Year 1937. The Japanese wage the war on China. Occupation of that country was supposed to be the prologue to a further expansion on the Asiatic continent.



The shots, fired at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peking, started the horrible, devastating Sino-Japanese war. In that total confrontation clashed two countries, out of which one gave to the other - historically - the basis of its cultural existence, because China, in a sense, made Japan. Centuries before, Japan took from China writing, arts, architecture, literature and philosophy. In the first half of the 20th century the Japan of the modern days samurai paid that debt back with sword and fire. In December 1937, when the Japanese troops took Nanking, the temporary seat of the Chinese government, Japanese commanders left the city to their unleashed troops for looting, pillaging, rape and murder. An eyewitness of the massacre, an American missionary James McCallum noted in his diaries: Never have I heard or read of such brutality. Rape! Rape! Rape! We estimate at least 1,000 cases a night, and many by day. In case of resistance or anything that seems like disapproval there is a bayonet stab. [Chang I. (1998).] The number of victims of the massacre is estimated between 200 and 300 hundred thousand people, out of one million pre-war population.

And while all those atrocities were committed, Japanese officials used to voice statements, being a masterpiece of cynicism and hypocrisy. For example, Prince Fumimaro Konoye, at that time the prime-minister of the Japanese government, said about the aggression in China that in sending troops into North China, of course, the government had no other purpose (...) than to preserve peace of East Asia. (...) Japan never looks upon the Chinese people as an enemy. [Morison S. E. (2010c).] Which leaves me wondering, what would have happened, if he had started looking so... An interesting insight can be found in the publications of the leading Japanese nationalist of that time, Ikki Kita, like An Outline Plan for the Reorganization of Japan, where he openly stated:

The history of East and West is a record of the unification of feudal states after an era of civil wars. The only possible international peace, which will come after the present age of international wars, must be a feudal peace. This will be achieved through the emergence of the strongest country, which will dominate all other nations of the world. [Toland J. (2003).]

Hence, peace, but the kind achieved and maintained at the tip of the sword...

On the day of the fall of Nanking 15 bombers and 9 deck fighters from the aircraft-carrier Kaga, commanded by Commodore Ayao Inagaki, attacked the American gunboat Panay, which was evacuating personnel of the United States' embassy up the River Yangtse. After a short fight the gunboat sank together with three escorted barges. In 1898 a smaller incident - a mysterious explosion on battleship Maine anchored in Havana, the capital of Cuba, at that time a Spanish colony, became the cause of the Spanish-American War. This time both the American government, and the American public opinion, swallowed the terrible pill, although Franklin Delano Roosevelt, since 1933 the president of the United States, had no doubts about the Japanese intentions: since the outbreak of the war in China they made a number of provocations, bombing hospitals, schools and churches that displayed the flag of the USA or the Red Cross. Many Japanese airmen openly boasted how many "white devils" had they sent to the eternity. In case of Panay, the Japanese government eventually admitted that things went somewhat too far, but the perpetrators faced no consequences. Just like it happened in an earlier case of the British gunboat Ladybird, sank by a militant Colonel Kingoro Hashimoto, who wholeheartedly desired an immediate war against the whole world.

The Japanese government apologized for the Panay incident and declared willingness to compensate damages. It was also announced that the commander of the carrier Kaga had been dismissed. His pilots reportedly took Panay for a Chinese ship - on a sunny day and in clear visibility. When the Japanese foreign minister, Koki Hirota, handed official documents over to the American ambassador in Tokyo, Joseph C. Grew, he said for excuse: I have a difficult time now. Things happen unexpectedly... [Grew J. C. (2008).] But the American intelligence by then had intercepted dispatches of the Japanese Combined Fleet, which proved that the whole incident with Panay was a premeditated provocation.

Also the Chinese had no illusions about the Japanese intentions. The full-scale war and atrocities committed on the Chinese soil made the Chinese parties to review their policies, abandon rivalries, and create a national front, which rallied the Kuomingtang as well as the Communist Party of China. After the fall of Peking, China rapproched with the Soviet Union, which granted China big loans, and sent to China hundreds of aircraft and thousands of military specialists.

