Military history


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Tojo’s Strategic Dilemma

Throughout the second year of his war on Russia, Hitler had laboured under a separate and self-assumed strategic burden: war with America. At two o’clock in the afternoon of 11 December 1941, four days after General Tojo’s government in Tokyo had unleashed Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Ribbentrop, as Foreign Minister, read out to the American chargé d’affaires in Berlin the text of Germany’s declaration of war on the United States. It was an event which Ribbentrop, in perhaps his only truly sagacious contribution to Nazi policy-making, had struggled to avoid. During the period of American neutrality Hitler too had shrunk from acts which might provoke the United States to war against him. Now that Japan had cast the die, he hastened to follow. Ribbentrop emphasised, in vain, that the terms of the Tripartite Pact bound Germany to go to Japan’s assistance only if Japan were directly attacked. On hearing the news of Pearl Harbor Hitler raced to tell it to Jodl and Keitel, exulting that ‘Now it is impossible for us to lose the war: we now have an ally who has never been vanquished in three thousand years.’ (Churchill, on hearing the same news, came to an identical but contrary conclusion: ‘So we had won after all.’). On 11 December Hitler convoked the Reichstag and announced to the puppet deputies: ‘We will always strike first! [Roosevelt] incites war, then falsifies the causes, then odiously wraps himself in a cloak of Christian hypocrisy and slowly but surely leads mankind to war. . . . The fact that the Japanese government, which has been negotiating for years with this man, has at last become tired of being mocked by him in such an unworthy way, fills all of us, the German people, and, I think, all other decent people in the world with deep satisfaction.’ Later that day Germany, Italy and Japan renewed the Tripartite Pact, contracting not to conclude a separate peace nor to ‘lay down arms until the joint war against the United States and England reaches a successful conclusion’. Privately Ribbentrop warned Hitler: ‘We have just one year to cut Russia off from her military supplies arriving via Murmansk and the Persian Gulf; Japan must take care of Vladivostok. If we don’t succeed and the munitions potential of the United States joins up with the manpower potential of the Russians, the war will enter a phase in which we shall only be able to win it with difficulty.’

This view was not only the opinion of a member of Hitler’s entourage whose reputation was in eclipse. It was also held by a Japanese commander at the centre of his country’s policy-making. In late September 1940 Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, Commander of the Combined Fleet, had told the then Prime Minister, Prince Fumimaro Konoye: ‘If I am told to fight regardless of the consequences, I shall run wild for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second or third year. The Tripartite Pact has been concluded and we cannot help it. Now the situation has come to this pass [that the Japanese cabinet was discussing war with the United States], I hope that you will endeavour to avoid a Japanese-American war.’ Other Japanese had a fear of war, Konoye among them; the opinion of none of them carried the weight of the admiral at the head of Japan’s operational navy. How did it come about not only that his views were overruled but that, less than a year after he expressed his anxieties to Konoye, he should, against his better judgement, have been planning the attack which would commit his country to a life-and-death struggle with a power he knew would defeat it?

The roots of Japan’s self-destructive conflict with the West go back far into the country’s past, and centre above all on its ruling caste’s fear that ‘Westernisation’ – not that such a term was in use when Portuguese, Dutch and British mariners first appeared off Japan’s shores in the sixteenth century – would disrupt the careful social structure on which the country’s internal order rested. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, therefore, they closed their coasts to the outside world and succeeded in keeping them shut until the appearance of Western seamen who commanded a new technology, the steamship, in the middle of the nineteenth century forced them to reconsider their remarkable – and remarkably successful – decision. In one of the most radical changes of national policy recorded in history, the Japanese then accepted that, if Japan were to remain Japanese, it must join the modern world, but on terms which guaranteed that the processes of modernisation were retained in Japanese hands. The technology of the Western world would be bought; but the Japanese would not sell themselves or their society to the West in the course of acquiring it.

By the end of the First World War a reformed Japan had made extraordinary progress towards achieving that ideal. A popular children’s song of the era of modernisation after the Meiji Restoration of 1867-8, which re-established the power of the central imperial government over the feudal lords, litanised ten desirable Western objects, including steam-engines, cameras, newspapers, schools and steamships. By the 1920s Japan had a universal and highly efficient school system, whose products were working in factories which not only manufactured textiles for sale at highly competitive prices on the world market but also produced heavy and light engineering goods, steel and chemicals, and armaments – ships, aircraft and guns – as modern as any in the world. Japan had already won two important wars, against China in 1894 and Russia in 1905, when she had established rights in the Chinese province of Manchuria; she had also fought on the Western side against Germany in 1914-18, on that occasion with weapons largely manufactured at home.

