Atlantic Allies and Pacific Rivals: US Relationships with Britain and Japan Precipitating WWII

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By the turn of the 20th century, the US was becoming a neutral isolationist great power alongside other great powers like Britain and Japan. As the US was lured out of its isolationism, all three fought together against the Central Powers during WWI. Although it retreated into isolationism during the interwar period, the US again allied with Britain to wage war against Japan over Pacific hegemony. Caught in the Thucydides Trap, the emerging Japanese Empire attacked the established American and British Pacific hegemons.

Yet by Thucydides’ same logic, the Anglo-American relationship should have resulted in war since the US was displacing Britain as an international hegemon. Likewise, the US relationship with post-war Japan should have resulted in combat in the 1980s. Neither the pre-WWII US-Britain nor US-Japan relationships were inevitable. Fundamentally, Britain’s and Japan’s varying abilities to compromise with the US through their respective instruments of national power—diplomatic, informational, military, and economic—facilitated Anglo-American solidarity and Japanese-American strife during WWII. This paper seeks to identify the causes and trace the evolutions of these differing relationship trajectories, revealing critical lessons about how the US could best use its instruments of national power in pursuit of its national interest.

Pre-WWII US-UK “Special Relationship”

While the US and Britain shared values and history, an Anglo-American “special relationship” was not inevitable. Former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson aptly noted, “Of course a unique relation existed between Britain and America—our common language and history ensured that. But unique did not mean affectionate. We had fought England as an enemy as often as we had fought by her side as an ally.”1 Britain only found solidarity with the US by acquiescing to American demands in diplomatic negotiations, effectively utilizing information operations aided by a shared language and values, relinquishing military superiority, and ensuring complex economic interdependence.

Britain swallowed its imperial pride and made diplomatic sacrifices to court and compromise with a rising America before WWII, with all of America’s power and hubris. The US was exponentially growing after the American Civil War, and Britain admitted with humility that it could do little to stop America’s growth. In 1902, Prime Minister Lord Salisbury had already wistfully declared, “It is very sad, but I am afraid America is bound to forge ahead and nothing can restore the equality between us.”2 Two years later, Britain’s First Sea Lord John Fisher acknowledged that if war happened, “under no conceivable circumstances… [could Britain] escape an overwhelming and humiliating defeat by the United States… [so it was] an utter waste of time to prepare for it.”3 Thus, Britain conceded to America’s newfound ability to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. Whether with the Alaska-Canada boundary dispute, Venezuela’s debt-induced British naval blockade, or Panama Canal rights, Britain accepted American hegemony over the Americas.4 By WWI, Britain took further steps to court the US as an ally. Although the US initially declared neutrality during WWI, Britain sent the Balfour Mission to the US after it declared war on Germany, which significantly improved Anglo-American relations and wartime cooperation.5

While the British were disappointed in the American rejection of the League of Nations after WWI, Britain still sought to strengthen its relationship with the rising American behemoth. Thus, Britain crucially allowed its alliance with Japan to lapse by 1922—sacrificing its association with Japan in favor of one with the US—as Japanese-American relations were growing increasingly tense.6 Instead of the Anglo-Japanese alliance, Britain looked toward the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 to maintain peace in the Pacific, even though it would have to cede global naval superiority by agreeing to naval power parity with the US.7 When Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald visited the US in 1929, he further promised that “Great Britain will not hereafter establish any military, naval or military aviation stations in her possessions in the Western Hemisphere nor alter any existing stations in such a way as to become a menace to the United States.”8 By the early 1930s, British diplomats were again disappointed by American isolation. In response to the 1931 Manchurian crisis, US Secretary of State Henry Stimson only expressed his verbal disapproval, stating to Japan, “The American Government … does not intend to recognize any situation, treaty or agreement which may be brought about by means contrary to the covenants and obligations of the Pact of Paris…,” which sought to preserve peace.9 By 1934, US Ambassador to Tokyo Joseph Grew proposed an alliance with Britain against Japanese aggression, but his suggestion was initially unheeded.10 Soon after, FDR withdrew from the 1933 London Economic Conference, rendering global efforts at economic recovery from the Great Depression ineffective.11 Over the next few years, the isolationist US even passed the Neutrality Act of 1935, which aimed to keep the US out of foreign wars. Yet in the face of foreign aggression from the revisionist Axis powers, British efforts to court and compromise with the US seemed to pay off by the end of the decade. Following preliminary American economic and military overtures to Britain, Britain and the US signed the 1941 Atlantic Charter outlining joint WWII aims. Still, Britain again acquiesced to necessary compromise, accepting the US demand that self-determination and free trade be included in the Atlantic Charter although such text would irreparably damage the long-term legitimacy of the British colonial empire and end the “imperial preference.”12

