18. Japan Covets the Indies

The awful, swift and devastating blitzkrieg which Nazi Germany unleashed on Poland on September 1, 1939, ushered in a dark period of despair among people of peace all over the world. Everywhere force and aggression succeeded while negotiation and cooperation failed.

While Hitler absorbed his share of Poland, Stalin seized on the temporary cooperation of Germany to improve his strategic position. A secret protocol in the Soviet-German nonaggression treaty placed Finland and the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in the Soviet sphere of influence and gave Russia the right to pursue its interests in Romania's Bessarabia. Stalin required the Baltic states to sign "mutual-assistance pacts" granting the Soviet Union bases and he attacked and defeated Finland after the Finns refused to cede a naval base in southwestern Finland and the Karelian isthmus immediately north of Leningrad.1

In the U.S., President Roosevelt summoned a special session of Congress to put purchases of arms and supplies on a cash-and-carry basis, a device that helped the Allies and hindered Germany, whose merchant ships scurried for safe harbors when war began.2

Roosevelt also endorsed a strong speech by Joseph C. Grew, ambassador to Tokyo, saying Americans were shocked over the bombings of civilians and resented the violent actions of the Japanese army.3 Roosevelt informed the Japanese he would not impose economic sanctions so long as there was possibility of an accord.4 But on December 2 the White House invoked a "moral embargo" against shipping American aircraft to an unnamed country, obviously Japan, guilty of bombing civilians.5

For a long time, Japanese naval leaders had been contemplating the dilemma posed by the United States, which could close off oil exports from the Americas and might forcibly block a move to seize the oil resources of the East Indies.6 The navy's traditional policy was "defend the north, advance in the south."7 Some planners argued that Japan could seize the Indies before the U.S. could move and thereafter could defend them. Others scoffed and said the United States was so strong that in the end it could defeat Japan.8

Nevertheless, expansionist pressure of army and navy leaders increased as the European imperial powers became absorbed in the war with Germany. A new government headed by Yonai Mitsumasa in January, 1940, was unable to counter this pressure.9

Meanwhile, the United States spurned Japan's effort to create a counter government in China. In March, 1940, the turncoat Wang Jingwei established his puppet regime and Secretary of State Cordell Hull responded by granting Chiang Kai-shek's government a 20-million-dollar loan.10

* * * * * * * * * *

The world turned upside down on April 9, 1940, the day German forces invaded Denmark and Norway. The assault immediately aroused fear that Hitler would soon turn on the Low Countries and France. This put the Netherlands East Indies in jeopardy of an attack by Japan.11 The U.S. Navy was at the moment on maneuvers off Hawaii and Roosevelt ordered the fleet to remain at Pearl Harbor on Oahu instead of returning to San Diego. FDR hoped this would prevent the Japanese from moving into the Indies, especially after May 10 when Hitler's panzer divisions smashed into the Low Countries and began the devastating six-weeks campaign, joined by Italy after victory was assured, which shattered France and sent the survivors of the British evacuation at Dunkirk reeling back on the British isles with scarcely any weapons.12

May 10 was a significant day in other respects. Winston S. Churchill, the pugnacious advocate of defense against Germany, replaced Neville Chamberlain as British prime minister, thus promising a far more defiant stand against Nazi tyranny (but not necessarily against Japanese advances).13 The next day Britain and the U.S. announced they stood for the status quo in the East Indies.14

Unknown to the U.S., Japanese leaders had placed the navy on alert and sent a fleet to the Palau islands, Japanese mandates about 600 miles northeast of the Moluccas in the Indies. This move positioned the fleet to attack the Indies. While the fleet was sailing south, navy command elements conducted extensive paper exercises which showed that attacking the Indies would ultimately result in a war with the U.S. and Britain.15 The exercises and a continued fear of Russia halted the military's wild urge to seize the Indies immediately.