The Japanese, of course, could not tolerate the fact that a new power had appeared on the political scene in the Far East; especially that it was the power they once defeated in the war in 1904-1905. The Kwantung Army in Manchuria responded to that with a series of provocations and armed assaults on the territories of the Soviet Union and Mongolia, while the Japanese staffs dusted old ideas of Siberian expedition. However, their actions came to an abrupt halt - in 1938 in the battle of the Lake Khasan and in 1939 in the battle of Khalkin-Gol. The Japanese commanders had discovered, to their complete surprise, that a lot had changed in Russia, and the Red Army had little in common with the image of the soldiers of 1904-1905. The Soviet-Mongolian forces won their victories with new weapons: tanks, artillery, including missiles, and aircraft.

The debacle on the Soviet and Mongolian frontiers had its significant impact on the direction of further Japanese expansion: the politicians and strategists of the Japanese empire had realised that another operation in the north would not promise any rosy perspectives. Simultaneously, their invasion of China had lost its original momentum. Vast space of China, resistance of the Chinese army and mounting partisan warfare were exhausting the invaders. In October 1938, with the utmost effort, the Japanese took Guangzhou (Canton) and Hankou, and after that the situation on the fronts began stabilizing. Therefore, boastful promise the minister of war, Gen. Hajime Sugiyama, gave to his emperor - we'll send large forces and get the whole thing over with quickly - did not come true. He was not alone in his optimism; other Japanese generals also thought it would be enough to send three divisions, and in case if the war expanded, add two more divisions.

Now the war proved that even forty divisions were not enough to crush the Chinese resistance. What is more - the Chinese managed to evacuate their arsenals and equipment of the factories working for defence beyond the reach of the Japanese land forces. What could not be evacuated, was destroyed without hesitation.

Due to the protracted war in China, the Japanese army and its command exposed themselves to the public criticism; their boastful promises lost their original glamour. Combat casualties were mounting into hundreds of thousands, and in some sectors of the front the Japanese were defeated. In those circumstances those politicians and courtiers, who from the beginning were not impressed by the plans of China's conquest, gained more and more say, and support of the navy - the traditional rival of the land army.

China's resolute defence, and the fiasco of the plans to eliminate that great country as an independent political factor, instilled the Japanese leaders to assume different tactics: it was decided to cut China off the supplies from the West. This decision came under strong pressure of the navy commanders, and especially their most esteemed representative, Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto. They persuaded the politicians that further Japanese expansion should aim at those countries, which were able to provide raw materials necessary for the Japanese industry, and especially oil, metals and rubber, without which it was impossible to think about winning a war even in China. Therefore, the axis of the further Japanese expansion had to be turned southwards, especially so that in August 1939 Germany concluded a non-aggression treaty with the USSR, and Japan could not count on Germany in case if the war resumed on the Far East frontiers of the Soviet Union. Japanese leaders received it as a treacherous blow, since not so long before they concluded an alliance with nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

In 1938-1940 in a series of amphibious operations the Japanese navy and landing troops occupied a number of cities on the Chinese coast; in February 1940 they landed on the Hainan island, which was the last "gate" linking China with the outer world. The island was also a valuable gain for its deposits of iron ores, and geographical location - next to the rich French Indochina. Hainan could become the basis for further advance to Malaya and Singapore, and from there was already close to the oil heaven - the Dutch East Indies.

The Chinese experience, land and amphibious operations, became a valuable training range for the Japanese army and navy - just like the Spanish civil war of 1936-1939 was to the German Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. And further events also had demonstrated that those experiences also had decided about tactical and operational superiority over the rivals, who at the same time lived in peace.

The spring of 1940 brought another opportunity to the Japanese imperial ambitions: on 10 May Germany invaded Western Europe. Holland capitulated already after five days of fights. Belgian army, supported by the British expeditionary forces, fought till 28 May. On 22 June the Western campaign ended in France's capitulation. The lightning defeat of three major European powers aggravated the positions of the fourth one - Great Britain, which found herself alone face to face with the victorious power of the Third Reich. The defeat of the metropolitan countries had also shaken their colonial empires, and in the first place put in question their Far East possessions, long-coveted of the new expansionist power - Japan.

