Not many people know this, but the day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to Japanese Emperor Hirohito. Roosevelt’s letter attempted to reason with Hirohito, citing the decades of peace between the two nations, and called for a renewal of that peace in an effort to avoid war in the Pacific.
Learn more about Roosevelt’s letter to Emperor Hirohito and discover this often forgotten story that happened just one day – December 6, 1941 – before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Before Roosevelt’s Letter
Before we delve into the letter, it is important to understand how the two countries came to be against one another.
On September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler’s German troops invaded Poland. It was that last straw for Britain and France, who immediately declared war. By 1941, the United States had yet to join the war, though Roosevelt believed it was the U.S.’s duty to help its allies in Europe. Though he didn’t have Congress’ support to enter the war, Roosevelt instead passed the Lend-Lease Act, which allowed the U.S. to supply goods and weapons to Britain and France.
The conflict between the U.S. and Japan, however, began long before Hitler invaded Poland. In the 1920s and 1930s, Japan grew to become a strong power in the East, but it lacked resources such as oil and rubber. The Japanese looked to take over China, which was the exact opposite of what the U.S. wanted. The U.S. didn’t want anyone controlling China’s natural resources.
In 1931, Japanese forces invaded Manchuria, China, much to the dismay of the U.S. Japan got its oil from the U.S., and the U.S. didn’t like that its resources were used against Chinese forces. As a result, the U.S. halted some of its trade agreements with Japan.
Meanwhile, Japan saw a rise in extremism in 1940, and the country allied itself with Germany. The U.S. stopped supply Japan with oils and metals and began supporting Chiang-Kai Shek in China. Thanks to the Lend-Lease Act, the U.S. could supply weapons to Chinese troops.
By 1941, relations between Japan and the U.S. were worse than ever. It seemed war would be inevitable. Roosevelt’s letter to the Hirohito would be the last attempt at peace.
Roosevelt’s letter begins with a reminder of how the two countries have shared peace for a century. Because of the ill feelings between the two countries, Roosevelt says that he feels it is necessary to write.
“We have hoped,” Roosevelt wrote, “that a peace of the Pacific could be consummated in such a way that nationalities of many diverse peoples could exist side by side without fear of invasion; that unbearable burdens of armaments could be lifted for them all; and that all peoples would resume commerce without discrimination against or in favor of any Nation.”
Roosevelt then discusses the recent Japanese troop movements to Southern Indo-China, and he warns Japan not to invade the Philippines (then a French colony) or the other islands in the area. The U.S. supported French colonialism in the area.
In the end, Roosevelt’s letter begged for peace between the two countries.
“I address myself to Your Majesty at this moment in the fervent hope that Your Majesty may, as I am doing, give thought in this definite emergency to ways of dispelling the dark clouds. I am confident that both of us, for the sake of the peoples not only of our own great countries but for the sake of humanity in neighboring territories, have a sacred duty to restore traditional amity and prevent further death and destruction in the world.”
Of course, we know from history the letter did nothing to prevent war. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, launching the U.S. into the World War II conflict.
Could Roosevelt have avoided war? What do you think?