Trying to Avoid a Japanese-American War: America’s “Japan Connection” in 1937 and 1941

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Trying to Avoid a Japanese-American War: America’s

“Japan Connection” in 1937 and 1941
By Barney J. Rickman III
In 1937 and 1941, a key group of American diplomats -- the "Japan Connection" -- struggled to prevent a Japanese-American war. The Japan Connection consisted of the experts on Japan in the U.S. Department of State and Foreign Service who consistently advocated American-Japanese cooperation between 1922 and 1952. Their ranks included William R. Castle, Jr., Joseph C. Grew, Hugh R. Wilson, Jay Pierrepont Moffat, and Eugene H. Dooman. From the late 1920s to the early 1950s, these American diplomats insisted that cooperation between the United States and Japan would block Soviet expansion, stabilize East Asian relations, and obviate the need for American globalism.1
Although all of these men served in Japan during the 1920s and early 1930s, Castle, Grew, Wilson, Moffat, and Dooman formed a much looser aggregate than the well-studied "China Hands" who dominated the Division of Far Eastern Affairs in the State Department.2 Unlike the China case, American diplomacy with Japan did not produce a tightly-knit cluster of specialists who shared frequent assignments in Tokyo.3 Castle, Grew, Wilson, and Moffat, in fact, initially focused on other regions of the world. Because they entered diplomacy through the European sections of the Department, Castle, Grew, Wilson, and Moffat viewed Japan from the perspective of United States relations with Europe -- especially the Soviet Union. Dooman, on the other hand, was trained as a Japan expert, and he never ventured much beyond East Asian matters in his career. The American diplomats most active from 1922 to 1952 in promoting close U.S.-Japanese relations thus formed a "connection" united more by their ideas than by their assignments.4
The members of the Japan Connection formed their views on Japan during an era of Japanese-American cooperation in the 1920s.5 In part because of these circumstances, Castle, Grew, Wilson, Moffat, and Dooman agreed by 1929 that American policy in East Asia should be grounded on friendship with Japan, although the European-oriented members of the group reached this conclusion through a different path than Dooman. Strongly influenced by elitism, racism, and anti-communism, Castle, Grew, Wilson, and Moffat opposed an extensive commitment of United States resources to East Asia. Although East Asia merited American attention, Castle, Grew, Wilson, and Moffat hesitated to exert American leadership in the region because they argued that the United States had more important interests in Latin America and Europe.6 Japan's actions during the 1920s persuaded these four upper-class, European-oriented diplomats that the island nation represented the only instrument that could be counted on to block Soviet expansion in East Asia (a key goal for these four diplomats) and thereby allow the United States to preserve its power for use in regions they assigned a higher priority (i.e., Latin America and Europe).7
Dooman, on the other hand, by the 1920s had risen through the ranks as a member of the first generation of U.S. Department of State-trained experts on Japan. As is often the case with area experts, Dooman approached Japan with a deep appreciation for its culture and its people.8 Dooman agreed with the other four members of the Japan Connection that the United States should avoid alienating the Japanese and should encourage the island nation to remain an active member of the western-dominated international order.9
After 1929, the members of the Japan Connection attempted to influence American foreign policy in accordance with their pro-Japanese ideas. William Castle, as U.S. Ambassador to Japan and later as Under Secretary of State, led the Japan Connection from 1929 to 1933 in shaping President Herbert Hoover's East Asian policy.10 The Japan Connection's power, however, steadily deteriorated under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Between 1937 and 1941, the Japan Connection struggled to prevent a Japanese-American war. In 1937, Grew, Dooman, Moffat, Wilson, and Castle successfully urged restraint in response to the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War. By 1941, however, the national and international contexts of power had shifted to eliminate the Japan Connection's influence. Despite frenzied efforts, these American diplomats failed to produce a Japanese-American rapprochement before the disaster at Pearl Harbor. A comparison of 1937 and 1941 demonstrates the Japan Connection's declining role in shaping America's Japan policy.11
