The Hull Note did not impose a specific deadline, but it was taken as an ultimatum when it reached the Japanese government around noon on November 27.
Togo was shocked by its content. “I was struck by despair,” he later recalled. “I tried to imagine swallowing whole [the demands], but there was no way to force them down my throat.” He felt that the note rejected willfully and categorically all the efforts that the two countries had been putting into their discussions, as though they had never taken place. For those restlessly itching for military action, the note was “nothing short of a miracle!” noted one bakuryo officer on the Army General Staff. It now seemed that no diplomatic settlement was possible.
Most Japanese leaders took the note as a provocation and a disgrace. Its cavalier tone, not to mention its difficult terms, confirmed in their minds that they were being bullied and humiliated. It also gave the leaders a chance to put a stop to the infighting and place responsibility squarely on the other side. More credence was given to the emotive story of Japan being persecuted by the ABCD powers. The United States was the primary bully, squeezing the life out of Japan while helping Chiang Kai-shek and the British in their respective wars behind the thinly veiled pretense of neutrality.
This Japanese reading, needless to say, was a case of selective memory. It was Japan that had occupied southern Indochina without responding to Roosevelt’s proposal for neutralization. It was Japan that had not done enough to dispel the U.S. fear of its alliance with Germany, even after Operation Barbarossa provided Tokyo with a golden opportunity for divorce. It was Tojo whose tough public speeches gave the impression to the outside world that Japan was now a full-fledged military dictatorship—though, ironically, Japan’s strange consensus building could hardly be called a dictatorship and the palace had appointed Tojo in the hope of reversing the war momentum. Above all, the fast-approaching deadline for the end of diplomatic negotiations was entirely of the Japanese leaders’ making. Self-delusion now created in Japan an overwhelming sense of self-pity.
Togo’s daughter, Ise, observed a physical change in her father. Until the arrival of the note, he had great energy; after November 27, he looked despondent. He saw the note not only as an insult to the Japanese government but also as a personal rejection. Contemplating resignation, he consulted with foreign policy officials, including the former foreign minister Sato Naotake. Sato tried to convince him that the note should not cause such despair and that his job now was to find a way around it.
Count Makino Nobuaki, a noted liberal internationalist of the Saionji school, reacted to the note with a sigh. “This is terribly written indeed!” the eighty-year-old said, lamenting the harshness of the U.S. tone and demands. Still, he believed Togo’s mission was to avoid perceiving war as inevitable. He relayed his advice to Togo through his son-in-law Yoshida Shigeru, a former ambassador to Britain.
The decision between war and peace requires utmost caution. I hope very much that the foreign minister would not make any mistakes in his treatment of the situation and his course of action. If we were to commence war with the United States, and instantly upset everything that we have accomplished since the Meiji Restoration, the foreign minister, as one of the leaders in charge, would not be able to justify himself.
Yoshida told Togo that whatever the true intentions of the Hull Note, in strictly diplomatic and legal terms, it did not constitute an ultimatum and did not place a time limit on Japanese actions. Yoshida encouraged the foreign minister to make a defiant political stand by resigning his post. “If you resign,” he said to Togo, “the cabinet will be stalled and the imprudent military would have to think twice.” Yoshida suggested that Togo should meet with Ambassador Grew, who was keen to explain that the note should not be seen as an ultimatum. Togo saw no use for such a talk. Thoroughly dispirited, a wronged hero (now wronged, in his mind, by Washington rather than by his domestic opponents), Togo felt there was nothing more to be done. Perhaps this was a conclusion he had gradually started reaching when he decided to back the latest imperial conference resolution. The Hull Note only helped him come to terms with it.
ROOSEVELT AND HULL RECEIVED Nomura and Kurusu in the Oval Office on November 27. Despite having warned his closest advisers that Japan might strike the United States on December 1, Roosevelt, the quintessential diplomat, welcomed the Japanese cheerfully, camouflaging his distrust. After the Japanese envoys sat down, the president offered them cigarettes, and Nomura gratefully accepted. The president struck a match to light Nomura’s cigarette. Nomura, blind in his right eye as a result of an assault in China, struggled to find the match. Smiling, Roosevelt extended his arm farther and helped Nomura finally reach the light. The atmosphere was nothing but congenial.
After some initial chitchat about Roosevelt not being able to take any time off in the country, the president began to talk about Germany. He said that the United States and Japan, as partners during World War I, together suffered from the German inability to understand the psychology of other nations. Kurusu understood that the remark was the president’s indirect but unflinching way of criticizing the Japanese folly in remaining a German ally.
Nomura then came to the point of their visit, expressing his regret over the absence of an alternative to the most recent U.S. proposal. The president replied as if already lamenting the inevitable conclusion. He and his government were grateful for and appreciative of the effort of “the peace element in Japan,” which had striven to support “the movement to establish a peaceful settlement in the Pacific area.” Even though he had still not given up, the president thought the situation to be “serious” and said “that fact should be recognized.”
