6. The U.S. Stops the March to War

With the German menace supposedly eliminated by victory in the Great War, American leaders turned suspiciously toward the emerging threat of Japan. They kept part of the American troop contingent in Vladivostok, Siberia, until April, 1920, as a counter to the Japanese troops in eastern Siberia and the northern (Russian) half of Sakhalin island.1 They also announced the U.S. Navy was moving its battle fleet to the Pacific and would remain there.2 Congress renewed a 1916 program to build ten battleships and six battle cruisers. This program had been diverted during the war to concentrate on light vessels that could locate and destroy German undersea-boats.

In January, 1921, Americans became angry when a Japanese sentry shot and killed an American naval lieutenant in Vladivostok. Although Japan apologized, reports came back that Japanese soldiers on several occasions had threatened American naval personnel in the city.3

It became increasingly clear that Japan intended to use the chaotic conditions in Russia brought on by the 1917 revolution and the civil war to remain in Siberia. In May, 1921, the U.S. protested the continued Japanese presence in Siberia but it had no effect.4

Books and articles in the United States charged that Japan was a menace and that the U.S. might be forced to fight.5 John V.A. MacMurray, chief of the State Department's Far Eastern division, called for "restoring the equilibrium in the Far East which has been so dangerously upset by Japan's process of aggrandizement."6 Voices began to be raised in Congress to authorize a second five-year ship-construction program similar to the 1916 plan. If both were completed, the U.S. Navy would possess a fleet equal to the existing strength of all other navies in the world combined.

There were two reasons for American anxiety. One was that Japan had embarked on a major naval construction program of its own. The other was that Japan-Britain alliance was up for renewal in 1921. If continued, the treaty could require Britain to side with Japan in case of war with the U.S. And the Royal Navy, though worn, remained the most formidable fleet on earth.7

However, there were major counterforces moving against an uncontrolled naval construction race. Britain, after its immense losses of men and treasure in the war, was not equal to an all-out naval race. In the spring of 1921, therefore, the British Admiralty announced it would accept naval parity with the United States. Also, at the British imperial conference in June, 1921, Canada convinced the delegates to oppose renewal of the Anglo-Japanese treaty for fear of conflict with the U.S. In the U.S. Congress, meanwhile, objections began to be raised over the immense cost of the naval construction program. Also, many Americans were searching to prevent future wars through general disarmament of all powers.8

The American secretary of state, Charles Evans Hughes (1862-1948), in the Washington conference of 1921-22, produced a series of diplomatic triumphs that stopped the naval race, cooled the war fever, caused Japan to back off in its attempt to gain hegemony in East Asia and gained back for China some of its territory and much of its dignity. Hughes was a consummate politican, an excellent diplomat and a shrewd negotiator. Republican Hughes had almost beaten Woodrow Wilson in the presidential election of 1916 after he resigned as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court to run. Judged by how he handled the Washington conference, he would have made a superb American president.

Secretary Hughes started his Pacific campaign in June, 1921, but against Britain. He told the British ambassador he felt American and British aims in the Far East involving the open door and the territorial integrity of China were identical and not antagonistic to Japan. He finessed the ambassador into suggesting that the three nations might come to an agreement, implying a graceful way for Britain to get out of its alliance. Hughes then put the squeeze on London by announcing that Congress was going to debate recognition of Ireland as a republic. Ireland had been in intermittent revolt since 1916 and Whitehall did not want to arouse Congress in support of Irish independence. Hughes said he didn't think the recognition resolution would pass but, in the debate, "any relation between Great Britain and Japan could be seized upon by the enemies of Great Britain as indicating an attitude of disregard of what were believed to be the interests of this country."9

That and Canada's opposition did the trick. The British foreign office suggested that President Warren G. Harding call a conference on Far Eastern questions and naval limitation. On July 11, Harding invited Japan, France and Italy, along with the U.S. and Britain, to a conference in Washington. Harding also sent invitations to China, Portugal and the Netherlands, as states with interests in the Far East. Significantly, the Soviet Union was not invited, a measure of its outcast status, whereas little Belgium, with no possessions in the Far East, was readily admitted at its own request.