Japan’s designs on China

Japan’s emulation of the West did not, however, win her equality of status or esteem with the victor nations in Western eyes. Britain and later America had been grateful for Japan’s assistance in the campaign against Germany’s Pacific colonies; but, after conceding her a share of those colonies at the peace settlement – a strategically ill-judged concession which British and American admirals would bitterly regret after 1941 – they then combined to deprive her of an equal place among the world’s great military powers. It already rankled with the Japanese that they had been compelled to surrender much of the strategically advantageous terrain in China they had wrested from Russia at the end of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. Their relegation by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 to a lower place in the world’s naval hierarchy by the British and Americans inflicted a wound on the national psyche which its traditional warrior caste, the Samurai, who had made a brilliantly judged leap from feudalism to modernity in order to retain their social dominance in the new Japan, resolved not lightly to forgive. They knew that their navy, in quality of personnel and material and potentially in terms of size, was the equal of the Royal and United States Navies in Pacific waters. They bitterly resented having to accept a treaty which set its numbers of capital ships at three-fifths of those of its wartime allies.

The Japanese army was even more strongly affected by rancour. Less Westernised than the navy, whose officers had been raised in the professional tradition of the Royal Navy, it was very early infected by the spirit of intense racialist nationalism which seized hold of Japanese political life in the inter-war years. Japan, a country of nearly 60 million, had by then ceased to be self-sufficient in food; it had never been, and never could be, self-sufficient in raw materials, least of all those materials on which an industrial revolution, in the throes of which Japan still laboured, most urgently depended – non-ferrous metals, rubber and, above all, oil. The solution that recommended itself to Japanese nationalists was a simple one: Japan would acquire the resources it needed from its neighbours and assure its supply by the most direct of all methods, imperial conquest. China was the obvious source of supply. The Japanese army despised the Chinese both for their economic and political incompetence – the collapse of the imperial system into warlord chaos after 1912 was the most striking evidence for this – and for their inability to resist Western penetration and exploitation. It therefore resolved to found an economic empire in China.

The first step was taken in 1931, when the Japanese garrison of Manchuria, where Japan enjoyed rights of protection over the railway system through which it extracted mineral produce, took possession of the whole of Manchuria from the local warlord, to end his piecemeal efforts at re-establishing Chinese authority in the area. This ‘Young Marshal’ was an ally of Chiang Kai-shek, commander of the army of the nominally sovereign Nanking government, and his soldiers were swiftly routed. The ‘Manchurian Incident’ aroused anger both abroad and in Japan, where the civilian government rightly felt its authority had been usurped; but no one moved to chasten the army, despite loud condemnation from the Americans, who had adopted a protective role towards China, based in particular on their missionary connection with the country. One of the humiliations the Chinese had had to accept at foreign hands in the nineteenth century was ‘extraterritoriality’, the surrender of sovereign power to the Western traders in their commercial settlements. This represented a threat to the Japanese, since it entailed the right to base troops, a right of which they swiftly took advantage themselves. In 1937 the Japanese garrison of the international embassy guard at Peking fell into conflict with Chinese government troops there and initiated a campaign which rapidly spread along the whole Chinese littoral. By 1938 most of fertile China, including the valleys of the Yellow and Yangtse rivers, was under Japanese occupation. Both the new capital of Nanking and the old capital of Peking fell to the invaders, and Chiang Kai-shek, now head of government, withdrew into the interior, to Chunking on the headwaters of the Yangtse.

Japan’s army, and less directly the navy, had meanwhile incurred the wrath of foreign powers by causing casualties aboard British and American units of the extraterritorial river flotillas, and by entering into unofficial but bitter hostilities with the Red Army on the Chinese border with Mongolia in 1936. In another clash with the Red Army in 1939, involving armoured forces, the Japanese suffered an undeniable defeat at the hands of the future Marshal Zhukov, among others. Zhukov, who had spent training time in Germany, subsequently volunteered the significant judgement that, while the German army was better equipped than the Japanese, ‘taken as a whole’ it lacked its ‘real fanaticism’. The Japanese army thereafter kept out of harm’s way from the Russians – to their very great advantage in 1941, to Japan’s catastrophic cost in August 1945. By contrast, the Japanese formed no such respectful opinion of the British or American armed forces, whose governments protested at the attacks on the USS Panay and HMS Ladybirdbut took no punitive action.

