By Christopher Wink | Nov 20, 2006 | Temple University Research Forum
The 1940s were largely defined by its violence: Nazi Germany laying siege on much of Europe and the apex of Japanese imperialism in much of Asia. It was this partnership in global expansionism that defined the worst of the world in the twentieth century. It is in this way that it becomes valuable to better understand their tenuous alliance. Therefore, this paper will discuss why Germany and Japan aligned themselves during the Second World War, and what the pact did and what the pact did not accomplish.
On September 27, 1940, Japanese Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka, whom U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull had come to distrust, affirmed Hull’s aversion by orchestrating a pact aligning Japan with fellow fascist states Germany and Italy: the famed Tripartite Pact. While, late September of 1940 was unquestionably important in once again aiming to unite these states, the foundation for the Tripartite Pact was decided some four years prior, with the signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact.
Consequently, in this paper, first, I will report on the motivations for the alliance, including previous German/Japanese diplomacy, what prompted Matsuoka to agree to the pact and what the Germans intended to gain. Secondly I will discuss the meager benefits and sizable costs the Tripartite Pact offered its two primary benefactors, Japan and Germany. Finally, I will investigate what the pact failed to accomplish as its efficacy waned.
In 1936, the geographically disparate pair of Japan and Germany had a common aversion to the Soviet Union and the growing power of its global communist community. To form a bloc of communist-opposing states, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan formed an alliance, signing the Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936. The pact, which united Japan and Germany, and Italy a year later, in the struggle against communism, stipulated that if one party went to war with the Soviet Union the others would remain neutral (Gordon 207, 2002). This formation was clearly a decisive step towards Japanese siding with the Axis powers during Second World War (Hasegawa 13, 2005).
In 1938, the United States began moving towards intervention in the second Sino-Japanese War. When Hitler withdrew Germany’s traditional support of China in order to recognize the Japanese quasi colony in Manchuria, the line of opposition for the coming war was becoming increasingly clear (Hasegawa 13, 2005). However, the Soviets were the primary reason in the divide between the Axis powers.
Near the turn of the decade, with the possibility of a German invasion looming, Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin pursued Japanese neutrality to avoid a double-faceted war. However, despite Germany’s breach of the Anti-Comintern Pact with the 1938 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression treaty, the Japanese hesitated with the Soviet proposal. First, Tokyo accepted the terms of the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. Declaring it “a military alliance directed against the United States,” Japanese Foreign Minister Matsuoka saw this as a way to unite the Soviets and his new Tripartite partners in a collective and sizeable opposition to the political domination of Western democracies (Hasegawa 13, 2005).
Matsuoka had experienced American racism as a young immigrant on the American West Coast, and so his detection of fading Soviet meaning in the Western world motivated his decision to convince Stalin to join in the defeat of the Allied powers. Indeed, before the German invasion of Soviet territory in June 1941, because the Soviets had neutrality pacts with both the Germans and the Japanese, coupled with the Tripartite Pact, there was a brief time when Matsuoka’s dream of a Japanese, German and Soviet bloc united against the West seemed to becoming to fruition (Koshiro 422, 2004). It is in this way that it is clear that the Soviet Union, without ever joining the alliance, became the most important player in the Tripartite Pact (Hasegawa 14, 2005).
Perhaps Matsuoka should have known a sustained relationship between the Germans, Soviets and his own Japanese was improbable, as even the bilateral treaties that grouped the three were tenuous at best. The Soviets were a target for German military force for more than just ideology. The Soviet Union didn’t officially enter the war until after German’s capitulation but had faced the brunt of German military action throughout. With the French surrender to Germany in June 1940 came a sudden annexation of the Balkans by the Soviet Union. Germany was too involved elsewhere to immediately act on the Soviet move, but the Balkans were a large supplier of oil and grain to the German force (Presseisen 1960). Friendship wasn’t likely.