Hughes ignored Japan's conditions that the conference avoid questions concerning Sino-Japanese relations.10 If Tokyo now refused to attend, it would appear to be opposed to peace. As important, Tokyo didn't want the major powers to meet and perhaps agree to policies that might limit Japan's actions. Faced with these choices, Japan decided to attend and hope for the best.

Only a week before the Washington conference opened, a government railway employee assassinated the Japanese premier, Hara Kei. This political murder came after two years of agitation and strikes by newly organized labor unions seeking improved working conditions. Hara had brutally suppressed the labor unrest, though the workers asked only for ordinary rights enjoyed by workers in other industrial countries, including a minimum wage and the right to strike.11

The domestic unrest only strengthened the resolve of Japan's ruling elite, the military and the moneyed interests, to force conformity at home and to continue the nation's expansive foreign policy. However, in the public arena Japan could scarcely appear to be aggressive and Hara's successor, Takahashi Korekiyo, the finance minister, felt compelled to present a cooperative face.

The conference lasted from November 11, 1921, into early February, 1922, and resulted in seven treaties and twelve resolutions.12 The results thwarted Japan at every point. Japan found itself obliged to give Shandong back to China, agree to withdraw from Siberia, recognize the independence and territorial integrity of China, give up its alliance with Britain and accept in its stead a toothless four-power treaty (Britain, U.S., France, Japan). At least as important, Japan accepted a naval treaty which stopped the arms race abruptly, yet gave Japan only 60 per cent as many tons of capital ships (battleships and battle cruisers) and aircraft carriers as either Britain or the United States.13

The principal reason why Japan accepted these astonishing provisions was because Secretary of State Hughes made a preemptive strike at the first session of the conference. He dramatically proposed the elimination of all capital-ship building programs, scrapping of a large number of older ships and setting the capital-ship ratio between the U.S, Britain and Japan at 5:5:3. The proposal caught Japan off-guard and immediately won the enthusiasm of peace-loving people everywhere, including Japan. In a world fearful of another war, Hughes offered a positive program that was manifestly fair: Japan, with only its home waters to protect, would be authorizied a navy roughly two-thirds that of Britain, with a world-wide empire to guarantee, and the United States, with two oceans to defend.

Credit also must be given to the the Japanese foreign minister, Shidehara Kijuro (1872-1951), chief delegate. Although he drew much hostility from ultranationalists at home, Shidehara believed that Japan's interests lay in trade, not conquest. He supported conciliation with both China and the Soviet Union.14 His attitude reinforced world public opinion which Hughes brought to bear upon Japan and forced the hardliners to back down.15 Japan tried to raise the ratio to 10:10:7, but Hughes and the British chief delegate, Arthur James Balfour, president of the British privy council, held firm. Japan had no possible reason for such a huge navy except aggression and accepted the ratio after the U.S. and Britain agreed to establish no air or naval bases closer to Japan than Singapore or Hawaii. The powers signed the alliance on February 6, 1922. It was to remain in effect until December 31, 1936.

Part of the reason for Hughes's success was that the American cryptographer Herbert Yardley, located in the ultrasecret "Black Chamber" at 22 East Thirty-sixth Street, New York City, had broken the Japanese diplomatic codes. On November 28, 1921, Yardley's group intercepted a radio signal from Tokyo to its negotiators to avoid any clash over arms limitation. Hughes, holding this trump card, was able to stare down the Japanese delegates and insist on the 5:5:3 ratio.16

Hughes's substitution of the four-power pact in place of the Anglo-Japanese alliance was a great coup. It eliminated Japan's twenty-year alliance with Britain for a mere agreement to consult with signers if they or any outside power got into a controversy.17 However, facing American and substantial British dominion objection to the Anglo-Japanese pact, the four-power pact was the best Japan could get.

