Memorandum Prepared in the Division of Far Eastern Affairs5

Appraisal of the Situation in the Far East

[Here follows review and summary of the situation since July 1937.]

The policy of this Government so far would appear to have been substantially effective in sustaining China and in impeding Japan’s course of action. This policy so far has been followed without involvement by this country in the hostilities in the Far East.

The present is of course no time for a relaxation of effort on the part of the United States with reference to the situation in the Far East. This Government should continue to extend aid—financial, material, technical, moral—to China to the fullest extent possible. This aid should be given in such manner as to encourage the Chinese to exert their greatest efforts to aid themselves. At the same time, this Government should maintain a firm policy with regard to Japan. To meet the needs of this country’s defense program, some additional restrictions may reasonably be imposed upon exports to Japan (and other countries) of certain commodities of interest to Japan. Steps may also reasonably be taken to ensure that Japan shall not become a way station for the forwarding of American supplies to Germany. The imposition of full embargoes upon the export of [Page 151] commodities which Japan regards as essential to its existence as a power in the Far East and of which this Government is known to have an ample stock—such as petroleum—would not appear to be to the best interests of this country. It is believed that for many and sound reasons Japan does not desire war with the United States. The placing of sweeping and evidently discriminatory restrictions by this country upon trade with Japan would, however, demonstrate to all elements in Japan that the only way of assuring Japan’s future as a power with independence of action is to establish control through seizure or other means over an area which will be self-sustaining. Convinced that its future is at stake, Japan might well choose to take the risks of a military campaign southward rather than submit to an arbitrary cutting off of essential supplies or of essential markets. It is suggested that this Government should not therefore impose such restrictions unless it is prepared to accept the consequences of such action—increasing likelihood of involvement by the United States in hostilities in the Far East and probable partial diversion of American energies and of American supplies from aid to Great Britain.

No assurance, of course, exists that with the progress of developments in the European war Japan may not decide to enter upon a military campaign directed against British and Netherlands possessions in the Far East in concert with Axis moves in Europe. That the possibility of such a step exists, however, is no reason why this Government should by its policy give support to those elements in Japan—as yet in the minority—who are now understood to favor such a course of action.

The present year will be a critical period in the war in Europe. If this year can be passed with this country continuing to assist China and to deter Japan firmly but judiciously, with Japan still hesitating to break over into a campaign of military conquest against British and Netherlands possessions in the Far East, and if British resistance in Europe can be sustained with American assistance, then there is a distinct possibility that the present balance of Japanese opinion in regard to Japan’s future course of action may be decisively turned. This Government’s policy has had as one of its effective purposes the attrition of Japan’s energies and resources by steps undertaken gradually on a basis designed to obviate creating the impression that they were in the nature of overt acts directed primarily at Japan. At the end of this year, with the prospect of a quick German victory gone, and with the practical certainty that an attack in the Far East would involve Japan in a lengthy and probably disastrous war, Japan is likely to realize the magnitude of the difficulties in the way of the accomplishment of its program in the Far East. At that time Japan [Page 152] may well come to see that a solution of Japan’s problems is not to be found within the Axis and may of its own accord turn away from association with Germany.

On the other hand, with events in Europe transpiring with kaleidoscopic rapidity, repercussions of those events are bound to be felt in the Far East. Japan’s best interests, in the eyes of its Government and people, lie in a change in the status quo. Japan may be expected to continue its careful opportunistic policy pari passu with developments in Europe until such time as a more attractive alternative is presented. If Japan can be led to believe without question that the United States is able to resist and will resist by active intervention with its armed forces any aggression against British or Netherlands possessions in the Far East, Japan would hesitate to attack those areas.

Japan, Russia, Germany and Italy are grimly determined to improve their respective positions during and by means of the present world upheaval. There are only two factors which in final analysis are capable of altering the course followed by any one of those countries—first, effective force coupled with a determination to employ that force if necessary, and second, the offer of alternatives of sufficiently attractive economic or political value.

It is believed this Government’s best interests will be served by continuing to confront Japan now with determination, without element of bluff, and to continue with greater clarity to present to Japan at the same time a willingness to give honest and sympathetic consideration now to Japan’s legitimate desires for changes in the economic status quo if Japan will abandon entirely its resort to and threat of armed force and aggression.

  1. Initialed by the Chief of the Division (Hamilton), who submitted it on April 17 to the Adviser on Political Relations (Hornbeck). For Dr. Hornbeck’s memorandum of April 24, see p. 164.