Assessing Our Man in Tokyo

BOOK REVIEW: Our Man in Tokyo: An American Ambassador and the Countdown to Pearl Harbor

by Steve Kemper / Mariner Books

Reviewed by Roman Popadiuk

The Reviewer – Roman Popadiuk is President of the Diplomacy Center Foundation, a public-private partnership with the State Department to build a museum of American Diplomacy. He is a member of the career Senior Foreign Service and was the first U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. From 1999 to 2012 he was Executive Director of the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation.

REVIEW — Steve Kemper has written an insightful and highly readable account of the lead up to Pearl Harbor as seen through the eyes of our Ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew. The book also provides excellent insights into the workings of diplomacy and the important role of an ambassador, lessons that can be helpful to anyone interested in the study of diplomacy.  However, Our Man in Tokyo has a relevance to contemporary times that is most intriguing and gives the book an added value. 

The book gives an excellent analysis of Japan’s efforts to dominate China and the Far East and its machinations with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, to place these authoritarian regimes in the center of a new world order. In many ways, these events mirror what the U.S. is encountering today with the challenges from Russia and China and their efforts to overturn the liberal international order that has been in place since World War IIThe game plan seems to be the same as that of Japan and its German and Italian cohorts: stoke domestic nationalist fervor, form anti-western alliances, glorify the exceptionalism of their respective states, lay claim to territory and military buildups. Our Man in Tokyo, therefore, underscores the importance of historical knowledge and learning from its lessons.  

Grew was born in Boston and came from a wealthy background, attended private schools and graduated from Harvard. Unlike many of his generation and background, he bypassed a career in the financial world and joined the Foreign Service, where he climbed the ranks to hold a number of ambassadorships and served as Under Secretary of State, the number two official at the Department, a position which is now named Deputy Secretary. Tall, with an athletic built, Grew became a public figure in the U.S. in the 1930’s, donning the cover of Time magazine in 1934. His public appeal stemmed from his most remembered role, that of Ambassador to Japan, during a time when U.S.-Japan relations were deteriorating and leading to war. He held the post from 1932 through 1942, including a six-month detainment, before he and embassy personnel and other American detainees were released by the Japanese.

The book draws heavily on Grew’s diary, dispatches and letters, including a report he penned after the outbreak of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that summarized possible missed opportunities for peace. When presented with the report, Secretary of State Cordell Hull rejected it and demanded its destruction, a request Grew complied with. A shortened version of the report exists but the original has never been found. That version and various other documents by Grew present, in hindsight, what appears to be a prescient narrative regarding Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbor that were met with indifference back in Washington.

This disconnect between the field and Washington highlights a common occurrence whereby policy is guided in Washington via a combination of domestic politics, bureaucratic interests and a lack of understanding of the cultural and historical influences that drive another nation.

A glaring example was Grew’s urgent but futile pleas for President Roosevelt to accept Japanese Prime Minister Konoye’s request late in 1941, to meet in the Pacific in an effort to avert war, a point that Grew hammered away on.

Compounding this, was the traditional bureaucratic infighting that faced Grew. His challenge was in dealing with Stanley Hornbeck, a former college professor in China who had Hull’s ear and headed the State Department’s Division of Far Eastern Affairs. Hornbeck distrusted Japan and his positions undermined Grew.

Surrounding the main story line of the attack on Pearl Harbor are a number of interesting threads.

The book provides a detailed view of imperial office decision making which provides good historical information and insight into Japanese culture surrounding the treatment and bearing of the emperor. The book also gives a presentation of the internal pressures stoking the growth of Japanese nationalism and Japan’s drive to establish its dominance in Asia. Along these lines, the book weaves a fascinating story of the role of the military in Japanese politics, its intrigues to undermine civilian authority by influencing the selection of prime ministers and stoking nationalist feeling in the public, all aimed at maintaining the military’s influence and expanding Japan’s presence in China and East Asia.

Part of the nationalist strategy involved a closer relationship with Nazi Germany and Italy’s fascist Mussolini government, which were viewed as cohorts in stymying the U.S. and western presence in China and East Asia. That relationship led to the presence of Germans and Italians in Tokyo, where photos of Hitler and Mussolini became popular.  

Another common thread is a glimpse of the diplomatic lifestyle, encompassing representational dinners, speeches, events and cultural events, all of which the reader will find interesting and entertaining. Particularly interesting are the vignettes of celebrity visitors such as Helen Keller who used her hands to feel the face of Princess Takamatsu, a member of the imperial family,  in order to “visualize her” to the slight embarrassment of the Princess. 

Embedded in his narrative, Kemper raises two points that usually characterize the relationship between an embassy and the State Department. On the one hand, ambassadors and embassy staff are often viewed back in Washington as taking the side of the host country, of going “native” in their advocacy of policy to Washington. Grew fell into this trap by his belief that Japan would not leave the League of Nations and his initial dismissal of Japanese atrocities in Manchuria, which Japan had seized from China. 

He was correct in his reporting to Washington on two key points: the political strength and influence of the Japanese military and the strength of the Japanese people for self-sacrifice.

While Grew believed Japan would lose in any confrontation with the U.S., he foresaw Japan being a formidable foe based on the peoples’ willingness for self-sacrifice. It was the atomic bombings that broke this cultural strength and led to Japan’s surrender.

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On the other hand, an ambassador is often blindsided by decisions made in Washington. At one point, Grew was frustrated in not being kept abreast regarding the negotiations over Japan’s role in Manchuria. Likewise, the embassy was not notified about Washington’s decision to end the trade agreement with Japan which had given Japan most favored nation trade status.

Kemper outlines a number of other incidents that blindsided Grew, or of which Grew was unaware. While these incidents expose the lack of communication that sometimes exits between the State Department and an embassy, Kemper does point out that Washington’s ability to break the Japanese code gave Washington a clearer picture of events, thereby giving policy makers an earlier and broader understanding of Japanese decision making, than reports from the embassy.

As with Washington, Grew had his share of frustrations with the Japanese. In his protests regarding Japan’s bombings in China that killed Americans and damaged American property, the Japanese response invariably included an apology, a promise to investigate the incident, a report claiming the incident was an accident and nothing being resolved. The next bombing protest would elicit the same multi-step response from Japan.

An overarching lesson from this book is the importance to understand the U.S. role in the world, the issues that drive national security and the workings of diplomacy. All Americans need to more fully understand these issues to make a better-informed citizenry and to have a more coherent policy debate in the public forum.

Our Man in Tokyo earns a prestigious four out of four trench coats.

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