Memorandum by the Secretary of State Regarding a Conversation With the Japanese Ambassador (Nomura), 8 March 1941


[WASHINGTON,] March 8, 1941.

The Japanese Ambassador called at my apartment at the Carlton Hotel by an indirect arrangement based on the equal and joint initiative of himself and myself growing out of his talk with the President in my presence some days ago. I expressed my satisfaction and interest at his coming and he said that he had been watching for an opportunity to talk with me. The idea evidently was that he was seeking to do this without appearing to take the initiative in the conference.

I then said that I was not absolutely certain whether he would come; that at all times most countries have some responsible, fine and capable citizens who are seeking earnestly and patriotically to make their respective contributions to better understanding and other desirable relations between their own and other governments; that in the instant situation I deeply appreciate their purposes and their efforts and have sent word to them to that effect. I have also made it clear that on all official questions and problems between our Governments I can only deal with and through him, the duly authorized Ambassador of Japan, and that much as I appreciate their efforts, this must be the course and attitude of my Government. I made this very definite so that the ambassador could not misunderstand me. I also said to the Ambassador that I had likewise sent word to these good people from his country that I could not confer with them individually relative to these matters pending between our two Governments unless the Ambassador assumed the responsibility and the initiative to that end; that, in other words, everything must come and go through him, the Ambassador of Japan. He merely bowed each time I referred to the matter without saying anything.

Some casual remark then offered the occasion for me to refer to our program of liberal commercial policy and trade agreements and the extreme need for its adoption by all important nations. I reviewed in some detail the course of extreme nationalism during the post?war period and how each nation had sought to live unto itself, blocking the maximum of imports by arbitrary methods of every kind with the result that the sum total of international trade was far below what the annual increase during the past twenty years should have made it; that the processes of distribution and consumption were hopelessly hobbled and handicapped; that as a result world consumption fell at least twenty billions below what it should have legitimately been; that unemployment correspondingly spread in almost every part of the world, with resultant privations, distress and hunger, so that peoples in many countries became a prey to agitators and those seeking dictatorships while the peaceful nations were stagnant and cursed with large dammed up surpluses of their own with nowhere to sell them. I said it was against this movement of what would ultimately be utter disaster that I and others strove for many years in an effort to prevail on important nations to join in a liberal commercial program for vastly increased production and healthy trade in all parts of the world; but that the movement had been just a little too late for us to prevail, especially on Europe, to get in and actively aid in advancing this movement of economic restoration on a sound healthy basis. I said that we were struggling to get forty nations actively and earnestly behind this movement based on equality of treatment and equality of access to raw materials, so that we could then turn to countries like Germany and Italy and let the forty nations assure them that they would be welcome into this program of trade opportunity and trade equality.

I said that, unfortunately, this sound healthy movement was interrupted by military movements and plans and undertakings; that conquest by force accompanied by virtual military rule of conquered peoples, with all of its elements of semi-barbarism, seemed to effectively block for the time being the movement for peaceful commerce and increased consumption and employment throughout most of the world. I said this policy and this movement of my Government are, of course, well known to every government and every statesman in the world; that in our efforts to ward off any pretext for military adventures for purposes of conquest and arbitrary domination of other nations economically, politically or militarily, we for years strove to the utmost not only to advance and secure the acceptance generally of a sound liberal commercial policy and ever-increasing international trade, but along with it the other fundamentals which underlie all other important relations among civilized nations and with which everyone is familiar; that that was our objective and our effort; that these efforts conducted vigorously for many years under this Administration were well known to everybody.

I then said that it would be impossible to describe our surprise and deep disappointment to see a number of nations abandon this peaceful course of understanding and adjustment in accordance with basic rules and laws and policies and move straight in the direction of fastening on the world the opposite and opposing policy of military conquest by force, and, threat of force, and the adoption of methods of government of the conquered peoples that are a reversion to those extremely and unspeakably vicious methods of arbitrary rulers and despots of many centuries ago.

I said, therefore, that I am glad to have the Ambassador come in in the hope that he may have something definite and systematic in mind that would offer a practical approach to and consideration of the course and attitude of his Government with respect to its present course.