Still, in simplest means of explanation, all of these cooperatives and alliances were an attempt to rival the status power of Western Europe and the United States. With their “territorial concessions” in China, Germany and Italy were an active part of the imperialist Europe after which Japan had modeled itself. It was through this imperialistic stance that Japanese leaders hoped to find a new place in the global community. For their 1895 victory in the first Sino-Japanese War, Japan was awarded the Liadong peninsula, the Pescadores and the Taiwan islands, as declared by the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Their pursuit of international expansion blossomed still. As author Jonathan Lewis wrote, “Japan came late to the game of empires” and tried to make up for their lost time (Lewis 36, 2001).
Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War cemented Japanese influence in China’s northeastern province of Manchuria, and in 1910 Japan had annexed Korea. With the Western world consumed in the bloodshed of the First World War, the Japanese government pushed for control over China by issuing the later-weakened 21 Demands in 1915. Just two years later, Japanese troops lingered in Siberia after helping pro-Czarist Russian forces put down the Bolshevik Revolution. Then, in 1931, Japan officially annexed Manchuria, reaching another high in its growth towards 1942, the pinnacle of its imperialism (Gordon 120, 186, 2002).
Dependent on imports and desperate for additional space to accommodate a growing population, the Japanese government was rapidly expanding in an attempt to overcome an economy that, according to historian Andrew Gordon, even before the global depression began in 1929 “had been stumbling for the better part of a decade” (Gordon 143, 2002). Clearly, Japan wanted to expand, and the sovereignty of other states wasn’t a deterrent. This reality was understood by the West, though the world’s established powers were anything but comforted by the rising Asian force. Rather, the West questioned Japan’s trustworthiness. Indeed, as Winston Churchill told his war cabinet on November 25, 1941, “the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning” (Lewis 19, 2001). How prophetic those words proved, even if only for his great ally to the west.
The general aversion towards Japan may be understandable still, as there is no questioning the country’s determination to expand, with or without the support of its neighbors. Indeed, the purpose of the Tripartite Pact cannot be more concisely conveyed than a Japanese perspective from the 1940s. A briefing that was prepared for an Imperial Conference on September 6, 1941 had high hopes. It suggested that “although America’s total defeat is judged utterly impossible,” Japanese victories in Southeast Asia or a German defeat of the British might bring the war to an end. To that goal, the document continued, “by cooperating with Germany and Italy, we will shatter Anglo-American unity, link Asia and Europe,” and, it continued, “Create an invincible military alignment” (Lewis 18, 2001)
Matsuoka, the Japanese Foreign Minister, played an instrumental role in the pact. For his part, Matsuoka was eager to join forces with the Germans in an effort to avoid another embarrassing confrontation with the Soviets. Just one year prior to signing the Tripartite Pact, the Japanese were in the midst of a bloody loss to Soviet forces during the Soviet-Japanese Border War of 1939. While the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 was in direct contradiction to the Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936, Matsuoka recognized Hitler’s intention to keep the Soviets at a safe distance before an attack (Moore 149, 1941). Like Hitler, Matsuoka recognized that pacts were politically, not ideologically, based. In this way, despite the German past of crossing its ties with Japan, Matsuoka felt aligning with another anti-West power was too important.
Nazi Germany would help the Japanese rise to global supremacy, by, it was thought, counteracting the Soviet military might, a might that would return time and time again in the coming years to interrupt Japanese and German unity. It was Matsuoka, with his experience in the United States, who recognized that Germany, the Soviets, and other less notable members of what would be the Axis powers, were not accepted in the established Western world. Determined on the fact that the West would, likewise, never accept Japan’s place as a growing power, Matsuoka hoped to unite in an overthrow of what he saw to be a West-orientated global hegemony. He had long hoped the Soviets would join him in his initiative, and, similarly, fervently accepted the Germans as a necessary component for that movement to take hold and find any success at all (Koshiro 423, 2004).
While the Japanese had adopted a German-style military staff system in 1878, continued an appreciation for its political endeavors, and had a zealous foreign minister eagerly advocating the pact, the German motivation to engage in the alliance might not be as readily discernible (Boyd 1981).
The Germans saw the Japanese as an attractive diversion from their own front, as even the hint of an additional threat in the Pacific, nearly 10,000 miles away from Berlin, would ease pressure on Nazi movement. While, as in common Tripartite Pact fashion, the Japanese released scant information to the Germans, the Nazis were greatly interested in the Washington talks, nervous that the dialogue would lead to the Americans feeling secure enough in the Pacific to focus their attacks on the Germans.
