Controversy over Japan's Surprise Attack on the United States and Britain in December 1941

Prof. Takeo Iguchi

Lecture 2004-03-22

The weather was unkind to us, but still there was a respectable turnout for the March meeting, which was held at the International House of Japan. It was attended by Mr. Hiroshi Matsumoto in one of his last appearances as Senior Executive Director of International House before his retirement at the end of the month.

Our speaker was Prof. Takeo Iguchi of Shobi Gakuen University, former ambassador to New Zealand, who had taken as his subject "Controversy over Japan's Surprise Attack on the United States and Britain in December 1941." In the preface to his speech, Prof. Iguchi said that the U.S. had destroyed the Japanese embassy documents of the period, but records still survived in MAGIC, the military decoding network. He also handed out copies of articles he had written for the Asahi Evening News of June 4, 2002, and the Japan Times of December 15, 2002, in which he had written that he had found the original version of Japan's Final Memorandum to the U.S. in a top-secret file in the Foreign Ministry. Further documentary evidence was also contained in a "Confidential War Diary" published in 1998, which showed that the military had been opposed to the sending of any ultimatum which would jeopardize their carrying out a surprise attack.

The so-called ultimatum was delivered to the State Department more than one hour after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Controversy still rages over whether Roosevelt or Churchill knew about the attack in advance but suppressed their knowledge in order to arouse anger against the treacherous enemy. However, this theory lacks credibility, as it is unlikely that Roosevelt had sources of information not available to his top cabinet members; also the latest research tends to endorse the view that Churchill preferred the U.S. to enter the war only in Europe, and not against Japan. Further, the attack on Pearl Harbor would not have been a surprise if the officer who picked the Japanese planes up on the radar had not mistaken them for American planes.

The 'revisionists' who back this theory of prior knowledge also maintain that the note submitted by Secretary of State Cordell Hull to ambassadors Nomura and Kurusu on November 26, 1941, was deliberately aimed at provoking Japan to war, so that America would have an excuse for entering the war against Germany. Prime Minister Tojo and Foreign Minister Togo regarded the Hull Note, which demanded the Japanese army's withdrawal from China, as an ultimatum; but it did not impose a deadline, and was not couched in the terms of an ultimatum. Already on November 22, Tokyo had instructed the Washington embassy that if negotiations for the lifting of American sanctions on the export of petroleum in exchange for the Japanese withdrawal of troops from southern Indo-China were unsuccessful they would be discontinued after December 1. And by the time the Hull Note was delivered, Japanese naval forces with four aircraft carriers were already on their way to Hawaii.

The available evidence now proves that the operations against the American forces in Pearl Harbor and the British forces in Malaya were planned as surprise attacks, without the local commanders being given warning of them by a break-off in diplomatic relations. The Final memorandum was delivered to the U.S. State Department at 2:00 p.m. on December 7 (Washington time), one hour later than the attack on Pearl Harbor and three hours later than the landings on the Kota Bahru beachhead. Roosevelt labelled the day "a day of infamy". Churchill was elated, as the U.S. was now brought into the war as a full ally, and Chiang Kai Shek was relieved that China would be saved from defeat.

A question that can legitimately be asked here is whether this Memorandum qualified as an ultimatum, that is, a lawful notice of the declaration of war, as required under the Hague Convention. In fact it simply gave notice of the termination of negotiations without mentioning the Japanese government's intention to go to war. This is because the final words in the original draft were deleted at the express demand of the military high command, as their military strategy required a surprise attack. This has been admitted by Toshikazu Kase, the only surviving member of the team who drafted the document. Moreover Hisashi Owada (who was then Ambassador to the United Nations) made it clear in a speech made in September 1997, at the Centennial Symposium of the Japanese Association of International Law, that the memorandum could not be construed as an ultimatum and that Japan's conduct prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor violated the whole spirit of the agreement requiring a declaration of war.

Supposing the Memorandum had qualified as a declaration of war, the next question was whether half-an-hour's notice was justifiable. In this connection, two entries in the "Confidential War Diary" mentioned above are enlightening. One entry of December 2 notes with confidence, "The U.S. is not yet aware of Japan's true intent," and another of December 6 states with satisfaction: "Ambassadors Nomura and Kurusu held a meeting with Secretary Hull. Our deceptive diplomacy is steadily proceeding towards success." Half-an-hour's notice might have been justified in the case of a clear declaration of war, but an ultimatum disguised as a termination of negotiations should have been delivered, at the latest, before the assaulting naval air force had taken off from the aircraft carriers. This was because, if America were to have backpedalled on the Hull Note and pressed Japan to resume negotiations, Japan would have been placed in the indefensible position of attacking a negotiating partner who did not want to break off talks.

