As Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Kichisaburo Nomora and his companion Saburo Kurusu, another “Peace Envoy” from the Emperor waited in the White House for an early morning meeting with Secretary of State Cordell Hull on December 7th, 1941, they were the only people in that building who did not know that an hour earlier, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii had been bombed by the country they represented. In fact – according to historian Eri Hotta - those somber-faced and dignified statesmen would not learn until en route back to their homeland several weeks later just how they had been “played” by their military leaders in Tokyo in order to insure the full “surprise” nature of the attack cast by President Roosevelt as the “day which will live in infamy”; (Thereby unintentionally giving the U.S. President the rallying call which would bring about the commitment of a reluctant America to “total war”.)
Eri Hotta’s recently released book “JAPAN – 1941” reveals for the first time an intimate and comprehensive backstage look at the combination of ambition, self-delusion, Service rivalries, extreme factionalism between ministries and a profound absence of political courage which led Japan into a war they themselves believed was “unwinnable”. It will come as a surprise to many readers that among Japan’s highest echelons, there had been at least as much opposition to war with the U.S. as there was approval of the idea. For me, the biggest surprise was to learn that even Hideki Tojo – looked upon as the biggest “war monger” among them – had strong doubts, and was firmly against a “surprise” attack. In the process she also focuses the spotlight of history on Washington’s not-insignificant role in missing many opportunities to postpone or even to avoid completely the necessity of fighting two simultaneous wars.
Tokyo-born Historian Eri Hotta does not in any way come across as an “apologist” but in fact portrays the short-sightedness and chaotic, often dysfunctional picture of an Empire spinning out of control in 1941 with an honesty made the more impressive because of her unique credentials.
Among factors not often considered by Allied critics – and obviously overlooked in the intelligence being presented in Washington in 1940-41 – was the immensity of the “Russia Problem” in the eyes of Japanese military and government leaders who had pressed for occupation of northern Manchuria and then the China invasion itself as a protective buffer. It was the fear of creeping communism which made the tri-partite agreement with Germany and Italy at first attractive to Tokyo. Later, with the quagmire which resulted from the China adventure impoverishing the homeland, Japan might have welcomed a chance to get out if presented with a way of “saving face” with their own Kwantung Army in the process.
With an aggressive and expanding military hierarchy pressing a weak Prime Minister (Prince Konoe) at home and America freezing their assets and imposing an embargo against oil and strategic metal shipments, against the background of an economically- pinched civil population, Japan chose to carry out the conquest and occupation of Northern French Indo China (Viet Nam). With a total misreading of U.S. intentions and a miscalculation of the likelihood of a German victory in Europe, the Empire of Japan began to set in motion an increasingly irresistible slide toward war. Aware of a declining capacity to prevail in such a course, the momentum of this slide reached its tipping point with a series of government meetings in Tokyo setting November 26, 1941 as the date negotiations would end and the nation would be committed to war with the U.S..
Ironically, it was Isoroku Yamamoto who more than any other Japanese leader opposed that war who would plan the Pearl Harbor attack, and a reluctant Emperor Hirohito – who was the only one who could have intervened to stop it – who received a “Peace Letter” from President Roosevelt three hours after it was too late to do so.
In the final days of November, 1941 there were a dozen moments when a Pacific war could have been averted if a tiny handful of human beings on both sides had acted differently or more swiftly.
“Japan 1941 – Countdown to Infamy” presents one of the most important and far-reaching insights into the genesis of WWII in the Pacific extant today. (The Japanese flag in the background is an American G.I.’s hard-won memento of WWII campaigns stretching across the Pacific.)
Photo & Flag – Al Cooper