Sam Seitz

*This is a slightly altered version of the 2015 Pippin Prize Essay

Pre-WWII diplomacy represents an extraordinary success in the annals of the United States Diplomatic Corps. U.S. efforts to constrain Imperial Japan, which began in earnest even before America officially declared war on the Japanese following the attack on Pearl Harbor, were crucial in ensuring the survival of the Allied powers. Throughout 1941, American diplomats engaged in intense negotiations to ensure a free hand in dealing with the Germans. Then, when the risk to the Soviet Union increased after the Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R., America created a comprehensive sanctions regime and partook in high-level negotiations to impede Japan’s ability to expand throughout Asia. Specifically, these efforts were designed to ensure that Japan never posed a military threat to the Soviet Union which became a crucial nation in the struggle against Nazism after the summer of 1941. After all, Japan had been rampaging across much of East Asia during the years before WWII and had fought in the Russo-Japanese War only years before. While an attempt to curb Japanese revisionism in China and Southeast Asia played some role in guiding U.S. diplomatic policy toward Japan, the primary focus of U.S. sanctions was to protect the U.S.S.R. from an aggressive, revisionist Japan through embargoes and manipulation of the China crisis. This was imperative because by 1941, the Soviets were the only remaining power capable of stopping Nazi domination over the entire Eurasian landmass. While America played many crucial roles throughout World War II, its diplomatic maneuvering toward Japan during 1941 was particularly important in ensuring that the Axis powers were unable to achieve supremacy. By impeding Japan’s economic and geopolitical growth while concomitantly assisting the Soviets against Germany, the U.S. ensured that Japan could not successfully strike the Soviet’s eastern flank. Thus, America aided its future allies even before it became involved in combat operations.

Japan, throughout the 1930s, feared the U.S.S.R. While tensions had eased since the Russo-Japanese War decades earlier, the long-term economic ramifications of the Great Depression on Japan engendered trepidation among leaders in Tokyo regarding potential Soviet aggression in economically-important, Japanese-controlled Korea and Manchukuo (the Japanese name for their province in Manchuria) (Copeland, 148). This Japanese fear was exacerbated by the government’s concern about the spread of Communism and the ideology of gun no ishin (military dignity) in the armed forces – a philosophy stressing nationalism and honor (Weeks, 122). There were at least two major skirmishes between Japanese and Soviet troops in the late 1930s. In 1938, Japanese soldiers in the Kwantung Army initiated a conflict with Soviet soldiers in disputed territory around Manchuria, Korea, and the U.S.S.R. during a conflict that came to be known as the Changkufeng Incident. Despite intense aggression by Lt. Gen. Suetaka Kamezo, who manipulated and ignored orders from the High Command in order to continue offensive operations, a ceasefire was eventually negotiated when Japan’s involvement with the conflict in China left them undermanned and vulnerable (Weeks, 124). Then, in 1939, conflict between Japanese and Soviet forces resurfaced in a dispute known as the Nomonhan Incident. After Changkufeng, the Kwantung Army doubled down on its strategy to secure Japanese primacy in northeast Asia. The Kwantung Army published “General Principles in Dealing with the Manchukuoan-Soviet Border Dispute,” which granted local commanders extreme autonomy and the authority to escalate. In May 1939, a group of Mongolians crossed the border into Japanese occupied territory. Local commanders responded with extreme force, and Russia was drawn in due to the mutual assistance pact that existed between the Soviet Union and Mongolia. Conflict raged into August, before massive numbers of Japanese casualties triggered another ceasefire (Weeks, 125-126). Most of the Japanese military figures who would be instrumental in World War Two grew up in a culture fearful of Russia and used the perceived threat of Russia to justify massive military expansion. Generals Yamagata, Terauchi, and Tanaka were three leading military officers during the Meiji and Taisho periods who were outspoken about the Russian threat. Moreover, by the late 1930s, Araki Sadao, famous for his views of the Soviet threat, had assumed office as War Minister (Snyder, 133). Thus, the American fear of a Japanese attack on Russia, a nation crucial in the struggle to check Nazi expansion, was no idle concern. Even though war with the Soviet Union would have imposed significant costs on Japan, the words and actions of Japanese leaders like Admiral Yamamoto and Admiral Yoshida posed an existential threat to America’s grand strategy of protecting the coalition balancing against the Nazis (Synder, 136). In 1904, the Japanese launched a quick, preventative strike against Russian economic expansion, as they feared the power and influence that the Trans-Siberian railway would grant Russia (Synder, 125). Then, in 1939, the Anti-Comintern Pact between Japan and Germany, an anti-Communist agreement, signaled to the Americans that there was, at a minimum, some degree of risk of German-Japanese cooperation in an attack against the communist Soviet Union (Nish, 477).

