Stepping towards the Night before Pearl Harbor - Politics | PoFo

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Declaration: I fully know this is not American internal politics, and I admit that I would oppose this article here had I not been posting this myself.

However, I would really like to know what Americans think if this is based on actual quotes, or whether the points mentioned in this article holds. This could mean live and death for all of us.

This is an article in circulation around the Chinese-speaking Internet community. Apparently this is from a Chinese scholar, but he neither denounced the West nor belittled his own country. I tried to translate it here for all to discuss.

The date is alleged to be 19 July 2020.

Translation by myself. Because of the lack of books around, I am not too sure about the authenticity of quotes, but the "who's who" should be accurate.

Original text was in Chinese. There were several links but I believe this one reproduces the article the best.

Stepping towards the Night before Pearl Harbor

I found a worrying problem after the articles in these few days. The majority of the Chinese people have no thought preparation on going to war with the United States. Most of them are eager to challenge Anglo-American hegemony, but they have not the war determination of the Japanese during the Showa era. To put it differently, they wish to directly confront UK-US, but they fantasise that UK-US would not impose to China the sanction they had done to Japan in July 1941. In fact, such fantasy is untenable. In diplomacy, the mindset most easily leading to irreversible mistake, is the one that always overestimate one's own bravery, and purposefully underestimate the determination of one's enemy, especially when the enemy is either actually stronger, or at least believes himself stronger.

From the previous year (2019), I often recommend my friends working for the diplomatic bureaucracies, to read four books on relations between Japan and UK-US during WW2:

The aim is NOT to learn from history, but simply to avoid a war against the United States. That is, if we really want to avoid that.

These four books focus on the diplomatic work details during the era, and described how the Japanese Empire, an formidable hegemony in the Far East at the time, incited the British and the Americans to risk it all and move to war. From these records, we could clearly see how the stauchest pro-Japan figures, including Henry Morgenthau Jr., evolved from advocates of keeping Japanese trade to the most hard-line proponents of embargo, while those dioplomats in London like Craigie changed from supporters of Anglo-Japanese friendship to Hawks who believe war with Japan was inevitable.


We cannot denounce this as incompetence and arrogance in part of the Japanese elites. In fact, Japanese elites were not idiots, regardless of the military officers and the diplomats. They were all top-boys of the time. For example, Konoe was the most talented person among Japanese nobility, and was the best disciple of Saionji Kinmochi. Sato Kenryo and Toshio Shiratori had been top achievers right from their student days. Yōsuke Matsuoka was renouned in Japan for his extremely wide knowledge. They would all be top-tier talents in Tsinghua, Peking, Havard and Yale.

Despite all these, they still led Japanese diplomacy to the verge of war with the United States in July 1941, and inevitably walked into the Peral Harbor.

At the same time, we could also not denounce politicians of the United Kingdom and the United States as crazy war-mongers aiming to destroy Japan. In fact, both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt were extremely afraid of going to war against Japan, but they still did.

In conclusion, fear of war on both sides did not manage to avoid war. More importantly, even in 1941, businessmen and politicians in the United Kingdom and the United States still wanted to do business with the Japanese.

(Patrickov: Two quotes allegedly claiming Winston Churchill and Cordel Hull expressing reluctance on going war with Japan. I found no English translation so I didn't translate here)

However, the flow of history came faster than anyone would have thought, and would go beyond the subjective wish of everybody.


In November 1937, a meeting was held in Brussels to discuss the Far East - Japan problem. The United States was the least willing to upset Japan in that meeting. However, by the end of 1938, when Konoe, after their country achieved victory in Wuhan, the United States issued its first loan to Chiang Kai-shek, and acted in expense of the Japanese for the first time. The next year (1939), the Japanese occupied Hainan and the islets in South China Sea, after which the Americans announced the annullment of their Trading Treaty (signed in 1894). Yet the next year (1940), the then-Foreign Minister of Japan Kōki Hirota claimed "natural rights" to the South Seas Mandate, and was met with America's first embargo order. By July 1941, Japan had entered the southern part of Indochina. The US allied with the UK and implemented oil embargo and asset freeze against Japan. At this point, the Japanese found that they had no choice but to go war with the UK and the US.

How long did it take from the United States expressing friendship towards Japan, to the time when Chūichi Nagumo led his fleet to the Pearl Harbor? A mere 4 years.


In the recent years, I have been reading diplomatic history between Showa-era Japan and the United States. I always wanted to make clear on the very point that broke Japan and the United States up. For example, how did America, Britain, China and the Dutch form the ABCD Line in 1940-1941? How did this coordination evolved from dialog-only to actual military-dioplomatic cooperation? More importantly, what led to the British and the American decide to risk huge costs to implement that destructive embargo against Japan? One needs to know that, after the embargo started, the British, American and Dutch oil businesses all fell to the brink of bankruptcy, and all of them became vulnerable to attack of the Imperial Japanese navy. This act could be said as a total economical suicide.