Certainly, Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Nazi Germany, had no interest in a gross deterioration of American-Japanese relations either, which would likely require the Germans to wage war on U.S. forces in addition to their other European entanglements. However, so long as the Americans were acutely aware of a Japanese threat, the Germans were that much stronger. Indeed, it seems that Hitler was determined to avoid war with the Americans, remaining uncharacteristically patient with the United States. During the Nuremberg War Trials, Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop spoke of Hitler’s “wish before everything to avoid war with the USA for which…there was absolutely no necessity” (Henderson 1993). Hitler felt the Japanese would be helpful in that endeavor. That is, until December 8, 1941.
It has been asserted that the Pearl Harbor attack which plunged Hitler into an undesired war with the Americans was actually a boon to his alliance with the Japanese. Indeed, the sudden bombing was the type of surprise that Hitler himself admired and, as Hitler already presumed the Americans would enter the war in time, the worst result of the attack wasn’t an unexpected one (Shirer 896, 1990). Hitler knew Pearl Harbor was a decisive moment in the war, a sure turning point. At the Nuremberg Trials, Ribbentrop said that Hitler had explained that if the Germans didn’t declare war on the United States and “stand on the side of Japan, the Pact is politically dead” (Henderson 1993). If the Allied powers recognized a legitimate end to the alliance, the German advantage of necessary Allied attention in the Pacific would be shattered.
The pact didn’t actually necessitate the Germans to declare war, as the Japanese, not the Americans, had initiated the conflict, but Hitler recognized the Japanese as an important portion of his strategy, one he was not willing to abandon as early as December 1941. Many historians have said that it appears that Hitler genuinely believed that Germany and Italy were essentially obligated under the terms of the Tripartite Pact to declare war on the United States, though technically not required by law (Henderson 1993). It was clear even then that his declaration of war on the American forces, which came just three days after the Pearl Harbor bombing, may have been a fatal folly for Hitler’s campaign of expansionism.
The Japanese certainly saw Pearl Harbor as a great and confident beginning. Japanese Prime Minister Tojo Hideki was heard offering a scratchy address over radios nationwide on December 8 of 1941. “For 2,600 years since it was founded, our Empire has never known a defeat,” Tojo harangued, “This record alone is enough to produce a conviction in our ability to crush any enemy, no matter how strong” (WWII Museum).
The Japanese Prime Minister’s pride in the Pearl Harbor attack which would surely cause an American entry to the war was, counter intuitively, likewise appreciated by Hitler. Moreover, while an American entry into battle that early wasn’t on Hitler’s wish list, there was no questioning his distaste for the United States (Henderson 1993).
Hitler was sure the Americans were determined to declare war on Germany anyway, so entering into war on his own terms would give the added benefit of strengthening his alliance with the Japanese, who could provide an important diversion for the Americans in the Pacific (Henderson 1993). Despite Hitler’s racist chauvinism, he admired the militaristic fervor and nationalist pride of the Japanese. That admiration kept his superior-Aryan ideology from hindering his relations with Japan. The Japanese Ambassador to Berlin for much of the war, Hiroshi Oshima, had unparalleled access to German war plans (Shirer 871, 1990). Hitler’s trust of his Japanese counterparts was not entirely off-base.
Oshima, for example, was known for his fanaticism and employment of Nazi rhetoric. In his famed and celebrated book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, journalist William Shirer described Oshima as “more Nazi than the Nazis” (Shirer 872, 1990). It was through Oshima that a great deal of the German-Japanese communication that was made flowed.
Just months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Ribbentrop told Oshima that, “Should Japan become engaged in a war against the United States, Germany, of course, would join the war immediately. There is absolutely no possibility of Germany’s entering into a separate peace with the United States under such circumstances. The Fuhrer is determined on that point (Henderson 1993). There is no doubting that Oshima, like all he learned of German plans, forwarded this message to Tokyo.