The United States didn't know about Japan's flirtation with war because American cryptographers still hadn't succeeded in cracking the major Japanese codes.16 But Roosevelt and the nation got a sudden case of the jitters because of Hitler's successes and Congress became immediately amenable to rapid rearmament.17 On May 10, the war department told FDR the U.S. could field five divisions with 80,000 men, this when Germany had 140 divisions with two million men. Congress, thoroughly alarmed, approved an increase in army strength from 280,000 to 1,200,000 men immediately and further increases thereafter. It ordered army and navy air strength to be raised by 18,000 aircraft and set a production goal of 50,000 airplanes annually. It provided for an unprecedented doubling of naval tonnage. At the time the U.S. Navy had only 1,250,000 tons of warships. Even so, building American strength was going to take time. As the chief of naval operations, Admiral Harold R. Stark, said, "Dollars can't buy yesterday."

In May, 1940, Roosevelt privately approved an army and navy recommendation for the first peacetime conscription act in American history. Roosevelt wanted to move fast to rearm but he also was engineering his own "draft" to be the first president to run for a third term. He therefore acted circumspectly to deflect the views of many Americans who believed he was aiming at dictatorship and seeking to take the U.S. into war.18

On June 10 Roosevelt established the closest thing he could to a "national" government and also got rid of his two most most isolationist cabinet members: Henry Woodring, secretary of war (army and air corps), and Charles Edison, secretary of the navy. He replaced Woodring with Henry L. Stimson, 72 years old, secretary of state in the Republican Herbert Hoover administration (1929-33). He replaced Edison with Frank Knox, like Stimson a friend of the Allies and the Republican vice-presidential candidate in the 1936 campaign.19

* * * * * * * * * *

Hitler's victories in Europe unleashed a chain of momentous consequences. The new order left the Dutch East Indies isolated and with only modest military and naval forces to defend them. It turned France into a near pawn of Nazi Germany but created the illusion of an independent France with a provisional capital at Vichy which ruled unoccupied southern France and France's now almost defenseless colonial empire. It left Britain standing alone in western Europe and north Africa, with the British isles soon to be assaulted by the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain and Italian forces in Libya attempting to capture the Suez canal and break Britain's direct connection with India and the Pacific. It gave the Soviet Union an opportunity to occupy and annex Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and seize Bessarabia and northern Bucovina (generally the region between the Dniester and Prut rivers) from Romania.20 Russia, however, wanted no trouble with Japan and told the Japanese ambassador in Moscow that Soviet aid to China had been suspended. This aid wasn't large, only about 500 tons a month, but its halt was an important symbol of Russia's changing attitude.21

The Soviet indication of peaceful intentions gave Japan encouragement to step southward. The opportunity came with the fall of France. The large French colony of Indochina stretched south from China. It produced significant materials like rice, rubber and iron ore but its most important strategic value was the railroad leading from Haiphong to Kunming which carried almost half of the approximately 31,500 tons of supplies the Nationalist Chinese were receiving each month from outside.22 On June 17, 1940, the French governor-general, Georges Catroux, acquiesced to Japanese requests and closed the Indochinese-China border. He didn't even wait for Japanese threats to act.23

The easy success with France opened the door on Japanese intentions. On June 29 Foreign Minister Arita Hachiro launched Japan's "greater East Asia coprosperity sphere," saying the East Asian countries and "regions of the south seas" were economically, historically, racially and geographically related and the entire region should be united "in a single sphere" with "a stabilizing force," clearly to be Japan.24

France's capitulation in Indochina incited Japanese army leaders to adopt a plan for "a self-sufficient economic sphere" stretching from the Indian ocean to the south seas north of Australia and New Zealand. This empire was to be acquired before the European conflict ended and involve expelling Britain and Holland from the region. At no time then or later did analysts make a careful study of Japan's material ability to carry out the strategy in the event the United States resisted.25

Japanese refusal to look at the enormous disparity between the strength of the empire and that of the United States is the single most inexplicable fact about military and civilian leadership in Tokyo. In 1938, the United States, with two-thirds of its capacity idle, produced 26.4 million tons of steel, while Japan, operating at full capacity, produced 6 million tons. Despite suffering from the severe recession of 1937-8 and with immense portions of its productive capacity idle, the U.S. still produced almost 29 per cent of the entire world's manufacturing output in 1938, while Japan, with nearly every tool and machine working at top speed, produced just 3.8 per cent. The United States possessed almost 42 per cent of the entire world's military productive capacity in 1937, whereas Japan possessed just 3.5 per cent.26

