Military history

ON THE EVE OF PEARL HARBOR

General Oshima was a great lover of German–Austrian classical music and despite the gravity and tenseness of the situation he took off for Austria to enjoy a Mozart festival. But he was not permitted to listen to the great Austrian composer’s lovely music for long. An urgent call on December 1 brought him rushing back to his embassy in Berlin, where he found new instructions to get busy and sign up Germany on the dotted line. There was no time to lose.

And now, when cornered, Ribbentrop stalled. Apparently realizing fully for the first time the consequences of his rash promises to the Japanese, the Nazi Foreign Minister grew exceedingly cool and evasive. He told Oshima late on the evening of December 1 that he would first have to consult the Fuehrer before making any definite commitment. The Japanese ambassador returned to the Wilhelmstrasse on Wednesday, the third, to press his case but again Ribbentrop put him off. To Oshima’s pleas that the situation had become extremely critical the Foreign Minister replied that while he personally was for a written agreement the matter would have to wait until the Fuehrer returned from headquarters later in the week. Actually, as Ciano noted in his diary, not without a sign of glee, Hitler had flown to the southern front in Russia to see General von Kleist, “whose armies continue to fall back under the pressure of an unexpected offensive.”

The Japanese, by this time, had also turned to Mussolini, who was not at any front. On December 3 the Japanese ambassador in Rome called on the Duce and formally asked Italy to declare war on the United States, in accordance with the Tripartite Pact, as soon as the conflict with America should begin. The ambassador also wanted a treaty specifying that there would be no separate peace. The Japanese interpreter, Ciano noted in his diary, “was trembling like a leaf.” As for the Duce, he was “pleased” to comply, after consultation with Berlin.

The German capital, Ciano found the next day, had grown extremely cautious.

Maybe they will go ahead [he began his diary on December 4] because they can’t do otherwise, but the idea of provoking American intervention is less and less liked by the Germans. Mussolini, on the other hand, is happy about it.

Regardless of Ribbentrop’s opinion, which Hitler, surprisingly, still paid some attention to, the decision as to whether Germany would give a formal guarantee to Japan could be taken only by the Nazi warlord himself. During the night of December 4–5 the Foreign Minister apparently got the Fuehrer’s go-ahead and at 3 A.M. he handed General Oshima a draft of the requested treaty in which Germany would join Japan in war against the United States and agree not to make a separate peace. Having taken the fateful plunge and followed his Leader in reversing a policy that had been clung to stubbornly for two years, he could not refrain from seeing that his Italian ally promptly followed suit.

A night interrupted by Ribbentrop’s restiveness [Ciano began his diary on December 5]. After having delayed two days he now hasn’t a minute to lose in answering the Japanese, and at 3 o’clock in the morning he sends [Ambassador] Mackensen to my house to submit a plan for a Tripartite Pact of Japanese intervention and the promise not to make a separate peace. They wanted me to wake up the Duce, but I did not do it, and the Duce was very pleased.

The Japanese had a draft treaty, approved by both Hitler and Mussolini, but they did not yet have it signed, and this worried them. They suspected that the Fuehrer was stalling because he wanted a quid pro quo: if Germany joined Japan in the war against the United States, Japan would have to join Germany in the war against Russia. In his telegram of instructions to Oshima on November 30, the Japanese Foreign Minister had given some advice on how to handle this ticklish problem if the Germans and Italians raised it.

If [they] question you about our attitude toward the Soviet, say that we have already clarified our attitude toward the Russians in our statement of last July. Say that by our present moves southward we do not mean to relax our pressure against the Soviet and that if Russia joins hands tighter with England and the United States and resists us with hostilities, we are ready to turn upon her with all our might. However, right now, it is to our advantage to stress the south and for the time being we would prefer to refrain from any direct moves in the north.36

