Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Could World War II in Asia Have Been Avoided?

The European theater of World War II seems positively simplistic when compared to the conflict in the Pacific and East Asia. In Europe, the essential reason for the start of hostilities was straightforward; Britain and France had given a war guarantee to Poland, Germany invaded Poland and so Britain and France declared war and “The Great War, Take Two” was underway. However, in Asia, the war had much more complicated origins. The start was simple enough; the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, followed up in quick order by attacks on British, American and Dutch forces or territory throughout Southeast Asia. Thus, whereas even Hitler could claim that he had wanted no trouble with Britain and France but was obliged to go to war as they had attacked him over German actions which did not threaten them in the least (and while not declaring war on the Soviet Union which invaded Poland as well), Japan can not escape being the aggressor. The Allies, at least starting with America, Britain and Holland, had every justification for going to war since, after all, it was the Empire of Japan which had attacked them. And yet, while the war in Europe started abruptly, the war in Asia was merely the expansion of hostilities that had been underway for the better part of a decade. The Empire of Japan was already at war in December of 1941, their attacks simply widened that war to add Britain, America, the Netherlands and eventually many more along with China to their list of enemies.

IJA forces in Manchuria
In Europe, there had been a clear escalation as Nazi Germany expanded. The Rhineland, Austria, the Sudetenland, Hitler had moved to reclaim German-populated areas step by step and the Allies grumbled and grumbled more until finally the line was drawn at Poland. Hitler crossed that line and the war was on. Yet, in Asia, no one seemed to want to draw a line. Where would it be drawn? Japan had occupied Manchuria and while the Allies grumbled, no one was prepared to do anything about it. Chinese and Japanese forces clashed in China, and yet no one did anything about it. Such a thing was rather hard to complain about honestly. Japan had not exactly invaded China in the way Germany invaded Poland, the Japanese troops were already there as were the military forces of many other countries, including Britain and America. Then Japan occupied French Indochina and the Allies became more seriously alarmed, enough to put sanctions on Japan in an effort to coerce the Japanese into doing what they thought best. Yet, while Japan was prepared to use force if necessary, the occupation had been done with the consent of the French government at Vichy, a government which, at the time, was still recognized by the United States as the legal government of France. So, there was the rather bizarre situation of countries which Japan had not molested in any way, placing sanctions on Japan for occupying a French colony with the consent of the French government.

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
In Europe, all American business was with Great Britain rather than Germany and likewise, to a much lesser extent, with China rather than Japan. Roosevelt had a family history and personal ties that prejudiced him to favor the Chinese and while he was no great fan of Britain, there had long been a very powerful Anglophile clique in the American government. After the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Roosevelt became even more determined to do all he could short of war to defeat Germany and Italy. His focus really was more on Europe than Asia while the American public wanted no war with either. His actions made it seem that war with Germany would be the least avoidable. Abandoning neutrality in all but name practically, American warships were actually attacking German warships in the Atlantic on orders from Roosevelt while still claiming America to be neutral. However, Hitler, quite wisely, decided to endure this provocation because the damage incurred on his submarines was miniscule compared to the almost certain defeat he would face if he retaliated and brought the United States into World War II, particularly before Russia was conquered and Britain was still defiant. Thus, oddly enough, FDR’s more overt provocations against Germany did not result in war but his non-violent provocation against Japan did.

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
What makes the whole situation ultimately frustrating was that a clock was ticking away toward the start of a war that the vast majority in both countries did not want to fight, two countries who had no territorial disputes and no conflicting interests of national security. It is horrifically tragic that there were numerous avenues and opportunities to have prevented the outbreak of hostilities which were squandered. Some were realistic and some were not. The Japanese got behind a peace effort made by two intrepid Catholic priests who had missionary experience in China and were convinced that the communists would eventually threaten all of East Asia. They put forward a plan for the USA to effectively just back down and leave Japan alone so that the Japanese could establish a sort of Japanese version of the Monroe Doctrine for East Asia as Japan was the only regional power capable of dealing with the communist threat. Such a notion would never get beyond someone like Hull, nevertheless, the talks did produce a real chance for peace if both sides had been more amenable and ultimately if the United States had simply been more clear.

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
What an opportunity this represented! Today, not many people may be aware just how agreeable the Japanese had, eventually, become to American demands. In the course of their negotiations the Japanese finally agreed to a timetable for the evacuation of their forces from Indochina as well as from China once hostilities were concluded. There was a provision, which should not have been much of an impediment, for Japan to retain a sufficient token force in the north to deal with any communist threat but, on the whole, Japan was prepared to agree to American demands provided the undeclared war with China could have been ended and there was even support in Tokyo for America to broker such a peace. It was a golden opportunity which China would scarcely have had reason to object to and which would have allowed both sides to save face by avoiding having to approach their opposite directly to ask for peace. Such an agreement would have lifted the sanctions against Japan, ended the war in China and still have seen Japan retain her dominant position in northeast Asia. The problem was that this idea came too late with Japan never firmly committing itself and with the USA, particularly Hull, being unwilling to believe Japan was sincere. Yet, it was a possibility, it could have happened.

