811.30 Asiatic Fleet/954

The Chief of Naval Operations ( Stark ) to the Secretary of State

Serial No. 029713 (SC) EF16

Sir: Enclosed herewith is a copy of the Commander-in-Chief, United States Asiatic Fleet, letter of August 28, 1941 covering his analysis of the factors which it appears necessary to examine in reaching a decision on the question of withdrawal of U. S. Naval Forces from China.

It is believed that this letter will prove of value to the State Department in its consideration of the question of withdrawal of U. S. Naval Forces from China now under discussion.

Attention is invited to the proposals contained in paragraph 5 of Admiral Hart’s letter which are an alternative to a complete withdrawal. The State Department’s comments on these recommendations would be appreciated.


H. R. Stark

The Commander in Chief, U. S. Asiatic Fleet ( Hart ), to the Chief of Naval Operations ( Stark )

S/A16–1 (S–97)

Subject: Withdrawal of U. S. Naval Forces from China.

1. During the past few months, the Commander in Chief has watched the position of the U. S. Naval Forces in China, particularly that of the Yangtze Patrol, the Fourth Marines and the Marine [Page 564] Forces in North China, steadily deteriorate. On one occasion he recommended that the two Yangtze River Gunboats capable of making the voyage be withdrawn to the Philippines. That he has refrained from repeating that recommendation and from making a similar recommendation with respect to our Marines in Shanghai and North China has been due solely to the circumstance that first, the weakness of their military position is so obvious that it would be presumptuous to infer that the Department was unaware of it; and second, the pros and cons on the subject of their withdrawal go deeply into the field of high policy, concerning the aims and methods of which the Department is more completely informed than is the Commander in Chief. That he has now decided to set forth his views on the subject is because he believes that time has come when all the elements bearing on the position of those forces must be closely examined, and when it should be made clear, beyond any possible misapprehension in any quarter, that every military consideration calls for their withdrawal. In other words, no single military advantage accrues to us by maintaining the Gunboats and Marines in China, for, in the event of war with Japan they would be quickly contained or destroyed, probably without being able to inflict even a comparable loss on the enemy.

2. The Commander in Chief is fully aware, however, that there exist other weighty considerations affecting the question of the withdrawal of those forces. He is also aware that the usual conclusion which heretofore has been reached, after weighing these latter considerations, is that to withdraw would be to commit a serious tactical error in the realm of international politics and diplomacy. It is not intended to imply that this conclusion is necessarily incorrect, or is the result of an improper evaluation of the factors involved; but it is believed that in certain quarters there may be a tendency to regard such conclusion as being, under any and all circumstances, correct beyond any possibility of error; whereas, as a matter of fact, being a deduction based on many intangibles, it is inherently subject to error, and, being derived from changing values, requires periodical reexamination.

3. The principal factors which it appears necessary to examine in reaching a decision on this question appear to the Commander in Chief to be:

Protection of lives and property of our nationals.
The question of loss of national prestige.
The abandonment of our business enterprises.
The adverse effect on the morale of the Chungking Government.

4. The Commander in Chief’s views on these factors are as follows:

(a) Protection of Lives and Property of Our Nationals.

The basic reason for the presence in China of our armed forces has long been the protection of the lives and, incidentally the property, of [Page 565] our nationals; not against the organized armed forces of a recognized authority but against mob action, banditry and other forms of lawless violence. It cannot be maintained that the danger from those sources no longer exists, but it is not a great danger in the cities where our Marines are now stationed because those locations are also the scenes of Japanese troop concentrations, i. e., organized forces. Approximately one-third of the total number of United States nationals now residing in the occupied areas are where they cannot possibly receive the slightest benefit from the presence, for instance, of our Marines in Shanghai, Peiping and Tientsin. Incidentally, those nationals in outlying areas have, for some time, fared no worse than those in the “protected” spots. The fact is that the presence in China of our Marines for the purpose of “protecting the lives and property of U. S. Nationals” has become a matter of theoretical rather than practical value. The same situation also applies to the presence of our gunboats.