To be sure, there were a number of different strategies espoused by various factions within the Japanese government. The two primary ones were the “north-first” and “south-first” strategies, endorsed by the army and navy respectively. The “north-first” strategy emphasized a large-scale arms build-up with a focus on budget allocation for land forces to blunt the perceived threat of the Soviet Union. The “south-first” strategy focused instead on securing regions in Southeast Asia, including Dutch and French territory in Indo-China. There were strategic and parochial interests inherent in both plans. The “north-first” plan stressed the need to launch a quick, debilitating strike on the U.S.S.R. in order to ensure Japanese regional hegemony in East Asia, which necessitated massive funding increases for the army. The “south-first” policy, favored by the navy due to its funding for a strong naval posture in the South Pacific, argued that Japan should establish autarky by controlling the important resource and oil-rich areas in Indo-China. The “south-first” policy argued that only by securing vital war materiel and oil in the south could Japan ensure a successful campaign against Russia.

Tokyo ultimately attempted to embrace both strategies. The army began to formulate and prepare for a northern campaign to confront increasing numbers of Soviet troops on the border of Manchukuo, while the navy, with army support, began to move on the south, taking Indochina, and later the Philippines (Nish, 476). What seems to have triggered this policy, other than inter-service competition, was Japan’s lack of success during the Nomonhan Incident. The inability of Japanese forces to defeat the Soviets signaled to Tokyo that the current Japanese force posture was unable to meet the demands of war with the U.S.S.R., thus necessitating greater imperial autarky, which they hoped to achieve by exploiting the abundance of resources in Southeast Asia (Weeks, 130). For a time, Japanese leaders were concerned enough about their prospects in a war with the Soviets that they signed a neutrality agreement with the U.S.S.R. in March, 1941 (Bell, 660). Ultimately, though, Japan’s strategy emphasized expansion to the north, as Copeland summarizes:

The first two sections of the navy document, dealing with Japan’s ‘fundamental policy toward nations in an important relationship to us,’ were devoted to Manchukuo and China. ‘Countries in the southern area’ were delegated to the third section. Immediately after describing how these countries were critical to solving Japan’s economic and population problems (the latter through emigration), the document states that Japanese penetration of the southern area ‘is necessary to complete our policies toward Manchuria, China, and Russia.’ The fourth section concerned Russia directly. It argued that ‘in order to restrain Russia’s advance in the Far East we should make necessary military preparations’ and adopt as a basic principle ‘a policy of active offense.’

The navy was not asking for a primary orientation south but instead merely trying to carve out a role for itself in Japan’s geopolitical policy of expansion and dominance. The order of the clauses is also significant. The fact that the first paragraph explicitly focused on China and Manchukuo – Japan’s “fundamental policy” area – demonstrates the priority the Japanese High Command put on ensuring primacy in these areas. The first clause, as a sort of introduction, framed the rest of the document. Thus, while it is certainly correct that there were a panoply of sometimes conflicting interests from parochial groups within the Japanese armed forces, it is incorrect that these other interests and priorities superseded the desire to control Northeast Asia. Given this clear focus on China and Manchuria, Japan’s final strategy shift in the summer of 1941, after Hitler initiated Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, is not surprising. In the early years of the war, Japan had established a precedent of basing its objectives in Asia upon the war in Europe. For example, after Germany defeated France and the Netherlands, Japan moved with alacrity to seize French and Dutch Indo-China. The German invasion of Russia caused many in the Japanese government to believe they could seize upon Soviet weakness in East Asia in much the same way that they had capitalized on Dutch and French preoccupation in Europe a year earlier (Bell, 659).