Shared Anglo-American values, language, heritage, and culture, along with extensive propaganda efforts, undoubtedly helped strengthen Britain’s information operations in the US. As then-Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden famously quipped, “United States policy is exaggeratedly moral, at least where non-American interests are concerned.”13 Since both the US and Britain were democracies compared to the revisionist fascist powers, aligning with Britain seemed more justifiable to the American public. Furthermore, the US likely felt a moral debt to Britain, especially since the Royal Navy helped enforce the Monroe Doctrine and ensured free trade and freedom of the seas for the past century in a way that allowed the US to focus on economic development over expensive naval expansion.14 FDR and Churchill also sustained a close friendship, with FDR cabling Churchill, “It is fun to be in the same decade with you,” and Churchill writing after they first met, “I felt I was in contact with a very great man who was also a warm-hearted friend and the foremost champion of the high causes which we served.” Conversations that did not need translators and Churchill’s matrilineal American heritage undoubtedly helped forge the friendship between the Anglo-American leaders. Clearly, the legacy of nouveau riche 19th-century Americans marrying off their wealthy daughters into noble but less wealthy British families left lasting cultural ties.15

In President Wilson’s view, these cultural ties were balanced by cultural differences between the two powers. Speaking in Buckingham Palace after WWI, Wilson declared, “You must not speak of us who come over here as cousins, still less as brothers; we are neither. Neither must you think of us as Anglo-Saxons, for that term can no longer be rightly applied to the people of the United States… there are only two things which can establish and maintain closer relations between your country and mine: they are community of ideals and of interests”16 While support for Britain may not have been uniform among the white American population, since significant numbers of Americans held Irish, German, and Italian ancestry by the early 20th century,17 Wilson’s statement glosses over how American “community of ideals and of interests” were fundamentally shaped by British ones, and how many Americans with Anglo-Saxon ancestry still held prominent positions in the US. Wilson also disregards the role of “yellow peril” racism in pushing the US closer to Britain, a seemingly less threatening white power.

Aided by Anglo-American sociocultural connections, Britain incorporated extensive information operations to improve its relationship with the US. By WWI, British intelligence already began experimenting—taking steps to cut US-German communications18 while distributing English-language propaganda throughout the US about British freedom defenders fighting against German barbarians,19 American and British lives lost during the Lusitania sinking, and the 1917 Zimmerman Telegram.20 Britain continued its propaganda efforts during WWII in a more subtle but organized manner, with Churchill even admitting that the US entering the war on Britain’s side was what he “dreamed of, aimed at, and worked for.”21 After all, Churchill had sent Sir William Stephenson to covertly run the British Security Coordination in New York City with a primary goal of influencing pro-British American public opinion.22 Stephenson cultivated close relationships with American press correspondents, sharing the most gruesome images of bomb damage in Britain. Simultaneously, Britain courted Hollywood actors, authors, and academics to encourage pro-British movies, literature, and academic publications, thereby appealing to the American public and educated elite.23 Thus, Britain could more effectively convince skeptical Americans that although it perhaps oppressed colonies like India and Palestine, allowing Europe and Asia to fall to fascism would be worse.

Britain ceded the military competition for prestige to the US rather than oppose American military expansion, lessening the perceived British military threat to American interests. After all, the British Cabinet had already recognized the futility of military competition with the US in the early 1900s. By 1909, Britain dropped the two-power standard, no longer requiring that the Royal Navy be the size of the following two largest navies combined.24 Britain’s new one-power standard was codified in the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, which allowed the US Navy to maintain the same naval ratio as the Royal Navy. Pressured by economic difficulties and popular antiwar sentiment in the interwar period, Britain focused its military on cost-effectively maintaining its colonial empire instead of competing with other great powers.25 Yet the US still thought of Britain as a potential military threat. When the US and Britain could not compromise during the 1927 Geneva Naval Conference,26 American war planners devised War Plan Red to invade Canada and cut off British trade routes.27 Congress even proportioned $57 million to build airports for the plan in 1935.28 Evidently, the US would strongly react to any potential military aggressors, and an Anglo-American alliance was not guaranteed.

As France fell and Japan expanded further into Asia, however, FDR finally approved the Destroyers for Bases Agreement, providing Britain with 50 old US Navy destroyers in exchange for 99-year leases of British military bases in the Americas.29 Britain thus ceded much of its military power projection capabilities in the Americas. By early 1941, American and British military staff met in Washington DC to solidify a cooperative framework for if the US joined WWII, assuring Britain that if America entered the war, the US would be on its side.30 During the Arcadia Conference immediately following Pearl Harbor, Britain further agreed to submit its military under the Washington-based Combined Chiefs of Staff.31 Although Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke worried that such an arrangement would cause Britain to lose military autonomy, Churchill nonetheless acquiesced to basing the Combined Chiefs of Staff in the US.32

