Japan's Gift to FDR


This article first published in 2006 as "Japan’s Gift to FDR." Liberty. 20, Volume 1, Issue 1: 19–27.

It was about 9:30 on the evening of December 6, 1941.[1] Navy Lieutenant Lester R. Schulz, special deputy communication watch officer, assigned that evening to the White House "to receive [a] special message for the President," proceeded to President Roosevelt’s study with a locked pouch containing important documents. The president had been entertaining, but as soon as he learned that the courier had arrived, he left his guests to go to his White House study to await this delivery.

As Schulz would later testify, when he entered the president was sitting at his desk, his friend and close associate, Harry Hopkins, standing nearby. Schulz opened the pouch and handed the president a sheaf of "perhaps 15 typewritten pages" clipped together.

Schulz waited while "the President read the papers." This took "perhaps 10 minutes" during which Hopkins paced slowly back and forth. "Then he [FDR] handed them [the papers] to Mr. Hopkins," who read them and handed them back to the president.

"The President then turned toward Mr. Hopkins and said in substance … ‘this means war.’ Mr. Hopkins agreed, and they discussed then, for perhaps 5 minutes, the situation of the Japanese forces, that is, their deployment." The Japanese had landed in Indochina. Roosevelt and Hopkins speculated as to where the Japanese would move next. Neither mentioned Pearl Harbor. Nor did they give any "indication that tomorrow was necessarily the day." Also, "there was no mention made of sending any further warning or alert."

"Since war was imminent," Hopkins ventured,

the Japanese intended to strike when they were ready, at a moment when all was most opportune for them … when their forces were most properly deployed for their advantage…. Since war was undoubtedly going to come at the convenience of the Japanese, it was too bad that we could not strike the first blow and prevent any sort of surprise.

The president nodded. "No, we can’t do that. We are a democracy and a peaceful people." Then he raised his voice: "But we have a good record." FDR implied we would have to stand on that record, that "we could not make the first overt move. We would have to wait until it came."

The president went on to tell Hopkins that he had prepared a message for the Japanese emperor "concerning the presence of Japanese troops in Indochina, in effect requesting their withdrawal." FDR had not followed the usual procedure in sending this cable, he said. Rather than addressing it to Tojo as premier, FDR "made a point of the fact that he had sent it to the Emperor as Chief of State."

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The president then tried to phone Admiral Stark, Chief of Naval Operations. Apparently, "the White House operator told the President that Admiral Stark could be reached at the National Theater." FDR feared that if Stark were to be suddenly called out of his box at the theater "he would surely have been seen because of the position which he held and undue alarm might be caused." Besides, he expected he would be able to reach Stark "within perhaps another half an hour." So he let the matter drop. FDR did not then mention "telephoning anybody else." He simply returned the papers to Schulz and Schulz left.

The next morning, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, launching the United States into a war that would cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

What information did those papers contain that led Roosevelt to say, "This means war"? And what did Indochina (now Vietnam) have to do with the United States? The United States had been very much concerned ever since September 1939, when Hitler’s Germany had invaded Poland, leading England and France to declare war on Germany. It looked to some like a repeat of the 1914–1918 World War, and many thought that the United States should join the fight right away. Although most Americans were anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler, they were reluctant to go to war. Besides, a "Neutrality Pact" was in effect.[2]

Even as Roosevelt was signing the "Neutrality Pact," he said, "This nation will remain a neutral nation, but I cannot ask that every American remain neutral in thought as well." Roosevelt, himself, was unneutral in thought and anxious to help the British in whatever way he could. Generally speaking, the American public supported him when he proposed supplying England with whatever she needed – money, planes, tanks, ships, armaments – in order to keep the war from reaching our shores.

As for Japan, she had resigned from the League of Nations in 1935 because of charges against her over the "Manchurian Incident," a suspicious explosion on a Japanese-controlled rail line, which the Japanese used as an excuse to extend their occupation of Manchuria. Then on Nov. 15, 1936, Japan had signed the German-Japanese Anti-Comintern Pact, making an alliance with Germany against their common enemy, Soviet Russia.