The Ambassador expressed much interest in what I said about attempts to organize the world on a liberal commercial basis and indicated his whole?hearted approval. He said that his Government, like others at times, may have made some mistakes, and he added that all of the people in Japan with very few exceptions, which included extremists, were very much averse to getting into war with the United States; that he had talked with them generally and this included most of the military officials, but not all of them; that Prime Minister Konoye is not one of the latter type, and is not desirous of moving on such a course as I had mentioned and criticized, namely a course of military expansion; that Matsuoka is a politician and the Ambassador smiled and said that he sometimes uses big words. The Ambassador said that the talk of Matsuoka and other statesmen in Japan along the lines I complained of was really for home consumption. The Ambassador then said that his Government would be very glad to effect peace arrangements with China and hoped that at no distant date such terms might be developed as would give consideration to their puppet government and would move Chiang Kai-shek to come into the picture and participate in general peaceful arrangements with China, which the Ambassador emphasized as his country's desire, and which should be on the basis of equality to all nations. In response to inquiries as to further details of the proposed Chinese-Japanese peace or the methods of bringing it about, the Ambassador was silent for the present, but indicated that his adviser, Colonel Iwakuro, is on his way here and that he had intimate details of the whole Chinese-Japanese situation.

The Ambassador then said that it would be well-nigh unthinkable for our two countries to fight each other on account of the destructive effects that would inevitably result in any event. I here spoke and said that my country entertained the same idea about the destructive effects of a military clash between our two countries. I then inquired of the Ambassador whether the military groups in control of his Government could possibly expect important nations like the United States to sit absolutely quiet while two or three nations before our very eyes organized naval and military forces and went out and conquered the balance of the earth, including the seven seas and all trade routes and the other four continents. Could they expect countries like mine to continue to remain complacent as that movement is going on? I inquired further what countries like mine would have to gain by remaining complacent in the face of a movement to substitute force and conquest for law and justice and order and fair dealing and equality. The Ambassador sought to play down the view' that such military conquest was really in the mind of his Government and he then said that embargoes by this country were, of course, of increasing concern, and that he did not believe there would be any further military movements unless the policy of increasing embargoes by this country should force his Government, in the minds of those in control, to take further military steps. To this I replied that this is a matter entirely in the hands of his Government for the reason that his Government took the initiative in military expansion and seizures of territory of other countries, thereby creating an increasingly deep concern on the part of my own and other countries as to the full extent of Japanese conquest by force which was contemplated; that my country has not been at fault and none of the nations engaged in conquest have pretended seriously to charge it with any action of omission or commission in relation to the present movement of world conquest by force on the part of some three nations, including Japan. The Ambassador sought here to minimize and mildly to controvert the idea that Japan is engaged in broad unqualified military conquest. I then repeated the terms of the Tripartite Agreement and the public declaration of Hitler and Matsuoka and other high authorities in Japan to the effect that their countries under the Tripartite arrangement were out by military force to establish a new order not for Asia alone, not for Europe alone, but for the world, and a new order under their control. I said that whatever interpretation the Ambassador might give these utterances and military activities in harmony with them thus far, the American people, who were long complacent with respect to dangerous international developments have of late become very thoroughly aroused and awakened to what they regard as a matter of most serious concern in relation to movements by Japan and Germany, presumably to take charge of the seas and the other continents for their own personal arbitrary control and pecuniary profit at the expense of the welfare of all of the peoples, who are victims of such a course and of peaceful nations in general. I said, of course, these apprehensions and this tremendous concern will remain and continue so long as Hitler continues his avowed course of unlimited conquest and tyrannical rule and so long as the Japanese Army and Navy increase their occupation by force of other and distant areas on both land and sea, with no apparent occasion to do so other than that of capture and exclusive use of the territory and other interests of other countries. The Ambassador again sought to allay the idea of military conquest on the part of his country, and I again replied with emphasis that as long as Japanese forces were all over China and Japanese troops and airplanes and naval vessels were as far south as Thailand and Indochina and Saigon, accompanied by such threatening declarations as Japanese statesmen are making week after week, there can only be increasing concern by nations who are vitally interested in international affairs both on land and sea as they are also vitally interested in the halt of world conquest by force and barbaric methods of government.

The Ambassador came back again to the desire of his country for peace with China based on equality to all and the hope that it might combine something of their puppet government with Chiang Kai-shek's government. I pressed the Ambassador to indicate some further definite ideas he might have in mind about the proper steps to take to approach the whole situation. He did not disagree with me when I spoke of the necessity for acts and utterances by Japan, making it clear that in good faith she was not pursuing or intending to pursue a course of expansion and conquest by force such as had been referred to.
I said that I came from the President who sent his regards and laid that he would be only too glad at any time to talk further with the Ambassador just as two old friends would talk, and do so officially and unofficially, or individually at times, if desired by either. I pointed out that such a meeting could be arranged unobtrusively and without publicity, and in a manner permitting the initiative to be shared on a 50-50 basis between him and the President. The Ambassador said he might call on the President the next time; that he would hope to continue these conversations. On two or three occasions I inquired of him whether it was still agreeable to pursue the President's suggestion of talking over and discussing the past relations between our two Governments and the questions that have arisen which call for settlement by mutual agreement. He indicated his favorable disposition in regard to the matter, but not in any specific way as to time or as to officials with whom he might talk.

