The United States and Japan Before World War II
How Diplomacy Cascaded Into War
By Steve Jones, About.com Guide
U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull with Japanese Ambassador Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura (left) and Special Envoy Saburo Kurusu on December 7, 1941.
Photo Courtesy jacar.go
On December 7, 1941, nearly 90 years of American-Japanese diplomatic relations spiraled into World War II in the Pacific. That diplomatic collapse is the story of how the foreign policies of the two nations forced each other into war.
U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry
opened American trade relations with Japan in 1854. President Theodore Roosevelt brokered a 1905 peace treaty in the Russo-Japanese War
that was favorable to Japan, and the two had signed a Commerce and Navigation Treaty in 1911. Japan had also sided with the U.S., Great Britain, and France during World War I.
During that time, Japan also embarked on an empire that it modeled greatly after the British Empire. Japan made no secret that it wanted economic control of the Asia-Pacific region.
By 1931, however, U.S.-Japanese relations had soured. Japan's civilian government, unable to cope with the strains of the global Great Depression, had given way to a militarist government. The new regime was prepared to strengthen Japan by forcibly annexing areas in the Asia-Pacific, and it started with China.
Japan Attacks China
Also in 1931, the Japanese army launched attacks on Manchuria, quickly subduing it. Japan announced that it had annexed Manchuria and renamed it "Manchukuo."
The U.S. refused to diplomatically acknowledge the addition of Manchuria to Japan, and Secretary of State Henry Stimson said as much in the so-called "Stimson Doctrine." That response, however, was only diplomatic. The U.S. threatened no military or economic retaliation.
In truth, the United States did not want to disrupt its lucrative trade with Japan. In addition to a variety of consumer goods, the U.S. supplied resource-poor Japan with most of its scrap iron and steel. Most importantly, it sold Japan 80% of its oil.
In a series of naval treaties in the 1920s, the United States and Great Britain had endeavored to limit the size of Japan's naval fleet. However, they had made no attempt to cut off Japan's supply of oil. When Japan renewed aggression against China, it did so with American oil.
In 1937, Japan began a full-blown war with China, attacking near Peking (now Beijing) and Nanking. Japanese troops killed not only Chinese soldiers, but women and children as well. The so-called "Rape of Nanking" shocked Americans with its disregard of human rights.
In 1935 and 1936, the United States Congress had passed Neutrality Acts to prohibit the U.S. from selling goods to countries at war. The acts were ostensibly to protect the U.S. from falling into another war like World War I. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the acts, although he did not like them because they prohibited the U.S. from helping allies in need.
Still, the acts were not active unless Roosevelt invoked them, which he did not do in the case of Japan and China. He favored China in the crisis, and by not invoking the 1936 act he could still shuttle aid to the Chinese.
Not until 1939, however, did the United States begin to directly challenge continued Japanese aggression in China. That year the U.S. announced it was pulling out of the 1911 Treaty of Commerce and Navigation with Japan, signalling a coming end to trade with the empire. Japan continued its campaign through China, and in 1940 Roosevelt declared a partial embargo of U.S. shipments of oil, gasoline, and metals to Japan.
That move forced Japan to consider drastic options. It had no intention of ceasing its imperial conquests, and it was poised to move into French Indochina. With a total American resource embargo likely, Japanese militarists began looking at the oil fields of the Dutch East Indies as possible replacements for American oil. That presented a military challenge, though, because the American-controlled Philippines and the American Pacific Fleet -- based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, -- were between Japan and the Dutch possessions.
In July 1941, the United States completely embargoed resources to Japan, and it froze all Japanese assets in American entities. The American policies forced Japan to the wall. With the approval of Japanese Emperor Hirohito, the Japanese navy began planning to attack Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, and other bases in the Pacific in early December to open the route to the Dutch East Indies.
Ultimatum: The Hull Note
The Japanese kept diplomatic lines open with the United States on the off-chance they could negotiate and end to the embargo. Any hope of that vanished on November 26, 1941, when U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull handed Japanese ambassadors in Washington D.C. what has come to be known as the "Hull Note."
The note said that the only way for the U.S. to remove the resource embargo was for Japan to:
- Remove all troops from China.
- Remove all troops from Indochina.
- End the alliance it had signed with Germany and Italy the previous year.
Japan could not accept the conditions. By the time Hull delivered his note to the Japanese diplomats, imperial armadas were already sailing for Hawaii and the Philippines. World War II in the Pacific was only days away.
