You can make a pretty good case that the cascade of events that triggered the collapse of US-Japanese negotiations that tried to avoid the start of the Pacific War can be traced to a series of intercepted communications on Nov. 6, 1941 between the Japanese government and its primary negotiator, Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura.
The communications suggested that Japan had given up on all negotiations and had already decided on war absent a total American capitulation. These intercepted communications convinced Secretary of State Hull that only a strong American ultimatum that showed the strength of American will could persuade Japan that their diplomatic position was hopeless.
This led to a catastrophic breakdown in the negotiations, and the US was on the way to Pearl Harbor. Secretary of State Hull and President Roosevelt would come away convinced that Japan had decided on War and it was their decision alone.
There was one problem—the communications on Nov. 6th, 1941 were mistranslated—a fact that wasn’t discovered till 1970.
Background of US-Japanese Relations
So, background. The US and Japan began negotiations over a wide range of diplomatic disputes that existed in 1941.
The origins of Japanese fear of the United States are rooted in racism and colonialism.
Modern Japan largely begins when Admiral Perry arrives with modern western warships and forces Japan to end its policy of national seclusion at cannon point.
The 1898 US annexation of Hawaii, despite a substantial minority of Hawaiians being of Japanese descent, was seen as an aggression and imperialist. The US purchase of the Philippines from Spain in 1898, followed by the crushing of the independence movement that declared a free and independent Republic of the Philippines, The US followed up with the brutal suppression of an insurgency from 1899-1902 that convinced many Japanese people that the United States was an imperial power intent on expanding its colonies in Asia.
A further contention was the treatment of Japanese immigrants to the United States. The “Yellow Peril” movement that viewed Asian Americans as an oxymoron and a threat to “Americanness” saw both Chinese and Japanese immigrants as dangerous alien elements. Japanese immigrants were barred from owning land in 1913 and the practice of long term leasing was restricted in 1920. In 1924, Japanese persons were barred from entering the US long term, or for applying for naturalization. The Japanese government and people saw this treatment as rooted in racism, and that the United States saw the Japanese as an inferior people—they weren’t wrong.
The United States had legitimate gripes with the militaristic junta that ruled Japan. The Empire of Japan established itself as a world power by defeating first Manchurian China in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and then Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), establishing colonies in Taiwan and Korea, and colonial interests in Manchuria (formerly held by Russia). Such moves were largely welcomed by the United States at the time.
Relations began to deteriorate over Japanese expansionism into Manchuria and China as a whole. The US had maintained “most favored nation” status in Chinese diplomacy, where it reaped the same benefits accorded to other Imperial Powers (like favorable exchange rates, trade access, etc.).
Japan’s aim to colonialize Manchuria, and later the rest of China was seen as a grave threat to American interests in China. This was because Japan wanted to monopolize the Chinese market. This, obviously, would lead to the loss of American trade access to China, or to operate at a disadvantage to Japanese exporters; thus America began strong opposition to Japanese expansionism.
The irony was that the US and Japan were major trade partners. in 1930, Japan was the biggest US export market in East Asia by a large margin, and the US was Japan’s biggest trade partner.
In particular, Japan imported large quantities of oil from the US which supported Japanese industry, and Japan had no other local alternatives, but Japan was also a major importer of American manufactured goods and machinery. The US imported large quantities of Japanese silk and wool fabrics, as well as Japanese tea. Japan controlled 80% of the world’s silk market.
Both nations saw each other as a valuable trade partner; neither side truly wanted a conflict. But Japan saw the United States as a racist imperialist nation that was hypocritically trying to block Japan’s destiny as an Imperial Power in its own “sphere of influence.” The United States saw Japan as a militaristic junta leading an uncontrolled war of aggression on China, whom the US saw as a friendly nation with whom the US had many trade interests.
in November 1940, with Japan’s continued aggression in Northern China and its sudden occupation of French Indochina (modern Vietnam), the US was pressing Japan to make clear its intentions both for considering a military withdrawal from the Republic of China, as well as the occupation forces in Indochina.
John Toland and Historiography of US-Japanese Negotiations
In the 1960s, an American historian named John Toland moved to Japan with his Japanese wife, and began working on a book that later became the Pulitzer Winning “The Rising Sun.” That book focused on merging Japanese sources and American sources to create a more complete narrative history of the Pacific War.
Toland was uniquely situated in that he was an American trained historian with an already deep knowledge of the Pacific War from the American perspective, but who also spoke and read Japanese fluently. Furthermore, his living in Japan gave him far greater access to still living key players on the Japanese side.
