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

Dear Mr. Secretary: I am perhaps taking a liberty in bothering you with these informal comments, but at a critical time like the present it seems to me of the utmost importance that no misconstructions between the Department and the Embassy should arise as a result of the phraseology or substance of telegrams or for any other reason. If I could sit down with you and talk things through I feel certain that our general views with regard to this deplorable situation out [Page 526] here in the Far East would be found to be close if not identical, even though we necessarily survey the situation from two different angles and though we in the Embassy cannot see the whole picture as the Department sees it. But since direct conversation is unfortunately precluded, I believe that the next best thing is to write you much as I would talk and to try to give you a fair conception of the lines along which our thoughts are working. I venture to believe that this may be helpful from two points of view, first to clarify our thoughts to you, and second to elicit your counter comments or further instructions if you find divergence between the basic reasoning and recommendations of the Embassy and the basic reasoning and policy of the Department. We are here for the purpose of representing and carrying out that policy to the best of our ability, and that, I need hardly say, is our fundamental aim. If at any time you see indications of our jumping the track in any direction, it is highly important that we understand just how and where this is being done.

Put in summary form, the principal difference of views which might be held to emerge from our telegram No. 321 of August 27, 4 p.m., and your reply No. 187 of September 2, 2 p.m., would appear to lie in our recommended three guiding objectives in the present contingency (to avoid involvement, to protect American lives and rights and, while preserving neutrality, to maintain friendship with both combatants). You agree with the first and second but doubt if it is practicable to aim at the same time at solidifying our relations with either of the combatant nations. In expanding that thought you instruct me to overlook no opportunity to suggest to Japanese officialdom that Japan is destroying the world’s good will and building up a longtime liability of suspicion, distrust, dislike, and potential ostracism.

I also am of opinion that the third of the objectives is less important than the first and second, but I still think it ought to remain among them—never to take precedence over the avoiding of involvement or over protection, but nevertheless kept in mind, though more as method than as principle. The mere enumeration of several principles to guide action always leaves unsettled their relative weight.

I feel confident that subsequent portions of this letter will make clear that the main purpose of our telegram was to urge certain considerations with regard to the method used in manifesting American disapproval. There may occur some attempt by Japan to circumscribe American rights to trade with China or some other sovereign rights, in which case an entirely new situation, calling for new methods which might include recourse to the most drastic measures, would arise; but so long as that situation does not arise I would respectfully recommend no departure by our Government from its present official attitude and methods.

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I share your views, and the views of the American public, of outrage at the Japanese program. I most heartily agree with you that we should make clear to Japanese officialdom the importance which we attach to the principles enunciated by you on July 16 and August 23 and the importance of world opinion which the present program is laying up against the Japanese nation. The American attitude can be and has been made abundantly clear to the Japanese Government. In addition to our official utterances, the American press (which is of course reported to Japanese leaders) expresses that attitude unmistakably. I have also talked along the desired lines to important people here. Your pronouncements have not, however, been permitted to come before the Japanese people in any detail.

In agreeing that the expression of clear disapproval of Japan’s course is desirable, nevertheless I wish at this point respectfully to raise the following consideration. This is a country of a controlled press, and treacherous twisting of news and opinion is not only possible but is the practice. If public statements could be got through to the Japanese people there are several which I should urge making, but in the present state of control of the Japanese press our messages do not reach the public. The Japanese people do not speak our language, and it is the Japanese Government which acts as interpreter. Exhort them as we may, the interpreter is in position to do what coloring he wishes—and he wishes much. Repeated American public statements critical of Japan’s course would be fully warranted, but they would not deter the course of military developments and they would reach the Japanese public so colored and so contaminated by other matter that the Japanese people would see American unfriendliness without the warrant.

Lest there be any misunderstanding as to our attitude, I venture to summarize still further a few of our current thoughts on this whole problem:

1. We feel that in the present issue the Administration has acted with great wisdom and that your appeals of July 16 and August 23 and your various observations to the Japanese and Chinese Ambassadors have been high-minded, broad-visioned, statesmanlike pronouncements, fully called for and completely justified. They have beyond peradventure announced and established the position of the United States before the world, the American public, the combatants, international law and history.

