Memorandum [91] Regarding a Conversation Between the Secretary of State, the Japanese Ambassador (Nomura), and Mr. Kurusu, 1 December 1941


[WASHINGTON,] December 1, 1941.

The Japanese Ambassador and Mr. Kurusu called at their request at the Department. Mr. Kurusu said that he noted that the President was returning to Washington in advance of his schedule and inquired what the reason for this was. The Secretary indicated that one of the factors in the present situation was the loud talk of the Japanese Prime Minister. The Secretary added that the Prime Minister seemed to be in need of advice which would deter him from indulging in such talk at a time when the Ambassador was here talking about good relations. The Secretary then asked the Japanese how they felt about the general trend in the world situation, especially the situation in Libya and Russia. The Japanese Ambassador replied to the effect that their attention had been largely engrossed in the situation as between the United States and Japan. The Secretary observed that from our point of view we felt much interest in and were very much encouraged about the news from Libya and Russia and it looked as if we might be turning the corner into a more favorable situation.

The Ambassador and Mr. Kurusu endeavored to convince the Secretary that in this country we seem to take a more serious view of the Japanese Prime Minister's utterances than was, warranted. Mr. Kurusu said that what the Prime Minister had done was nothing more than a ten?minute broadcast. The Secretary pointed out that a broadcast was all the more effective. Mr. Kurusu said that the Prime Minister had been misquoted and asked whether we had heard anything from Ambassador Grew. The Secretary replied that we had heard nothing from Ambassador Grew and that we felt that the Associated Press was reliable and that we should give credence to its reports of what the Prime Minister said. Mr. Kurusu said that Japanese news services did not always correctly translate statements into English.

The Secretary said that he had been talking peace for nine months with the Japanese Ambassador, both of them acting in entire good faith. He said that during all the time that Matsuoka was holding forth on the Tripartite Alliance and engaging in general bluster, the Secretary had ignored all of that. Then while the talks were in progress last July the Japanese moved suddenly into Indochina without any advance notice to this Government, and possibly the Ambassador was not informed of the Japanese Government's intention in advance. Then, too, the Secretary said, the Japanese press had been conducting a blustering campaign against the United States. The Secretary said that this Government had no idea of trying to bluff Japan and he saw no occasion for Japan's trying to bluff us, and he emphasized that there is a limit beyond which we cannot go further and that one of these days we may reach a point when we cannot keep on as we are.

Mr. Kurusu said that the Japanese Government had been very much surprised at the reaction in this country to the Prime Minister's statements and he would see to it that the Secretary was given a correct translation of the Prime Minister's statements. He said he hoped we would get something from Ambassador Grew. He then said that he was pleased to inform the Secretary that the document we had given them on November 26 had been communicated to the Japanese Government, that the Japanese Government is giving the case study, and that within a few days the Japanese Government's observation thereon would be communicated to us. He then said that the Japanese Government believed that the proposal which they submitted to us on November 20 was equitable and that full consideration had been given therein to the points of view taken by both sides in the conversations; that the Japanese Government finds it difficult to understand the position taken by the Government of the United States; and that the proposal which we had communicated to them seemed to fail to take cognizance of the actual conditions in the Far East. He said that his Government directed him to inquire what was the ultimate aim of the United States in the conversations and to request this Government to make "deep reflection of this matter". Mr. Kurusu said that the Japanese offer to withdraw its troops from southern Indochina still stands; that Japan has shown its extreme desire to promote a peaceful settlement.

The Secretary replied that we had to take into account the bellicose utterances emanating from Tokyo and that never would there be possible any peaceful arrangements if such arrangements have to be based upon principles of force. He pointed out that the methods the Japanese are using in China are similar to those which are being adopted by Hitler to subjugate Europe. The Secretary said that he had called attention to that during the progress of our conversations and that we cannot lose sight of the movement by Hitler to seize one-half of the world. He said that we believe that the Japanese militarists are moving in a similar direction to seize the other half of the earth, and that this Government cannot yield to anything of that kind. He explained that this is why we desire to work things out in a way that would promote peace, stability and prosperity and that this is why he has thus far made no complaint, notwithstanding the fact that the Japanese press has heaped filthy abuse on this country.

The Ambassador expressed the view that as a matter of fact there is not much difference between Japan's idea of a co-prosperity sphere and Pan-Americanism, except that Japanese methods may be more primitive. He denied that it was Japan's purpose to use force. The Secretary asked whether, when the Japanese Government was moving on the territory of other countries, inch by inch by force, the Ambassador, thought that this was a part of our policy. The Ambassador replied that Japan was motivated by self?defense in the same way as Britain had been motivated by her acts, for example, in Syria; that Japan needed rice and other materials at a time when she was being shut off by the United States and other countries and she had no alternative but to endeavor to obtain access to these materials.

The Secretary observed that the Japanese are saying that the United States has no right to interfere with what Japan is doing in eastern Asia; that when the Japanese keep their troops in Indochina this constitutes a menace to the South Sea area, irrespective of where in Indochina the troops are stationed; that the stationing of these troops in Indochina is making it necessary for. the United States and its friends to keep large numbers of armed forces immobilized in east Asia, and in this way Japan's acts were having the effect of aiding Hitler. The Secretary reminded the Ambassador that he had made it clear to the Ambassador that we could not sit still while such developments were taking place.