Toland conducted hundreds of interviews with Japanese military, government and diplomatic sources in his research, among whom were the two primary negotiators for the Japanese side before the start of the War—Ambassador Nomura and Special Ambassador Kurusu.
In both conducting these interviews and in reviewing Japanese historians’ work on the lead up to the war, Toland was struck by a widely divergent view of how the war came about.
The American perspective was that the Pacific War was decided on by Japan, and foisted onto America. Japan was intent on continuing its aggressive war in China, and Japan decided to go to war with America to continue its aggression even while negotiations were continuing, and this was what led to the collapse in negotiations.
The Japanese perspective was radically different. Japanese historians depicted the collapse of negotiations as being caused by America, primary through the “Hull Note.” The Hull Note, delivered on Nov. 26, 1941. In the Japanese view, the Hull Note demanded Japan not only withdraw from its gains within China, but also a withdrawal from Manchuria—gains it had essentially obtained through decades of conflict with Russia, the USSR and China. The Hull Note essentially would also deprive Japan of any access to oil imports, leading to a paralysis of the Japanese Navy within a matter of months.
Thus Japanese historians believed war had been forced upon Japan through an unreasonable ultimatum, perhaps out of a misguided belief that Japan could be bullied into even the most unreasonable demands. Alternatively, a conspiracy theory that President Roosevelt desired a way for the US to enter the European War despite an isolationist American public was proposed. The theory suggesting Roosevelt provoked Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor using the Hull Note remains popular in Japan to this day.
Toland looked to this diametrically opposed historiography of the start of the war and was puzzled. While nationalist sentiments leading to different conclusions are not uncommon, Toland felt something was amiss and began digging into why America concluded that Japan had already decided on war.
What Toland discovered was that the root of American mistrust for Japan during the negotiations in November, 1941 came about due to a translation error.
MAGIC intercepts and the Mistranslation
During US-Japanese negotiations, Secretary of State Hull had an ace in his pocket that gave him a decisive advantage: he knew all the instructions that the Japanese negotiators were receiving from Tokyo.
In what was called “Operation Magic” the US Army and Navy’s cryptography divisions were brought together to crack Japanese message encryptions, dating all the way back to 1923. They were successful in breaking a series of Japanese military and diplomatic cypher, although their efforts would be set back every time the Japanese went through a cypher change. The Japanese diplomatic corps began using a cypher American cryptographers called “PURPLE” in 1940, and by Nov. 1941 Hull was receiving full reports of the communications’ contents (the Japanese Navy JN-25 cypher would not be broken till spring 1942).
As a result, the Americans knew all the instructions that the Japanese ambassadors were receiving from Tokyo. MAGIC would fail to obtain information about the pending attack on Pearl Harbor, because once the decision to go to war was made, the Imperial Navy forbade any details of the decisions being communicated by diplomatic cypher, as the diplomatic cypher was suspected to be compromised.
For example, Hull knew that the Japanese Ambassadors had been given instructions to present a Proposal A which, if rejected, should be followed by a more conciliatory Proposal B from instructions given on Nov. 6, 1941.
However, along with this instruction, there were remarks from Foreign Ministry Togo to Ambassador Nomura. in the translated copies provided to Hull and later to President Roosevelt, there were a series of translation errors that gave Americans an extremely inaccurate impression of Japanese intentions.
For example the communication from Minister Togo to Ambassador Nomura opens
Well, the relations between Japan and the United States have reached the edge, and our people are losing confidence in the possibility of ever adjusting them.
Giving the impression that Tokyo is extremely pessimistic about the prospect of a successful negotiation. Properly translated, the section states
Strenuous efforts are being made day and night to adjust Japanese-American relations, which are on the verge of rupture.
Then the second paragraph was even more problematic. The translation that Hull received stated (emphasis added)
Conditions both within and without our Empire are so tense that no longer is procrastination possible, yet in our sincerity to maintain pacific relationships between the Empire of Japan and the United States of America, we have decided as a result of these deliberations to gamble once more on the continuance of parleys, but this is our last effort.
A An accurate translation would state
The situation both within and outside the country is extremely pressing and we cannot afford any procrastination. Out of a sincere intention to maintain peaceful relations with the United States, the Imperial Government will continue negotiations after thorough deliberations and the present negotiations are our final effort.