This shift in Japanese posture forced the U.S. to finally act. As 1941 marked both the entrance of the Soviet Union into the war against Germany and the increased possibility of a Japanese attack against America’s newfound ally, it induced a change in U.S. foreign policy. As the U.S.S.R. and Britain were two of the few powers capable of resisting Nazism, ensuring their survival became a core U.S. interest. Of course, a Japanese attack on Soviet territory was not preordained. After all, the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact was still in effect after Germany invaded the U.S.S.R. Nevertheless, the Tripartite Pact provided a potentially easy workaround to allow Japan to seize territory it had coveted for years. In fact, there were a number of signals that Japan might violate their agreements as this paper will demonstrate below. It is also important to remember that in international relations states must always err on the side of caution because they can never know other actors’ intentions with certainty. If there were any risk that Japan would threaten the survival of the U.S.S.R., the U.S. had to take measures to obviate this danger. So, in August of 1941, just over a month after Operation Barbarossa, the United States placed an oil embargo on Japan to diminish its ability to bleed the Soviets on their own eastern front (Bell, 659). The embargo was highly significant because 80% of Japan’s oil was imported from the United States (Holcombe, 272). This economic maneuver had two benefits. First, by cutting off Japan’s primary source of oil, the embargo compelled Japan to seek oil elsewhere. This forced them to emphasize their forays into Southeast Asia in search of new sources of oil. Moreover, the fact that the United States implemented its oil embargo only after Russia entered the war against Hitler suggests that it was the U.S.’s strategic desire to protect the eastern border of the U.S.S.R., rather than the Japanese war in China, that provoked an American response. After all, Japan had been at war with China for several years with few U.S. retaliatory measures. Yet, as soon as the Soviet Union became a potential Japanese target, U.S. sanction regimes were quickly implemented and ratcheted up. While there is some evidence that the U.S., the Netherlands, and Great Britain implemented their oil embargo due to Japanese aggression in Indochina, the only strategic reason for the U.S. to implement an embargo would be to block Japanese suzerainty in Southeast Asia (ibid., 272). America did not possess any territory in Indo-China, and Japan had not yet invaded the American Philippines, so there was no immediate U.S. security concern triggered by Japanese expansion to the south. While the Netherlands may have had a direct stake in blocking Japanese expansion into Southeast Asia, America’s only motive was to contain Japanese imperial expansion and block its access to crucial warfighting materials needed to wrest eastern Russia from the Soviet Union. Ultimately, this strategy was successful due to a core Japanese strategic concept, based upon their experience in World War I, that required economic self-sufficiency before war. The scale and duration of World War I convinced Japanese war planners that a successful war against a great power necessitated the dedication of the entire economy and country toward the war effort. This strategy was the reason Japanese officer Ishihara Kanji so vehemently opposed the effort to subdue Chinese territory south of the Great Wall: He felt that the entire economy needed to be focused on the war with the U.S.S.R. Thus, the dual impediments of bogging down in China and being forced to secure oil supplies in Indo-China worked to ensure that Japan never moved aggressively to the north (Holcombe, 270).

One of the most puzzling aspects of the entire chain of events leading up to the Pacific War is that war actually broke out between the United States and Japan even though both the U.S. and Japan seemingly had many incentives to compromise. After all, Japanese expansion had little direct impact on American lives, and Hitler seemed to pose a more immediate threat to American geopolitical interests. That Japan allowed war to break out is even more puzzling, as most Japanese planners agreed that Japan had no chance in a protracted conflict against the industrial and military giant that was the United States. Both sides ostensibly wanted peace, engaging in three discrete negotiations during 1941. Yet, neither side ever seemed able to reach an agreement (Copeland, 184). That America, despite a host of different compromise proposals put forth by Japan, was unable to find any offers acceptable seems to indicate that any form of Japanese expansion or autarky was deemed unacceptable to Washington. This bolsters the argument that it was the need to protect Russia, and not the quest to limit Japanese aggression in China and Southeast Asia, that guided American policymakers. In fact, paradoxically, the biggest fear of American policymakers was actually that Japan might extricate itself from China and redeploy thousands of battle-hardened forces against a weakened Soviet Union (ibid, 185). American planners estimated that a Japanese withdrawal from China would free up twenty-one divisions and at least one thousand aircraft. Thus, the need to keep Japan contained in the Middle Kingdom was paramount. For if the United States provided Japan with an egress from China, it only increased the odds that Japan would redeploy its newfound resources against the Soviet Union. The only rational strategy, therefore, was to force Japan to remain embroiled in an unwinnable conflict in China, overstretching the military to the point that it could never be a serious threat to the Soviet Union (ibid., 233-234).