Britain created a risky complementary economic relationship with the US based on complex interdependence. Although both Britain and the US were major industrial powers, Britain already held colonies from which it could extract raw materials. Thus, Britain did not need to expand to obtain natural resources, which explains Britain’s vested interest in upholding the 1928 Pact of Paris (Kellogg-Briand Pact) renouncing expansionist wars.33 Yet Britain was still dangerously dependent on American finance and supplies during wartime. Despite initial American neutrality during WWI, Britain took measures to block American exports to Germany and extensively borrow from US banks.34 Already evident during WWI, Britain’s dependency on American economic support was manifestly growing, although Britain had also locked the US into a financial relationship in which allying with it would help guarantee that the US received British loan repayments. However, Britain’s enormous debt to the US angered the American public, especially during the economic landscape of the Great Depression. While Britain renegotiated its debt through the 1923 Dawes Plan, in which US banks loaned Germany money to pay reparations to the UK, which the UK used to repay its war debt to the US, US loans to Germany ended by the start of the Great Depression. By 1934, Britain defaulted on its WWI debt to the US, infuriating the American public. Thus, Congress passed the Johnson Act of 1934, banning all debt-owning nations from obtaining further American loans.35

Britain’s extensive debt to the US raised tensions, but the US would perhaps never receive loan repayments if Britain became financially crippled. Therefore, Congress took tentative steps to aid Britain before WWII. Still wary of Britain’s outstanding debt, Congress’ Neutrality Act of 1937 allowed future belligerent nations like Britain to buy non-military supplies from the US only if they did so with cash and transported the supplies themselves, dubbed “cash and carry.” In practice, only Britain and France had the financial and naval means to import from the US. Congress’ Neutrality Act of 1939 further allowed “cash and carry” arms sales.36 Beyond simply loan repayment concerns, British diplomatic, informational, and military efforts to cultivate relationships with the US effectively culminated in the 1941 Lend-Lease Act, which the US hoped would equip Britain and other Allies to fight themselves so the US could officially remain neutral.37 Hesitant to lead Britain into another potential debt default, the US “lent” equipment mainly to Britain in exchange for Britain joining the “liberalized international economic order in the postwar world,” which the Atlantic Charter revealed had many strings attached.38 Britain’s and other Lend-Lease recipients’ support of the US-designed post-war GATT, IMF, World Bank, and UN would soon provide clarity regarding how the Lend-Lease Act would ultimately benefit the US while avoiding debt-related antagonism. Japan would later join this international order, but only after a disastrous war with the US.

Pre-WWII US-Japan Relationship

Significant senior figures in Japan sought to avoid war with the US in the 1930s since they felt Japan would rationally lose an extended conflict with America. Marshall Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto even wrote, “Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it is not enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. We would have to march into Washington and sign the treaty in the White House. I wonder if our politicians who speak so lightly of a Japanese-American war have confidence as to the outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices?”39 Yet diplomatic intransigence, poor informational exchange exacerbated by racism, military rivalry, and economic competition between the imperial Japanese elite and the US made war inevitable.

The pre-WWII Japanese-American relationship became increasingly strained since neither side could diplomatically compromise over their respective interests in China. During the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt sought friendly relations with Japan, brokering the Treaty of Portsmouth, having the Great White Fleet visit Tokyo, and signing the 1908 Root-Takahira Agreement recognizing “the existing status quo.”40 The 1911 Treaty of Commerce and Navigation between the US and Japan only “strengthen[ed] the relations of amity and good understanding which happily exist between the two nations”41 by establishing mutual most-favored-nation treatment and delineated citizens’ rights.42 Soon, however, the US became increasingly troubled by Japan violating the US-sanctioned equal access “Open Door Policy” regarding China. Japan’s 1915 Twenty-One Demands to China included a clause that would violate the “Open Door Policy” by making China an effective Japanese protectorate, causing the US to lose faith in Japan as a trusted Pacific partner.43 The US and Japan soon negotiated the 1917 Lansing-Ishii Agreement to reaffirm the “Open Door Policy,” recognize Japan’s “special interests” in Manchuria, and ensure neither would use WWI to seek further rights and privileges in China, although President Harding declared it non-binding by 1922.44 Thus, when Japan insisted on acquiring Germany’s Chinese territory in Shandong during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the US was outraged.45 At the 1922 Washington Naval Conference, the US codified the “Open Door Policy” into international law and formally returned Shandong to China (albeit it was still under de facto Japanese control) with the Nine-Power Treaty, yet the Treaty would again be unenforceable. Simultaneously, the US pressured Britain to replace the Anglo-Japanese alliance with the non-committal Four-Power Treaty while limiting international naval force ratios to 5-5-3 for the US, Britain, and Japan, respectively, with the Five-Power Treaty.46

