851N.014/1²⁄₄

Memorandum by the Chief of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs ( Hamilton ) to the Under Secretary of State ( Welles )62

Fakarava Island of the Tuamotu Archipelago lies some 4,000 statute miles southwest of San Francisco and 4,800 statute miles southwest of the Panama Canal. Longitudinally, Fakarava Island is east of Hawaii. The nearest Japanese possession is the Marshall Islands (under Japanese mandate). The Marshall Islands are approximately 3,000 statute miles to the northwest. The Archipelago, which consists of some 80 coral atolls, has been under French sovereignty since 1844. The nearest islands not under French sovereignty are islands to the northwest and to the southeast which are under British sovereignty.

In regard to questions of national defense and strategy connected with the military significance of the Tuamotu Archipelago under conditions suggested by Admiral Leahy, I do not feel competent to express an opinion. However, I do offer certain comments with regard to political aspects of the question. The purchase of one of the islands of the Tuamotu Archipelago and the establishment of a naval base there might be interpreted by Japan as part of an encircling movement by the only great power which is at present in a position to wage effective warfare against Japan. This strategic threat to Japan might be expected to render American-Japanese relations more difficult and more unfriendly than they are at present and to increase the likelihood of eventual war between the two countries. It could be further anticipated that the steps under contemplation might cause Japan to fortify, if she has not already done so, or to accelerate fortification of, Japan’s mandated islands. In the event of indecision on the part of Japan as to whether she should join with Germany and Italy in war against Great Britain and France, knowledge that the United States was intending to establish a naval base in the Tuamotu Islands might influence Japan into active participation in the war: Japan might conclude that it would be preferable to come to a showdown militarily with Great Britain and France prior to development of the [Page 530] contemplated naval base as such a base would weaken Japan’s position in the Pacific in the event of war with Great Britain and France.

Admiral Leahy suggests that, in the event of a war between Germany, Italy, and Japan on the one hand and Great Britain and France on the other, with the United States neutral, the possession by the United States of a naval base in the Tuamotu Islands would provide a deterrent against Japanese aggression in the eastern Pacific. It seems doubtful to me that such a naval base would seriously check Japanese activities as long as the United States was neutral. Japan was not deterred by the proximity of the Philippine Islands in her recent seizure of Hainan Island and the so-called Spratly Islands.63

The question of the possible political effects in this country of acquiring territory in the midst of British and French possessions far removed from other possessions of the United States is a factor in the situation which would seem to be worthy of serious consideration.

M[axwell] M. H[amilton]
  1. Transmitted by Under Secretary of State Welles to the Secretary of State on June 30.
  2. See vol. iii, pp. 103 ff.; also Foreign Relations, Japan, 1931–1941, vol. ii, pp. 277 ff.