LaLater, Hull read in reference to the latest proposals
We have gambled the fate of our land on this throw of the die
where the original read
the security of the Empire depends on [the proposals].
Again, Hull’s translation copy shows a tendency to take flowery language intended to convey a sense of urgency and emphasize the extent of Tokyo’s bending to accomodate American interest, and mistranslate it as a conveying an ultimatum.
This time we are showing the limit of our friendship. This time we are making our last possible bargain and I hope that we can thus settle all our troubles with the United States.
Now that we make the utmost concession in the spirit of complete friendliness for the sake of peaceful solutions, we hope earnestly that the United States will reconsider.
Toland writes an entire chapter in his book on numerous translation errors in this single transcript, almost all in this vein.
But what Toland considered the most dramatic and problematic translation error was what Hull noted in his diary as convincing him of Japanese duplicity.
In Hull’s copy, a series of issues are discussed numbered (1) — (3), with point (3) discussing the possibility of withdrawal of Japanese forces from Indochina. This is followed by a point (4):
(4) As a matter of principle we are anxious to avoid having this inserted in the draft of the formal proposal...
In the properly translated original, point (3) continues without the existence of a point (4):
with regard to the four principles [proposed by Hull] every effort is to be made to avoid including them in the terms of a formal agreement...
So what happened here is the translator looking over the decoded (and unformatted) transcript believed the (4) in the sentence was the beginning of a new point in the instructions from Togo, creating a point that read “(4) as a matter of principle, we are anxious to avoid having this inserted,” implying that the Japanese were intent on rejecting all of Hull’s proposals and avoiding committing to any concession in the final agreement.
In reality, “four” was simply noting the four principles Hull had brought up with regards to committing Japan to a timetable for a withdrawal of soldiers from Indochina discussed under point (3), and no point (4) instruction exists in the Japanese original. Thus the instruction was an indication that Togo wished to avoid committing Japan to a formal withdrawal from Indochina based on Hull’s proposed four principles, but NOT an instruction to avoid committing Japan on any other proposal.
Thus Hull came to the mistaken understanding that the Japanese negotiators had been instructed, as a matter of principle, to avoid committing Japan to any concession at all in a formal agreement and arrived at the negotiations on Nov. 7th in a foul mood, convinced the Japanese were no longer negotiating in good faith.
Consequences of the Translation Error
In each of these cases, the translation team had taken comments that merely emphasized the extent to which Tokyo felt it was bending to reach an agreement with the United States, and turned them into diplomatic instructions that indicated that no more proposals or concession would be made, and these proposals represented a de facto ultimatum when no such instructions had been provided.
Furthermore, the critical mistranslation of “four principles” led to Hull concluding that the Japanese were not negotiating in good faith, and could not be trusted.
Up to this point, the Roosevelt Administration's position was strongly in favor of reaching an accommodation with Japan to avoid war. The Army and the Navy both provided strong opinions to Roosevelt, consistently warning that the potential War in Europe needed America’s full attention, and America needed to avoid a two-front war in the Pacific and Europe.
General Marshall and Admiral Stark (heads of the Army and Navy) made repeated joint appeals to Roosevelt that no ultimatum be issued to Japan in early November, as the risk of war in the Pacific was too great.
Roosevelt’s primary goal in the negotiations was a secret agreement from the Japanese to agree to not declare war upon the United States in event of a war in Europe against Nazi Germany and Italy. Protecting US interests in China was a secondary priority to this diplomatic goal, as were a withdrawal of troops from Indochina.
To achieve this goal, Roosevelt was prepared to offer a new trade deal with Japan that would resume oil exports to Japan.
Hull’s messages to Roosevelt, based on the mistranslated Magic transcripts, radically altered the American calculus. Hull emphasized that Magic intercepts revealed that Japanese diplomats were uninterested in providing any concessions and intended that America bow to Japan’s will, and only a strong ultimatum that was a show of force would show America could not be cowed and force them to reconsider.
Roosevelt reluctantly agreed, but balked at the idea of a formal ultimatum. The Hull Note represented a last diplomatic effort on the US’ part to avert a war that Hull was convinced was virtually inevitable based on the instructions that he thought were being issued by Tokyo.
The Japanese misinterpret the Hull Note
This led to the second major misunderstanding in the US-Japanese negotiations, this time from the Japanese side.
The Japanese negotiators noticed a change in Hull’s attitude in early November, and were puzzled by Hull’s increased hostility, speculating that there may have been some internal US political issue, or perhaps some kind of diplomatic intrigue by China or Britain.