During this period of escalating Japanese-American tensions, Grew emerged as the most influential member of the Japan Connection, but as the American Ambassador in Japan, Grew never attained the level of influence held by Castle during the Hoover Administration. Often isolated in Tokyo, Grew depended on fellow members of the Japan Connection in Washington to argue for his recommendations.12 In 1937, Moffat and Wilson supported Grew within the Department, while Dooman worked with the Ambassador in Japan and Castle helped as an "informed outsider" in Washington, D.C. By 1941, the Japan Connection had lost its strong base within the Department, and its members failed to reverse the increasingly anti-Japanese nature of American foreign policy.
After 1933, Grew and Castle pursued the same pro-Japanese program through different mediums. Unlike Castle, Grew decided to remain in official service as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan.13 Castle, on the other hand, refused to serve under Franklin Roosevelt.14 Relying on his personal wealth, Castle did not hold a job after he left the State Department in March 1933. Instead, Castle established himself as an "informed outsider" in Washington, D.C.15 Besides private conversations with American and foreign officials, the former Under Secretary publicized his views through numerous speeches and articles.16
Despite their different positions, Grew and Castle agreed on the basic tenets of American foreign policy in East Asia.17 Although frustrated by continued Japanese aggression in China, Grew and Castle remained convinced that the United States must not risk war to stop Japan.18 Based on their strident anti-communism and because they assigned a higher priority to Latin America and Europe than to East Asia for U.S. involvement, Grew and Castle refused to block forcefully Japanese expansion, and they flatly rejected any tactics that risked escalation.19 In sum, Grew and Castle advocated a passive policy toward Japanese aggression in China. Although they admitted that the United States should protest Japanese actions that infringed on U.S. treaty rights in China, they remained adamant that the United States must avoid any action that might provoke Japan.
From 1933 to 1937, the Roosevelt Administration followed this passive policy toward Japan, but Roosevelt and Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State, never accepted the ideological premises of this stance as envisioned by the Japan Connection. The President and his Secretary, unlike the Japan Connection, shared a more global vision of American foreign policy. Persuaded that the United States had to oppose any nation that endangered free trade and international respect for treaties, Roosevelt and Hull wanted to prevent Japan as well as other "revisionist" powers such as Germany and Italy from carving the world into autarkic economic spheres.20
Yet, ever conscious of domestic and international limitations on American action, the President and his Secretary often compromised their principles.21 With respect to Japan in the early 1930s, both Roosevelt and Hull remained committed to preserving American treaty rights in East Asia, but they pursued a non-active policy because they had little choice. When Roosevelt entered the White House, the Great Depression still restricted American foreign policy. England and France, moreover, refused to challenge Japan. For Roosevelt and Hull, a passive East Asian policy represented a tactical delay, not a strategic withdrawal. Until a more opportune time, the Roosevelt Administration would neither confront nor accept Japan's assertive stance in East Asia.22
Castle, Grew, Wilson, Moffat, and Dooman, however, were willing to accept an enlarged role for Japan in East Asia. Unlike Roosevelt and Hull, the Japan Connection ranked blocking Soviet expansion (via U.S.-Japan cooperation) and preserving American power (for use in Latin America and Europe) as top priorities for U.S. policy in East Asia. The Japan Connection viewed securing free trade and international respect for treaties as less important goals. For Castle, Grew, Wilson, Moffat, and Dooman, U.S. interests in East Asia (and elsewhere) were best served by avoiding any action that might alienate Japan and by seeking opportunities for American-Japanese cooperation.
An example of the differences between the Roosevelt Administration and the Japan Connection arose in the mid-1930s over the question of an accommodation with Japan. Both Grew and Castle contemplated a rapprochement with Japan whereby the United States would recognize Japan’s expanded power in East Asia in return for a firmer guarantee by Japan of American rights in China. Grew and Castle hoped that a new arrangement with Japan, besides stabilizing Japanese-American relations, would discourage Soviet expansion into East Asia.23 The Roosevelt Administration, however, refused any such accommodation with Japan.24