Germany's Object Lesson to the United States
( Originally Published 1918 )
DURING the first two years of the war many Americans, especially those in the West, observed the great events which were happening with great interest, no doubt, but with a feeling of detachment. The war was a long way off. The Atlantic Ocean separated Europe from America, and it seemed almost absurd to think that the Great War could ever affect us.
In the year 1916, however, two events happened which seemed to bring the war to our door. The first was the arrival at Baltimore, on July 9th, of the Deutschland, a German submarine of great size, built entirely for commercial purposes, and the second was the appearance, on the 7th of October, of a German war submarine in the harbor at Newport, Rhode Island, and its exploit on the following day when it sunk a number of British and neutral vessels just outside the three-mile line on the Atlantic coast.
The performances of these two vessels were equally suggestive, but the popular feeling with regard to what they had done was very divergent. The voyage of the Deutschland roused the widest admiration but the action of the U-53 stirred up the deepest indignation. Yet the voyages of each showed with equal clearness that, however much America might consider herself separated from the Great War, the new scientific invention, the submarine, had annihilated space, and America, too, was now but a neighbor of the nations at war.
The voyage of the Deutschland was a romance in itself. It was commanded by Captain Paul Koenig, a German officer of the old school. He had been captain of the Schleswig of the North German Lloyd, and of other big liners. When the power of the British fleet drove German commerce from the seas, he had found himself without a job, and, as he phrased it, "was drifting about the country like a derelict." One day, in September, 1915, he was asked to Meet Herr Alfred Lohmann, an agent of the North German Lloyd Line, and surprised by an offer to navigate a submarine cargo ship from Germany to America. Captain Koenig, who seems to have been in every way an admirable personage, at Once consented. He has told us the story of his trip in his interesting book called "The Voyage of the Deutschland."
The Deutschland itself was three hundred feet long, thirty; feet wide, and carried one thousand tons of cargo and a crew of twety nine men. It cost a half a million dollars, but paid for itself in the first trip. According to Captain Koenig the voyage on the whole seems to have been most enjoyable. He understood lus boat well and had watched its construction. Before setting out on his voyage he carefully trained his crew, and experimented with the Deutschland until he was thoroughly familiar with all its peculiarities. The cargo was composed of dye stuffs, and the ship was well supplied with provisions and comforts. In his description of the trip he lays most emphasis upon the discomfort resulting from heavy weather and from storms. He was able to avoid all danger from hostile ships by the very simple process of diving. No English ship approached him closely as he was always able to see them from a distance, usually observing their course by means of their smoke.
One of his liveliest adventures, however, occurred when attempting to submerge suddenly during a heavy sea on the appearance of a destroyer. The destroyer apparently never observed the Deutschland, but in the endeavor to dive quickly the submarine practically stood on its head, and dived down into the mud, where it found itself held fast. Captain Koenig however was equal to the emergency, and by balancing and trimming the tanks he finally restored the center of gravity and re-leased his boat.
A considerable portion of his trip was passed upon the surface as he only submerged when there was suspicion of danger. According to his story his men kept always in the highest spirits. They had plenty of music, and doubtless appreciated the extraordinary nature of their Voyage.
An amusing incident during the trip was the attempt to camouflage his ship by a frame work, made of canvas and so constructed as to give the outline of a steamer. One day a hostile steamer appeared in the distance and Captain Koenig proceeded to test his disguise. After great difficulties, especially in connection with the production of smoke, he finally had the whole construction fairly at work. The steamer, which had been peacefully going
its way, on seeing the new ship suddenly changed her course and steered directly toward the Deutschland. It evidently took the Deutschland for some kind of a wreck and was hurrying to give it assistance. Captain Koenig at once pulled off his super-structure and revealed himself as a submarine, and the strange vessel veered about and hurried off as fast as it could.
On the arrival of the Deutschland in America Captain Koenig and his crew found their difficulties over. All arrangements had been made by representatives of the North German Lloyd for their safety and comfort. As they ran up Chesapeake Bay they were greeted by the whistles of the neutral steamers that they passed. The moving-picture companies immortalized the crew and they were treated with the utmost hospitality.
The Allied governments protested that the Deutschland was really a war vessel and on the 12th of July a commission of three American naval officers was sent down from Washing-ton to make an investigation. The investigation showed the Deutschland was absolutely unarmed and the American Government decided not to interfere.