MEAGER BENEFITS AND SIZABLE COSTS
The Germans and the Japanese were clearly confident, however unfounded that confidence would soon seem. While limited coordination was evident, the real success of the Tripartite Pact was its division of the Allied attack. It is in this way that the diffuse cohesion of the Germans and the Japanese became an asset, if only in a defaulted manner. There were, after all, two major fronts to be won in order to overcome the tide of fascism.
Academic Michael Wallace, in his evaluations of global arms races, has said that the Second World War could be seen as having been initiated by at least six smaller conflicts, all involving the Tripartite powers (Diehl 1983). It is easy to understand that dividing the Allied forces was a natural boon to the Axis war effort.
Between 1941 and 1945, the United States sent in excess of $32.5 billion in military aid to its allies, of which close to $14 billion went to the United Kingdom and $9.5 billion went to the Soviet Union (Milward 71, 1979). The American military buildup in the war years was astounding. From 1940, when defense spending was under 2 percent of the American gross domestic product, to 1945, when the total came closer to 40 percent, the United States military saw its budget balloon to nearly $65 billion (Williamson 2006).
These funds were forced to be divided between Europe and the Pacific. There is little questioning that that would help the Axis effort, and there should be even less questioning that neither Germany nor Japan could ever even imagine overcoming such economic disparities on their own. Indeed, even using the recession year of 1938 for comparison, the U.S. national income of $67.4 billion was still almost double that of Germany, Italy and Japan combined (Zeiler 6, 2004). At the very least, having two different opponents on two different continents, thousands of miles apart, would surely lessen the American effect on either one region, aiding the goals of both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Beyond nominal geographical divides, the two countries did engage in intelligence-sharing, as well. On February 18, 1942, a German naval attaché reported to Berlin that the Japanese military had spoken of a joint German-Japanese push to secure Madagascar. The following day the Germans gave the Japanese all their intelligence on landing sites of Ceylon, the island nation now known as Sri Lanka, which could be used strategically in the mission (Willmott 11, 2002). A success, perhaps, but its minimal importance is telling for the covetous information-hoarding that hampered the weak pact.
Moreover, Oshima, the Japanese Ambassador to Berlin, personally shared almost every piece of German military stratagem with his native Japan. On June 22, 1941, Matsuoka received a cable from Berlin warning that hostilities between the Germans and the Soviets had begun (McKechney 74, 1963). Oddly, it is just such intelligence sharing that, while doubling as a minor success of the pact, begins the long list of its failures, as a great deal of that communication was intercepted and went a long way to ameliorating the Allied war effort.
In 1940 the Americans broke the PURPLE code used by Oshima, who regularly radioed to Tokyo vital German war plans (McKechney 87, 1963). Therefore, whenever there was intelligence sharing between the Germans and the Japanese, that potential benefit for the alliance clearly became a failure.
Still, the level of that communication was, at times, in startlingly short supply. While, because the Americans were listening, scant information-sharing might appear to be a benefit, weak communication was a clear sign of a weak alliance. The Japanese foreign minister was in Berlin just weeks before the Germans would first attack the Soviets, but not a word of the mission was mentioned. The Japanese, perhaps answering back, never told the Germans of their plans to bomb Pearl Harbor. Of course, this discordance didn’t breach their alliance, it merely hastened its failure, or so it seems.
The Nazis had broken the Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936 with their non-aggression agreement with Moscow, so legal treachery wasn’t new in German/Japanese relations. Ribbentrop later said at the Nuremberg Trials that, “My experience has taught me that the Japanese are very close-mouthed. We never knew exactly where we stood, never. They never said really what was going on” (Henderson 1993). In that vein, in April of 1941, eager to secure its northern back as Japan moved south, Matsuoka concluded a neutrality pact with the Soviets, without any prior notice to the Germans (Henderson 1993). These spiteful breaches of intelligence sharing were just the beginning of the Tripartite Pact’s failures.
Still, all of the pact’s failures, it seems, can be traced back to the Soviet Union. The Soviets were, without question, a rock on which the Tripartite Alliance was broken. For, as we know, Matsuoka’s plans to add the Soviets to his dream of Western-rivalry were dashed on June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Japanese government was shaken, left to consider moving north to fight the Soviets in support of their German allies or instead move south towards American territory (Hasegawa 16, 2005).
