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1941 Fifty Years Ago

February 2024
1min read

The Conversation

November was a month of readying for war—in Washington and on the seas. The Roosevelt administration’s two amendments to the Neutrality Act passed the Senate on November 7 and survived a close vote in the House six days later. The first amendment repealed a prohibition against arming merchant ships, while the second freed them to travel through war zones; together the amendments made commercial vessels less vulnerable but increased the chance of real American involvement in the war.

On the fourteenth, a special envoy from Japan, Saburo Kurusu, arrived in San Francisco, where he announced heartily to reporters, “I hope to break through the line and make a touchdown.” This statement was reported as a friendly attempt at American sports vernacular, but the Roosevelt administration already knew that Japan’s intentions were hostile, having broken its secret diplomatic codes months earlier. Through October and November Secretary of State Cordell Hull met with Kurusu and Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura, feigning surprise at Japanese offers and demands that had already been decoded and reviewed with the President. The Japanese made their final proposal for a peaceful settlement on November 20. Transcripts of decoded talks between Tokyo and its ambassadors not only had provided advance information but also had informed Hull that turning down the demands meant Japan might strike somewhere against the United States. Among the requests were that the United States supply oil to Japan, unfreeze assets and resume normal commerce between the two countries, and stop aid to China and Indochina, which were subjugated by Japan at the time. Hull later said accepting the terms would have amounted to “virtually a surrender,” making the United States “a silent partner aiding and abetting Japan in her effort to create a Japanese hegemony over the western Pacific and eastern Asia.” But that day, with the ambassadors in his office, Hull gave no sign of shock while rereading the document, and he promised to review it carefully with the President later.

“This time we mean it,” Tokyo had wired Ambassador Nomura about the demands, specifying the twenty-ninth as the deadline for a signing. “The deadline absolutely cannot be changed.” The message said nothing more specific about consequences. By the twenty-seventh, forty to fifty Japanese troopships had moved south from Shanghai, and a large naval air task force was also on the move. “An aggressive move by Japan is expected in the next few days,” read a statement putting the American military on “war alert.” The presumed possible targets were “the Philippines, Thai, or Kra Peninsula or possibly Borneo.”

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