Read this article to learn about the political relationship between Japan and the United States during the second world war.

The exigencies of Second World War brought about a change in America’s foreign policy. The United States was veering round to the policy of taking an active part in the international crisis of the time. The Atlantic Charter was accepted as the declaration of the war aims of those nations which had aligned themselves in coalition against the Axis Powers.

In September 1941 the American navy was instructed to escort convoys comprising ships of any nation in the Western Atlantic, and to shoot at submerged or surface raiders. In October one American destroyer was damaged and another was sunk while on escort duty. But still Roosevelt did not want the onus of actually declaring war. Hitler was also anxious to keep America neutral as long as possible, and so final commitment came by the action of another power — Japan.

Japan had important financial interests in China and had secured mandatory rights in some of the Pacific islands. For about ten years after the Washington Conference she adopted a conciliatory attitude towards China. The pacific con­templation was disliked by the militarist leaders of Japan, who sought extension of Japanese influence over China.


Their ambition was reinforced by economic considerations and, in the result; a new phase of Japanese imperialism began with the invasion of Manchuria, a province of the Chinese Empire, in 1931. The United States strongly protested against Japan’s Manchurian adventure and refused to accord official recognition to Manchukuo. She had made it clear that she would not accept any change in the status of China by the unilateral action of Japan.

The Japanese resented this attitude of the United States and, on the contrary, Ja­pan began her full-scale invasion of China in 1937. The Government of the United States had all along stood for the principle of “Open Door” involving equality of opportunity and she now could hardly be expected to view with complacency Japan’s attempt to close the door by an imperialistic policy disguised under schemes of “new order” and “co-prosperity sphere”.

Hence, when Japan in 1937 began her large scale operation in China, Ameri­can opinion branded Japan as a wanton aggressor and assisted the League of Nations in its efforts to restrain Japan and the country took part in the Brussels Conference of 1937 which attempted to compose the differences between China and Japan.

Japan spurned the Brussels Conference and defiantly declared that she would not tolerate any interference in her activities in China which she thought was within her sphere of influence. When the Second World War broke out Japan found a good opportunity of exploitation of China and concluded a treaty of military alliance in 1940 with Germany and Italy with whom she had already joined in the anti-Comintern (Communist) Pact.


By the treaty they pledged total aid — both military and economic — to one another if and when any one of them would be attacked by a power not yet involved in the European War or the Sino- Japanese conflict. The treaty was a clear warning to the United States to remain neutral. Japan also entered into a neutrality pact with Russia. Both the powers agreed to respect each other’s territorial integrity and to remain neutral if either were attacked by a third power. Thus by her arrangements with Germany, Italy and Russia, Japan felt herself encouraged to push on her plans in the Far East.

Japan’s attempt to impose her political hegemony on the Far East caused the United States to stiffen her attitude towards Japan. After Japan’s entry into Rome-Berlin Axis, the United States in 1940 placed an embargo on the export of scrap iron and petroleum to Japan. Washington refused to recognise the puppet govern­ment set up by Japan at Nanking in 1940 and instead began supplying financial credit to Chiangkai Shek’s government.

When the weak Vichy government of France permitted the Japanese to occupy Indo-China and to use its airfields, the United States in 1941 froze Japanese assets and thus trade with Japan was made more difficult. The measures adopted by the United States caused irritation for Japan. They found that the United States was the only strong power that lay across the path of their imperialistic designs.

Great Britain was for the time being immobilised by her life and death struggle with Germany. France and the Nether­lands were lying under the iron heel of Germany. Hence, none of these powers were in a position to defend their colonial possessions in East Asia and so the temptation to seize them was very strong for Japan. The only obstacle was the United States and Japan was determined to overcome it.