For the Japan Connection, the Roosevelt Administration presented a very different national context from the Hoover years. The members of the Japan Connection now had to contend with a Secretary of State and a President who did not share their conception of American foreign policy in East Asia.25 The members of the Japan Connection could not hope to change the more globally inclined views held by Hull and Roosevelt. Instead, the Japan Connection had to appeal to the pragmatic nature of the Secretary and the President while avoiding the appearance of being pro-Japanese.26 This changed national context confined the Japan Connection to a defensive posture in the years preceding Pearl Harbor. Although these American diplomats could at times successfully urge restraint, they failed in 1937 to persuade the Administration to accept Japan's dominance of East Asia.27

II. 1937: Start of the Sino-Japanese War
During 1937, the Japan Connection successfully met the challenges of this new national context. The Japan Connection convinced Hull that the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in July did not warrant a major initiative by the United States. Instead, Grew, Dooman, Moffat, Wilson, and Castle urged the Secretary to continue his passive policy toward East Asia. Despite his growing anti-Japanese sentiments, Hull accepted the arguments of the Japan Connection, and the Secretary deftly deflected attempts by others in the U.S. government to pursue an actively hostile policy toward Japan.28
After a small clash of arms on 7 July 1937 escalated into full-scale fighting between Japanese and Chinese troops, Grew immediately advised the State Department to continue its passive policy toward East Asia.29 An offer to mediate the Sino-Japanese dispute or any other pressure on the Japanese to compromise, Grew argued, was doomed to failure. Japan was committed to resisting western influence in East Asia, Grew maintained, and he correctly predicted that Japan would refuse an offer of mediation. Instead, Grew counseled the Department to send notes to Japan "only . . . where such protests might be expected not to aggravate the situation . . . ."30 Grew argued that this policy had improved Japanese-American relations in the preceding four years and that this stance would help restrain Japan by avoiding "irritation which would merely . . . spur the Japanese to further aggression."31 In the hope of keeping "Japanese-American relations on a fair equilibrium," the Ambassador tried to restrict American diplomacy to actions for "the record."32 To achieve this goal, Grew consistently advised informal protests against Japanese actions, and he opposed American participation with other western powers in castigating Japan.33

In forming these recommendations, Grew depended on Dooman, the new Counselor of the American Embassy in Tokyo. From 1933 to early 1937, Dooman ran the Japan desk in the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs in the Department, but in late 1936, Grew requested that Dooman be assigned to Tokyo. Dooman eagerly accepted the appointment because he had chafed under the stern style and pro-Chinese orientation of Stanley Hornbeck, the chief of the Far Eastern bureau.34 Even before Dooman arrived, Grew predicted that they would be "as thick as thieves," and throughout the next four years, Grew constantly consulted Dooman and relied on him for information about Japanese politics and for early drafting of important documents.35