2. While steadfastly maintaining our position in the world as the foremost exponent of the highest international ethics and principles, of disarmament and world peace, we feel that we can be of greater practical use in the world at large and the Far East in particular, and we can keep American interests in the Far East on a sounder footing [Page 528] now and in future, if we aim, so far as is practicable, to avoid unnecessarily sacrificing our present relations either with China or Japan than if we throw overboard our friendship with either.

3. The Japanese people, perhaps more than most people, are capable of long-remembered gratitude for what they consider friendly attitudes on the part of other nations, and long-remembered resentment for unfriendly attitudes. Whatever we may think of the Japanese military machine, need we penalize our own future interests, and perhaps our own future helpfulness in working for peace, by creating among the Japanese people a renewed antagonism against the United States? I know by personal experience, and bitter experience, how acute that antagonism was when I came here in 1932. The good neighbor policy of the present Administration has completely overcome what formerly amounted to a festering irritation.

Continuing our line of thought, we feel, whether warrantably or otherwise, that the Department has apparently read into our telegram No. 321 views which were not expressed and which were not intended to be expressed therein. The following further points are therefore brought out in order that all misconception of our attitude may be removed:

4. Our thought is by no means a question of what may be pleasing to the Japanese but rather a question of maintaining and developing what we conceive to be a situation of maximum future value to American interests. I have not for a single moment advocated that we should in any way or in any degree sacrifice American interests or purchase Japanese goodwill at the expense of abandoning any American policy or law or any treaty to which we are a party on any consideration, nor that our Government should omit any action demanded by American public opinion. I do not advocate and have not advocated our tying our hands in order not to displease Japan. I did express our opinion that any attempt to thwart Japan’s course in China by manifestations of disapprobation on legal or moral grounds would have no favorable effect on the situation, but that is quite a different matter. I have already made it clear that I thoroughly and heartily concur in every action thus far taken by our Government in the present situation. Our thought lies not at all with what has been done but rather with what might be done in future. We have feared the adverse effects which would accrue if resort were now made to the method of public censure, either alone or in concert with other Powers, as has been rumored in the press. We have felt that if such a course were now adopted, there would probably be brought about a condition of affairs in which it might be difficult, if not impossible, to carry out either or both of the two primary objectives set forth in our recommendations which are acceptable to you. [Page 529] We in the Embassy favor continuance of our Government’s present course, and it was the main purpose of our telegram to express that attitude.

5. Another point to which I wish to refer is the Department’s statement that it is doubtful whether the American Government will wish to act as mediator. You may recall that early in the conflict I recommended against an offer of mediation by the United States. The statement in my 321 that moral intervention by the Powers which could be interpreted as partial to either contestant would have no good effect until a stalemate occurs or until either combatant has established military supremacy over the other implied no recommendation for mediation. We envisage no action by the United States in response to the desire of either combatant that we act as “friendly broker”, but we do believe that a condition may arise when the United States may feel the need of addressing itself to both combatants in order to prevent, if possible, the development in China of conditions of chaotic disorder. In the present communistic trend such a situation may well arise. I have merely had in mind the constant aim of President Wilson during the first years of the World War to steer a course which would place the United States in the most favorable position to play just that part.

6. One last point, and then I am through. We believe strongly in a united or concerted front with Great Britain and we feel that this front has consistently been maintained since the present hostilities began. I have had this thought constantly in mind and have done everything in my power here to maintain that position. I do not, however, feel that British methods are always best calculated to achieve desired results. There sometimes appears an ineptitude in their methods, and especially in the tone and language and timing of their official communications, which does not seem to us to characterize the tone and language and timing employed by our own Government. These things count.

To sum up, Mr. Secretary, I believe that the recommendations contained in our telegram 321, somewhat elaborated and perhaps clarified in this letter, center not about principle or policy or attitude but simply about method, and not about the methods already followed, with which we are in the most hearty accord, but with methods which might be followed in future. Our primary and fundamental thought is, naturally, the advancement of American interests in the Far East in future, and we feel that this in itself presupposes the advancement of world peace.

These comments go to you with great respect and certainly in no spirit of controversy. I do not like to send them in a formal despatch but appreciate nevertheless the importance of having my general attitude [Page 530] made abundantly clear on the records, and it would therefore give me a feeling of satisfaction if you should be disposed to place this letter on the files of the Department in connection with and in elaboration of our telegram No. 321 of August 27, 4 p.m.

I am [etc.]

Joseph C. Grew