I referred on one or two occasions to the statement reported to have been made to Mr. Churchill by the Japanese Ambassador in London some days ago to the effect that his Government would not attack Singapore or the Netherlands East Indies, and inquired pointblank what the Ambassador's idea as to this was. In reply to the first inquiry, he was not exceedingly strong in his statement but he did make it fairly definite that he did not believe there would be an attack but added, as heretofore indicated, that if our American embargoes continued to press his Government and the military group in control, they may feel forced to proceed further in a naval or military way. I again said to him that this latter question would not with any consistency or reason arise, in my judgment, because, as already stated to him, the whole responsibility and initiative with respect to military conquest and the departure from laws and treaties and other basic rules of friendly relationship by the Japanese Government rests entirely on that Government.

I again inquired of the Ambassador if he had any further ideas or suggestions which would constitute any plans or purposes for peaceful readjustment additional to that which he had already mentioned in relation to China. The Ambassador did not offer any comment on this except to attempt to convey the impression that later he would give consideration to these further phases.

At an appropriate stage in the conversation I said that the conquest of the world by his country and Germany with the methods of government which were being applied to conquered peoples, all bankrupt, would mean to set not only the world but these very conquering countries back to impossible levels of existence; that the conquering countries themselves would be the losers to an unthinkable extent.

In the course of the conversation I had occasion to remind the Ambassador that few nations were ever on more mutually profitable and genuine friendly relations than our two countries for two generations lasting until about the time of the Coolidge and Hoover Administrations. I said that, speaking in great confidence, when I came to the State Department, one of my greatest ambitions was to work out a mutually satisfactory arrangement with respect to the Quota Limitation Act of 1924, enacted by our Congress, so as to place the whole matter of immigration on an equal or reciprocal basis, which, of course, would have meant that the number of immigrants both ways would be limited, but this basis of equality would settle the feeling that has existed since 1924. He expressed his gratification at this.

I then added that we would get nowhere if the military group should say that they were not expanding in a military way, as they have often said in China, and at the same time go forward with their expansion plans and activities.

The Ambassador also brought up the question about how the doors of trade had been closed against Japan by other countries, including Indochina, and hence the necessity for some steps looking to the comfortable existence of her people. To this I replied by reminding the Ambassador of what I had said at the outset to the effect that during the twenty years of the post-war period under the reign of extreme nationalism in every country alike, all nations had shut their doors to a large extent against each other, that most nations shut their doors against my country as a part of this universal movement of trade and commercial suicide; that, therefore, Japan is not an exception. I then added that it would be an amazing thing to abandon the whole program of economic rehabilitation on peaceful lines and under the principle of equality, to which I have been referring, and turn away to military force and conquest as a substitute.
I inquired whether Matsuoka was going to Berlin and the Ambassador said he did not believe he would go, that he had been invited there at the time of the signing of the Tripartite Pact.

I proceeded to comment on Japan's line of activities and utterances by saying that this country and most other countries only proclaim and practice policies of peaceful international relationships, political, economic, social and cultural. Sometimes the policy to promote these mutually beneficial relationships is proclaimed, such as our good neighbor policy with special reference to Pan America. And yet all of our acts and programs and policies adopted by the twenty?one American nations in their conferences from time to time are made universal in their application, so that Japan and all other nations receive the same equal opportunities for trade and commerce generally throughout the Americas that each of the American nations receives itself. In striking contrast the new order in greater Eastern Asia is unequivocally believed to be purely a program of military aggression and conquest with entirely arbitrary policies of political, economic and military domination. The Ambassador made no definite promise as to what his Government would do in respect to halting its aggression for purpose of discussions. He did not intimate that it could not and would not do this, no more than he intimated or indicated just what its attitude would be towards the Tripartite Agreement in the, future when I definitely brought that phase to his attention in connection with the present and prospective course of the Japanese Government.

During our conversation, I emphasized to the Ambassador that it is the opinion of the President and others of the Administration that the British will beyond any reasonable doubt be able successfully to resist Hitler.

C [ORDELL] H [ULL]


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. 619-626


Return to Vinnie's Home Page

Return to Interwar Period Page