In regard to China, Japan had always publicly claimed that it supported the independence and territorial integrity of China, despite its actual disregard for both. Therefore, Japan could not stand aside when Hughes maneuvered a treaty which embodied the major policies the United States had advocated and was designed to be, in Hughes's words, "a substitute for all prior statements and agreements" concerning China. The treaty condemned spheres of influence and called upon the signatories to "respect the sovereignty, the independence and the territorial and administrative integrity of China" and to maintain "the principle of equal opportunity for the commerce and industry of all nations." The other eight countries were willing to sign and Japan, to avoid being an outcast, also signed. This was the nine-power treaty, also solemnized February 6, 1922.18 Despite the seeming strength of the nine-power treaty, however, it remained, as historian A. Whitney Griswold described it, "a self-denying ordinance rather than a collective-security pact. The only sanction behind it was the good faith of its signatories."19

With both the Chinese and Japanese delegations present in Washington, Hughes saw an opportunity to force Japan into a discussion on the Shandong issue. Hughes got the support of Balfour and they offered their good offices to bring together Japan and China. Again caught in a position where they could scarcely refuse to talk, the Japanese agreed. The U.S. and Britain appointed observers to monitor the talks and they added pressure. Nevertheless, the Japanese argued for weeks before capitulating after seeing that international acceptance of their position in Shandong had been hopelessly eroded by world opposition and by Hughes's maneuver. They agreed to give Shandong back, with only one major face-saving proviso: that China pay Japan for the value of the Qingdao-Jinan railway built by Germany.

At this point, the Chinese balked out of pride and anger and were on the point of breaking up the agreement. Hughes responded that China might never get a better opportunity and that the railway issue was of trivial importance compared to the advantages of evicting Japan.20 This brought China in line and Japan abrogated its rights in Shandong, except for the railway and for equal rights in provincial iron and coal mines. Japan also abandoned formally the group-five portion of the twenty-one demands of 1915.21

Hughes used the Washington conference to force Japan to deny publicly it had any ambitions on parts of eastern Siberia. Although Hughes supported the Harding administration in refusing to recognize the Soviet government, he didn't want Japan to carve out an empire in Siberia. Japan did not fix a date for withdrawal of its troops but did renounce all claims.22 Japan took its troops out of eastern Siberia in October, 1922, but kept them in northern Sakhalin until 1925.23

The agreements at the Washington conference marked the strongest and most effective achievements ever attained by the United States in East Asia. Part of the reason was the temper of the times: the world was weary of war and people everywhere, including some inside Japan, sought ways of living in peace. However, much of the credit must go to Hughes. He saw the opportunities and he seized them.24

Japanese newspaper accounts assailed a "hateful and haughty America" for forcing upon Japan "a peace without liberty, a slavish peace." Liberal opinion in Japan, however, supported the results and some agreed with Baron Shidehara in wanting to substitute economic expansion in place of a bigger empire.25 However, Hugh Borton, a great scholar of modern Japan, said that the 1920s "reflected the conflict of diametrically opposed forces which was so typical of modern Japan. They also stand out clearly in retrospect as portents of an unquenchable aggressive nationalism which was to sweep everything before it."26

No era of good feeling came out of the Washington conference in part because of restrictive policies that surfaced in the United States. People on the west coast for years had feared the "yellow peril" of Oriental immigration. One factor was pure racial prejudice. Another was economic: Japanese, Chinese and Koreans worked hard for little money and this brought on fears that jobs would be lost by "native Americans." In February, 1924, a strong movement emerged in Congress to prohibit further Oriental immigrants. Hughes told congressional leaders this would undo much the conference gains. But Congress paid no attention and in April, 1924, excluded Oriental immigration.27 The decision deeply offended the Japanese people, who now referred to America's "white imperialism." It encouraged the military's view that Japan in the future must go to war with the United States. Thereafter, Japanese were constantly reminded of American prejudice.

