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What was the significance of Pearl Harbor?

Source 4

A letter to Churchill from Frank Giles, on behalf of the Foreign Secretary, requesting permission to publish messages from Churchill to Roosevelt for the US government enquiry into Pearl Harbor


➜ CHUR 2/142/83

Simplified Transcript

Dear Private Secretary

We have been asked by the Americans for permission to publish some messages sent by Churchill to Roosevelt in November 1941. They will be used in a US Congress enquiry into Pearl Harbor.

(a) Message of November 26th
I received your message about Japan tonight. Of course we do not want to fight Japan as well as Germany. But I am concerned about China and Chiang Kai Shek. He is not getting much in the way of supplies. If China falls then our position would be much worse. We are sure that you have full regard for the Chinese cause.

(b) Message of November 30th
It seems to me that one thing we could do is to issue a plain statement to Japan, either in public or in secret, that further aggression will mean war with Britain and the USA. I realise you have to work with Congress but I beg you to consider making a statement that if there is more Japanese aggression then there will be serious consequences and that you will ask Congress to support you in taking action.

Original Transcript

21st November, 1945


Dear Private Secretary,

We have been asked by the American Ambassador if we could agree to the publication in the United States, in connection with the Congressional enquiry into the Pearl Harbor disaster, of two messages sent by Mr. Churchill to President Roosevelt. These messages are dated November 26th and November 30th, 1941. They read as follows:-

(a) Message of November 26th.
Your message about Japan received tonight. Also full accounts from Lord Halifax of discussions and your counter project to Japan on which Foreign Secretary has sent some comments. Of course, it is for you to handle this business and we certainly do not want an additional war. There is only one point that disquiets us. What about Chiang Kai-shek? Is he not having a very thin diet? Our anxiety is about China. If they collapse, our joint dangers would enormously increase. We are sure that the regard of the United States for the Chinese cause will govern your action. We feel that the Japanese are most unsure of themselves.

(b) Message of November 30th.
It seems to me that one important method remains unused in averting war between Japan and our two countries, namely a plain declaration, secret or public as may be thought best, that any further act of aggression by Japan will lead immediately to the gravest consequences. I realise your constitutional difficulties but it would be tragic if Japan drifted into war by encroachment without having before her fairly and squarely the dire character of a further aggressive step. I beg you to consider whether, at the moment which you judge right which may be very near, you should not say that (Quote) Any further Japanese aggression would compel you to place the gravest issues before Congress (unquote) or words to that effect…

What is this source?

This source is a letter to Churchill’s Private Secretary in November 1945 from the Foreign Office. The US Ambassador asked the Foreign Office for permission to publish two messages from Churchill to Roosevelt as part of the US Congress’s enquiry into Pearl Harbor.

Background to this source

The war was over in November 1945 but in the US the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was still seen as a bitter defeat and there were questions about why the US was taken so much by surprise.

Additional information

The letter quotes messages passing from Churchill to Roosevelt in 1941, shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. By this time tensions between the US and Britain and Japan were very serious. By supplying loans to the Chinese government, the British government had also been helping the Chinese to resist Japan. This helped to reduce the possibility of Japanese aggression against the British Empire.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember we are hoping that this source can be useful to us in investigating the significance of Pearl Harbor. Sources usually help historians in two ways:

Surface level: details, facts and figures

  1. What does the US ambassador want and why?
  2. What concerns did Churchill have in 1941?
  3. What does Churchill want Roosevelt to do?

Deeper level: inferences and using the source as evidence

Which of the inferences below can be made from this source?

On a scale of 1-5 how far do you agree that this source supports this inference? Which extract(s) from the source support your argument?
Roosevelt and Churchill are not concerned about war with Japan in November 1941

By November 1941 Churchill and Roosevelt did not think war could be avoided with Japan.

Roosevelt is not as concerned about Chiang Kai Shek and the position of China as Churchill is.

Churchill is keen that the US should also support Chiang Kai Shek and China

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Need help interpreting the source?

  • Technically this source is from November 1945, but helpfully the source quotes messages which were sent in November 1941. These messages give us a sense of Churchill and Roosevelt’s concerns about Japan.
  • Another way in which the source is useful is that it tells us about the Congressional enquiry. Clearly Pearl Harbor was seen as very important by the Americans because they held this enquiry into what happened, long after the event and after they had won the war.

Explore the guide to interpreting letters

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