On the evening of Sept. 26, 1940, American radio announcer and journalist William L. Shirer noted in his later famous Berlin Diary, “(Italian Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo) “Ciano arrives here tomorrow from Rome. Most people think it is for the announcement that Spain is entering the war on the side of the Axis.” (Spanish Foreign Minister Ramon Serrano) “Suner is here for the ceremony, if it comes off.”
It didn’t, but something else of even greater importance did, as he noted on the 27th: “Hitler and Mussolini have pulled off another surprise. At 1 PM today in the (Reich) Chancellery, Japan, Germany, and Italy signed a military alliance directed against the United States…I was caught way off base…Suner was not even present at the theatrical performance the fascists of Europe and Asia staged today.”
The formal signing of what became known as the Tripartite Pact—another milestone on the road to global war—was preceded by a top secret meeting in Tokyo on the 19th termed a Conference in the Imperial Presence that had been called by His Majesty Emperor Hirohito. It was duly held in Paulonia Hall of the Outer Ceremonial Palace with everything planned and rehearsed in advance.
According to author David Bergamini in Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy: How Emperor Hirohito led Japan into war Against the West, “Hirohito sat motionless before a golden screen at one end of the audience chamber and said nothing. The other 11 participants at two long tables delivered their set speeches to one another back and forth across the Emperor’s line of sight.”
The real deliberations had occurred during Sept. 9-10th, when Japanese Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka sat down with German Ambassador to Tokyo Heinrich Stahmer to haggle out all the details one by one: “Japan wanted a free hand in Southeast Asia. She should have it. Germany wanted pressure put upon the British fleet, which still maintained naval supremacy in the Strait of Dover. Matsuoka undertook to supply it by having the Japanese Navy prepare to attack the British Far Eastern bastion of Singapore.”
On Friday, Sept. 13th—an unlucky day as it turned out for the Emperor—Hirohito allegedly studied their joint document word for word since it undoubtedly would lead in the end to war between the United States and the Imperial Japanese Empire. He approved the text, but made one editorial change, striking out the five words “openly or in concealed form” from “A description of the kind of attack which might launch Japan’s participation in World War II. They were too explicit, too suggestive of the actual event as it was envisaged by his naval planners.”
Thus were secretly sown the future seeds of the “sneak attack” at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, but as a prudent ruler, the Emperor was hedging his bets in case the Empire lost the war and had to regroup in a new era of enemy occupation and uneasy peace.
Now, on the 19th, Prince Fushimi inquired on behalf of the Navy General Staff, “It is quite likely that a Japanese-American war will be a protracted one. What are the prospects for maintaining our national strength?” The Prime Minister, Prince Konoye, answered on behalf of the Cabinet that, “We should be able, in the event of a war with the United States, to supply military needs and thus withstand a rather protracted war.”
One crucial economic item that affected all deliberations in Tokyo, Berlin, and Washington was oil for the Imperial Japanese Fleet, and the Navy was acutely aware that it was at present dependent on both Britain and the US for this indispensable commodity to keep its warships afloat. If the Dutch East Indies could be taken, this problem would be solved, but both the British and the Americans stood in the way; hence a preemptive war was being considered in earnest to remove them if necessary.
Then, too, there was another consideration, as Matsuoka pointed out: “The object of this pact is to prevent the United States from encircling us.” Summing up for the admirals, Prince Fushimi asserted, “The Navy section of Imperial Headquarters agrees with the government’s proposal that we conclude a military alliance with Germany and Italy; however…that every conceivable measure will be taken…to avoid war with the United States…” be taken as well was stressed.
Privy Council President Hara made a prepared statement on behalf of the Throne, i.e., Emperor Hirohito himself: “Even though a Japanese-American clash may be unavoidable in the end, I hope that sufficient care will be exercised to make sure that it will not come in the near future, and that there will be no miscalculations. I give my approval on this basis.” The Voice of the Crane had spoken.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, Shirer described the signing ceremony, noting “The showy setting.” (German Foreign Minister Joachim von) “Ribbentrop, Ciano, and Japanese Ambassador Kurusu, a bewildered little man, entered the gala hall of the Chancellery. Kleig lights blazed away as the scene was recorded for history. Brightly colored uniforms all over the place.