The first round of U.S.-Japan negotiations occurred between March and June of 1941. Japan found itself in a precarious geopolitical position. The disastrous war in China, war preparations for conflict with the Soviets, and economic sanctions from the West meant that Japan lacked the resources to favorably withdraw from China or sufficiently build up relative to the Soviet Union. Therefore, early in 1941, Japan had a strong incentive to negotiate with Washington over the easing of export restrictions and the withdrawal of Japanese troops from China, with America acting as an honest broker for peace. With Roosevelt focused on the European war, sending ships and materiel into harm’s way to supply Britain, America also had an interest in avoiding an Asian conflagration that might potentially draw in the U.S.  In fact, at this point the safety of the Soviet Union was only a minor concern, as both the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Act were in effect. To be sure, there was the risk of a surprise attack on Russia, as Japan had previously engaged in a number of border skirmishes with the U.S.S.R. and had revisionist aims. Moreover, Germany had previously violated the agreements of the Munich Conference and then preceded to invade the Soviets just months later. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that America had a strong interest in Soviet territorial integrity when Stalin and Hitler were nominal allies. Indeed, the Americans may have wished for an attack by the Axis powers so as to draw in the Soviet colossus on the allied side. It is clear, though, that the early negotiations were focused almost exclusively on ensuring that Japan wouldn’t side with Germany if America decided to enter the war against the Nazis. For example, the major points of discussion at the beginning of negotiations revolved around Japan’s interpretation of American “self-defense” against Hitler’s desire for “unlimited conquest,” “even if its [America’s] territory was not attacked.” Moreover, Hull and Roosevelt strongly pushed for a public Japanese statement that in the event of a German-American war, Japan would abstain from the conflict (ibid. 192). When Secretary of State Hull met with the Japanese envoys, the environment seemed conducive to peace and compromise. Japan agreed not to intervene in a German-U.S. conflict, agreed to peaceful settlement in Southeast Asia, and desired a new commerce treaty. In exchange, Japan wanted sanction relief and American assistance in extricating itself from China. Secretary Hull stated that the proposal contained “numerous proposals with which my Government could readily agree” (ibid., 190). The status of China and Manchuria, commonly misunderstood as a sticking point, was not even mentioned in the first round of U.S. demands. Rather, these negotiations stressed Japanese separation from Germany, a refrain from further aggression in Asia, and the return of an open door policy in Asia (ibid., 190). America had no strategic interest regarding Japanese actions in China, and in fact, removing Japan from China was Tokyo’s objective, not Washington’s. This suggests that even in early 1941, America’s priority was merely to create a stable balance of power in Eastern Asia rather than to spread Wilsonian ideals of liberty and freedom. In fact, it was Tokyo who approached Washington for help in extricating itself from China (Copeland, 191). During negotiations, Maxwell Hamilton (Hull’s assistant) actively helped Japan create treaty language that allowed Japanese forces to remain in China in order to thwart “communistic activities” in Manchuria. Hamilton said that the issue of Japanese troops in China “could be left to the last” and that Japan could consult with America and China “in regard to measures called for by any situation that might exist, including any situation [involving] communistic activities” (ibid., 195). Not only was America not demanding a complete Japanese withdrawal from China, the U.S. was actively assisting and advising Japan on diplomatic wording to ensure that Japanese troops stayed in Manchuria! By June, negotiations were going well with the agreement almost settled.

