The Holocaust Historiography Project

Was Pearl Harbor Unavoidable?


Remember Pearl Harbor? Of course you do. No American will ever forget December 7, 1941. Our casualties came to 3,435 — Japan’s were fewer than 100. We lost 188 planes outright — Japan 29. Our proud Pacific fleet was smashed. Eight battleships were useless. Japan lost five midget submarines. It was the greatest military and naval disaster in our history.

But Pearl Harbor didn’t happen all in one day. The seeds for that disaster were sown at least as early as 1935. For that was the year of the seventh world congress of the Communist International, popularly known as the Comintern.

American Communists were then told how to capture our government. We protested, but being asleep to the communist menace, did nothing more.

The Comintern also resolved to undermine Russia’s neighbors — Germany and Japan. As former Ambassador Bullitt tells us, the Soviet Union “ordered its communist agents abroad to create 'public front' and anti-fascist movements in order to obtain support for the Soviet Union against Germany and Japan.” The same congress agreed to support communist activities in China. Japan didn’t waste words. Japan acted.

The first thing Japan did was to inspire an anti-communist movement in north China. Secretary Hull* protested. Japan told our ambassador that Japan desired Chinese cooperation to combat the spread of communism and anti-Japanese activities. Japan also expressed worry about the great increase of armaments in Soviet Russia.

Japan’s next move was to sign an anti-Comintern pact with Germany. This pact held that communist interference not only endangered the internal peace and welfare of Germany and Japan but also threatened “the general peace of the world.”

Japan’s activities in north China were resented by the Chinese government. Friction increased until an incident provoked Japan’s undeclared war on China. Japan claimed the hostilities were caused by a communist intrigue against her legitimate rights. Washington officials considered it Japanese aggression.

The undeclared war dragged on. By the fall of 1938 Germany was no longer satisfied with merely an anti-communist pact — she wanted a military alliance with Japan. She applied strong pressure.

All this placed Japan on a spot. The Japanese people, like the American people, did not want to be involved in a world war. Their leaders were divided into two factions. One group — the war party — wanted to join the Axis, remove the Russian threat, and conquer new worlds. One of these leaders was Foreign Minister Arita. Another group — the peace party — wanted to prevent war at all costs. They foresaw a victory for the “democracies.” Then where would Japan be? This group was led by Premier Hiranuma.

Ambassador Grew** joined in the effort to prevent a military alliance with Germany. On April 19, 1939, he was assured there would be no alliance, although the anti-communist pact might be strengthened. So the peace party turned its efforts to preventing further political ties with the Axis.

Both parties wanted security for Japan. The war party pointed to England’s negotiations with Russia and the American backing of anti-Japanese sentiment in China. They argued that Japanese security rested with the Axis. The peace party felt otherwise, but their opponents were hard to convince. Cabinet permission was finally obtained to seek a “gesture of welcome” from the United States. As a result, Arita handed Grew a note for President Roosevelt. It was cabled to Washington on May 18, 1939.

This note spoke of the gathering war clouds in Europe and stated that Japan and the United States had a mutual interest in seeing that civilization was not destroyed. It went on to say that true world peace might be established and maintained if all nations had their “own proper places in the world.” They hoped this idea would make possible “closer cooperation between Japan and America as well as the foundation of a deeper mutual understanding between the two nations.” It was indefinite, but it was a bid for friendship.

Later that day Grew cabled that he was leaving for America “and confiding the embassy to the effective hands of Eugene H. Dooman, in whose judgment and analytical ability I have full confidence and whose views on policies and procedures coincide very closely with mine.”

On May 22 Germany became very tired of waiting. She signed a military alliance with Italy which didn’t include Japan.

The American public was not told about Japan’s plea for cooperation until 1943, when the State Department released two bulky volumes of selected documents relating to Japan. However, there were many other things that were not made public even then. It took a congressional investigation to reveal the facts which follow:

Behind this general message was a more specific proposal. The Japanese premier, Baron Hiranuma, met very secretly with our Mr. Dooman. He didn’t even let his own foreign minister know about it. He felt that with American help the Japanese peace party might prevent a world war with dangerous consequences for Japan.

The premier told Dooman the Japanese had a “real feeling of grievance against the occidental powers, especially Great Britain. When the first World War broke out Japan was an ally of Great Britain. There was no legal obligation on Japan to support her ally, but she conceived she had a moral obligation to do so. She accordingly declared war against Germany, her navy undertook operations against the German fleet in the Pacific, her merchant marine cooperated in various ways and finally her military forces eliminated Germany from Shantung.

“The only thanks we got from Great Britain,” continued Baron Hiranuma, “was the abrogation of that very alliance which inspired Japan to support Great Britain.” Japan was also worried about negotiations then going on between Britain and the Soviets. She thought the naval treaties operated to prevent her from safeguarding her interests.

