Created 6/12/1997
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Review of Akira Iriye's The Origins of the Second World War in Asia and in the Pacific (New York: Longman, 1987).

Brad DeLong
Professor of Economics
U.C. Berkeley

I know quite a lot about the origins of World War II in Europe: the Great Depression, the rise of the Nazi Party, appeasement of Hitler in the hope that his demands would stop at some reasonable limit; general recognition after the March 15, 1939 conquest of Czechoslovakia that Hitler's demands were not unlimited; Britian and France's spring 1939 attempt to bluff Hitler into quiescence by guaranteeing the integrity of Poland and Romania; the fall 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact; Hitler's attack on Poland; and the decision by the British House of Commons and the French Chamber of Deputies to honor their guarantees to Poland--making Britain (along with the Dominions of the British Empire) and France the only powers involved in World War II to declare war on Hitler, rather than waiting until Hitler declared war on them.

World War II in Asia has always been much murkier to me.

There was a Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931, and a Japanese attack on China in 1937. There were military clashes between Japanese and Soviet troops in Mongolia in 1938-1939. There was a Japanese attempt to profit from Hitler's early victories in Europe by demanding that France allow it to occupy the French colonies of Indochina, and that Britain shut off the supply road from its colony of Burma to the Chinese. After the French occupation of Indochina in July 1941 President Roosevelt embargoed oil shipments to Japan; and on December 7, 1941 the Japanese navy and air force struck not just south to occupy Dutch-ruled Indonesia and acquire an alternative source of oil, but everywhere else in the Southwest Pacific to enlarge the Japanese Empire--and at Pearl Harbor as well.

But the logic of events--why was a Japan focused on Indonesia skirmishing with Soviets in Mongolia? why was a Japan already bogged down in China seeking additional enemies by occupying Indochina?--escaped me.

When I would complain about how the origins of World War II in the Pacific seemed to me to make no sense, I would receive a stock answer: "read Akira Iriye's book, 'The Origins of the Second World War in Asia and the Pacific'."

I have now read Akira Iriye's book. I report that the logic of events in the Pacific still eludes me.

The chain of events still seems highly unlikely--and to reflect mammoth stupidity on the part of the Japanese government. The goals that the Japanese government and military thought that they were pursuing still seem elusive and illusory. For Japan to have found itself at war with all of the other Pacific powers--the Soviet Union, China, Britain, Australia, and the United States--with its closest and only allies some 12,000 miles away still seems to me to exhibit a high order of diplomatic ineptness.

Begin with the balance of industrial resources. China--especially after the occupation of North China by Japan's Kwantung and Tientsin armies, the lower Yangtze valley around Shanghai, and the Guangzhou region around Canton--had no factories with which to make modern weapons. China's armies depended on Soviet or Anglo-American weapons brought in over land. But China aside Japan was by far the least of the potential great powers: its heavy industrial capacity was perhaps twenty-five percent of Germany's, perhaps twenty percent of Britain's, perhaps fifteen percent of the Soviet Union's, and perhaps five percent of America's. Japan's pre-war battle fleet and air force were substantial. But the industrial base to keep planes, newly-trained pilots, and ships flowing to the front was not.


(U.S. 1944=100)

Year United States United Kingdom Soviet Union Nazi Germany

 Imperial Japan

1937 1 1 3 2  2
1938 1 2 4 3  3
1939 2 3 6 4  3
1940 6 7 7 8  3
1941 15 10 12 8  4
1942 53 17 22 11  5
1943 91 20 28 17  4
1944 100 19 31 21  3

Given Japan's relative industrial weakness, the first principle of its leaders'--even the most militarist and aggressive of leaders--strategies should have been to choose targets carefully. Perhaps Japan had the strength to evict the Soviet Union from the far east, and add Vladivostok, Sakhalin, Kamchatcka, and Siberia up to Lake Baikal to its empire--as long as the Nazis distracted Stalin by threatening Moscow and killing tens of millions of his citizens. Perhaps Japan had the strength to drive up the Yangtze to Chiang Kai-shek's western refuge capital of Chungking and impose a peace of its choosing on the Chinese Nationalists--as long as Britain, America, and the Soviet Union were more worried about Europe and Germany. Perhaps Japan had the strength to take advantage of the fall of western Europe to the Nazis by snapping up the colonies of Indochina and Indonesia, establishing puppet "nationalist" government, proclaiming the end of the era of European imperialism, and forming a Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

But to try to do all three--or even any two--at once? To refuse to choose? To court war (and prepare for aggressive war) with Stalin, invade China, and fail to conciliate the United States in the western Pacific? That shows a radical disproportion between available means and desired ends.