Japan thought that it had been slighted by unequal treaties during the Washington Naval Conference and that the US would not risk war by responding to its aggression, further stressing its already strained relationship with the US. Thus, Japan soon renounced the treaties and invaded Manchuria in 1931, only encountering Secretary Stimson’s meek non-recognition response.47 Japan’s presumption that the US would not significantly respond to its aggression seemed to hold true as tensions subsided in 1933.48 Accordingly, Japan failed to take seriously Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator Pittman’s speeches from 1935-1936 that the US would send “dominating” air and sea forces if Japan expanded further.49 Disregarding Senator Pittman’s threat, Japan invaded the rest of China by July 1937, and the US initially issued a muted response again. By then, there was “complete unanimity of opinion” among Japan’s government, military, and business community regarding further expansion in China, making it impossible for Japan to back down. Yet after China’s September 1937 appeal to the League of Nations, the US joined the League in condemning Japan’s invasion of China proper.50 FDR discreetly criticized Japan the following month, calling for “quarantin[ing]… the epidemic of world lawlessness.”51 Ambassador Grew notably saw such a global convening as a mistake, as he felt the lack of collective global repercussions would only encourage Japanese militarists. Although Ambassador Grew repeatedly warned otherwise, Japan formally joined the Axis Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy by September 1940, feeling increasingly constrained by American military and economic pressure. Japan’s alignment with the Axis further reduced the diplomatic zone of agreement with the Britain-aligned US on China. Japan’s public was growing weary of the stalled Japanese advance in China, but the Imperial Japanese Army was determined to continue even if it meant deposing Japan’s civilian government.52 Conversely, the US was losing patience, although it was not looking to engage Japan prematurely as Japan was growing progressively weak from overextension. Thus, the US continued providing aid to Britain and China while developing its own military capabilities. Hampered by the Imperial Japanese Army’s obstinate refusal to pull out of China and the American stubborn determination to restore the “Open Door Policy,” the US and Japan’s civilian government continued fruitless mid-level diplomatic negotiations until Pearl Harbor.53

Yet when Prime Minister Konoe proposed a summit meeting with FDR in September 1941, Secretary Hull rejected the offer due to the perceived implications of such a meeting, exacerbating Japan’s perception of American disrespect.54 This rejection concerned Ambassador Grew the most, as he believed such a summit could have calmed tensions—at the very least, it would have bought the US more time to prepare for war against Japan.55 After all, FDR held a summit with Churchill to issue the Atlantic Charter, declaring that “should Japan… undertake further steps in the nature of military expansions… various steps would have to be taken by the United States [that] might result in war between the United States and Japan.”56 Caught in the mirror imaging trap, however, anti-appeasement US policymakers did not recognize that Japan might adopt a “now or never” attitude as it felt increasingly disrespected and cornered militarily and economically. Even worse, Konoe resigned after Hull rejected a potential summit between him and FDR, paving the way for General Tojo’s no-guardrails military cabinet to replace him.57 By 3 November 1941, Ambassador Grew cabled, “Japan may go all-out in a do-or-die effort, actually risking national hara-kiri… Armed conflict with the US might come with dangerous and dramatic suddenness,” but his warning was largely ignored in Washington.58 On 26 November 1941, Secretary Hull reiterated America’s intransigent demand that Japan withdraw from China and French Indochina,59 which Tojo’s military cabinet took as an ultimatum since Hull’s statement left no room for further negotiation.60 While FDR tried one last time on 6 December 1941 to preserve peace by appealing to Emperor Hirohito to at least pull Japanese troops from Indochina, Tokyo received the message too late for the Pearl Harbor task force to retreat.61

Differing values and racism between the US and Japan facilitated poor informational exchanges and propaganda efforts. Meiji Restoration modernization efforts were centered around the Prussian model, which focused on authoritarianism, outward expansion, and limited civilian oversight of the military.62 Although Japan experimented with liberal “Taishō democracy” from 1905 to 1926, during which it was still open to diplomatic negotiations, the Shōwa Depression allowed a military dictatorship to take over by the 1930s.63 Such lack of civilian control over the Japanese government pushed Japan closer to other fascist powers like Germany and Italy, and the US increasingly perceived further negotiations with Japan’s civilian diplomats as fruitless and morally objectionable. Furthermore, the US and Japan had different languages, heritages, and cultures, exacerbating nationalist “exceptionalism” as well as perceived and actual racism.

Crucially, Japan perceived the US as racist and insulting. After all, Commodore Matthew Perry sailed an American fleet into Tokyo in 1853 and US envoy Townsend Harris imposed an “unequal treaty” on Japan in 1858, forcing Japan to begrudgingly end its isolationism and accept American extraterritoriality.64 While President Theodore Roosevelt respected Japan’s bushido tradition and newfound military might, Japan felt slighted by his supporting Russia’s no-indemnity position with the Treaty of Portsmouth and Japanese segregation in California.65 Roosevelt managed to reduce tensions with an informal Gentleman’s Agreement in which Japan would limit emigration to the US and the US would not restrict Japanese immigrants already in the US,66 but Wilson allowed the Agreement to be violated by California’s Alien Land Law banning Japanese immigrants from owning land in the state. Soon after, Wilson opposed Japan’s proposed racial equality clause during the Paris Peace Conference and Coolidge banned Japanese immigration to the US with the Immigration Act of 1924.67 Such overt racism infuriated Japan as the US steadily eroded Japan’s privileged racial status. The Washington Naval Treaty’s restrictions on Japan’s naval power and further American diplomatic maneuvers only angered Japan further.68 Ambassador Grew soon warned that the US needed to understand Japanese psychology to gauge potential risks and reactions to American actions,69 but a lack of American awareness about Japanese cultural elements like bushido, yamato-damashii, and hakkō ichiu made that difficult. US racism toward Japan reduced potential diplomatic zones of agreement and chances to compromise while precipitating Japan’s racist attitudes toward the US and others.

