Military history

JAPAN PLAYS ITS OWN GAME

Japan, as we have seen, had been assigned by Hitler the role not of bringing the United States into the war but of keeping her, at least for the time being, out of it. He knew that if the Japanese took Singapore and threatened India this would not only be a severe blow to the British but would divert America’s attention—and some of her energies—from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Even after he began begging the Japanese to attack Vladivostok he saw in this a means not only to help him bring Russia down but to further pressure the United States into remaining neutral. Strangely enough, it never seems to have occurred to him or to anyone else in Germany until very late that Japan had her own fish to fry and that the Japanese might be fearful of embarking on a grand offensive in Southeast Asia against the British and Dutch, not to mention attacking Russia in the rear, until they had secured their own rear by destroying the United States Pacific Fleet. True, the Nazi conqueror had promised Matsuoka that Germany would go to war with America if Japan did, but Matsuoka was no longer in the government, and, besides, Hitler had constantly nagged the Japanese to avoid a direct conflict with America and concentrate on Britain and the Soviet Union, whose resistance was preventing him from winning the war. It did not dawn on the Nazi rulers that Japan might give first priority to a direct challenge to the United States.

Not that Berlin wanted the Japanese and Americans to reach an understanding. That would defeat the main purpose of the Tripartite Pact, which was to frighten the Americans into staying out of the war. For once Ribbentrop probably gave an honest and accurate appraisal of the Fuehrer’s thoughts on this when he told an interrogator at Nuremberg:

He [Hitler] was afraid that if an arrangement were made between the United States and Japan this would mean, so to speak, the back free for America, and the unexpected attack or entry into the war by the United States would come quicker … He was worried about an agreement because there were certain groups in Japan who wanted to come to an arrangement with America.25

One member of such a group was Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura, who arrived in Washington in February 1941 as the new Japanese ambassador and whose series of confidential conversations with Cordell Hull which began in March, with the aim of settling peacefully the differences between the two countries, and which continued right up to the end, gave considerable worry to Berlin.*

In fact, the Germans did their best to sabotage the Washington talks. As early as May 15, 1941, Weizsaecker submitted a memorandum to Ribbentrop pointing out that “any political treaty between Japan and the United States is undesirable at the present” and arguing that unless it were prevented Japan might be lost to the Axis.26 General Ott, the Nazi ambassador in Tokyo, called frequently at the Foreign Office, to warn against the Hull–Nomura negotiations. When, in spite of this, they continued, the Germans switched to a new maneuver of trying to induce the Japanese to make as a condition for their continuation that the United States abandon its aid to Britain and its hostile policies toward Germany.27

That was in May. The summer brought a change. In July Hitler was concerned mainly with badgering Japan into attacking the Soviet Union, and that month Secretary Hull broke off the talks with Nomura because the Japanese had invaded French Indochina. They were resumed toward the middle of August when the Japanese government proposed a personal meeting between Premier Prince Konoye and President Roosevelt for the purpose of arriving at a peaceful settlement. This did not please Berlin at all and the indefatigable Ott was soon at the Tokyo Foreign Office expressing Nazi displeasure with this turn of events. Both Foreign Minister Admiral Toyoda and Vice-Minister Amau told him blandly that the proposed Konoye–Roosevelt talks would merely advance the purpose of the Tripartite Pact, which they reminded him was “to prevent American participation in the war.”28

In the autumn, as the Hull–Nomura talks continued, the Wilhelmstrasse switched back to the old tactics of the spring. It insisted in Tokyo that Nomura be instructed to warn the United States that if it continued its unfriendly acts toward the European Axis Germany and Italy might have to declare war, and that in this case Japan, under the terms of the Tripartite Pact, would have to join them. Hitler still did not want America in the war; the move was made, in fact, to bluff Washington into staying out while at the same time affording some relief from American belligerency in the Atlantic.