By late June, though, negotiations had collapsed. This was likely due in no small part to the German invasion of the Soviet Union. As soon as Operation Barbarossa commenced, Roosevelt had the acting Secretary of State, Sumner Welles, assure the Soviets that “any request” by Moscow “would be given immediate attention.” After all, the Nazi-Soviet Pact had been rendered void, thus potentially giving Japan, via the Tripartite Pact, the excuse it needed to finally move against its northern rival. Even in the face of strong isolationist and anti-Communist elements in Congress attempting to block closer ties with Moscow and the lend-lease appropriations already exhausted from trade with Britain, Roosevelt supported the Soviets by purchasing Russian gold to provide Moscow with the necessary capital. Thus, it is clear that Moscow’s survival had become a core interest to elite American policymakers. It was so important, in fact, that Roosevelt circumvented Congress as much as possible to bypass trade restrictions (ibid., 198). State Department documents at the time support this view. “The Effects on Japan of the Present War between Germany and Russia,” a paper commissioned by Hull, warned that “[The Japanese] cannot be expected to forget what they have for many years considered as the Russian dagger pointed at the heart of Japan.” Furthermore, it concluded that Japanese aggression was “far more likely … to be in the direction of action against Russia.” Furthermore, the report counseled that in order to avoid a two-front war against the Soviets, Washington should seek to “immobilize Japan,” namely by “[placing] restrictions upon the export of petroleum products to Japan” (ibid., 203). During this time, Secretary Hull was advised by the former professor Stanley K. Hornbeck, a man notorious for his distrust of the Japanese (ADST, n.p.). Hornbeck warned that helping Japan extricate itself from China when Russia was already in a dire situation vis-à-vis Germany would almost certainly lead to Japanese attacks on Manchuria. This American fear was compounded by worrisome messages that Magic, an American cryptanalysis group, was reporting. This concern was evident in a telegram sent to Japanese Prime Minister Konoe (sometimes spelled Konoye), which read:

The Government of the United States is receiving reports … that the Government of Japan had decided to embark upon hostilities against the Soviet Union. As the Government of Japan is aware, the Government of the United States had earnestly desired to see peace maintained and preserved in the Pacific area.… It goes without saying that embarkation by Japan [upon such] a course of military aggression and conquest would render illusory the hope which this Government has cherished and which it understood the Government of Japan shared [namely,] that [the] peace of the Pacific might not be further upset (Copeland, 204-205).

Ultimately, the impasse over the northern question led to a lack of compromise on both sides. Despite pleas from the Japanese and the American Ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, Roosevelt held firm on his hardline approach, refusing to compromise. This is even more significant because key members of Roosevelt’s government, like Grew, believed that achieving peace with Japan was possible. Moreover, they believed that the agreement would permit Japan to successfully withdraw from China. That Roosevelt chose to ignore the counsel of his more optimistic advisors signals that keeping Japan bogged down was more important than liberating China from Imperial rule (ADST, n.p.).

Instead of negotiating with Japan on troop withdrawals, Roosevelt ramped up sanctions. Specifically, Roosevelt froze Japanese assets and created a licensing restriction on oil exports to Japan. This restrictive policy was designed to increase American leverage over Japan and to give the United States enough control over Japan’s strategic materials to make a northern advance impossible. The benefit of creating a licensing restriction as opposed to a full embargo was that it allowed Roosevelt to restrict the amount of U.S. exports to Japan depending on Japanese behavior. Thus, it allowed America to curtail Japanese oil reserves enough to dissuade a military conflict with the Soviet Union while also leaving the possibility of increased oil trade open, thus giving Japan an incentive to keep negotiating (Copeland, 208). However, to prove to Tokyo that Washington could severely hurt the Japanese economy and war plans, the U.S. cut off all trade (imports and exports) with Japan for two weeks. After the first two weeks, during the “intermediate period,” Washington would reestablish some trade, but would maintain a deliberately confusing policy designed to elicit caution on Tokyo’s part (ibid. 209).

