The new alliance of Japan, Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union, thanks to what Foreign Minister Matsuoka liked to call blitzkrieg diplomacy, was supposed to bring a quick and peaceful solution to all of Japan’s problems abroad, including the war with China and the increasing diplomatic tensions with the United States. No such luck. And nothing had happened in the weeks since Matsuoka responded to Washington on May 12, 1941. Regardless of this inaction on the situation in the Pacific, the war in Europe was raging.
Following the fall of Yugoslavia, Athens caved in to invading German forces on April 27, prompting the Greek government and King George II—aided by British Commonwealth forces—to leave for Crete, where they sustained another huge defeat in the face of the Luftwaffe’s onslaught (though Germany also suffered heavy losses). By the end of May, the Greek rulers had evacuated to Egypt. But Egypt wouldn’t be safe for long, either. Starting in February, the newly formed German expeditionary force Afrika Korps had begun arriving in Libya—under the command of the Desert Fox, Erwin Rommel—to aid Italy, which was poised to capture North Africa.
In the meantime, the British Isles continued to be bombed; Belfast, Hull, and then Liverpool, which was devastated by seven consecutive nights of air raids in early May. But this would be the tail end of intense German bombings of Britain, as Hitler’s attention turned eastward.
ON JUNE 22, 1941, a hot Sunday in Tokyo, Foreign Minister Matsuoka was treating Wang Jingwei to a matinee at the Kabukiza, a theater for traditional arts in the Ginza district. The building was a Japanese nativist answer to the Rokumeikan of the previous century. Despite its exaggerated traditional looks, including slated roofs in the style of a medieval Japanese castle, this relatively new edifice, finished in 1925, was made of concrete and boasted a seating capacity of twenty-seven hundred, as if to impress on its visitors Japan’s modern achievements.
The country had less and less to boast about of late. In April, the steel industry was “unified” under the Steel Control Association—a virtual centralization under the National Mobilization Law. This was followed by the merger of other major industries, giving the state more control over resource allocation and pricing. As a result, the use of metals by citizens was especially restricted, and even metal buttons from school uniforms were confiscated and replaced by ones made of glass. For the traditional boys’ festival celebration in May, the most coveted toys were planes, tanks, and helmets, but they were all made of wood, bamboo, and celluloid.
That Sunday matinee at the Kabukiza attracted Tokyo’s most privileged citizens, dressed colorfully and appropriately for the special occasion commemorating the establishment of a Japanese-backed Chinese government in Nanjing under Wang’s leadership. Throughout the performance, Kase Toshikazu, a young diplomat and Matsuoka’s secretary, was fidgety, desperate to confirm a report that had reached his ears earlier that day. He slipped in and out of his seat in order to talk to the Foreign Ministry, calling from the basement cloakroom. Finally, as applause was breaking out at the end of the first act, he passed a note to Matsuoka. It confirmed that Germany had unleashed attacks on the Soviet Union that morning.
Matsuoka had expected that Germany would at some point attack the Soviet Union and had even said so on occasion. There had been reports of an impending German offensive from the Japanese ambassador in Berlin, Oshima Hiroshi. But Matsuoka had reacted to them with skepticism, believing he would hear directly from the Germans. Matsuoka was now taken aback.
Operation Barbarossa, the code name for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, made Hitler something of a prophet: “The world will hold its breath and make no comment,” he’d said. Indeed, on that fateful day, much of the world was left speechless. Stalin had repeatedly ignored warnings about German mobilization, convinced that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 would keep his country safe for the time being, that Hitler, preoccupied as he was with Britain, would not instigate a war on two fronts. One of the numerous conflicting accounts (due to the shifting and unreliable nature of Kremlin historiography) asserts that Stalin was fishing in the Black Sea near dacha in Sochi. It was a warm Sunday. When news of the German offensive reached his sailboat, he lifted his rod quietly from the water and said: “Who would have thought now?” This was perhaps apocryphal, and he might have actually been in or near Moscow as is more generally believed, but what is certain is that Stalin was not heard from for days, consolidating the perception that he was completely caught off guard.
