Maybe this is just my "déformation professionnelle," but in the past months I have noticed that neutrality is being mentioned more often in the news streams that I am following. Here are two interesting examples. First, a short but concise article about Finnish nonalignment today. The article doesn't say it outright but hints that this policy makes good sense still today for Finland and that NATO membership would be a gamble for Helsinki. ("Finland’s President Can Hold His Own With Both Putin and Trump", Foreign Policy, September 10, 2020).
Secondly, and this is even more interesting, there is a rather well known youtuber, PolyMatter, who made an entire video about "How Singapore Stays Neutral." The video was uploaded on August 21, 2020. PolyMatter has (as of today) 1.2 million subscribers, which puts him into the professional league among youtubers, that is people who can live off their content creation and probably even have a small team to help them. The video is worth watching. What is most interesting is the creators framing of what "Singaporean Neutrality" means. It has nothing to do with the good old 1907 rules of neutrality under international law but he talks about it in purely political and strategic terms. Not only is the content that he delivers good but the framing is quite fascinating.
Neutrality has been largely ignored in all the major accounts on the Pacific Theater 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 Theater, 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 important aspects. Firstly, 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 (41-45) 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, organized 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 organizing a spy network for the Japanese in the US, in breach of neutrality laws (Rodao, 2002). The bellow map (1) shows which neutrals were responsible for the representation of Japanese interests in which enemy nation and the second map (2) shows the mirror image of that, which neutral represented which enemy nation in Japan.
Secondly, the argument overlooks the role Thai efforts to remain neutral and, after its forced alliance with Japan, the role of underground collaboration with the Allies (Reynolds, 2005). Thirdly, 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 just recently published a very interesting account thereof by John Pownall Reeves, the British Consul in Macao.
It is even more interesting to re-think the first perspective that, all in all, the neutrals did not play an important role in the eastern theater 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 the most part of WWII, was an occasional affair. Permanent neutrals like Switzerland and Sweden were the exception. It is easily forgotten that three of the largest belligerents of the WWII 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 a final end to the latter’s neutrality – a foreign policy strategy which US independence, successive governments had been practicing to keep her out of wars across the Atlantic (Janis, 2010, p. 38). Not even the short two-year intermezzo of US participation in WWI was reason enough to have the senate abandon US neutrality for good. On the contrary, the newly forged neutrality acts of the 1930’s rather worked to the opposite effect, making neutrality the law of the land again (Paterson, Clifford, Maddock, Kisatsky, & Hagan, 2009, pp. 134-135). 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).
However, when it comes to the actual warfare in the pacific and the way it was terminated, the most important 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 realized 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 (February 4–11 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 (Onodera, 1999, p. 168). 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 (Krebs, 2010, p. 709; Pacific War Research Society, 2002, pp. 18-19). The emperor even send prince Konoe as his special envoy to the USSR, with the explicit request to the Soviet Government to work as mediator for a peace agreement between the US, Great Britain and Japan. In return, the Japanese Government was willing to make sweeping concession to the USSR in terms of the status of Manchukuo (which was to be neutralized), 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 of all three Allied powers. 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 (Slavinsky, 2004, pp. 172-174). For Stalin, this was a tactic to keep the Japanese waiting while preparing for war to reap gains from the immanent 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 obvious 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.” (Pacific War Research Society, 2002, p. 18).
Soviet neutrality in this regard was a very important factor to 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 straight forwardly 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.
Janis, M. W. (2010). America and the law of nations 1776-1939. Oxford; New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.
Krebs, G. (2010). Japan im Pazifischen Krieg Herrschaftssystem, politische Willensbildung und Friedenssuche. München: Iudicium-Verl.
Onodera, Y. (1999). An den Gestaden der Ostsee: Onodera Makoto als japanischer Heeresattaché in Riga und Stockholm: (1936 - 1938, 1940 - 1945) (M. O. Ryuji Onodera, Trans. G. Krebs Ed.). Tōkyo: OAG.
Pacific War Research Society. (2002). Japan's longest day. Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International.
Paterson, T., Clifford, J. G., Maddock, S. J., Kisatsky, D., & Hagan, K. (2009). American Foreign Relations: A History, Volume 2: Since 1895.
Reynolds, B. E. (2005). Thailand's Secret War OSS, SOE and the Free Thai Underground During World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rodao, F. (2002). Franco y el imperio japonés (1. ed.). Barcelona: Plaza & Janés Editores.
Slavinsky, B. (2004). The Japanese-Soviet neutrality pact : a diplomatic history, 1941-1945. London: RoutledgeCurzon.
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All pictures are under creative common license: Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)