Throughout this period, Japan was at war with China. Japan’s bombings and atrocities in China were widely reported and criticized. On July 26, 1939, the United States announced to Japan that she was terminating her 1911 trade treaty in six months; after Jan. 26, 1940, Japan would have to request special permission to purchase anything from the United States. This was a severe blow, as Japan depended heavily on foreign sources for many products, especially oil. Then on Sept. 17, 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, providing that if any one of the three parties was attacked by a power not then involved in the European war or the Sino-Japanese conflict, the other two would come to the victim’s assistance. Thus, sides were drawn – the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) against the Allies (the United States, Russia, and Great Britain). On July 25, 1941, all Japanese assets in the United States were frozen, bringing to a halt all financial and import or export trade transactions in which Japanese interests were involved.

With practically the entire world at war, the United States expanded its production of ships, planes, tanks, and armaments, and enacted controls and regulations in an attempt to put the country on a war footing. In October 1940, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, subjecting all men aged 20 to 44 to military conscription.

Although most Americans opposed the United States entering the war, President Roosevelt was personally and emotionally British. He was influential in arranging for the United States to supply them with money, ships, planes, tanks, and guns; to establish an Atlantic patrol of US Navy ships to warn the British of German ships and submarines; and to escort British ships to Iceland. US ships fired on some German ships. Yet the Germans refused to respond. Hitler was not looking for a fight with the United States. He told Admiral Erich Raeder, then commander in chief of the German navy: "Weapons are not to be used. Even if American vessels conduct themselves in a definitely unneutral manner…. Weapons are to be used only if U.S. ships fire the first shot."[3]

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In April 1941, the Americans, Dutch, and British held secret meetings in Singapore to explore how to respond to Japanese aggression in Southeast Asia. The outcome was an agreement on the part of all three powers that the Japanese should not be allowed to advance west of 100 degrees east longitude or south of 10 degrees north latitude lest it "create a position in which our failure to take active military counter-action would place us at such a disadvantage, that should Japan subsequently attack, that we should then advise our respective Governments to authorize such action."[4] War plans were developed based on this agreement. This US plan was distributed to American field commanders on July 25, 1941.

The war was not going well for the British; many ships with supplies of munitions and food were being sunk in the Atlantic; and London was being attacked almost nightly by German bombers. In August 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill met at Argentia off the coast of Newfoundland. Churchill was anxious for the United States to enter the war against Hitler. However, Roosevelt resisted Churchill’s pleas. Under the US Constitution, he said, only Congress could declare war. If he were to propose going to war, Congress would argue for weeks. Therefore, although "I may not declare war, I may make war." And he proceeded to do just that.

By mid-1941, the area of the US naval patrol in the Atlantic had been extended as far east as the Azores. On May 21, a US freighter, the Robin Moor, was sunk in the south Atlantic. Axis funds in the United States were frozen and German, Italian, and Danish (the Germans had occupied Denmark since April 9, 1940) ships in US harbors were taken into "protective custody." Roosevelt knew that some of his actions in assisting the British openly and courting war against the Nazis were not constitutional. One of his writers, Robert Sherwood, wrote: "Roosevelt never overlooked the fact that his actions might lead to his immediate or eventual impeachment."[5]

Shortly after Denmark was occupied by the Germans, Greenland asked the United States for protection. In July 1941, the US occupied formerly Danish Iceland, and in August, the United States began escorting merchant ships to Iceland. On September 4, a German submarine released a torpedo near the destroyer USS Greer on her way to Iceland; the Greer dropped a depth charge; the sub released a second torpedo; neither sub nor destroyer was hit. But the president was mad! On September 11, he went on radio and issued a "shoot on sight order" to US Navy ships in the Atlantic. "When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him. These Nazi submarines and raiders are the rattlesnakes of the Atlantic."

On Sept. 16, the USS Kearny, another US ship en route to Iceland, was hit by a German torpedo; 11 men were killed, 22 wounded; but the Kearny managed to limp into Reykjavik. On October 31, the Reuben James, also accompanying a convoy, was torpedoed; it split in half and 100 men died; only 45 were saved.