Foremost among the officers involved in the ‘China Incident’, as the war which spread from Shanghai in 1937 was called in Japan, was General Hideki Tojo. He was a ‘Manchuria Incident’ veteran also and in 1938 entered the cabinet as Vice-Minister of War. There he used his position to urge all-out rearmament as a precaution against war breaking out with the Soviet Union as well as continuing with China’s Kuomintang government, which had succeeded the abolished empire, and of which Chiang Kai-shek was by then the leading figure. Tojo was a fervent, though not an extreme nationalist; but during the late 1930s extreme nationalists came to play an increasingly malign role in Japanese life. On 26 February 1936 a party of soldiers of the Tokyo garrison, rabidly opposed to what they saw as the appeasing attitude of the old aristocracy which dominated government, attempted to assassinate the Prime Minister and succeeded in killing two of his predecessors, together with the Grand Chamberlain. This incident temporarily discredited the violent nationalists; paradoxically, however, it strengthened the power of the army because of the speed with which it distanced itself from the mutineers. After a succession of moderate governments, Prince Konoye – a former Prime Minister who commanded wide support – resumed power in July 1940 and accepted Tojo as Minister of War. He also took into his cabinet an ally of the army nationalists, Yosuke Matsuoka, as Foreign Minister. The combined presence of these two strong-headed imperialists at the centre of power was to lead Japan into war.

Matsuoka’s first achievement was to commit Japan to the Tripartite Pact of 27 September 1940 with Germany and Italy. It bound the three countries to mutual support in the event of any one being attacked by a power which was not party to the Sino-Japanese dispute or to hostilities in Europe. This was a clear commitment for Japan to fight Russia if it attacked Germany and for Germany to fight the United States if it attacked Japan, but not otherwise a binding co-belligerency. It also recognised Germany’s primacy in a European ‘New Order’ and Japan’s in a ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, under whose guise Japan was to constitute itself ruler of the European empires’ Asian colonies after December 1941. Japan had already accepted an alliance with Germany in the 1936 Anti-Comintern Pact against Russia. In April 1941, as a rejoinder to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, Matsuoka negotiated a neutrality treaty with the Soviet Union; but the trend of Japanese diplomacy was now set firmly against accommodation with neutrals and anti-Axis powers and towards ever closer association with the victors of 1940, whose star seemed fixed in the ascendant.

Hitler’s attack on Russia in June 1941 – of which the Japanese cabinet was given no forewarning – temporarily shook its confidence and on 16 July it reformed itself to replace Matsuoka with a more moderate Foreign Minister. However, Tojo remained in place as Minister of War, and his was the strongest voice in propelling the cabinet towards confrontation with Hitler’s enemies – the British and the Dutch government in exile – and the United States. That policy brought impressive results. In an attempt to appease the Japanese, in July the British closed the ‘Burma Road’, through which Chiang Kai-shek’s armies received aid in southern China. The Dutch, who were even less capable than the British of resisting Japanese pressure, had also been bullied into agreeing to maintain oil, rubber, tin and bauxite supplies from their East Indies, not at the level Japan demanded but in acceptable quantities. In September 1940 the French, beaten in Europe but still a colonial power in the Far East, had been compelled to grant the Japanese basing and transit rights in northern Indo-China, from which the Japanese armed forces could both operate against Chiang Kai-shek and threaten the Dutch army and fleet in the East Indies, the British army and fleet (the latter held in home waters but earmarked for transfer to Singapore in a crisis) in Malaya and Burma, more distantly the British dominion of Australia and eventually also the British possessions around the shores of the Indian Ocean from Ceylon to East Africa.

These were alluring if distant prospects. In the foreground, however, hovered the menace of American power, at nearer hand still the stumbling-block of American disapproval. Not only did Japanese expansion southward threaten the American protectorate of the Philippines, but the United States was also China’s protector, almost its guardian angel. Generations of American missionaries and teachers had worked in China’s cities and countryside to bring Christianity and Western learning to its people; they had had no more rewarding pupils than China’s ruler, Chiang Kai-shek, and his wife. American traders too had received their reward in China; and America’s sailors and soldiers had cruised its waters and tramped its plains, under the colours of peacemakers, since the troubled time of the Boxer Rising. The ‘China lobby’ was the most powerful of foreign-policy interest groups in the United States; it was outraged by the ‘China Incident’, the cruel war which had now been raging for four years against the Kuomintang government; it was adamant not merely that Japan should be checked from further extension of military power in the Pacific but that it should be forced to draw back from the conquests it had already made.