Just two months after committing Japan to a Neutrality Pact with the Soviets, Matsuoka recommended an immediate Japanese invasion of the U.S.S.R. Japanese troop levels in Manchuria soared, nearly doubling from 400,000 to 700,000 in July of 1941, and Matsuoka pointedly told a Soviet ambassador that Japan’s Tripartite Pact took precedence over its neutrality pact with the Soviets. However, this admission was too strongly worded for Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe who swiftly dismissed Matsuoka (Hasegawa 17, 2005).
His words had already divided the two states irreparably, damaging a peace that was too tenuous to sustain much damage. With Matsuoka and his support of the German war effort, in wanting to attack Soviet territory, gone, Japanese troops began a push into Southeast Asia, home to ample natural resources, a healthy energy supply, and an ornery Allied faction, strengthened by American forces (Lewis 18, 2001). As Japan’s provocation of the United States accelerated, making military engagement all but inevitable, and the Germans continued to press the western front of Soviet territory, the possibility of military action between the Japanese and the Soviets, each busy elsewhere, became increasingly more remote, creating a “strange neutrality” (Hasegawa 19, 2005).
Still, the Soviets exploited the shaky alliance between Japan and Germany to bolster its own military advantage and security. Under the guise of a German journalist in Tokyo, the Soviets had their greatest asset in Richard Sorge, considered one of history’s most successful spies. He forewarned the Soviets when the Germans were moving on to Moscow in 1941, and, having learned that the Japanese would choose to seize control of Southeast Asia instead of invading the Soviet Union, gave Stalin the opportunity to relocate thousands of troops from Siberia to the capital to protect that German invasion (Boser 2003).
It is this way that many argue that the Soviet entrance into the war had a greater effect on hastening Japan’s surrender than did American President Harry Truman’s decision to make the first nuclear attack in the world’s history. Indeed, the Japanese military leadership was less concerned with the nuclear capabilities of the U.S. army. This was cold, but perhaps calculated, as over 900,000 Japanese died in the Allied fire bombings of the country’s major cities, while fewer than 200,000 Japanese died directly from the atom bombs that landed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Hasegawa 2005). The Soviets, once coveted for collaboration by Matsuoka, had become the greatest catalyst for failure of the Axis powers.
Another troubling breakdown was that the German and Japanese military efforts were never cohesively streamlined. While two fronts persisted, forcing a split of Allied forces – particularly the Americans – without a consistent, coordinated effort between the Germans and the Japanese, their power remained small. Their separation was not only understood by the engaged parties, but even the Allied powers recognized their divide.
While Japanese and German signatories had signed next to each other, to the Allies, in many ways they were seen as a divided enemy, not one war against a single, widespread opponent. Despite being directly attacked by the Japanese, the United States entered the war with a clear “Germany-first” strategy, yet for the first five months of American-involved conflict, nearly all of U.S. commitments were made to the Pacific (Willmott 24, 2002). The Americans were waging two wars.
The Allied forces were more concerned with shuffling their troops and managing two theaters of battle than they were with real collusion between the fascist states. The United States was gravely fearful that in May of 1942 any increased deployment to the south Pacific would undermine their “Germany-first” policy (Willmott 28, 2002). There was a real sense that changing troop levels was less a sign of changing locations of a war, but more of changing power of two different wars.
The separation wasn’t limited to the minds of American leaders either. On December 8, 1941, the day after the Imperial bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japan seemed to be an afterthought to everyone except Americans. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor as nothing short of a blessing. Churchill knew that after the attack the United States could no longer remain neutral, which meant their support of his beleaguered nation. In his memoirs Churchill wrote of the Pearl Harbor bombing, “so we had won after all” (Lewis 90, 2001)
WHAT THE PACT FAILED TO ACCOMPLISH
Seemingly, all the alliance managed to do was to unite the Germans and Japanese as an enemy. They were not, by contrast, the common enemy, showing how clear the lack of Tripartite unity was. It is readily accepted among contemporary historians that to most Allied troops, the Japanese were loathed in a way that German forces were not. This was particularly, and perhaps understandably, so among American forces. One study that was conducted on a U.S. infantry regiment in training revealed just that. When asked, ‘How would you feel about killing a German solider?’ just seven percent answered with, ‘I would really like to,’ from a list of choices. When ‘German’ was replaced with ‘Japanese’ that response jumped to 44 percent (Lewis 144, 2001). Racial divides between the German and the Japanese became another reason for the Allies to see the Tripartite powers as anything but united.