Admiral Royal E. Ingersoll, assistant chief of naval operations, described the de facto war the United States was conducting in the Atlantic as "not a legal war." But then he half-apologized: "It was more in the nature of irregular…. In the Atlantic we were doing some things which only a belligerent does. There had been no declaration. We had done a great many things that under international law, as it was understood before the last war, were unneutral…. It was apparently to her [Germany’s] advantage to have us as a nonbelligerent rather than as a full belligerent."[6]

By the fall of 1941, the situation in the Far East had begun to assume added importance in the eyes of top Washington officials. In an attempt to settle US-Japanese differences – primarily over trade and Japan’s occupation of Indochina, the United States began diplomatic negotiations with Japanese Ambassadors Kichisaburo Nomura and Saburo Kurusu. Roosevelt and Churchill were pressing Japan to end her war with China and stop expanding in the southwestern Pacific.

On November 7 – a full month before the Pearl Harbor attack – Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson reported that FDR took

the first general poll of his Cabinet … on the question of the Far East – whether the people would back us up in case we struck at Japan down there [in southeast Asia]…. It was a very interesting talk…. He went around the table – first [Secretary of State Cordell] Hull and then myself, and then around the whole number and it was unanimous in feeling the country would support us. [FDR] said that … the vote is unanimous, he feeling the same way. The vote would have been much stronger, if the Cabinet had known – and they did not know except in the case of Hull and the President – what the Army was doing with the big bombers [Le., reinforcing the Philippines] and how ready we [the Army] are to pitch in [in case of an attack on the British or Dutch in southeastern Asia.]

At a White House meeting on November 25, FDR raised the subject of Japanese relations. He "brought up the event that we were likely to be attacked [by Japan] perhaps (as soon as) next Monday [December 1], for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what we should do." Secretary of War Stimson stated the dilemma succinctly: "The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves."

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On November 27, Stimson warned the Philippines to expect Japanese aggression in a few days. The war plans issued to Admiral Kimmel in Pearl Harbor advised him to prepare to take the offensive by getting his men and ships ready to launch an attack on the Japanese establishments in the mid-Pacific Marshall Islands.

The next day, November 28, Stimson learned from Army intelligence of a "formidable" expedition of Japanese forces sailing south along the Asiatic coast. Various alternatives were discussed that day at a war cabinet meeting. All the participants agreed that if the Japanese were permitted to land in the Gulf of Siam, it would place them in a strategic position to strike a severe blow against all three other powers in southeast Asia – the British at Singapore, the Dutch in the Indies, and the Americans in the Philippines. The members of the war cabinet all agreed that the landing must not be allowed. If the Japanese got into the Kra Isthmus, the British would fight; and if the British fought, we would have to fight. The cabinet realized that if this expedition was allowed to round the southern point of Indochina, this whole chain of disastrous events would be set in motion.

"We decided, therefore, that we could not just sit still and do nothing." Stimson reported, "After some discussion it was decided that he [FDR] would send such a letter to the Emperor, which would not be made public, and that at the same time he would deliver a special message to Congress reporting on the danger." FDR "asked Hull and Knox and myself [Stimson] to draft such papers. The consensus was "that rather than strike at the Force as it went by without warning on the one hand, which we didn’t think we could do, or sitting still and allowing it to go on, on the other, which we didn’t think we could do – that the only thing for us to do was to address it a warning that if it reached a certain place, or a certain line, or a certain point, we should have to fight."

Secretary of State Hull sent the president a draft of a proposed message to Congress. After rehashing the history of US–Japanese. relations, Hull presented in strong terms the president’s view of Japanese aggression:

The supreme question presented to this country along with many other countries by the Hitler-dominated movement of world conquest is that of self-defense…. We do not want war with Japan, and Japan does not want war with this country. If, however, war should come, the fault and the responsibility will be those of Japan. The primary cause will have been pursuit by Japan of a policy of aggression.

On December 1, Roosevelt had a long conversation with British ambassador Lord Halifax, during which he confirmed the US commitment to its agreement with the British and Dutch. In the case of a direct attack on the British or the Dutch, Roosevelt said "we should obviously all be together." But he

wanted to be clear about "matters that were less plain."… (i) if the Japanese reply to these questions [about where the Japanese troops were going, and if to Indo-China, for what purpose] were unsatisfactory, but the reinforcements had not reached Indo-China, (ii) if the reply were unsatisfactory, and the troops had reached Indo-China, (iii) if the Japanese moved against Thailand without attacking the Kra Isthmus [on Thai territory] or if they did no more than enforce concessions from Thailand of a kind "dangerously detrimental to the general position."