The Commander in Chief does not discount the possibility of the development under Japanese guidance of a widespread and extremely violent campaign against U. S. (and British) nationals. Unless, however, Japan were at war with us, or expected shortly to be, her guidance in such a campaign would have to be undercover and we could demand protection for our nationals in those spots such as Shanghai, Peiping and Tientsin, where Japanese armed forces are garrisoned; and it is probable that our demands would be met for the time being. If we were at war with Japan, our gunboats and Marines, far from being able to afford protection to our nationals, would be in at least equal jeopardy. So long as it contributes to the fulfillment of their mission, the Commander in Chief would be the last to infer that our armed forces in China should not accept equal, and even greater risks than our nationals whom they are protecting; but the conditions have become such that the presence of our forces in China actually contributes so little to the protection of the lives and property of our nationals that if the question of their withdrawal were to be decided solely upon that point, he sees no logical grounds for other than an affirmative answer.

(b) The Question of Loss of National Prestige.

The question of loss of national prestige incident to the withdrawal of forces concerns two main factors: (1) Is it an action that is treacherous or in contravention of a solemnly given pledge or: (2) Is it a surrender to international blackmail; that is, does it represent the relinquishment under threat of a favored position to which one is entitled by treaty or other international agreement, and thus brand our nation as being lacking in either the means or the spirit to defend its rightful place in the world?

[Page 566]

Since the only treaties involved in the case are those which give us the right to maintain our armed forces, but impose no obligation upon us to do so, the first of the two factors presented above does not exist.

On the surface, however, it appears that by the withdrawal of our forces we would be inviting the charge of capitulation in the face of danger and of being lacking in either the courage or the means to defend our rights. In order to determine whether we need concern ourselves with this prospect in coming to a decision on the question of withdrawal certain questions need be answered: Is the charge true? Although the charge is false, does the chance it may be held true in certain quarters entail a risk, for the avoidance of which we are willing to sacrifice a great deal more than would be represented by the total loss of the armed forces involved?

As we have both the means and the intention to maintain our position and our rights in the face of aggression, the charge that our withdrawal from China would be correctly interpreted as a spineless capitulation and an invitation to further pressure is patently false. If correctly interpreted, the withdrawal of our forces from China would represent the liquidation of an untenable military position in preparation for an armed conflict; and it should have a sobering effect wherever it is properly evaluated. It will have such effect on many Japanese.

It is, however, hardly possible to predict how “official” Japan would regard this move; but this is of importance to us only if we are not ready to meet the situation that might possibly be created if she interpreted our action as a sign of weakness. To the Commander in Chief, this appears to be the only important element in the consideration of the effect of withdrawal upon the national prestige.

The Commander in Chief realizes that the nature of the opposition we are prepared to meet in the Pacific is conditioned by the progress of the European war; but he doubts the ultimate wisdom of any policy that fails to regard Japan as fully as implacable an enemy of the democratic front and the “four freedoms” as Germany and Italy, or which allows her to strengthen her position in the hope that she may not use her new vantage point to gain another. It is not believed that it is a part of the national policy to retreat indefinitely in the face of Japanese pressure in the Far East, but rather that there is some point beyond which we have determined that she shall not advance unresisted. If this is true, then there seems little purpose in allowing any consideration of a possible adverse interpretation by Japan to deter us from any action which is in itself clearly non-provocative and non-aggressive. It is only in the event that we wish to create the fiction of our determination to resist Japanese aggression, when in reality such determination does not exist, that any importance can be attached to [Page 567] the maintenance in China of our armed forces insofar as the question of national prestige is concerned.

Those who are concerned lest the withdrawal of our forces entail the loss of national prestige in the eyes of Japan, or others, would do well to ponder for a moment our dilemma in the event of: (1) The Nanking Government, at a time especially embarrassing to us, demanding their withdrawal and being seconded therein by Japan, or: (2) The occurrence, likewise at a time peculiarly inconvenient for us, of an incident between the members of a Japanese armed service and our own of such nature that every conception of national prestige demands redress.

Although the Commander in Chief believes that either or both of the above events may well come to pass, he does not offer them as reasons in justification of withdrawal unless it is our policy to avoid being placed in a dilemma by Japan by the simple, but eventually disastrous, method of keeping out of her way. But all should realize to what ends we may be forced in the matter. At the present time the question of whether the withdrawal of our forces involves the loss of national prestige is probably debatable. The Commander in Chief believes it does not, but he realizes that a skilled propagandist could make some use of such an issue in Japan, in China and even in the United States. The time may come, however, when it is no longer debatable, when we have to withdraw or fight, and when to withdraw would be a national disgrace; and we may expect that time to come when we are least able to act as we should like.

