740.0011 P. W./386

Memorandum of Conversation, by the Acting Secretary of State

The British Ambassador called to see me this evening at my request.

I informed Lord Halifax of the contents of the three telegrams received today from Ambassador Grew in Tokyo80 informing this Government of the replies made by the Japanese Government to the message sent a few days previously in the name of the Secretary of State at the request of the President.81 I further informed Lord Halifax of the reply which I had made today through Ambassador Grew82 to the inquiry contained in the message sent by the Japanese Government to this Government.

I then informed Lord Halifax of the contents of the messages received by this Government today from Chungking83 which indicated that the Japanese Government had on July 6 entered into a secret agreement with Germany and Italy providing for a recognition of the [Page 301] Japanese claimed sphere of interest in the Far East and in return therefor an agreement on the part of Japan to move southward and either simultaneously or subsequently to attack Siberia. I further informed Lord Halifax of information which I had received within the past twenty-four hours indicating that the Japanese Government was urgently instructing its representatives in the Western Hemisphere to make all preparations for an extreme crisis as well as the fact that Japanese agents in Central America were actively engaged in the attempt to foment revolutionary or local disturbances. Finally I informed Lord Halifax of the steps which would be announced tomorrow with regard to the closing of the Panama Canal for repairs, making it clear to him that the steps so taken would not interfere with the passage through the Canal of ships required in the British defense effort.

Lord Halifax then commenced to speculate upon possible developments in the Far East. He inquired what the Government of the United States would do in the event that Japan occupied Indochina entirely. I stated that the President had authorized me to say that in the event that Japan now took any overt step through force or through the exercise of pressure to conquer or to acquire alien territories in the Far East, the Government of the United States would immediately impose various embargoes, both economic and financial, which measures had been under consideration for some time past and which had been held in abeyance for reasons which were well-known to the Ambassador.84 The Ambassador then inquired what this Government would do in the event that Japan attacked Siberia. I said that my reply to his previous inquiry obviously answered the second inquiry which he had just made. The Ambassador then asked what the United States Government would do in the event that material being sent from the United States to Russian Pacific ports to assist the Russians in their present campaign was on the way across the Pacific in American flagships and the Japanese then announced that they were blockading the Russian ports in the Pacific and would not permit our ships to pass. I answered that this seemed to me in the nature of a completely hypothetical question and that the attitude of this Government in such event would necessarily depend upon a great many attendant circumstances. I said that a blockade of Siberian ports by Japan could only be regarded as legal under international law in the event that a state of war existed between Japan and Russia and that such a blockade had been declared a concomitant part of such state of war. If a state of war between Japan and Russia existed, I said I had already indicated to the Ambassador what the first step which this Government would take would be. I said that I was not [Page 302] prepared to speculate as to what our second or third steps might be. Those could only be determined in the light of what we considered the best interests of the United States might be in such event. I said it was obvious that if a legitimate blockade of Siberian ports had been declared by Japan at a time when our merchant ships were on the way across the Pacific to those ports, the only way in which we could force entrance into Siberian ports for those ships would be through the utilization of our fleet and that obviously would mean war between Japan and the United States. I said that while it was my desire to be as helpful to the Ambassador as I could, I did not feel that there was anything to be gained by discussing what might or might not be done in the light of future events when neither one of us could tell what the attendant circumstances might be. Furthermore, I said, it was by no means impossible that supplies to Russia might be sent from the United States by air via Alaska, and I further reminded the Ambassador that the Russian Government itself had a good many merchant ships now in the Pacific ports of the United States which undoubtedly would be used by the Russians for the transportation of defense matériel obtained in the United States and which would certainly be sufficient to take care of the first installment of such supplies.

The Ambassador said that he did not mean to be understood as pressing for answers to the hypothetical questions he had raised inasmuch as he had been in reality thinking aloud with regard to future developments. He said that it was quite clear that neither Great Britain nor the United States wished to enter into war with Japan if that could possibly be avoided, provided the legitimate rights and interests of both Governments were respected and maintained. He said, however, that the situation vis-à-vis Japan seemed to be deteriorating rapidly and he assumed that the time had come when different courses of action might have to be determined upon. I said that this was of course quite true but that this Government was not prepared for the time being to reply flat-footedly with regard to more than the first step which I had already indicated to him.

The Ambassador then undertook a historical survey of relations between Japan and Great Britain and the United States since the year 1931. He said he felt that the divergence in the course pursued by the United States and by Great Britain in 1931 was due more to misunderstanding than to any fundamental developments of principle. He said that he had been in the Cabinet in 1931 at the time that Sir John Simon was Foreign Secretary and remembered very vividly the discussions that had gone on in the Cabinet at that time with regard to the Far Eastern situation and the differences of views which had arisen between England and the United States. He said he supposed that in essence the problem had been that Great Britain was unwilling [Page 303] to pursue a policy vis-à-vis Japan which it believed would result in war at that time, unless it was assured that, should war break out, the United States would likewise participate in the war against Japan. He said he supposed that the point of view of the United States in 1931 had been that it was not prepared to take action by itself which might lead to war, unless it was assured that Great Britain would participate in the war on the side of the United States. I said that, as the Ambassador well knew, I was not in the Government at that time but that, as an outsider at that moment and having thought a good deal about the incidents to which he referred and the policies of which he was reminding me, I had always felt very strongly that had Great Britain and the United States at that time jointly adopted a policy towards Japan which made it clear to Japan that neither Government would consent to a continuation of the course upon which Japan had embarked, not only would there have been no war, but the whole tragic course of events involving not only the Far East but also the rest of the world might well have been averted.

Lord Halifax then said that he supposed one of the great troubles with democracies was the fact that the leaders of the democracies could not comprehend that the dictators and the gangsters in general did not in reality feel and react in the same way as the leaders in democratic countries. I remarked that I doubted that this was an inherent defect of democracies; that it seemed to me an inherent defect in certain races and peoples. I stated that I had long since reached the conclusion that certain people had for many generations been operating under the unfortunate delusion that all other peoples in the world felt and reacted the way they themselves did. I was not sure, I said, that this defect in the psychology of certain peoples had not also been responsible for some of the evils from which we were now suffering.

S[umner] W[elles]
  1. See telegram No. 953, July 8, 4 p.m., p. 1002; No. 954, July 8, 5 p.m., and No. 955, July 8, 6 p.m., not printed, but see Foreign Relations, Japan, 1931–1941, Vol. ii, pp. 503504.
  2. Delivered on July 6, ibid., p. 502.
  3. Telegram No. 384, July 10, 5 p.m., p. 1004.
  4. See text of Generalissimo Chiang’s message, p. 1004, and Department’s telegram No. 386, July 11, 11 a.m., to the Ambassador in Japan, p. 1005.
  5. See also memorandum by the Acting Secretary of State, July 14, p. 826.