According to Lord Halifax, the president said that the British

could count on American support if we [the British] carried out our move to defend the Kra Isthmus [on Thai territory] in the event of a Japanese attack, though this support might not be forthcoming for a few days. He suggested that we should promise the Thai Government that, if they resisted Japanese attack or infiltration, we would respect and guarantee for the future their full sovereignty and independence. The president said that the United States Constitution did not allow him to give such a guarantee, but we could be sure that our guarantee would have full American support.

Roosevelt’s remarks were "sufficiently encouraging to enable Halifax to report that in his opinion the United States would support whatever action we [the British] might take in any of the contingencies outlined by the President. We could, in any case, count on American support of any operations in the Kra Isthmus."[7]

Also on December 1, Roosevelt instructed Admiral Hart in Manila to equip three small ships commanded by a US naval officer with sufficient armaments – one small gun and a machine gun – to be classified as "US men of war." The crews could be Filipino. These small ships were to take up specific positions in the path of the Japanese convoy then heading south along the Asiatic coast; their purpose was to report the movements of the Japanese. Admiral Hart was puzzled; the Japanese movements were already known in Manila from aerial reconnaissance. Perhaps the three small ships were intended as bait, as Stimson had suggested on September 25, to induce the Japanese into "firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves." As it happened, only one of the three ships got into the Japanese convoy’s way before December 7; it was spotted, and returned to base.

On the evening of December 3, the president again discussed with Lord Halifax the British plan to resist a Japanese attack on the Kra Isthmus and Thailand, again confirming, and even strengthening, his December 1 pledge. He told Lord Halifax that, "when talking of support, he meant ‘armed support,’ and that he agreed with the British plan for operations in the Kra Isthmus if the Japanese attacked Thailand." Halifax then wired his government in London that he "was sure that we [the British] could count on ‘armed support’ if we undertook the [Kra Isthmus] operation."[8]

The situation was heating up. Not only were reports of Japanese activity in the Far East more frequent, but more Japanese messages concerning diplomatic relations and Japanese affairs worldwide were being picked up, decoded, and translated in Washington. And their messages were increasingly urgent. Top Washington officials privy to MAGIC, the intelligence obtained by intercepting Japanese "Purple" coded messages, continued to read and scrutinize them carefully for hints as to what the Japanese were planning.

Among the Japanese intercepts sent from Tokyo in their J-19 code, decoded and translated by our Navy cryptanalysts in Washington on December 3, was a "ships in harbor" message to the Japanese consul in Hawaii. Tokyo asked that Hawaii report twice a week, instead of irregularly, the locations of US "ships in harbor" at Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor officials had never been advised that "ships in harbor" reports were being compiled by the Japanese consul in Hawaii and sent to Tokyo. Nor were they told of this "ships in harbor" intercept.

On December 3, "highly reliable information" was received in Washington that the Japanese diplomatic and consular posts in Hong Kong, Singapore, Batavia, Manila, Washington, and London – all in American, British, or Dutch territory – had been ordered to destroy most of their codes and ciphers and burn all other important confidential and secret documents.

Top Washington officials were increasingly on the alert as conflict with Japan was becoming imminent. They sent instructions to US naval attachés in Tokyo, Bangkok, Peiping, and Shanghai to destroy their codes. And General Sherman Miles, head of the Army’s Military Intelligence Division, ordered the US military attaché at the US embassy in Tokyo to destroy his codes.

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When the Japanese could no longer transmit via code over their cryptographic channels, they communicated with their diplomatic offices worldwide by inserting messages, each with a hidden meaning, in ordinary weather reports. On December 4, radioman Ralph T. Briggs at Cheltenham, MD, intercepted a message containing the phrase Higashi no kaze arne – "East Wind Rain" in English. The hidden meaning of "East Wind Rain" was: "War with England (including Netherlands East Indies, etc.); war with the U.S.; peace with Russia." Thus Russia was not to be a target of Japanese aggression, but England (Singapore), the Dutch East Indies, and the United States (possibly Manila, Pearl Harbor, or the Canal Zone) would be involved at the start in whatever aggression Japan was planning.

This message, with its hidden meaning – "War with the U.S." – written in bold, was hand-delivered to the director of naval communications in Washington. There it vanished, its significance apparently not recognized. At least no hint of this crucial intercept, or its interpretation that an attack on US territory was coming, was ever relayed to any responsible official who would admit receiving it. All trace of its receipt was lost and none was ever found in spite of a thorough search during the many post–Pearl Harbor investigations.

