Britain told U.S. in early 1941 Japan might be preparing for war


Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered that transcripts of tapped telephone conversations indicating the possibility Japan could go to war with Britain in early 1941 be sent to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, government papers declassified Thursday show.

The telephone conversations and intercepted telegrams suggest the possibility that the Japanese Embassy in London was at one point in February 1941 preparing for Japan to join forces with Germany and declare war on Britain, the documents released by the National Archives in London reveal.

Churchill asked Alexander Cadogan, the senior bureaucrat in the Foreign Office, that a digest of the material be sent to Roosevelt.

“Be careful in making the digest, you do not lose the snappiness of the dialogues,” Churchill ordered.

In the tapped telephone conversations, the Japanese ambassador told staff on Feb. 5 that they should be ready to leave at short notice and limit their communications with British officials and friends.

At around the same time, articles appeared in the British media attacking Japan’s alleged intentions and plans for expansion in the Far East. The ambassador suspected some of that information could have come from spies within the embassy, according to the documents.

The files also show that although staff remained on alert for several weeks for an announcement from Tokyo, there were indications by Feb. 20 that such a decision might be postponed.

The transcripts show that there was a mixture of views over whether Japan should go to war with Britain. Some officials feared that if Japan declared war, the United States would inevitably come to the aid of Britain.

The tapped conversations also include those of Japanese officials expressing strong views on Churchill. One said: “I have much respect for that man. We must admit that he is a very fine leader. I think he is a far greater man than Hitler.”

A colleague said: “I hope he will die before long. Without him, Britain would be like a ship without a rudder. There is no one to take his place.”

A long telegram by Cadogan to Viscount Halifax, Britain’s ambassador in the United States, shows the Foreign Office thought that there was an imminent danger of an aggressive move by Japan, but it had not yet materialized.

Speaking about the transcripts, Cadogan wrote, “They (the Japanese) are so indiscreet that at first we were inclined to think we were having our leg pulled,” but that “if you were to read them all, I think you will agree that such playacting would be a masterpiece beyond the Japanese.”

Halifax said the information would be useful in efforts to draw the United States closer to Britain and he told Cadogan he had informed U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull about the transcripts.

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