This is a story of what might have been. If Japan had chosen to attack far-off British Malaya on December 7, 1941, instead of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, President Franklin Roosevelt was prepared to go before Congress and ask—for the first time in American history—for a declaration of war against a nation that had not fired the first shot against us. With the country solidly divided on the issue of getting involved in the war that was already raging in Europe, and with the president’s repeated promises not to send American boys to fight in a foreign war still ringing in congressional ears, the outcome of Roosevelt’s appeal was not preordained. Indeed, there is some reason to think that his appeal would have been rejected by an isolationist Congress, in which case the history of World War II would have been very different.
The circumstances surrounding FDR’s undelivered declaration began in August 1941, in obscure Argentia Harbor inside Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. There, four months before Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met secretly to thrash out the terms of what came to be called the Atlantic Charter . One of the primary objectives of the English-speaking leaders’ first summit was to come to some agreement regarding the increasingly aggressive and threatening moves the Japanese were making in the Far East. Churchill stressed the urgent need to make a joint declaration to the Japanese to either back off or face the consequences. Having barely escaped invasion by the Nazis a year earlier, the British had been forced out of Greece by the Germans in April, and now found themselves locked in a bitter struggle with General Erwin Rommel’s much-vaunted Afrika Korps in northern Africa. Spread desperately thin, the British were seeking a way to force the Japanese to reconsider attacking Malaya or the Dutch East Indies. That way, as Churchill understood, it was to have the United States agree to declare war on Japan if Malaya was attacked.
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Japan’s Rising Threat
Following the fall of France in July 1940, a pro-Nazi government had been installed in Vichy in the southern part of the country. the Vichy government asserted control of all French colonies, including those in Indochina. As a signatory to the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in September 1940, the Japanese immediately occupied eight strategically located air bases and the two major seaports in the region. In somewhat dilatory response, the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands notified Japan in July 1941 that unless it immediately withdrew its forces from Indochina, all trade would stop and an embargo on desperately needed oil would go into effect. In a meeting with Japanese Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura in Washington, Roosevelt warned that if the Japanese attempted to seize oil-rich Borneo in the Netherlands East Indies, the Dutch and the British, who had committed to giving their Far East neighbors “all possible assistance,” would jointly declare war on Japan.
Churchill, for one, believed that Japan would be intimidated by the American warning. “It was evident that this was a stranglehold, and that the choice before them was either to reach agreement with the United States or go to war,” the doughty prime minister wrote. “The State Department in Washington believed, as I did, that Japan would probably recoil before the ultimately overwhelming might of the United States.” Unfortunately, Churchill was wrong. The Japanese chose to reject the Allied demands, complaining loudly that they were being subjected to “military, economic and political encirclement” by the three Allied countries and that the situation had become “intolerable.”
Realizing that war with Japan was on the horizon, Churchill focused on getting Roosevelt to formally announce his intention to declare war if the Japanese attacked the British or Dutch holdings in Indochina. Both men realized the difficulties the president would face in trying to get Congress, which had the sole power to declare war, to agree to fight on behalf of two European countries in far-off southeast Asia. Acknowledging that difficulty, Churchill wrote, “I must confess that in my mind the whole Japanese menace lay in a sinister twilight, compared to our other needs. My feeling was that if Japan attacked us the United States would come in. If it did not come in, we had no means of defending the Dutch East Indies, or indeed our own Empire in the East.”
Roosevelt’s Not-so-strong Statement to Japan
The House of Representatives’ razor-thin, one-vote decision to extend the Selective Service Act and continue a peacetime draft was a harbinger of just how difficult FDR’s selling job would be. Nevertheless, the British pressed hard for a strong statement from the president regarding the consequences of a Japanese attack on Malaya. Churchill telegraphed Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden on August 11 that he had gotten the “strong statement” from Roosevelt that he was after. “At the end of the note [he] will hand to the Japanese Ambassador,” cabled Churchill, “he will add the following passage, which is taken from my draft: Any further encroachment by Japan in the Southwest Pacific would produce a situation in which the United States Government would be compelled to take counter-measures, even though these might lead to war between the United States and Japan.”