One of the great dilemmas in foreign policy is when and whether to negotiate with one’s enemies. Will a dialogue ease tensions and possibly pave the way to peace? Or is it a cynical ploy to gain time to prepare for a military offensive? These were the issues facing U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew and many key players in Washington in 1941, who were on decidedly different sides as the year drew to a close.
As Grew awaited his return to America along with other staff members of Embassy Tokyo, he drafted a report to the State Department criticizing it for its decision not to negotiate with Japanese Prime Minister (and relative moderate) Konoye in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor. In these excerpts, Robert A. Fearey, private secretary to Ambassador Grew, describes Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s sharp reaction to Grew’s report, the pros and cons of negotiating with Japan in 1941, as well as the decision to charge Konoye as a war criminal, which eventually drove him to commit suicide.
Read other accounts of World War II.
“Mr. Ambassador, you must promise to destroy this report”
FEAREY: Grew said that the Secretary [Cordell Hull, at left] started to leaf through the report. As he did so, his face hardened and flushed. After a time, he half threw the report back across the desk toward Grew and said, “Mr. Ambassador, either you promise to destroy this report and every copy you may possess or we will publish it and leave it to the American people to decide who was right and who was wrong.” Taken aback, Grew said that he had replied that this was his honest, confidential report to his superiors in Washington and that he could not in good conscience agree to destroy it. Neither could he be party to its publication and a public controversy in time of war when national unity was essential.
Subject to the Secretary’s approval, he had decided that what he could most usefully do would be to undertake an extensive speaking tour around the country to inform the American people about Japan’s military strength and the need to prepare for a long, though in the end inevitably victorious, Pacific war. The Secretary’s response had been, “Mr. Ambassador, come back at 10:00 tomorrow morning, and give me your answer to the alternatives I have presented.”
Shortly afterward, with Grew’s help, I went to work for Leo Pasvolsky, whom the Secretary had put in charge of the State Department’s post-war planning work. I spent the war…preparing research/policy papers which, after approval by the Far East Area Committee and the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee (SWNCC), were issued in 1945 and 1946 as directives to the Supreme Allied Commander, General MacArthur, in occupied Japan. During that time, I continued to see Mr. Grew occasionally and once or twice to draw him out on what had happened to his report, since an exhaustive search of the Department’s files had failed to reveal it. He never seemed to want to discuss the matter, nor did [former Political Counselor? At Embassy Tokyo] Gene Doorman, whom I also ran into from time to time and who, toward the end of the war, served as the State member of SWNCC.
Years later, during the ‘70s and ‘80s, after I had been assigned back to Washington, I made a determined effort to find a copy of the report. It seemed a shame for students of the pre-Pearl Harbor negotiations to be denied access to the personal assessment of those negotiations written right after Pearl Harbor during the internment by our Ambassador on the spot. This seemed particularly true considering that he and Washington differed sharply on the proposed Konoye-Roosevelt meeting.
The essential reasoning of each side — Washington’s and the embassy’s — had long been in the public record, but I had never seen the embassy’s case set forth as eloquently and persuasively as in Grew’s internment report. Having earlier confirmed that the report was not in the collection of Grew papers at Harvard, I sought for clues from Mrs. Marion Johnston, Grew’s long-time secretary, and from members of his family but to no avail….
In …his 1952 [book] Turbulent Era …Grew reaffirms in 131 pages the themes of his internment report. He then cites the contrary views of Herbert Feis, the noted historian…: .
“If Konoye was ready and able — as Grew had thought — to give Roosevelt trustworthy and satisfactory promises of a new sort, he does not tell of them…He was a prisoner, willing or unwilling, in the terms precisely prescribed in conferences over which he presided. The latest of these were minimum demands specified by the Imperial Conference of September 6…. It is unlikely that he could have got around them or that he would have in some desperate act discarded them. The whole of his political career speaks to the contrary. . .”