Continuing as if he were ceremoniously recapping the past events to bring the meeting to an end, Roosevelt looked back on the conversations he had had with Nomura since April. He said that the Japanese occupation of southern Indochina had felt like “a cold bath” to his administration and that the more recent “movements and utterances of the Japanese slanting wholly in the direction of conquest by force and ignoring the whole question of a peaceful settlement and the principles underlying it” aroused fears that he might have to suffer through another one. In addition to the jingoistic pronouncements in Japan’s media, the president had in mind the aforementioned Japanese troop movement detected in the south, as well as the rumor that Japan was about to reach a military pact with neutral Thailand. He stressed how disappointed he was with those Japanese leaders who “continued to express opposition to the fundamental principles of peace and order.” Should Japan “unfortunately decide to follow Hitlerism and courses of aggression,” he said, the United States was convinced that Japan would be “the ultimate loser.”
In response, Nomura tried to appeal to the president’s sense of nostalgia, reminding him of their thirty-year acquaintance, and asked for his help in finding some way out of the crisis. The congenial air that pervaded at the beginning of the meeting was no longer in evidence, however. No significant modifications to the Hull Note were to be made by the United States, and Hull flatly dismissed Nomura’s suggestion. “Unless the opposition to the peace element in control of the Government should make up its mind definitely to act and talk and move in a peaceful direction,” he said, “no conversations could or would get anywhere as has been so clearly demonstrated.”
Following the Japanese envoys’ departure, the State Department, usually cautious about divulging the details of U.S.-Japanese conversations, elaborated on the state of affairs in a press conference. Its intended message was that the United States had done everything it could. The New York Times on November 28 reported:
All United States efforts to solve differences with Japan appeared exhausted yesterday, and the next move—either diplomatic or military—seemed up to Tokyo. President Roosevelt, with Secretary Hull at his side, held a forty-five-minute conference with the Japanese envoys … who now await official Tokyo reaction to Mr. Hull’s note reaffirming this country’s stand on its basic policy in the Far East. The conference followed the receipt of reports that Japanese reinforcements were moving into French Indo-China.… Secretary Hull’s note, handed to the envoys Wednesday night, was received in informed Tokyo quarters with calmness that suggested the Japanese had been expecting such a reply to their demands.
The U.S. government was now on record saying that whether it was going to war or not was entirely up to Japan—exactly the opposite of what the leaders in Tokyo were telling themselves.
IT WAS CERTAINLY WRONG to say that the Hull Note was “received in informed Tokyo quarters with calmness.” There had been errors in judgment on both sides. But the errors had been induced, amplified, and spun out of control largely by the erratic and inflexible fashion in which Tokyo had been carrying out its foreign policy over many months, especially since its occupation of northern Indochina and its signing of the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. Roosevelt might very well have underrated Japan’s military capabilities and tactical planning and overestimated its link with the Nazi regime. But in the end, it was still resoundingly up to Japan, not the United States, to avoid war, however humiliating, emasculating, and impossible that choice might have seemed to its leaders. The strategic timetable and bureaucratic rules that limited Tokyo’s options were not created by the United States, no matter how easily the Japanese leaders came to convince themselves that they had been cornered into war. They could delude themselves into thinking that they were the wronged party, that despite everything, Japan had been accommodating with the United States. But even the Japanese concessions outlined in Plans A and B had surfaced only recently and belatedly, after much coaxing by Togo. As the Hull Note now helped the conflicted Japanese leaders catapult themselves into a dreaded war, the leaders had only self-pity, rage, and, most important, a gambler’s daring on their side. The United States, on the other hand, could afford to fight a long war, even if it also had to fight Germany. “They would be ground to powder” was Churchill’s unreserved prediction of Japan’s fate.
Surely, not all Japanese feelings of injustice were imaginary. Moreover, those feelings were underpinned by the fear of the outside world rooted in Japan’s modern history. But it is too facile to portray the war that Japan was about to launch as a war for Asia against the arrogant West. In the sweeping picture of a racial-civilizational clash, all Western (that is, white) powers were lumped together as Japan’s potential enemy. In the same imperial conference of November 5 that sanctioned the final deadline for diplomatic negotiations, Hara, the president of the Privy Council, worked in close consultation with Privy Seal Kido to pose questions on behalf of Hirohito: “If Japan is to join the war, we must consider what will happen to the relations between Germany and Britain and between Germany and the United States.” Hara did not trust Germany—or any other “white” power, for that matter. He had been disturbed when Hitler said that the Japanese were a second-class race. Considering that Germany had not directly declared war on the United States, he feared that Japan might be placed in an awkward situation if it went to war.
