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The Road to War between the U.S. and Japan was Paved by Irreconcilable Worldviews

Anniversaries are not easy for the historian.  Defining moments in history are typically commemorated in solemnity or regaled in celebration, both of which rely principally on emotional investment.  For the historian, however, anniversaries are moments to reflect more critically on complex questions such as causation, consequence, and context.  The seventy-year anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor—a watershed event that precipitated a slow-moving slaughter across the Pacific, culminating in the hell-fires of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—reminds us of these humbling challenges.

A central question surrounding Pearl Harbor is whether the U.S.-Japan collision was preventable.  In particular, did the eleventh-hour diplomatic negotiations that occurred in 1941 offer a viable chance to reconcile differences?  In the years since the end of the war, a number of historians have maintained that a window of opportunity did in fact exist as late as the summer and fall of 1941 and that war therefore was avoidable.  In this narrative, war ultimately came because the Roosevelt administration was too uncompromising and wrongly assumed that Japan posed a threat to American national security.  One scholar even claims that the American position was “extreme” and that Secretary of State Cordell Hull “should have sought a way for Japan and the United States to peacefully coexist with their differences.”  Other historians avoid blame-laden ascriptions but nonetheless locate critical junctures and missed opportunities in the months before Pearl Harbor.  [1]

The scholarly focus on individual actors (FDR, Hull) or official lobbying efforts (Ambassador Nomura Kichisaburō upon leaders in Tokyo) has its merits, but these microscopic views often fail to account for the larger historical context.  For what is most conspicuous about the protracted negotiations between the United States and Japan in 1941 is how they make plain the profound geopolitical and ideological disconnect between the two adversaries—a divide that had progressively widened after the Second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937 and even more so after the formation of the Tripartite Pact in 1940.  Essentially, compromise on either side would have required not just accepting “differences,” but altering fundamental worldviews.  It would have required undoing the underlying Weltanschauung that drove Japan to send 27 divisions to subjugate China, join hands with Nazi Germany, and occupy Indochina—all of which compelled the United States to counter with economic sanctions.  Because of this impossible undoing, by the summer of 1941, Japan and America headed irrevocably toward war.

Many scholars have presented the “road to Pearl Harbor” and the viability of “missed opportunities” by portraying Japan’s body politic as having been meaningfully divided between “moderates” and “militarists.”  Implicit in this alleged dichotomy is the assumption that a countervailing “liberal element” remained in Japan’s government in the months leading to Pearl Harbor (more precisely, until the end of Premier Konoe Fumimaro’s third cabinet in October 1941)—one with which U.S. policymakers could have found some kind of accommodation.  [2]  And yet, what stands out in speeches and leadership appointments in the lead up to war is that foreign policy positions among Japan’s so-called moderates mostly harmonized with the policy agenda of the militarists.  This is not to deny tactical deviations among civilian statesmen, the emperor, and military officials.  Differences of opinion, indeed, surfaced over methods and approaches.  But these arose over how to achieve largely similar ends.  In the main, disagreement was one of degree, not of kind.

Unity of purpose among Japan’s leadership was especially evident vis-à-vis the notions of “regionalism” and a “new world historical era”—the empire’s dominant ideological-geopolitical orientation of the 1930s and early 1940s—which fundamentally clashed with the ideals of America’s liberal internationalism.  By “regionalism,” I refer generally to Japan’s hegemonic pretensions in Asia, predicated on a “Pan-Asianist” ideology that could be construed as both idealistic and self-serving.  In the late nineteenth century, philosophers like Okakura Tenshin (Kakuzō) envisioned a genuinely cooperative pan-Asian community, with Japan as a vital contributor.  In the decade following the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, however, Japan’s Pan-Asianism increasingly embodied an exceptional regional role, one that could justify more predatory policies consonant with the age and demands of imperialism.  This view intensified with the military conquest of Manchuria in 1931, a radical step that put unambiguous teeth into the longtime claim that Japan possessed “special rights and interests” in the region.