The first to feel the pressure was the French Indochina (nowadays Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). After the fall of France, the Japanese government described the situation with the proverbial expression "not to miss the train". Already on 16 June, six days before France's capitulation, Japan forced the French governor, General Georges Catroux, to terminate transit of the fuels to China. To control that embargo, the Japanese obtained the right to bring their customs inspectors to the check-points on the Chinese border. Soon Japan got a new government of Prince Konoye, whose minister of war was General Hideki Tojo - a representative of the most aggressive circles of the army and industry. The nickname "Razor", he had been given, characterizes his very well. As early as on 30 August 1940 he enforced signing of an agreement with the government of Marshal Philippe Pétain, which de facto recognized Japan as the superpower in the Far East. Pétain allowed for occupation of the northern Indochina, take over of the French airfields, and transit of 25,000 Japanese troops. The agreement was signed on 22 September, and on the very next day the head of the Japanese mission in Hanoi demanded that the number of the Japanese troops in northern Indochina be increased to 32,000.

At the end of September the Japanese diplomacy made another volte-face: after a cool period in relations with Germany and Italy, Japan again fell in love with its European allies. The reason was that right at that time the Battle of Britain was waged and from the point of view of the Tokyo, England was about to collapse under the blows of the Luftwaffe, and that would open great perspectives in the Far East. On 27 September 1940 Japan, Germany and Italy signed in Berlin the Tripartite Pact. Germany and Italy claimed the right to establish a "new world order" in Europe, and granted the same to Japan in Asia. All three countries pledged to come to one-another's military aid in case of a conflict with a third country, so far being not engaged in the armed conflict in Europe or Asia. Therefore the pact was clearly directed against the USSR and USA.

Simultaneously, the Japanese began exercising pressure on Great Britain. The British government, contemplating a possible German invasion of the British Isles, agreed to close for three months, beginning of 18 July 1940, the so-called Burma Road - a supply route running in the mountain ranges reaching 2800m in height. It was used to supply Chinese armies, cut off their sea ports. The Burma Road was built in 1937-1938; it linked Lashio in Burma with Kunming in China, and was 1143km-long. With the extensions to to Rangoon and Chungking it was 3378km-long. In 1939 alone as much as 22,000 tons of war materials were delivered to China in lorries travelling along the Burma Road. And now it had to be closed, although fortunately during the rainy period, during which the traffic was not usually very intensive.

Finally, after the capitulation of Holland, the wave of pressure against the Dutch East Indies mounted. Dutch colonies, comprising the territories of the present-days Indonesia, were very precious to Japan - they had raw materials badly needed for the Japanese war effort. Oil pits of Java and Sumatra at that time produced more than 7 million tons of crude oil each year, and the neighbouring British Borneo produced further 3 million of tons. And since the Japanese import of the oil at that time mounted up to 6 million tons, including the oil stored in the army and navy reserves, the control of the oil of the southern islands would solve a very big problem to the Japanese war machine. It would have enough oil to continue the war in China and in case of necessity - also on the other fronts.

That is why already on 15 May 1940, the day of Holland's capitulation in the war with Germany, Japan presented the first demands concerning trade exchange to the governor general in Batavia (Jakarta). The Japanese had demanded special privileges in importing strategic raw materials. In September they played va banque and demanded three million tons of oil a year within next five years, that is tenfold more than so far. They also wanted to have their own oil concessions in the Dutch East Indies. The Dutch stood against those demands and eventually the Japanese were forced to compromise: one million tons of oil within next six months. To Japan, deprived of her own mineral deposits, and making barely half a million tons of oil, that was a considerable amount anyway.

Deployment of their forces in the north of the Indochina and first results of black-mailing the Dutch instilled the Japanese with a certain optimism. Yet many Japanese leaders, especially in the navy, advised cautious policy until Germany bring Great Britain to her knees. This applied also to the Dutch East Indies, neighbouring British Malaya and the strong British military base in Singapore.

Therefore, French Indochina, partly already occupied by the Japanese troops, was still the "soft underbelly" of the Far East. If so far Indochina mattered as the southern line of China's blockade, now the big game for the oil made the importance of southern Indochina and Saigon growing. From the airfields of Saigon one could control the whole Gulf of Siam as far as to Singapore; it is located some 1000km from Saigon - within the reach of the modern Japanese bomber planes.