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.

Wang Jingwei
Finally, and perhaps most tragically, much of the growing tensions between the United States and Japan in the negotiations to avoid the outbreak of war might have been avoided but for a simple misunderstanding. The final word which caused Japan to give up trying to come to terms with the United States was the note given by Hull to the Japanese ambassadors Nomura and Kurusu on November 26, 1941. It demanded that Japan withdraw all military forces from China and Indochina, support no other regime in China save Chiang Kai-shek (in other words, tossing out Wang Jingwei) and to dissolve the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in exchange for which the United States would lift the sanctions, unfreeze Japanese assets, grant a new trade agreement and “Most Favored Nation” trading status with Japan, stabilize the dollar-yen rate as well as other economic concessions. It was the most blunt and harsh proposal America had made to Japan and both Nomura and Kurusu knew as soon as they read it that it would be ’dead on arrival’ in Tokyo. Yet, even that, might not have been the last word but for a misunderstanding.

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
The bottom line is that the war in Asia did not have to happen and were it not for needless mistrust, arrogant pride and simple misunderstanding it could have easily been prevented. Japan clearly made the decision to initiate hostilities but both sides were guilty of helping bring it about. The United States was intervening in things that did not concern American vital interests and was holding Japan to a standard it did not hold other countries to. American officials, particularly Hull, treated the Japanese contemptuously, reacting angrily when Japan was disagreeable and then doubting their sincerity when Japan was agreeable. That U.S. policy ‘boxed in’ Japan and forced the Japanese to choose between war or humiliation is undeniable. Yet, it is also undeniable that the Japanese made taking them at their word difficult as they lacked a coherent policy and a single voice in foreign affairs with so many different factions pursuing different agendas at the same time. Likewise, faced with the prospect of a hopeless war and total ruin, the Japanese militarists could have, at any time, swallowed their pride and withdrawn from an undeclared war in China many did not want to be fighting anyway and could have restored good relations while retaining for the Empire of Japan their mastery of Manchuria, Korea, Taiwan, south Sakhalin, all of the Kuriles and the South Pacific mandate. The war could have been avoided and should have been as it brought nothing but misery and left ruin in its wake for almost everyone involved.

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
One major benefit to the “strike north” policy, however, was that it was a long-term strategy. Advocates of this policy wanted to finish up the war in China, consolidate in Manchuria, build up the industrial and economic strength of Japan and then go to war with Russia when there was a more realistic chance of success. However, the army itself was divided between various factions such as the “Control Faction” and the “Imperial Way Faction”. The more conservative “Control Faction” looked to the cautious, slow, long-term strengthening of Japan whereas the more radical “Imperial Way Faction” wanted effectively a military dictatorship and a more aggressive policy towards Russia. However, the “Imperial Way Faction” met with a series of setbacks, the first being the February 26 Incident, practically an attempted coup, which was defeated and saw a considerable backlash against the “Imperial Way” in 1936. Then, in 1939, the Japanese Sixth Army was defeated by the Russians in the Nomonhan Incident on the Manchu-Mongol border, the same year the Nazi-Soviet Pact went into effect and a nervous Japan quickly agreed to its own non-aggression pact with Stalin. This left the “strike south faction” in a dominant position and that was a course that would inevitably lead to war with the US, France, Holland and the British Empire. Obviously, one may note that all of these discussions and plans were going on long before America and Britain placed any sanctions or other pressure at all on Japan.

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
So, we can see that there were multiple occasions on which the war, as it happened, could have and should have been easily avoided. If communications between Tokyo and the Japanese forces in China had been faster, it might have been avoided. If the Chinese had not escalated the conflict, if the United States had simply minded its own business and likewise if the United States had been truly impartial in the Sino-Japanese conflict, it might have been avoided. Failing that, if the Japanese military had been willing to swallow its pride and withdraw from a war in China that nobody wanted and served only the interests of the communists, it might have been avoided and Japan would have still been master of an extensive empire. It is all the more tragic that it wasn’t avoided because the war in China served no real interest of Japan since the communists were hanging back and letting the nationalists do the fighting and because Japanese actions in northeast China and Manchuria did not impact the vital national interests of America, Britain, France or any other western country. Nor was the Tripartite Pact ultimately very helpful to either Japan on one side or Germany and Italy on the other considering that Japan did not join the war against Soviet Russia, no significant aid or assistance was able to pass between the two sides and considering that the Allies were able to overpower all of them more or less at the same time. The fact that it wasn’t avoided ultimately served only the interests of the communists who emerged larger, stronger and more threatening as a result of the whole sad affair.


  1. Interesting article and saddening since the war could have been avoided. Off topic, I noticed that you haven't dedicated an article on King David himself. Are you ever going to write about him?

    1. I will surely get around to it one of these days. I'm just finishing up a lengthy profile on one very famous monarch I thought I had covered previously but had not.


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