Throughout 1941 Britain and the United States attempted to deter further aggression by Japan. They failed. The reasons for this deserve careful study.
FDR explained his policy toward Japan as “speak softly and build three ships to their one.” He wanted to play for time while his military buildup swung the strategic balance decisively in America’s favor.
Tokyo could read trend lines too. If the choice was between a risky war in 1941 and a hopeless war in 1943, then Japan would move in 1941. Soft words could not obscure the rising threat to Japan’s position in Asia.
FDR’s deterrence policy was also based, in part, on an illusion. Much of official Washing was in the thrall of bomber madness. They believed that if war did come a few dozen B-17 bombers in Luzon could tip the strategic balance in the western Pacific.
Although I feel sure we have a chance to win a war right now, I am afraid that the chance will vanish with the passage of time.
-Adm. Osami Nagano Chief of the Naval General Staff September 1941
Japan knew better. They had high quality intelligence about Britain’s strategic bombing campaign against Germany. They knew that in 1941 the B-17 was not a war-winning weapon.
Britain’s policy was not so much deterrence as a desperate bluff. Pressed to the wall in Europe, the North Atlantic, and North Africa, she had few resources to spare for Malaya. Churchill confronted Japan because he felt compelled to support FDR’s hard-line.
Churchill’s policy was doomed from the start. British forces in the Far East were handicapped by uninspired leadership, doctrinal backwardness, poor training, and low morale.
The PM was largely unaware of this; the Japanese were much better informed. In addition to their own spies they benefitted from the USSR’s penetration of the British government. Before June 1941 Stalin shared intelligence with Hitler who shared it with Tokyo. After Germany invaded, the Soviet Union had every incentive to provide Japan with the intelligence that would convince them to strike south rather north into Siberia.
When the time came, Japan would not hesitate to call Churchill’s bluff.
Significantly, Japan also engaged in a policy of bluff and deterrence in 1940 and 1941. The advocates of an alliance with Hitler were convinced that it would force the US to rethink its support for China and the European colonial powers.
The Japanese leaders, rather like modern American Neocons, believed that deterrence was best served by frequent bellicose pronouncements.
The historically isolationist United States would not try to counter the powerful German-Italian-Japanese alliance by siding with Britain, whose moon is already waning.
RAdm Oka Takazumi
The net result of this deterrent strategy was to squander Japan’s one slim hope of avoiding war and economic strangulation. If the US and Britain saw Japan as an “appeasable nation” they might accommodate her while they focused on defeating Hitler. The Tripartite Pact and Tokyo’s hostile, unyielding public posture destroyed this possibility.
[Foreign Minister] Matsuoka's misunderstanding of America's national character seriously clouded his vision, wedded as he was to the notion that only defiance would garner U. S. respect.
Eri Hotta, Japan 1941
Three nations sought to avoid war in 1941. All three pursued a policy of deterrence. All three failed. These failures deserve careful examination just as we have spent decades studying appeasement and learning the “lessons of Munich.”