As the Japanese unfolded all the political and military energy of theirs in the south, in January 1941 they again demanded oil-drilling concessions from the Dutch, as well as the right of fishing in the Dutch East Indies, establishing fishing stations there, extraterritoriality of their shipping in the Dutch East Indies, and, of course, more supplies of the strategic materials. Overall it was like the first step towards establishing of the Japanese control over the economics of the Dutch East Indies. The Dutch, putting hopes in a British and American support, had rejected those demands.

The Japanese were not prepared to strike yet, so they backed off. But still the stronger became their engagement in the French Indochina. At that time the Siamese government had raised the question of frontier lands, which once had been an integral part of Siam, and now were under French administration. Japan immediately offered mediation in the territorial dispute between the Siamese and the French. Despite of the warnings that acceptance of the Japanese mediation means "riding a tiger", the Franco-Siamese agreement was signed on 30 January aboard the Japanese cruiser Natori, anchored in Saigon, and in presence of Japanese officials.

The Japanese promptly sent the bill for their mediation - from the Siamese they demanded rice, and from the French they demanded an agreement that would grant them:
  • the right to deploy Japanese troops in southern Indochina,
  • the right to use existing airfields and build new ones around Saigon,
  • the right to establish a naval base in Camranh (400km north-east to Saigon).
On 11 March the French government in Vichy, under a joint pressure from Japan and Germany, signed such an agreement, and already in April started the deployment of the Japanese forces in southern Indochina.

Having their eyes turned to the oil-rich paradise, the Japanese strategists also thought about security of their rears. On 13 April they concluded the non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, and in February they changed the entire staff of their embassy in Washington. The new ambassador, Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura, had an American wife, was known for his pro-American sympathies, and on top of that was a talented diplomat. In any case he would not be perceived as a "hawk". He had many conferences with the US Secretary of State Cordell Hull, during which he strove to divert attention from the Japanese gains in China and Indochina, and bargain for more supplies of raw materials in the south.

So far the plan of opening the way to the riches of the South had been realized successfully. Older and more experienced Japanese strategists, and especially navy commanders, were aware of the ancient Chinese wisdom: To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. [Sun Tzu (1971).]

The problem, though, was to retain the acme of skill... It was not easy, since countries, which experienced the Japanese pressure, started forming a common front of defending their interests. From the historical perspective it can be said that the lack of uniform view on the Japanese aggression was their weakness. Great Britain, which was already waging a sea war on two enemies - Germany and Italy - was not in hurry to make a third enemy in Japan. The United States also were hot in hurry for a war for European colonial empires. Leading American politicians, including Roosevelt, had to consider the opinion of the American isolationists, who did not want to see the United States engaged in the war either in Europe or in Asia. Moreover, neither Roosevelt wanted to defend Singapore, nor Churchill wanted to defend the Philippines or Hawaii. On the other hand it was agreed that fighting Germany was the problem No.1, and therefore in the relations with Japan one needed to avoid conflict, make political manoeuvres, maintain economical blockade and support China. marking Germany as the enemy No.1 in a way limited the forces that could be engaged against Japan.

June 1941 brought further disappointments to the Japanese leaders. On 17 June the Dutch rejected impudent Japanese demands and terminated talks. On 22 June the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and instantly grasped strategic initiative. To the Japanese it was like a bolt from the blue - their German allies did not even deign to inform them about their plans. The Japanese nursed hopes that the Germans would deal a decisive blow to Great Britain, which would make it easier to snap a few British colonies into the Japanese "Great East Asia Sphere of Co-prosperity". But the invasion on the Soviet Union, which engaged most of the German land and air forces, ruled out any bigger offensive against Great Britain, and so, despite of appeals of the German embassy in Tokyo, and even Adolf Hitler himself, the Japanese decided to maintain neutrality in the Germano-Soviet war.

The cardinal problems of the politics and war were discussed at that time in Japan during so-called liaison conferences at the prime-minister's office. The main participants were the members of so-called Big Four - prime-minister, foreign minister, minister of war and minister of the navy; they were usually accompanied by their aides and other persons, whose presence was deemed necessary. In a sense it was a kind of a "discussion panel", during which participants exchanged unofficial views. The first liaison conference took place in 1937 in connection with the war in China; for a while they were not summoned, but resumed in 1940 in connection with the growing strain in international relations.