After the concern raised by the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the tension over U.S. sanctions subsided, a second round of intense negotiations began. However, despite moves towards reconciliation and compromise, Roosevelt and his advisors vehemently insisted that Japan must scale back its aggression throughout the entire Pacific.  In exchange, Roosevelt was willing to alleviate Japan’s economic hardship, which was triggered by the aggressive American sanctions implemented over the preceding months. Although America was signaling a willingness to compromise with Japan over oil exports, the petroleum shortage was so severe that plans for a northern attack during 1941 had to be terminated. Thus, by August of 1941, America had achieved its objective of diplomatically stalling for the Soviets, ensuring they stood a fighting chance against Germany (ibid, 213). With regard to the second round of negotiations, the initial diplomatic maneuvering seemed promising. Japan agreed to withdrawal from Indochina and also agreed to renounce ambitions to attack the U.S.S.R. unless provoked. However, on September 3, the promising start ran off the rails. Roosevelt, in a surprise move, called Japanese Ambassador Nomura to the White House to inform him that he was adding new demands. Roosevelt demanded that Japan not only specifically disavow expansion, but also embrace policies of non-interference, territorial integrity, and a return to the Open Door policy of the past. Moreover, Roosevelt declared that any American agreement would have to be approved by its allies and friends. These two demands signaled an unwillingness to negotiate: adding vague demands to negotiations is a diplomatic trick that reveals a reluctance to bargain, and the requirement of allied approval increased the chances that some allied country might make compromise even more contingent. In desperation, Japan made a number of sweeping concessions. They agreed to pull all troops out of mainland Asia after, at most, two years. They also agreed to remain neutral if America ever declared war on Germany, arguing the Tripartite Pact was purely defensive and up to interpretation. Nevertheless, Hull continued to stall by arguing that he still needed to consult allied powers, and unless an explicit interpretation of the Tripartite Pact was provided, he could not guarantee congressional cooperation (ibid., 214-216).

So why did Roosevelt and Hull seemingly sabotage negotiations just as they had practically achieved most of the points of the deal they had always sought from Japan? This is a difficult question to answer for a number of reasons. First, there is no real consensus in the literature beyond the basic, and somewhat obvious, conclusion that America and/or Japan was beyond negotiating at this point. Moreover, a lack of primary source documents, such as journal entries from Roosevelt or Hull, from this period of negotiations makes ascertaining U.S. intentions extremely difficult. However, a number of factors seemingly point toward a renewed fear of a revisionist Japan attacking the Soviets. The first reason that the Roosevelt administration might have doubted Japan’s commitment to pacifism was the changing state of affairs in Eastern Europe. The initial success of Operation Barbarossa was unquestionable. Hitler caught the Soviets completely by surprise, and Stalin was so shocked that it took him days to formulate a coherent strategic response. Hitler’s opening success catalyzed Japanese speculation that a northern thrust might be possible, and thus it was this success that forced America to escalate its economic maneuvering in Asia.

However, the Red Army proved far more tenacious and effective than the success of the initial invasion would have predicted. In fact, Goebbels and Hitler admitted they had “obviously underestimated the Soviet Union” (Ueberschär, 88). It was during this period of relative Soviet success that Japan agreed to forgo northern expansion, possibly leading Washington to believe that the only reason Japan agreed to peace was that it could not have been assured of a successful attack, given the lack of German progress. By late September, though, the Wehrmacht appeared to have regained the initiative, launching a massive and fairly successful initial attack near Moscow. In fact, the progress of the Germans was so great that the Germans were able to destroy eight entire Soviet armies and force the Soviet leadership to flee to Kuibyshev, 500 miles away. Thus, by the time the Japanese finally agreed to concede to Roosevelt’s demands, Germany was apparently making great progress against the Soviet Union. This likely led many in Washington to be skeptical of Japan’s commitment to peace with the Soviet Union (ibid., 88). The second reason for doubt regarding Japan’s sincerity was a report from Grew, which warned of a Japanese naval arms buildup. While Grew believed the buildup was for use in Southeast Asia, the risk that it might be turned toward the north provoked caution. Japanese preparation for war in the south, in violation of what it had promised Washington, may have led some to doubt its other commitments, like the promise not to attack Russia. Finally, the risk that Southeast Asia might provide sufficient war materials, irrespective of Western sanctions, for Japan to successfully attack Manchuria led Roosevelt to maintain a hardline position (Copeland, 218). Because of American doubts that a treaty could constrain Japan if the Germans started rapidly advancing again, Roosevelt became extremely obdurate and unreasonable in his demands in an attempt to focus the Japanese against America instead of America’s Soviet allies.

