The Secretary of State to the Secretary of the Navy (Knox)

My Dear Mr. Secretary: The receipt is acknowledged of Admiral Stark’s letter of October 3, 1941, enclosing a memorandum dated August 28, 1941, from the Commander in Chief of the United States Asiatic Fleet in regard to the question of the withdrawal of American naval forces from China.

Officers of this Department have given Admiral Hart’s memorandum careful consideration, and evidence of that consideration has been embodied in a memorandum, copies of which I send you in duplicate herewith. Previous memoranda referred to in this memorandum have already been made available informally to certain officers of the Navy Department.

In reply to the express request made in your letter under acknowledgement, I may say that, without passing upon or assuming responsibility for the details of fact and of comment set forth in any of the memoranda above mentioned, I find myself in accord with the general purport of and the specific suggestions made in the memorandum which I am sending you here enclosed. I feel that it would be inadvisable at this time to add unnecessarily to the many factors affecting the political equilibrium in the China situation, especially at Shanghai, by making an overt withdrawal of an important stabilizing instrumentality, [Page 570] namely, the United States forces now stationed in China. I am not overlooking the risks involved, which are of several kinds and which must be weighed each against others. Keeping in mind several objectives, I believe that our total interest would best be served and at the same time the purposes which Admiral Hart has in mind could in substantial measure be achieved by following the procedure suggested in the memorandum copies of which I give you herewith for your consideration.

In conclusion, I feel that the points set forth in the paragraph beginning at the middle of page 8 of the memorandum72 should be kept constantly in mind, and, toward insuring coordination and appropriate cooperation in regard to decisions the execution and effects of which necessarily concern both your Department and this Department, I suggest that there be continuous conference and collaboration between officers whom you might name to represent you and officers whom I am prepared to name to represent me for that purpose.

Sincerely yours,

Cordell Hull

Memorandum by the Assistant Chief of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs (Adams)

Comment on Memorandum From the Commander in Chief, U. S. Asiatic Fleet, to the Chief of Naval Operations

Subject: Withdrawal of U. S. Naval forces from China, dated U. S. S. Houston, Flagship, August 28, 1941.

A. The signer of the present memorandum has seen during the past thirteen years many memoranda on the subject of withdrawal of American armed forces from China and he regards the memorandum now under reference, by Admiral Hart, as the most fully balanced, the most comprehensive, and the most objectively composed of any that he has seen of those prepared outside of the Department of State. The signer of the present memorandum has participated in many discussions and much correspondence regarding this subject, other participants having been officers of the Department of State, officers of the Navy, officers of the Army, personnel of the White House, et cetera. He is familiar with most, he believes, of the words that have been uttered and the action that has been taken on this subject during the past thirteen years.

It will be recalled that for practically a century the United States has maintained some naval forces in Chinese waters; that even before [Page 571] 1900 we had a small force of marines as a guard at the Legation in Peking; that in 1900 we landed an expeditionary force which took part in the relief of the Legations; that after 1900 we, along with other nations, enlarged our guard force at Peking; that in the Protocol of 1901 we assumed, along with other nations, certain special obligations regarding the Legation quarter in Peking and the keeping open of a highway (actually or constructively) from Peking to the seacoast; that in 1912 we sent the 15th Infantry, U. S. A., from Manila to Tientsin for a special purpose; that we maintained that force at Tientsin until 1938; that in 1928 we landed and stationed at Shanghai a force of marines; that in 1932 we reinforced this force, from Manila, with additional marines and troops; that, having thereafter reduced the force at Shanghai, we again reinforced that force in 1937; that in 1938 we withdrew the 15th Infantry from Tientsin, split the marine force which we then had at Peking, left approximately one-half of that force at Peking and placed the other half at Tientsin; and that since 1939 we have pursued a policy of reducing by technical attrition the aggregate number of the contingents of marines at Peking, at Tientsin and at Shanghai. Whereas in 1938 we had of landed armed forces at those three points in China well over 3,000 officers and men we have at those three points now a total of approximately 1,200. It has been the observation of the undersigned that, among officers of the Department of State and the Foreign Service, officers of the Navy, and officers of the Army there is, in general, haziness and variety of concept regarding the appropriate function and the expressed mission of the American Armed Forces, both afloat and landed, in China; but that, among officers of each and all of these services who have given special attention to the question, and especially among those who have conferred together on the subject, there is a community and a substantial unanimity of understanding and opinion regarding this matter. The official understanding today is that none of these forces are in China for a military (or naval) purpose; that these forces are there to assist in the carrying out of a particular feature of American foreign policy, namely, that of protection, under rule of reason, of the lives and, incidentally, but only incidentally, the property of American nationals; that in connection with that function there is necessarily involved a contribution to the maintenance of the prestige of the United States; that, just as questions of high policy had to be and were taken into consideration when these forces were sent to various points, and as such questions have had to be and have been taken into consideration at intervals throughout the period of the maintenance of those forces and their augmentation or their diminution at the said points, so, such questions have to be and are and will be taken into consideration in connection with the question of their withdrawal, if and when, from those points; that the presence of those forces has a [Page 572] psychological effect probably far greater than its physical effect; that those forces have, in action, on many occasions made substantial contribution toward preventing outbursts of disorder, toward safeguarding the persons and the property of American nationals, toward making possible continuance of legitimate activities of American nationals, toward placing obstacles in the way of illegitimate activities by and on the part of political and military agents of certain foreign countries, toward maintenance of communications between the American Government and its authorized representatives and agents, toward facilitating orderly and safe exodus by American nationals from points which in certain periods of emergency have had to be evacuated, et cetera. These are appropriate functions of those armed forces and are illustrative of the scope and the limitations of the specified mission of the said forces.