On the next day after the German invasion on the Soviet Union, the Big Four met to discuss the new situation. Konoye's foreign minister, Yosuke Matsuoka, spoke for immediate attack on the USSR. Army and navy commanders, disgruntled by the illoyal attitude of the Germans during the fights in Mongolia, as well misguided, in their opinion, direction of the new offensive, spoke against such an attack.

For the navy spoke the minister of the navy, Adm. Koshiro Oikawa: To avoid this kind of situation, don't tell me to attack the U.S.S.R. and the same time push south. The Navy doesn't want the Soviet Union provoked.

The deputy chief of the army staff, Gen. Ko Tsukada added: It all depends on the situation. We can't go both ways simultaneously.

Col. Kenryo Sato from the army general staff to Tojo: We gain nothing in the north. At least we get oil and other resources in the south.

Matsuoka would not give up: When Germany wipes out the Soviet Union, we can't simply share in the spoils of victory unless we've done something. We must either shed our blood or embark on diplomacy. And it's better to shed blood. (...) But if we just wait around to see how things will turn out, (...) we'll be encircled by Britain, the United States and Russia. We must first strike north, then south. [Toland J. (2003).]

Yet, Sugiyama said strong "no", and that sealed Matsuaoka's career. During the next conference, on 30 June, when he presented Hitler's demands that Japan attacked the Soviet Union, he was dismissed by the prime-minister, who joined the militarymen. On 2 July the will to strike southward was confirmed during a conference in the emperor's palace. On 18 July Konoye formed a new government, his third one, with Admiral Teijiro Toyoda as the foreign minister.

It was decided to start talks with the Americans in Washington, and simultaneously one million of reservists were secretly mobilized, while shipyards received orders for new ships of 180,000t of total displacement. Also there was organized the powerful 11th Air Fleet, which comprised the élite of the naval air forces. All that indicated that the Japanese were going to secure their control of the southern seas, and they were determined to fight any resistance of their opponents. The Japanese leaders were determined to create their coveted "Great East Asia Sphere of Co-prosperity" at any price.

On 12 July the Japanese ambassador in Vichy was instructed to force Pétain to agree before 20 July for the entry of the Japanese forces to the southern Indochina. On 21 July the French government once again yielded to the black mail. President Roosevelt tried to intervene at the last moment and proposed to the Japanese a privileged status in the trade with the French Indochina in return for maintaining its neutrality, but the Japanese ignored those proposals. On 23 July the Franco-Japanese agreement was signed. The Japanese ambassador in Vichy triumphantly wired to Tokyo: The reason why the French so readily accepted the Japanese demands was that they saw how resolute was our determination and how swift our will. In short, they had no choice but to yield. [Toland J. (2003).]

The Americans intercepted that message, and Cordell Hull - a man of impeccable integrity and strong principles - nearly got berserk when he read it. He immediately arranged a conference with Roosevelt, who inclined more and more towards the opinion that Japan, along Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, was a rogue state. At night of 26 July the United States announced that they had frozen all the Japanese financial assets. That meant the end of the Japano-American trade, and especially the end of the export of the American oil to Japan, while Japan depended on its import in 64%. Great Britain followed the scope, and so did the Dutch, although reluctantly, as they were not sure that in case of a Japanese invasion they would receive any real support.

Although the Japanese leaders might expect such a turn, what happened impressed them very much. On 1 August the Chief of the Navy General Staff, Admiral Osami Nagano, had a meeting with the emperor. Nagano was not a hot-headed person; he had a rather tempered character. He started from evaluation of the ways of avoiding the war, even at the price of abandoning the Tripartite Pact. Yet, when he referred the question of the oil, whose stocks were sufficient barely for six months of full-scale military operations, he recommended offensive initiative. We will win, he said to the emperor. But the emperor, who possessed the mind of a scientist, required bigger precision: Will we achieve a great victory? Like Tsushima? Nagano replied: I am afraid that will not be possible. After a short pause the emperor concluded: So, it will be a desperate fight... [Toland J. (2003).]

On 28 July the Japanese took in possession two big ports - Saigon and Camranh, and eight big airfields in the French Indochina. This way they closed the grip around the Philippines and assumed position, which operationally menaced Malaya. The initial position to the war had been assumed.