Despite the apparent lack of commitment by Washington to negotiate, Tokyo tried one last time to achieve a deal that would be acceptable to America while still leaving them a free hand in the Russian Far East if conditions permitted a successful attack. After all, Japan relied heavily on American industry and exports to sustain its economy and war machine, so they were desperate to achieve some kind of compromise. Furthermore, many on the Japanese General Staff felt that a war with America was doomed to fail. Navy Chief of Staff Nagano was particularly pessimistic about the odds of Japanese success, warning of America’s arms buildup and tenacity (ibid 223). War Minister Tojo was also cautious, warning of the dangers of a potential conflict with America. When Tojo became Prime Minister, he initiated a number of conferences among his cabinet advisors. During one of these conferences, Japanese Finance Minister Okinori warned of the increasingly pronounced resource shortages afflicting Japan. Then, at a meeting in late October, there was debate about the viability of using synthetic oil in an effort to sustain negotiations for a longer period of time. However, the consensus view within the cabinet was that synthetic oil supplies would be insufficient to ensure Japanese military primacy within Northeast Asia. This placed Japan in a precarious situation, and so the Cabinet and senior military advisors decided to meet on November 1 for a final debate to determine Japan’s grand strategy. Ultimately, the administration decided to push back its final decision to November 30, maintaining the dual strategy of arms buildup and diplomacy in the interim. During the interim period in November, there were two proposals under consideration. The first, Plan A, was essentially the earlier June draft: a Japanese promise to stay out of a U.S.-German War and to withdraw from Indo-China, but without a requirement that they remove troops from Northern China, risking their use in a Soviet invasion. Plan B was less ambitious, and simply proposed a return to pre-July 1941 status quo. U.S. recalcitrance in the final negotiations and unwillingness to tolerate any troops on the border with Manchuria settled the debate in the Japanese cabinet. Japanese leaders grew increasingly pessimistic about the outlook of trade and diplomatic relations between America and Japan, and thus began preparing for war (ibid., 225-230).

In a final act of diplomacy, Roosevelt wrote a memorandum to Hull, which showed a willingness to reopen trade in oil and rice. However, it also demanded that Japan not send any more troops or materiel to Manchuria or Southeast Asia so as to prevent Japan from ever reaching a sufficiently strong strategic position to attack the Soviets. The Japanese were unwilling to agree, and the attack on Pearl Harbor followed (ibid. 231-232). To be clear, Roosevelt was not trying to use conflict as a “back-door to war” with Nazi Germany. The fact that he sought to negotiate a general peace in Asia on three separate occasions demonstrates his sincere desire to maintain a calm Pacific Rim so as to allow the U.S. to concentrate its economic and political might against Hitler. Additionally, there is good evidence that Ambassador Nomura might have lulled the Americans into an overly optimistic position by overemphasizing the power of moderate factions within the government and the influence of the more cautious navy admirals, leading the Americans to overplay their hand. For example, he told former Secretary of State William R. Castle that Konoe and Hirohito were willing to withdraw from the Tripartite Pact because they “could not sleep for thinking of the danger, the unnecessary danger his country was in.” Moreover, Nomura portrayed pre-war provocations as rogue actions by the “fire-eaters” and not the policies of sober statesmen and naval officers. In doing so, Nomura failed to warn his American counterparts of the logrolling between the army, navy, and civilian establishments and their general consensus on Japanese foreign policy (Garry et. al., 211-212). By the time that the final round of negotiations was being shelved, Japan had already dispatched its Pearl Harbor fleet, and U.S. intelligence was convinced from Japanese government intercepts that Tokyo was charging headlong towards war irrespective of Washington’s actions. It was Japanese bellicosity that led to the termination of the final round of negotiations, not the termination of diplomacy that led to Japanese aggression (ibid., 225-226).