Would the U.S. popular attitude be the same against Japan as it is against Germany? Or would it be more outraged by Japan than it would be by Hitler? Once Japan launches a war against the United States, I fear that there would be an agreement between Germany, the United States, and Britain to leave Japan behind. Their hatred of the yellow race will immediately be transferred to Japan, superseding their hatred of Germany. We must be prepared for such an eventuality.… We must carefully consider the factors of race relations and must make sure that the Japanese empire would not be left alone, encircled by the Aryan races.
To Hara, the “Aryan races” embraced all white powers. A great deal of Japanese feeling was invested in its skin.
And yet racial humiliation and thin skin did not always deprive Japan’s leaders of sensible judgment. At the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, as we’ve seen, Japan opted to brook the shame of the Triple Intervention. Then Russia, Germany, and France ganged up on Japan, intervening in the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki to suit their imperialist aims. Much against popular opinion in Japan at the time, the government, led by Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi and Foreign Minister Mutsu Munemitsu, decided not to launch a war of protest, aware of the slim chance of winning it. Instead, Japan opted to voluntarily withdraw from the Liaodong Peninsula for an additional indemnity. The leadership made a prudent policy choice consistent with Japan’s greater goal of rapid modernization.
But there were no leaders of the caliber of those Meiji rulers in November 1941. This was plain for all to see when Japan’s former prime ministers gathered for lunch with the emperor at his request on November 29 to discuss the Hull Note. None of them welcomed a war. But most shied away from making their opinions explicit, assuming they had no power to change the existing policy. Admiral Yonai, a consistent anti-Nazi advocate whose short-lived cabinet in 1940 was ended by Konoe’s return as premier, did speak up. “Excuse me for speaking my mind in crude ways, but I think we mustn’t become utterly poor in our quest to avoid becoming gradually poor,” said Yonai. Such a cryptic, restrained comment could achieve nothing other than to impress on the rest of the leaders that he remained, at heart, antiwar.
Prince Konoe actually came closest to articulating any kind of objection. He asked whether it was really necessary for Japan to resort to war: “Can we not stick to the status quo? In other words, should we not wait out the hard times and see if we could break the deadlock?” But this was so little coming so pitifully late from the very man who should have asked the exact same question before he endorsed the imperial resolutions in July and again in September. There simply was no concerted effort among the former leaders of Japan to support and encourage the fearful emperor to rise up to the challenge, to use his authority to call a stop to war mobilization.
In the liaison conference that followed this imperial luncheon, it was announced that the war plan was going through its final stages of preparation, with the expectation of the immediate aid of Germany and Italy in Japan’s upcoming clash. Togo had not even been told when the attack would commence. “Is there any time left for diplomacy?” he asked Nagano. “There is still some time left,” answered the navy’s chief of staff. Togo asked again: “On which day is the military planning to open fire? … Unless we know [the date], we cannot carry out diplomacy [to help the military cause].” “All right, then,” said Nagano. “It is December 8. Why don’t you engage in diplomacy in a way that would help us win battles?”
Across the ocean, insulated from the air of suicidal fatalism that was beginning to infect almost everyone in Tokyo, Nomura and Kurusu believed that if anyone could sway the course at this late stage, it was the emperor. They had repeatedly heard Roosevelt and Hull lament the lack of Japanese statesmen publicly professing their desire for peace. The Japanese envoys had come to learn that the U.S. distrust of Japan’s peaceful intention ran deep.
On November 26, shortly before the Hull Note was delivered, Kurusu had taken it upon himself to tell Togo that, as a last resort, an imperial intervention should be requested in order to prevent the collapse of diplomatic negotiations. Kurusu’s idea was to ask Roosevelt to send a message to the emperor indicating his desire for the maintenance of peace in the Pacific and for U.S.-Japanese cooperation. The emperor could then simply reply in kind. (Kurusu knew the emperor could never initiate such a correspondence.) This, Kurusu hoped, would enable the negotiations to start anew.
Kurusu recommended to Togo that for a long-term solution in Southeast Asia, Japan should suggest the establishment of a neutralized zone encompassing French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies, and Thailand. This would benefit both parties by not only reducing the U.S. suspicions of Japanese designs on the south but also preempting any U.S. attempt to occupy the Dutch East Indies at the invitation of the Dutch colonizers. He concluded his message with a plea that he “sincerely desired that the message be communicated to Privy Seal Kido and be answered urgently.”
Nomura supported Kurusu’s plan wholeheartedly. Togo immediately rejected the idea—but consulted with Kido all the same. The lord keeper of the privy seal would have none of it, saying “it was not an appropriate time” for the emperor to get involved. There was, however, a palace insider who very much wanted Hirohito to intervene. On November 30, thirty-six-year-old Rear Admiral Takamatsu Nobuhito, who had recently been transferred to the Naval General Staff, visited his eldest brother, Hirohito, at the palace.