Grew and Dooman received strong departmental support from Jay Pierrepont Moffat and Hugh Wilson, two other members of the Japan Connection. After a two-year stint in Australia, Moffat returned to the Department in July 1937 as Chief of the newly-reorganized Division of European Affairs.36 Wilson, who had served as the American Minister to Switzerland since 1927, then joined Moffat in the Department in August as an Assistant Secretary of State.37 Besides formulating American policy toward Europe, Wilson and Moffat supported a cautious stance toward Japan because the two men, like Grew and Dooman, wanted an East Asian policy that would, in Moffat's words, "safeguard our nationals, preserve our interests and keep us out of all involvement."38
Hull's unique management style allowed Wilson and Moffat to influence America's East Asian policy. Especially when the Secretary was "puzzled about a situation," he held rambling conferences in his office where all the top officers in the Department, regardless of specialization, offered their recommendations.39 Together, Wilson and Moffat exercised a strong voice in this setting.40 Through Wilson and Moffat, Castle strongly seconded the passive policy advocated by Grew and Dooman. During the latter half of 1937, Castle met with Wilson and Moffat often to discuss the American stance toward Japan, and Castle reinforced their opposition to any coercive action against the island nation.41
In the Department debates of 1937, Wilson and Moffat repeatedly conflicted with Stanley Hornbeck. Although promoted to political adviser to the Secretary in 1937, Hornbeck continued to dominate the Division of Far Eastern Affairs because his former assistant, Maxwell Hamilton, succeeded him as the division chief.42 The dispute between Wilson and Moffat, on one hand, and Hornbeck, on the other, revolved around how much coercion the United States could use, or threaten to use, in its East Asian policy. In 1937, Hornbeck argued that the United States could safely threaten Japan.43 Hornbeck's abrasive personality, however, encouraged Hull to consult Moffat and Wilson. Annoyed by Hornbeck's lack of tact and his verbose memoranda, Hull complained that the former Far Eastern Chief "just fusses at me all the time."44
During the early months of the Sino-Japanese war, the Department followed the cautious policy advocated by Grew, Dooman, Wilson, Moffat, and Castle. In his first public statement after the outbreak of fighting, Hull on 16 July faulted neither Japan nor China, but instead presented a very general list of American principles including avoiding force in the settlement of disputes and international respect for treaties.45 Although increasingly angry at the Japanese, Hull assured Grew on 29 July that his policy would be "not to make uncalled for and likely to be futile protests or gestures of interference."46 In a further statement released on 23 August, Hull explicitly applied his principles of 16 July to the Pacific, but the Secretary still avoided blaming either China or Japan.47 In formulating this policy, Hull relied on his own innate caution which was reinforced by the advice of Grew, Dooman, Wilson and Moffat. Besides consulting Wilson and Moffat, Hull constantly requested Grew's advice on policy questions, deferred to Grew's discretion on how to approach the Japanese, and let the Ambassador know he was pleased with Grew's actions.48
By August, Grew expressed great satisfaction with Hull's policy, and the Ambassador took every opportunity to assure the Secretary of the wisdom of this course. Grew's pleasure with Hull's policy, in fact, encouraged the Ambassador to overstep his bounds in late August. Grew had been mulling over the future shape of American policy, and after consulting the entire Embassy staff, Grew wrote a long telegram to the Secretary on 27 August.49 Dooman strongly supported Grew's actions because both men saw an opportunity to influence Hull.50
Grew and Dooman sought to advance American interests in East Asia through an accommodation with Japanese expansionism. For Grew and Dooman, this adjustment reflected "practical common sense." Both men assumed that, without war, the United States could not alter Japan's actions in China. Since the United States had already registered its disapproval of Japan's aggression, Grew and Dooman argued that the Department should now adopt a "policy of dignified silence."51 In the hopes of building on Japanese appreciation of recent American policy, Grew called for a "special endeavor" by the United States not to go further in its condemning Japanese actions. This policy, Grew argued, would increase protection of American rights in East Asia as well as offer a future opportunity to help settle the conflict when, as Grew expected, the Japanese became bogged down in China.52
Grew's telegram had an immediate effect on the Department. According to Wilson, the note dissuaded the Secretary from sending "a rather ominous document to the Japanese."53 Moffat noted that Grew's reasoning reassured the Secretary to continue his passive policy toward Japan, but Hull refused any special effort not to offend the Japanese. The Secretary, moreover, asserted that Grew and the Embassy had to be awakened to the depth of American outrage at Japan's behavior and to the need for an "American policy over a long term with respect to condoning treaty breaking and aggression."54
After a long drafting process, Hull responded on 2 September.55 In this terse note, Hull stressed American disapproval of Japanese actions and the Secretary's fervent commitment to the principles he had outlined on 16 July and 23 August. Although the Secretary would continue his policy not "to call names or to make threats," he strongly notified Grew that "we should not allow ourselves to be hampered . . . by being especially solicitous that what we do shall not be displeasing" to either Japan or China.56
Stung by the Secretary's rebuke, Grew immediately altered his course.57 As directed by Hull, Grew made stronger protests to the Japanese Foreign Office, especially over Japanese bombing in Nanjing.58 On 15 September, Grew also wrote Hull an even longer letter to demonstrate that the Embassy did not diverge from the Department's stance. In this deferential note, the Ambassador stressed that his "main purpose" in the earlier telegram had been to advise the continuation of the current American policy.59 Grew did not, however, discard his pro-Japanese views in his note of 15 September. In a delicate balance, the Ambassador still maintained that American interests would be served best by avoiding any unnecessary irritation of Japan.60
The exchange of letters between Grew and Hull demonstrated the limits of influence by the Japan Connection under the Roosevelt Administration. While Grew and the others could encourage a passive policy not to confront Japan, these diplomats could not persuade Hull to accommodate Japan's expansionism. For the Japan Connection, an adjustment to Japan's new position would increase protection of American interests in East Asia. Hull, however, refused any acceptance of Japanese aggression. As Wilson explained to Grew in the fall of 1937, Hull was motivated "by a righteous indignation to adopt what some term a ‘vigorous stand’ and is deterred therefrom by the type of argument that we have launched."61

