An Ambassador’s Worry, a President’s Plea, and an Inevitable War

In this installment of This Week in History, we learn how President Roosevelt’s last-ditch effort for peace came too late.
An Ambassador’s Worry, a President’s Plea, and an Inevitable War
President Franklin D. Roosevelt holds Declaration of War against Japan, circa 1941. (Fotosearch/Getty Images).
Dustin Bass
12/2/2023
Updated:
12/2/2023
0:00
“Constructive work is at present impossible,” cabled Joseph Grew, U.S. Ambassador to Japan. “Our efforts are concentrated on the thwarting of destructive influences.”
Ambassador Grew’s long and worried cable was sent to Secretary of State Cordell Hull on Dec. 27, 1934.

An Aim for Peace

Since the end of World War I, international relations between former belligerent states and allies alike had become strained. Treaties had been signed to alleviate the threat of war and to incentivize peace through diplomacy and economic cooperation. Although the “War to End All Wars” had ended, much of the world was still in chaos whether from trying to rebuild after the war’s destruction or trying to establish political dominance by way of civil war, such as Russia’s Civil War between the Reds and Whites (which ended fall 1922) or the Chinese Civil War between the Nationalists and the Communists (which began in 1927). The chaos of the 1920s would be topped off with the start of the Great Depression.

Before the end of the Russian Civil War and the start of the Chinese Civil War, representatives from nine nations (America, Great Britain, Japan, France, Italy, Belgium, China, Portugal, and the Netherlands) met in Washington for the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–22. The purpose was to discuss naval reductions as well as the ongoing strife in the Far East.

Washington Naval Conference, Nov. 12, 1921. (Public Domain)
Washington Naval Conference, Nov. 12, 1921. (Public Domain)

Convening on Nov. 12, 1921, the world’s largest naval powers―America, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan―signed the Five-Power Treaty on Feb. 6, 1922. The countries agreed to a set ratio of warship tonnage and the building of “capital ships,” (primary ships in a naval fleet). America and Great Britain were allowed 500,000 tons, Japan 300,000, and France and Italy 175,000. America, Great Britain and Japan agreed to a 5:5:3 ratio of capital ships. It also required the scrapping of old warships.

America and Great Britain were allowed more tonnage and ships due to their holdings in the Far East (that is, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines for America). The agreement ensured that the Pacific bases for these three countries could remain, but could not expand. The naval treaty, however, came with a loophole. Not all types of warships were restricted. This led to a quasi-naval arms race with cruisers. This loophole would be addressed nearly a decade later in 1930 at the London Naval Conference.

United States delegation en route to the London Naval conference, 1930. Admiral William V. Pratt. Naval Historical Foundation. (Public Domain)
United States delegation en route to the London Naval conference, 1930. Admiral William V. Pratt. Naval Historical Foundation. (Public Domain)
The Washington Naval Conference also resulted in the Four-Power Treaty, which required America, Great Britain, France, and Japan to consult each other in the event of a crisis before settling on a specific course (such as military action). Over the years, especially in the 1930s, consultation would be an ongoing and strenuous effort. When the 1930 London Conference concluded, Japan abstained from signing the treaty.

Diplomatic Concerns

In April of 1934, several months before receiving Grew’s cable, Hull had been wisely keeping a keen eye on the issues in Europe and the Far East. He expressed his concerns to a gathering in Williamsburg, Virginia, stating, “At this moment, while on this side of the ocean there is a relatively peaceful condition, and neighborly and friendly ties among the nations are stronger and more genuine than ever before, we are obliged to feel deep concern that across the water, notwithstanding the terrible havoc and wreckage wrought by the war that began 20 years ago, and notwithstanding that the inventions of science will make future wars more terrible, there is so much reason for the gravest apprehension.”

This “gravest apprehension” stemmed from the maneuverings of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Just as Germany’s war machine had been growing and the Nazis eyed various territories, the naval power of Imperial Japan grew and it too was looking to expand territorially. The nation already held Korea and Manchuria, and it seemed set on advancing into China and Indochina. By December of 1934, Ambassador Grew viewed the militarism of Japan as a massive mountain to climb, despite America’s best efforts.