Secretary Hull learned immediately of this new German pressure, thanks to “Magic,” as it was called, which since the end of 1940 had enabled the American government to decode intercepted Japanese cable and wireless messages in Tokyo’s most secret ciphers—not only those sent to and from Washington but those to and from Berlin and other capitals. The German demand was cabled by Toyoda to Nomura on October 16, 1941, along with instructions to present a watered-down version to Hull.29

That day the Konoye government fell and was replaced by a military cabinet headed by the hotheaded, belligerent General Hideki Tojo. In Berlin General Oshima, a warrior of similar cast, hastened to the Wilhelmstrasse to explain the good news to the German government. Tojo’s appearance at the post as Premier meant, the ambassador said, that Japan would draw closer to its Axis partners and that the talks in Washington would cease. Whether on purpose or not, he neglected to tell his Nazi friends what the consequences of the cessation of those talks must be, and that Tojo’s appointment therefore meant a good deal more than they suspected: namely, that his new government was determined to go to war with the United States unless the Washington negotiations swiftly ended with President Roosevelt accepting the Japanese terms for a free hand—not to attack Russia but to occupy Southeast Asia. This course had never entered the minds of Ribbentrop and Hitler, who still envisaged Japan as useful and helpful to German interests only if she attacked Siberia and Singapore and frightened Washington into worrying about the Pacific and staying out of the war. The Fuehrer and, of course, his doltish Foreign Minister had never understood that the failure of the Nomura-Hull negotiations in Washington, which they so greatly desired, would bring the very result they had been trying to avoid until the time was ripe: America’s entry into the world conflict.*

The sands were now rapidly running out.

On November 15 Saburo Kurusu arrived in Washington as a special ambassador to aid Nomura in the negotiations, but Secretary Hull soon sensed that the diplomat, who as the Japanese envoy in Berlin had signed the Tripartite Pact and was somewhat pro-German, had brought no freshproposals with him. His purpose, Hull thought, was to try to persuade Washington to accept the Japanese terms at once or, if that failed, to lull the American government with talk until Japan was ready to strike a heavy surprise blow.30 On November 19 came the ominous “Winds” message to Nomura from Tokyo, which Hull’s cryptographers promptly deciphered. If the Japanese newscaster on the short-wave Tokyo broadcast, which the Embassy picked up daily, inserted the words “East wind, rain,” that would mean that the Japanese government had decided on war with America. Nomura was instructed, on receipt of the “Winds” warning, to destroy all his codes and confidential papers.

Now Berlin awoke to what was up. The day before the “Winds” message, on November 18, Ribbentrop was somewhat surprised to receive a request from Tokyo asking Germany to sign a treaty in which the two nations would agree not to conclude a separate peace with common enemies. Just which enemies the Japanese meant was not clear, but the Nazi Foreign Minister obviously hoped that Russia was the first of them. He agreed “in principle” to the proposal, apparently in the comforting belief that Japan at last was about to honor its vague promises to hit the Soviet Union in Siberia. This was most welcome and timely, for the resistance of the Red Army on the broad front was becoming formidable and the Russian winter was setting in—much earlier than had been anticipated. A Japanese attack on Vladivostok and the Pacific maritime provinces might provide that extra ounce of pressure which would bring a Soviet collapse.

Ribbentrop was swiftly disillusioned. On November 23 Ambassador Ott wired him from Tokyo that all indications were that the Japanese were moving south with the intention of occupying Thailand and the Dutch-held Borneo oil fields, and that the Japanese government wanted to know if Germany would make common cause with her if she were to start a war. This information plainly meant that Japan would not strike against Russia but was contemplating “starting a war” with the Netherlands and Britain in the South Pacific which well might embroil her in an armed conflict with the United States. But Ribbentrop and Ott did not grasp the last point. Their exchanges of telegrams during these days show that though they now realized, to their disappointment, that Japan would not attack Russia they believed that her move southward would be against the possessions of the Dutch and British and not those of the United States. Uncle Sam, as Hitler desired, would be kept on the sidelines until his time came.31

Nazi misapprehensions were due in large part to the failure at this juncture of the Japanese to take the German government into their confidence as to their fateful decisions regarding America. Secretary Hull, thanks to the “Magic” code breaker, was much better informed. As early as November 5 he knew that the new Foreign Minister, Shigenori Togo, had wired Nomura setting a deadline of November 25 for the signing of an agreement—on Japan’s terms—with the American government. The final Japanese proposals were delivered in Washington on November 20. Hull and Roosevelt knew they were final because two days later “Magic” decoded for them a message from Togo to Nomura and Kurusu which said so, while extending the deadline to November 29.

There are reasons beyond your ability to guess [Togo wired his ambassadors] why we wanted to settle Japanese-American relations by the 25th. But if the signing can be completed by the 29th … we have decided to wait until that date. This time we mean it, that the deadline absolutely cannot be changed. After that things are automatically going to happen.32

November 25, 1941, is a crucial date.