The Ambassador commented that today war is being conducted, through the agency of economic weapons, that Japan was being squeezed, and that Japan must expand to obtain raw materials. The Secretary pointed out that we were selling Japan oil until Japan suddenly moved into Indochina; that he could not defend such a situation indefinitely; and that the United States would give Japan all she wanted in the way of materials if Japan's military leaders would only show that Japan intended to pursue a peaceful course. The Secretary emphasized that we do not propose to go into partnership with Japan's military leaders; that he has not heard one whisper of peace from the Japanese military, only bluster and blood-curdling threats. The Secretary added that he had been subjected to very severe criticism for his policy of patience but that he would not mind if only the Japanese Government could back him up.

The Secretary went on to enumerate various points in the Japanese proposal of November 20. He reminded the Ambassador that on November 22 he had promptly told the Ambassador that we could not sell oil to the Japanese Navy, although we might be prepared to consider the release of some oil for civilian purposes. He made it clear that this Government was anxious to help settle the China affair if the Japanese could reach a settlement in accordance with the basic principles which we had discussed in our conversations, and that under such circumstances we would be glad to offer our good offices. The Secretary went on to say that under. existing circumstances, when Japan was tied in with the Tripartite Pact, Japan might just as well ask us to cease aiding Britain as to cease aiding China. He emphasized again that we can't overlook Japan's digging herself into Indochina, the effect of which is to create an increasing menace to America and her friends; that we can't continue to take chances on the situation; and that we will not allow ourselves to be kicked out of the Pacific. The Secretary called attention to reports that we have received from the press and other sources of heavy Japanese troop movements into Indochina and endeavored to make it clear that, when a large Japanese army is anywhere in Indochina, we have to give that situation all the more attention when Japanese statesmen say that they will drive us out of east Asia. He pointed out that we cannot be sure what the Japanese military leaders are likely to do, that we do not know where the Japanese Army intends to land its forces, and that for this reason we cannot sit still but will have to puzzle these things out in some way.

The Secretary explained that this situation had been very painful to him and he did not know whether the Ambassador could do anything in the matter of influencing the Japanese Government. Mr. Kurusu said that he felt it was a shame that nothing should come out of the efforts which the conversations of several months had represented. He said he felt that the two sides had once been near an agreement except for two or three points, but that our latest proposals seem to carry the two sides further away than before:

The Secretary pointed out that every time we get started in the direction of progress the Japanese military does something to overturn us. The Secretary expressed grave doubts whether we could now get ahead in view of all the threats that had been made. He pointed out that the acts of the Japanese militarists had effectively tied the hands of the Ambassadors and he did not know whether the Ambassadors could succeed in having anything accomplished toward untying their hands. Mr. Kurusu brought up again his contention made on previous occasions that China had taken advantage of the Washington Conference treaties to flaunt Japan, and commented that if we don't look out China will sell both the United States and Japan down the river. The Secretary observed that h$ has been plowing through various contradictions in Japanese acts and utterances. He pointed out that the Japanese had been telling us that if something quick is not done something awful was about to happen; that they kept urging upon the Secretary the danger of delay, and kept pressing the Secretary to do something. He said that in view of all the confusion, threats and pressure, he had been brought to the stage where he felt that something must be done to clear the foggy atmosphere; that his conclusion was that he must bring us back to fundamentals; and that these fundamentals were embodied in the proposal which we had offered the Japanese on November 26. He said that we have stood from the first on the points involved in this proposal. He pointed out that everything that Japan was doing and saying was in precisely the opposite direction from the course we have been talking about in our conversations, and that these should be reversed by his government before we can further seriously talk peace.

Mr. Kurusu endeavored to make some lame apology for the direct military mind of the Japanese Army and commented that General Tojo was in position to control the situation. The Secretary asked what possibility there was of peace?minded people coming out in Japan and expressing themselves. He expressed doubt whether anybody in Japan would be free to speak unless he preached conquest. The Ambassador commented that the Japanese people are not talking about conquest. The Secretary pointed out that we all understand what are the implications of such terms as "controlling influence", "new order in east Asia", and "co-prosperity sphere". The Secretary observed that Hitler was using similar terms as synonyms for purposes of conquest. The Secretary went on to say that there was no reason for conflict between the United States and Japan, that there was no real clash of interests. He added that Japan does not have to use a sword to gain for herself a seat at the head of the table. He pointed out that equality of opportunity is in our opinion the key to the future peace and prosperity of all nations.

Mr. Kurusu disclaimed on the part of Japan any similarity between Japan's purposes and Hitler's purposes. The Ambassador pointed out that wars never settle anything and that war in the Pacific would be a tragedy, but he added that the Japanese people believe that the United States wants to keep Japan fighting with China and to keep Japan strangled. He said that the Japanese people feel that they are faced with the alternative of surrendering to the United States or of fighting. The Ambassador said that he was still trying to save the situation. The Secretary said that he has practically exhausted himself here, that he American people are going to assume that there is real danger to this country in the situation, and that there is nothing he can do to prevent it.

The Ambassadors said that they understood the Secretary's position in the light of his statements and they would report the matter to the Japanese Government with a view to seeing what could be done.


[91] Prepared by Joseph W. Ballantine.

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. 816-21


Return to Vinnie's Home Page

Return to Interwar Period Page