Significantly, a growing number of Japanese civilian statesmen came to defend the territorial fruits of the Kwantung Army’s apparently renegade action.  Over the next several years, Japanese ministers, diplomats, and dignitaries expended a great deal of effort to convince other nations of Japan’s just cause.  This “diplomatic offensive” comprised not only right-leaning statesmen like Matsuoka Yōsuke and Hirota Kōki, but also emblematic “moderates” like former Prime Minister Wakatsuki Reijirō, intellectual Nitobe Inazō, Prince Tokugawa Iesato, and Ambassador Saitō Hiroshi.  The affable Saitō even made a point to draw attention to Japanese unity, explicitly telling Americans in 1935 that the Japanese people “were not divided” over Manchuria.  [3]

The United States was a primary focus of this diplomatic offensive.  This was mainly because Japan’s belligerent form of regionalism flew directly in the face of America’s own idealistic and self-serving Far Eastern policy—the Open Door.  Originally advanced by the U.S. to gain equal access and trade opportunity in China, the Open Door evolved into a sacrosanct policy that sought to restructure East Asia relations with a liberal ethos.  In the 1920s, the U.S. succeeded in codifying the Open Door as international law (Nine-Power Treaty) as a step toward dismantling the imperialist status quo in China and preventing war among the Pacific powers.  Despite contradictions between stated principles and stubborn practices, the Nine-Power Treaty signaled yet another perceptual shift in the accumulating “new diplomacy” of the post-World War I era, making it difficult for nations to commit aggression without subverting the written word.  

Japan’s seizure of Manchuria and the resultant breach of the nascent peace system inaugurated a decade of mistrust between Tokyo and Washington.  At this point, the crisis did not fundamentally jeopardize formal relations, nor did it curtail bilateral trade and cultural exchange.  U.S. policy remained limited to the non-recognition of Manchukuo, not only because the nation’s stake in the region was small, but because the policy duly addressed the core issue:  Manchuria was a matter of principle.  As such, the crisis marked an important point of ideological divergence, if not a portent of profound discord, between Japan and the United States.  As Foreign Minister Hirota observed before the Diet in 1934, “A survey of the world as a whole today reveals a sorry situation in which…a conflict of ideas threatened to destroy international equilibrium at any moment.”  [4]

This clash over fundamental worldviews intensified dramatically following the Konoe government’s decision in July 1937 to launch a full-scale invasion of China.  By December 1937, more than 500,000 Japanese were under arms in China.  Within a year, Tokyo had proclaimed the establishment of a “New Order” in East Asia—a hegemonic contrivance that further enlarged the conception of “regionalism” by subsuming China proper.  Konoe, who held longstanding grievances against the Anglo-American powers for what he perceived as their sanctimonious ordering of a rigged international system, explained that Japan sought “peace based on justice, which is not the same thing as the mere maintenance of the status quo.”  [5]  Konoe’s rationale for Japan’s allegedly righteous cause in China was given repeated force by Japan’s ministers and diplomatic corps.

President Roosevelt’s first major response to global aggression, the so-called “quarantine speech” in October 1937, laid bare the growing ideological chasm.  Addressing the same issues as Konoe from a converse perspective, FDR condemned “lawless” aggressors for a breakdown of peace and justice in the world, a condition he contrasted with America’s liberal internationalism and self-proclaimed pacific intentions.  Although the president’s ambiguous appeal for a “quarantine” preceded American public opinion at the time, his speech nonetheless signaled important themes that would shape his administration’s hardening rhetoric and policies toward Japan.  Above all, FDR began to emphasize the interconnectedness between ideology and geopolitics, a correlation made all the more significant by the administration’s increasing tendency to perceive an ideological convergence between Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy—a major threat to the “American way of life.”

The war in Europe reinforced Tokyo and Washington’s deeply antithetical worldviews.  In fact, it is hardly an overstatement to argue that from the summer of 1940, after the fall of France, the two adversaries accelerated down a path of no return.  As would be the case through the attack on Pearl Harbor, Germany’s stunning victories emboldened Japanese expansionism, which, in turn, stiffened American policy.  Significantly, after occupying northern Indochina and absorbing an American embargo on scrap iron and aviation fuel, Japanese leaders declared a New Order for Greater East Asia.  They also began to discern the fuzzy outlines of a “new world historical era,” a seismic overhaul in international relations that would consign the “Washington system” to the ash heap of history.  As Premier Konoe asserted in July 1940, “[t]he world stands at a great historic turning point, and is about to witness the creation of new forms of government, economy, and culture.”  [6]

Two months later, with great fanfare, Japanese leaders formally hitched their historical wagon to Germany and Italy by signing the Tripartite Pact, which promised mutual assurance among the Axis powers in search for “new orders” in Europe and Asia.  If there is single most important moment on the proverbial road to Pearl Harbor, the Axis Pact figures prominently.  The stated intention of carving the world into seemingly coordinated hegemonic blocs only served to confirm the Roosevelt administration’s global assumptions about ideological convergence among the three militarized regimes.  So, too, did Konoe’s candid message to the Japanese people:  “Germany and Italy share with our empire the same ideals and aspirations.”  [7]  Such statements were not made carelessly or arbitrarily; Japanese policymaking was consensus-driven, filtered through the complex machinery of an imperial house, the Privy Council, the military, and cabinet.

