Japan in Winston Churchill’s Postwar Histories

Living in the United Kingdom, it is practically impossible to ignore the imprint of Winston Churchill on the 20th century in his intertwined roles both as statesman and historian. As a postwar writer, Churchill was mightily productive, and one volume of his mammoth The Second World War emerged virtually every year between 1948-1953, leaving the English-reading public with six volumes which are full of primary documents and reflections.

Having finally gotten through the first three volumes this afternoon in the Yorkshire countryside, I am ill disposed to describe what precisely Winston Churchill accomplishes by turning the focus on Stalin and postwar Soviet foreign policy in Volume 6; surely it is one of the key documents for understanding Yalta, Potsdam, and the emerging Cold War order, not least of which included coordination and disharmony between the United States and the United Kingdom.

But in volumes 1-3, much can be learned about where Japan, ‘the China Incident’, and East Asia generally fit into his world view and policy direction. Churchill’s views of Japan prior to 1931 (which, evidently, held up until 1940-41) could be characterized, in the words of John Maurer, as follows:

Churchill’s understanding of the international strategic environment also led him to conclude that Japan alone, unaided by coalition partners of its own, would not embark on a war against Britain. Instead, Churchill imagined a predatory Japan acting in a more opportunistic way, attacking only if Britain found itself already endangered by some other great power. In this scenario, if the British Empire faced a serious threat from some other quarter – most likely, a challenge from a revanchist Germany in Europe or an expansionist Soviet Russia in South Asia – Japan might exploit this opportunity to bandwagon against Britain by aggressive action in the Far East. This scenario, too, proved an accurate forecast: Japanese decisionmakers only did feel confident enough to attack Britain when it appeared that Germany was on the verge of scoring a major military success in Europe during World War II.

There are several particularly interesting episodes in Churchill’s recollection of the diplomacy and military feinting that preceded full-scale war in the Pacific between Japan on the one hand and the Allies (and their not-entirely-willing colonies). One is his treatment of Matsuoka’s junket to Europe and Moscow in 1941.

Another is his view of Hong Kong. On 7 January 1941, Churchill wrote to his Commander-in-Chief in the Far East:

This is all wrong. If Japan goes to war with us there is not the slightest chance of holding Hong Kong or relieving it. It is most unwise to increase the loss we shall suffer there. Instead of increasing the garrison it ought to be reduced to a symbolical scale…We must avoid frittering away our resources on untenable positions. Japan will think long before declaring war on the British Empire, and whether there are two or six battalions at Hong Kong will make no difference to her choice. I wish we had fewer troops there, but to move any would be noticeable and dangerous. [Churchill, The Second World War, Vol. III,The Grand Alliance (London: Cassell & Co., 1950), p. 157.]

Churchill would instead be delivered an additional two battalions of Canadian troops for Hong Kong, meaning that there were six there when the Japanese struck in December 1941, proving the Prime Minister quite correct in his views of Britain’s inability to resist such an assault.

Turning from Hong Kong to Nanking: Churchill’s relationship with Chiang Kai-shek hardly seems very sturdy. Chiang is very much an outsider in this text. The Nanking’s government evacuation to Wuhan in late 1937 and in Chongqing the following year hardly gets a mention; perhaps this is a signal example of the typical European view of the Second World War and its early periodization.

This autumn, teaching a course on war crimes in East Asia from 1931-1945, I thought I might peruse Churchill’s correspondence from December 1937 to see what, if any, informal response he might have had to the Japanese assault on the then-Chinese capitol of Nanking. There was no mention of Nanking at all — but Churchill was perturbed and agitated in January 1938 about gossip and activities among the Japanese community in London.

I was therefore not entirely surprised to find how, in Volume III of The Second World War (pp. 157-8), Churchill describes his state of mind some three years later, in February 1941:

I became conscious of a stir and flutter in the Japanese Embassy and colony in London. They were evidently in a high state of excitement, and they chattered to one another with much indiscretion. In these days we kept our eyes and ears open. Various reports were laid before me which certainly gave the impression that they had received news from home which required them to pack up without a moment’s delay. This agitation among people usually so reserved made me feel that a sudden act of war upon us by Japan might be imminent…

The agitation among the Japanese in London subsided as quickly as it had begun. Silence and Oriental decorum reigned once more.

On 24 February 1941, Shigemitsu Mamoru, the Ambassador to the UK, arrived to speak with Churchill. Reflecting the importance of the Anglo-Japanese relationship from the Japanese point of view, Shigemitsu was a well-known figure who had preceded his 1938 appointment in London with Ambassadorships in Moscow (1936-1938) and Nanking (1931-1932).  He would also sign Japan’s surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri in September 1945.  In meeting Churchill this time, the Japanese diplomat among other things complained about Britain’s implied support for China.  Churchill, for his part, left the meeting with the distinct impression, as he put it in a note on 4 March (The Second World War, Vol. III, p. 160), that “I do not think Japan is likely to attack us unless and until she is sure we are going to be defeated [by Germany].”

Image: Text from the stacks at the Liaoning Provincial Library, Shenyang, PRC; photo by Adam Cathcart, 2014. 

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