Army Minister Tojo and other Japanese leaders who believed their country to be a loyal ally of Germany faced a difficult question. Suzuki Teiichi was sent by Prime Minister Konoe to find out what Tojo thought of the news. Suzuki, a retired army lieutenant general, held the post of minister of state and also served as the general director of the Cabinet Planning Board, which was created in 1937 to unify and oversee cabinet policy for resource mobilization. The board’s importance had increased in proportion to the escalation of the China War, and Suzuki, an ambitious political operator, would play a critical role in assessing the feasibility of Japan’s war with the West. He addressed Tojo, a few years his senior, in a carefully deferential manner, telling him that Konoe believed Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union provided a welcome opportunity for Japan to abandon the Tripartite Pact. Acquiring a less partisan diplomatic position was essential for Japan to achieve peace with the rest of the world, he felt. Upon hearing this, Tojo grew angry and barked at Suzuki, “Do you really think we can act in such an immoral way, against humanity and justice?” The Germans had of course violated the kind of loyalty Japanese soldiers were trained to prize as most important. The 1882 Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors said that “the soldier and sailor should consider loyalty their essential duty.” Nonetheless, Tojo would not be dissuaded from his view.
Otto D. Tolischus, a Prussian-born Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist for The New York Times who was expelled from Nazi Germany in March 1940 and was now reporting from Tokyo, wrote on June 22: “The outbreak of war between Germany and Russia … froze official Japan into icy silence. The only official comment was that there would be no comment.”
WELL BEFORE OPERATION Barbarossa forced him to accept the irreversible collapse of his quadruple diplomacy, Matsuoka had started losing his political clout within the Konoe government. But the bigger the rift between Konoe and Matsuoka over the Draft Understanding, the greater Matsuoka’s ambition for Japan’s premiership and the more openly he criticized the cabinet of which he was still a part. Matsuoka deluded himself into believing he had the emperor’s support, which he most assuredly did not. “Matsuoka has been likely bribed by Hitler” was Hirohito’s reaction to the foreign minister’s blatantly pro-German pronouncements since his return.
At the May 3 liaison conference, the first important meeting after his European tour, Matsuoka had vigorously pushed for his new pet project—a Japanese attack on Singapore—while brushing aside the more vital topic of how to respond to the United States regarding the Draft Understanding. Both Hermann Göring—who entertained the foreign minister with a lavish meal at his private villa, Carinhall—and Hitler himself were pressing for a Japanese commitment to attack the British in Singapore to help their war. “I would if I were the leader of Japan,” Matsuoka had told them. Back in Japan, Matsuoka now insisted that Singapore had to be struck immediately. Upon hearing this proposal in the meeting, Army Chief of Staff Sugiyama was aghast. He had already told Matsuoka, before the foreign minister’s European tour, that an attack on Singapore was out of the question. Besides, Sugiyama did not share Matsuoka’s confidence that Germany would dominate Europe at any moment. “Germany and Italy have been preparing for the invasion of the British Isles, building so many bases in North Africa,” Sugiyama pointed out, noting that even there “they have not been able to succeed.” “Germany says it could take care of Russia in two months,” argued Matsuoka, even though he was in the dark on Germany’s plan. “Singapore should not be such a big deal,” he added.
Unfazed by the categorical rejection of his proposal, Matsuoka revisited the Singapore question in the next liaison conference, on May 8. Time and speediness were of the essence, he insisted. “Roosevelt is keen to go to war [in Europe]. You see, he is a huge gambler,” he said. Victory over Britain in Singapore, Matsuoka maintained, would lead the United States to reconsider a direct confrontation with Japan: “If Britain surrenders [to Japan] an hour before the United States enters the war in Europe, the United States would change its mind and refrain from going to war. [But] if Britain surrenders [to Japan] an hour after the United States enters the war [in Europe], the United States would continue fighting [and also start a war against Japan] …. If the United States were ever to enter this war, the war will be prolonged, and the world civilization will be destroyed.” He asked the roomful of key ministers and top military leaders, “If the war were to continue for ten years … then what would Japan do?”
Nobody responded. Matsuoka was encouraged that he could again force one of his policies through, as he had often done since his appointment the previous summer. He went to the palace that same day to make his argument to the emperor. Matsuoka had built his credibility on the assurance that Japan could become more powerful not by use of force but through deft and assertive diplomacy. Now he was advocating outright military engagement. Hirohito was alarmed enough to summon Konoe, who reassured the emperor that Matsuoka’s view did not represent the rest of the government’s.
