In the third in our series Countdown to Global War, Evan Mawdsley, author of December 1941 discusses the events that took place on November 26 1941, seventy years ago today, when Japan defied US diplomatic talks and launched a fleet of aircraft carriers towards Pearl Harbor. Meanwhile the German army’s plan to invade Moscow (‘Operation Typhoon’) was encountering difficulties. Here the author talks us through these events and their significance in the lead up to the pivotal events of December.
Article by Evan Mawdsley
The strikes against Pearl Harbor and Malaya were now hardly two weeks away. Japan’s attack on the United States and Britain (followed by Hitler’s declaration of war on the US) would transform the course of the Second World War. As of Wednesday, 26 November, there were no decisions for the Japanese government to make. With the Emperor’s approval, it had formally decided, on 5 November, to begin hostilities with Britain and America at the beginning of December – unless a diplomatic solution could be achieved.
Some historians see 26 November as a moment when events might have taken a different course. On the afternoon of that day Secretary of State Cordell Hull presented the senior Japanese diplomats in Washington, Nomura and Kurusu, with a statement of the final US position. This document, later famous as the ‘Hull Note’, outlined the policies that would need to be adopted by the Japanese government in order for the United States and its partners to remove the crippling economic sanctions they had imposed – after the military occupation of French Indochina. Japan would withdraw all its troops not only from from Indochina, but also from China, and it would renounce the Tripartite Pact signed with Germany and Italy in September 1940. The Hull Note was, as Tokyo would later complain, an abstract statement of principle that bore little relationship to the real world; the terms were ones which no Japanese government of the time could accept. And yet Japan’s leaders would accept nothing less than domination over East Asia.
President Roosevelt had, in the days before 26 November, considered an alternative policy, a so-called modus vivendi, under which tension would be defused in the short term following small concessions by each side. This approach had the support of FDR’s military chiefs, who needed time to reinforce the Pacific. On the other hand the Chinese government – fighting a bitter war with Japan – opposed any compromise. From London, Churchill’s advice was also against the modus vivendi. This was partly because he believed the Japanese were unlikely to take direct military action against Britain or the US; it was partly – and paradoxically – because, through reading intercepts of Japanese diplomatic correspondence, he doubted that the Japanese were sincere in negotiating a settlement. Concession – appeasement – would only encourage further Japanese pressure. Roosevelt and Hull, who had also read the ‘intercepts’, came to the same conclusion.
Secretary Hull had received the two Japanese diplomats in the State Department at 5.00 pm on 26th. Three hours later, on the other side of the planet, at 6.00 am local time, a fleet of six Japanese aircraft carriers departed from the remote Kurile Islands on their epic voyage to attack Pearl Harbor. On the previous day a large transport ship, loaded with combat troops, had arrived at Hainan Island off southeast China, the first vessel of a big convoy that would invade Malaya and southern Thailand on the night of 7-8 December.
If the situation in the Far East was confused and uncertain, so was that in Russia – ten days before General Zhukov’s counter-attack at Moscow on 6 December. The German High Command pushed forward with its plan to surround Moscow in Operation ‘Typhoon’, the final phase of which had begun on 15 November. On 26 November, however, General Guderian’s attempt to drive towards Moscow from the south was stopped short at the Kashira crossing of the Oka River, and three days later another German Panzer Group would give up a vital advance bridgehead, north of the city, at Iakhroma. Hitler, for his part, was less interested in Moscow than the south, where on 20 November German troops had captured the strategic town of Rostov, and with it a route to the oil of the Caucasus. He did not expect that a week later – on 28 November – his overstretched forces would have to abandon the town.
The Germans still thought they were on the eve of victory in Europe. In Berlin Foreign Minister Ribbentrop held a meeting to renew the Anti-Comintern Pact, originally signed in November 1936. He made a major luncheon speech on the 26th, in which he described the successful ‘war against Bolshevism’ as a sign of ‘Europe’s spiritual regeneration’ and spoke of a new continent working together under Nazi leadership. Neither Ribbentrop nor Hitler, however, were sure whether Japan would enter the war, and like the British and the Americans they assumed Tokyo would proceed cautiously. They had some intelligence to the effect that Japan was considering another move to the south, and that this might involve confrontation with Britain, and perhaps the United States. But they also thought it possible – and feared – that the Washington talks would defuse Japan’s confrontation with the West.
Both in Russia and the Far East the leaders of the Third Reich were in for a great surprise.
Evan Mawdsley is honorary professorial research fellow, School of Humanities, University of Glasgow. His many books include World War II: A New History; Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet Struggle, 1941-1945; and The Russian Civil War. He lives in Glasgow.
His latest book, December 1941, is available now from Yale University Press.