Despite residual mistrust and distinctive political systems among the signatories, the Tripartite Pact essentially made two wars into one.  Thereafter, Roosevelt became especially vigilant in what became a kind of personal mission to “awaken” Americans to the perceived threat of ideological encirclement.  FDR’s conclusion, as Frank Ninkovich has observed, could be summed up as follows:  “Perhaps America could hold out in a totalitarian world, but only if America redefined itself.  If expansionist totalitarianism triumphed abroad, the American way of life would have to be radically transformed.  America’s self-conception as a nation, its political and economic culture, the American creed, all these would have to change.”  [8]

The slippery slope to the transpacific war became fully realized in the summer and fall of 1941.  Faced with fresh opportunities from Germany’s surprising attack on the Soviet Union, the Konoe cabinet oversaw the occupation of southern Indochina.  The American government answered with an oil embargo, which forced Tokyo to choose between a compromise with Washington to resume shipments and a military offensive in Southeast Asia to seize the oil fields in Indonesia.  Protracted negotiations merely punctuated the yawning ideological and geopolitical gulf between the two nations, thereby making any genuine accommodation ultimately unworkable.  If it is true that neither side welcomed war, it is also true that neither side could countenance an international system antithetical to its own worldview.  Indeed, although some Japanese statesmen and naval officials began to harbor doubts about going to war against the United States, it was not because they had abandoned their conceptions of a “New Order” in Greater East Asia; rather, they believed that war would undermine such hegemonic aspirations, which, of course was what brought Japan into conflict with America in the first place.  Regrettably, eleventh-hour negotiations could do little to erase the fundamental ideological divide that separated the two nations on the eve of Japan’s surprise attack, or alter the historical context of the previous ten years.

[1] Jonathan Utley, “Cordell Hull and the Diplomacy of Inflexibility,” in Hilary Conroy and Harry Wray, eds., Pearl Harbor Re-Examined: Prologue to the Pacific War (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1990),75, 83.  See also Jonathan Utley, Going to War With Japan, 1937-1941 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985); Peter Calvocoressi, Guy Wint and John Pritchard, The Penguin History of the Second World War (London: Penguin Books, 1999 ed.), 937; Tsunoda Jun, “On the So-Called Hull-Nomura Negotiations,” in Conroy and Wray, Pearl Harbor Re-Examined, 89-95; Gary Dean Best, “Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the New Deal, and Japan” in Conroy and Wray, Pearl Harbor Re-Examined, 27-36; Paul Schroeder, The Axis Alliance and Japanese-American Relations, 1941 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958); Peter Mauch, “Revisiting Nomura’s Diplomacy,” Diplomatic History 28:3 (June 2004), 353-383.

[2] The moderate-militarist binary has become a tenacious postwar construct. The voluminous literature pitting Japanese “moderates” against “militarists” has its roots in 1930s as well as the Occupation period (1945-1952). During the 1930s, various American diplomats—Ambassador Joseph Grew, in particular—and members of the press corps consistently overstated an ideological schism among Japan’s leadership. Although this duality paradigm collapsed after Pearl Harbor, it was duly resurrected during the Occupation. Gen. Douglas MacArthur exonerated Emperor Hirohito of war responsibility and “used” the exalted crown to drive a wedge between the nation as a whole and a culpable military clique. The onset of the Cold War further motivated America and its Japanese ally to assign war responsibility to an even smaller, select cabal of “militarists.” Dualism was subsequently taken up by Japanese and American historians as a primary interpretive lens.  

[3] See Sandra Wilson, “Containing the Crisis: Japan’s Diplomatic Offensive in the West, 1931-1933,” Modern Asian Studies 29:2 (May 1995), 337-372. Saitō quote from an address before the Foreign Policy Association in New York City, January 5, 1935, and reprinted in Hirosi [sic] Saito, Japan’s Policies and Purposes (Boston: Marshall Jones Co., 1935), 5. See also, Baron Reijiro Wakatsuki, “The Aims of Japan,” Foreign Affairs 13:4 (July 1935), 583-594.

[4] Hirota address, January 23, 1934 cited in cited in James W. Gantenbein, ed., Documentary Background of World War II, 1931-1941 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948), 841. Italics mine.

[5] Konoe quoted in Hugh Byas, “Konoe Urges Unity in Japanese Spirit,” New York Times, June 5, 1937, 9. 

[6] Konoe statement, FRUS: Japan, 1931-1941, II, 108-109.

[7] Konoe quoted in Hugh Byas, “Warning to U.S. is seen in Tokyo,” New York Times, September 28, 1940, 1. 

[8] Frank Ninkovich, The Wilsonian Century: U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1900 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 125.


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