To recapitulate, the Commander in Chief believes that the withdrawal of our armed forces would create no hazards to our national prestige that would not at least be equaled by those incident to retaining our forces there. There is no doubt whatever that the loss of considerable forces in China, at the beginning of a war, would involve a most serious loss of prestige which we might be some time in regaining.

(c) The Abandonment of Our Business Enterprises.

There is not much doubt that the withdrawal of our forces would be accompanied by vociferous complaints from the United States business concerns which are still holding on in the occupied territories. The fact remains, however, that those business enterprises are steadily being strangled, and the presence of our armed forces is now contributing little, if anything, to their survival. It might reasonably be argued that the process of strangulation would be hastened by their withdrawal; but nothing in the record of the past four years indicates that our business enterprises will be saved if only we maintain our armed forces in China. The Commander in Chief believes that the salvation of our business enterprises will require other, and far more [Page 568] vigorous, measures; and that if, and when, we take such measures the presence in the occupied areas of our present inadequate forces will contribute nothing to our success.

(d) The Adverse Effect on the Morale of the Chungking Government.

It will be recalled that the withdrawal of the British garrisons from Shanghai, Peiping and Tientsin, and of the British gunboats from the Yangtze River was regarded in Chungking as an act of desertion. It is realized that the continuation of China’s resistance to Japan is a vital factor in the present world situation; and the Commander in Chief would not recommend the adoption of any course of action which, through its adverse effect on the morale, or on the financial and economic position, of the National Government, would result in any consequential and irreparable diminution of their will or ability to continue their resistance.

It is probable that the withdrawal of our armed forces from the occupied territory, particularly from Shanghai, would, at least temporarily, have an adverse effect on the morale of those Chinese in that city who are still loyal to the Chungking régime and whose financial and industrial activities may be contributing substantially to the economic strength of free China. The Commander in Chief realizes that he is unable to estimate with much assurance of correctness either the magnitude of their contribution to the cause of continued Chinese resistance, or the severity of the blow that would be dealt them by the withdrawal of our forces. It is precisely for this reason that he has any hesitation in recommending an immediate withdrawal. It would seem that, in view of our pledge to assist China to the limit of our ability, there is no logical reason why their morale would suffer any severe damage from the withdrawal of our Gunboats and Marines. It must be admitted, however, that the Chinese viewpoint must be reckoned with, however illogical such viewpoint may be.

5. As revealed in the foregoing paragraphs, it is the Commander in Chief’s belief that, except for the possibility that it would result in a lessening of China’s will to continue her resistance to Japan which we could not readily offset, every other consideration points to the wisdom of a withdrawal. It is believed that a fairly accurate evaluation of the “morale” factor can, and should be made, and its proper weight in the decision on withdrawal should be assigned. Unless it is determined that it is a considerably weightier factor than is apparent, the Commander in Chief favors the withdrawal of all of our armed forces. If the Department is convinced that a complete withdrawal could create a reaction in China, Japan, or the United States, which it is most desirable to avoid, but agrees that the maintenance of considerably smaller “token” forces would serve the national interests equally well, the following action is recommended: [Page 569]

withdraw Luzon and Oahu,
withdraw Marines from Tientsin and Chinwangtao, and
decrease the Fourth Marines to the minimum number required to support the contention that the question of evacuation of Sector Cast71a is not raised by our action. The Commander in Chief estimates a force of two (2) companies would serve this purpose, but withholds a definite recommendation as to numbers pending the receipt of suggestions on this point from the Commanding Officer, Fourth Marines and the Commander Yangtze Patrol.

6. The urgency of delivery of this document is such that it will not reach the addressee in time via the next available officer courier. The originator therefore authorizes the transmission of this document by Pan American Lock Box from Cavite, P. I. to San Francisco, California, and by registered mail within the continental limits of the United States.

7. It is hereby certified that the originator considers it to be impracticable to phrase this document in such a manner as will permit a classification other than secret.

Thos. C. Hart
  1. Sector C.