Western racial theories induced Japanese ultranationalists to use yamato-damashii (“the Japanese spirit”) to justify its own version of the “white man’s burden” throughout the Pacific.70 Influenced by its honorary privileged racial status among the West in the early 20th century and resentment over the US stripping that status away, Japan sought to colonize Taiwan, Korea, China, and other parts of the Pacific to create a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere under the slogan hakkō ichiu (“unify the whole world under one roof”).71 Japan’s objective became establishing an “Asia for the Asians” without the Western powers that it perceived as racist, and by 1933, Ambassador Grew was already warning Secretary Cordell that Japan has a “…national morale and esprit de corps—a spirit which perhaps has not been equaled since the days when the Mongol hordes followed Genghis Khan in his conquest of Asia,”72 forewarning the futility of trying to convince Japan to give up its claims in China. While pursuing an imperial expansion agenda, Japan was simultaneously supporting anti-colonial movements in Southeast Asia and India.73 Such policies directly threatened American Pacific territories and lingering racial tension made Japanese-American cooperation difficult. Japan also embarked on brutal suppression campaigns in Korea, Taiwan, China, and other Pacific territories it conquered, such as Japan’s abhorrent Nanking Massacre, which turned American moral sentiment against Japan. Although the Imperial Japanese Army was undoubtedly brutal, the US used its actions to portray all Japanese people as cruel barbarians.74 Ambassador Grew had taken care to warn that Japanese military actions often did not reflect government decrees and that most Japanese people were good with examples like Japanese bystanders saving the US Embassy dog from drowning in a palace moat, but his advice was sidelined.75 Thus, the potential for diplomatic compromises between the US and Japan became even more limited.

Likely diminished in influence by racism and diverging values, the Japanese propaganda effort in the US was inconsistent and ineffective. Like Britain, Japan targeted both the American public and the elite. Japan aimed to leverage Asia-tied businesses, academics, and interest groups to influence US lawmakers while encouraging travel, “friendship films,” and baseball exchanges to depict Japan as more like the US than China. Japan sought to convince the US that a Japanese occupation of China would be beneficial, claiming that only Japan had the resources, technology, and ambition to “fix” China. Playing into the American rhetoric, Japan declared its Asian “manifest destiny” to make a “new deal” for China. Specifically, Japan claimed that Japanese troops brought peace, harmony, prosperity, and civilization to China, but the image it portrayed quickly faded after the 1937 Nanjing Massacre.76 Any vestiges of such an image disappeared as Prime Minister Konoe declared a “New Order in East Asia” in 1938, repudiating the Open Door policy and closing occupied China’s economy and communications to the US. Japan’s claim that its invasion of China was aimed at halting Soviet communist expansion was perhaps more effective, as high Soviet-Japanese tensions between 1933 and 1941 would serve US interests.77 Yet the effectiveness of Japan’s anti-communist argument was much diminished after the 1941 Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact and the Soviet Union joining the Allies in the same year.

Japan lured the US into a blatant military competition for prestige, so any strategic concessions would cause either side to lose face and power. Unlike the US, Japan’s military dominated its government by the 1930s, allowing it to violate diplomatic treaties made during the “Taishō Democracy” period when convenient. By December 1934, Japan declared to Secretary Hull that it would terminate the Washington Naval Treaty,78 indicating that it would pursue rapid naval expansion. Japan’s admirals had calculated that Japan needed 70% of the thinly stretched US Navy’s strength for victory.79 Yet even then, Japan understood that American industrial power exceeded that of Japan, so it needed to decisively destroy the American fleet if war broke out.80 Beyond naval expansion, Japan had long embarked on rapid land expansion in the Pacific. By 1895, the US was already worried about Japan’s Pacific expansion after the First Sino-Japanese War, spurring the US to annex Hawaii for its strategic location.81 Over the next few years, Japan annexed Taiwan, Korea, and South Sakhalin while expanding its sphere of influence into Manchuria. By 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria, precipitating the US Navy to begin rearmament.82 Japan forbid the US Navy from visiting any of its islands in 1935,83 making future tension-reducing naval visits like the 1933 one to Tokyo impossible.84 Furthermore, once Japan invaded the rest of China and reached Nanking in December 1937, Japanese soldiers sank the USS Panay and slapped a senior American diplomat,85 ensuring a US military response.

