Japan wasn’t an “unprovoked aggressor” in the 1930s. China and the United States were to a considerable extent responsible for a sequence of events that led to Japan’s actions in Manchuria and, to a lesser degree, in China.

Is this the statement of a Japanese rightwinger — someone who refuses to “come to terms with” his country’s atrocities in Asia in the first half of the 20th century?

No, it is what a senior U.S. diplomat said in a “strictly confidential” memorandum submitted to the U.S. State Department in November 1935. The diplomat was John Van Antwerp MacMurray, who had served as first secretary of the Peking Legation from 1913 to 1917, then as minister (today’s equivalent of ambassador) to China from 1925 to 1929.

Although in 1935 MacMurray was serving as minister to the Baltic States, he was a recognized authority on China. So the State Department turned to him when an analysis and policy recommendations were needed on the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Far East.

MacMurray did a quick, precise job of it. His principal reference point was the Washington Conference, held from the end of 1921 to early 1922. Today that conference is remembered mostly for the treaty to reduce naval competition, but its primary focus was China. MacMurray had played a key role in the creation of a complex set of agreements.

In his memorandum, “Developments Affecting American Policy in the Far East,” MacMurray judged that in the ensuing 10 years the Japanese government had been “scrupulously loyal in its adherence to the letter and the spirit of the Washington Conference.” In contrast, the Chinese “nullified and proclaimed their disdain of each individual paragraph” of the agreements made in the three-month-long deliberations.

How about the U.S.?

The U.S. chose to disregard the framework of cooperation carefully worked out during the conference it had organized and hosted. This came about because in the U.S. there was “the widespread and general popular feeling of friendliness for the Chinese, based in part upon a somewhat patronizing pride in the belief that our Government had borne the part of China against selfish nations.”

Indeed, in his analysis, MacMurray’s view of U.S. policy toward China verged on contempt; at one point, he noted the “tone of ingratiating self-righteousness” in the State Department’s formal policy statement on that country.

Speaking of contempt, even this dry, legal argument has at least one amusing passage. It occurs where MacMurray refers to the British minister to China, Sir Ronald Macleay, as “a Tory of the type that (could not imagine) good could come out of any liberal ideas hatched at Washington under the auspices of the American rebels.” Although his memorandum was not supposed to be made public, MacMurray must have decided this retroactive historical condemnation was too undiplomatic. He struck it out.

The document also has a dramatic scene that conjures up an old film clip. From the end of 1928 to early 1929, the Japanese government tried to ascertain, both in writing and orally, the U.S.’ intentions concerning the core of the Washington Conference: cooperation among the powers. The U.S. government was evasive, but finally issued a reply — which still did not respond to the central concern of the Japanese.

For some reason, the scene evokes an image of the two Japanese envoys, Count Uchida and Ambassador Debuchi, being kept waiting, waiting, in the darkening anteroom of the U.S. assistant secretary of state in charge of Far Eastern affairs.

As might be expected, Stanley Hornbeck, the State Department official who commissioned MacMurray to prepare the memorandum, shelved it as soon as it was filed, and it remained virtually unknown until after the war, which MacMurray predicted was inevitable unless the U.S. changed its stance.

When it came to light, the historian George Kennan, for one, wrote to MacMurray: “I know of no document on record in our government with respect to foreign policy which is more penetrating and thoughtful and prescient than this one.”

As Arthur Waldron points out in a detailed introduction and footnotes to the memorandum in “How the Peace Was Lost” (Hoover Press, 1992), historians evaluating MacMurray’s assessment have split into two camps.

Dorothy Borg and other “moralists” have contended that MacMurray was too much of a stickler for legal niceties to see the larger picture: the rise of nationalism in China. Akira Iriye and other “realists” have argued that MacMurray’s approach had value. Shouldn’t international relations be based on some legal framework agreed upon among nations?

I find the MacMurray memorandum fascinating for the very reason my trade-consultant friend Scott Latham recently sent it to me to make a point: the striking parallels between the earlier and later decades of the 20th century.

Among other things, there is the U.S.’ readiness to jettison the multilateral agreements it has taken the trouble of working out and to resort to unilateralism. This process in the end drives a loyal follower of multilateral arrangements up against the wall.

It seems to me that’s what’s happening again to Japan now. Japan is preparing to drop its strict adherence to the GATT and WTO regimes to turn to bilateral trade agreements — although Japan’s shift this time won’t be anywhere near as disastrous as it was during the 1930s.

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