Ambassador Joseph Grew. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)
Ambassador Joseph Grew. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

“Unless we are prepared to subscribe to a ‘Pax Japonica’ in the Far East, with all that this movement, as conceived and interpreted by Japan, is bound to entail, we should rapidly build up our navy to treaty strength,” Grew continued, “and if and when the Washington Naval Treaty expires we should continue to maintain the present ratio with Japan regardless of cost, a peace-time insurance both to cover and to reduce the risk of war.”

What Grew meant by “Pax Japonica” was the Japanese belief that Japan would be a “stabilizing factor” and “guardian of peace” by means of “complete commercial control, and, in the minds of some, eventual complete political control of East Asia.” The Washington Naval Treaty was set to expire on Dec. 31, 1936.

A Pretext for Invasion

Six months later, Japan used the Marco Polo Bridge incident, which involved cross border rifle fire between Chinese and Japanese soldiers, as a pretext to invade China. This officially launched the Second Sino-Japanese War. Though the invasion of Poland by Germany in 1939 is often considered the start of World War II, the invasion of China in 1937 by the Japanese was its start in earnest. While the invasion was ongoing, the American gunboat, Panay, incidentally became caught up in the fight on Dec. 12, 1937. While escorting three Standard Oil vessels, Japanese aircraft attacked the ships. The damage to the Panay forced the captain to give the order to abandon ship. The incident, whether done in error or on purpose, killed three Americans, and injured 43 sailors and five civilian passengers.
A Japanese reconnaissance photo of Marco Polo Bridge during the incident. Wanping is opposite side of the river. (Public Domain)
A Japanese reconnaissance photo of Marco Polo Bridge during the incident. Wanping is opposite side of the river. (Public Domain)
After a formal protest issued by Grew, the Japanese government officially took responsibility and apologized, stating the attack had been done in error. The government issued a check for $2,214,007.36 for the deaths, injuries, and damages. Shortly thereafter, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Naval Act of 1938, which mandated a 20 percent increase in naval strength. This increase included 46 combat ships, 26 auxiliary vessels, and 950 naval aircraft.

Remaining Neutral

Grew made an interesting statement in his cable to Hull. As the eyes and ears in Japan, he was all too familiar with the potential threats that seemed inevitable to come to fruition. “I wish that more Americans could come out here and live here and gradually come to sense the real potential risks and dangers of the situation instead of speaking and writing academically on a subject which they know nothing whatever about, thereby contributing ammunition to the Japanese military and extremists who are stronger than they have been for many a day,” he stated firmly.

Despite these growing concerns, America wished to avoid conflict altogether, or at least for as long as possible. Shortly after Grew’s cable, Congress passed the first of its Neutrality Acts in 1935. It passed the next three in 1936, 1937, and lastly in 1939―two months after Germany’s invasion of Poland. By then four of the five nations that had signed the Five-Power-Treaty were at war.

Grew calculated that such a war, such as the one that had taken place a generation prior, would be “unthinkable,” but he believed that “it would be criminally short-sighted to discard it from our calculations.” His 1934 cable encouraged the Roosevelt Administration to do all it could “to be adequately prepared.” Indeed, it was an echo of Theodore Roosevelt’s message of military preparedness during World War I―a message delivered as an ex-president.

“Theodore Roosevelt enunciated the policy ‘Speak softly but carry a big stick,’” Grew recalled. “If our diplomacy in the Far East is to achieve favorable results, and if we are to reduce the risk of an eventual war with Japan to a minimum, that is the only way to proceed.”

Working Around Neutrality

President Franklin Roosevelt also hoped to enunciate such a policy. He urged Congress to lift the arms embargo that kept the United States from selling munitions to the belligerent nations. Roosevelt believed the embargo assisted the fascist nations more than the democratic ones, and after the German invasion of Poland, Congress seemed to agree. The lifting of the embargo allowed for arms sales, but under the “cash-and-carry” policy, meaning whichever nation was buying―arms or any other good―it must be able to pay upon receipt. Loans to nations were still banned. But even this ban eventually fell to the wayside for the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, which allowed the United States to lend or lease war materiel to nations deemed “vital to the defense of the United States.”