Ultimately, Roosevelt’s strategy was successful. The Soviets did not have to engage the Japanese until the tail end of the war, by which point Japan was not an existential threat to the Soviets. When they did finally declare war on Japan, the Soviets were simply attempting to capitalize on Allied victory by seizing as much territory as possible. Roosevelt’s strategy of assisting and protecting Russia paid dividends, at least at halting and eventually defeating Nazi Germany. After Stalingrad, the Germans suffered defeat after defeat, turning what originally looked like an easy victory into years of unrelenting war. On January 31, 1943, Paulus (the German field marshal in the south) surrendered to the Russians in Stalingrad. Hitler ordered a move to “total war” after this stunning reversal, but the Nazi strategy proved insufficient to stop the inexorable Soviet advance. On March 1, the German Army Group Center began to withdraw. By February 29, the Ukrainian fronts completed their objectives, seizing a large swath of eastern German territory. By June 28, 1944, the Germans were unable to stop the Soviet advance in the east despite committing all of Army Group Center’s reserves. The Russian advance – which the Soviets referred to as the March of Liberation – was assisted by the American, British, and Canadian landings in Normandy, which forced Hitler to pull a number of divisions away from the Eastern front. By 1945, the Third Reich was all but lost. Stalin took personal command of Soviet operations in Eastern Europe, and after ordering a brief hiatus in the rapid Soviet advance upon the conquest Budapest, he began to move on Berlin in earnest. Despite Hitler’s frantic final maneuvers involving a wasteful counteroffensive against the Soviets and redeployment of soldiers to hold Vienna and stave off Anglo-American advances across the Rhine, Berlin fell on May 2, 1945, and all German forces stood down on May 11th after Soviet General Konev successfully captured Prague (Ziemke, 351-355). To be sure, the Soviets were of limited utility in the fight against Japan. As explained above, despite promising at the Yalta Conference to attack Japan within three months of Germany’s surrender, they only really engaged Japan in one major offensive around Korea and Manchuria (Sumio, 501). Nevertheless, there is some evidence, albeit disputed, that the Soviet entrance into the war, not the dropping of the atomic bombs, was the primary catalyst for the Japanese surrender. Historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa argues that the Japanese cabinet decided not to change their overall policy on August 7th, the day the bomb was dropped, because they felt the Americans didn’t have enough radioactive materials to continue frequent bombings and would be limited by international opinion even if they did. However, the cabinet ministers were extremely concerned by the Soviet attack, which Chief of the Naval General Staff Toyoda Soemu characterized as making it impossible for the Japanese “to map any reasonable operation plan.” Then, he concluded his interview with American interrogators by saying, “I believe the Russian participation in the war against Japan rather than the atomic bombs did more to hasten the surrender” (Hesagawa, n.p.). While some may argue that Stalin was an immoral or ineffective ally due to his reluctance in engaging Japan, it is important to remember that Britain, a clear and staunch U.S. ally for far longer than the U.S.S.R., also focused on its proximate threat, Germany, over Japan. Moreover, there is some evidence that Stalin felt America was itself being too cautious in its attacks against Germany (Eureka, 266). The ethics of alliances is beyond the scope of this paper, but regardless of the degree of Russian helpfulness in defeating Japan, their value in fighting Germany is clear. Germany was the original threat that Roosevelt sought to balance when he first began negotiating with Japan, and the U.S.S.R. played in an integral role in defeating it. In this sense, America’s original negotiating goal must be judged a success.

It is important to study the contributions of the U.S. in keeping its allies afloat even before the dramatic climaxes of the war and America’s entrance in combat operations against the Axis forces. While America obviously played a crucial role in winning the war against the Axis, it also played an enormously important role in ensuring that there was a war to win when the United States finally did enter the conflict in December of 1941. Throughout 1941, Roosevelt and his administration implemented a major delaying action in the Pacific to ensure that the U.S.S.R. was not attacked by Axis powers on its distant eastern border. While Roosevelt sought to avoid war in Asia with Japan, he also sought to ensure that Japan was unable to launch an attack against the Soviets that could have furthered Japanese capabilities while potentially also weakening the U.S.S.R. to such a point that the integrity of all of Eurasia was threatened by German occupation. The United States played a number of immeasurably important roles throughout the Second World War. American soldiers heroically sacrificed themselves in the name of liberty and freedom, and American diplomats and analysts worked tirelessly to maintain the overall balance of power in the Allied Power’s favor, ensuring that Hitler and Hirohito were never able to emerge victorious.


Works Cited

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