B. With express reference to Admiral Hart’s memorandum:

Admiral Hart states that “… no single military advantage accrues to us by maintaining the Gunboats and Marines in China …”73 This view is concurred in by the undersigned. It may be said, however, that it has never been intended that any military advantage should accrue to us from the maintaining of gunboats and landed armed forces in China.
Admiral Hart states that he realizes that there are other weighty considerations which affect the question of withdrawal; that in his opinion we should not rest forever upon conclusions at sometime in the past arrived at; and that in the light of changing values the question “requires periodical re-examination.” The undersigned concurs in this opinion. It may be stated, however, that the question has been and is subjected to periodical re-examination. It is believed that this question has been re-examined during recent years at least, on an average, two or three times every year. Most recently it came up for reexamination some five or six weeks ago, on the basis of suggestions, recommendations and opinions from the Commander of the Yangtze patrol, the Commander in Chief, the Consul General at Shanghai, the Ambassador at Chungking, and officers of the Navy Department and of the Department of State. At that time, the Commander of the Yangtze patrol had recommended without qualification that, in view of possibly impending developments at Shanghai, there should be an immediate and complete withdrawal of the landed armed forces; the Consul General, without much discussion, had given his indorsement; the Commander in Chief had indicated that he inclined favorably but was withholding judgment. The Ambassador, with a reasoned estimate of the situation, recommended withholding a decision to withdraw until it should become clear that, on the side of caution, withdrawal [Page 573] was imperative. Officers of the Navy Department and of the Department of State considered both the facts in the situation and those in other situations, discussed questions of high policy, and gave attention to questions of policies already in effect and details of operations in the event that a withdrawal were decided upon in principle. The matter was laid before the Secretary of State. It is believed that the Secretary of State discussed the matter with the President. Indication came from the Secretary of State that it was desired that the matter of a decision be held temporarily in abeyance.
Admiral Hart names four “principal factors” which it appears necessary to examine in reaching a decision. To the four factors thus named there may be added the following: effect upon the future of the International Settlement and the French Concession at Shanghai; probable advantage to Japan through seizure of and acquisition by the Japanese army of banks, banking business, property in general and control of the port at Shanghai.
Admiral Hart discusses at length and decisively the four “principal factors” which he has mentioned and he expresses opinion that except for a possible “adverse effect upon the morale of the Chungking Government” he does not find these factors weighing heavily against the considerations which point toward the advisability of making an immediate withdrawal. It is believed that there are several questions which, in this part of the memorandum, Admiral Hart has not taken into consideration. First are the two additional factors mentioned above. The probability is that withdrawal of the U. S. Marines from Shanghai would be followed shortly if not immediately by an outright occupation of the Settlement (and in all likelihood the French Concession) by Japanese armed forces. Before, during and immediately after that development there would probably be a substantial exodus of Chinese and foreign persons who have reason to fear the presence and control of such armed forces. In such event, it is altogether likely that the Japanese would take complete control of whatever they consider it to their advantage to possess at Shanghai. By such a step Japan would acquire new resources for the financing and carrying on of military operations in China or elsewhere. That the continued presence of the American Marines could prevent such developments if, notwithstanding their presence, the Japanese wished to make such moves, no one would contend. But, thus far, the presence of the Marines, with the American flag and the American uniform, has been a symbol of American armed strength and potential capacity to back up an assumed national policy of affording protection. Withdrawal of those forces would be taken as a signal either of an intention soon to use armed force on a large scale or of an intention to abandon our position in and with regard to China. In either event it would be a disturbing move, for worse or for better, in a situation [Page 574] where there are delicate balances and a precarious equilibrium. Any contemplated step which is likely or certain to have these consequences and this character must of necessity be given the thoughtful consideration of those whose responsibility it is to make decisions of high policy.
Whatever may be decided with regard to the question of a withdrawal in principle, there are certain points which need carefully to be taken account of in connection with an operation of withdrawal. (1) If a withdrawal is to be made, we should first discuss the matter with the British Government and inform that Government of our reasoning and our intentions. (This, because of treaty obligations and of diplomatic commitments in the form of “gentleman’s agreements”). (2) When a withdrawal is definitively decided upon, we should give reasonable notice of intention before the withdrawal actually takes place—with an interval of perhaps as much as five or six weeks. (This, for the benefit of our civilian nationals and our other official establishments). (3) We should enter into a discussion with the Japanese (representatives of other powers perhaps participating) at Shanghai with a view to an orderly taking over, if possible, by Japanese armed forces of the sector in the International Settlement in which our armed forces have been performing their protective mission. We should perhaps extend this procedure to take care of the situations at Peiping and at Tientsin. (4) We should arrange to leave on duty at Shanghai, at Peiping and at Tientsin details of marines sufficient to continue the maintenance of our establishments of radio communication at those points. (5) We should, while making these arrangements, take into consideration the question of the future of our diplomatic establishment, in the Legation quarter, at Peiping. (6) In connection with the question of removal of naval vessels, we should consider in detail the present location and functions of each of the river gunboats in relation to the nearest diplomatic or consular establishment. (7) There may also be some other details to which we should give thought. We should envisage a substantially altered situation as regards our problem and our methods of affording “protection” and maintaining communications and giving visible evidence of our policy in regard to international law and certain of our treaty rights and obligations. We should consider attempting to arrange for further—and early—evacuation of more of our nationals.
Admiral Hart takes a position as follows: “If the Department [Navy] 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 575]
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 Cast 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.”

