Appendices - Hirohito's War
O. Japanese – Soviet Conflict in Siberia, Mongolia and Manchuria
The Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact: But as the Japanese-soviet border war dribbled to a close a more pressing matter was taking Stalin’s attention. On 24 August his foreign minister, Molotov, was authorized to sign the Nazi-Soviet Non Aggression Pact as a prelude to Hitler’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. Japanese-soviet border tensions subsided as both parties addressed other priorities. The soviets invaded Finland, engaging in the bitterly fought Winter War, which was only brought to an end by the Treaty of Moscow in March 1940. Furthermore, under the auspices of the Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact, Stalin also annexed the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Japan meanwhile was fully occupied in a total war for the subjugation of China.
A mutual interest in neutrality, favored both Japan and Stalin because it obviated the need to fight on multiple fronts, came to fruition with the signing by foreign ministers Molotov and Matsuoka of the Japan-Soviet Neutrality Pact on 13 April 1941—slated to last for five years to 13 April 1946.
In practice it lasted for almost the duration of the war. Their long-term geopolitical rivalries may not have been extinguished but the pact continued to serve both nations whose military focus was elsewhere engaged. With the soviets fighting for survival after Hitler’s treacherous invasion of Russia [Operation BARBAROSSA] on 22 June 1941, and Japan’s ongoing war in china and its attack on British and American interests on 8 December 1941, neutrality suited both sides. In spite of Stalin’s alliance with Britain and America, the Soviets, albeit incongruously given their long-term enmity toward Japan, nevertheless maintained a position of studied neutrality—even insisting on the internment of American combatants, such as a crew from the Doolittle raid, who strayed onto Soviet soil. For the time being the fiercest of geopolitical rivals turned their backs on each other.
However, by 1945 the situation was clearly changing. Germany was close to defeat with Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s armies closing in on Berlin. Meanwhile in the summer and autumn of 1944, Japan had suffered naval defeats at the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which effectively annihilated the imperial Japanese navy, heralding its defeat to the Western allies. From the start of 1945, Japanese attention turned to negotiating with the soviets for an extension of the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact, due to expire in April 1946.
The ongoing negotiations, which Stalin was only too happy to string along, took a crucial turn on 11 July 1945, when Japan’s foreign minister, Shigenori Togo, sent an urgent telegram to ambassador Naotake Sato in Moscow. it stated,
“The foreign and domestic situation for the empire is very serious, and even the termination of the war is now being considered privately. Therefore the conversations mentioned in my telegram No. 852 are not being limited solely to the objective of closer relations between Japan and the USSR, but we are also sounding out the extent to which we might employ the USSR in connection with the termination of the war.”4
The dove faction within the war council now began a frantic attempt to sue for peace through the good offices of neutral Soviet Union. It was duly suggested that Prince Fumimaro Konoe, the former Japanese prime minister and relative of emperor Hirohito, would travel to Moscow to discuss terms with Stalin. Konoe later claimed, “he had received direct and secret instructions from the emperor to secure peace at any price not withstanding its severity.”5 It was an interesting account, though one of doubtful veracity. as ever with Japan’s internal politics, the facts are murky; Togo later disputed Konoe’s version.
In Moscow the soviets spun out the discussions and asked for details. For Ambassador Sato, the information as to Tokyo’s suggested terms of surrender, were annoyingly vague—reflecting the disagreement and paralysis within the War council. By the 27 July, Sato was becoming increasingly frustrated by his colleagues’ apparent vacillation in Tokyo: “It is absolutely impossible to cause the soviet government to make a move with such a non-committal attitude on our part.”6 In spite of Sato’s entreaties and the ultimatum presented by the allies in the Potsdam Declaration, Foreign Minister Togo, with no clear mandate from the War council, continued to fob him off—leading Sato to make an even more desperate plea for clarity on 3 August: “So long as we propose sending a special envoy [to Moscow] without at the same time having a concrete plan for ending the war . . . the Russians will politely refuse to receive [him and we are wasting valuable time while Japan is being destroyed].”7 It seems that only Japanese representatives outside of Japan could see the futility of fighting on.
The real problem faced by Togo was that he was a dove in a war council effectively controlled by ultranationalist generals and admirals. Prime Minister Baron Kantaro Suzuki, a retired admiral, also wavered in his quest for peace, even after the dropping of an atom bomb on Hiroshima changed the nature of the internal debate in Japan’s councils of war. [See Chapter 40: Potsdam, Hirohito, and the Atom Bomb]