Could the United States Have Avoided a Showdown?

It may be asked: Could the United States have stayed out of war in the Far East by appeasing Japan and abandoning China to enslavement?

Most authorities agree that such a step would merely have postponed the day of reckoning, when our own Pacific territories would have been chosen as the next victims. To back down in 1941 would not only have been dishonorable, it would have been very unsound policy on the part of the United States. We could not have afforded to abandon the long-established principles governing our policy in the Pacific.

For over a century America has occupied a unique position in the Far East. The United States has no territorial ambitions in China. For many years our basic foreign policy has been to safeguard China from aggression. In 1899 and 1900 the United States took the lead in international agreements to observe the “Open Door” (equality of trading rights in China) and to preserve the independence and territorial integrity of China. Both, these principles were reaffirmed by the United States, Japan, and other nations in the Nine Power Pact of 1922.

Uncle Sam stands firm

For many years Japan looked upon Russia as her chief potential enemy. But after 1931 the Japanese began to see in the United States the foremost antagonist to their program of expansion. After Japan’s seizure of Manchuria in 1931 the United States repeatedly protested the violation of international law and of treaties which both nations had signed and ratified.

In our doctrine of nonrecognition, announced by Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson in 1932, we refused to recognize transfers of territory brought about through violation of the Paris Peace Pact or any other international agreement. In 1937, after the outbreak of the undeclared war with China, President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull expressed American disapproval of Japan’s acts of aggression.

These protests would not have caused the militarists much anxiety if we had not backed them with mounting restrictions on the export of war materials to Japan during 1939–41. When the United States terminated its trade treaty with Japan in 1939 and followed this up in 1940 by advising American citizens to leave the Far East, the Japanese realized that we were not bluffing.

In July 1941, President Roosevelt issued an executive order freezing Japanese assets in the United States. This move brought all financial and -commercial transactions in which Japanese interests were involved under the control of our government.

Just before the battle

In April 1941, the Japanese opened negotiations, apparently as a method of stalling for time. The proceedings dragged on for eight months. Even though the prospects of a just and peaceable conclusion appeared slight, the American representatives made every effort to find the basis for such a settlement.

On November 26, 1941, Secretary Hull proposed a program that offered Japan free access to needed raw materials, freer access to world markets, financial cooperation and support, withdrawal of our freezing orders, and an opportunity to negotiate a new trade treaty with us. In return, Japan was to abandon its aggressive policies and practices. These proposals were coldly received by the Japanese. It was clearly evident that nothing could avert a showdown except a change in Japanese policy. Japan would not give up its program of swallowing Asia piecemeal, and the United States would of condone it.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese representatives in Washington presented Secretary Hull with Tokyo’s final answer. It was a document accusing us of “scheming for the extension of the war” and conspiring with Great Britain and other countries against Japan’s efforts to establish peace in Asia. Secretary Hull told the Japanese representatives, “In all my fifty years of public service I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions.”

But the real Japanese answer had been delivered more than an hour earlier at Hickam Field and Pearl Harbor.