19. The Soviets Decide on Neutrality

The tripartite pact and Japan's move into northern Indochina angered several members of Roosevelt's cabinet and they demanded "some straight acting which will show Japan that we mean business and that we are not in the least afraid of her." They wanted a full oil embargo and other gestures.1

FDR refused but embargoed all grades of iron and scrap going to Japan. This move reduced Japan's steel-making capacity and forced Japan to depend upon iron ore borne by ships coming mostly from Manchuria, Korea and China.2 Japan promptly ordered Ambassador Horinouchi Kensuke home and didn't replace him until February, 1941.3

* * * * * * * * * *

Meanwhile, the Japanese Foreign Minister Matsuoka was seeking a settlement with the Soviet Union to protect Japan's rear as it drove into the Indies.4 But he offered Moscow few concessions and Foreign Minister V.M. Molotov was noncommital because he was about to go to Berlin on November 12 to discuss a four-power entente and "delimitation of spheres of influence" with Ribbentrop. Joseph Stalin and Molotov knew that everything, including an agreement with Japan, hung on this meeting.

Although Ribbentrop outlined a remarkable proposal for Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union to divide up Eurasia and Africa, the plan had an air of unreality about it from the beginning. Hitler had devoted large portions of his book, Mein Kampf, to describing his hatred of Communists and his desire to eradicate them. And Stalin had not succumbed to any notions of German-Soviet brotherhood as a result of the 1939 nonaggression pact. On November 26, the Kremlin gave its formal response to Germany's offer. The key Soviet demand was a litmus test of German sincerity: Russia was to have a base in Bulgaria to secure its control of the Dardanelles. This would place Romania under Soviet threat and Romania's Ploesti oil fields were a matter of life or death for Germany. This was wholly unacceptable to Hitler and he abandoned the idea of a four-power alliance and reached his final decision to attack the Soviet Union.

Adolf Hitler, of course, did not tell his Japanese allies he'd decided on war. However, Stalin began to make plans in preparation, although still hoping Hitler would not strike. These included distancing Russia from Japan and growing closer to Britain and the United States, the Soviet Union's only possible friends remaining. Consequently, Molotov refused Japan's self-serving proposal for a nonaggression pact and said the Soviet Union would be willing only to sign a neutrality treaty.5

* * * * * * * * * *

All fall Chiang Kai-shek had been clamoring for supplies, aircraft and a joint alliance of the U.S., Britain and China against Japan.6 Roosevelt rebuffed any talk of an alliance. But he became enthusiastic about a plan advanced by T.V. Soong, Chiang's representative in the U.S., and Claire Chennault, a former U.S. fighter pilot, now retired and working for China, to bomb Japan from Chinese bases using American bombers and pilots hired by China. Henry Stimson and army Chief of Staff George Marshall thought the idea "half-baked." London didn't like the idea of diverting bombers bound for Britain to China. Churchill, however, reluctantly did agree in late December, 1940, to divert a hundred obsolescent P-40B American fighter planes to China to help defend the Burma road against possible Japanese air attacks. This was not the grandiose air offensive against Japanese cities that Soong and Chennault were pressing for but Roosevelt didn't dare to cross General Marshall on military strategy. Roosevelt also approved the secret resignation of American military pilots to sign up as Chinese mercenaries to fly the fighter planes. As a consequence, Chennault got started on his "Flying Tigers" and freighters began transporting the P-40s to Rangoon in Burma. But it was late July, 1941, before the first American volunteers arrived in Burma.7

In early January, 1941, the shaky and much-violated united front of Chinese Communists and Nationalists suffered a devastating blow that virtually ended direct contacts between Nationalists and Communists. The precipitating factor was the "New Fourth Army incident." On January 4, 1941, Nationalist troops surrounded about 9,000 Chinese Red soldiers of the Fourth Army, which had been operating south of the Yangzi river. During the next few days at Maolin, about a hundred air miles southwest of Nanjing, the KMT forces killed most of the Communist soldiers, though suffering heavy casualties themselves.

The massacre ended any chance the Chinese Communists had of establishing a solid base south of the Yangzi. It also demonstrated something that the Nationalists were in mortal conflict with the Communists, despite their united front. After the incident, the Communist capital at Yan'an began to claim the trappings of an independent state.8

* * * * * * * * * *

In the U.S. Franklin Roosevelt came to the conclusion that the United States would be in grave danger if Britain went down and everything short of war had to be done to aid British defense. This resulted in his invention in mid-December, 1940, of the idea of lend-lease.9

Roosevelt's concept of lend-lease was an ingenious means of bypassing the neutrality act and the Johnson act which forbade American credit to countries which hadn't paid their World War I debts. Roosevelt made an analogy with a person who lends a neighbor a garden hose "to put out a fire that might otherwise spread to one's own house." Actually the plan was a way to give assistance to Britain and China without raising the issue of debt. The lend-lease bill went to Congress on January 10, 1941, and became law in March.10

By January, 1941, Roosevelt was so certain the U.S. ultimately had to go to war that he authorized secret discussions in Washington (code-named ABC-1) from late January until March 27, 1941, by high American and British military staff officers. The purpose was to work out a joint American-British strategy. The agreement specified that the U.S., if war came, would exert its principal effort in the European theater, trying to avoid war in the Pacific. If this proved impossible, Pacific operations would be conducted so as "to facilitate" the war against Germany and Italy. The British were naturally delighted but Americans initiated the idea. They recognized that, however damaging Japan could be, the empire's potential for overrunning the world was small compared to that of Germany and the industrial power of Europe it controlled.11

