• The Hull note, officially the Outline of Proposed Basis for Agreement Between the United States and Japan, was the final proposal delivered to the Empire of Japan by the United States before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war between the two nations. The note was delivered on November 26, 1941 and is named for Secretary of State Cordell Hull.


    We are one month away from the Attack on Pearl Harbor. 
    The Japanese Carrier Striking Force has sailed from the Kuriles and its making its way to Hawaii.
    The Hull Note was a last ditch effort for peace between the USA and Japan.
    My question this month is this:
    Was there any way that the Pacific War could have been avoided and the Pearl Harbor attack cancelled before December 7?
    Or do you guys think that Japan was going to go ahead with the attack anyway no matter what the USA tried to do for peace?

  • '17 '16 '15

    Hi RJ

    I don’t think the fleet was headed to hawaii quite this early. We’re still over 30 days away. They may have left japan and were steaming around waiting for the word but i can’t remember for sure.

    Yea imo the war could’ve been avoided, for a while longer, if the US did what japan wanted.

  • '21 '20 '19 '18 '17 '16 '15 '14 Customizer '13 '12 '11 '10

    The Japanese attack force sailed from the Kurile Islands for Hawaii on November 26, eleven days prior to the Pearl Harbor strike (if you discount the 1-day shift caused by crossing the International Date Line; Nagumo’s ships were operating on Japanese time, so from their perspective the attack occurred on December 8 rather than December 7).

    Asking whether Japan was going to attack “no matter what the USA tried to do for peace” seems to imply that the US might have been prepared to do anything to avoid war.  Realistically, this was not the case.  The diplomatic history between the US and Japan over the previous several years was a long chain of escalating problems, provocations, threats, moves and counter-moves by both sides, with each side (not surprisingly) seeing itself as the injured party.  The only thing that might have stopped Japan from launching its offensive campaigns in the Asia-Pacific theater would have been if the US has reversed every political position it had taken and every sanction it had implemented with regard to Japan over the past few years.  The chances of that happening in late 1941 were zero.

    The main items on the list would have been for the US to give Japan a free hand in China (with which Japan had been at war since 1931 or 1933 or 1937, depending on your point of view) and for the US to unfreeze Japanese assets and to cancel its embargo on the sale of scrap metal and oil to Japan.  From the US perspective, these measures were fully justified retaliations against Japan for its invasion of China and its seizure of French Indochina – Japanese actions which were totally unacceptable to the US.  From the Japanese perspective, these measures were virtually a declaration of war against Japan: when the US cut off oil exports to Japan, the Japanese – who lacked domestic oil supplies – were put in a situation in which they only had about two years’ worth of oil reserves in stock.  Once those reserves were used up, the Imperial Japanese Navy and Japan’s military and naval air forces would be immobilized and the Japanese Empire would have been left defenseless except for its infantry and other non-mechanized army units.

    Japan therefore had two years to “use them or lose them”.  “Using them” meant seizing new sources of oil in the Dutch East Indies, which meant going to war against Holland and, in practical terms, against Britain, which had several colonial possessions near the DEI.  Japan also felt that this meant going to war against the US too – partly because they had a grudge to settle, partly because the US was its main competitor in the Pacific, and partly because the Philippines (a US possession) were inconveniently located on the shipping route between the DEI and Japan.  Moreover, many statesmen and military officers in Japan – a notable exception being Admiral Yamamoto – had a generally contemptuous attitude towards US society in general and the US military in particular.  (In fairness, various statesmen and military officers on the US side felt similarly contemptuous about Japan.)  Basically, many decision-makers on the Japanese side viewed the US as a soft, decadent, undisciplined, materialistic society which lacked convictions for which it would be willing to fight, and which would fold up in short order when it was confronted by Japan’s skillful, regimented, austere, highly motivated warriors.  Yamamoto knew better: he had studied at Harvard as a young man, and had served as a naval attache in Washington early in his career.  He not only realized just how much economic and industrial power the Americans could mobilize if they went to war against Japan, he also understood that they would mobilize that huge warmaking potential if they ever ended up in an actual shooting war with Japan.  Unfortunately, Yamamoto wasn’t calling the shots when it came to overall Japanese strategy; it was the Imperial Japanese Army which, arguably, had more of the national decision-making levers under its control at that time.

