Lew Paper’s new book In the Cauldron charts the diplomatic road to Pearl Harbor, mostly through the eyes of the then-US Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew. Paper portrays Grew as a voice crying in the wilderness, showing the way to peace when everyone around him in official circles in both Japan and the United States drifted towards war. Grew, the author writes, “had seen the writing on the wall for months and had tried—repeatedly—to have the State Department take actions that he believed would avert an almost certain armed conflict.”
Paper’s book is about what he believes were missed opportunities—by Japan and the United States—to avoid war. He is highly critical of the policymakers in both countries who failed to compromise principles and sacrifice interests in the cause of peace. There is a touch of moral equivalence here that is unsettling.
Japan was an aggressor nation that had annexed much of Manchuria in the early 1930s, waged merciless war against China in the mid-to-late 1930s, and moved its forces into Indochina. Japan became, in historian Paul Johnson’s description, a wolf-like predator-state in the grip of totalitarian brands of Shintoism and bushido. Japanese diplomats and policymakers who questioned or opposed expansionist policies risked, and in some cases suffered, assassination.
The United States in the 1930s was a status quo power led by President Franklin Roosevelt who, like Britain’s Winston Churchill, understood the growing threat to the democracies posed by Germany, Japan, and to a lesser extent Italy, but who, unlike Churchill, refused to risk political capital by sounding an unpopular alarm.
Ambassador Grew’s proposals to maintain peace between the two countries, as well as the policies and official negotiating positions of the Roosevelt administration, should be viewed in this context. Yet, Paper places greater blame for the failure to avoid war on US policymakers, such as Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and one of Hull’s top assistants Stanley Hornbeck than on the Japanese militarists. If only top US policymakers had listened to Grew, he implies, Pearl Harbor may have been averted.
Grew was critical of US economic sanctions and pressures that were designed to persuade Japan’s leaders to end their aggression in China, remove their forces from Indochina, and downgrade their participation in the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. Grew believed that economic sanctions and pressure were counterproductive—they would more likely lead to war instead of preventing it. Grew, an experienced diplomat who had been US Ambassador in Tokyo since 1932, unquestionably knew more about the country and its leaders than policymakers in Washington did, but sometimes overseas diplomats become “captives” of their assigned country and miss the forest for the trees. The Ambassador knew Japanese diplomats and policymakers, like Nomura Kichisaburo and Prince Konoye Fumimaro, who professed a sincere desire to avoid war with the United States. Indeed, many of Japan’s civilian and military leaders, including Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto who planned the Pearl Harbor attack, believed Japan could not defeat the United States in a war.
But the alternatives to US economic pressures were military force or appeasement. Japan was not going to be talked out of China, Indochina, and the Tripartite Pact. The lessons of Munich were very much on the minds of American policymakers, and for good reason. Roosevelt, Hull, and Hornbeck understood that; Grew apparently did not.
In one sense, the policymakers in Washington were better informed of Japan’s true intentions than Grew was because of the MAGIC intercepts (of Japan’s secret diplomatic messages) that were not always shared with the Ambassador. Moreover, as Paper notes, Roosevelt and his top advisers also knew that the United States was as yet unprepared to fight the global war that was approaching and wanted to drag out negotiations with Japan to allow more time to build-up and ready its forces for what in the summer and fall of 1941 they viewed as an inevitable conflict.
Paper notes that Grew became increasingly frustrated by his inability to persuade Washington policymakers to negotiate with Japanese leaders without preconditions. He labeled his preferred approach “constructive conciliation”, and advised those in Washington who said that Japan would be insane to attack the United States that “Japanese sanity cannot be measured by American standards of logic”. He prophetically warned Washington policymakers that Japan would likely attack US interests with “dramatic suddenness”. In September 1941, Grew pleaded with President Roosevelt to negotiate directly with Japan’s Prime Minister in an effort to avoid war. Hull and others in Washington advised against this, and Roosevelt agreed with them.
After Pearl Harbor, the Embassy staff in Tokyo was interned in the Embassy compound, and were only released to return to the United States in August 1942. When Grew returned, he drafted a “final report” that placed blame on President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Hull for the diplomatic failures that led to Pearl Harbor. A visibly angry Cordell Hull convinced Grew to destroy the report by appealing to his patriotism. After the war, Paper notes, Grew dissembled about that report before a congressional committee investigating Pearl Harbor.
Winston Churchill once said that it is better to “jaw-jaw” than to “war-war”, Joseph Grew certainly would have agreed. But Churchill also knew that the avoidance of war is not always possible in the face of cruel and wanton aggression. Sometimes you have to fight because, as Churchill put it, “it is better to perish than to live as slaves.”