In an entry dated December 6 in his diary, which was published a few years ago, Prince Takamatsu criticized the Japanese army for falsely announcing that war had broken out between Britain and Japan because British forces had initiated an attack against Japanese forces landing in Thailand. Further, Togo argued in his memoirs that there had been no need of a separate declaration of war against Britain, as it was an ally of the U.S. On the morning of December 8 in Tokyo, Togo handed to the British ambassador, Sir Robert Craigie, the same Memorandum as had been delivered in Washington, after Malaya had already been attacked. And yet this Memorandum was merely a notice to terminate negotiations with the U.S. Nor did Togo take any formal steps to inform Craigie that Japan was in a state of war against Britain, even after the attack had been broadcast. As Sir Paul Gore-Booth, who was second secretary at the time, observed in his memoirs, "Had Minister Togo told Craigie the truth, he might have been in the position of a foreign minister informing an ambassador that a state of war existed, without being able to hand him a formal declaration of war." It seems that Togo was clearly forbidden by the military to inform both Britain and the United States of the start of war. Mr. Dooman, Counsellor at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, records in his diary for December 8 that as soon as he got the Domei News Agency's release announcing "a state of armed conflict" he rushed to the Foreign Ministry to see Mr. Haruhiko Nishi, the Vice-Foreign Minister. But Nishi knew no more than he had heard from Domei.

Not only was the Japanese Embassy in Washington instructed not to break off talks until half an hour after the attack on Pearl Harbor began, the deputy chiefs of staff of the army and navy made every effort to put off the delivery of the Final Memorandum until after the attack. The telegram containing the memorandum was divided into 14 parts, and only 13 of these were sent in advance, and the 14th part was withheld for 15 hours, without convincing reasons. Moreover the 13 parts contained lengthy omissions and garbled passages, so that the final version could not be completed by the night of December 6, and the additional cables arrived only at 8:00 a.m. on the 7th, which was a Sunday. At this point, the only person available who was able to type out the finished document was a career diplomat, First Secretary Kazuo Okumura, who struggled unsuccessfully to meet the one o'clock deadline. It was revealed at the Far Eastern Military Tribunal that the army was always able to interfere with the transmission of official telegrams sent from the Foreign Ministry. Subsequent evidence has now made it clear that there was a deliberate attempt to obstruct the timely delivery of the Memorandum, though it is still not clear whether the omissions and garbling were accidental or intentional.

A related item which Prof. Iguchi had discovered and reported on at an academic meeting last year was the suspension of an urgent message sent by Roosevelt to the Emperor at the eleventh hour. That the Foreign Ministry knew the contents of this message is revealed by certain handwritten changes made to the final paragraph of the memorandum, evidently in the light of the contents of the message. Here the army ad the Foreign Ministry flagrantly violated Japanese constitutional practice in taking this action without the sanction of the Emperor and the cabinet. Whether Prime Minister Tojo and Foreign Minister Togo were aware of this is not known, but Prof. Iguchi suspected that they were, and had pretended to know nothing in order not to interfere with the military surprise attack. This demonstrated that the wartime leaders were not courageous and farsighted enough to control the military machine.

In the question time that followed, Prof. Iguchi was asked what he thought of the claims made in Robert Stinnett's Day of Deceit, and replied that as they were completely unsubstantiated they were not worth refuting. On the question of the late Emperor's involvement, Prof. Iguchi said that he had acted as his interpreter for five years, and was convinced that he had been a man of peace.

The meeting concluded with a vote of thanks proposed by Mrs. Eileen Kato, who said how happy she was that Prof. Iguchi had at last completely vindicated Kazuo Okumura (and also his father, of whom he had not spoken), as the Okumuras had always been like parents to her diplomat husband and herself. The younger Okumura had been pilloried for six decades, his slowness in typing being blamed for causing the delay in the transmission of the Memorandum. But the embassy typists had gone home for the weekend. There had been no alternative, although in those days diplomats were not expected to type. Mr. Okumura had never spoken of the matter, but it had always overshadowed his career. Prof. Iguchi's presentation of the affair had been a model of historical objectivity, plainly stating the true facts about these professional diplomats of unimpeachable integrity.