Oddly, Japan in the summer of 1940 probably had its greatest opportunity. If it had struck immediately, Roosevelt might not have been able to rouse the heavily isolationist American people to recover the Indies. The United States was in a desperately unprepared state and the mood that frightful summer was to close the wagons in a circle and protect the western hemisphere. Americans saw Hitler as the danger and few would have been willing to save colonies in Asia, however important. But the Japanese interpreted Roosevelt's movement of the U.S. fleet to Pearl Harbor as a threat, which FDR clearly intended it to be. That and fear of Russia stopped the Japanese.

However, Britain succumbed to Japanese pressure in early July to close the Burma road. Churchill wanted no trouble and sealed off the road for three months. This knocked out 10,000 of the remaining 16,000 tons of supplies China was getting monthly and forced the Nationalists to depend upon uncertain smuggling routes through occupied China carried on with connivance of Japanese officers. These routes were good for delivering luxuries but practically useless for war supplies.27

In mid-July, 1940, the army minister, General Hata Shunroku, told Prime Minister Yonai that the army insisted on the end of political government, complete economic controls to improve Japan's military strength and national dedication to expansion. He resigned, thus forcing the government to fall. The emperor's senior counselors now had almost no other civilian choice for Yonai's successor and chose Prince Konoe Fumimaro. But Konoe allowed senior army generals to pick Hata's successor. They named General Tojo Hideki, a keen soldier but without breadth or feeling who had advocated war against the Soviet Union. Another hardliner against Russia, but also anti-American and pro-Axis, was the American-educated (University of Oregon) new foreign minister, Matsuoka Yosuke, whom Cordell Hull called "crooked as a basket of fishhooks." The navy named as its minister the tractable Oikawa Koshiro, a mild, scholarly admiral who tried to please all.28

* * * * * * * * * *

At a moment when Japan was preoccupied with both the Soviet Union and expansion into the south seas, the Chinese Reds launched in north China their only major offensive operation against the Japanese. This was the "battle of the hundred regiments," begun August 20, 1940. It was motivated somewhat by increasing pressure against Red guerrillas and base areas in the north. But the principal aim was to halt a defeatist mood among the Nationalists which the Reds feared might lead to a negotiated peace.29

The Red campaign shocked and damaged the Japanese occupation forces but did not defeat them. The Japanese response was ferocious. They vastly increased defenses of their communications lines and adopted the notorious "three-all" policy: "kill all, burn all, destroy all." In search-and-destroy missions, the Japanese warred on all Chinese, burning crops, carrying off grain and razing one village after another, killing every living thing they found in them, animals as well as people. The policy aroused intense and permanent loathing for the Japanese.30 For the Reds, damage to Japanese communications was, in the end, not worth the savage reprisals. They reverted to their older methods of sabotage and occasional ambushes, a strategy of "small cuts" rather than heavy blows.31

* * * * * * * * * *

The Japanese success in virtually sealing off China, plus the continued threat to the Indies, brought about a reappraisal of Far East policy in Washington in the summer of 1940.32 Though important members of Roosevelt's cabinet pressed for a total embargo of oil and scrap iron and steel exports, Sumner Welles, undersecretary of state, felt such an action would impel Japan to attack. Therefore, Roosevelt, under authority granted by the newly passed national-defense act, prohibited exports only of aviation fuel and number-one melting steel and scrap iron. This made little difference, for the middle-octane gasoline not included in the ban was adequate for Japanese aircraft. Japan vastly increased its imports of American gasoline during 1940 and early 1941. FDR had no desire to close this middle-octane loophole because he felt it was keeping Japan from moving into the Indies.33

As anxious as the Roosevelt administration was about Japan, the great fear was that Britain would surrender. FDR, therefore, agreed to give Britain fifty "overage" destroyers for convoy and patrol duties in exchange for the 99-year lease of bases on a string of British possessions from Newfoundland to British Guiana (Guyana). It was an incredibly good deal for the U.S. and Churchill agreed to it only because his nation was in desperate straits and because FDR's action was a decidedly unneutral act. The "destroyer deal" made a profound impression in Europe and possibly helped to deter Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator, from joining the Axis.34

Meantime, FDR delayed as long as possible advocating a military draft law for fear of being branded a warmonger. Late in August, however, his Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie, came , out for compulsory military service and Roosevelt immediately pulled out all stops to get the bill through Congress. This broke the congressional logjam and by September 14, 1940, the federal government got power to call up the states' National Guards and induct men aged 21 to 35 for service in the Americas only.