“The entire staffs of the Italian and Japanese embassies present. (No other diplomats attended. The Russian Ambassador was invited, but replied he would be out of town this noon.) The three men sit themselves at a gilded table. Ribbentrop rises and motions to one of his slaves, Dr. (Paul) Schmidt, to read the text of the pact. Then they sign while the cameras grind away.
“Then comes the climactic moment, or so the Nazis think. Three loud knocks on the giant door are heard. There is a tense hush in the great hall. The Japanese hold their breath. The door swings slowly open, and in strides Hitler. Ribbentrop bobs up and formally notifies him that the pact has been signed.
“The Great Khan nods approvingly, but does not deign to speak. Hitler majestically takes a seat in the middle of the table, while the two foreign ministers and the Japanese Ambassador scramble for chairs. When they have got adjusted, they pop up, one after another, and deliver prepared addresses which the radio broadcasts around the world.”
In his account, Shirer also noted that German Reich Marshal Hermann Goring, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe (Air Force), in the fall of 1939 had ridiculed the possibility of American aid reaching the Continent of Europe before the issue of the war had been decided—as was the case in the First World War. The Germans thought, moreover, that the war would be over by the fall of 1940, and that American aid could not possibly arrive before the spring of 1941, if at all.
Now, all of that was changing, however: “One thing is clear,” Shirer believed. “Hitler would not have promulgated the Tripartite Pact if he thought the war was coming to an end before winter. There would have been no need of it.”
Shirer was also right on target in noticing the Pact’s hidden flaws: “Neither of the two sides can lend the slightest economic or military help to the other so long as they are separated by the British Navy.”
By the time he had researched and published his epic tome The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in 1960, Shirer had discovered a great deal more about what he called “The Turn of the United States,” asserting that in order to keep America out of the war, the Third Reich had secretly resorted to actual bribery of Congressmen. Hitler would “deal” with the Americans after he had first defeated both the United Kingdom and the USSR.
Indeed, in Basic Order # 24 Regarding Collaboration with Japan, issued on March 5, 1941, Hitler stated, “The common aim of the conduct of war is to be stressed as forcing England to her knees quickly and thereby keeping the United States out of the war.” The commander of the German Navy, Grand Adm. Erich Raeder, backed an attack on the British naval base at Singapore by the IJN as a sure means of accomplishing this.
The Japanese then stunned everyone on Apr. 13, 1941 by concluding a treaty of their own in Moscow, with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin of Russo-Japanese neutrality. Not only were Hitler and von Ribbentrop alarmed, but also their American counterparts—US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who all believed that this new effort would release Japanese troops earmarked for a possible war with the Soviet Union for a Strike South against the British and Americans instead; in the end, they were right.
In effect, the Nazis had been hoodwinked, paid back in like coin for their own August 1939 secret Non-Aggression Pact with Stalin that the Germans had concluded without the prior knowledge of the Japanese Ambassador to Berlin, the pro-Nazi Army Gen. Hiroshi Oshima.
The Germans invaded the USSR on June 22, 1941, and six days later urged the Japanese to do the same from the Far Eastern frontier of the Soviet Union, but to no avail. Despite persistent entreaties to do so until the very end of the war, the Japanese never broke their treaty with Stalin; rather, it was to turn out to be the other way around in August 1945.
Meanwhile the admirals of the Imperial Navy were ready for their Strike South and war with the “ABCD powers”: America, Britain, China, and the Dutch, while Hitler hoped to capture Moscow and force the surrender of Russia during December 1941.
But now, Hitler and von Ribbentrop were in for yet another nasty surprise from the Far East, states Shirer: “Hitler had constantly nagged the Japanese to avoid a direct conflict with America and concentrate on Britain and the Soviet Union, whose resistance was preventing him from winning the war. It did not dawn on the Nazi rulers that Japan might give first priority to a direct challenge to the United States.”
On the other hand, ironically, the Nazis had feared, during February-March 1941, that the Empire and the US might in fact settle their differences amicably, and that prospects for a war between Japan and the United Kingdom in the Far East would then also disappear, but this did not come about. In July 1940, the Japanese Army invaded French Indochina (today’s Communist Vietnam), and talks between envoy Adm. Kichisaburo Nomura and Sec. Hull were broken off.
