Japan Abandoned, 1939

On July 26, 1939, the United States, having repeatedly protested Japanese actions in China, notified the Hiranuma government that it intended not to renew the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Commerce and Navigation, scheduled to lapse in January 1940. Up to that point the Roosevelt administration had pursued a policy of gentle appeasement of Japan, but its basic Asian policy had always been to maintain the imperialist status quo embodied in the Washington treaty system. Thus it had consistently refused to recognize any changes Japan had brought about by force in China. Roosevelt had also propped up China’s national currency by making regular silver purchases–a policy that would eventually lead him to join the British in providing foreign exchange so that Chiang Kai-shek could stabilize his currency, counter the proliferation of Japanese military currencies in occupied areas, and go on fighting. Now, however, anticipating that war would soon break out in Europe, the United States put Japan on notice that serious economic sanctions could follow further acts of aggression. Thereafter, if Japan’s leaders were to continue the war in China, they would have to take more seriously the reactions of the United States, on which they depended for vital imports needed to wage war.

“It would be a great blow to scrap metal and oil,” Hirohito complained to his chief aide-de-camp, Hata Shunroku, on August 5, shortly after the American move:

Even if we can purchase [oil and scrap] for the next six months, we will immediately have difficulties thereafter. Unless we reduce the size of our army and navy by one-third, we won’t make it…. They [his military and naval leaders] should have prepared for something like this a long time ago. It’s unacceptable for them to be making a commotion about it now.”

But of course Hirohito did not enjoin his chiefs of staff to end the China war, or to reduce the size of anything; he simply got angry at them for not having anticipated the American reaction.

A few weeks later, on August 23, 1939, while the Japan-Soviet truce to end the fighting on the Mongolia-Manchukuo border was being negotiated in Moscow, Germany signed a nonaggression pact with its ideological enemy, the Soviet Union–which contravened the 1936 Japan-German Anti-Comintern Pact. After a fruitless three-year quest for “collective security” with the West against Germany territorial expansion in Europe, Stalin had declared Soviet neutrality and, in a secret protocol attached to the pact, made a deal with Hitler to take over the Baltic states and eventually partition Poland. Stunned by this diplomatic reversal, and unsure how to interpret the enormous strengthening of both German and Soviet power that Hitler’s alliance with Stalin portended, the Hiranuma cabinet resigned on the morning of August 28.

SOURCE: Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, by Herbert P. Bix (HarperCollins, 2000), pp. 353-354

The latter half of this book seems much better than the first, probably for two reasons: (1) The documentation is far richer, so Bix doesn’t have to overinterpret thinly sourced material. (2) Parts of it have been published before, so it is likely to have undergone more revision in response to referee comments. The chapter entitled “Prologue to Pearl Harbor” is excellent, but I think I’ll refrain from excerpting it.

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