THE BROTHERS, four years apart, were close, despite Hirohito having been raised separately from his younger siblings in anticipation of his ascending the imperial throne. The sports-loving, energetic Prince Takamatsu was originally seen to be prowar. But what he had to say to Hirohito that day utterly betrayed his earlier reputation. “The navy cannot afford to fight,” he told his brother, according to Kido’s record. “There is a feeling that, if possible, the navy would want to avoid a Japanese-American war. If we pass up this opportunity, war will be impossible to avoid. The navy will start mobilizing for combat on December 1. After that, [war] cannot be contained.”
Hirohito frankly confessed to his brother his fear of an eventual Japanese defeat. Takamatsu replied that this was all the more reason for the emperor to act now. Hirohito felt the burden acutely, but he said it was not his place to go against a decision that had been passed on to him by the government and the high command, especially when there was no clear constitutional procedure in place for an imperial veto. “If I did not approve of war, Tojo would resign, then a big coup d’état would erupt, and this would in turn give rise to absurd arguments for war,” Hirohito would later explain. Of course, by failing to act, he had already allowed for the “absurd arguments for war” to reign. Kido summoned Tojo to the palace after Prince Takamatsu had left, so that the emperor could clarify any remaining questions he might have about the actual operation. Tojo would not comment on the details of the planned attack, recommending instead that Nagano and Navy Minister Shimada could do so more effectively. “Naval strategies are everything [in the upcoming war],” he said.
The two navy men arrived. Repeating the familiar official line about naval preparedness, they said they were awaiting the imperial command for war to descend upon them. Hirohito asked what would happen if Germany would not join Japan. (He was echoing Hara’s fear that “Aryans” would gang up on Japan.) Shimada, in order to “reassure and calm his imperial mind,” said that the Japanese empire was not counting on any German help.
Yet a Japanese war with the United States and its allies had always been predicated on German victory or, at the very least, German preponderance in Europe. The “Plan for the Facilitation of the Conclusion of War with the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands,” approved at the November 15 liaison conference, said:
We aim to demolish the Far Eastern bases belonging to the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands quickly so as to ensure our survival and defense, while actively seeking the surrender of the Chiang Kai-shek regime, cooperating with Germany and Italy to prompt British surrender first, and trying to deprive the United States of its will to continue the war.
A German defeat, or a German conciliation with the Allied powers, was never part of the official Japanese war plan.
The emperor wasn’t getting any straight talk from his loyal subjects. Rather than being encouraged to halt the war, he was made to think that the wheels had already started moving “automatically” and that Japan must risk a drastic surgery to cure the “cancer of the Pacific.”
Coincidentally, that same day, the newspaper Hochi reported, “Incredible Good News to Cancer Patients.” A certain Professor Okada of Nagoya Imperial University had discovered a definitive cure for all kinds of cancer, the report said. The professor claimed to have achieved a complete remission in all of the dozen or so patients he had treated since April with a regime of intravenous injections of gastric and duodenal mucosa. The professor modestly qualified his feat, saying there was still a possibility that their cancerous cells would come back, though he believed the chances were slim. He was confident that they could again be treated by the same method and achieve the same brilliant results.
Needless to say, there was no such dreamlike cure for Japan’s cancer.
ON DECEMBER 1, 1941, Hirohito convened an imperial conference, the fourth in five months. There was a solemn atmosphere. The deadline for diplomatic negotiations had passed. This conference was to approve the decision to go to war with the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands. In “discussing” the matter, there was nothing new in the statements made by the government and the high command. Hirohito was silent throughout the proceedings. Hara asked questions pertaining to the neutrality of Thailand and, unexpectedly, the preparedness of Tokyo for aerial bombings, as if he foresaw the city’s devastation. Hara also felt there were a few things that needed to be clarified in the Hull Note. To him, it was not so evident that its demand for a Japanese troop withdrawal from China also applied to Manchukuo, Japan’s puppet state. If it didn’t, Hara implied, could the note be considered less harsh than it first appeared to them? Togo wasn’t sure. But it was too late for such details to be scrutinized. This imperial conference, like all the ones that had come before, was convened for a ceremonial purpose only.
Finally, Hirohito gave his approval:
Our negotiations with the United States based on the resolution of [the revised] November 5 “Essentials for Carrying Out the Empire’s Policies” did not come to a [successful] conclusion. The Empire will go to war with the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands.
On December 2, Yamamoto Isoroku sent out a radio message from aboard the Nagato anchored in the Inland Sea, not far from Hiroshima. It was addressed to Vice Admiral Nagumo’s First Air Fleet, en route to Pearl Harbor and just about to cross the international date line along the 180th meridian. The communication read: “Climb Mount Niitaka 1208.”
Japan was going to war on December 8.