Friday, August 27, 2010

August 27, 1941 – Roosevelt Agrees to Summit with Konoe

War in the Pacific had been brewing for years. During the 1930s, Japanese influence into China had increased to all-out war in 1937 and domination of Manchuria. With the fall of France in 1940, Japan stationed troops in French Indochina. Germany's invasion of Russia in 1941 placed Japan in a precarious position: Hitler pressured them to attack north to the Soviet Union, which would have been an easy front; French Indochina stood ready for full occupation with Vichy troops occupied in Europe. Far to the east, the United States rested like a sleeping giant.

Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe was desperate to prevent war with America. Roosevelt routinely demanded removal of Japanese troops from China, which was an impossible agreement since the army and navy had suffered too much to give up conquests. On July 28, 1941, Japan commenced its occupation of French Indochina, and the United States retaliated by freezing Japanese assets and, more importantly, leading Britain and the Dutch East Indies in an oil embargo. Without foreign oil, Japan was stuck; within two years, the entirety of oil stockpiles would be depleted. The military had not anticipated such a rash move by the Americans, and Konoe made a last-ditch effort: a personal summit. He sent notice to Roosevelt that he would soon be arriving in Washington in hope FDR would meet him.

It was a diplomatic gamble, but Konoe's risk-taking paid off. The summit was rushed in preparation, and, on September 5, the Japanese Prime Minister was welcomed to the White House. The talks were primarily a standstill; Roosevelt made demands that Japan leave China and stop its military expansion to the south, something that Konoe could not do. While the meeting essentially gained nothing, Konoe did learn one important point: much of the American public did not want to engage in another “European” war, so the United States would never be the one to strike first.

Under the Tripartite Pact signed among Germany, Italy, and Japan in 1940, the three had agreed to join forces if an unnamed force (the United States) came into the war against them. While, militarily, an immediate strike against the small American Pacific fleet would be advantageous, it could prove costly in the long run. Konoe reported to the other Tripartite nations that the United States must never be assaulted. They could not risk a repeat of even the slightest negative PR move like the sinking of the Lusitania in the first World War.

With pressure from Hitler, the Japanese would begin their plans for war against the Soviet Union. They assured him that, without oil, they would be unable to put their armies into the field effectively. Defeat in 1939 at Khalkhin Gol also showed that Japanese ground forces were not adequate against Soviet heavy tanks, so they focused on devising a defensive war with long-reaching strikes by aircraft. However, as Operation Barbarossa became a logistical quagmire, it was obvious that Hitler had bitten off more than Germany could chew.

The Emperor did not want to be on the losing side of a war with the Soviet Union, but Konoe and his ministers could not break the Tripartite Pact. Instead, they bought time, assuring Hitler that their army would be ready for combat in the summer. On June 28, 1942, Japan launched attacks toward Soviet oil fields north of Manchuria simultaneous with Germany's operation Case Blue. Stalin let the east lose ground with only minor defensive measures, pressing most of his might into the defense of Moscow and the west. Even with two fronts, by the middle of 1943, Russia halted the tide of advance and began to push back.

Japan fell to maintaining position and working with its air force (arguably the best in the world after years of buildup) to spy on troop movements and pin down Russian reserves before they could reach the front. Germany's war with Britain had come to a standstill with Hitler giving up North Africa but holding the Mediterranean. The manpower and materiel did not seem available for an amphibious invasion of Europe until at least 1945 despite the fact that the Blitz had long passed. Instead, they fought Germany's navy while Stalin began to eat away at the back of Hitler's European fortress.

Finally, the end came for Germany with the British landing at Normandy under Operation Overlord in March of 1945. By that time, Stalin was pressing into Germany itself, and the Third Reich faced collapse. On August 14, 1945, the remainders of Hitler's government (Hitler himself had disappeared, presumed dead in his bunker via suicide) sued for peace. Stalin then joined with Britain in pressing toward the east where Japan had stood unquestioned for years. Seeing the vicious defeat of allies, Emperor Hirohito offered terms for peace, but Stalin would not accept anything less than what had been declared at Potsdam: disarmament, reduction of empire, and partial occupation.

Prime Minister Konoe, who had been in and out of power over the course of the war, approached American President Thomas Dewey for mediation. Dewey agreed, but Stalin and Prime Minister Clement Attlee did not agree to ceasefire until concessions had been made. While battles still roared in Siberia, Mongolia, China, and French Indochina, talks began. When the dust cleared, Japan would maintain Korea as a protectorate, but they would lose all other imperial gains and face limitations on armed forces.

The United States, now economically on its feet with its profitable Lend-Lease program, suddenly faced a world with vaporizing empires and Soviet dominance over almost all of Europe and Asia. Renewed military buildup began through the 1950s, and America found itself trailing distantly behind Russia in missile technology and space development. In 1962, Russia moved ICBMs to its ally Cuba and refused to recognize American requests that they be removed. The successful invasion at Playa Girón and subsequent seizing of those missiles began the Soviet-American War that would last until 1968 with Russian troops marching into Chicago, where the relocated American government had sat after the Bombing of Washington.

In reality, Konoe did not make the diplomatic faux pas of forcing discussion, and Roosevelt bought time with the promise of talks as long as possible to better prepare America's military base. The Japanese government realized war was inevitable, and it would fare better if it began sooner rather than later. On December 7, 1941, Japanese woke the slumbering giant with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

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