Preparations for war

In April 1941 Cordell Hull, the American Secretary of State, had laid down four principles of international behaviour to the Japanese, innocuously high-minded by State Department thinking, but requiring a moderation of policy which put a check on Japanese plans of expansion and re-emphasised the humiliatingly inferior role in the Pacific which the United States assigned to their country. The four principles encouraged a party in the Japanese cabinet which thought that the empire’s interests were better served by seeking advantages at the expense of the Soviet Union, the so-called ‘north’ programme. However, the ‘south’ party, which insisted on the extension of Japanese power, initially by the extraction from Vichy of basing rights in southern Indo-China, remained dominant. The only effect of Cordell Hull’s demand was that the cabinet agreed to continue negotiations with the United States while pushing ahead with military preparations. Matsuoka, a lone voice for intransigence, was removed in a cabinet reorganisation on 16 July.

Unknown to the Japanese, the United States had since early 1941 been able to read Japanese diplomatic ciphers, as a result of a remarkable code-breaking operation known in Washington as ‘Magic’ and equivalent to Britain’s Ultra success against the Wehrmacht ciphers. When Roosevelt learned of the Japanese decision at the imperial conference of 24 July to combine a diplomatic with a covert military offensive, he resolved to tighten the screws of economic warfare against Tokyo. On 24 July Japan extracted agreement from Vichy to allow its troops to enter southern Indo-China. On 26 July America, with the agreement of the British and Dutch, imposed further embargoes on Western trade with Japan, thus reducing Japan’s foreign trade by three-quarters and cutting off nine-tenths of her oil supply at source.

Japan had by now installed an ambassador in Washington, Admiral Nomura, whose personal relationship with American officials was excellent and whose commitment to the views of the Japanese navy, far more moderate and realistic than those of the army, was genuine. At home, however, the army was pressing for deadlines. On 6 September, at a cabinet conference held in the presence of the emperor, Hirohito, the alternatives were reviewed in their starkest form: to start preparations for war at once; to continue negotiations; or to acquiesce in America’s restrictions on Japanese strategic activity, including a withdrawal from Indo-China. Tojo, the Minister of War, had insisted that they be presented in this form. Like the others he was abashed when the emperor reminded his ministers of the awesome consequences of what they were deciding. The conclusion of the conference nevertheless was to continue negotiating while adopting outright preparations for war, the deadline for a successful outcome to be fixed for 10 October.

Delays in negotiation over the next weeks made it obvious that the deadline would have to be set back, and this aroused civilian and naval doubts over the rightness of considering the war option at all. Tojo, as leader of the army party and much influenced by popular impatience with government hesitancy, held out for the aggressive solution. On 5 October a conference convened in his office concluded that diplomacy would settle nothing and that the emperor must be petitioned to approve a military offensive. Over the next week Tojo heightened military pressure on Konoye to choose war and on 14 October made the issue one of the army’s confidence in his premiership. Three days later Konoye resigned and Tojo took his place as Prime Minister.

Contrary to Allied wartime propaganda, Tojo was not a fascist, nor ideologically pro-Nazi or pro-Axis; though he was to be executed as a war criminal under the code devised for the Nuremberg trials, his motivation to war and conquest was not the same as that of Hitler and his followers. He did not seek revenge, nor was his racism particular or annihilatory. He was strongly anti-communist and feared the growing power of Mao Zedong in China; but he harboured no scheme to exterminate Japan’s Chinese enemies or any other group who might stand in Japan’s way in Asia. On the contrary, his chauvinism was exclusively anti-Western. Tojo cultivated the alliance with Germany for wholly expedient reasons and he harboured no illusion that, had Germany rather than America or Britain been a dominant power in the Pacific, it would have behaved any more generously than they to Japan’s national ambitions. Tojo’s code was simple: he was determined to establish Japanese primacy in its chosen sphere of influence, to defeat the Western nations (eventually and if necessary Russia, the traditional enemy) which would not accept it, to subdue and incorporate China within the Japanese empire, but to offer other Asian states (Indo-China, Thailand, Malaya, Burma, the East Indies) a place within Japan’s Asian ‘Co-Prosperity Sphere’ under Japanese leadership. His vision was of an Asia liberated from the Western presence, in which Japan stood first among peoples who would recognise the extraordinary effort it had made to modernise itself.