A proposed meeting between Premier Konoye and FDR also never materialized, and on Oct. 16, 1941, the Prince’s government fell and a new Cabinet was appointed by his successor as Prime Minister, Gen. Hideki Tojo, nicknamed “The Razor.” Under his government, Japan demanded a free hand in Southeast Asia, thus ensuring that eventual war was a certainty.
On Nov. 15th, Special Envoy Saburo Kurusu (who’d signed the Tripartite Pact in Berlin) arrived in Washington to aid Adm. Nomura in negotiations. Four days later, the secret message came from Tokyo to the Japanese Embassy in Washington that war was imminent, and on the 23rd, von Ribbentrop became aware of this also, but did not believe that the US would be attacked.
On the 28th, Ribbentrop called in the Japanese Ambasador, Gen. Hiroshi Oshima, and seemed to reverse Hitler’s earlier policy of urging Japan to avoid war with the US: “If Japan reaches a decision to fight Britain and the United States, I am confident that not only will that be in the interest of Germany and Japan jointly, but it would bring about favorable results for Japan herself,” the German Foreign Minister asserted.
Not sure that he had heard correctly, the tense little Japanese general asked, “Is Your Excellency indicating that a state of actual war is to be established between Germany and the United States ?” Now von Ribbentrop hesitated—perhaps he had gone too far. He answered, “Roosevelt is a fanatic, so it is impossible to tell what he would do.”
In Washington, the Nomura/Kurusu-Hull talks broke down because the Japanese diplomats refused to repudiate the terms of the Sept. 27, 1940 Tripartite Pact. On Dec. 3rd, the Japanese in Rome asked Italian Fascist Duce (Leader) Benito Mussolini also to
declare war on America (Italy’s ally in the First World War), and Ciano recorded in his diary on the 4th that Mussolini was enthusiastic about the idea—a decision that would doom him in 1943, since it brought the US Army to Tunisia, Sicily, and Italy herself.
Over the course of Dec. 4-5th, Hitler appeared to okay a Japanese attack on the US which the Germans would then back, but Japan feared that a quid pro quo would be demanded from the Third Reich in the form of an Imperial Army attack through Siberia to help relieve the pressure on the German Army then just outside Moscow.
At 9:30 PM on Saturday, Dec. 6th, President Roosevelt was at the White House with top aide Harry Hopkins reading the first 13 parts of a long decoded message from Tokyo to its Embassy when he said flatly, “This means war”—but where has been the question that has been hotly debated ever since.
The next morning—Dec. 7, 1941—the IJN air force attacked the US Navy’s Hawaiian Islands base at Pearl Harbor, allegedly catching both the Nazis and FDR off-guard. As von Ribbentrop later testified on the stand at Nuremberg, “This attack came as a complete surprise to us. We had considered the possibility of Japan’s attacking Singapore or perhaps even Hong Kong, but we never considered an attack on the United States as being to our advantage.”
Hitler returned to Berlin from Fuhrer Headquarters in East Prussia on Dec. 8th, and at length decided to honor his pact with Japan (which he didn’t have to do, since he had not been informed, and the US had not overtly attacked the Reich despite the secret naval war then going on in the North Atlantic between Grand Adm. Dr. Erich Raeder’s forces and the US Navy). He declared war on the US (“We will always strike first!”) on Dec. 11, 1941 in the German Reichstag (Parliament) in Berlin’s Kroll Opera House. In a single stroke, he had neatly solved one of FDR’s own pressing political problems. Germany had not attacked the US, so on Dec. 8th in the US Congress, he had only asked for a declaration of war against Japan, not the Third Reich as well. Ironically, Hitler had feared that the hated Roosevelt would declare war first on him, and had thus made his own decision on the 9th.
The Japanese, naturally, were ecstatic, and so was Adm. Raeder. Hitler asked him, “Is there any possibility that the USA and Britain will abandon East Asia for a time in order to crush Germany and Italy first ?’ The Grand Admiral didn’t think so, not aware that even then President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill were meeting at the White House to decide just that wartime policy: defeat Germany and Italy first, then Japan. The die had been cast.
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