Throughout the weeks and months that US and Japanese diplomats negotiated in Washington, the United States had the advantage of being able to read Japan’s very secret "unbreakable" diplomatic code. After first deciphering it in August 1940, American codebreakers and translators eventually became so adept that they often were able to place the translation of a Japanese intercept on Secretary of State Hull’s desk before the Japanese ambassadors, to whom it had been addressed, arrived to discuss it. Thus, US officials were able to learn many, though not all, Japanese secrets concerning US trade relations, Japan’s obligations to Germany and Italy under the Trilateral Agreement, and Japan’s incursion in China and occupation of French Indochina.

Negotiations with the Japanese finally reached an impasse toward the end of November 1941. However, the Japanese were told by their government to keep up the pretense of negotiating. By this time, top Washington officials were alert for any clues as to what the Japanese were planning.

But their attention was not on Pearl Harbor; rather, it was riveted on the massive Japanese convoys in the southwestern Pacific, and the US obligations to the British and Dutch.

FDR had been following US relations with Japan very closely through MAGIC. He realized war was close. He had been particularly impressed by a December 1 Tokyo-to-Berlin intercept: "War may suddenly break out between the Anglo-Saxon nations and Japan through some clash of arms … quicker than anyone dreams." Another Tokyo to Berlin message intercepted the same day advised Berlin that the United States had "conferred with England, Australia, the Netherlands and China – they did so repeatedly. Therefore, it is clear that the United States is now in collusion with those nations and has decided to regard Japan, along with Germany and Italy, as an enemy."

The papers Lieutenant Schulz delivered to FDR on the evening of December 6 consisted of 13 parts of a 14-part message: Japan’s answer to the United States’ rejection of the latest Japanese attempt at a compromise. It announced that the Japanese were breaking off negotiations and that US–Japanese relations were de facto ruptured.

Roosevelt appeared confident when he told Hopkins that the United States couldn’t "strike the first blow … [W]e could not make the first overt move. We would have to wait until it came." After all, under the US Constitution, only Congress could declare war. And, moreover, Roosevelt had pledged to the American people more than once during his 1940 campaign that "We are arming ourselves not for any foreign war. We are arming ourselves not for any purpose of conquest or intervention in foreign disputes…. It is for peace that I have labored: and it is for peace that I shall labor all the days of my life" (Oct. 23, 1940); and again, "We will not participate in foreign wars and we will not send our army, naval or air forces to fight in foreign lands outside of the Americas except in case of attack."

And yet again, he had stated,

And while I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars. They are going into training to form a force so strong that, by its very existence, it will keep the threat of war from our shores. The purpose of our defense is defense.

In this way, Roosevelt had assured the voters many times that America had provided aid to the British, French, and Chinese purely to help those countries defend themselves against foreign aggression. The grants of money, planes, and weapons; the expansion of the area patrolled by US ships in the Atlantic to keep German and Italian ships away from our shores; the Lend-Lease program; the exchange of old US destroyers to the British for military bases in this hemisphere; the conscription of young men; the build-up of US plants producing planes, ships, and armaments; the convoying of British ships to Iceland – all were intended to keep America out of the war by strengthening Britain.

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But Roosevelt must have had some misgivings even as he spoke to Hopkins. He was well aware that the US was committed to help the British and the Dutch by the agreement signed in April 1941. And he knew that five divisions of Japanese troops were heading south in convoys of 30, 40, or 50 ships, and were probably even then rounding the southern tip of Indochina and sailing toward the Kra Isthmus and the Malayan peninsula. Moreover, he had just reassured Lord Halifax that the United States would lend the British military support if the Japanese proceeded thus. To keep that promise, he must deploy American forces. But how? The Constitution provided that the Congress, not the president, must declare war.