Grew, as I have described, believed that face-to-face with Roosevelt, Konoye intended, and would have been able, to “get around” the minimum demands specified by the Imperial Conference of September 6th and earlier conferences.
Grew concludes his Turbulent Era account with the following:
“I may as well close this Postscript with a single sentence from Mr. Feis’s book, taken out of context it is true, but in my ex-parte view, it is the crux of the whole story. ‘It will always be possible,’ he writes, ‘to think that Grew was correct; that the authorities in Washington were too close to their texts and too soaked in their disbelief to perceive what he saw.’”
If…Grew in 1952 still firmly held to the views he had expressed in his report to Hull and Roosevelt, why did he not insist on the report’s being accepted by Hull in 1942, incorporated in the Department’s classified files and made available to the Historian 25s later in The [Foreign] Relations of the United States [FRUS], 1941, Japan? Why did he apparently destroy every copy?
I do not know, but my best guess is that he decided that pressing the report on a resistant Hull would serve no useful purpose and would on the contrary cut him (Grew) off from Hull and the Department and the support he needed from them to do what he felt was much more important at that point: to tour the country to awaken the people to Japan’s military strength and the prospect of a long war. He may also have been looking ahead to the end of the war, wishing to do nothing which would jeopardize the possibility of his being able to influence the terms the Allies offered to Japan, particularly concerning the disposition of the Emperor. As for his obligations to history, he may have concluded that he could tell his story later in articles or books, when doing so would no longer have the above-cited disadvantages.
“Japan was probably too committed to the goal of Japanese hegemony to reverse course”
Supporting this hypothesis is the fact that, with his report removed as an obstacle, Grew was able to carry out his speaking tour in 1942-43, and in 1944-45, he was able to exert important influence on Allied occupation policies, especially concerning the Emperor. He was also able to publish his view of the 1941 negotiations in his books…after he had retired from the government.
Having reviewed the arguments pro and con Konoye’s proposed meeting with the President from the vantage point of fifty years later, what should one conclude? My own views are as follows:
1) The U.S. should have agreed to the meeting. There was certainly some basis for believing that an acceptable settlement could have been achieved at the meeting and that it could have been implemented over an eighteen to twenty-four month period. Washington’s contention that if the meeting were held and failed, the situation would be worse than if it had not been held at all is hard to accept. How could the aftermath of a failed meeting have been worse than what actually happened — a terrible, four-years war?
2) The odds, I believe, are that if the meeting had been held, it would have produced an agreement. But if I had to bet a large sum, I would have to come down on the side that the agreement would not have been effectively accepted and implemented in Japan. Persuasive as Konoye’s and Grew’s arguments were, Japan in 1941 was probably too much under military domination and too committed to the goal of Japanese hegemony in East Asia to reverse course, except as a consequence of defeat by superior military force.
One has to suspect also that Konoye and Foreign Minister Toyoda, in their conversations with Grew, overstated General Tojo’s [at right] and other Japanese military authorities’ support of the meeting proposal and their commitment to implementation of the settlement terms Konoye hoped to bring back from the meeting. (The Memoirs of Prince Fumimaro Konoye, published in 1946, tend to support this suspicion, particularly Konoye’s accounts therein of General Togo’s statements at critical meetings.)
3) Grew’s analysis, views and recommendations submitted to Washington during the summer and fall of 1941 were wholly sound. He strongly urged that the meeting be held, for all the reasons brought out above, but he always acknowledged that it might not succeed. He rightly did not accept Washington’s contention that if it failed, the situation would be worse than if had not been held. His reporting of the situation in Japan, his analysis of Japanese psychology and his warnings of the imminence of war if the meeting opportunity was let pass could not have been more perceptive and accurate.