In late September Willkie was well behind Roosevelt in the polls and began a frenzied attack, saying FDR's reelection would mean wooden crosses for the nation's sons. Polls showed Willkie was cutting into Roosevelt's lead. Desperate, FDR said in a Boston speech, "Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars." And in Buffalo FDR promised "this country is not going to war." It was enough: on November 5 Roosevelt got 27 million votes, Willkie 22 million (electoral votes 449 to 82). FDR got a mandate for his opposition to the Axis but not for war.35

* * * * * * * * * *

The Japanese meanwhile were seeking to secure their rear for advance south by a treaty with Russia or a three-party alliance with Germany and Italy. The Kremlin's requirements for a neutrality pact, however, were high. Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, demanded that Japan abandon the modest (55,000 tons in 1939) oil concessions in northern Sakhalin it had acquired in 1925 as a condition of removing troops from Siberia. Molotov said Russia would be willing to supply some oil to Japan for a five-year period.36

But Foreign Minister Matsuoka was about to receive a German special envoy to discuss a tripartite German-Italian-Japanese pact. Matsuoka had a "grand design": signing a tripartite alliance, then working for a four-power entente by adding the Soviet Union, a plan originally embraced by Joachim von Ribbentrop, German foreign secretary. A four-power entente, Matsuoka believed, would force the United States to stay out of Asia, thereby allowing Japan to advance south with an assurance of success.

This set the stage for signing the Axis pact in Berlin on September 27, 1940. The pact bound Germany, Italy and Japan to help each other if attacked by a power not currently involved in the European or the Sino-Japanese war. Its primary purpose was to deter the United States from joining Britain or attacking Japan.37 Despite the fact that he had studied in the U.S., Matsuoka misunderstood American psychology and thought the pact would intimidate the U.S. It did precisely the opposite. It stiffened the U.S. attitude because it proved there was, indeed, a conspiracy to dominate the world.38

Japanese anxiety about an early Soviet attack subsided and army leaders decided to send troops into northern Indochina, ostensibly to to attack Kunming but actually to possess the colony and steer national policies southward. On September 22, 1940, Japanese troops entered the northern part of the colony, against only superficial French opposition.39

The Japanese move into Indochina and the signing of the tripartite pact stimulated Britain to reopen the Burma road on October 18, 1940. Japan made no threatening move.40 Anyway, British spirits were rebounding from the severe depression of the summer. Although the Luftwaffe was battering Britain daily, it had failed to drive the Royal Air Force from the sky. This failure, plus the Royal Navy's instant readiness to pounce on any invasion ships or barges that appeared in the narrow seas, had ended any hope of Hitler to conquer the British isles. As early as September 22 the fear of invasion had subsided so much that Britons could look at the situation with humor. On that date President Roosevelt flashed a report that the invasion was going to take place at 3 p.m. that day. Sir Alexander Cadogan, permanent undersecretary for foreign affairs, responded: FDR "doesn't say whether it's departing Calais at 3 or arriving Dover."41

Chapter 19: The Soviets Decide on Neutrality >>

1. Zebel, pp. 905-06; Gerhard L. Weinberg, "The Nazi-Soviet Pacts: A Half Century Later," Foreign Affairs, Fall 1989, pp. 175-89; Peter Gumbel, "Secret Nazi-Stalin Pact Haunts Gorbachev," Wall Street Journal, p. A10, June 22, 1989. The original pact, signed August 23, 1939, placed Lithuania in Germany's sphere of interest but Joachim von Ribbentrop accepted its transfer to the Soviet sphere on a second visit to Moscow on September 28, 1939. On September 28 the Soviet Union also agreed to shipment of raw materials to Germany through Soviet territory. This was designed to break the British sea blockade.