* * * * * * * * * *

Meanwhile, Japanee Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, who opposed war with the United States, came to the conclusion that Japanese military leaders were bent on war. He decided Japan's only hope was to destroy the U.S. fleet at the outset and then offer generous peace terms. Yamamoto conceived the idea of a preemptive strike, using a large number of aircraft carriers, against the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. His proposal was wildly radical in a navy that (like the American and British navies) still thought the battleship was king.12 Nevertheless, word of his plan leaked out because the U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Grew radioed Washington on January 27, 1941, one of the most prescient, if unknowing, messages ever dispatched. Grew said he had heard "that a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was planned by the Japanese military forces, in case of 'trouble' between Japan and the United States." Grew himself thought the idea fantastic.13

Meanwhile the new Japanese ambassador to Washington, Admiral Nomura Kichisaburo, arrived February 14, 1941, and quickly disabused Hull and FDR of any hopes for a settlement with Japan. However, to keep Japan from attacking as long as possible, FDR and Hull decided to undertake discussions, though they got nowhere.14

Foreign Minister Matsuoka had finally become aware of worsening German-Soviet relations.15 Thus, when he visited Moscow and Berlin in March and April, 1941, he realized his dream of a four-power entente was hopeless.16 However his last talk with Ribbentrop was on April 5, the day before the Germans invaded Yugoslavia and Greece. Matsuoka realized occupation of the Balkans would alarm Russia greatly and this would make the Kremlin more interested in agreement with Japan.

Back in Moscow, Matsuoka and Molotov signed on April 13 a neutrality pact for five years, renewable if not abrogated at the end of the fourth year. It provided that if either nation got into a war with any other power the other signer would maintain neutrality. After a banquet, Stalin appeared at the railway station to see Matsuoka off. It was an unprecedented gesture which showed how happy Stalin was with the prospect of avoiding a war on two fronts, provided, of course, Japan abided by the pact.

The treaty did not achieve Japan's primary aim: coercing the United States. Rather, the treaty proved to Cordell Hull and FDR that Japan was contemplating more firmly a march to the south and thus increased the conviction that Japan had to be stopped.

Chapter 20: The Descent to Pearl Harbor >>

1 Dallek, p. 242; Churchill, Finest, pp. 497-8; Road, pp. 107-09.

2. FRUS, Japan, vol. 2, pp. 222-38; Road, pp. 107-09, 129, 157.

3. FRUS, Japan, vol. 1, p. vi; vol. 2, pp. 114-6, 387.

4. The narrative concerning Japan's efforts at a nonaggression pact and the German-Soviet discussions about a four-power pact are drawn from Morley, Choice, "The Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact," by Hosoya Chihiro (translation by Peter A. Berton), pp. 54-64, and Road, pp. 145-9, 180-7.

5. Morely, Choice, pp. 65-67.

6. Dallek, p. 270.

7. A complete critical study of Chennault's efforts in China is contained in Duane Schultz, The Maverick War: Chennault and the Flying Tigers, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987. Chennault's own report is Claire Lee Chennault, Way of a Fighter, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1949. For a shorter chronology of the origin of the Flying Tigers, see Romanus & Sutherland, Mission, pp. 10-12, 17-20; Schaller, pp. 68-77.

8. Kataoka, pp. 220-8; Cambridge, vol. 13, chapter 12, "The Chinese Communist Movement during the Sino-Japanese War 1937-1945," by Lyman Van Slyke, professor of history, Stanford University, pp. 659-68; White, pp. 69, 74-77.

9. Dallek, pp. 254-8; Pratt, pp. 638-9.

10. Dallek, pp. 254-8; Pratt, p. 638-9. For an analysis of early lend-lease aid to China and the problems with the Chinese over it, see Romanus & Sutherland, Mission, pp. 13-17, 23-32. The lend-lease act didn't pass Congress easily. A number of isolationist members feared Roosevelt could use lend-lease to take the U.S. into war. They feared FDR could place his own construction on lend-lease once enacted into law. He did. At a White House press correspondents meeting on March 15, 1941, he said: "This decision is the end of any attempts at appeasement in our land...the end of compromise with tyranny and the forces of oppression." Road, pp. 153-4. To take charge of expediting lend-lease to China, FDR named one of his aides, Laughlin Currie, who visited Chongqing in February and March, 1941. See Schaller, pp. 47-51, 54-55, 78-82; Davies, pp. 211-2.

11. Morison, pp. 33-34; Churchill, Alliance, pp. 137-8; Road, pp. 165-9; Pratt, p. 639; Reynolds, pp. 182-5; FRUS, Washington and Casablanca, pp. 16, 145, 210-7.

12. Road, p. 191; Hoyt, p. 206.

13. FRUS, Japan, vol. 2, p. 133.

14. FRUS, Japan, vol. 2, pp. 328-32, 389-96; Pratt, p. 650-1.

15. Zebel, pp. 918-21.

16. The narrative of Matsuoka's visit to the Soviet Union and Germany is drawn from Morely, Choice, pp. 70-85; Churchill, Alliance, pp. 182-95; FRUS, Japan, vol. 2, pp. 143-5; Road, p. 185.