The Ambassador in Japan (Grew) to the Secretary of State, 12 September 1940

[Extract of telegram; Paraphrase]

TOKYO, September 12, 1940-9 p.m.

827. [Received September 12-7 p.m.]

2. The circumstances and the situation which led to the exploratory conversations with the former foreign minister and to the recommendations that steps toward the negotiation of a new commercial treaty with Japan be considered obviously have now passed. It is my earnest hope that there will come a time when I shall feel that I am justified in renewing these relations but with the fall of the Yonai cabinet and the radical alteration of the outlook and policy of the present set-up in Japan it would appear to be futile and unwise that we take any further initiative in proposing measures of Conciliation at the present time.

3. Whatever the intentions of the present Japanese Government may be there cannot be any doubt that the military and other elements in Japan see in the present world situation a "golden opportunity" to carry their dreams of expansion into effect; the German victories, like strong wine, have gone to their heads; they have believed implicitly until recently in Great Britain's defeat; they have argued that the war will probably be ended in a quick German victory and that Japan's position in Greater East Asia should be consolidated while Germany is still agreeable and before Japan might be robbed of her far-flung control in the Far East by the eventual hypothetical strengthening of the German naval power; although carefully watching the attitude of the United States they have discounted effective opposition on our part. It has been and is doubtful that the saner heads in and out of the government will be able to control these elements.

4. However, now a gradual change can be sensed in the outburst of exhilaration which greeted the inception of the new government. It is beginning to be seen by the Japanese Government, the army, the navy, and the public, that Germany may not defeat Great Britain after all, a possibility which I have constantly emphasized in the plainest language to my Japanese contacts and now, in addition to that dawning realization, they see that Britain and the United States are steadily drawing closer together in mutual defense measures with the American support of the British fleet by the transfer of fifty destroyers and with our acquisition of naval bases in British Atlantic possessions. Reports are being heard of our rapid construction of a two-ocean Navy and of our consideration of strengthening our Pacific naval bases and they even hear rumors that we will eventually use Singapore. Japanese consciousness is logically being affected by these rumors and developments. They tend on the one hand to emphasize the potential danger facing Japan from the United States and Great Britain eventually acting together in positive action (Japan has long appreciated the danger of combined Anglo-American measures as evidenced by the efforts to avoid the simultaneous irritation of these, two countries) or from the United States acting alone. They furnish cogent arguments on the other hand for those Japanese elements who seek political and economic security by securing raw material sources and markets entirely within Japanese control. In regard to Germany, it is beginning to be questioned by the Japanese whether even a victorious Germany would not furnish a new hazard to their program of expansion both in China and in their advance to the south. Meanwhile, an uncertain factor in their calculations is always the future attitude and position of Russia. They are beginning to be concerned by these various considerations. High-powered diplomacy, particularly in the Dutch East Indies, will continue. But the fact that the Japanese military forces could be restrained even temporarily by the government from their plans for a headlong invasion of Indochina denotes a degree of caution which I have no doubt was influenced partially at least by the American attitude. Until the world situation, particularly the position of. the United States, becomes clearer the "nibbling policy" appears likely to continue.

5. I have expressed the opinion in previous communications that American-Japanese relations would be set on a downward curve if sanctions were applied by the United States. It is true that measures are now justified by our new program of national preparedness which need not fall within the category of outright sanctions. On the other hand, the probability must be contemplated that drastic embargoes on such important products as oil, of which a super-abundance is known to be possessed by the United States, would be interpreted by the people and government of Japan as actual sanctions and some form of retaliation might and probably would follow. The risks would depend not so much upon the careful calculations of the Japanese Government as upon the uncalculating "do or die" temper of the army and navy should they .impute to the United States the responsibility for the failure of their plans for expansion. It may be that such retaliation would take the form of counter-measures by the government but it would be more likely that it would be some sudden stroke by the navy or army without the prior authorization or knowledge of the government. These dangers constitute an imponderable element which cannot be weighed with assurance at any given moment. However, it would be short sighted to deny their existence or to formulate policy and adopt measures without fully considering these potential risks and determining the wisdom of facing them squarely.

6. In the following observations I am giving careful consideration to both fundamental purposes of my mission, namely the advancement and protection of American interests and the maintenance of good relations between Japan and the United States. Should these two fundamental purposes conflict the preponderant emphasis to be placed on either one is a matter of high policy which is not within my competency. My object is only to set before the Washington administration the outstanding factors in the situation as viewed from the standpoint of this embassy. Since I have set forth carefully the inevitable hazards which a strong policy involves, I now turn respectfully to the hazards involved in .the policy of laissez faire.

7. It is impossible in a discussion of the specific question of relations between the United States and Japan to view that problem in its proper perspective unless it is considered part and parcel of the world problem which presents in brief the following aspects: (a) Britain and America are the leaders of a large world-wide group of English-speaking peoples which stand for a "way of life" which today is being threatened appallingly by Italy, Germany, and Japan . . . . The avowed purpose of these powers is the imposition of their will upon conquered peoples by force of arms. In general, the uses of diplomacy are bankrupt in attempting to deal with such powers. Occasionally diplomacy may retard, but it cannot stem the tide effectively. Only by force or the display of force can these powers be prevented from attaining their objectives. Japan is today one of the predatory powers; having submerged all ethical and moral sense she has become unashamedly and frankly opportunist, at every turn seeking to profit through the weakness of others. American interests in the Pacific are definitely threatened by her policy of southward expansion, which is a thrust at the British Empire in the east: (b) Admittedly America's security has depended in a measure upon the British fleet, which has been in turn and could only have been supported by the British Empire. (c) If the support of the British Empire in this her hour of travail is conceived to be in our interest, and most emphatically do I so conceive it, we must strive by every means to preserve the status quo in the Pacific, at least until the war in Europe has been won or lost. This cannot be done, in my opinion, nor can we further protect our interests properly and adequately merely by the expression of disapproval and carefully keeping a record thereof. Clearly, Japan has been deterred from the taking of greater liberties with American interests only because she respects ,our potential power; equally is it (clear) that she has trampled upon our rights to an extent in exact ratio to the strength of her conviction that the people of the United States would not permit that power to he used. It is possible that once that conviction is shaken the uses of diplomacy may again become accepted. (d) Therefore, if by firmness we can preserve the status quo in the Pacific until and if Great Britain is successful in the European war, a situation will be faced by Japan which will render it impossible for the present opportunist philosophy to keep the upper hand. Then it might be possible at a moment to undertake a readjustment of the whole problem of the Pacific on a frank, fair, and equitable basis which will be to the lasting benefit of both Japan and America. Until there is in Japan a complete regeneration of thought, a show of force, coupled with the determination that it will be used if necessary, alone can effectively contribute to such an outcome and to our own future security.

8. . . . I believe that in the present outlook and situation we have come to the time when the continuance of restraint and patience by the United States may and will probably lead to developments which will make progressively precarious relations between the United States and Japan. I hope that if the people and the Government of Japan can be led to believe that they are overplaying their hand, eventually there will come about a reverse swing of the pendulum in which it will be possible to reconstruct good relations between the United States and Japan. I consider the alternative to be hopeless . . . .


Source: U.S., Department of State, Publication 1983, Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931-1941 (Washington, D.C.: U.S., Government Printing Office, 1943), pp. 569-71

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