Matsuoka’s misunderstanding of America’s national character seriously clouded his vision, wedded as he was to the notion that only defiance would garner U.S. respect. He relied too much on brinksmanship and bluff without knowing when or where to stop. That no one in the government had restrained him had only aggravated the diplomatic stalemate over the Pacific. As noted, the “Matsuoka Plan” was relayed to Hull on May 12, but nothing happened for more than a month afterward. There were some good reasons for this lack of diplomatic movement. On May 3, Matsuoka had sent Washington a bold oral statement (a type of diplomatic statement made orally, though usually submitted on paper) announcing, in his typical histrionic way, that U.S. entry into the European war would bring tragedy. He stated that Japan had no intention of leaving the Tripartite Pact. Ambassador Nomura was invested with the task of having to communicate this information, though Hull already knew of it from decoded intelligence information, thanks to the allied cryptanalysis Magic.
Matsuoka had also ordered Nomura to propose a neutrality pact between Japan and the United States. Hull summarily dismissed it (“I did not hesitate but promptly brushed it aside”) as impractical and irrelevant to the issues at hand. Many of Matsuoka’s actions were seen that way. On April 16, the day Washington decided to approach Tokyo with the Draft Understanding, Hull told Nomura that he “had not become unduly concerned” about the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact, signed a few days earlier, because
for some time, I have acted on the view that the Soviet policy was not to have war with any country unless in actual self-defense, and that, on the other hand, I did not see wherein Japan could have a policy based on the disposition to attack the Soviet Union. It was one of those circumstances in which I felt that the written document merely reduced to writing the relationships and policies already existing between the two Governments.
Washington was not about to rush into a neutrality pact with Tokyo. The Roosevelt administration had predicated its policy on “the information which early in 1941 had come to the knowledge of the Government from reliable and confidential sources that Germany had decided to attack Russia.” It even “communicated this information confidentially to the Soviet Ambassador.” That would change everything, including American-Japanese relations.
The Roosevelt administration took its time in responding to the “Matsuoka Plan” precisely because of this expectation that Japan would be more amenable to making concessions with the United States after the opening of a German-Soviet war. On June 21, almost coinciding with Operation Barbarossa, the United States replied. Matching Matsuoka’s defiant tone, the United States became noticeably tougher. The recognition of Manchukuo, mentioned in the Draft Understanding of April to the delight of the Japanese leaders, was nowhere to be seen. Washington now stressed that maintaining peace in the Pacific was its utmost concern and that neither Japan nor the United States was to entertain territorial designs in the region, thus categorically rejecting the Japanese right to resort to force in Southeast Asia, as was insisted upon by Matsuoka in his plan.
On the whole, the U.S. counterproposal depicted the Asia-Pacific region as one governed by the principles of free trade and equal opportunity. This ideal reflected Hull’s basic worldview. The self-made lawyer from Tennessee who had served as Roosevelt’s secretary of state since 1933 was a tireless critic of protectionism and the bloc economies that had emerged to the detriment of international trade since the Great Depression. But his uncompromising reply, coming as it did on the heels of the generally accommodating Draft Understanding—which had not been drafted by the U.S. government, of course—put off the Japanese.
Hull’s reply was accompanied by an oral statement aimed explicitly at an unnamed Matsuoka. While commending the earnest efforts being made by the Japanese ambassador and his associates, Hull complained that
some Japanese leaders in influential official positions are definitely committed to a course which calls for support of Nazi Germany and its policies of conquest and that the only kind of understanding with the United States which they would endorse is one that would envisage Japan’s fighting on the side of Hitler should the United States become involved in the European hostilities through carrying out its present policy of self-defense.… So long as such leaders maintain this attitude in their official positions and apparently seek to influence public opinion in Japan in the direction indicated, is it not illusory to expect that adoption of a proposal such as the one under consideration offers a basis for achieving substantial results along the desired lines?
This constituted a strong condemnation of Matsuoka’s defiant remark of May 3 that Japan would stick to its Tripartite Pact obligations no matter what. Hull’s statement continued: “This government must await some clearer indication than has yet been given that the Japanese Government as a whole desires to pursue courses of peace.” It was a call to replace Matsuoka. On his way back from Geneva in 1933, Matsuoka met both Roosevelt and Hull. Roosevelt was said to have taken an instant dislike to him. Self-absorption probably made Matsuoka as oblivious to that as he was to the actions and feelings of most people. He could think quickly and use words and gestures to great effect, but his inability to read others and his often unpredictable behavior made him essentially ill suited to a political post that required patience, deliberation, and dexterity. His lack of self-awareness and restraint was remarkable. “Of all the world’s statesmen, there is nobody before or after me who understands and loves Christianity as much as I do,” he told Pius XII in the Vatican in April 1941. In Moscow, he confounded Stalin by lecturing him on communism.