2. Dallek, pp. 199-201, 209, 212; Road, pp. 40-41; Pratt, p. 636.

3. FRUS, Japan, vol. 2, pp. 19-31; Dallek, p. 236; Pratt, p. 647; Road, p. 42.

4. FRUS, Japan, vol. 2, pp. 190-8; Dallek, p. 237; Road, p. 44.

5. Barnes, chapter 5, "Japanese-American Relations: 1921-1941; the Pacific Back Road to War," by Charles Callan Tansill, p. 295; FRUS, Japan, vol. 2, pp. 202-04; Road, p. 43.

6. This, of course, is quite ironic. For trade was the solution Japan was obliged to choose after World War II and no nation in history has achieved more in building national strength through peaceful trade than Japan has done since 1945.

7. Morley, Choice, "The Navy's Role in the Southern Strategy," by Tsunoda Jun, translated by Robert A. Scalapino, pp. 241-2.

8. Morley, Choice, pp. 263, 273.

9. Road, p. 46.

10. FRUS, Japan, vol. 2, pp. 59-60; Dallek, p. 237; Barnes, p. 296.

11. FRUS, Japan, vol. 2, p. 281; Road, pp. 51-52.

12. Morley, Choice, "Economic Demands on the Dutch East Indies," by Nagaoka Shinjiro, translated by Robert A. Scalapino, p. 131.

13. Churchill, Storm, p. 665.

14. FRUS, Japan, vol. 2, p. 285; Morley, Choice, pp. 131-2; Road, pp. 56-57.

15. Morely, Choice, pp. 241-8.

16. American code-breaking efforts took a short nosedive in 1929 when Henry L. Stimson came in as President Hoover's secretary of state and discovered the existence of the State Department's "Black Chamber" at 22 East Thirty-sixth Street, New York City, under Herbert Yardley. Stimson was a formal person with incredibly high standards for what he believed to be correct behavior. The cryptographic office offended him and he immediately ordered it closed. What Stimson is supposed to have said is part of American mythology: "Gentlemen do not read one another's mail." This quote seems to have developed from several different versions. The navy, however, had been operating a cryptographic office since 1924 (the research desk of the code and signal section under Laurence L. Safford, renamed Op-20-G in December, 1941). And after Stimson's decision at State the army established the signal intelligence service under William Friedman, who had been working with the signal corps since 1921 on developing new codes and ciphers for the army. In 1931 the Japanese introduced a ciphering machine (types no. 91 and no. 91-A, the latter supplied to Japanese foreign offices and known to U.S. cryptographers as the "Red machine"). American code-breakers gradually mastered this machine. But in 1937 the Japanese developed (but did not introduce until February, 1939) an entirely new and more formidable encoder, the J machine, or type no. 97, and named the "Purple machine" by Americans. It was in some ways similar in concept to but not a direct derivative of the Enigma machine developed by the Germans and which the British broke in their "Ultra" program. The Enigma machine encoded by means of a series of rotors that changed the original letter by sending the impulse through points or studs representing other letters on the circumference of the spinning wheels, thus creating an enormous number of variables. Purple also provided a large number of possible variables, but contained no wheels or rotors. The operation was by means of ordinary telephone selectors found in any dial telephone system of the date. Each selector could operate on six levels and each of these levels was twenty-five steps long. However, the Japanese inexplicably divided the alphabet into a twenty sector and a six sector. Whatever six letters they plugged into the machine enciphered only among themselves. This reduced the number of possible variables dramatically and was the Achilles' heel of the machine. By mutual agreement, the army SIS concentrated on breaking Purple and the navy group worked both on Japanese naval codes and diplomatic encoding systems other than Purple. The Japanese used Purple primarily for messages between diplomatic missions and Tokyo. Americans cracked their first Purple message on September 25, 1940, and thereafter the spectacular American system of reading the Japanese diplomatic messages known as "Magic" began in earnest. By Pearl Harbor the navy had not broken the current Japanese naval code (designated JN25 by Americans), but were well on the way. Early in December, 1941, the Japanese navy introduced a new code (JN25b) which required a new start by American cryptanalysts. See Lewin, pp. 24, 27, 32, 34-8, 41-4, 85, 93.

