 that Japan would likely attack the United States on December 1, “for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning.” Roosevelt’s secretary of war, Henry Stimson, recorded in his diary that the central question at the meeting was how to “maneuver [the Japanese] into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.” Roosevelt fully anticipated a Japanese military offensive while at the same time underestimating Japan’s ability to launch a truly crippling attack. The news of an increasing military buildup in the south probably led him to believe that a Japanese move against British, Dutch, or U.S. targets was imminent in Southeast Asia. When he reached this conclusion, his view of the Japanese negotiators in Washington must have hardened—either they were dunces or, worse, they were duplicitously trying to buy time.

In the dark early days of World War II, Roosevelt felt it vital for the United States to enter the war against Germany. Now he felt the time had come to take on Japan. This does not in any way endorse the so-called backdoor theory that Roosevelt and Churchill connived to have the United States enter the war in Europe by way of a war with Japan. Because Japan had refused to join forces with Germany against the Soviet Union, it was possible Germany could refuse to fight the United States on Japan’s account. No one can say for sure what would have transpired. What is known is that when Nomura and Kurusu were summoned to the State Department in the late afternoon of November 26, they received not the modus vivendi but another document Hull had drafted alongside it. Officially titled “Outline of Proposed Basis for Agreement Between the United States and Japan,” it would be better known in history as the Hull Note. The two Japanese envoys were urged by Hull to read it carefully.

The second section of the document, “Steps to Be Taken by the Government of the United States and by the Government of Japan,” consisted of ten points and contained the most critical information. It proposed that an agreement of nonaggression be reached multilaterally by the United States, Japan, Britain, China, the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, and Thailand. There would be a similar multilateral agreement on the preservation of territorial integrity and equal commercial opportunities in French Indochina.

Negotiating a multilateral agreement, however, was not what the Japanese diplomats were supposed to be doing. Tokyo had made it very clear that Japan wanted a bilateral agreement with the United States, one to which the other governments could subsequently extend their approval, again, on a bilateral basis. The Japanese had neither the time nor the inclination to conceive of a grand international peace on the scale that the United States was now proposing.

The Japanese envoys were further discouraged by the U.S. demands on Japan regarding China. These were crystallized in the third, fourth, and fifth points: The government of Japan was to withdraw all military, naval, air, and police forces from China and from Indochina; the U.S. and Japanese governments would agree not to support militarily, politically, or economically any government or regime in China other than the national government of the Republic of China with its capital temporarily at Chongqing; and both governments would give up all extraterritorial rights in China, including rights and interests in, and with regard to, international settlements and concessions and rights under the Boxer Protocol of 1901.

The outline consisted of a list of proposals that both parties knew could not be negotiated and agreed to within a short period of time. It spelled out America’s long-term vision of an Asia based on the principles of free trade and equal opportunity and was most likely drafted as a supplement to the scrapped modus vivendi plan that contained U.S. engagement with the specific terms of Plan B. As a stand-alone document, the outline read as if the United States were demanding an unconditional surrender without having fought and won a war with Japan. It “outshined” the Japanese in pushing “everything it wanted all at once into its proposal.” Even though the outline was marked “tentative and without commitment,” Hull knew fully, and later admitted, that “we had no serious thought that Japan would accept our proposal.”

The Japanese delegates attempted to have Hull temper the U.S. demands before the document left the meeting room. Their efforts were in vain. When Kurusu pointed out that, practically speaking, the Japanese government could not possibly stand by and watch Wang Jingwei’s government collapse, Hull suggested that Wang’s government had no ability to unite China and that it was not worth wasting time discussing a failed regime. Kurusu protested that Japan could not at this point abruptly change its diplomatic methodology and agree to multilateral agreements. Hull did not want to have a dialogue on that matter, either.

Nomura asked if they could speak directly with the president, citing Roosevelt’s recent remark about there being no last word between friends. With apparent reluctance, Hull agreed to set up a meeting. Kurusu expressed his grave fear that “[the] proposal could be interpreted as tantamount to meaning the end.” Was there no chance that the United States might still be interested in agreeing to a modus vivendi? The answer was no. Hull said he had done his best.

On the day the Hull Note was issued, Japan’s troop movement in the South Seas had caused a stern reaction in Washington. But far more significant that day was the furtive departure of Vice Admiral Nagumo’s squadron, led by the flagship Akagi, from Hitokappu Bay. The crew had recently been notified, for the first time, of the goal of its mission. The plan was shrouded in such secrecy that even Tojo was not informed of its details. Should a diplomatic settlement be reached before the deadline, the ships were expected to turn around and go home. That now seemed highly unlikely.

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