Race wasn’t a divide among the Germany and Japan that only the Allies recognized, instead it was another example of Tripartite weakness. In April of 1941, after the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact was signed, Stalin embraced Matsuoka in celebration of their common Asian roots. In an ironic twist, the evaluation of Russians as “Asiatics” was regularly added to anti-Soviet propaganda by Nazi Germany (Koshiro 422-23, 2004). Indeed, there is no questioning that, while Hitler appreciated Japanese fanaticism, with his regime’s promoting the idea of Asian-inferiority, no one could expect Germany and Japan to ever fully cooperate. As far back as the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, German publications demonized the Asian side of the-soon-to-become-Soviet Union. In January, the German-language journal Vorwarts proclaimed that, “the yellow Asians will deliver the vanquished [white Russians] from their Asiatic spirit and lead them back to Europe” (Paddock 358, 1998).
Be it racially-orientated, geographically or socially-based, as the Allied powers saw the German and Japanese as divided, the Japanese and Germans also perceived their alliance as fragilely uniting. The Tripartite Pact was, at its root, simply a pact based on a perceived common interest, not a long-term relationship, so, as the two powers so often acted in their own interest, the Tripartite was ultimately weak.
In April of 1941, the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact was signed, uniting two states not out of a common interest (1905’s Russo-Japanese War and the even more recent Soviet-Japanese Border War of 1939 can attest to that), but rather, a common disinterest (Hasegawa 2005). That is, the Soviets wanted to focus on their western border, preparing for a German invasion, and the Japanese were worried about a Soviet attack from the north, while they pursued a campaign through Southeast Asia. The Neutrality Pact was concluded because both parties were unwilling to engage the other militarily at that time.
Germany had done similarly in 1939. There is no doubting that Germany and Japan were trying to survive their own aggrandizement and didn’t necessarily see their own futures tied exclusively to the future of the other. Their underlying racial tensions, meager intelligence-sharing and nonexistent military collusion all suggest just that.
The lack of collaboration is particularly clear in that nonexistent military cooperation. With their military thumping in the Border War of 1939 fresh in their collective memory and recognizing a world of resources around their Asian neighborhood, the Japanese never followed Matsuoka’s desire to push into the Soviet Union in order to meet German troops. Hitler, too, saw this as the clearest means to effective coordination of their collective might, but, as an ardent supporter of the superiority of the Aryan race, he wasn’t about to beg the Japanese to do anything.
Despite his signing the Russo-Japanese non-aggression treaty in April 1941 because of Japan’s recent embarrassment by the Soviet military, Matsuoka changed his stance after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Hitler’s proposition to Matsuoka that Japan take part in the attack as well led Matsuoka to become a enthusiastic supporter of the idea of a Japanese attack on Soviet land (Henderson 1993).
However, most of the Japanese leadership was unconvinced, not able to forget the Soviet military superiority in 1939, so southward they went. While his closest advisors felt that a Japanese attack on the far eastern edge of Soviet territory would go far to tumble the tumbling bear, Hitler had decided by the autumn of 1941 to stop pressuring Tokyo for assistance as it would be a clear sign of weakness (Henderson 1993).
Just two months after the German-Soviet neutrality pact was signed, German forces secretly invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941. Despite the German-Japanese alliance, Japanese forces decided to stay removed from the so-called Operation Barbossa. This surely helped the eventual German failure in this preamble to the Second World War’s bloody Eastern front, as the Soviets could devote more of their forces to its western borders, ignoring Japan because of the non-aggression pact between the two Asian states.
Some Japanese officials saw their Soviet neighbors as a valuable resource to hasten the defeat of the Allied powers, even after the Soviets notified Japanese leaders in 1945 that they would not be renewing their treaty. Unbeknownst to the Japanese, at the Yalta Conference earlier that year, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had agreed to enter the war after German surrender.