In response to Japan’s military aggression, FDR acquiesced to Britain’s suggestions for Anglo-American naval staff talks and began cementing an anti-Japan coalition with the British, Chinese, and Dutch powers.86 Congress also expanded the US Navy by 20% with the Naval Act of 1938.87 If Japan continued expanding further south, war would be inevitable. By February and March 1939, Japan occupied Hainan and the Spratly Islands, putting Southeast Asian British, French, and American possessions under threat. Soon after, the Japanese Army blockaded British land in Tianjin in July 1939 and expanded deeper into China. In response, the US entered a war footing, signified by FDR forward basing the US Pacific Fleet in Hawaii and establishing a joint Canadian-American defense board.88 By 1940, Congress also further increased the US Navy size by 70% with the Two-Ocean Navy Act and implemented a nationwide draft through the Selective Training and Service Act.89 However, Japan expanded again into French Indochina in September 1940. Thus, by 1941, FDR allowed Anglo-American military staff to plan for war in Washington DC and Singapore; set up the Office of Production Management to coordinate civilian and arms production; broke Japan’s diplomatic codes with MAGIC; sent equipment, advisors, and volunteer airmen to China; called the Philippine army to serve in a new US Army Far Eastern command; and moved American bombers to the Philippines. By 26 November 1941, Washington deciphered MAGIC intercepts warning of an imminent break in US-Japan relations and issued war preparation notices to US military commanders in the Pacific.90 By 1941, the US seemed to have hit the point where it would not tolerate any further Japanese military expansion.

While Japan also established a risky complex economic interdependence relationship with the US, the relationship worsened over time due to economic and actual warfare. At first glance, Japan seemed to have the better position. After all, Japan lacked Britain’s debt shield (or debt curse) with the US, and the US actually traded more with Japan than China before WWII.91 Japan also critically lacked natural resources like oil and metal ore, so it became America’s third-largest export market. In fact, 80% of Japanese oil was imported from the US, with much of the rest from the Dutch East Indies.92 Thus, Japan’s invasion of China was primarily enabled by American oil. Ambassador Grew even initially suggested that war with Japan was not worth the risk, given that the US supplied nearly 44% of Japan’s imports, much higher than the rest of Asia combined in the mid-1930s. American trade with China amounted to less than the cost of one week of war against Japan, so the US business community corroborated Ambassador Grew’s suggestion, calling for continuing trade despite Japan’s aggression.93 WWII breaking out in Europe provided the US even more of an economic opportunity in Japan, as increased US exports could fill reduced European exports to Japan.94 Yet Japan pursued a manipulative trade policy of high tariffs and goods dumping to bolster its economy, limiting finished goods imports while severely undercutting foreign textile and light industrial goods manufacturers.95 Such practices were enabled by Japan’s currency manipulation, allowing the yen to depreciate by 60% against the US dollar so its exports would become cheaper.96 Japan depended on the US since it lacked natural resources, but its unfair trade practices foreshadowed how the US economy could suffer if the US allowed imperial Japan to create the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” with China and Southeast Asia’s vast natural resources and market.

Spurred by an inability to compromise diplomatically, racism, and Japanese military aggression, the US soon sacrificed short-term economic benefits for perceived long-term strategic stability in the Pacific. By 1938, the US enacted a “moral embargo” on Japan, requesting that American oil, mining, and airplane companies stop supplying Japan. The following year, the US began providing loans to China and ended Japan’s most-favored-nation status by abrogating the 1911 US-Japan Treaty of Commerce and Navigation. When Japan further expanded into northern French Indochina in 1940, the US formalized its “moral embargo” into a “virtual embargo” through export controls. By 1941, the US formalized economic support for Britain, China, and other Allies through the Lend-Lease Act and froze Japanese assets. Without American oil and metal ore, Japan’s empire would collapse.97 Although both sides were to blame, such economic warfare cornering Japan directly induced Japan’s subsequent attack on Pearl Harbor.

Implications

Britain’s diplomatic and informational overtures, along with its strategic military and economic concessions to the US, allowed it to avoid the Thucydides Trap. However, Japan’s confrontational military and economic relationship with the US helped weaken diplomatic and informational ties, causing both to fall into the Thucydides Trap of a disastrous great power war. In setting the tone of their respective relationships with the US, Britain and Japan used different elements of their national power to varying degrees. Britain diplomatically courted and compromised with the US, but Japan’s civilian government was hindered by the imperial Japanese military. In the information space, Britain’s propaganda efforts were more effective due to shared values, language, heritage, culture, and consistency, contrasting with Japan’s propaganda efforts, which were hindered by differing values, racism, and inconsistent narratives. Militarily, Britain enabled American military expansion while Japan’s expansionist military threatened the US military’s standing and strategic interests. Although both Britain’s and Japan’s economies were intertwined with the US through complex economic interdependence, Britain turned its debt liability into an asset while Japan became an increasingly menacing economic and strategic threat to the US. Overall, the US and Britain prioritized mutual cooperation toward long-term strategic interests, even if those interests helped the US more than Britain. In contrast, the US-Japan dynamic was marred by strategic oversight that brought about war. Although the US had ample warning about Japan’s intentions from Ambassador Grew and MAGIC intercepts, group-thinking Washington policymakers failed to recognize that an economically- and militarily-stagnating Japan may lash out at the country that it saw as its oppressor, likely in part due to racism and an excessive focus on the European theater. After all, the US premise that a rational Japan would submit to US military and economic domination to avoid war and hold better negotiating power in shaping the Pacific regional order betrays America’s ignorance of Japanese cultural elements like the bushido code.