17. Morison, pp. 29-30.

18. Pratt, p. 637; Dallek, pp. 221-4, 245, 248; Morison, p. 30; Pelz, pp. 210-1, 217.

19. Morison, p. 31; Dallek, p. 232.

20. Zebel, p. 912. Stalin's occupation of Bucovina went beyond his agreement with Germany to grant Soviet interests in Bessarabia only. However, Joachim von Ribbentrop had declared to the Russians complete political disinterest in southeast Europe. See Weinberg, Foreign Affairs, Fall 1989, p. 176.

21. Morley, Choice, pp. 39-40, 42, 157.

22. Morely, Choice, "The Army's Move into Northern Indochina," by Hata Ikuhiko (translation by Robert A. Scalapino), p. 157.

23. Ibid., pp. 158-9; Road, pp. 66-68.

24. Road, pp. 64-65, 76-77.

25. Morley, Choice, pp. 241-50, 253-4, 257-62; Pelz, p. 218.

26. These figures are drawn from Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, New York: Random House, 1987, pp. 303, 330-2. The relative position of the United States with the world powers was as follows: 1) Shares of manufacturing output in percentages, 1938, U.S., 28.7; USSR, 17.6; Germany, 13.2; Britain, 9.2; France, 4.5; Japan, 3.8; Italy, 2.9. 2) National income 1937 in billions of dollars: U.S., 68; British empire, 22; France, 10; Germany, 17; Italy, 6; USSR, 19; Japan, 4. 3) Relative war potential in percentages, 1937: U.S., 41.7; Germany, 14.4; USSR, 14; Britain, 10.2; France, 4.2; Japan, 3.5; Italy, 2.5 (90.5 per cent for seven powers, remainder in other countries of the world).

27. Churchill, Finest, pp. 256, 497-8; Morley, Choice, p. 157; Road, pp. 69-71. For a full study of the British reaction to the Burma road crisis, see Lowe, pp. 137-75; Reynolds, pp. 133-5.

28. Morley, Choice, p. 43; Hoyt, pp. 191-2; Borton, pp. 360-4; Dallek, p. 241; Road, pp. 78-83.

29. The narrative on the "hundred regiments" battle is drawn from Kataoka, pp. 200-01, 206, 214-20; Cambridge, vol. 13, chapter 12, "The Chinese Communist Movement durng the Sino-Japanese War 1937-1945," by Lyman Van Slyke, pp. 76-81; Johnson, pp. 55-59, 194-5; Selden, p. 178-9; Lindsay, p. 5.

30. Johnson, p. 59.

31. Ibid., pp. 49-50, 53, 59-61; Lindsay, p. 6.

32. FRUS, Japan, vol. 2, pp. 95-100; FRUS, 1940, pp. 4, 73, 83 et seq.; Dallek, p. 239; Road, pp. 89-91; Morley, Choice, pp. 139-40.

33. Dallek, pp. 239-40; Morely, Choice, pp. 144-5; Road, pp. 73-74, 88-93, 99 footnote, 130-1, 158-9.

34. Churchill, Finest, pp. 24, 401, 406, 408, 521; Dallek, pp. 243-8; Pratt, pp. 637-8; Reynolds, pp. 121-32, 129-30.

35. Dallek, pp. 248-50; Road, pp. 133-4.

36. Morley, Choice, pp. 43-51, 63-64; Borton, p. 359.

37. FRUS, Japan, vol. 2, pp. 164-73; Dallek, p. 241; Pratt, pp. 648-9; Borton, p. 365; Road, pp. 110-21.

38. Road, p. 122; FDR, pp. 245-6.

39. Morley, Choice, pp. 155-208 contains a complete analysis of Japanese moves into northern Indochina, written by Hata Ikuhiko (translated by Robert A. Scalapino). See specifically pp. 138-9, 144, 155-6, 212, 215, 254-5. See also Road, pp. 96-99, 104-06, 130-1.

40. The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan, edited by David Dilks, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1972, p. 329; Churchill, Finest, pp. 497-8; Lowe, pp. 173-5.

41. Cadogan, Diaries, p. 328.