Foreign Affairs
US-Japan Relations before World War II

On December 7, 1941, nearly 90 years of United States-Japanese diplomatic relations ended in an international war spanning the Pacific. That diplomatic fallout is the story of how the foreign policies of two nations can defeat each other in war.


American Commodore Matthew Perry opened American trade relations with Japan in 1854. President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Treaty of Commerce and Navigation in June 1911, signing the 1905 peace treaty in the Japan-Japan War.

During the World War, Japan also cooperated with America, Great Britain and France.

At that time, Japan also encouraged the empire that it worked hard after the British Empire. Japan no secret that it wanted economic control of  Asia-Pacific region.

By 1931, however, American-Japanese relations were strained. Japan’s civilian government, unable to cope with the ravages of the global Great Depression, gave way to a militaristic government. A new regime was prepared to strengthen Japan in the Asia-Pacific region of forced annexation, and it started with China.

Japan’s invasion of China

Also in 1931, Japanese forces launched an invasion of Manchuria, quickly reducing it. Japan annexed this Manchuria and called it “Manchukuo”.

The U.S. Politically refused to grant Japan additional recognition of Manchuria, and Secretary of State Henry Stimson called it “the Smithson Doctrine.” However, that response was only diplomatic.

The US threatened no military or economic revival.

In fact, the United States did not want to disrupt its lucrative trade with Japan. Compared to a variety of consumer goods, the US supplied poor Japan with most of its scrap iron and steel. Most importantly, it sold 80% of its oil to Japan.

In a series of naval treaties in the 1920s, the United States and Great Britain attempted to limit the size of Japan’s naval fleet. However, they did not try to cut off Japan’s oil supply. When Japan renewed its aggression against China, it did so with US oil.

In 1937, Japan launched a full-scale confrontation with China in an attack near Peking (now Beijing) and Nanking. The Japanese army killed not only Chinese soldiers, but also women and children. The so-called “rape nannying” of the U.S. Was this disregard for human rights?

United States Reactions

In 1935 and 1936, the United States Congress passed embargo, acts to prohibit the United States from selling goods to countries at war. Actions were beginning to slowly defend the U.S. In a world war like World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the act even though he disliked them because they prohibited the US from aiding the Allies.

Still, the actions were not active when Roosevelt called for them, which was not the case with Japan and China. He favoured China in the crisis, and he still could not shut down China without the execution of 1936.

However, it was not until 1939 that the United Nations began to directly challenge the continued Japanese aggression in China.

That year the U.S. Announced it was withdrawing from Japan and the 1911 Transition of Commerce and Navigation, coming to trade with the empire. Japan continued its campaign through China, and in 1940 Roosevelt announced a partial embargo on American shipments of oil, gasoline, and metals in Japan.

That move prompted Japan to consider tougher options. It had no intention of ending any imperial conquest, and it did not move into French Indochina. With the prospect of total US resources, the Japanese military tried to look at the oil fields of the Dutch East End as a possible substitute for US oil. Although he presented a military challenge, the American-controlled Philippines and the American Pacific Fleet—based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii—were owned by Japan and the Dutch.

On July 1941, the United States transferred all resources to Japan, and it retained all Japanese assets in American institutions. U.S. Policies walled Japan up. With the approval of the Japanese Emperor Hiroto, the Japanese Navy began organizing Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, and other Pacific islands in December to open a route to the Dutch East Indies.

Ultimatum: The Whole Note

The Japanese kept political lines open with the United States and they could negotiate and end corruption. Any hope disappeared on November 26, 1941, when the US Council of State Cordell Hulk sent the Japanese embassy to Washington DC known as the “Ke Hole Note”.

The note stated that the only resource for the UN to remove was Japan:

  • Remove all troops from China.
  • Withdraw all troops from Indochina.
  • End the alliance signed with Germany and Italy the previous year.

Japan cannot accept the terms. By the time Hoole sent his comments to Japanese diplomats, the Imperial Puramas were already sailing to Hawaii and the Philippines.

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