Covering their tracks on the way to war

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To obfuscate the waging of war on several fronts simultaneously may seem an unlikely and incredible ambition. However, as more and more information surrounding Japan’s attacks on Pearl Harbor and elsewhere in the Pacific on Dec. 7, 1941, comes to light, it becomes ever more clear that its military rulers in Tokyo aimed to do just that.

In order to make its surprise attacks a success, Tokyo originally instructed the Japanese embassy in Washington to pretend to continue negotiations with the U.S. government till the last day.

The Japanese military’s original desire was to then deliver its so-called Final Memorandum the day after the attack to minimize its losses, according to a Dec.6, 1941 entry in the “Confidential War Diary” of the Imperial Headquarters Army General Staff War Direction Division, which was finally published in 1998.

However, Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo’s testimony at the postwar Far Eastern Military Tribunal in Tokyo shows that the Japanese Navy reluctantly agreed to the Final Memorandum being handed over one hour before the attack, thinking that would be little enough notice to prevent a warning transmitted from Washington from reaching Hawaii in time.

In the event, though, the document delivered belatedly to the U.S. State Department on Dec. 7, 1941 was merely a notice to terminate the negotiations — without clarifying the intent to declare war.

The idea that this was no mere semantic slip was clearly supported by Japan’s then-ambassador to the United Nations Hisashi Owada, in a speech he made in September 1997 at the Centennial Symposium of the Japanese Association of International Law. On that occasion, he said the Final Memorandum could not be construed as an ultimatum, and that Japan’s conduct prior to the Pearl Harbor attack violated the whole spirit of the institution of declaration of war.

A crucial paragraph excised

This was no accident, as The Japan Times reported in a Dec. 7, 1999 story based on an interview with this author covering my discovery of an authentic original ultimatum dated Dec. 3, 1941 in a top-secret document file in the Diplomatic Records Office of the Foreign Ministry.

This discovery — news of which was carried by news services all over the world — showed that the Final Memorandum handed to the U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull on Dec. 7 had had the critically important concluding paragraph deleted from the original. This read: “The Japanese government regrets to have to solemnly notify the U.S. government that we are forced to terminate the negotiations, recognizing that continuation of talks will in no way contribute to the stability of East Asia, and that your government shall be held responsible for all the consequences that may arise in the future.”

It is therefore obvious that the most significant expression of Japan’s intention to declare war was eliminated between Dec. 3 and Dec. 7 by order of Japan’s military high command. The elimination changed the nature of the diplomatic document from being a declaration of war to a declaration of the termination of negotiations.

Tokyo even further toned down the wording to terminate conclusively the negotiations by substituting the ambiguous wording: “It is impossible to reach an agreement through further negotiations.”

To hide its aggressive intentions, however, Tokyo not only tried to mislead the U.S. government, but also its Washington embassy, which was unaware that the intended note-delivery time of 1 p.m. coincided with the launching of the Japanese attacks.

Catalog of confusion

Not only was the embassy unaware of the timing, and not only was the Final Memorandum an insufficient declaration of Japan’s intentions, but events surrounding its cable transmission from Tokyo to the embassy made it remarkable that it was able to be handed over at all that early afternoon of Dec 7.

To begin with, the lengthy memorandum was sent in 14 separate parts, which was unusual. Making matters worse, those parts did not arrive in the order in which they were sent from the Foreign Ministry to Tokyo’s Telegraph Office, which relayed enciphered cable messages to Washington.

Moreover, several significant omissions and garbles appeared in the decoded cable messages, as intercepts obtained by virtue of the U.S. having cracked Japan’s diplomatic code later showed. However, correction cables did not arrive until the morning of Dec. 7.

Whether these cable transmissions were affected by adverse meteorological conditions, or in some other way on one side of the Pacific or the other, remains a mystery.

Decoding debacles

Having arrived at the embassy in this form, though, still further obstacles presented themselves. To begin with, decoding was delayed because two of the three decoding machines had been destroyed by order from Tokyo. Typing was also delayed because the embassy was strictly forbidden from using an American typist, and the job was left to an inexperienced first secretary who was a very slow typist.

Were all these confusions and human errors due to unfortunate circumstances — or was there a grand design to make it appear that way?

