At the request of the Japanese Ambassador, the President received the Ambassador for an off-the-record conference in the Oval Room at the White House at five o'clock this afternoon. At the President's request, Admiral Stark and I were present.
At the outset of the conference the President made approximately the following statement to the Ambassador. The President said, referring to a talk which he had made this morning to a home defense group under the leadership of Mayor La Guardia, that for more than two years the United States had been permitting oil to be exported from the United States to Japan. He said that this had been done because of the realization on the part of the United States that if these oil supplies had been shut off or restricted the Japanese Government and people would have been furnished with an incentive or a pretext for moving down upon the Netherlands East Indies in order to assure themselves of a greater oil supply than that which, under present conditions, they were able to obtain. The United States had been pursuing this policy primarily for the purpose of doing its utmost to play its full part in making the effort to preserve peace in the Pacific region. At the present time, the President said, the Ambassador undoubtedly knew that there was a very considerable shortage in the oil supply in the eastern part of the United States and the average American man and woman were unable to understand why, at a time when they themselves were asked to curtail their use of gasoline oil, the United States Government should be permitting oil supplies to continue to be exported to Japan when Japan during these past two years had given every indication of pursuing a policy of force and conquest in conjunction with the policy of world conquest and domination which Hitler was carrying on. The average American citizen could not understand why his Government was permitting Japan to be furnished with oil in order that such oil might be utilized by Japan in carrying on her purposes of aggression. The President said that if Japan attempted to seize oil supplies by force in the Netherlands East Indies, the Dutch would, without the shadow of a doubt, resist, the British would immediately come to their assistance, war would then result between Japan, the British and the Dutch, and, in view of our own policy of assisting Great Britain, an exceedingly serious situation would immediately result. It was with all of these facts in mind, the President said, that notwithstanding the bitter criticism that had been leveled against the Administration and against the Department of State, the President up to now had permitted oil to be shipped by Japan from the United States.
The President then went on to say that this new move by Japan in Indochina created an exceedingly serious problem for the United States. He said that, as I had stated to the Ambassador yesterday, insofar as assuring itself that it could obtain foodstuffs and raw materials from Indochina, Japan, of course, had it reached an agreement with the United States along the terms of the discussions between Secretary Hull and the Ambassador, would have been afforded far greater assurances of obtaining such supplies on equal terms with any other nation. More than that, the President said, the cost of any military occupation is tremendous and the occupation itself is not conducive to the production by civilians in occupied countries of food supplies and raw materials of the character required by Japan. Had Japan undertaken to obtain the supplies she required from Indochina in a peaceful way, she not only would have obtained larger quantities of such supplies, but would have obtained them with complete security and without the draining expense of a military occupation. Furthermore, from the military standpoint, the President said, surely the Japanese Government could not have in reality the slightest belief that China, Great Britain, the Netherlands or the United States had any territorial designs on Indochina nor were in the slightest degree providing any real threats of aggression against Japan. This Government, consequently, could only assume that the occupation of Indochina was being undertaken by Japan for the purpose of further offense and this created a situation which necessarily must give the United States the most serious disquiet.
The President said that he had been following in complete detail the conversations which had been progressing between Secretary Hull and the Ambassador and that he was confident that the Ambassador would agree that the policies now undertaken in Indochina by the Japanese Government were completely opposed to the principles and the letter of the proposed agreement which had been under discussion.
At this point the Ambassador took out of his pocket two sheets of notes which he had prepared and asked the President's permission to refer to them in order to make a statement of his Government's position.
In this exposition the Ambassador covered exactly the same ground which he had covered in his conversation with me last night.
The only points of difference were that at the outset of the conversation, the Ambassador very clearly and emphatically stated that the move by Japan into Indochina was something which he personally deplored and with which he personally was not in agreement. . . .
The President then said that he had a proposal to make to the Ambassador which had occurred to him just before the Ambassador had come in and which he had not had time to talk over with me before making his proposal to the Ambassador.
The President said that it might be too late for him to make this proposal but he felt that no matter how late the hour might be, he still wished to seize every possible opportunity of preventing the creation of a situation between Japan and the United States which could only give rise to serious misunderstandings between the two peoples. The President stated that if the Japanese Government would refrain from occupying Indochina with its military and naval forces, or, had such steps actually been commenced, if the Japanese Government would withdraw such forces, the President could assure the Japanese Government that he would do everything within his power to obtain from the Governments of China, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and of course the United States itself a binding and solemn declaration, provided Japan would undertake the same commitment, to regard Indochina as a neutralized country in the same way in which Switzerland had up to now been regarded by the powers as a neutralized country. He stated that this would imply that none of the powers concerned would undertake any military act of aggression against Indochina and would refrain from the exercise of any military control within or over Indochina. He would further endeavor to procure from Great Britain and the other pertinent powers a guarantee that so long as the present emergency continued, the local French authorities in Indochina would remain in control of the territory and would not be confronted with attempts to dislodge them on the part of de Gaullist or Free French agents or forces.
If these steps were taken, the President said, Japan would be given solemn and binding proof that no other power had any hostile designs upon Indochina and that Japan would be afforded the fullest and freest opportunity of assuring herself of the source of food supplies and other raw materials in Indochina which she was seeking to secure.
The Ambassador then reiterated concisely and quite clearly what the President had suggested. He then made some statement which was not quite clear to the effect that such a step would be very difficult at this time on account of the face-saving element involved on the part of Japan and that only a very great statesman would reverse a policy at this time.
The President then mentioned the fact that in the United States the belief was apparent that such policies as those which Japan was now pursuing were due to German pressure upon Japan. To this the Ambassador reacted by saying that Japan was, of course, an independent country and that while such pressure might be exercised, decisions on the policy she was pursuing were solely her own and no one else had any responsibility for them.
The President then said that one thing the Japanese Government did not understand as clearly as this Government was the fact that Hitler was bent upon world domination and not merely the domination of Europe or of Africa. The President said that if Germany succeeded in defeating Russia and dominating Europe and then dominating Africa, there wasn't the slightest question in his mind that Germany thereafter would turn her attention to the Far East and likewise to the Western Hemisphere, and, that while such a development might not take place for many years, perhaps even ten years, the laws of chance made it easily possible that in such contingency, the navies of Japan and of the United States would be cooperating together against Hitler as the common enemy. The President reemphasized his belief that what Hitler had in mind was complete domination of the entire world.
To this the Ambassador replied that he would like to quote an old Chinese proverb in which he had great faith, namely, "He who continuously brandishes the sword eventually kills himself."
The Ambassador said that he would immediately report his conversation to his Government in Tokyo. He seemed to be very much impressed with what the President had said but I did not gather from his reactions that he was in any sense optimistic as to the result.
U.S. Department of State, Publication 1983, Peace and War: United States Foreign Policy, 1931–1941 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943), 312–314. .