When Stark got home from the theater later that evening, he found a message instructing him to call the president. FDR must already have arranged for the other members of his "inner circle" to come to the White House that night. In any event, the president’s closest advisers gathered together late that night, and into the wee hours of the morning, to discuss the crisis. In attendance were Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, Navy Chief of Staff Harold L. Stark, and Harry Hopkins. They read the 13 parts of Japan’s 14-part response to FDR’s note of November 26 – which the Japanese considered "an ultimatum" – and were expecting the Japanese to announce a final break-off of all relations with the United States. They thought the Japanese would strike Malaya, the Kra Isthmus, or Thailand, and possibly the Dutch East Indies. The president’s men must have discussed how the United States should respond to Japanese aggression thousands of miles from American shores in view of the commitment the US had made to the British. This was the dilemma over which they had agonized for weeks.

At Stimson’s request, Hull and Knox worked on statements presenting the rationale for going to war against Japan without waiting – as the US commanders in the field had been directed to wait – for the Japanese to commit the first overt act. Hull’s statement began,

The Japanese Government, dominated by the military fire-eaters, is deliberately proceeding on an increasingly broad front to carry out its long proclaimed purposes to acquire military control over one-half of the world with nearly one-half of its population. This inevitably means Japanese control of islands, continents, and seas from the Indies back near Hawaii, and that all of the conquered people would be governed militarily, politically, economically, socially, and morally by the worst possible military despotism with barbaric, inhuman, and semi-slavery methods such as Japan has notoriously been inflicting on the people of China and Hitler on the peoples of some 15 conquered nations of Europe…. [I]t is manifest that control of the South Sea area by Japan is the key to the control of the entire Pacific area, and therefore defense of life and commerce and other invaluable rights and interests in the Pacific area must be commenced with the South Sea area…. This at once places at stake everything that is precious and worth while. Self-defense, therefore, is the key point for the preservation of each and all of our civilized institutions.[9]

Knox wrote,

  1. We are tied up inextricably with the British in the present world situation.

  2. The fall of Singapore and the loss to England of Malaya will automatically not only wreck her far eastern position but jeopardize her entire effort.

  3. If the British lose their position the Dutch are almost certain to lose theirs.

  4. If both the British and the Dutch lose their position we are almost certain to be next, being then practically Japanese surrounded.

  5. If the above be accepted, then any serious threat to the British or the Dutch is a serious threat to the United States; or it might be stated any threat to anyone of the three of us is a threat to all of us. We should therefore be ready jointly to act together and if such understanding has not already been reached, it should be reached immediately. Otherwise we may fall individually one at a time (or somebody may be left out on a limb).

  6. I think the Japanese should be told that a movement in a direction that threatens the United States will be met by force. The president will want to reserve to himself just how to define this.[10]

On the morning of December 7, President Roosevelt received part 14 of Japan’s reply to the US "ultimatum," as well as the "One P.M. Message," intercepted early that morning, advising her ambassadors to deliver to Hull the 14-part reply to the US "ultimatum" at precisely 1:00 pm Washington time. According to FDR’s personal physician, Dr. Ross T. McIntire, who was with FDR from 10 am to noon that day, FDR did not think that, even given "the madness of Japan’s military masters," they would risk war with the United States. McIntire wrote later that FDR thought "that they [the Japanese] would take advantage of Great Britain’s extremity and strike at Singapore or some other point in the Far East, but an attack on any American possession did not enter his [FDR’s] thought."

State Department writer Stanley K. Hornbeck had just finished a new draft of a speech, drawing on the suggestions made by Hull, Stimson, and Knox, which FDR planned to deliver to Congress on December 8 or 9 if he did not receive a satisfactory reply to his letter of last appeal to Emperor Hirohito. On the morning of December 7, FDR continued work on that speech.[11] He would review the historical background of US–Japanese relations; remind Congress of the United States’ respect for basic principles, and for "the sovereign rights of the countries of the Far East"; point out that in 1908, 1921, and 1929, Japan and the United States had exchanged notes and signed treaties, and declared support for "the independence and integrity of China," for maintaining "the existing status quo in that region," and for "the principle of equal opportunity for the commerce and industry of all nations throughout China." But he would remind his listeners that the US–Japanese relationship had deteriorated after 1931. In that year, the Japanese army had begun a policy of aggression by seizing Manchuria. In July 1937 she had "embarked upon large-scale military operations against China," killing many American citizens; sinking American vessels; bombing American hospitals, churches, and schools; destroying American property and businesses; and interfering with American trade.

The proposed speech then went on to detail Japan’s transgressions.

