|IJA forces in Manchuria|
When war did break out, while Japan was certainly the aggressor, no one can honestly say that they became so completely out of the blue. For American President Roosevelt to call the attack on Pearl Harbor “unprovoked”, as he did, was totally untrue. The United States, followed by Great Britain and the Netherlands, did plenty to provoke Japan to action. For the British and Dutch, joining in the American sanctions on Japan was practically a necessity as they desperately needed American goodwill and American support in their war against Germany with the Germans having conquered and occupied the Netherlands and the Germans bombing Britain relentlessly while maintaining a tightening counter-blockade against Britain with their submarine fleet. Where we begin to see how avoidable or unavoidable the war in Asia was is in the response of the Roosevelt administration to two regimes they did not like, Germany and Japan, but lacked the support of the American people in actively going to war against. The United States was neutral from 1939 to December 8, 1941 but the USA was far from impartial. In fact, American “neutrality” approached the level of farce.
|German U-Boat in the Atlantic|
After the Japanese occupied French Indochina (Laos, Cambodia & Vietnam) the United States froze all Japanese assets, banned Japanese shipping from the Panama Canal and put an embargo on vital resources to Japan. America was Japan’s primary source of these materials and when America persuaded Britain and Holland (ruler of the Dutch East Indies -now Indonesia) to do the same, it backed Japan into a corner. From that moment, Japan was fighting against time, growing weaker every day and so was forced to either give in to American demands or go to war while they still had the strength to do so. The radical militarists were, of course, in favor of war and (rightly) wanted it to come as soon as possible. However, most leaders in Tokyo were intelligent enough to realize that a war with America would be as near to totally impossible to win as one could get. So, there were feverish negotiations to try to restore friendly relations with the United States but those Japanese pushing for peace were met with two formidable obstacles; the radicals of their own country whose pride was such that they fought backing down on anything and the person of U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull who displayed a consistently bigoted attitude toward the Japanese and who was perfectly happy to delay any resolution as long as possible while American forces grew stronger and Japan grew weaker.
|Cordell Hull -one of the guilty parties|
The Roosevelt administration wanted the Japanese out of Indochina and out of China plain and simple. Obviously, Japan could have simply abandoned their undeclared war in China, withdrawn to their own territory and would likely still be the top regional power of East Asia to this day. The militarists would never let that happen but there was still an avenue to peace as most Japanese leaders did not really want to be fighting the Chinese nationalists anyway. They had been drawn into the conflict since the Marco Polo Bridge Incident and were too proud to back down afterwards. They already had a dominant position to begin with and there was nothing that Japan really wanted or needed from Chiang Kai-shek other than peace. The problem was that the militarists stubbornly insisted that the Chinese be the ones to back down and come to them for peace rather than the reverse. The undeclared war was a quagmire for Japan. Victory after victory had been won and yet, nearly a decade after it began, Japan was no closer to success, again, partly because Japan had no goal in mind other than Chiang Kai-shek suing for peace. Such a peace should have been possible, especially after the sanctions on Japan made Tokyo more desperate for some way out of their perilous situation. Things were so serious and the prospects of war were so gloomy that, ultimately, Japanese leaders did agree to the idea of the United States being called upon to negotiate an end to the hostilities in China.
|China, Manchuria, Japan Co-Prosperity|
There was only one real impediment to this “on the ground” as it were and that was the “Reorganized National Government” of the Republic of China led by Wang Jingwei. This was the regime established in 1940 under the sponsorship of Japan and which was quickly recognized by the Empire of Japan as the “legitimate” government of China after they decided that it was hopeless trying to deal with Chiang Kai-shek. This was a major political blunder on the part of Japan as it made it all but impossible to ever come to a negotiated peace with Chiang Kai-shek who, naturally, was not about to ever give such a regime any recognition at all. However, once it was done and Japan had recognized it, the Japanese did not want to back down and disavow it. Subsequent peace talks then involved Japan demanding that a prerequisite of peace with Chiang Kai-shek was his accepting some sort of power-sharing government with Wang Jingwei which he would never agree to as Wang Jingwei had immediately assumed a status equivalent to Benedict Arnold in the United States or Vidkun Quisling in Norway, in other words, the perfect traitor. If Japan had been prepared to abandon Wang Jingwei, an untrustworthy fellow in any event, it would have made peace much more possible.
All the Japanese who read the note assumed that by ordering all Japanese forces to withdraw from “China” that Hull was referring to Manchuria as well which would have left the Empire of Manchukuo easy prey for Chiang Kai-shek. It was a natural assumption given that the United States had objected to the restoration of the Manchurian monarchy and had never recognized the client empire. It was the one point that infuriated the Japanese the most. The tragic thing is that even Hull had never intended to go that far, he never intended “China” to include Manchuria which he had earlier implied at the very least was not a major concern to the United States. Only many years after the war did the associates of General Hideki Tojo (Prime Minister of Japan in 1941) learn of this. One said that if they had known that the United States would have recognized Manchukuo that the Hull proposal would have been accepted. The others would not go that far but agreed that it would have made a significant difference, perhaps leading to a different proposal that would have been agreed to or brought about a change in government that would have prevented the attack on Pearl Harbor and thus the outbreak of hostilities. If the United States had been clear on this point, the war as it happened could well have been avoided.
|The march to war|
Whether the different courses of action detailed above would have prevented further warfare entirely is a debatable point. All depended on the actions of Japan and it was almost impossible for Japan to have a clear foreign policy given that the military could bring down any government by withholding their support and the military was divided into numerous factions, each advocating a different vision for the empire. The navy, for example, tended to favor the “strike south” policy which would have inevitably led to world war (as happened) as it called for expansion into Southeast Asia and the conquest of British, French & Dutch colonies by Japan. The army tended to favor the “strike north” policy of focusing on the threat of Soviet Russia and looked to expand control or at least dominant influence over Mongolia and parts of Siberia. If this policy had been chosen, while the Allied democracies may have grumbled, it is hard to imagine any of them taking action in defense of Stalin and the Soviet Union.
|26 February flag|
Because of all of this, we can see that some sort of conflict would have been harder to avoid than the actual war that did break out at the end of 1941. The conflict that happened then was clearly avoidable and had the United States been more clear and even-handed, it could have been. If the militarists in Japan had put the long-term interests of their country ahead of their own pride, that certainly would have helped too. However, the prospect of some future clash of arms would have been more difficult to avoid and that due almost entirely to the aggressive and anti-western sentiment in Japan that fueled antagonism with the other major powers as did Japanese adherence to the Tripartite Pact with Hitler and Mussolini. There was a slogan, then widespread in Japan, that could be translated as “don’t miss the bus”, meaning the opportunity for military expansion caused by the fact that all of the focus of the great powers was on Nazi Germany and Hitler’s conquests in Europe. In light of subsequent events, everyone should be able to agree that Japan and the rest of the countries involved in the war in East Asia would have been much the better off if that bus had been allowed to speed on down the road.
|Tripartite Pact personified|