C. One of the strong impressions made by Admiral Hart’s admirable and thoughtful memorandum is that it does not present any new evidence (factual data) bearing upon and throwing light on the subject of a supposed or assumed urgent need, from the point of view of risks, et cetera, for withdrawing the forces under reference at this moment (now) rather than at some later moment.

In considering the question of possible urgent need for withdrawal of these forces from China in order to reduce risks, there should be borne in mind the circumstance that Admiral Hart’s memorandum is dated August 28. Although nearly two months have since gone by, we have no information indicating that in the interval these forces have encountered any increased difficulty in the performance of their functions and no information indicating that the situation at Shanghai is now more tense or more symptomatic of an early crisis than it was at the end of August or for sometime prior thereto. In this connection it is perhaps pertinent to recall that in the course of consideration at intervals during recent years of possible reduction or withdrawal of American armed forces from China, suggestions have been advanced on several occasions that probably the last opportunity for unobstructed removal of such forces was (on each such occasion) close at hand. A “last opportunity” has not thus far developed. It is, of course, realized that it does not follow that the apprehended crisis may not some day (even soon) develop, but it is believed that what we know regarding current developments—including the most recent developments relating to the Japanese Cabinet—still leaves room for doubt that the long feared “crisis” is at this moment imminent.

D. On August 20, 1941, there was prepared in the Department a confidential memorandum dealing with the “Question of Withdrawal of American Marines from China” and on August 26, 1941 there was prepared a supplemental confidential memorandum in regard to the same question. In those memoranda the point was made that, under conditions now existing in China, the American naval forces (gunboats and marines ashore) there play an extremely important role in the maintenance of the Occidental position in Japanese-occupied China. It was indicated that the withdrawal of those forces, if and when, would, whether or not there come hostilities with Japan, be followed inevitably by a substantial impairment of the Occidental position in [Page 576] Japanese-occupied China. Recommendation was made that plans be formulated for further withdrawal, first, of American nationals in Japanese-occupied China; for withdrawal thereafter in an orderly manner of the American Marines ashore in China; and for the withdrawal at the same time of the U. S. S. Luzon, Wake (formerly Guam), Oahu and Mindanao. The further recommendation was made that these plans be not put into execution until a conclusion should have been reached that a rupture between the United States and Japan was inevitable.

In further reference to the importance of the presence in China now of the American naval forces (marines and gunboats) there the following comment is offered:

In Peiping the presence of the small American marine detachment (along with French and other detachments) has in all probability for some months past made possible the continued maintenance of the integrity of the Legation quarter.