On 1 November he chaired a meeting of army, navy and civilian representatives convened to consider the issues of war, peace and the deadline with America. The meeting decided to confront the Americans with one of two new proposals, identified as A and B. By the former the Japanese would offer the Americans a withdrawal of Japanese troops from China to be completed twenty-five years in the future – on the rational supposition that the Americans would reject it. Proposal B would offer a withdrawal of troops from southern Indo-China, where they had just arrived, if the Americans would sell Japan a million tons of aviation fuel. Both moves were to be linked to the establishment of a general peace in the Pacific. Tojo, as Prime Minister but also as representative of the military war party, was momentarily torn; he agreed that a final effort should be made to avoid war by engaging America in discussion of proposal B, however unlikely it was that Washington would accept it. The following day, however, in the presence of the emperor, he expressed his fear that, if Japan did not seize its advantage now, ‘I am afraid we would become a third-class nation in two or three years. . . . Also, if we govern occupied areas with justice, the hostile attitude towards us will probably soften. America will be outraged at first but then she will come to understand. Anyway, I will carefully avoid making this a racial war.’ The emperor did not on this occasion remind his advisers of the awesomeness of the issues they were discussing. In effect, therefore, in the absence of a subsequent American decision to withdraw from confrontation with Japan, the decision for war was sealed on 5 November; as the generals had brought the admirals to agree the previous day, 30 November was the last date on which American concessions would be accepted. By 25 November the Japanese naval attack force would have sailed from home ports to open the offensive against the United States bases in the Pacific, and Japanese army forces in Indo-China would have begun moves to enter southern Thailand, with the object of invading the British colony of Malaya and, beyond that, Burma and the Dutch East Indies.

Because of their access to Japanese diplomatic traffic through the Magic system, the Americans were aware as early as 7 November 1941 that 25 November marked a key date in the progress of their negotiations with Tokyo. They suspected that it might be the day after which Japan would regard itself as committed to war. However, even though they also had cryptanalytic access to Japanese naval ciphers, they had not identified the preliminary military moves ordered by Tojo and his cabinet, because of the stringent radio silence imposed by Japanese headquarters on the movements of the Combined Fleet and the Twenty-Fifth Army in southern Indo-China. During the second two weeks of November, often in conclave with the British, Dutch and Chinese, the State Department discussed proposal B at length with the Japanese representatives in Washington. The negotiations were fraught with ambiguity. Since Hull knew that the Japanese were proceeding with military preparations while professing to conduct a frank diplomacy, he was disinclined to accord weight to their offers and counter-offers; since they – Nomura and a professional diplomat, Kurusu, sent to assist him – were honourable men, their efforts at negotiation were hamstrung by their personal embarrassment at the double-dealing to which Tojo had made them party.

All ambiguities were resolved on 26 November. Then Cordell Hull bluntly presented them with the United States’ ultimate position, which was a firm restatement of the position from which it had begun. Japan was to withdraw its troops not only from Indo-China but also from China, to accept the legitimacy of Chiang Kai-shek’s government and, in effect, to abrogate Japan’s membership of the Tripartite Pact. The Hull note reached Tokyo on 27 November and provoked consternation. It appeared to go further than any American counter-proposal yet issued. Not only did it link the relaxation of economic embargoes to a humiliating diplomatic surrender. It also demanded, by the Japanese interpretation, a withdrawal from the whole territory which the Chinese emperors had formerly ruled – Manchuria as well as China proper. Since Manchuria was technically not part of ethnic China, and since the Japanese believed they had conquered it by four-square means, this provision of the Hull note confirmed Tojo’s belief in the rectitude of his policy. It revealed, as he and his followers had long argued, that the United States did not regard the Japanese empire as its equal in the community of nations, that it expected the emperor and his government to obey the American President when told to do so, and that it altogether discounted the reality of Japanese strategic power. The army and navy at once agreed that the note was unacceptable and, while Tojo instructed his Washington emissaries to persist in the talks, ships and soldiers were meanwhile directed to proceed to their attack stations. A longwinded and misleading restatement of Japanese grievances was transmitted to the Japanese embassy in Washington for presentation to Cordell Hull on the morning of 7 December, intended by Tojo to stand as a declaration of war. Although it was intercepted by Magic, delays in its translation meant that its contents were not formally presented at the State Department until after two o’clock in the afternoon, over an hour after the deadline stipulated by Tokyo. By then Pearl Harbor was under heavy attack, with the result that Tojo as a military leader had the satisfaction of presiding over one of the most shattering surprise attacks in history but as a Japanese traditionalist had the ignominy of inaugurating what Roosevelt denounced as the ‘day of infamy’.

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