Japanese diplomats received Hull’s proposal, the Hull Note, in the context of this perceived increased hostility on Nov. 26th, 1940.
The Hull Note included a provision that stated
- withdraw of all military, naval, air and police forces from China and from Indo-China
- no support (militarily, politically, economically) of any Government or regime in China other than the national Government of the Republic of China
- Both Governments to give up all extraterritorial rights in China
...among its demands. Unless the demands were acceded to, Hull made clear the United States would not negotiate a new trade deal with Japan—meaning no oil would be exported to Japan.
Negotiations between Hull and Japan had been continuing for nearly a year, and Hull’s understanding of the situation was that in March 1940, he had already conceded to Japan’s claim to Manchukuo. Manchukuo was Japan’s puppet state in Manchuria, and the US view was that Japan took the matter off the table as a possible concession.
Formally, the US government did not recognize the legitimacy of the sovereignty of Manchukuo as part of the Empire of Japan.
However, Hull knew that the Empire of Japan was not about to abandon a colony it spent 35 years fighting for, so he thought that matter was settled.
Japan, however, understood that the US viewed Manchukuo as being part of the Republic of China (as was the US’ formal diplomatic position). Thus the provision that Japan withdraw all military forces from China was understood to mean, the US was demanding that Japan withdraw not only from Northern China which it had more recently invaded, but was demanding that Japan exit from all of legal China entirely, including Machukuo.
Given Hull’s overt hostility the past few weeks, Japanese diplomats concluded that Hull had given up on negotiations and had provided an unreasonable ultimatum. The meaning of “withdrawal from China” was never discussed among the Japanese and American diplomats—in fact, this issue was never really discussed between Roosevelt and Hull either. Hull and Roosevelt were both under the impression Manchukuo was a settled issue.
Toland interviewed numerous members of the Japanese diplomatic ministry on this point, and they were unanimous in the understanding that “withdrawal from China” included Manchuria.
Members of Prime Minister Hideki Tojo’s cabinet and diplomatic leadership were interviewed and they were unanimous in the opinion that knowing that “China” did not included Manchuria in the Hull Note would have changed the reception radically.
Kenryo Sato suggested that the Hull Note would have been accepted immediately and Japan would have withdrawn from Indochina and Northern China. Suzuki, Kaya and Hoshino were more cautious in their assessment, suggesting that the imperial liaison conference would have erupted in furious debate over whether to accept the proposal and withdraw from China—at a minimum, all agreed that serious internal discussions would have followed with a realistic chance of success.
Suzuki suggested that had Tojo would have opposed a withdrawal, but the likely outcome would have been the government would have fallen and negotiations between the Army and Navy over what to do about the Hull proposal would have resulted in a new government—whether or not it chose to accept the proposal.
But none of this happened, because the Japanese diplomatic ministry believed some kind of intrigue had led to Hull (and the US’) overt hostility to Japan starting in early November, and that the US was committed to war with Japan.
And that the Hull Note was merely the expression of this commitment to war, and no peace negotiations from the US would be forthcoming.
Toland asserts that the effects of the translation error in the intercepted Nov. 6th communications between Minister Togo and the negotiation team were unmistakable.
It led to a change in the US negotiation stance with the Japanese. Most importantly, the US negotiators removing the primary concession that the Japanese were seeking off the immediate table, a trade deal for oil. The US negotiators, now strongly mistrusting the Japanese government’s intentions, believed that without Japan committing to major definitive concessions like a withdrawal of troops from China, Japan’s sincerity could no longer be trusted.
It also led to a change in the personal attitude of Cordele Hull to that of overt hostility.
This change in negotiation stance came as a rude and unexpected shock to the Japanese side. While the negotiations had been difficult, the Japanese were under the impression that they were inching closer to a workable accommodation and could not understand Hull’s sudden change in attitude.
This mistrust of Hull from the Japanese led to a lack of communications regarding the proposals in the Hull Note—even a cursory civil discussion of terms could have clarified the point of what was intended by the “withdrawal from China” provision. Clarity that the US was open to resumption of oil exports in the event of such a Japanese withdrawal would have done much to assuage Japanese fears of American ambition in the Pacific.
But instead, negotiations took a catastrophic turn, and negotiators of both sides walked away believing that the other side had decided to go to war.
Nine days later, the attack on Pearl Harbor began the Pacific War.
As a final note, I highly recommend John Toland’s 1971 Pulitzer Prize winning book, “The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945”