    In my opinion, the only way for a war between Japan and the US to have been delayed (I don’t think it could have been avoided) and for the US war effort to have been appreciably hampered would have been if Japan had gone to war against Holland and the UK and the British Commonwealth but NOT against the US in December 1941.  If Japan had been more clever, it would have left Hawaii and the Philippines and the US possessions in the central Pacific completely alone, and it would have paired its campaign against the Dutch and the British with a radio-based charm offensive in which very senior Japanese statesmen and officers would have gone on the air and asserted in mild, reasonable, dignified tones that they had nothing but friendship for the good people of America and had no designs whatsoever on their territories.  This would have placed Roosevelt in an awkward position.  The American isolationist lobby was very strong at the time: it had no objection to the US defending itself if it was directly attacked, but it opposed the idea of the US getting involved in the war that had been raging in Europe since 1939, and it would have opposed just as strongly the idea of the US getting into a war with Japan to protect Dutch and British colonial interests in the Asia-Pacific area.

    In such a scenario, America would probably have ended up declaring war against Japan sooner or later anyway, but from the disadvantageous position of being cast in the role of the aggressor rather than as the party which had been the victim of – as Roosevelt put it – an unprovoked and dastardly attack by a treacherous enemy.  This would have made the US war effort a lot harder to sell to the average American citizen than was the case historically.  Japan did Roosevelt a huge favour when it hit Pearl Harbor because this attack infuriated the American public.  Expressed in American terms, the attack on Pearl Harbor was – among other things – seen as a violation of the rules of fair play and good sportsmanship that Americans are taught to value from the time when they’re little kids playing sandlot baseball.  Expressed in Japanese terms, the attack on Pearl Harbor was seen by the American public as a dishonorable act by Japan.  It’s interesting to speculate whether anyone in Japan (like Yamamoto) who understood the Americans better than the average person ever thought of using those violation-of-honour terms to explain to the Japanese leadership why launching a surprise attack against the US might not be a great idea.

  • '22 '21 '20 '19 '18 '17 '16

    Great post Marc.

    It is interesting to wonder whether Japan declaring war on the UK & Holland but not the USA might have resulted in any different eventual outcomes, but it seems unlikely.

  • If the Japs were cunning they would only move into French Indo China and Netherlands East Indies and grab the oil there. USA would never go to war for that, since they were pro free marked and against colonies, and on top of that the French and Netherlands governments were occupied by Germany. But, UK would likely attack Japan for that, and  then Japan could take the British colonies too with no fear of a US entry. And as long as US is neutral, Hitler has no rational reason to declare war against them. Of course, at some point USA had to join the war, but in this case not as a victim but an aggressor that suddenly and with no reason jump on Germany and Japan.

  • In 1939 the Soviet Union seized the eastern half of Poland. In 1940 it followed that up by annexing Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and part of Romania. In addition it launched a war of aggression against Finland, seizing about 10% of Finland’s total land area. Inhabitants in conquered territories were treated brutally. For example in the east half of Poland 10% of the population was lost due to deportation or outright liquidation.

    FDR did not meaningfully pressure the Soviets to renounce their strategy of territorial aggression. Moreover, he did not put serious pressure on Japan to abandon its policy of expansion in China–at least not in 1937 when the wave of expansion in question had been released. FDR’s hard line stance against Japanese expansion did not manifest itself until 1941.

    FDR’s warlike opposition to Japanese aggression in China was not the result of a universalist policy of opposing aggressive territorial expansion in general. If it had been, he would have been equally assertive in opposing Soviet expansion. Nor was his opposition driven by a particularist concern for the Chinese: he waited four years between the start of the Japanese offensive in China before initiating his efforts to provoke war with Japan. Those efforts started in 1941, shortly after Germany had invaded the Soviet Union.

    Prior to Barbarossa, German military planners had anticipated having to deal with 200 Soviet divisions. By the mid to late fall of '41 they had already encountered nearly double that number. During the winter of '41 - '42, the Soviets shipped an additional 100 divisions west across the Trans-Siberian railway. Prior to Pearl Harbor, Stalin had held those divisions in reserve on his eastern front, to defend against possible Japanese aggression. With Japan going to war against the United States, Stalin knew that Japan would be too preoccupied elsewhere to launch much of an attack against the U.S.S.R. The hundred divisions in question could therefore be used on the German front.

    None of the above could have been accomplished, had the U.S. and Japan signed a mutually acceptable peace agreement. That is why FDR’s administration ignored Japan’s various peace proposals, while pursuing a policy of deliberately provoking Japan into doing what it ultimately did.

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