Why the disproportion? Because there was no referee inside the Japanese government. The army--especially those elements already involved in China--generally sought to settle the China question by force. The navy and air force worried about the vulnerability of their oil supplies, sought expansion into Indonesia to achieve self-sufficiency and sought conquest of the Philippines to keep the Indonesia-Japan oil lifeline. The foreign ministry (especially after the signing of the anti-Comintern pact, aimed at "militarist Japan" among others) tended to advocate the expulsion of the Soviet Union from East Asia. A few--Sato Naotake and Ugaki Kazushige during their short tenures at the foreign ministry, for example--wished for Japan to embrace interdependence, and to accomodate its policies in order to preserve good relations with Britain and America; but for most of the 1930s these "internationalists" were out of power: some were dead, assassinated by young army officers, and the voices of others were drowned out by the nationalist and imperialist media. And in the absence of a referee, the answer to the question "which do you choose?" seemed to be "all."

For example, in a relatively short period in 1938 and 1939 the Japanese (a) established a puppet government in China and announced that they would never negotiate with Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalists, (b) provoked military clashes with the Soviet Union in Mongolia, and (c) occupies Hainan and the Spratly islands in the South China Sea as stepping-stones for attacks in the southwestern Pacific. In the summer of 1941, the Japanese (a) mobilized to attack Siberia in response to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, (b) occupied southern Indochina to gain further bases for airplanes in the southwestern Pacific, and (c) sought to "bring the war in China to a conclusion."

The Japanese occupation of northern Indochina in 1940 had brought with it an embargo on U.S. exports of iron and steel to scrap to Japan. The Japanese occupation of southern Indochina in 1941 brought with it another sanction, the freezing of Japanese assets in the United States. The freezing of Japanese assets turned into a de facto embargo on oil exports: Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson would only issue licenses for oil exports to Japan if they were paid for out of "hidden" funds that had escaped the freezing process that Acheson was sure the Japanese possessed, and no such hidden funds were forthcoming.

In the aftermath of the freezing order, Japan shifted its military away from preparations for an attack on the Soviet Union and for preparations for attacks in the southwestern Pacific--and on Pearl Harbor. Japan could not wage war on China (let alone the Soviet Union) without supplies of oil; the Japanese navy did not believe that it could secure and hold oil-rich Indonesia as long as the undamaged U.S. battle fleet remained in the Pacific.

Thus that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 appears to be the responsibility of--Dean Acheson. Had he administered the asset-freezing order more liberally, and had the flow of oil to Japan continued, the end of 1941 would have seen the Japanese army attacking Vladivostok and toward Lake Baikal. There would have been no reinforcements from Siberia to defend Moscow against the German final fall offensive.

It is not at all clear how those in the Japanese government who began the Pacific war expected it to end. Perhaps they thought that their allies, the Germans, would conquer in Europe--and that Britain would have much worse to worry about. Perhaps they really did hope that they could win a few victories at sea against the Americans, then offer peace, and have the (effete, degenerate) Americans agree to Japanese predominance in the Philippines, in Indonesia, and in the whole western Pacific. Perhaps they foresaw total German victory in Europe over the Soviet Union and Britain--in which case America would have other things to worry about than the western Pacific.

There is simply no rational vision of the universe that would support Japan's rulers' policy decision to expand the Pacific War beyond China.



Decision of July 2, 1941: occupy southern Indochina and prepare for war with the Soviet Union.

Roosevelt "warning Prime Minister Konoe in a personal message on 4 July that any such [Japanese attack on the Soviet Union] would jeopardize the negotiations in Washington and undermine the peace in the Pacific." (p. 148)

Sumner Welles on 21 July warning the Japanese that "their occupation of Indochina would be incompatible with the negotiations going on between the two countries." (p. 147)

The Key Moment in Japan's Decision for War (From Iriye, pp. 149-150):

"Between 2 July and 9 August [1941], then, a crucial reversal of Japanese strategy had taken place. From preparedness for an impending offensive against the Soviet Union, the supreme command reverted to a more passive stance in the north. Sixteen divisions would still be mobilized, but they would not be engaged in any action for the time being. Henceforth, Japanese strategy would focus on a possible conflict with the A[merica ]B[ritain ]C[hina ]D[utch East Indies] powers. In this sense, 9 August may be taken as the point of no return...