At Shanghai the presence of the American marine force ashore, and their assumption (along with other “foreign” forces) of what are, in effect, police duties in a part of the International Settlement, have bolstered the resistance of the authorities of the International Settlement to Japanese aggression; have helped to enable Chinese courts in the International Settlement to continue to function; have helped to enable American and other banks to continue to deal in the currency of the Chinese National Government; and have thus put a brake upon Japan’s economic advance toward domination of the area. The fact that the currency of the Chinese Government has continued in circulation in the very important Shanghai area has had and is having a material influence toward the maintenance of loyalty to the Chinese Government on the part of Chinese in the lower Yangtze valley; also, the continued existence of an important industrial and commercial area independent of Japanese control has enabled American and other non-Japanese business firms to continue to carry on their activities at least after a fashion.

In other words, the chain of cause and effect is that the American marine detachment ashore at Shanghai contributes substantially to a continuance of the independent status of the International Settlement which in turn not only affords protection to American and other Occidental interests but helps to make possible activities which in their turn affect in considerable measure, and in a desirable manner from our viewpoint, the political attitude of a large number of Chinese.

E. A careful reconsideration of all aspects of the general situation as it affects relations between the United States and Japan, and of the local situation at Shanghai, leads to the conclusion that there emerges from such reconsideration no conviction that there is reason or need [Page 577] to depart at this moment from the recommendations made in the confidential memorandum dated August 26, 1941 referred to above.

It is noted that Admiral Hart states that if it should be decided that a complete withdrawal at this time is inadvisable but that smaller “token” forces in China would serve the national interest, he favors:

Withdrawal of the Luzon and Oahu;
Withdrawal of Marines from Tientsin and Chinwangtao;
Decrease of the Fourth Marines to the minimum number required to support the contention that the question of evacuation of “Sector Cast” is not raised.

Admiral Hart withholds a definite recommendation as to numbers pending receipt of suggestions from the Commanding Officer of the Fourth Marines and from the Commander of the Yangtze Patrol.

On October 7 the American Consul [General] at Shanghai reported75 that as of October 1 the American force at Shanghai numbered 801 men. On October 8 the American Embassy at Peiping reported75 that the American Marine force in North China had been reduced from 16 officers and 271 men as of September 1 to 16 officers and 188 men as of October 1.

Officers of this Department who have given special study to the question are inclined to doubt whether the number of Marines who would remain in China if the tentative recommendations of the Commander in Chief of the United States Asiatic Fleet should be carried out would be sufficient to discharge the responsibilities which would be theirs, especially at Shanghai. However, if the Commander in Chief should, on the basis of suggestions which he may have received from the Commanding Officer of the Fourth Marines and from the Commander of the Yangtze Patrol, and after taking into consideration the facts presented and opinions expressed in this memorandum, decide that it is feasible to effect reductions in the number of American naval forces (marines and gunboats) in China along the lines of his recommendations, it is not believed that this Department would wish to interpose objection to the carrying out of the Commander in Chief’s recommendations.

If further reduction in the number of marines ashore in China should now or in the near future be decided upon, query is raised whether such reduction—down to a certain minimum—might not best be accomplished without attracting attention, and therefore without possible adverse political repercussions, by the simple process of natural attrition through non-replacement or only partial replacement of men whose terms of foreign service expire.

It is fully realized by the undersigned and by officers present with whom matters above dealt with have been discussed now and previously [Page 578] that there has been, is and will be involved in maintaining American armed forces in China some amount of risk, and that no one can predict with absolute assurance that continued acceptance of this risk will not (nor that it will) result in some highly unfortunate encounter, and that we should not lightly persevere in the taking of such risk. However, it is believed that, on balance, the advantage to the United States of having maintained our armed forces in China during the past ten years (when at all times there has been involved some degree of such risk), to say nothing of the period of thirty years preceding and the whole period of more than a hundred years during which we have had American naval vessels in Chinese waters, substantially overtops the sum total of the cost, risk being considered the most important item therein, which has attended the keeping in China of the said forces. It is further believed that, also on balance, the calculable advantage of avoiding a disturbance of the situation such as withdrawal of those forces at this time would involve outweighs the envisageable risk which is involved in pursuing the stand-pat course, with qualifications, suggested above. Without a one hundred percent withdrawal (i. e., not even leaving behind details to maintain radio communications and perform custodial duties—e. g. at Peiping), there must continue to be some risk. The landed forces have been reduced during the last three years from a total of approximately 3,000 to a total of approximately 1,000. This number can be further reduced without a decided upon and obvious withdrawal. That procedure, it is believed, would for the present best meet the needs of the situation.

This memorandum is and should be understood to be an expository contribution, the contents of which in no way commit the Secretary of State or the Department of State.

Walter A. Adams
  1. Paragraph beginning “Whatever may be decided,” p. 574.
  2. Omissions indicated in the original
  3. Telegram not printed.
  4. Telegram not printed.