top of page
  • swwresearch

The Role of Neutrality in the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War

By Pascal Lottaz

Editorial Note: On 22-23 June 2017, the Second World War Research Group held its annual conference on the theme of ‘When East meets West: The Second World War in Global Perspective. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting blog articles written by some of the conference’s presenters.

Neutrality has been largely ignored in all the major accounts on the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War. Two perceptions are probably the reasons for that, first, that the neutrals did not fight and were therefore only of minor importance and second, that unlike the Western Theatre, there were no neutral states involved in the international relations of East Asia. The famous neutrals were all in Europe (Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Portugal Ireland, Turkey, and the Vatican) or South America (Argentina, Chile).

Both impressions belie reality. Let’s start with the latter one; no neutrals in Asia. This overlooks three critical aspects. First, the European and American neutrals were very much present in East Asia through their extensive networks of diplomacy. In fact, for almost the entire period of the war (1941-1945) Spain, Sweden and Switzerland were responsible for the representation of Japan’s interests in Allied nations and, vice-versa, for the interests of the Allies in Japan. Through their so-called services of ‘good office’, they inspected prisoner of war camps, organised the repatriation of stranded enemy diplomats and civilians and enabled government to government communication between the enemies. The final surrender of Japan was for example communicated via Berne and Stockholm to Washington. The same neutral territories were in turn used by both sides for spying activities with the Spanish even organising a spy network for the Japanese in the US, in breach of neutrality law. The first map included in this post show which neutrals were responsible for the representation of Japanese interests in which enemy nation and the second map shows the mirror image of that, which neutral represented which enemy country in Japan.

Map 1 - Representation of Japanese interests in enemy countries & territories (as of Mid-1942).

Second, the argument overlooks the role of Thai efforts to remain neutral and, after its forced alliance with Japan, the role of underground collaboration with the Allies. Third, we also forget that there was one genuinely neutral territory in the region that survived the war; the Portuguese colony of Macao, where diplomats, spies and merchants of all belligerent nations intermingled until the very end. The Hong Kong University Press recently published a fascinating account thereof by John Pownall Reeves, the British Consul in Macao.

Map 2 - Representation of foreign interests in Japan (as of Mid-1942).

It is even more interesting to re-think the first perspective that, overall, the neutrals did not play an essential role in the eastern theatre of the war. This only holds true if we interpret neutrality as referring to those states that remained unoccupied and committed to it until the end. However, neutrality, for most of the Second World War, was an occasional affair. Permanent neutrals like Switzerland and Sweden were the exception. It is quickly forgotten that three of the most substantial belligerents of the Second World War initially had declared their neutrality in the conflict when Hitler attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. The US, the USSR and Japan all were neutral in that initial stage of the European war. Only two years later did a quasi-separate conflict in the Pacific between Japan and the US bring an end to the latter’s neutrality – a foreign policy strategy which US independence, successive governments had been practising to keep her out of wars across the Atlantic. Not even the short two-year intermezzo of US participation in the First World War was reason enough to have the Senate abandon US neutrality for good. On the contrary, the newly forged neutrality acts of the 1930s instead worked to the opposite effect, making neutrality the law of the land again. Only the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ended that traditional foreign policy once and for all. Until today the US did not return to it and the period of US non-involvement in foreign wars is nowadays most commonly referred to as ‘isolationism’ and not as ‘neutrality’ anymore - a clear sign of the change in public perception that neutrality underwent.

When it comes to the actual warfare in the Pacific and the way it was terminated, the most critical neutral power was unquestionably the USSR. Only at the very end, on August 9, 1945, Stalin declared war on Japan. It was not until that day that the political leadership of the country realised that the neutrality pact which had governed the relations between the two countries - and which was officially still valid until the next year - had lost its power. Although the Japanese navy attaché in Stockholm, Onodera Makoto, had learned about the secret protocol at the Yalta conference of February 1945 between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin in which the latter promised to enter the war with Japan within three months, that information never reached the highest ranks of the Japanese government. Until the very end, Japanese officials in the government, Army, Navy and even the emperor himself pinned their hope for a negotiated peace agreement with the US on the mediation efforts of Soviet diplomats. The Emperor also sent Prince Konoe as his special envoy to the USSR, with an explicit request to the Soviet Government to work as a mediator for a peace agreement between the US, Great Britain and Japan. In return, the Japanese Government was willing to make a sweeping concession to the USSR regarding the status of Manchukuo (which was to be neutralised), fishing rights and all other Soviet considerations. We know today that the Japanese official efforts through the Soviets reached the highest ranks not only of Moscow but all three Allied powers.

Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and President Truman with their staffs around the conference table at the Potsdam Conference, 17 July 1945. (Source: © IWM (BU 8985))

At the Potsdam conference on July 28, Stalin informed Truman and Atlee about the Japanese approaches. He read to them a written statement by Japan’s ambassador to the USSR, Naotake Sato, containing clarifications on Konoe’s proposal. After the information was circulated, Stalin himself suggested to the other two leaders not to react to the proposal for peace mediation to which Truman and Atlee agreed. For Stalin, this was a tactic to keep the Japanese waiting while preparing for war to reap gains from the imminent end of it, while for Truman and Atlee the decision was in line with their previous demands and the conviction that nothing short of an unconditional surrender was acceptable. Back in Moscow, Japanese Ambassador Sato was kept in the dark about these plans. The impossibility of receiving help from the USSR was nevertheless apparent to him. On July 30 he cabled to Shigenori Togo, his Foreign Minister, that there was ‘no chance whatever’ to persuade the Soviets to help end the war through their good office. Still, Togo replied that ‘in spite of your views, you are to carry out your instructions […] Endeavor to obtain the good offices of the Soviet Union in ending the war short of unconditional surrender.’

Soviet neutrality in this regard was a significant factor in the decision-making process of the Japanese institutions that oversaw the war efforts of the country. One is tempted to imagine that the war might have ended differently had Onodera’s telegram reached the cabinet level, or if Stalin had straightforwardly denied Japan’s requests for mediation. Had the hopelessness of the ‘Soviet option’ been known, many Japanese leaders might not have put their faith in the big neutral to the north.

Pascal Lottaz is a PhD Candidate at National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. After a BA degree in Philosophy and History from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, he moved to Japan where he received his MA in Public Policy in 2012 at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. Since 2014, he has been part of the Security and International Studies Program at the same institute. His PhD examines the diplomacy and foreign policy of the three neutrals Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland toward Japan during the period 1931-1945.

55 views0 comments


bottom of page