In this atmosphere, the members of the Japan Connection during the rest of 1937 worked with Hull to keep the United States committed to a cautious policy toward East Asia. In October, Wilson and Moffat helped defeat the first consideration of economic sanctions against Japan since the start of the Sino-Japanese War. Wilson and Moffat then played key roles in Hull's successful efforts to scuttle the November Brussels Conference, a meeting convened in response to Roosevelt's quarantine speech of 5 October. (This speech reflected Roosevelt’s more globally inclined views on foreign policy. Because the “epidemic of world lawlessness is spreading,” the President proposed that the law-abiding nations “quarantine” the aggressor states “to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease.”62) To sustain Hull’s acceptance of a passive policy, Moffat and Wilson repeatedly stressed that economic sanctions would inevitably lead to war, that the United States could not depend on British naval support in the case of hostilities with Japan, and that a fully defeated Japan risked Soviet expansion in China.63 Meanwhile, Castle encouraged popular opposition to Roosevelt's quarantine speech.64 To defeat Roosevelt's initiative, Castle began a series of speeches warning that any form of sanctions against Japan would inevitably escalate into war.65

III. The Japan Connection’s Influence Declines
From 1938 to 1940, changes in the national and international contexts of power diluted the influence of the Japan Connection. Nationally, the Japan Connection lost its strong power base within the State Department. Wilson left Washington in January 1938 to become the American Ambassador to Germany.66 Moffat immediately noted the loss of his ally.67 Besides holding a lower rank than Hornbeck, Moffat suffered an ever-increasing workload as European tensions escalated.68 From January 1938 to May 1940, when he was transferred to Canada, Moffat had little time for East Asian issues because he had to formulate an American response to Adolf Hitler's aggression in Europe. By 1941, neither Wilson nor Moffat held positions permitting them to shape American policy toward Japan.69
The weakened position of the Japan Connection in the Department occurred just as Hull began to adopt a harsher stance toward Japan.70 Hull did not abandon caution after 1937, but the Secretary became less willing to maintain a strictly passive policy toward Japanese expansion. For example, although Hull strongly opposed formal economic sanctions, the Secretary in 1939 officially discouraged private American loans to Japan.71 From 1938 to 1940, Hull followed a policy of harsh rhetoric mixed with softer actions that avoided confrontation while slightly harassing Japan.72
Continued Japanese aggression further undermined the Japan Connection's case. From 1938 to 1940, despite hesitancy and occasional indecision, Japan continued to spread its influence in Asia. During early 1938, the Japanese military escalated the war with China.73 Bogged down on the continent, the government of Prince Konoye Fumimaro then decided in November 1938 to abandon fully the Washington Treaty system.74 In September 1940, viewing Germany's summer victory over France as an opportunity for further expansion, Japan joined with Germany and Italy in the Tripartite Pact. That month Japanese forces also occupied northern Indochina.75
Top American officials grew increasingly alarmed by Japan's unrelenting movement in Asia. During the late 1930s, decision-makers in Washington viewed Japanese aggression as part of a global movement by totalitarian states to impose restrictive political and economic practices on the world. In an international system of seemingly interlocked threats from Germany, Italy, and Japan, American foreign policy assumed a more global nature as policymakers argued that the security of the United States required the survival of Britain, France, China, and the Soviet Union.76 In this changing national and international context, many of the arguments of the Japan Connection lost relevancy. If the United States needed Britain to resist Hitler and if England depended on raw materials from her southeast-Asian colonies, then the United States, according to Roosevelt and others, must protect those areas from Japanese expansion.77

