On Nov. 26, 1941, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull submitted a note to Kichisaburo Nomura, Japan’s ambassador in Washington, and special envoy Saburo Kurusu. Whether that note was an ultimatum that made it virtually certain Japan would wage war — or whether it represented the latest U.S. effort in ongoing negotiations to avert war — is a subject of hot debate to this day.

In Japan, “revisionists” contend that the so-called Hull Note was a deliberate provocation, so that the United States could — by the back door, and against the popular mood of the country — enter the war with Nazi Germany that had raged for more than two years.

However, in Japan and elsewhere, others take the view that, even after delivery of the Hull Note, there was still a way to continue negotiations — had there been a will to do so on the part of Japan.

In recent years, new pieces of evidence have gone a long way toward resolving the question of the Hull Note’s bearing on the hostilities that broke out so soon after it was handed over. In addition, they also cast intriguing new light on the high-level machinations that followed the fall of the government of Fumimaro Konoe in Tokyo on Oct. 16, 1941, after his failure to meet U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to achieve peace in the Pacific.

Upon forming his Cabinet on Oct. 18, 1941, Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo had to promise Emperor Showa his government would make a final attempt to arrive at some accommodation with the U.S. to avoid a war. That same Cabinet, on Nov. 5, took a policy decision that — if no agreement was concluded by Dec. 1 — it would wage war on the U.S. and its allies. Then, on Nov. 7, Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo instructed the embassy in Washington to present the U.S. government with the first of two “final proposals” for interim agreements that had been prepared.

However, as this so-called Plan A contained no commitment to a complete troop withdrawal from China, it elicited no interest.

At this point, Plan B — to which the Hull Note would be the U.S. response — was waiting in the wings. It proposed that the Imperial Japanese Army, which had advanced on southern Indochina, would not move into Thailand, Malaya, Singapore or the Dutch East Indies, and would retreat to northern Indochina. However, it made no commitment to suspend military operations in China, except for a vague pledge to explore talks with the government of Chiang Kai-shek.

In exchange, the U.S. was to supply Japan with a specified quantity of petroleum under an interim agreement to be signed by Dec. 1 at the latest; suspend its aid to China; and not interfere with the talks.

Recently, however, a group of Kobe University historians led by Professor Makoto Iokibe discovered that the Japanese military, by breaking the U.S. diplomatic code, had learned of a possibility that the U.S. might propose its own modus vivendi in order to strike a compromise with Japan. As a result, some in the Japanese Cabinet may have harbored a misplaced high hope that Plan B would be accepted.

Unfortunately for Japan, though, its diplomatic code had also by then been broken by the Americans. They were thus able to intercept “Cable No. 754,” dispatched on Nov. 10. This revealed Japan’s wishful thinking to use the U.S. as a catalyst to start Japan-China peace talks, and then to exclude the U.S. government from them in order to impose Japan’s will over China. Moreover, intercepts also made it clear that Japan had every intention of occupying northern China and Inner Mongolia for 25 years to come.

A similar line of thinking — amounting to a willingness to provoke Roosevelt to opt for war — is revealed by a Nov. 19 entry in the “Confidential War Diary” of Japan’s Imperial Headquarters Army General Staff War Direction Division.

Referring to news of a large Japanese transport fleet moving south that had been broadcast in San Francisco, it remarked: “If the U.S. government was informed by this report of our state of preparedness for large-scale military operations, diplomatic negotiations would collapse. Or might the U.S. give way to Japan?

“The former scenario of a breaking-up of negotiations is a stronger possibility. In the latter case of a U.S. compromise, the American opinion would interpret it as submission to the Japanese military power. Almost no hope for reaching an agreement.”

On the very next day, Nov. 20, Plan B was delivered, accompanied by a demand for its acceptance by Nov. 29. This he found discouraging, Hull told Ambassador Nomura, due to the dogmatic attitude it suggested in demanding the conclusion of an agreement strictly on Japan’s own terms, and within just a few days.

Chiang Kai-shek’s fears

Fearing China’s abandonment to Japan, Chiang Kai-shek at once made a desperate appeal to Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill — an appeal that certainly didn’t fall on deaf ears. It is clear that his fears of Japan’s intentions were well founded, judging from confidential documents dated Nov. 27, 1941 that were found by this author in the Diplomatic Record Office in 1999. Drafted as public policy guidance in the case of Plan B being accepted by the U.S., these reflect the Japanese government’s satisfaction with the hoped-for breakthrough because it would give both a breathing space from its economic plight and a chance to complete its military campaign in China.