While US-Japan relations may have been tense before WWII, the US, Britain, and Japan now have a very close trilateral relationship eight decades later. Britain has continued focusing on soft power diplomatic and informational levers within its relationship with the US, which post-war Japan has also sought to develop. The US occupation of post-war Japan and subsequent interactions between cultures created an enduring set of shared democratic values, reducing the opportunity for further conflict between the US and Japan. Furthermore, both Britain and Japan now rarely challenge America’s military and economic dominance. Instead, both serve pivotal roles as American deputies in Europe and Asia, helping to maintain the post-war international order by supplementing American hard power against revisionist rivals like Russia or the PRC. Such is the case because the US has created a symbiotic relationship with Britain and Japan—even if the relationship may benefit the US the most, Britain and Japan have largely benefited as part of the American empire’s peripheral elite as well. After all, US military dominance has allowed Britain and Japan to downsize their military and focus on other elements of national power, and American grants and loans enabled Britain’s and Japan’s post-war economies to dramatically recover to a point where they became among the largest in the world. Although the US and Japan did engage in a trade war during the 1980s, Japan was open to diplomatic concessions to the US through measures like the Plaza Accord and Louvre Accord due to post-war Japan’s established role as a US ally, civilian control of government, better informational exchange, and military aversion.98 Thus, the US and Japan were able to resolve their economic differences peacefully rather than get caught in the Thucydides Trap again.

Britain’s and post-war Japan’s diverging paths with imperial Japan highlight ways the US can enhance its DIME framework. After all, it often seems like the US pursues forceful military and economic threats rather than diplomatic compromise or effective information operations. As was the case with imperial Japan, such an imbalance favoring hard power threatens to engulf the US in a future great power war. In the diplomatic space, the US should consistently encourage mutually beneficial compromises when they suit America’s long-term strategic objectives. “Appeasement” may be a dirty word, but short-term tactical concessions would prevent the US from imperial overreach and getting trapped in dangerous, avoidable confrontations. To enhance its informational capability, the US ought to develop cultural understanding by encouraging diverse immigration and ensure that it separates the government from the people, especially in authoritarian regimes where the government is often not representative of the people. Incorporating diverse perspectives in targeting, collecting, analyzing, and disseminating information would reduce groupthink, providing the US with a better position to extend American narratives in other countries, negotiate diplomatic compromises, enhance military positioning, and refine either mutually beneficial or coercive economic measures. Beyond encouraging cultural understanding, however, the US should ensure that its actions are consistently morally defensible to be a compelling role model for the values-based system that it seeks to uphold. Continually violating established norms weakens America’s ideological position, damaging US global standing to the benefit of America’s adversaries.

The US ought to incorporate lessons from WWII to optimize its DIME levers of national power in its strategic competition with the PRC. Although the PRC has militarily and economically flourished under the American international order, Xi Jinping’s China seems to be following imperial Japan’s path into the Thucydides Trap. Like imperial Japan, the PRC may aggressively lash out militarily as its power peaks, constrained by US and allied military encirclement and economic strangulation.99 Yet unwarranted China-bashing in the US will only exacerbate the likelihood of such a war. To avoid war, the US should adopt British-refined diplomatic and informational national power elements while selectively incorporating military deterrence and economic export controls.

In the diplomatic arena, the US should cooperate and compromise with the PRC on issues beneficial for America’s long-term strategic goals, perhaps incorporating the PRC into a symbiotic relationship like the UK did for the US. Although the US ought to hold its moral high ground on Taiwan and human rights issues, also restricting Track 1 and Track 1.5 diplomacy risks war. Especially for shared concerns like climate, global health, intellectual property protection, counterterrorism, and nuclear proliferation, US-PRC collaboration is critical. After all, mutual cooperation in those areas would facilitate symbiotic relationship development and lessen tensions. Even if the US and PRC have strained military and economic relations, such should not cause breakdowns in other diplomatic areas where collaboration is essential. Joint US-PRC global initiatives on transnational issues like the UN Sustainable Development Goals would reduce the possibility of war and further long-term US strategic interests, even if they entail short-term compromises with the PRC. In fact, since the PRC already has influence in many developing countries through the Belt and Road Initiative, joint collaboration could actually allow the US to extend its influence into those countries. Most countries aligned with the US are less susceptible to the PRC’s authoritarian influence anyway.