On that day the Japanese carrier task force sailed for Pearl Harbor. In Washington Hull went to the White House to warn the War Council of the danger confronting the country from Japan and to stress to the U.S. Army and Navy chiefs the possibility of Japanese surprise attacks. In Berlin that day there was a somewhat grotesque ceremony in which the three Axis Powers, amid much pomp and ceremony, renewed the Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936—an empty gesture which, as some Germans noted, did absolutely nothing to get Japan into the war against Russia but which afforded the pompous Ribbentrop an opportunity to denounce Roosevelt as the “chief culprit of this war” and to shed crocodile tears for the “truthful, religious … American people” betrayed by such an irresponsible leader.

The Nazi Foreign Minister seems to have become intoxicated by his own words. He called in Oshima on the evening of November 28, following a lengthy council of war earlier that day presided over by Hitler, and gave the Japanese ambassador the impression that the German attitude toward the United States, as Oshima promptly radioed Tokyo, had “considerably stiffened.” Hitler’s policy of doing everything possible to keep America out of the war until Germany was ready to take her on seemed about to be jettisoned. Suddenly Ribbentrop was urging the Japanese to go to war against the United States as well as Britain and promising the backing of the Third Reich. After warning Oshima that “if Japan hesitates … all the military might of Britain and the United States will be concentrated against Japan”—a rather silly thesis as long as the European war continued—Ribbentrop added:

As Hitler said today, there are fundamental differences in the very right to exist between Germany and Japan and the United States. We have received advice to the effect that there is practically no hope of the Japanese-U.S. negotiations being concluded successfully because the United States is putting up a stiff front.

If this is indeed the fact of the case, and if Japan reaches a decision to fight Britain and the United States, I am confident that that not only will be in the interest of Germany and Japan jointly, but would bring about favorable results for Japan herself.

The ambassador, a tense little man, was agreeably surprised. But he wanted to be sure he understood correctly.

“Is Your Excellency,” he asked, “indicating that a state of actual war is to be established between Germany and the United States?”

Ribbentrop hesitated. Perhaps he had gone too far. “Roosevelt is a fanatic,” he replied, “so it is impossible to tell what he would do.”

This seemed a strange and unsatisfactory answer to Oshima in view of what the Foreign Minister had said just before, and toward the end of the talk he insisted on coming back to the main point. What would Germany do if the war were actually extended to “countries which have been aiding Britain”?

Should Japan become engaged in a war against the United States [Ribbentrop replied] Germany, of course, would join the war immediately. There is absolutely no possibility of Germany’s entering into a separate peace with the United States under such circumstances. The Fuehrer is determined on that point.33

This was the flat guarantee for which the Japanese government had been waiting. True, Hitler had given a similar one in the spring to Matsuoka, but it seemed to have been forgotten during the intervening period when he had become vexed at Japan’s refusal to join in the war on Russia. All that remained now, so far as the Japanese were concerned, was to get the Germans to put their assurance in writing. General Oshima joyfully filed his report to Tokyo on November 29. Fresh instructions reached him in Berlin the next day. The Washington talks, he was informed, “now stand ruptured—broken.”

Will Your Honor [the message directed] therefore immediately interview Chancellor HITLER and Foreign Minister RIBBENTROP and confidentially communicate to them a summary of developments. Say to them that lately England and the United States have taken a provocative attitude, both of them. Say that they are planning to move military forces into various places in East Asia and that we will inevitably have to counter by also moving troops. Say very secretly to them that there is extreme danger that war may suddenly break out between Japan and the Anglo-Saxon nations through some clash of arms and add that the time of the breaking out of that war may come quicker than anyone dreams.*34

The Japanese carrier fleet was now well on its way to Pearl Harbor. Tokyo was in a hurry to get Germany to sign. On the same day that Oshima was receiving his new instructions, November 30, the Japanese Foreign Minister was conferring with the German ambassador in Tokyo, to whom he emphasized that the Washington talks had broken down because Japan refused to accede to American demands that she abandon the Tripartite Pact. The Japanese hoped the Germans would appreciate this sacrifice in a common cause.

“Grave decisions are at stake,” Togo told General Ott. “The United States is seriously preparing for war … Japan is not afraid of a breakdown in negotiations and she hopes that in that case Germany and Italy, according to the Three-Power Agreement, will stand at her side.”

I answered [Ott radioed Berlin] that there could be no doubt about Germany’s future position. Japanese Foreign Minister thereupon stated that he understood from my words that Germany in such a case would consider her relationship to Japan as that of a community of fate. I answered, according to my opinion, Germany was certainly ready to have mutual agreement between the two countries on this situation.35

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