Japan-U.S. conflict in '40s was avoidable, writer says

May 14, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- The war between America and Japan could have been avoided but for a last-moment diplomatic gambit by China, said Joseph Newman, one of the very few U.S. writers in Japan in the days immediately before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

"It was not necessary to fight the Japanese. We only needed to wait for Hitler to surrender," he said.

Mr. Newman spoke yesterday in Tokyo to about 60 elderly Japanese reporters who appear to be groping for a clearer understanding of the reasons behind Japan's suicidal decision in 1941 to make war on the United States. The questioning appears to be growing all the more fervent as the 50th anniversary of Japan's 1945 defeat during World War II approaches.

In the days before the Pearl Harbor attack, Mr. Newman was writing for the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune.

He left Tokyo just before the bombing.

Back in the United States, Mr. Newman quickly wrote a book, "Goodbye Japan," about what he had seen. Although long out of print and essentially unavailable in English, Mr. Newman's own copy was translated into Japanese last year, 52 years after the initial publication date. It has sold 12,000 copies, a good run if not a spectacular success by Japanese standards.

In his speech, Mr. Newman focused on recent research from newly declassified documents at the Library of Congress and the National Archives in Washington encompassing the writing of then-Secretary of State Cordell Hull and the U.S. ambassador to Japan at the time, Joseph Clark Grew.

In light of the material, Mr. Newman said, "I am quite convinced that war in the Pacific need not have taken place."

The critical period came in late 1941 as a strong militarism within Japan was incited by German victories in Europe and the likelihood that the numerous colonies dotting Asia might come under German control rather than Japanese.

Meanwhile, the United States began to raise a series of trade restraints against Japan, gradually choking off critically needed products.

A proposal was circulated between the United States and Japan for a three-month moratorium on potential hostilities and a partial withdrawal of Japanese troops from southern Indochina in exchange for the United States' continued export of petroleum.

The delay, Mr. Newman said, would have been pivotal.

"By the spring of 1942 it would have become clear to the Japanese military leaders, and to the rest of the world, that Hitler's prospects were buried in the winter snows of Russia," he added. "Those events would have destroyed the logic of Japanese expansion" opening the way for a negotiated settlement leading to the withdrawal of all Japanese troops from abroad.

Before concluding the deal, Secretary Hull consulted with allies.

China was adamantly opposed to any concession with Japan, which at the time had troops on Chinese soil. It threatened to devise its own accommodations with Japan.

"Hull and Roosevelt foolishly surrendered to China's blackmail," Mr. Newman said.

Mr. Newman said President Roosevelt was inactive throughout the discussions. "Roosevelt did nothing. He told people he'd sit back and wait for Japan to fire the first shot, and he did."

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