Hiranuma claimed that Japan’s objectives in China were “essential for her security in a world of sanctions, embargoes, closing of markets to foreign competition, and lack of free access to raw materials, and so long as such conditions exist any moderation of her objective in China … could not be considered.

“Nevertheless, if conditions could be brought about which would assure to all nations markets for the world’s goods on the basis of quality and price and supplies of the materials which they needed, the importance to Japan of securing a market and sources of raw materials in China would greatly diminish; and by the same token there would not be the same urge on Germany and Italy to expand at the expense of weaker and smaller nations.

“The United States and Japan were the only powers which could help to prevent the crystallization of the trend toward the division of Europe into armed camps.”

He felt that world-wide economic and political troubles could be settled by an international conference. Japan, he said, would agree to include the Far East situation among the problems to be discussed. He proposed that “if the President were prepared to make a confidential approach to the European democracies he would be glad to approach Germany and Italy, and if there were returned favorable replies by these nations he would be glad to have the President call the conference under such conditions as might be agreed upon after discussion thru normal diplomatic channels.”

In conclusion the premier said: “This might prove to be the last opportunity to save the world from chaos.”

Dooman reported all this to Washington in a 21-page document dated June 7, 1939. He gave it as his opinion that Japan was “groping for security against the gathering storm in Europe.” Japan, he said, was faced with the alternative of going over unreservedly to the totalitarian side or restoring relations with those nations which the peace party believed would be victors.

He felt the desire for a settlement did not spring “from moral regeneration, but from realization of stark facts.” The China incident had failed. A European war threatened. Japan’s peace party leaders realized Japan’s security depended on liquidating the China affair. The proposed conference would permit Japan “to moderate its peace terms in China” without losing face.

Dooman indicated that it might be a very crucial moment in world history. He urged careful consideration.

On July 1 Hull sent Dooman’s message over to Roosevelt along with a proposed reply which FDR okayed and returned the same day. This reply answered the general proposal in diplomatic language that meant we would not cooperate in any joint peace efforts until Japan withdrew from China.

It made no reference to the specific proposal to call an international conference. It said the United States did “not perceive any practicable steps which it might usefully take at this time in addition to those already taken … and … would be pleased to have such further information as your excellency may find it agreeable to offer by way of amplifying and making more definitive your excellency’s concept as to the steps which might usefully be taken toward moderating the situation in Europe.”

On July 26, before Dooman received this reply, Washington added more fuel to the fire by giving Japan six months notice that we were terminating our commercial treaty. Japan’s peace party, hoping for a friendship bid, was shocked. Even the pro-Axis, anti-British foreign minister couldn’t understand “why the American government should have found it necessary to give notice of the abrogation in such a hasty and abrupt manner.”

On July 31, when Dooman saw Roosevelt’s reply, he immediately wired back for further guidance on the answer to the specific proposal for “an international conference to be called by the President to discuss problems causing world unrest, including Far Eastern problems.” Dooman was anxious to know if we really wanted to explore the proposal or were in the process of studying it.

The next day Dooman was informed by Undersecretary Sumner Welles that the original reply was intended to cover both the general and specific messages and therefore neither of Dooman’s suggestions applied. On August 3 Dooman wired back that the reply would be interpreted “by the premier as a closing of the door to insure peace in the Far East.”

Welles then told Dooman that the termination of the commercial treaty had been drafted weeks before and was therefore not related to the Jap proposals. He instructed Dooman to hold back the answer until it would seem that the two matters were not interrelated.

The answer was finally delivered to Japan on August 8. That very evening a five minister conference was called in Tokyo to discuss an alliance with Germany and Italy.

On August 12 British, French, and Soviet military missions began staff talks in Moscow on measures of collaboration in the event that Germany should precipitate a war.

Japan, still worried about the Soviets and communism, desperately needed friends. The Axis offered an alliance. Roosevelt offered a cold shoulder. Until August 23 there was little doubt but what the Axis alliance would be signed. On that date it was the turn of Japan’s war party to be shocked. Germany signed a 10 year nonaggression pact with Japan’s traditional enemy, Soviet Russia.

This pact put an end to a Japanese-Axis alliance for the time being. It gave us another opportunity to woo Japan from the Axis camp. We muffed that, too, but that is another story. It wasn’t until more than a year later, September 27, 1940, that Japan finally signed a defensive military alliance with the Axis.

Would Pearl Harbor have occurred if President Roosevelt had cooperated with Japan’s peace party in 1939? Who can say?

*U.S. Secretary of State 1933-1944 Cordell Hull

**U.S. Ambassador to Japan 1932-1943 Joseph C. Grew