The Japanese government of Tojo sent special envoy to the United States ostensibly to arrive at a peaceful understanding. The Lend-Lease Bill passed in March already began helping China financially causing irritation of Japan. Be­side scrap iron, high quality gasoline and blending agents and plants from the United States had practically ceased. When the special envoy of Japan, Admiral Nomura, the new Japanese Ambassador to the United States, met the Secretary of States, Cordell Hull, the latter proposed four principles upon which the relations between the two countries could be ameliorated.

These were “(i) Respect for the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of each and all nations; (ii) Support of the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries; (iii) Support of the principle of equality including equality of commercial opportunity; (iv) Non-disturbance of the status quo in the Pacific except Pacific as the status quo may be altered by peaceful means.”

Japan did not bow down herself against the pressure but her army invaded Indo-China which compelled the United States in freezing all Japanese assets in her country. Britain and the Netherlands followed suit instituting an Anglo-American-Dutch embargo on the supply of oil and petroleum products to Japan.

There was clear indication that Japan sooner or later would launch an attack on the Pacific bases of America. After the American officials decoded secret Japanese messages when those were transmitted from Tokyo to its responsible officials abroad, they were certain that the attack on American bases was in offing. But strangely, the American government did not take any prohibitive measure.

This was perhaps because American sentiment about war was pitiably low. In contravention of popular sentiment President Roosevelt did not dare to involve the country in war. Hence, what he wanted was a devastating attack by the Japanese against American installations in the Pacific, so that the people rise and support the government to wage war against the invaders. Churchill was desperately trying to drag America into the war, but popular sentiment in America was a stumbling block.

So it can be reasonably said that the President cherished the intention of inviting Japan to hurl the blow first and Japan very foolishly entrapped herself by proceeding towards the snare set up by the presi­dent of the United States.

But the general idea is that the United States in 1941 was far behind the schedule of armament productions.

In spite of information gleaned from Japan that the latter very soon would swoop down upon American installations, negotiations between the United States and Japan continued. Japan wanted to buy time for her military preparations but apparently showed no sign of it and, on the contrary, the pressure for continua­tion of negotiations came from Japan.

The urge initially was to secure a re­laxation of the economic pressures which, in their intensified form, hurt. Admiral Nomura, though not a seasoned diplomat, had been conducting the negotiations for Japan until November when the deadline of invasion had been set by Japan. The conversations at Washington were still going on, while the Japanese fleet steamed toward Pearl Harbour, where the United States Pacific Fleet was stationed.

The international political situation was undoubtedly helpful to Japan. Britain, France and Soviet Union were fighting their life-and-death struggle against Germany. The United States was not prepared to join the European war and she was not also militarily prepared.

“On the morning of 7 December 1941, 189 Japanese bombers swept in low out of the morning haze and bombed United States warships in Pearl Harbour — eight battleships, three cruisers, three destroyers and many grounded aircraft were destroyed or seriously damaged.” The United States declared war against Japan on 8th December. Three days later Germany and Italy, honouring the terms of Triple Alliance declared war against the United States.

Until this time, the war remained essentially a European war; with the Pearl Harbour the war became a global conflict. Churchill’s reaction to Pearl Harbour was one of relief. His out­burst in glee was: “So we had won after all!” The Japanese, he saw, had sealed their own doom and Hitler’s by bringing the United States with themselves into the war. Churchill knew very well that without involving United States, it would be an uphill task for Britain to fight against Germany successfully in two fronts at a time.

In launching attack against the United States, Japan had committed two very serious miscalculations. She misread the effects of this attack. Japan thought that the attack on the American fleet within American waters would paralyze the American national will and America would turn herself towards pacifistic and isolationist sentiment.

But instead the event forged national unity for war pur­poses and hardened the national determination for fighting a war. The second was the speed with which the United States reacted. Again, it should be noted that to the United States, Japan was a dwarf. But as she killed the demon previously by defeating Russia, she thought that a repetition would be held this time also. In matters of men, materials and resources, she was no match to the United States and the combined strength of Britain, America and China was far more superior to Japan.

Pacific and Atlantic Theatres