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While Germany and the United States moved closer to war, Japancse-American relations were also rapidly deteriorating. For thirty years, the two nations had pursued contradictory policies in Asia but had somehow managed to avoid an armed conflict. As Roosevelt began his third term as president, however, the crisis in China was rapidly undermining this state of peaceful co-e. xistcncc.
Japan’s effort in China seemed as far from completion in 1941 as it had in 1937 when the Sino-Japanese war was initiated; yet the Japanese remained steadfast in their determination to humble the Chinese. This was a policy which Mr Roosevelt could not and would not accept. Since 1899, the United States had consistently supported an ‘open door’ policy w'hich called upon all nations to recognize and insure the political and territorial integrity of China; Japan’s policies violated this dictum and threatened to disrupt the balance of power in Asia, but how to go about changing them remained a problem.
For several decades, the United States had responded to Japanese aggression in China with verbal reprimands. When the Japanese presented the Twenty-One Demands to the government of Yuan Shih-k’ai in 1915, William Jennings Bryan, Mr Wilson’s Secretary of State, condemned this action. When the Japanese invaded and annexed Manchuria in 1931, Henry L. Stimson, Mr Hoover’s Secretary of State, denounced Japan’s
Aggression and announced that the United States would refuse to recognize the state of Manchukuo which the Japanese had created out of China’s three northeast pro'inces. When the Sino-Japanese War was launched in 1937, Cordell Hull, Mr R oosevelt’s Secretary of State, deplored Japanese brutality and lawlessness. 'Fhese verbal attack-s had little or no effect except to exacerbate the enmity between the two countries; force was the only language that the Japanese might have understood, and this the. American government was not prepared to use.
As a result of their previous experience with. American leaders, Japanese officials had come to expect a weak response to their activities in. Asia. They could hardly feel threatened by the pious platitudes of. American administrators, however humiliating their verbal harangues might be. Still, .America’s readiness to condemn Japan's policies remained irritating; Japanese leaders found it difficult to understand American moral outrage over the attempt to found a new order in Asia when the United States had been doing the same thing for decades in the Americas. If other nations were asked to recognize. America’s ‘special interest’ in Latin. America and the Caribbean, was it illogical to expect recognition lor Japan’s ‘paramount interest’ in China?
Had. America’s interest in China been simply economic, the United States and Japan might have reached a reasonable understanding, but
America’s commitment to the Chinese was emotional as well as pragmatic. To be sure, the ‘open door’ policy had originally been designed to secure a fair share of the China market for American merchants. But over fifty years, Americans had come to see this policy as a moral commitment as opposed to an economic expedient. For many, China appeared to be America’s special responsibility in the world, and the American people built up a genuine, if patronizing fondness for the country, finding contact with the Chinese adventurous, exhilarating and rewarding in material and spiritual terms. Unfortunately, the Japanese did not share this enthusiasm, nor did they view America’s role in China as one of a benign ally. To their mind, the United States was merely another Western power seeking to exploit the people and resources of Asia without regard for the needs of the area, while Japan represented a different, truly ‘Asian’ ideal which her neighbors would fully accept once their initial reluctance had been overcome.
As long as America’s response to Japan was limited to verbal chastisement, the danger of a Japanese-American confrontation remained minimal. However, after Japanese forces escalated their activities in 1937, many Americans demanded stronger action to curb Japan’s aggressive appetite; a suggestion which, if followed, would markedly increase tension between the two countries. For the Japanese there could be no turning back if their new order in Asia, the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, was to be achieved. For the United States, there was no way to stop the war in China short of forcefully intervening or initiating economic sanctions, neither of which was an attractive alternative for the Roosevelt administration. Nevertheless some action had to be taken.