Adopting lessons from Britain and Japan, the US should improve how it uses information to enhance American national power relative to the PRC. The US and PRC do not share similar values, language, heritage, and culture, risking increased xenophobia toward Chinese Americans. The US should take steps to publicly amplify the separation between the Chinese people and the PRC—a government that does not represent its people—to make the Chinese diaspora feel welcome and respected. In fact, ensuring continued high-talent immigration from the PRC would exacerbate its brain drain while making US industries more competitive. After all, Chinese immigrants are more likely to work in STEM fields and stay in the US due to increased freedom and higher salaries, making the American technological sector more competitive. Although some may be concerned about espionage, immigrants must pass a background check, and the likelihood of such espionage is extremely low anyway.100 Beyond the STEM benefits, the large Chinese dissident community in the US can be a highly effective propaganda tool in amplifying counternarratives against PRC information operations and calling for a democratic China. After all, the Hawaii-educated Sun Yat-sen overthrew imperial China by gathering support in US Chinatowns, and his democratic legacy lives on in Taiwan today.101

Militarily, the US ought to contain the PRC’s territorial expansion but take care not to lure the PRC into a military competition for prestige. The US and PRC should pursue nuclear and conventional arms limitations, perhaps also with stipulations that the PRC demilitarize its South China Sea islands in exchange for the US pulling back from some of its bases in the first island chain containing the PRC. Such compromises would allow both sides to lessen military tensions. Even in the unlikely scenario that the US fails to detect an impending PLA invasion of Taiwan, the US would still have plentiful partners from Japan to Australia that can serve as rapid first responders. Furthermore, focusing more on naval power than stationary military bases would prevent a PLA first strike from destroying the many American bases in the first island chain, thus lessening the opportunity for a great power crisis to arise. Beyond compromise, the US should focus on strategically deploying more affordable, effective, and explicitly defensive anti-access/area denial systems rather than aggressively perceived offensive weapons.

As was the case in the relationship between the US and imperial Japan, the US and PRC maintain an economic relationship based on complex interdependence in which decoupling may induce war. Instead of fully decoupling from the PRC, the US should aim to ensure that it does not rely on the PRC for critical imports and items made using forced labor while reducing the US-PRC trade deficit. Although free trade between the US and PRC is likely not feasible, retaining as much US-PRC trade as possible would decrease the likelihood of an economically devastating war for both sides while reducing costs based on each country’s comparative production advantage. As for restricting the PRC’s unfair economic practices like currency manipulation, dumping, and intellectual property theft, the US should impose consequences on the PRC equivalent to the unfairly gained amount but not resort to norms-violating tit-for-tat. With semiconductors, the backbone of the modern world’s tech-oriented economy, the US should ensure that it does not entrap the PRC economically through excessively stringent export restrictions. After all, the US and its allies retain the most advanced chip design and manufacturing capabilities regardless of whether semiconductor export controls are in place. While current semiconductor export controls focus on the most advanced chips—allowing the PRC to continue importing lagging edge nodes—they still present high risks in forcing the PRC to further develop its own indigenous chip manufacturing capabilities and heightening the threat of war if the PRC sees itself as perpetually falling behind, unable to outcompete American and US-allied chip technologies. Trade benefits both the US and PRC, and the US should seek to preserve as much economic interdependence as possible. Thus, the PRC’s self-inflicted economic wounds caused by Xi Jinping’s aggressive crackdowns will only grow more apparent, providing less room for Xi’s ultranationalist regime to blame the US for the PRC’s economic woes. Nevertheless, as with Britain and Japan, more economic interdependence would also better incentivize the PRC to uphold the current international order if its economy continues thriving.

Conclusion

America’s pre-WWII relationships with Britain and Japan reveal critical lessons about how different instruments of national power can prevent or facilitate great power relationships from falling into the Thucydides Trap. The US-Britain “Special Relationship” evolved through strategic diplomatic compromise; shared values, language, heritage, and culture; effective propaganda; military non-aggression; and economic interdependence. The breakdown in US-Japan relations was induced by diplomatic intransigence, different values and racism, inconsistent messaging, military competition, and economic warfare. Such a contrast between the outcome of great power relationships underscores the necessity of compromise and the threat of overusing hard power at the expense of soft power. Yet the US, Britain, and Japan are now tightly knit in maintaining a stable international order together, revealing that past adversaries can transform into cooperative alliances. The lessons from WWII are vital for contemporary US foreign policy, especially regarding how to effectively manage America’s evolving relationship with the PRC by using all US instruments of national power complementarily. The US must enhance its diplomatic engagement, cultural understanding, strategic military deterrence, and economic interdependence to navigate the 21st century’s great power competition landscape and foster a peaceful and prosperous global environment.

References

Featured/Headline Image Caption and Citation: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima | Image sourced from Joe Rosenthal/Wikimedia Commons

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Author

Ethan Chiu

Ethan Chiu is a sophomore at Yale University studying Global Affairs and History. He currently serves as the 2023-2024 YRIS International Liaison. He has previously worked at the American Enterprise Institute, Department of Defense, and American Red Cross, and is currently a research assistant at the DOD Information Strategy Research Center and National Defense University.

ethan.chiu@yale.edu