Our Man In Tokyo
An American Ambassador and the Countdown to Pearl Harbor
by Steve Kemper
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Pub Date 08 Nov 2022 | Archive Date 03 Jan 2023
A gripping, behind-the-scenes account of the personalities and contending forces in Tokyo during the volatile decade that led to World War II, as seen through the eyes of the American ambassador who attempted to stop the slide to war.
In 1932, Japan was in crisis. Naval officers had assassinated the prime minister and conspiracies flourished. The military had a stranglehold on the government. War with Russia loomed, and propaganda campaigns swept the country, urging schoolchildren to give money to procure planes and tanks.
Into this maelstrom stepped Joseph C. Grew, America’s most experienced and talented diplomat. When Grew was appointed ambassador to Japan, not only was the country in turmoil, its relationship with America was rapidly deteriorating. For the next decade, Grew attempted to warn American leaders about the risks of Japan’s raging nationalism and rising militarism, while also trying to stabilize Tokyo’s increasingly erratic and volatile foreign policy. From domestic terrorism by Japanese extremists to the global rise of Hitler and the fateful attack on Pearl Harbor, the events that unfolded during Grew’s tenure proved to be pivotal for Japan, and for the world. His dispatches from the darkening heart of the Japanese empire would prove prescient—for his time, and for our own.
Drawing on Grew’s diary of his time in Tokyo as well as U.S. embassy correspondence, diplomatic dispatches, and firsthand Japanese accounts, Our Man in Tokyo brings to life a man who risked everything to avert another world war, the country where he staked it all—and the abyss that swallowed it.
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We know much about the days that led up to Pearl Harbor, and the missed warning signs. What Kemper does a great job is unveiling that the events of December 7, 1941 were years in the making. Through the eyes of Joseph Grew, American ambassador to Japan, the reader gets to see the road to Pearl Harbor through someone who was right there. I would highly recommend this to other diplomatic history fans and WW2 Buffs.
In the past year or so I have read many fine books about World War II in the Pacific. Most have been written from the American point of view, some from the Japanese. Yet not one of them has done as fine a job as Steve Kemper in depicting how war came about and how an unsung hero, Joseph Grew, tried desperately to prevent it.
Grew was a Boston Brahmin who did not fit the traditional mold. He trod the usual path at the time of prep school and then Harvard. However, once free to wander the world he roamed to areas few in his class were at all interested in seeing. On one memorable occasion he crawled into a hole to shoot a tiger just feet from him. When Teddy Roosevelt heard of this he appointed him a member of the diplomatic corps! In time Grew became a skilled diplomat and was appointed Ambassador to Japan. He kept up his life long habit of keeping a diary which forms the backbone of this book.
Kemp skillfully weaves Grew's experiences into the story of how a relatively small number of mid-level officers, by dint of assasination and threat of assassination essentially hijacked an entire country and drove it into a needless and senseless war. The complex political and social structure of Japan at the time is carefully and skillfully laid out by Kemper. Japan's constitution was set up so that the Army and Navy were responsible to no one except the Emperor who's traditional role and powers were oblique and weak. This set up made possible the war in China, the invasion of southeast Asia, membership in the Axis and ultimately an oil embargo on US oil sales. Thus Japan and the United States, not understanding each other's true motives and intentions, both set off on roads to destruction on which neither thought they could reverse direction. It was in this setting that Grew, as a man and diplomat stood head and shoulders above all other players. He desperately tried to persuade Secretary Hull to reconsider the rigid requirements the US had set up as a prerequisite to talks. He likewise urged the Japanese to control their armed forces and to look beyond the requirements of "face"
Grew's analysis, although ignored , proved prescient. We don't know whether his advice, if followed, would have changed the course of events. His advice was heeded in setting up post war Japan and we gained an ally and peace in that part of Asia.
Grew is often seen in history, if at all, as the man delivering a telegraph from Roosevelt to the Emperor seeking further talks while Pearl Harbor was ablaze. He deserves much more than that and this well written, entertaining book delivers
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