Tokyo, Japan • December 9, 1940
On September 27, 1940, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, or Axis Pact as it was also known. The Pact was an outgrowth of the “Rome-Berlin Axis” celebrated by the Italo-German “Pact of Steel,” which Adolf Hitler’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Benito Mussolini’s foreign minister (and son-in-law) Count Galeazzo Ciano had signed in Berlin in late May 1939. The two European dictatorships plus Japan agreed that for the next ten years they would “stand by and cooperate with one another . . . in greater East Asia and the regions of Europe . . . to establish and maintain a new order of things.” Reflecting on what the Tripartite Pact meant for besieged Britain after Germany and Johnny-come-lately Italy had overrun continental Western Europe just months earlier, in May and June of 1940, U.S. Ambassador to London Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of future U.S. President John F. Kennedy, cabled Washington London: “Britain is doomed.”
Membership in the military and economic Tripartite Pact was expanded by new protocols signed less than two months later, which added Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, which was a German client state in what had been the eastern half of Czechoslovakia. (The Germans had overrun the western half of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, converting it into the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia centered on the Czech capital of Prague.) Bulgaria and German-occupied Yugoslavia joined the following March, 1941, and Croatia in June of the same year.
From Japan’s point of view, the Tripartite Pact gave cover to its expansionist actions and designs in “Greater East Asia”; namely, China, where it had been at war since 1937; French Indochina (present-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia); British Malaya, Borneo, and Burma; and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Less than a week before Japan joined the pact, the French collaborationist Vichy government headed by Philippe Pétain had inked an agreement to allow Japanese forces to use three airfields in Northern Indochina and to maintain a 6,000-man garrison there.
At the time of its original signing, Japan said that the Tripartite Pact in and of itself was not “hostile” to the United States. Two months later, on this date, December 9, 1940, Japan’s foreign minister, Yōsuke Matsuoka, stressed that Japan’s alliance with the principal Axis power, Germany, was not intended to threaten U.S. interests overseas and that Japan would not fight the U.S. unless the U.S. acted as the aggressor. By the summer of 1941, however, American code-breakers and the political and military leadership in Washington knew from reading Japanese Foreign Ministry dispatches (so-called “Purple” intercepts usually solved and translated into English within hours) that war between Japan and the U.S. was inevitable. It was just a matter of time before Japan would become the aggressor.
Japan and Germany During the Axis Heyday, 1940–1941
Above: Japanese embassy in Berlin clad in flags of the three Tripartite (Axis) Pact signatories in September 1940. At their zenith during World War II, the Tripartite powers presided over empires that occupied large parts of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the islands of the Pacific Ocean. The war ended in 1945 with the defeat of the Axis powers and the dissolution of their alliance and empires.
Left: On September 27, 1940, the Axis Powers (namely, Germany and Italy) grew by one when Japanese ambassador Saburō Kurusu (left, leaning forward in photograph), Italian foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano (to Kurusu’s left), and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (addressing guests at podium at right) signed the three-way Tripartite Pact. Adolf Hitler (slumped in chair) witnessed the gala proceedings. Americans know Saburō Kurusu as Japan’s “special envoy” to Washington who, along with Japanese ambassador Kichisaburō Nomura in November and December 1941, tried to negotiate outstanding differences with the Roosevelt administration over its support for Nationalist China and its frozen trade relations with Japan while that country was secretly preparing the attack on U.S. military installations at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Neither Kurusu, Japan’s ambassador to Germany from 1939 to February 1941, nor Nomura, a retired admiral and former foreign minister (1939–1940), was tried after the war for their role in the lead-up to Pearl Harbor.
Right: Yōsuke Matsuoka (1880–1946), Japanese foreign minister between July 1940 and July 1941, paid a visit to Hitler in Berlin in March 1941. In the background between Matsuoka and Hitler is German foreign minister Ribbentrop. Matsuoka, who in 1933 led Japan’s walkout of the League of Nations, which objected to Japan’s seizure of Northeast China, was a major advocate of Japan’s alliance with Germany and Italy, whose assistance he saw as a perfect balancing force against U.S. interests in the Asia Pacific region. Curiously, following the outbreak of war between Japan and the U.S., Matsuoka was quoted as saying, “Entering into the Tripartite Pact was the mistake of my life.” By associating itself with the likes of Hitler and Mussolini, Japan gained negligible benefits while it alienated the leading Western powers. After Japan’s defeat in 1945, Matsuoka was arrested and held at Sugamo Prison near Tokyo, where he died prior to his trial on war crimes charges before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (Tokyo Trials).
Festivities in German Capital Celebrating Japan’s Entry into Tripartite Pact, September 1940 (German with English Subtitles)