The position of the Allies was that a submarine, even though without guns or torpedoes, was practically a vessel of war from its very nature, and for it to pretend to be a merchant vessel was as if some great German man-of-war should dismount its guns and pass them over to some tender and then undertake to visit an American port. They argued that if the submarine would come out from harbor it might be easily fitted with detachable torpedo tubes, and become as dangerous as any U-boat. Even without arms it might easily sink an unarmed merchant vessel by ramming. But the United States was not convinced, and American citizens rather admired the genial captain.
His return was almost as uneventful as his voyage out. At the very beginning he had trouble in not being able to rise after an experimental dive. This misadventure was caused by a plug of mud which had stopped up the opening of the manometer. But the difficulty was overcome, and he was able to pass under water between the British ships which were on the lookout. His return home was a triumph. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered along the banks of the Weser, filled with the greatest enthusiasm. Poems were written in his honor and his; appearance was everywhere greeted with enthusiastic applause. The Germans felt sure that through the Deutschland and similar boats they had broken the British blockade.
Captain Koenig made a second voyage, landing at New London, Connecticut, on November 1st, where he took on a cargo of rubber, nickel and other valuable commodities. On November 16th, in attempting to get away to sea, he met with a collision with the tug T. A. Scott, Jr., and had to return to New London for repairs. He concluded his voyage, however, without difficulty. In spite of his success the Germans did not make any very great attempt to develop a fleet of submarine cargo boats. It was commonly reported that at least one sister vessel was either captured by the British or was lost at sea, and in the latter years of the war the gradual entrance of America into the conflict of course prevented any further developments of this form of trade.
The other German act which brought home to Americans the possibilities of the submarine, the visit of the U-53, was a very different sort of matter. U-53 was a German submarine of the largest type.'' On October 7, 1916, it made a sudden appearance at Newport, and its captain, Lieutenant-Captain Hans Rose, was entertained as if he were a welcome guest. He sent a letter to! the German Ambassador at Washington and received visitors in his beautiful boat. The U-53 was a war submarine, two hundred and thirteen feet long, with two deck guns and , four torpedo tubes. It had been engaged in the war against Allied comcoerce in the Mediterranean. Captain Rose paid formal visits to Rear-Admiral Austin Knight, Commander of the United States Second Naval District, stationed at Newport, and Rear-Admiral Albert Gleaves, Commander of the American destroyer flotilla at that place, and then set out secretly to his destination.
On the next day the news came in that the U-53 had sunk five merchant vessels. These were the Strathdene, which was torpedoed; the West Point, a British freighter, also torpedoed; the Stephan, a passenger liner between New York and Halifax, which the submarine attempted to sink by opening its sea valves but was finally torpedoed; the Blommersdijk, a Dutch freighter, and the Christian Knudsen, a Norwegian boat. The American steamer Kansan was also stopped, but allowed to proceed. When the submarine began its work wireless signals soon told what was happening, and Admiral Knight, with the New-port destroyer flotilla, hurried to the rescue. These destroyers picked up two hundred and sixteen men and acted with such promptness that not a single life was lost.
The action of the U-53 produced intense excitement in America. The newspapers were filled with editorial denunciation, and the people were roused to indignation. The American Government apparently took the ground that the Germans were acting according to law and according to their promise to America. They had given warning in each case and al-lowed the crews of the vessels which they sunk to take to their boats. This was believed to be a fulfilment of their pledge "not to sink merchant vessels without warning and without saving human lives, unless the ship attempts to escape or offers resistance."
The general feeling, however, of American public opinion, was that it was a brutal act. In the ease of the Stephano there were ninety-four passengers. These, together with the crew, were placed adrift in boats at eight o'clock in the evening, in a rough sea sixty miles away from the nearest land. If the American destroyer fleet had not rushed to the rescue it is extremely likely that a great many of these boats would never have reached land. The German Government did not save these human lives. It was the American navy which did that. But, technicalities aside, the pride of the American people was wounded. They could not tolerate a situation in which American men-of-war should stand idly by and watch a submarine in a leisurely manner sink ships engaged in American trade whose passengers and crews contained many American citizens.
It was another one of those foolish things that Germans were constantly doing, which gave them no appreciable military advantage, but stirred up against them the sentiment of the world. The Germans perhaps were anxious to show the power of the submarines, and to give America an object lesson in that power. They wished to make plain that they could destroy overseas trade, and that if the United States should endeavor to send troops across the water they would be able to sink those troops.
The Germans probably never seriously contemplated a blockade of the American coast. The U-58 returned to its base and the danger was ended. American commerce went peace-fully on, and the net result of the German audacity was in the increase of bitterness in the popular feeling toward the German methods.