The complete control Matsuoka once possessed over Japan’s foreign policy was suddenly slipping away. But when the news of the German attack on the Soviet Union reached him, he quickly tried to regain his political influence at home. Rightly sensing that he would have no backers in the government, Matsuoka bypassed it, appealing directly to the emperor to attack Stalin immediately. Hirohito was astonished. Just recently, Matsuoka had advocated attacking Singapore. Now he was saying that Japan should be attacking the Soviets in the north. (“Heroes change their minds decisively. I have earlier advanced the southward move, but I am now switching to the north” was the brazen excuse Matsuoka gave for the retraction of his words.) There was no obligation for Japan under the Tripartite Pact to join forces with Germany in such a military action, and yet Matsuoka spoke as if it were an unquestioned necessity. Then, in a meeting with the Soviet ambassador to Japan, Constantin Smetanin, who was pale and panic-stricken, Matsuoka announced that the Tripartite Pact “had priority” over the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact.
When Konoe found out about Matsuoka’s direct appeal for war on the Soviet Union, the prince was again greatly embarrassed. He went to the palace the next day to explain his foreign minister’s action. Konoe assured the emperor that a military expedition against the Soviet Union was Matsuoka’s imaginary scenario. Operation Barbarossa only accentuated Matsuoka’s isolation.
THE DIARIST KAFU COULD NOT have known the exact nature of Japan’s domestic and diplomatic challenges around the time of the German attack on the Soviet Union. But he knew that the country was headed in the wrong direction. He could feel it most acutely as his creative freedom became increasingly compromised by the day. He lamented the fall of Paris and noted its first anniversary in his journal in red ink. The next day, June 15, 1941, nursing a cold, he was reading in bed when he came across the words of Kicho, an eighteenth-century author known for his essays and social critiques. When asked in his old age by a younger writer why he was fearless in his work, Kicho grew very serious: “It’s fine to be extremely well mannered and reserved in your everyday conduct. But once you pick up your pen, you mustn’t be in any way inhibited.” He admitted that over the years family and friends had warned him against doing so, worried that he would end up in prison for writing things that might easily be construed as being aimed at the authorities. In the end, he was glad he had stuck to his creed of always recording the truth of what he saw around him.
This passage, which Kafu copied in his diary, made him “very ashamed” of his own conduct. Earlier that year, through one of his published works, some people had figured out that Kafu had been keeping a diary for many years. Fearing persecution, he “stayed up late one night to cut out angry and complaining words [against the authorities] from my diary. And when I went out, I hid it in the shoe storage cabinet just to be sure.” Apparently moved by Kicho’s words, Kafu now wanted to make up for his cowardly act of self-censorship. Declaring that future historians should refer to his summary of his political views on Japan as something true, coming from his heart, written without fear—at least in the confines of his diary—he wrote:
When the Japanese army first started invading Chinese land, Japan claimed that it was there to “punish unruly China.” But when the war became unexpectedly prolonged, [the government] was completely at a loss as to what to do next and decided to call it a “holy war”—an utterly empty phrase. Now the Japanese government is looking to expand to the South Seas … trying to exploit the plight of the British army in Europe. Ignorant soldiers and fiendish schemers are responsible, and people at heart do not take joy in this development.
Kafu thought people were not protesting for fear of persecution. But he knew that such fear alone could not account for everything that had unfolded in Japan during the past decade. Shamefully, he noted, there were “those who try to advertise their loyalty and allegiance to the state in order to profit from its approval,” which led him to conclude that the “Japanese, fundamentally, are a nation of ‘happy-go-lucky’ people whose primary pursuit is to pass one day at a time without encountering too much trouble, possessing no high ideals.” For these indifferent citizens, the enormous political changes that “the present [militarization], or the Meiji Restoration has brought” did not have much meaning.
Five days after this cathartic entry, on June 20—two days before Operation Barbarossa—Kafu complained further about the deplorable effect bad politics were having on the way people read and wrote, the two things he cared most about. An unsolicited sales letter from a new magazine called Friends of Italy infuriated him. And so did a letter from Tokyo Imperial University’s college newspaper, students talking out of turn, high-handedly telling him to contribute. “People these days … I find it so lamentable that such an arrogant nation as ours goes terrorizing our neighbors.” He then concluded, “Oh, Americans, why don’t you stand up now and make this brutal nation repent?”