In Japan the military leadership and ruling oligarchy allowed no lessening of the conformity demanded at home and the expansion planned abroad. When the diet in 1925 finally passed a universal suffrage law for all men over age 25, the government coupled the grant with a law giving police full powers to crack down on any "dangerous thought." The provisions were broad enough for the police to arrest practically anyone on suspicion of anything. When the government reduced the army by four divisions, it assigned the officers to a new compulsory military training program. This increased the military character of the country and provided an arena to teach young people ultranationalism and the need for an expanded empire.28

Chapter 7: Uneasy Allies: Reds and Nationalists >>

1. FRUS, 1920, pp. 481-526, provides the diplomatic correspondence relating to the occupation of eastern Siberia.

2. Pratt, pp. 545-553.

3. FRUS, 1921, vol. 2, pp. 354-62.

4. FRUS, 1921, vol. 2, pp. 701-20; FRUS, 1922, vol. 1, pp. 363-73.

5. Dulles, p. 151.

6. Iriye, p. 14.

7. Ibid., p. 15.

8. Borton, pp. 301-04.

9. FRUS, 1921, vol. 2, 313-9.

10. Borton, pp. 301-02; Dulles, p. 154.

11. Borton, pp. 298-304.

12. The complete record of the conference is in FRUS, 1922, vol. 1, pp. 1-384. Details of the Japanese-Chinese agreement regarding Shandong occurs on pp. 934-70 and the exchanges concerning the transfer of the German and Austrian concessions at Tianjin and Hankow (Wuhan) back to Chinese control on pp. 970-73.

13. FRUS, 1922, vol. 1, pp. 247-66. Capital ships could not exceed 533,400 metric tons for either the United States nor Britain, 320,040 for Japan or 177,800 for either France or Italy. No capital ship could displace more than 35,560 metric tons or carry guns larger than 16-inch caliber. Britain and the U.S. each could have aircraft carriers totaling 137,160 metric tons, Japan 82,296 metric tons and France and Italy each 60,960 metric tons. No aircraft carrier could displace more than 27,432 metric tons. However, the U.S. received an exception to convert two battle cruisers already under construction into two aircraft carriers of not more than 33,528 metric tons each. These became the Lexington and the Saratoga, two famous carriers in World War II. The treaty put no limit on the number of cruisers, destroyers, submarines or other auxiliary craft that any signatory power could put into service, except that no cruiser or other auxiliary warship could exceed 10,160 metric tons nor carry guns larger than 8-inch caliber.

14. Shidehara, however, possessed a typical Japanese set of beliefs that placed Japan in a special position vis-à-vis other nations. He was at heart an expansionist. For example, he believed Japan should have access to expanding its markets in China, its products should have a favorable tax status and it should have special economic advantages in Manchuria. See Morton, pp. 51-53; Ienaga, p. 10.

15. Borton, pp. 304, 311-2; Cambridge, vol. 13, chapter 2, "China's International Relations 1911-1931," by Shinkichi Eto, professor of international relations, Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo, p. 112.

16. Lewin, p. 20-22.

17. Pratt, pp. 551-2; Iriye, pp. 16-18.

18. FRUS, 1922, vol. 1, pp. 271-87; Iriye, pp. 18-19.

19. Griswold, p. 311.

20. FRUS, 1922, vol. 1, pp. 943, 945; Iriye, pp. 19-20.

21. FRUS, 1922, vol. 1, p. 358. Britain also agreed to give up its rights to Weihaiwei on the north coast of Shandong. These rights already had fallen into disuse but the gesture was sincere.

22. FRUS, 1922, vol. 1, p. 371.

23. Borton, pp. 304, 311.

24. Iriye, pp. 20-21, 33-34.

25. Dulles, pp. 156-7.

26. Borton, p. 298.

27. Borton, pp. 306-07; Iriye, pp. 35-37.

28. Borton, pp. 309-10.