Well, there’s more.

Mysteriously, the instruction cable for the final memorandum was not designated “urgent,” as was required according to the Foreign Ministry’s operation manual. Moreover, after a delay of 15 hours in the dispatch of the concluding paragraph, the cable containing it was not designated “very urgent,” as the ministry’s rules stipulated.

Finally appearing to pile obfuscation on obfuscation, the Foreign Ministry sent an enigmatic coded cable ordering an alteration to the wording of the Final Memorandom nearly two hours after sending a cable instructing the embassy to destroy its last decoding machine. As it happened, however, that machine hadn’t yet been destroyed.

Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, Japanese officials were contriving to make their country’s intentions just as unclear — even in face-to-face encounters.

There, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Grew did not receive any explanation from Togo on the morning of Dec. 8.

Confirmation unavailable

Equall astonishing is an episode recorded by Eugene Dooman, Counsellor of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, in his diary entry dated Dec.8, 1941. After Dooman heard the Domei News Agency’s report of “a state of armed conflict” in the southwest Pacific, he rushed to the Foreign Ministry at about 9:30 a.m. to see Vice Foreign Minister Haruhiko Nishi.

When Dooman asked whether Nishi could confirm the report, Nishi said, to Dooman’s surprise, that he knew nothing other than what he had heard on a morning news broadcast along the lines of Domei’s release.

After the war, Nishi became ambassador to Britain. This author served under him and can vouch for his personal honesty. Hence it is likely that his professional duty forced Nishi to follow official policy and avoid giving official confirmation of entering into war.

Meanwhile, beside all the obfuscation in its dealings with the U.S., Japan completely ignored Britain. It never even tried to submit any prior notification to British representatives before waging war against her by attacking Malaya one hour before Pearl Harbor was hit. This was in total disregard of diplomatic rule and practice, not to mention international law.

According to British Ambassador Sir Robert Craigie, on the morning of Dec. 8, Togo handed to him the same Final Memorandum given to the U.S., only saying that it was delivered in Washington, and without explaining the substance or that Japan had entered into war against Britain. It was only upon returning to his embassy that Craigie was informed of the outbreak of war.

Taking the position that that memorandum to terminate negotiations with the U.S. was an ultimatum equivalent to a declaration of war, Togo, in his memoirs, claimed it was not necessary to submit a separate ultimatum to Britain as Britain was an ally of the U.S. Hence, he maintained, a declaration of war issued to the U.S. meant ipso facto a declaration of war against Britain.

Another intriguing incident that occurred in Tokyo that morning of Dec. 8 is recorded in “With Great Truth and Respect,” the memoirs of Sir Paul Gore-Booth, then a third secretary at the British embassy. It was about 8 a.m. when the embassy heard the news of the Japanese attack on Malaya and Pearl Harbor, he says, at a time when Ambassador Craigie was meeting Togo in the ministry. “The ambassador returned and heard the news with utter consternation,” Gore-Booth writes. “The minister had simply told him that talks with the Americans had finally broken down. . . . Sir Robert [Craigie] tried at once to get back to [Togo] again, but Mr. Togo eluded all such efforts.”

Gore-Booth goes on to record a further important event amid the commotion at the embassy. “Mr. Saburo Ohta, the counselor in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs handling relations with Britain, arrived to see the Ambassador. . . . He said he had come to read us a document. . . . It turned out to be a series of accusations against Britain ending with the statement that a state of war existed. . . . I then asked Mr. Ohta to let us have the paper to telegraph the text home as our last official act. To our astonishment he said he could not do this.”

Machiavelli or noh?

In a later passage, Gore-Booth made the following sarcastic comment: “Thus, had Minister Togo told Sir Robert the truth, he might have been in the position of a foreign minister informing an ambassador that a state of war existed, without apparently being able to hand him a formal declaration of war.”

He concludes, saying: “It seems as if, up to the end, the Japanese did not want to present us with a formal declaration of war, or indeed a formal document of any kind.”

To some people, all this evasion and obfuscation in Tokyo and Washington might have appeared as a deft performance of a noh-mask type of drama.

To others, however, it was all more akin to a Machiavellian exercise in military diplomacy.