Japan’s rigid Plan B timetable forced the U.S. government to seek an immediate response from its allies. When the reply was negative, Roosevelt had to make a counter-proposal to demand Japan’s commitment to the key issue of withdrawal of its troops from China — even at the risk of provoking the Japanese military’s anger.

Thus, on Nov. 26, the Hull Note was delivered. Its contents, ignoring Japan’s deadline and seeking quid pro quo negotiations on the basis of Japan’s commitment to withdraw from China, are said to have “shocked” Togo. Until then, it seems, the Foreign Ministry may have pinned a slim hope on a last-minute compromise with the U.S., in the belief that Hull was seeking the consent of Britain and China for an interim agreement of three months with Japan to buy time to prevent its expansion into Southeast Asia.

After the war, Toshikazu Kase, who was director of the Foreign Ministry’s North American Division at the start of the war, even misquoted British Ambassador Sir Robert Craigie as criticizing the Hull Note for being excessively harsh.

On the contrary, Craigie did not criticize the Hull Note at all. Instead, he wrote in his memoirs: “On the face of it [Plan B] the U.S. government was expected to withdraw its extremely effective economic sanctions in return for a mere shifting of Japanese troops from south to north in Indochina, and without reference to the situation in China itself.

“President Roosevelt stated in his message, ‘Such a proposal obviously offered no basis for a peaceful settlement or even for a temporary adjustment.’ The American government, in order to clarify the issues, presented to the Japanese government on 26th November a clear-cut plan for a broad but simple settlement.”

Craigie also wrote in a critical tone that “the Japanese government were doing their best to persuade the U.S. government of their genuine desire to continue the Washington discussions, of their devotion to peace, and of the concern with which they had learned of alleged British preparations to attack Japanese forces in Siam while [the Japanese military] was putting the finishing touches to [its] plans for the simultaneous and equally treacherous attack on Malaya.”

In the Hull Note, the U.S. returned to its principled position as the basis for continuing negotiations, causing Japan to give up the hope of reaching an accommodation with the U.S. on its terms alone.

Togo would later brand the Hull Note tantamount to a U.S. ultimatum. He also maintained that Japan’s notice of termination of negotiations on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack (Dec. 7, 1941) was equivalent to a declaration of war.

During imprisonment in Sugamo after the war, some members of Japan’s war cabinet claimed the war could have been avoided if the U.S. had accepted Plan B or made a counterproposal designed to postpone a military confrontation for some months.

In his memoirs published in 1975, however, Maj.-Gen. Kenryo Sato, Tojo’s right-hand man in the War Ministry, debunks this notion, saying: “Plan B did not solve Japan’s security concern over its oil supply because it would have given the U.S. an arbitrary control over petroleum supply again after the lapse of an interim agreement, and consequently the Japanese naval and air forces would be demoralized under the constant threat of a petroleum embargo.”

In fact, the Japanese carrier fleet sailed toward Hawaii one day before the Hull Note was issued.

And an entry in the “Confidential War Diary” described the Hull Note as a “blessing from heaven.” The Imperial Navy fully agreed with the Imperial Army, it noted, that the only way out of the impasse was to “fight it out.”

Weighing the evidence

This author, however, believes the Hull Note was not an ultimatum as it imposed no deadline nor expressed its terms in finality.

On the other hand, the Japanese government was bound by its own deadline not to negotiate beyond Dec. 1, and stuck to its original position and refused to pursue a narrow margin of compromise. In this respect, Japan’s Plan B had more element of an ultimatum than the Hull Note, as it imposed a deadline with no margin of compromise.

This is further illustrated by a cable from Tokyo to the Washington embassy. Dated Nov. 22, it said: “We have decided to wait until that date [Nov. 29]. This time we mean it, that the deadline absolutely cannot be changed. After that things are automatically going to happen.”

Long-time postwar Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida also never believed the Hull Note was an ultimatum. In his “Recollection of a Decade,” he recalled that he drew Togo’s attention to the preface of the Hull Note, which used the words “tentative and without commitment,” and urged Togo to confer with U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew.

Togo did not accept the advice to negotiate with Grew.

In retrospect, it would have been a miracle if, on Dec. 1, 1941 in Washington, either Japan or the U.S. had one-sidedly given in to the other’s demands — particularly as Japan’s foreign policy was controlled to suit the military’s strategic convenience.

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