The reason of my study is that, as I understand, the Sino-American talks today is totally different from the Japanese-American talks in the 1980s, but rather those between them from 1939 to 1941. In other words, after a certain point, China would face the tremendous sanctions as the Japanese had suffered in July 1941. Both sides would risk everything to sabotage the other, and inevitably lead to war.

China must have this sense of danger, and must not commit the mistakes made by the Japanese elites in the 1930s. That's an extremely naive perception by peaceful people in pre-war times.


On 24 August 1938, a Japanese think tank published an article, analysing the possibility of embargo by the United States against Japan. It generally reflects the optimism among the Japanese society. The analysis concluded that "Japanese import was the most important source of income for Californian crude oil industries. Embargo against the Japanese would severely hurt the income of the business there. The scrap-metal sales business along the Pacific coast rely on Japanese orders, and the embargo would incite immense discontent among them. The Americans will not have the power to place embargo on raw threads, a main goods of export from Japan to the United States. The reason is that, the United States would not be able to find a replacement country to produce these raw threads for them, and would rapidly hurt the sock-making industry there. On our perspective, such embargo would cause very bad influence on their (Patrickov: the Americans') elections. And even if the Americans actually do this, we could find some third country to transport it for us."

On 23 March 1940, Mitsumasa Yonai, an American expert in the Japanese government and the Prime Minister of the time, made a public speech regarding the trading situation after the Americans annulled the trading treaty. "The disengagement and mutual embargo between Japan and the United States are extremely serious problems for both sides. Any misstep would mean danger to both countries. I do not believe America would risk it and impose embargo on Japan."

In fact, the talks between America and Japan were done in two stages. Between July 1939 and the actual annullment of the treaties in 1940, the Americans mainly held trade talks with Japan. After the embargo and the asset freeze, they turn to talk everything, including politics and military. The Americans raised harsher terms in the latter stage, and bonded the trade issues with politics and military issues.

This is very similar to the current Sino-American talks. Regardless of who's being the American President in the future, I believe China would hold new talks with them. However, this new round of talks would be different from the ones between 2018 and 2019. As in 1940, the new talks would have political and military issues included together with business. The complexity would dramatically increase, and the consequence of failure would be more severe.

Of course, I do not think the Sino-American relations have necessarily crossed the "South-Indochina diplomatic node" in July 1941. However, one thing is clear, which is the Sino-American relations are not that far from it.

The freeze of Chinese assets is now a suggestion being discussed in the United States. Clearly, this is not a hollow threat.


In February 1940, the British, Americans and Dutch had three challenges regarding whether to impose an embargo against Japan.

1. A lot of oil firms in the three countries would go bankrupt. The business sector would fiercely oppose it.
2. The Dutch fear Japanese attack and was not keen on it.
3. Neither the British and American wanted to go to war with Japan.

These are facts which Japan was well aware of. They actually made great attempt to stop it from happening. However, those challenges were overcome by July 1941.

It's said that Henry Morgenthau Jr. once berated how the British compromised towards Japan when he dined with Lord Halifax, and lamented the difficulties met by Chiang Kai-shek.

Halifax retorted, "aren't you Americans selling oil to Japan?"

Morgenthau thought for a moment before saying, "we will cut the artery of the Japanese."

Two days later, they both pressured the Dutch (Patrickov: the government in exile, apparently) to join, and the embargo plus asset freeze went through.

This was so sudden and especially soon after Roosevelt's promises not to do so. The whole Japanese society fell into fear. According to Joseph Grew, the American Consulate was filled with petitioners consisting of the important people in Japan. A Japanese Admiral even wailed in public. However, what could a soldier's tears to when a group people are to choose only between insult and annihilation?

When the history became this, the Showa boys had no choice but to sail towards Pearl Harbor, other than giving up their ambitions. In contrast, the Soviet Union backed down and eventually collapsed.

That's all could be done in 4 years.

And it's also 4 years from 2016 now.


What's the moral from the Japanese's misfortunes, especially after everything happened from 2018?

My take is: Never be naive. Never think it's impossible. Never think the UK and US would be kind. Never think the UK and US would be afraid. History would ruthlessly refute this.

A Japanese economist allegedly committed seppuku after he heard the news of embargo, because he assured his country that it won't happen.

When walking to the night before Pearl Harbor, we must sense that wars can break out. Not that we want to, but we have to. The Pearl Harbor is not a hollow historical concept. It's a node existing in reality, just like a sword hanging from the above. No matter it's for war, or for peace, we could be helped a lot by learning this.


At that time, the Japanese chose to resist.

Nagumo wrote the following when he set off towards Pearl Harbor in November 1941.

"In the 16th year of the Showa era, our nation is in danger. Franklin Roosevelt, the American Imperalist, unleashed everything on us. The boys of Showa are fearlessly marching towards them, and will bring justice to the world."
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