On the day following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces, the Roosevelt administration requested that the Soviet Union join the war against Japan. New Soviet ambassador Maksim Litinov was instructed to decline, citing the Soviet Union’s devotion to the war with Germany and the neutrality pact in which the Soviet Union was with Japan. Still, just ten days after the rejection, Stalin told British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden that the Soviets would join the war against Japan in time (Hasegawa 19, 2005).
In October 1943, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull reported that Stalin had told him that, “when the Allies succeeded in defeating Germany, the Soviet Union would then join in defeating Japan” (Hasegawa 23, 2005). There was no sense of German and Japanese cohesion among the Allied or even Axis powers. Rather, it was readily understood that there was unrest between Japan and Germany, and that the Soviet Union was far less sympathetic to the Axis than Matsuoka would have liked to think.
In 1941 Matsuoka had warned that Japan was devoted to the Tripartite Pact first and the neutrality pact with the Soviets second. Four years later, the Soviet Union reneged on the neutrality pact, citing – inaccurately – that it had been coerced into joining the Allied forces (Hasegawa 191, 2005). While, in actuality, Stalin had foretold an eventual Soviet entry on the Allied side of the war as early as 1941, Stalin told his Japanese counterparts otherwise, allowing the treachery to continue. The Germans and the Japanese were divided again, this time in their defeat.
Without question, the Soviet Union was incalculably important to the timidity of the Tripartite Pact, which never reached its full capacity as Germany and Japan were separated by much more than the 15,500 kilometer expanse along the southern Soviet border. Indeed, in September of 1944, the Japanese military brain trust was willing to throw out the Tripartite Pact to keep the Soviet Union out of the war (Hasegawa 29, 2005).
In November of 1943, Japanese Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Natotake Sato, asked if the Moscow Conference, which included the United Kingdom and the United States was a sign of changing Soviet policy towards the Allied Powers. Sato was met with a question of the meaning behind the reaffirmation of the Tripartite Pact just two months prior (Hasegawa 24, 2005). Without an appeasing answer for the Soviets, Sato couldn’t expect one for Japan. The U.S.S.R. remained a balancing point for the Tripartite Pact.
Matsuoka was asked once, while living in semi-retirement, if the neutrality pact with the Soviets was a mistake. Matsuoka called the pact only a means to maintaining Japanese territory, labeling Stalin as untrustworthy (Koshiro 425, 2004). He always knew it would be impossible for a rise in the world with the Soviet Union suppressing Japan in the region. As Matsuoka said, his primary responsibility was to Tokyo, despite his grandiose dreams of a new global order. Moreover, while he felt that the Soviets could have provided an important piece to the Japanese imperialist puzzle, in the end, any attempt Matsuoka made to unite Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan was domestically motivated. In this way, the Tripartite Pact never got off the ground. It was Stalin, one might argue, that kept Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan from ever truly coming together. After all, it was the Soviet issue that continued to divide Germany and Japan, whether it was through troubled treaties or failed military unity.
Whatever was the strongest factor in determining failure of the Tripartite Pact is another argument altogether. This paper first reported on the motivations for the alliance, based on the previous relationship between the Japanese and Germans through the Anti-Comintern Pact of 1936. Next, this paper elaborated on Matsuoka’s interest in the agreement, a calculated move towards his dream of a new, non-Western-based global political hierarchy, and the German intentions in the pact, to necessitate an Allied presence in the Pacific, diverting them from Japan’s primary campaign of concern.
Secondly, this paper discussed how the Tripartite Pact benefited its two primary benefactors, Japan and Germany, which was relegated to simple intelligence-sharing and de facto division of Allied force. Finally, this paper investigated what the pact failed to accomplish as its efficacy waned in the later years of the war, from its inability to court the Soviets to causing no real military cohesion or widespread intelligence-sharing.
In the end, the Japanese-Germany alliance did extend the reign of terror their fascist movements caused, but, without continued cooperation, it proved ineffectual through the run of the last global conflict of the twentieth century. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had half a decade of military union, fortunately the pact’s longevity was its greatest accomplishment.
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Text as submitted in fall 2006 to Temple University’s annual undergraduate research forum.