The Assistant Chief of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs (Hamilton)41 to the Chief of the Division (Hornbeck)

Dear Mr. Hornbeck: [Here follows historical resume and background of Russo-Japanese relations.]

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II. The Present Situation

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It will be recalled that the present Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs, Koki Hirota, has recently served as Japanese Ambassador to Moscow. Although his appointment may not have been attributable in any way to the present state of Japanese-Russian relations, his occupancy of the post of Foreign Minister may reasonably be regarded as likely to result in a better understanding of and possibly an improvement in the relations between the two countries. In his first press interview after assuming office as Foreign Minister, Hirota emphasized that the basic feature of his policies would be the cultivating and strengthening of Japanese relations with her three neighbors, the United States, China and Russia.

In gauging the relations between Japan and Russia, it needs always to be borne in mind that the Japanese Government is adamant in its opposition to subversive activities and communistic doctrine characterizing the program of Soviet Russia. In a conversation of October 2, with Eiji Amau, the present Foreign Office “spokesman”, Mr. Amau remarked that the question of Japan’s relations with Soviet Russia was peculiarly difficult because of the various trends of opinion in Japan on the question, and because of the existence and the activities of the Third Internationale. The active propagation in Japan by agents of Soviet Russia of communistic doctrines would almost certainly result in drastic action by the Japanese authorities and might result in an open break between the two countries.

III. Estimate of the Possibility of Armed Conflict Between Japan and Russia

At the present time relations between Japan and Russia are admittedly far from smooth. Petty but annoying incidents threatening good relations arise more or less constantly. There are also more important questions outstanding in the relations between the two countries. Soviet government agents and “Manchukuo” agents (which to all intents and purposes are Japan’s agents) are in constant juxtaposition along a frontier ill-defined in various points. The fisheries controversy involves a class of persons among whom there is always danger of brawls and of even more serious incidents. There is reason to believe that the Japanese military at times cast covetous eyes upon Eastern Siberia and Mongolia with their stakes of raw materials. Japan is very much alive to the menace of a neighbor dangerous not only from print of view of military strength but also from point of view of ideas and doctrines which are utterly [Page 426] repugnant to the Japanese Government. The general situation is fraught with possibilities of serious danger.

However, notwithstanding the foregoing, I do not believe that there is likelihood at present of armed conflict breaking out between Russia and Japan. The problems outstanding in the relations between the two countries are susceptible to adjustment by negotiation. (A responsible official of the Foreign Office told me on October 4 that he thought a settlement would be worked out and agreed upon in the Chinese Eastern Railway sale negotiations, probably the most important problem outstanding in the present diplomatic negotiations between the two government[s].) So far as can be ascertained here, Russia, although manifesting during recent months a somewhat firmer attitude, shows no indication of desiring to assume the offensive. Japan, to judge by present indications, is not preparing and does not wish for an armed encounter at this time. The public is not now being educated or inflamed to a present war. Japan’s present warlike activities seem pointed rather toward obtaining by 1935 an already worked-out military and naval program. It therefore seems to me that the weight of evidence is against the outbreak at this time of armed conflict between Japan and Russia.

I also do not see factors in the general situation which would make likely the outbreak of an armed conflict in the next eight months or year.

With regard to the question of the possibility of armed conflict between Japan and Russia in two years, say about 1935, it may safely be said that by 1935 Japan will, in case she carries to completion her present military and naval program, which seems very likely, be fully prepared for an armed encounter with Soviet Russia. It is impossible to estimate, due to the scarcity of reliable information about the general situation in Russia, whether Russia at that time will be more ready for war than she now is. In case Russia develops in strength, it seems reasonable to assume that she will be prepared to resist further Japanese aggrandizement on the north Asiatic continent, if not actually to attempt to wrest from Japan territory formerly dominated by Russia. Given a stronger Russia, we would have by 1935 two fully armed antagonists, each ready and willing to fight. In that situation a war is very likely to result. Even in case Russia is not ready to fight, Japan by 1935 will be at the zenith of her military preparations and may readily decide that the moment is ripe to remove from the Far East the menace of Russia.

It seems likely, then, that by 1935 Japan will be ready and willing to engage Russia in armed conflict. Japan may wish to postpone that engagement until after the next naval conference, provided she [Page 427] then thinks that she can obtain by diplomacy her naval demands. In case in 1935 the general situation is such that Japan should conclude that she could not attain her naval demands by diplomacy, that would be added reason for Japan to proceed to an armed conflict with Russia, during which Japan would disregard any outside restrictions on her naval building program.

It is of course possible that within the next two years the situation at present existing between Japan and Russia will improve materially and remove at least for the time being the danger of an armed conflict. During that period the Japanese military is certain to be much occupied in pacifying and assisting in organizing the administration of Manchuria. If reasonable and satisfactory progress is made in that direction, the attention of the Japanese military may be diverted from thought, or the feeling of need, of armed conflict with Russia. During that period also, the present Soviet regime may collapse or become so weakened that it will no longer be considered by Japan as a menace. It is conceivable, too, that the domestic situation in Japan would by 1935 change so fundamentally as to make improbable an armed conflict with Russia; but I see no strong evidence pointing toward such a change in Japan within that period.

In conclusion it is my estimate that, given a continuation of the present general situation, an armed conflict between Russia and Japan is not likely to occur at the present moment or in eight months or a year; but that there exists serious danger of armed conflict between the two countries two years from now. Such a conflict may of course come at any moment through the outbreak of a local incident which might easily expand to serious proportions. And a conflict may come before 1935 in case the internal situation in Japan should alter in such a way as to jeopardize the present dominant position of the military, thereby causing the military to resort to a foreign war, most probably against Russia, in order to divert domestic attention from the military and enable it to maintain itself in power. In the circumstances existing in the relations between Japan and Russia, it will always be a very easy matter for Japan to invent a pretext for war if she so desires. The Japanese military, however, continue to be strongly entrenched in power and there are no definite indications that a situation will develop within the foreseeable future where their present dominant position will be challenged.

Sincerely yours,

Maxwell M. Hamilton
  1. Mr. Hamilton was on special assignment in the Far East.