US and Japan Relations Before WWII

Japanese Navy Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura sitting with the United States Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, Washington DC, February, 1941.

Underwood Archives / Getty Images

On December 7, 1941, nearly 90 years of American-Japanese diplomatic relations spiraled into World War II in the Pacific. That diplomatic collapse is the story of how the foreign policies of the two nations forced each other into war.


U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry opened American trade relations with Japan in 1854. President Theodore Roosevelt brokered a 1905 peace treaty in the Russo-Japanese War that was favorable to Japan. The two signed a Commerce and Navigation Treaty in 1911. Japan had also sided with the U.S., Great Britain, and France during World War I.

During that time, Japan also embarked on forming an empire modeled after the British Empire. Japan made no secret that it wanted economic control of the Asia-Pacific region.

By 1931, however, U.S.-Japanese relations had soured. Japan's civilian government, unable to cope with the strains of the global Great Depression, had given way to a militarist government. The new regime was prepared to strengthen Japan by forcibly annexing areas in the Asia-Pacific. It started with China.

Japan Attacks China

Also in 1931, the Japanese army launched attacks on Manchuria, quickly subduing it. Japan announced that it had annexed Manchuria and renamed it "Manchukuo."

The U.S. refused to diplomatically acknowledge the addition of Manchuria to Japan, and Secretary of State Henry Stimson said as much in the so-called "Stimson Doctrine." The response, however, was only diplomatic. The U.S. threatened no military or economic retaliation.

In truth, the U.S. did not want to disrupt its lucrative trade with Japan. In addition to a variety of consumer goods, the U.S. supplied resource-poor Japan with most of its scrap iron and steel. Most importantly, it sold Japan 80 percent of its oil.

In a series of naval treaties in the 1920s, the U.S. and Great Britain endeavored to limit the size of Japan's naval fleet. However, they made no attempt to cut off Japan's supply of oil. When Japan renewed aggression against China, it did so with American oil.

In 1937, Japan began a full-blown war with China, attacking near Peking (now Beijing) and Nanking. Japanese troops killed not only Chinese soldiers, but women and children as well. The so-called "Rape of Nanking" shocked Americans with its disregard for human rights.

American Responses

In 1935 and 1936, the U.S. Congress passed Neutrality Acts to prohibit the U.S. from selling goods to countries at war. The acts were ostensibly to protect the U.S. from falling into another conflict like World War I. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the acts, although he did not like them because they prohibited the U.S. from helping allies in need.

Still, the acts were not active unless Roosevelt invoked them, which he did not do in the case of Japan and China. He favored China in the crisis. By not invoking the 1936 act, he could still shuttle aid to the Chinese.

Not until 1939, however, did the U.S. begin to directly challenge continued Japanese aggression in China. That year, the U.S. announced it was pulling out of the 1911 Treaty of Commerce and Navigation with Japan, signaling a coming end to trade with the empire. Japan continued its campaign through China and in 1940, Roosevelt declared a partial embargo of U.S. shipments of oil, gasoline, and metals to Japan.

That move forced Japan to consider drastic options. It had no intention of ceasing its imperial conquests and it was poised to move into French Indochina. With a total American resource embargo likely, Japanese militarists began looking at the oil fields of the Dutch East Indies as possible replacements for American oil. That presented a military challenge, however, because the American-controlled Philippines and the American Pacific Fleet — based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii — were between Japan and the Dutch possessions.

In July 1941, the U.S. completely embargoed resources to Japan and froze all Japanese assets in American entities. American policies forced Japan to the wall. With the approval of Japanese Emperor Hirohito, the Japanese Navy began planning to attack Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, and other bases in the Pacific in early December to open the route to the Dutch East Indies.

The Hull Note

The Japanese kept diplomatic lines open with the U.S. on the off chance they could negotiate an end to the embargo. Any hope of that vanished on November 26, 1941, when U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull handed Japanese ambassadors in Washington, D.C. what has come to be known as the "Hull Note."

The note said that the only way for the U.S. to remove the resource embargo was for Japan to:

  • Remove all troops from China.
  • Remove all troops from Indochina.
  • End the alliance it had signed with Germany and Italy the previous year.

Japan could not accept the conditions. By the time Hull delivered his note to the Japanese diplomats, imperial armadas were already sailing for Hawaii and the Philippines. World War II in the Pacific was only days away.

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Jones, Steve. "US and Japan Relations Before WWII." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Jones, Steve. (2023, April 5). US and Japan Relations Before WWII. Retrieved from Jones, Steve. "US and Japan Relations Before WWII." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).