Washington, D.C. November 20, 1941

On this date in 1941 in Washington, Japanese ambassador Kichisa­burō Nomura pre­sented his govern­ment’s final pro­posal for peace in the Asia Pacific region. Through much of 1941, Ambas­sador Nomura had nego­ti­ated with U.S. Secre­tary of State Cordell Hull to resolve fes­tering bi­lat­eral issues. Chief among the issues were the Japa­nese con­flict with China, where Japan had been engaged in an intrac­table war since 1937 from which it could extract neither vic­tory nor a face-saving with­drawal; the Jap­anese occu­pa­tion of Vichy French Indo­china (since Septem­ber 1940); and the United States oil embargo against Japan (since the summer of 1941).

The U.S., Nomura told State Department officials, must restore nor­mal trade rela­tions with Japan, unfreeze Japa­nese finan­cial assets in the U.S., dis­continue mili­tary and eco­nomic aid to Chiang Kai-shek’s Chi­nese govern­ment, and give Japan a free hand in China. Also, the U.S. must recog­nize the Greater East Asia Co-Pros­per­ity Sphere, a Japa­nese euphe­mism for the rich min­er­al and agri­cul­tural re­sources in South­east Asia con­trolled by the West­ern colonial powers—the U.S., Britain, the Nether­lands, and Vichy France. The State Depart­ment’s response on Novem­ber 26 was for Japan to with­draw its troops from China and sever its Tri­partite Treaty ties with Germany and Italy as a condition for peace.

On the same day as the State Department issued its response to the Japa­nese negoti­ators, the War and Navy depart­ments updated their own com­mands. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall warned: “Negoti­ations with Japan appear to be termi­nated [for] all prac­tical pur­poses. . . . Hostile action [is] possible at any moment.” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold Stark warned that “an aggres­sive move by Japan is expected within the next few days,” possibly against Amer­i­can interests in the Philip­pines, British holdings on the Malay Penin­sula and Sing­a­pore, and Thai­land. Marshall said that if hostil­i­ties could not be avoided, Japan would have to make the first move.

The fruitless diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Japan in Washington were a side­show. On Novem­ber 18 the Japa­nese parlia­ment, pushed by Prime Min­is­ter and Army Min­is­ter Gen. Hideki Tōjō, had approved a reso­lu­tion of hos­til­ity against the U.S. The following week, on Novem­ber 26, over 30 vessels of the Japa­nese First Air Fleet, among them six air­craft carriers, under the com­mand of Vice Adm. Chūichi Nagumo left Japa­nese waters (Kurile Islands) on a 3,400‑mile jour­ney to attack the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, home of the Amer­i­can Pacific fleet. The mas­sive sur­prise attack on Sun­day morn­ing, Decem­ber 7, 1941, was a stun­ning tacti­cal victory for the Japa­nese aggres­sor, but one that spelled Japan’s doom, as well as that of its mili­taristic and nation­alist leader Tōjō. After that coun­try’s un­con­di­tional sur­render in Septem­ber 1945, Tōjō was tried by the Inter­nation­al Mili­tary Tri­bun­al for the Far East for war crimes, found guilty, and hanged at Sugamo Prison outside Tokyo, along with six other convicted Japanese war criminals, on December 23, 1948.

On the Road to Pearl Harbor

November 1941 map of Japanese plans and troop dispositions

Above: November 1941 map of Japanese plans and troop dis­po­si­tions. Nations within the map’s boun­daries were also inte­grated into a Japa­nese-led order, the Greater East Asia Co-Pros­perity Sphere launched on June 29, 1940. Mem­ber states would sup­posedly share pros­perity, peace, and a new cul­tural iden­tity free from West­ern colo­nialism and domi­na­tion (“Asia for Asiatics”). How­ever, partly because the Japa­nese directed that eco­no­mies within the Co-Pros­perity Sphere be managed strictly for the pro­duc­tion of raw mate­rials related to the war effort and partly because of Japa­nese racial attitudes toward popu­la­tions in the occu­pied coun­tries, neither “co-prosperity” nor pan-Asianism emerged among its eleven member states.

Nomura (from left), Hull, Kurusu, Washington, November 17, 1941 Nomura and Kurusu after meeting FDR, November 17, 1941

Left: Japanese Ambassador retired Adm. Kichisa­burō Nomura (left) and Special Envoy Saburō Kurusu (right) met Secre­tary of State Cordell Hull (center) seve­ral times before (and during!) the Japa­nese attack on Pearl Harbor. Nomura’s repeated pleas to his supe­riors in Tokyo to offer the Ameri­cans meaning­ful conces­sions were rejected by his govern­ment. When Special Envoy Kurusu (Japan’s ambas­sador to Hitler’s Germany from 1939 to November 1941) reviewed Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt’s demands for peace in Asia on Novem­ber 26—by coin­ci­dence the same day the Japa­nese First Air Fleet set steam for Pearl Harbor—Kurusu replied, “If this is the atti­tude of the Ameri­can govern­ment, I don’t see how an agree­ment is pos­sible. Tokyo will throw up its hands at this.” In his memoirs Hull credited Ambas­sa­dor Nomura with having been sin­cere in trying to pre­vent war between Japan and the United States. In Kurusu’s 1952 memoir, The Des­per­ate Diplo­mat, the special envoy professed his total lack of knowledge regarding the pending Pearl Harbor attack. Indeed, Kurusu con­tin­ued to pursue his peace efforts right up to Japan’s August 1945 capitulation.

Right: Nomura (left) and Kurusu after meeting President Roosevelt at the White House on Novem­ber 17, 1941. Secretary of State Hull brought the special envoy to the Execu­tive Mansion to meet with the presi­dent after Kurusu had come with his govern­ment’s last peace offer. Twenty days later on the after­noon of Decem­ber 7 (2 p.m. Washington time), Kurusu delivered Japan’s reply to the Roose­velt admin­is­tra­tion’s counter demands, breaking off rela­tions and closing with the state­ment that “The immu­table policy of Japan is to pro­mote world peace.” Unaware of what was happening at that very hour in Hawaii (though the presi­dent and Hull were), Kurusu and Nomura were questioned by news reporters as they left Hull’s office. “Is this your last con­fer­ence?” one asked, and an unsmiling Nomura had no answer. “Will the embassy issue a statement later?” asked another, and Kurusu replied, “I don’t know.”

Tōjō at Tokyo war crimes trial

Above: Former Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō (in glasses with head­phone) was tried by the Inter­national Mili­tary Tribu­nal for the Far East (Janu­ary 1946 to Novem­ber 1948) for war crimes and found guilty of waging wars of aggres­sion (five counts), waging unpro­voked war against the Repub­lic of China (one count), and ordering, autho­rizing, and per­mitting inhu­mane treat­ment of pri­soners of war and others (one count). He accepted full respon­sibility in the end for his actions during the war.

“War Comes to America: America Attacked,” Part of Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” Series