In flat defiance of its covenants Japan has invaded and sought to overthrow the Government of China. Step by step its armed forces … have invaded and taken possession of Indochina. Today they are openly threatening an extension of this conquest into the territory of Thailand … where they would directly menace, to the North, the Burma Road, China’s lifeline, and to the South, the port and Straits of Singapore…. While all this is going on, Japan has bound herself to Germany and Italy by a treaty…. Simply stated, what we are confronted with in the Far East is a repetition of the strategy pursued by Hitler in Europe … a steady expansion of power and control over neighboring peoples by a carefully planned and executed progressive infiltration, penetration and encirclement.

The United States recognized Japan’s legitimate interest in seeking access to resources and to trade for the sake of her large population, but objected to Japanese aggression and conquest in southeastern Asia.

The southwestern Pacific and the Asiatic mainland are important to our economy; but they may be even more important to our military position…. [T]he United States is necessarily linked with Great Britain and with the vital units of the British Commonwealth, as well as with China, and a number of other countries. Were Japan established in Singapore or the Netherlands Indies, or were she to dominate China, the lines of communication between the United States, China and other peace-loving nations would be cut.

In the speech the president would remind Congress that the United States and Japan had been negotiating in Washington for eight months in the hope of reaching some peaceful solution.

In our negotiations, we have kept in close contact with the Governments of Great Britain, Australia, the Netherlands Indies, and China…. [W]e have had the moral support of these nations. We also have been given assurance of their material and military support if there comes resort to force.

We have recognized, and have offered to defend, Japan’s legitimate desire to provide her country with the means of peaceful and prosperous life. In return for this we have asked that Japan abandon the practice of aggression and conquest which sets up a continuing and growing military threat to the United States, and continuing and growing disturbance of those world conditions which alone make possible the peaceful life of the United States. This Japan has declined to do…. Though professing a desire merely to establish access to economic resources permitting her to live, she has in fact seized territory for the purpose of ruling it – a rule of merciless sorrow matched only by that of Hitlerized Germany.

The fundamental issue between this country and Japan is not materially different from the issue prevailing between this country and Nazi Germany. The issue is drawn between peoples demanding to be masters over slave peoples, and to maintain and expand that system indefinitely by force, as against those countries who desire the independence of nations, the freedom of peoples, and the working out of cooperation in economic arrangements by which all can live….

Within the past few days large additional contingents of troops have been moved into Indo-China and preparations have been made for further conquest. The question is thus immediately presented whether the United States is to stand by while Japan goes forward with this program of lawless conquest – a conquest which disregards law, treaties, the rights and interests of others, and which brushes aside all considerations of humanity and morality…. The whole world is presented with the issue whether Germany, Italy and Japan are to conquer and rule the earth or are to be dissuaded or prevented, by whatever processes may be necessary, from pursuit of policies of conquest….

Japan’s policy of conquest and exploitation which is now being carried out in China has already utterly destroyed … the peaceful and profitable commercial relations which the United Sates had previously enjoyed there…. This Japanese procedure of conquest and exploitation is encircling the Philippine Islands. It threatens the commerce of those Islands and endangers their physical safety…. If the Japanese should carry out their now threatened attacks upon and were to succeed in conquering the regions which they are menacing in the southwestern Pacific, our commerce with the Netherlands East Indies and Malaya would be at their mercy and probably be cut off…. Further extension of Japanese aggression in the Pacific area menaces seriously the effort which free countries in Europe and in Asia are making to defend themselves against Hitlerism. We are pledged to aid those countries. Trade routes important to Great Britain and to China and to Russia would be threatened, as would the obtaining by those countries of articles essential to continued resistance….

We cannot permit, and still less can we support, the fulfillment by Japan of the aims of a militant leadership which has disregarded law, violated treaties, impaired rights, destroyed property and lives of our nationals, inflicted horrible sufferings upon people who are our friends, interfered with our trade, ruined the legitimate business of many of our nationals, compelled us to make huge expenditures for defensive armament, made threats against us, put and kept many of our people in a constant state of anxiety, and, in general, made Japan a menace to our security and to the cause of peace, of freedom and of justice.

FDR’s proposed address to Congress concluded: "As commander in chief, I have given appropriate orders to our forces in the Far East."