Looking back to the critical months in the late summer and early fall of 1941, a further possibility should be noted. One has to wonder whether Roosevelt may not have welcomed [FDR advisor] Hornbeck’s anti-meeting arguments not for their own merit but because he (FDR) had by that time concluded that the U.S. had to declare war against Germany before Great Britain succumbed. While not wanting war with Japan, Germany’s Axis ally, he may have seen the meeting with Konoye as antithetical to the requirements for full U.S. involvement in World War II if it was to be won….
Konoye, declared War Criminal, commits suicide
In mid-November , [Under Secretary of State Dean] Acheson called me into his office to say that he had just had a call from General MacArthur complaining that although a number of major, or “Class A” German war criminals had been arrested and were in jail, none had been apprehended in Japan. He said that he wanted a list of such Japanese ”Class A” war criminals on his desk within, as I recall, twenty-four hours, so that he could immediately order them arrested.
Acheson said that since I had drafted the not yet officially received War Criminals Directives, I was the logical one to compile the requested list. I said that my work had concerned the arrest, trial and punishment of Japanese war criminals of all the various “Classes” but that it had not extended to which individual Japanese were guilty of war crimes. Nevertheless, I said that I thought I could obtain the help I needed to compile the requested list.
I thereupon called Herbert Norman, a Canadian, a leading Japan scholar and a friend from pre-war days, who was attached to General MacArthur’s headquarters in an intelligence capacity. With his long experience in Japan and language fluency, I knew that Norman would be able to add much to my knowledge of who the major Japanese war criminals were. Together that evening at Dai Ichi Hotel, where we were both billeted, we drew up a proposed list, with a brief statement of our reasons for each name. I handed it to Acheson in the morning. He had it delivered to General MacArthur , and banner headlined a day or two later announced that all had been arrested.
Some time later, MacArthur called Acheson to say that he was sure there were more Japanese major war criminals and that he wanted a second list. I met again with Norman, who this time argued strongly that Konoye should be included because of the positions of highest responsibility which he had occupied over most of the pre-Pearl Harbor decade, including when Japan attacked China in 1937.
In compiling the first list, I had resisted Norman’s view that Konoye should be included, arguing that he had never been an active protagonist of Japan’s aggressive course but rather, as an inherently somewhat weak and indecisive man, had allowed himself to be used by aggressive elements. And he had seen the light in 1941 and done his utmost, at the risk of his life, to reverse Japan’s military course through his plan for the meeting with President Roosevelt. Norman said the he appreciated these points but that we could not omit from our list someone who had held the positions which Konoye had held and who possessed the intimate knowledge of the Japanese pre-war decision process and if critical top-level prewar meetings which he did. His status would be less that of a major war crimes suspect that of a material witness.
And so we agreed to include Konoye in the second list. But we also agreed that if he were arrested, we would get word to him of the special circumstances attending his arrest. With his far more extensive Japanese contacts than mine, Norman undertook to find someone who would convey this message.
Konoye was notified of his arrest on December 6th, and ten days later, in the early morning of the day he was to report to Sugamo Prison, he committed suicide.
Norman told me that he had arranged for a Konoye confidante to pass our message to him, but we never learned whether it got through. If it did, it probably had little influence. The word that reached us from the Konoye circle of intimates was that as a two-time Prime Minister and long time advisor to the Emperor, and with his noble lineage extending back a thousand years, his pride could not endure the humiliation of standing in court as a suspected war criminal. In his Konoe Fumimaro–a Political Biography (1983), Yoshitake Ota relates how a few hours before his death, Konoye asked his son, Michitake, for a pen and paper and wrote the following:
“I have made many political blunders beginning with the China War, and I feel my responsibility for them deeply. I find it intolerable, however, to stand in an American court as a so-called war criminal. The very fact that I did feel responsible for the China War made the task of effecting a settlement all the more crucial to me.
“Concluding that the only remaining chance to achieve a settlement of the war in China was to reach an understanding with the United States, I did everything in my power to make the negotiations with the United States a success. It is regrettable that I am now suspected by the same United States of being a war criminal.”