The Ambassador in Japan (Grew) to the Under Secretary of State (Phillips)46

Dear Mr. Phillips: The liability of armed conflict between Japan and Russia has been present for over thirty years. One such conflict has taken place. As long as the Soviets had no important military forces in the Far East, the Japanese were not particularly apprehensive over the situation. Since 1929, however, when it became apparent that the Russians had effective forces east of Baikal, the Japanese have become increasingly anxious, and ever since the Japanese and Russians were brought face to face by the Manchurian adventure of September 1931, this anxiety has been much in evidence.

At the present time the Russians are stated to have some 200,000 soldiers in the Far East, while their air force, partially based at Vladivostok, is said to be far better equipped than the Japanese. In [Page 422] any case, whatever the precise figures, the Japanese consider that the Russian army is a serious military menace. This situation, probably more than any other single factor, has led the Japanese to devote their attention and a large portion of their budgetary appropriations to increasing the combat efficiency of their own army. At the present time they are engaged in a plan for re-equipping their whole military establishment on the most modern lines, a program which is expected to be completed by 1935, and in steadily pushing forward new roads and railroads in Manchuria towards the Russian frontier.

In estimating the liability of war between Japan and Soviet Russia within the next few years, three potential incentives should be considered: (1) the collective force of continual irritating incidents, or even some individual incident of a local character, which might cause either party to lose patience and precipitate a conflict. (2) The increasing menace of the spread of communism southward from Outer Mongolia along the western boundary of “Manchukuo”. The eventual straightening out of the Chahar salient, which extends in towards the heart of “Manchukuo”, is undoubtedly in the minds of the Japanese military. This would be considered by the Japanese as in the nature of a defensive rather than as an offensive step, but it could readily lead to war. (3) The possibility that Japan recognizes in Russia a permanent obstruction to Japanese plans or ambitions for eventual further political expansion and is determined that this obstruction must be removed at the most advantageous moment. This moment would presumably occur when the Japanese feel that their army has reached the zenith of efficiency, in 1935. After that moment it may be assumed that time will tell in favor of Russia which is potentially capable of eventually mobilizing far greater man power, and perhaps equipment, than Japan. If Japan is determined to strike, she cannot afford to delay too long. There is, however, no concrete evidence to determine whether the present Japanese military preparations are intended to be defensive or offensive in character.

To deal first with point 1, above, namely the causes of local friction, it may be said that these have greatly increased the tension between the two countries in recent months. I have reported them in detail from time to time.

First and foremost is the friction arising out of the determination of “Manchukuo”, which at present is to all intents and purposes controlled and directed by Japan, to acquire the Chinese Eastern Railway. The negotiations for the sale of the railroad are dragging along without obvious progress and there is evidence of impatience at the delay. Only recently the authorities of “Manchukuo” seized the two terminal railway stations and arrested the Russian personnel on the grounds of alleged malfeasance in office. While the Japanese disclaim responsibility for this action and insist that it is only the act [Page 423] of the “Manchukuo” authorities themselves, the burden of proof rests with the former. “Manchukuo” officials have openly stated that if the negotiations for the sale should fail, there would be no alternative but to confiscate the railway, a threat which has been given practical demonstration by the recent provisional seizures. The Russians, at the beginning, showed a conciliatory attitude, but recently a decided stiffening on their part has been manifested. It is however perfectly clear that “Manchukuo” (i.e. Japan) is determined to acquire possession of the railway by fair means or foul. While this situation is a strong irritant in the relations between the Soviets and Japan, I do not believe that it will lead, in itself, to war because (a) the Japanese are not yet fully ready for war and (b) it is not believed that the Russians desire to precipitate hostilities even on so egregious an issue.

Further causes of local irritation are the fisheries question and continual frontier incidents. A number of Japanese have been killed by the Russian police in connection with the fisheries in the last few years. The last incident was particularly notable because the men killed are reported to have gone ashore in a small boat, unarmed, in search of water. The incident was however settled by an apology from the Russians, the payment of an indemnity, and the withdrawal of the Japanese warship sent to investigate. It was obvious that neither side desired a conflict. With regard to the frontier, the Japanese in Manchuria appear to be keeping their armed forces away from the Russian border, but the border between Manchuria and Siberia is in places ill-defined and there are continual complaints by the Russians and “Manchukuo” authorities of armed raids back and forth across the frontier, as well as of firing on ships in the Sungari and Amur rivers. The confiscation of the Russian Sungari docks by “Manchukuo” authorities did not help to ameliorate the general friction.

In spite of the irritation caused by these various incidents, however, I am not inclined to believe that they will directly lead to war, unless some particularly flagrant case should give rise to a situation beyond the control of the home authorities.

With regard to point 2, above, the Japanese aversion to communism is an element in the situation worthy of consideration. Communistic thought is viewed as a crime in Japan; it is feared and hated, and drastic measures are being taken to stamp it out of the country. Japan considers herself as the bulwark against the spread of communism southward and eastward. Given sufficient provocation, the Japanese could readily be aroused to enter Siberia with the intention of completely destroying a regime which it fears and detests.

Adverting to point 3, above, namely the likelihood of a definitely formulated Japanese plan to attack Russia at the most advantageous [Page 424] moment, any estimate that may be advanced is obviously a matter of conjecture. We have seen the headstrong action of the Japanese army in Manchuria. We are aware of the present omnipotence of the Japanese military machine, capable of over-riding any policy of restraint that may be formulated by the civil government, and we are familiar with the ambitions, particularly of the younger army officers, to advance Japanese hegemony in Asia. The hypothesis that Outer and Inner Mongolia are included in those ambitions is not farfetched, although concrete evidence is not available. The Japanese army has been built for war and, like a trained football team, is eager for action. The army leaders are at present in practically complete control of the policies, decisions and destinies of the Empire.

On the other side of the picture, I may mention the recent remarks of the Soviet Ambassador, reliably reported, to a group of foreign newspaper correspondents at dinner at the Soviet Embassy in Tokyo, to the effect that Russia is fast coming to the end of her patience and is fully prepared to defend herself by force of arms against Japanese action derogatory of her sovereignty or prestige.

To sum up, I do not believe that war between Japan and Soviet Russia is imminent unless some glaringly provocative incident renders it impossible to hold the Japanese army in check. It should not be forgotten that this possibility is always present. Feeling on both sides at the points of contact is tense, and an incident, or a conjunction of incidents, might precipitate an armed clash with far reaching results. I furthermore think it not unlikely that Japan is determined to remove the Russian obstruction from the path of her ambitions at an advantageous moment, and that the most advantageous moment, from data at present available, may occur in 1935. The majority of foreign observers in Tokyo agree with this estimate.

Sincerely yours,

Joseph C. Grew
  1. Despatch transmitted in response to the Department’s telegram No. 85, October 2, 5 p.m., requesting “your estimate of possibility of armed conflict between Russia and Japan within near future or eight months or two years.” (761.94/624a)