When the nations of Western Europe became embroiled in World War II, Japan began to expand into the Southeast Asian colonies of the European powers. After the United States retaliated with economic sanctions, Japan planned a concerted attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, and other Pacific and Asian targets. For a time Japan was master of the central and western Pacific and East Asia.
Japanese Expansion and U.S. Response: 1940-41
Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and its subsequent full- scale assault against China in 1937 brought expressions of disapproval from the U.S. government. With public opinion strongly isolationist, however, the United States did not act to halt Japanese expansionism. Not until the outbreak of World War II in Europe and the escalation of Japanese aggression did the U.S. response become strong.
In 1940, Nazi Germany's march into Western Europe opened up opportunities for Japan to consolidate its position in China and penetrate Southeast Asia, thereby advancing the Japanese goal of dominating a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." After the fall of France in 1940, the Vichy government accepted Japanese demands that aid through French Indochina to the Chinese resistance be cut off and that Japan be allowed to use air bases in Indochina. In September, Japanese troops moved into northern Indochina, and Japan joined the Axis. Meanwhile, with Britain fighting for its life and the Netherlands under Nazi occupation, Japan called on the British to close the Burma Road to supplies bound for China and pressed the Dutch East Indies for economic and political concessions. In July 1941, Japan occupied southern Indochina--an obvious prelude to further expansion in Southeast Asia, a rich source of rubber, tin, oil, quinine, lumber, foodstuffs, and other vital raw materials.
Japanese Prime Minister Prince Konoe Fumimaro hoped that the United States would accept Japan's actions, but in September 1940, President Roosevelt imposed an embargo on U.S. exports of scrap iron and steel to Japan. In July 1941 he froze all Japanese assets in the United States. This action virtually ended U.S.-Japanese trade, depriving Japan of vital oil imports.
On Sept. 6, 1941, an imperial conference met in Tokyo to consider worsening relations with the United States. Emperor Hirohito and Prime Minister Konoe favoured a continuation of negotiations in Washington, D.C. The war minister, Gen. Tojo Hideki, however, believed that the United States was determined to throttle Japan, that war was inevitable, and that it would be preferable to begin the conflict sooner rather than later. Tojo's views had wide support within the Japanese military.
At the insistence of the war party, Konoe was given 6 weeks to reach a settlement with the United States and was to insist on a set of minimum demands: immediate cessation of economic sanctions, a free hand for Japan in China, and rights for Japan in Indochina. With no progress occurring in the negotiations, Konoe resigned on October 16 and was replaced by Tojo, whose cabinet decided to wait only until the end of November for a diplomatic breakthrough.
Talks between U.S. secretary of state Cordell Hull and Japanese delegates remained stalled. U.S. cryptographers had broken Japan's major diplomatic code, and U.S. authorities knew that rejection of the minimum demands would mean war. Even so, on November 26, Hull formally reiterated the U.S. position. Japan, he said, must withdraw from China and Indochina, recognise the Chiang Kei-Shek regime in China, renounce territorial expansion, and accept the Open Door policy of equal commercial access to Asia. An imperial conference on December 1 set the Japanese war machine in motion.
The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, on Oahu island, Hawaii, the operating base of...