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. Administration officials found it difficult to believe the news of the Japanese attack when it first reached Washington. Hull thought it must have meant Manila. But Stark knew it meant Pearl Harbor; he knew the phrase "This is not a drill" heralded a real attack, not a practice.

When Roosevelt heard of the attack, he was surprised, but several witnesses reported that he actually seemed relieved at the news – at least until he learned the extent of the disaster. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins said "that night … in spite of the terrible blow … he had nevertheless a much calmer air. As we went out [of that evening’s White House meeting, Postmaster General] Frank Walker said to me, ‘I think the boss really feels more relief than he has had for weeks.’" In Perkins’ oral history, "His surprise was not as great as the surprise of the rest of us." And Eleanor. Roosevelt wrote, "In spite of his anxiety Franklin was in a way more serene than he had appeared in a long time. I think it was steadying to know finally that the die was cast…. [Pearl Harbor] was far from the shock it proved to the country in general. We had been expecting something of the sort for a long time."

If the president had delivered the speech he intended to give Congress on December 8 or 9, he would have been violating his pledge to the American people; he would have been sending US boys to fight in a foreign war even though the United States had not been attacked; he would have been sending them to defend territory thousands of miles from our shores – the Isthmus of Kra and Singapore in Malay, and the Dutch East Indies in the Indian Ocean.

Germany’s declaration of war on the United States on December 11, and the blitz warfare by the Japanese during the first few weeks, ensured that the American people would support the war. And so it happened that hundreds of thousands of Americans died thousands of miles from their homes, in a war the president had secretly pursued while publicly promising to avoid.

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The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made war inevitable. But the attack was not Roosevelt’s reason for going to war. It was his excuse.


[1] The dates mentioned in this article are all a matter of public record. Unless otherwise indicated, the direct quotations are all taken from the hearings and reports of the several investigations into the Pearl Harbor attack, as published by the US Congress (1946, 39 vols.).

[2] In 1935, Congress had passed the "Neutrality Act of 1935," instigated largely out of US sympathy for China in her struggle with Japan. As Roosevelt signed it on Aug. 31, 1935, he explained it was intended as an expression of "the fixed desire of the Government and the people of the United States to avoid any action which might involve us in war." This 1935 Act prohibited the trade in arms or implements of war with any country involved in a war. Then in 1939, Congress repealed the 1935 Neutrality Act and replaced it with the "Neutrality Act of 1939." This new Neutrality Act permitted military supplies to be sold to belligerent nations, if they were paid for in cash and if they were not transported in U.S. vessels. This "cash and carry" provision enabled the United States to sell weapons to good nations and refuse to sell them to bad nations. The 1939 Neutrality Act was further revised in November 1941, to permit armed US merchant ships to enter war zones.

[3] Remarks delivered at the Fhrer Conference, May 22, 1941. As quoted in Patrick Abbazia, "Mr. Roosevelt’s Navy: The Private War of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, 1939–1942." (Naval Institute Press, 1975), p. 176.

[4] Quoted from the ADB report, reprinted in the Joint Congressional Committee hearings, part 15, p. 1564. Editor’s note: The ADB report is the official report of these 1941 discussions between the Americans, Dutch, and British.

[5] Robert Sherwood. "Roosevelt and Hopkins," (Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1948), p. 274.

[6] Joint Congressional Committee hearings, part 9, pp. 4246, 4249.

[7] Llewellyn Woodward, "British Foreign Policy in the Second World War." Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1962, pp. 186–187.

[8] Ibid., p. 187.

[9] Hull’s "proposed statement" reprinted in Joint Congressional Committee hearings, part 11, pp. 5439–5440.

[10] Knox’s "suggestion" reprinted in Joint Congressional Committee hearings, part 11, pp. 5440–5441.

[11] Mimeographed, drafted, signed, and pencil-dated Dec. 5, 1941, by Special Assistant to the Secretary of State and Advisor on Political Relations, Stanley K. Hornbeck. National Archives, Civilian Records Branch, Record Group 59, Entry 398, Box 3, Location 250/46/04/01.

Reprinted from

June 29, 2010

Bettina Bien Greaves attended Ludwig von Mises’s New York University seminar, compiled Mises: An Annotated Bibliography, and also edited several collections of articles. She is a senior scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and works at the Foundation for Economic Education. See Bettina Bien Greaves’s article archives.