Monday, January 19, 2009

DBTL 6: Eagle and Chrysanthemum

Tokyo, Japan
25 May 1940

Konoe Fumimaro was curious to meet Jósef Beck, his Polish counterpart. There were dark rumors associated with Beck. It was said that his appointment as military attaché in Paris in the 1920s had been cut short due to some scandal, though whether the scandal involved stolen documents, insulted military officers, or sexual misdeeds varied depending on the source of the story. On the other hand, the reason for his rapid rise to power within the Polish government was well understood; it was due to his close ties with Marshal Piłsudski. Piłsudski himself had appointed Beck to the post of Prime Minister shortly before the German War broke out, and Piłsudski's successor, Marshal Skwarczyński, had kept him on in the post.

In a way, Konoe regretted Poland's victory over Germany. It was bad enough having to deal with men named Ribbentrop, Heydrich and Kaltenbrunner. Now he somehow had to fit his lips around names like Skwarczyński, Raczkiewicz, Rydz-Śmigły and, heaven help him, Wieniawa-Długoszowski. He supposed he ought to be thankful that it was Beck rather than the latter gentleman who was Prime Minister.

Another reason to regret Poland's victory was Konoe's inability to speak Polish, in spite of three years of determined effort to learn the language of Europe's newest Great Power. Konoe spoke Japanese and English, while Beck spoke Polish, French and German. Hence, the need for translators to be present.

After the necessary social preliminaries between the two men, Beck expressed his admiration for the Zeros he had seen fly overhead during the welcoming festivities. This, Konoe knew, was Beck's way of nudging the conversation towards business. It was (judging as best he could from the translation of Beck's comment), a moderately subtle effort, which was certainly to be expected from a former diplomat like Beck.

Konoe responded with thanks and an appropriately humble suggestion that the fruits of Japanese military engineering were only a trifle compared to the skilled product of Europe's impressively modern production system. It was an interesting mental exercise to listen to his flowery comments as they were translated into Polish by Pan Beck's aide, Colonel Kowalewski. When the meeting ended he would have to ask his own translator how well Kowalewski had succeeded in conveying the sarcastic overtones of his paean to Western technological superiority.
After a brief pause, Beck responded by asking that Konoe forgive him for having the temerity to contradict his host, for in his opinion the Zero was easily the equal of anything Europe had to offer, and his own country would find its own air force immeasurably improved by the addition of several squadrons of Zeros.

After a few more translated volleys between the two men in which Konoe insisted that the Poles could do far better, and Beck insisted that nevertheless the Poles would be interested in acquiring some Zeros, Konoe finally agreed that regardless of the aircraft's intrinsic merits, Japan's economy would be well served by the export of a hundred or so to Poland. The final terms of the sale could be worked out at a later date by the relevant members of the two nations' trade delegations.

Beck expressed his pleasure at this sign of the fruitfulness of Japanese-Polish cooperation, and wondered whether there might not be other areas where the two nations could assist each other. This, Konoe knew, was Beck's way of broaching the chief item in his agenda. Beck was about to reveal to Konoe the primary reason for his visit to Japan. Konoe responded with cautious approval of the idea, and inquired whether his guest had any specific proposals in mind.

Pan Beck did indeed have a specific proposal in mind; it had been inspired, he said, by the recent incidents between the Red Army and the Kwantung Army in the Manchukuo Protectorate.

As Konoe had suspected, Beck's proposal was related to the recent border clashes between Japan's forces and those of the USSR. The Japanese Army was currently attempting to restore order to China. Its efforts, unfortunately, were being hampered by the actions of a number of Chinese factionalists, most notably Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Tse-Tung. It had become clear to the leaders of Japan's mission in China that at least one and possibly both of these factionalists were receiving covert assistance from the Soviet Union. Diplomatic overtures to the Soviets having proven ineffective, the mission leaders had attempted to halt the Soviets' interference by more direct means. Unfortunately, the effort had not been entirely successful. Konoe encouraged Beck to elaborate upon his proposal.

It stood to reason, said Beck, that in the course of those incidents the Japanese would have gained considerable practical intelligence concerning Soviet military forces; intelligence which no other nation possessed. Any other nations which might in the foreseeable future have to engage the Soviets militarily would find such intelligence invaluable.

Konoe agreed with Beck that such intelligence concerning Soviet military capabilities would indeed prove valuable to those nations which, like Japan, shared a common border with the USSR. However...

Here Konoe allowed himself a considerable pause, as though to marshall his thoughts. Beck displayed no signs of impatience during this interval. His expression indicated polite attention. Konoe approved. Beck was indeed proving to be a seasoned diplomat.

It should be understood, Konoe continued at last, that Japan's chief concern was and always had been China. China was Japan's natural hinterland. The whole of Japan's foreign policy ultimately revolved around China. Any state that interfered with Japan's developing relations with China would be viewed with disfavor. This was currently the case with the Soviet Union. However, if the Soviet Union were to cease such interference, Japan would cease to view the Soviet Union with disfavor. For that reason, it would not be in Japan's best interest to commit itself to any permanent anti-Soviet alliance. Any associations it did take part in with respect to the Soviet Union would have to be conditional on the Soviet Union's own actions with respect to Japan's mission in China.

By the same token, responded Beck, would it be fair to say that any state that assisted Japan's developing relations with China would be viewed with favor?

Konoe agreed that it would indeed be fair to say so.

In that case, said Beck, I do indeed have a specific proposal to assist Japan. The Polish Army includes a cryptanalysis section which is, if I may say so, second to none. The only limitation they face is our ability to intercept foreign transmissions. I propose that we be allowed to set up listening posts along the whole of the Soviet-Manchukuo border. This will double the amount of traffic we are able to intercept from the Soviet Union. In return, all of the intelligence we acquire will be passed along to your own military forces. I need not point out how useful such intelligence would be in your efforts to eliminate Soviet "interference" in China.

Konoe considered Beck's proposal. The Poles were indeed highly regarded for their code-breaking expertise. If the Kwantung Army could intercept Soviet contraband and keep it out of Chinese hands, pacification efforts in China would be significantly improved.

And the clock was ticking. The United States had, for whatever inexplicible reason, demonstrated its opposition to Japan's Chinese mission, and there was growing sentiment in the Army and Navy on the need to launch an offensive operation against the Americans. Although the warmonger Roosevelt would be leaving office soon, there was no guarantee that his successor would be any less belligerent.

Konoe knew that Japan would inevitably lose a war with the Americans, no matter what the Generals and Admirals said. Japan's only hope for survival lay in bringing the Chinese operation to a successful conclusion before the military convinced itself that it had to strike against America.

At last Konoe spoke. I believe that your proposal merits serious consideration. I will of course have to consult with my cabinet colleagues before I can give you a definite answer, but I foresee no insurmountable problems.

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