In this installment of our leadership and success series, we explore the fateful November 26, 1941 decision of Secretary of State Cordell Hull to abruptly scuttle what was intended as a 3-month truce arrangement with Japan, and the consequent failure to avert the war which necessarily followed.
The period from August 1941, to December 7, 1941, saw the United States and Japan continue the ongoing discussions to resolve their differences in the face of the growing Japanese threat in the Far East. These conversations had disclosed three crucial points of difference: nondiscrimination in international trade, withdrawal of Japanese troops from China, and Japan’s obligations under the Tripartite Pact, concluded in September 1940 with Germany and Italy.
The growing tension in the course of diplomatic negotiations between the United States and Japan during the months preceding December 7, 1941, led to the modus vivendi proposal, essentially a 3-month status quo arrangement between the United States and Japan to tide the parties over while they continued to talk. Under discussion in November, 1941, it was intended to prevent a breakdown in conversations and pave the way for an agreement covering the entire Pacific area. Securing urgently needed additional time for the United States to rearm was also a vital consideration. It was drafted as a reply to a Japanese proposal of November 20, 1941, but was abruptly abandoned by Secretary of State Cordell Hull and never submitted to the Japanese. Hull subsequently testified before a congressional committee investigating the Pearl Harbor attack that they would have rejected it. Instead Hull’s memo of November 26 was substituted calling, inter alia, for withdrawal of Japanese troops from China and Indochina. This memo was considered by the Japanese as an ultimatum and promptly rejected. The Pearl Harbor attack followed 11 days later, on December 7.
America’s allies (except China) remained interested in the proposal, as apparently was Japan based on inquiries made by Japanese officials at the time it was abandoned. This momentous decision was taken by Hull alone, without consultation with anyone, except Roosevelt, who, while apparently approving Hull’s decision, may have been distracted at that time by news of a Japanese naval convoy steaming southward in the South China Sea. No advance notification was provided by Hull to Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, or to Navy Chief of Naval Operations Harold Stark, both of whom had vigorously pushed for the modus vivendi as a means of securing vitally needed additional time to rearm.
However, an important potential bargaining chip in the negotiations, keeping the Burma Road open and free from Japanese assault, was overlooked when the proposal was abandoned. The Burma Road, China’s vital artery for supplies from the West, was of prime importance to China’s Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. His many entreaties to the United States and Great Britain for air support went unheeded. Keeping the Burma Road open was not only essential to China’s ability to hold off the Japanese but was a vitally important consideration to the United States and its allies as well. Its potential loss was not only a major concern for Chiang Kai-shek but, as admitted by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in an early November message to President Roosevelt, would “hugely augment” the danger to both countries’ interests.
Hull’s November 26, 1941 memorandum to the President recommended that, “In view of the opposition of the Chinese Government and either the half-hearted support or actual opposition of the British, the Netherlands and the Australian Governments, and in view of the wide publicity of the opposition and of the additional opposition that will naturally follow through utter lack of an understanding of the vast importance and value otherwise of the modus vivendi…I will withhold the modus vivendi proposal.” Hull, as he put it, simply washed his hands of the whole affair and informed Secretary of War Henry Stimson that he was turning everything over to the Army and Navy. Exhaustion and frustration may have played a significant factor in that decision, as well as his overlooking use of the Burma Road as a potential negotiating option.
Hull’s decision however must be balanced against the Netherlands support for the proposal which was expressed to Hull in a meeting with the Netherlands Minister on November 24. The British also supported the proposal as Ambassador Lord Halifax had advised Hull. In fact, Halifax was at a loss to understand why Hull was abandoning it. Hull’s explanation that he only had the half-hearted support of the British was criticized by Halifax, who reminded Hull of the full British support. He pointed out that Churchill’s comments, questioned by Hull as not supportive, did not signify lack of support but only concern for the Chinese objections.
Halifax reminded Welles that several days previously, Chiang had expressed concern about keeping the Burma Road open so as not to interrupt the continuous flow of critically needed supplies for China. Halifax specifically pointed out that he had reminded the Chinese Ambassador, Dr. Hu Shih, that only ten days ago Chiang was imploring the United States and British for aid to help keep the Burma Road open and that it seemed to him, Halifax, that the course proposed by Hull “gave positive assurances to the Chinese Government that the Burma Road would in fact be kept open if the modus vivendi agreement with Japan could be consummated.”
This significant conversation demonstrated that Halifax, a key member of a close United States ally, believed keeping the Burma Road open was implicit in the modus vivendi proposal. He was partially right since it was explicitly provided for. Keeping the Burma Road safe from Japanese aggression had been in fact raised in the modus vivendi provision against Japanese aggression into Southeast Asia. There is no evidence this was pointed out to Chiang, which might have eased his concerns about making concessions to Japan. Counterbalancing what Hull termed the “chicken feed” concessions to Japan against providing for the potential defense of the Burma Road might have swayed Chiang to agree to the proposal.
Hull’s aborted November, 1941 diplomatic efforts in abandoning and not presenting the modus vivendi proposal to Japan is a lesson in the failure of accountability for all those who aspire to leadership. By not fully exploring all available options, Hull failed to possibly avert war with Japan, undoubtedly the primary responsibility of his office at the time.
This unfortunate chapter in the failure of American diplomacy is pursued in greater detail in my forthcoming book, “The Pearl Harbor Congressional Cover Up.”
Arnold G. Regardie