REGARDLESS OF Japan’s uncertain direction, a swift regrouping of alliances started to take place in the rest of the world after Operation Barbarossa. The Allies, especially Britain, felt that the fate of the Soviet Union was now closely intertwined with their own. On the evening of June 22, Prime Minister Winston Churchill took to the radio, giving what would come to be known as his “Fourth Climacteric” speech. It was also broadcast in the United States. “I have taken occasion to speak to you to-night because we have reached one of the climacterics of the war,” he began. After listing the three previous “intense turning-points”—the fall of France, the attempted Nazi invasion of the British Isles, and the U.S. commencement of the Lend-Lease Act earlier that year to help the Allies—he named the fourth: Hitler’s war in the Soviet Union. “German bombs rained down from the air upon the Russian cities,” said Churchill, dramatically recounting the German stealth attack. The invasion of Britain had only been suspended temporarily, and the attack on the Soviet Union was Hitler’s tactic to reestablish his power so that he could “once again repeat, upon a greater scale than ever before,” his onslaught on the Western world. Churchill’s Britain was determined to aid the Soviet Union—though compared with the United States, there was substantially little it could do.
Churchill knew that Roosevelt would have a hard time convincing his domestic opponents—the isolationists and anti-Communists—of the necessity of U.S. support for the Soviet Union. While conceding that it was “not for me to speak of the action of the United States,” Churchill stressed that “the Russian danger is therefore our danger, and the danger of the United States, just as the cause of any Russian fighting for his hearth and home is the cause of free men and free peoples in every quarter of the globe.”
Roosevelt felt the same and wished to encourage and support Soviet resistance, but he was keenly aware he had to approach the new situation cautiously. He had by this time come to the conclusion that the United States would have to go to war in Europe at some point, but he also knew this was not the time. He believed that asking for a declaration of war from Congress would mean a certain political defeat for his administration. The military men around him, including Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, urged him to take immediate strategic action against Germany by escorting ships in the Atlantic, as they projected that Germany would defeat the Soviet Union within a few months. Nonetheless, Roosevelt’s preference was to step up his anti-Axis policy just short of war.
The first of such steps, too small a step from Stalin’s perspective, was to free up around $40 million of Soviet funds in the United States that had been frozen after the Soviet attack on Finland in late 1939. Roosevelt did that on June 24. A special team was also established to deal with the Soviet orders for armaments, which would cost about $50 million. But because of institutional reluctance and the inability across various government agencies to deal with the sheer size of the orders—Roosevelt wanted the Soviets to purchase the armaments without any extended credit—the actual U.S. assistance to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 was marginal at best, and Stalin would have to hold out on his own for many more months.
The tenuous European situation made it all the more desirable for the Roosevelt administration to try to avoid going to war in the Pacific. The quadruple alliance shattered, Washington expected Tokyo to reconsider its negotiating position. When Nomura called on Hull the day of the German offensive, Hull asked “whether Germany’s declaration of war against the Soviet Union might not affect the situation in such a way as to render it more easy for the Japanese Government to find some way [to rid itself of Hitler and Mussolini].”
There were certainly no legal obstacles for Japan. In international law, agreements are deemed nonbinding when there is an unforeseeable and drastic change in circumstances. Operation Barbarossa qualified. Had Japan parted company with the Axis powers then, it would have reassured the United States (and the Soviet Union, too) that Japan was serious about negotiating with the West and that Germany was not orchestrating Japan’s expansionist policy. As evidenced by Konoe’s immediate dispatch of his messenger Suzuki to Tojo, the prime minister desired to correct his missteps and come closer to the United States. (He later claimed that he also convoked a conference among selected ministers to talk about this very issue; no record of such a meeting exists, and there was certainly no liaison conference discussion on this topic.)
Matsuoka and Tojo stood in his way, as did Kido, the supposedly pro-Anglo-American lord keeper of the privy seal. Not considering at all the damage done to U.S.-Japanese relations by the Tripartite Pact, Kido told Hirohito nonsensically that it was important for Japan to remain Hitler’s friend because the United States valued international treaties. Actually, Kido did not wish the emperor to voice any decisive political preferences one way or the other, hoping to prevent Hirohito and the imperial house from being implicated in a significant policy shift. In the end, Konoe chose to do nothing because he did not want to confront such internal obstacles. As the utmost proponent of the Tripartite Pact the previous fall, he likely thought that he would lose all political credibility if he abandoned it so quickly.