December 6 came. Zhukov that very day launched his counteroffensive in front of Moscow and the German armies reeled back in the snow and bitter cold. There was all the more reason for Hitler to demand his quid pro quo. On this question there was great uneasiness in the Foreign Office in Tokyo. The naval task force was now within flying distance of Pearl Harbor for its carrier planes. So far—miraculously—it had not been discovered by American ships or aircraft. But it might be any moment. A long message was being radioed from Tokyo to Nomura and Kurusu in Washington instructing them to call on Secretary Hull at precisely 1 P.M. the next day, Sunday, December 7, to present Japan’s rejection of the latest American proposals, and stressing that the negotiations were “de facto ruptured.” In desperation Tokyo turned to Berlin for a written guarantee of German support. The Japanese warlords still did not trust the Germans enough to inform them of the blow against the United States which would fall the next day. But they were more worried than ever that Hitler would refrain from giving his guarantee unless Japan agreed to take on not only the United States and Great Britain but the Soviet Union as well. In this predicament Togo got off a long message to Ambassador Oshima in Berlin urging him to somehow stall the Germans on the Russian matter and not to give in unless it became absolutely necessary. Deluded though they were about their ability to deal with the Americans and the British, the Japanese generals and admirals retained enough sense to realize that they could not fight the Russians at the same time—even with German help. Togo’s instructions to Oshima on that fateful Saturday, December 6, which are among the intercepted messages decoded by Secretary Hull’s expert decipherers, give an interesting insight into the diplomacy practiced by the Nipponese with the Third Reich at the eleventh hour.

We would like to avoid … an armed clash with Russia until strategic circumstances permit it; so get the German government to understand this position of ours and negotiate with them so that at least for the present they will not insist upon exchanging diplomatic notes on this question.

Explain to them at considerable length that insofar as American materials being shipped to Soviet Russia … they are neither of high quality nor of large quantity, and that in case we start our war with the United States we will capture all American ships destined for Soviet Russia. Please endeavor to come to an understanding on this line.

However, should Ribbentrop insist upon our giving a guarantee in this matter, since in that case we shall have no other recourse, make a … statement to the effect that we would, as a matter of principle, prevent war materials from being shipped from the United States to Soviet Russia via Japanese waters, and get them to agree to a procedure permitting the addition of a statement to the effect that so long as strategic reasons continue to make it necessary for us to keep Soviet Russia from fighting Japan (what I mean is that we cannot capture Soviet ships) we cannot carry this out thoroughly.

In case the German government refuses to agree with [the above] and makes their approval of this question absolutely conditional upon our participation in the war and upon our concluding a treaty against making a separate peace, we have no way but to postpone the conclusion of such a treaty.37

The Japanese need not have worried so much. For reasons unknown to the Tokyo militarists, or to anyone else, and which defy logic and understanding, Hitler did not insist on Japan’s taking on Russia along with the United States and Britain, though if he had the course of the war conceivably might have been different.

At any rate, the Japanese on this Saturday evening of December 6, 1941, were determined to strike a telling blow against the United States in the Pacific, though no one in Washington or Berlin knew just where or even exactly when. That morning the British Admiralty had tipped off the American government that a large Japanese invasion fleet had been observed heading across the Gulf of Siam for the Isthmus of Kra, which indicated that the Nipponese were striking first at Thailand and perhaps Malaya. At 9 P.M. President Roosevelt got off a personal message to the Emperor of Japan imploring him to join him in finding “ways of dispelling the dark clouds” and at the same time warning him that a thrust of the Japanese military forces into Southeast Asia would create a situation that was “unthinkable.” At the Navy Department, intelligence officers drew up their latest report on the location of the major warships of the Japanese Navy. It listed most of them as being in home ports, including all the carriers and other warships of the task force which at that very moment had steamed to within three hundred miles of Pearl Harbor and was tuning up its bombers to take off at dawn.

On that Saturday evening too the Navy Department informed the President and Mr. Hull that the Japanese Embassy was destroying its codes. It had first had to decipher Togo’s long message, which had dribbled in all afternoon in fourteen parts. The Navy decoders were also deciphering it as fast as it came in and by 9:30 P.M. a naval officer was at the White House with translations of the first thirteen parts. Mr. Roosevelt, who was with Harry Hopkins in the study, read it and said, “This means war.” But exactly when and just where, the message did not say and the President did not know. Even Admiral Nomura did not know. Nor far off in Eastern Europe did Adolf Hitler. He knew less than Roosevelt.

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