Countdown To Infamy

Posts of historical interest will appear on this site from time to time. The current subject, an account of informal conversations between the United States and Japan during the period from October 17, 1941 to December 7, 1941, leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, will be presented in a series of several installments.

In its Official Report, forty eight pages long, the U.S. State Department describes in minute detail the deteriorating relations between the United States and Japan from October 17, 1941, to and including December 7, 1941. Prepared by state department officials and dated May 19, 1942, this memorandum purports to be an accurate account of informal conversations between the United States Government, including Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Under Secretary Sumner Welles. It includes verbatim copies of correspondence between from various U. S. and Japanese officials, as well as memoranda authored by certain of them. The Report summarizes events leading up to the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval forces at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the ensuing American declaration of war against Japan the following day.

There are many interesting observations to be made from a historical standpoint. The Report opens with the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Prince Konoye on October 16, 1941. Apparently unable to reconcile the conflicting forces that raged within his own government between those who favored continued negotiations with the United States and those who favored war, Konoye resigned in the hope that someone would be found who favored keeping the door open to continued negotiations.

Each article in this series will present a summary of the almost daily communications between the two countries. Although there are countless histories of the relations between the United States and Japan in the period leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, I am not aware of any which describe in such minute detail as contained in the State Department memorandum the communications between officials of the two countries.

This historic vantage point provides a first-hand insight into the efforts undertaken by the two countries to negotiate a continuation of the uncertain but ongoing efforts to preserve peace. As will be made clear in the articles to follow, the position of the United States was clear: There must be specific responses by Japan to the points made by the U.S. as to Japanese intentions in the Far East, not the vague generalities which had marked their previous replies to U.S. communications.

The opening days of 1941 portrayed a grim picture of the world. The Tripartite Pact, concluded in September, 1940, had unified Germany, Italy and Japan into a formidable force of Axis powers. Prospects for world peace ranged from nonexistent to shaky at best, depending on what part of the world drew your focus.

The all too real specter of war had become a terrifying reality as conflict once more engulfed Great Britain, France, Germany, and most of the rest of Europe. The acuteness of the situation in Europe was but one of many significant factors facing the United States in January, 1941.

Nazi Germany’s huge military machine, including massive land and air forces built up surreptitiously over a period of years, had subjugated most of Europe. Austria had been annexed in March, 1938 without firing a shot. The Sudetenland was occupied in September, 1938 without opposition, by agreement. The entirety of Czechoslovakia was sacrificed to the Nazi beast by the Munich arrangement, with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returning to England proclaiming to the crowds, “peace in our time.” The unprovoked Nazi attack on Poland in September, 1939, and its subsequent occupation was followed by declarations of war on Germany by Britain and France.

In 1940, after the German breakthrough of French defenses, France was overrun in six weeks. What remained of the British Expeditionary Force, however, was successfully evacuated from France at Dunkirk. The Dutch were overwhelmed by the Nazi onslaught, brought on without any pretext or warning. Belgium had surrendered, and Bulgaria and Rumania were being crushed under the Nazi heel.

In mid-1940, Mussolini had thrown the weight of his Italian forces behind Hitler by declaring war on Great Britain and France. But Mussolini’s efforts to assert himself as a force to be reckoned with would eventually lead to the failure of Italian Fascism and his own capture and summary execution in 1943.

Events unfolding in the Far East, however, were also of great concern to the United States. The threat from Japan had continued to grow over the years. Its 1931 invasion and occupation of Manchuria had signaled its expansionist aims. Despite diplomatic conversations with Russia, large Japanese forces were still maintained there. The Japanese had invaded China in 1937 and moved into Northern Indochina in the summer of 1940. The growing potential threat from Japan extended to all powers interested in the Pacific. These included the Netherlands, British Malaya, Burma, India, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

By early 1941, restrictions on exports to Japan from the United States of iron, steel, most important metals, machinery, high quality gasoline and blending agents, together with plants and plans for the production of high quality gasoline, had further increased tensions between the two countries.

While Japan’s expansion into China and Southeast Asia was a continuing source of concern for the United States, the country had passed through a Presidential election whereby both major political parties had written into their respective platforms unequivocal opposition to involvement in foreign wars.

Copyright © 2013. Arnold G. Regardie. All rights reserved.

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