Such a decision was spurred by the summer events of 1940, after France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Belgium fell to Germany, and Great Britain lost 11 destroyers in 10 days to Germany.

The battlecruiser HMS Hood (in the distance) steaming into battle minutes before she was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck on May 24, 1941. Imperial War Museums. (Public Domain)
The battlecruiser HMS Hood (in the distance) steaming into battle minutes before she was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck on May 24, 1941. Imperial War Museums. (Public Domain)
The Lend-Lease Act assisted not only Great Britain in Europe, but China in the Pacific. This, however, did not halt Japan’s push into China. In August 1940, Japan established its “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” with the intention of forcing out the Western imperialists. The French, now under the Germany-controlled Vichy government, gave the Japanese permission to occupy its Indochina colonies. Japan was now part of Germany and Italy after signing the Tripartite Pact in September. After the Japanese took the Cam Ranh naval base in July 1941, which was only 800 miles from the Philippines, Roosevelt quickly responded by freezing all Japanese assets in America. The British and Dutch East Indies did the same. The decision nearly halted Japanese trade. It immediately lost access to 75 percent of its overseas trade and nearly 90 percent of its imported oil.

Talks, Negotiations, and Deceit

Roosevelt still hoped to negotiate. By mid-November, Japanese ambassador to America, Kichisaburo Nomura, and diplomat Saburo Kurusu, formally requested that the United States end its trade and oil restrictions. Discussions had been broached about restoring trade if Japan removed troops from Indochina and made evident moves toward peace with China.

On Nov. 26, 1941, Secretary Hull acknowledged to Ambassador Nomura that he “believed in our discussions some progress has been made in reference to the general principles which constitute the basis of a peaceful settlement covering the entire Pacific area.” Nonetheless, Hull was aware progress was minimal.

Japanese Ambassador Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura presents his credentials to President Roosevelt at White House, Feb. 1941. (Public Domain)
Japanese Ambassador Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura presents his credentials to President Roosevelt at White House, Feb. 1941. (Public Domain)
Roosevelt had also become acutely aware, noticing Japan’s movements were similar to those taken by the Germans. “Please be good enough to request the Japanese Ambassador and Ambassador Kurusu to inquire at once of the Japanese Government what the actual reasons may be for the steps already taken, and what I am to consider is the policy of the Japanese Government as demonstrated by this recent and rapid concentration of troops in Indo-China,” Roosevelt wrote Hull on Dec. 1. “This Government has seen in the last few years in Europe a policy on the part of the German Government which has involved a constant and steady encroachment upon the territory and rights of free and independent peoples through the utilization of military steps of the same character.”

Nomura informed Hull on Dec. 5 that troop movements were mere “precautionary measures” and that “it seems an exaggerated report has been made of these movements.”

Roosevelt’s concerns were not pacified. It was during this week in history, on Dec. 6, 1941, that the president issued a personal appeal directly to Japanese Emperor Hirohito.

Emperor Hirohito (R) during an army inspection on Jan. 8, 1938. (Public Domain)
Emperor Hirohito (R) during an army inspection on Jan. 8, 1938. (Public Domain)
“I address myself to Your Majesty at this moment in the fervent hope that Your Majesty may, as I am doing, give thought in this definite emergency to ways of dispelling the dark clouds” Roosevelt concluded. “I am confident that both of us, for the sake of the peoples not only of our own great countries but for the sake of humanity in neighboring territories, have a sacred duty to restore traditional amity and prevent further death and destruction in the world.”

But the die had already been cast. A month before Roosevelt sent his appeal, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) was issued Secret Operations No. 1, which ordered the IJN to attack Naval Station Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor would be attacked the day after Roosevelt’s appeal was sent. Congress declared war on Japan the day following the attack.

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Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.