"The United States contributed to that turn of events by instituting a de facto embargo on [exports of] oil [to Japan]. The freezing of Japanese assets, announced on 25 July [1941], had been followed by a week of intensive work by State Department, Treasury, and other officials to set up a machinery for implementing the order. The idea, which Roosevelt approved, was to let the Japanese apply for export licenses which would then be examined on a case-by-case basis and necessary funds released from blocked Japanese monies to purchase the goods. Oil, too, would be dealt with in this fashion. But the processing of applications for licenses and the releease of funds took time, and the matter was overseen by Dean Acheson, assistant secretary of state, who refused to release funds, intent upon punishing Japan for its southern expansionism [into Indochina]. The result was that Japan never got any oil after 25 July, a fact that even Roosevelt did not find out until early September. But the Japanese were under no illusion about the matter. They now realized that a total oil embargo was being put into effect. Japanese strategy would now have to take that development into consideration.... Prime Minister Konoe himself told the war and navy ministers that matters stood 'only a step this side of entering into a major war'. They reasoned that the American oil embargo would force the nation to... incorporate the region [of southeast Asia with its oil fields] into the [Japanese] empire. But such action would inevitably draw the United States, Britain, and the Dutch into war.... The oil embargo was seen as tantamount to an act of war, and Japan would respond by its own military action..."

Dean Acheson's view of the U.S. imposition of the oil embargo on Japan in July 1941

Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation, pp. 24 ff.: "When [the United States] did act on the 26th [of July], it is by no means clear who intended to do what.... [On the 18th of July Sumner] Welles attended a cabinet meeting.... When Morgenthau asked the President what he would do in response to [a Japanese occupation of Indochina], the President reiterated his opposition to an embargo on oil as likely to drive the Japanese on to Indonesia. Welles suggested freezing Japanese assets and the President seemed to agree.

"Welles's suggestion was, of course, far from clear. It could have been an alternative to an [oil] embargo or regarded as the same thing, depending on how it was administered.... Its very ambiguity could well have made it the sort of response... that would appeal to both FDR and his Secretary [of State]... 'preserv[ing] all the options'.... [T]he President and Welles agreed that we should feel our way along in administering the order until we got a sense of Japanese reaction...

"The first policy guide to our committee [administering the freezing order] came in a late-July talk I had with Welles. The happiest solution with respect to Japanese trade, he told me, would for the Foreign Funds Committee to take no action on Japanese applications [to use frozen funds]. We immediately took three positions to discourage applications.... [E]ach transaction must be carefully considered on its individual merits...

"[The policy] mystified our allies, whose representatives, as well as the Japanese, constantly sought enlightenment... while our export policy appeared to contemplate licenses for certain quantities and grades of petroleum, under freezing control means of payment did not seem to be available. What was the policy?...

"The fact was, I told [the Netherlands Counselor], that no shipment of petroleum products had gone to Japan since the freezing order.... [T]he Japanese refused to turn in hidden cash as payment and no satisfactory alternative had been agreed on. Our government expected to continue in the same way, with the same results.... The inarticulate major premise was that whether or not we had a policy, we had a state of affairs; the conclusion, that until further notice it would continue.... United States policy was then set, though not stated."

The Road to World War II in the Pacific:

Date: Prime Minister: Foreign Minister:
-Nov. 1930 Hamaguchi (assass.)  
Nov. 1930-Dec. 1931 Wakatsuki Reijiro Shidehara Kijuro
Dec. 1931-May 1931 Inukai Tsuyoshi (assass.)  
Sep. 1933-Jul. 1934   Hirota Koki
Jul. 1934-Mar. 1936 Okada Keisuke Hirota Koki
Mar. 1936-Jan. 1937 Hirota Koki Arita Hachiro
Jan. 1937-May 1937 Hayashi Senjuro Sato Naotake
May 1937-May 1938 Konoe Fumimaro Hirota Koki
May 1938-Sep. 1938 Konoe Fumimaro Ugaki Kazushige
Sep. 1938-Jan. 1939 Konoe Fumimaro Arita Hachiro
Jan. 1939-Aug. 1939 Hiranuma Kiichiro Arita Hachiro
Aug. 1939-Jan. 1940 Abe Nobuyuki Nomura Kichisaburo
Jan. 1940-Jul. 1940 Yonai Mitsumasa Arita Hachiro
Jul. 1940-Jul. 1941 Konoe Fumimaro Matsuoka Yosuke
Jul. 1941- Konoe Fumimaro Toyoda Teijiro

Abe Nobuyuki: An army general, hoping for a reorientation of foreign policy toward an accomodation with the United States--hoping (unrealistically) to take China off the table as far as U.S.-Japanese relations were concerned.

Arita Hachiro: Professional diplomat, took steps to weaken and dissolve the Washington treaties, form the anti-Comintern pact. Part of the "radical" wing of the Foreign Ministry.

Hayashi Senjuro: Army general; sought to retrench in China.

Hiranuma Kiichiro
Hirota Koki
Konoe Fumimaro
Matsuoka Yosuke
Nomura Kichisaburo
Okada Keisuke
Toyoda Teijiro
Ugaki Kazushige
Yonai Mitsumasa



Created 6/12/1997
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Associate Professor of Economics Brad DeLong, 601 Evans
University of California at Berkeley; Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
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