Despite strenuous efforts, the Japan Connection failed to counteract the increasing globalism of American foreign policy. From 1938 to 1941, Grew and Castle emerged as the two most influential members of the Japan Connection while Dooman supported Grew's efforts to avoid a Japanese-American conflict. Preoccupied with European questions, Moffat and Wilson devoted only marginal attention to East Asia.78

From January 1938 to December 1941, Grew and Dooman fought a defensive battle to preserve a passive policy toward Japan. Realizing the growing pressure within the Department for an active stance, Grew, with Dooman's support, usually argued strongly that the United States must not use economic sanctions against Japan. Grew and Dooman were convinced that the Japanese viewed control of north China's raw materials as vital to the empire's existence. Given this commitment, the Japanese would not, they argued, be cowed by American economic pressure. The Ambassador and his Counselor stressed, moreover, that sanctions risked war in an area of limited American economic and strategic interests.79
While Grew and Dooman worked officially from 1938 to 1941 to avert a Japanese-American clash, Castle increased his unofficial activities to the same end. During 1937, Castle supplemented the efforts of Grew, Dooman, Wilson, and Moffat. Castle refrained from greater activity during that crucial year because he was distracted by his position on the Republican National Committee. Despite his duties with the Republican party, in the years leading up Pearl Harbor Castle increased his public criticism of the Roosevelt Administration. Through his articles and speeches, Castle tried to mobilize opposition to what he perceived as a dangerous activism by the President.80 In late 1940, Castle also helped organize the America First Committee in the hope that this new group could block Roosevelt's foreign policy.81
Yet, the efforts by Grew, Dooman, and Castle failed to halt the progressive deterioration in Japanese-American relations. On 24 July 1941, Japan occupied southern Indo-China, and in response Roosevelt immediately froze Japanese assets in the United States. The President's order soon escalated into a complete embargo of American trade with Japan including oil, a commodity vital to Japan.82 The sudden increase in Japanese-American friction dismayed Grew as well as Japanese Prime Minister Konoye. Because Japan depended upon American oil, Japanese leaders had to make a decision: either Japan must reach an agreement with the United States or attack the European colonies in Southeast Asia to ensure a supply of oil. Negotiation or war presented the only two possibilities. In this atmosphere of crisis, Konoye asked for a private meeting with Roosevelt to discuss Japanese-American differences. Once informed of Konoye's initiative, Grew immediately urged the Administration to accept.83
Grew's strenuous efforts to encourage a Roosevelt-Konoye meeting illustrated his lack of influence in the State Department in 1941. From August to October, the Ambassador argued repeatedly that the United States should accept Konoye's offer. Japan now realized, Grew maintained, that the United States would oppose Japanese aggression in the Pacific. Having awakened Japan to the depth of the American commitment in East Asia, the United States must now encourage those members of the Japanese government who wished to avoid war. Although Grew praised the earlier forceful posture of his government, the Ambassador stressed that further pressure would not force the Japanese to submit. Rather, Grew feared that only a positive response to Konoye's initiative would check the descent to war.84
The Department flatly rejected his recommendations. In particular, Hull and his advisers, reflecting the distrust of Japan that pervaded Washington by 1941, rebutted Grew's position that a meeting could occur without prior agreement on points of dispute.85 The Department demanded explicit assurances of change in Japanese policy, especially on China, before any meeting between Roosevelt and Konoye. By the beginning of October, the possibility for a Roosevelt-Konoye meeting had died.86

The failure of the proposed conference starkly revealed the Embassy's lack of influence in the year preceding Pearl Harbor.87 By the fall of 1941, Grew lamented his isolation from the Department.88 In this vacuum, the Ambassador busied himself with repeated warnings to the Department that Japan would rather attack than submit to American coercion. Grew relied heavily on Dooman for these telegrams, but in the end, the Embassy's telegrams did little good.89

While Grew and Dooman tried to combat their isolation in Tokyo, Castle was forced to stop his public opposition to Roosevelt's foreign policy. Castle began 1941 with numerous speeches, but on 29 April, the former Under Secretary suddenly collapsed. This collapse and the resulting operations to extract his colon removed Castle from the public debate for the rest of 1941.90

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