The Hull note, officially the Outline of Proposed Basis for Agreement Between the United States and Japan, was the final proposal delivered to the Empire of Japan by the United States before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war between the two nations. The note was delivered on November 26, 1941 and is named for Secretary of State Cordell Hull.
The United States objected to the Second Sino-Japanese War and the occupation of part of China by Japanese troops. In protest, the United States sent support to the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. In July 1941, Japanese military units occupied southern French Indochina, violating a gentlemen's agreement. Japanese bombers quickly moved into bases in Saigon and Cambodia, from which they could attack British Malaya. As a result, immediately after the Japanese military occupation, the US government imposed trade sanctions on Japan, including the freezing of Japanese assets in the United States and an embargo of oil exports to Japan. Dean Acheson, a senior State Department official, was the key decision maker. He shifted American policy away from export restrictions and toward "full-blooded financial warfare against Japan."
The expected result was the financial freeze, which Miller described as "the most devastating American action against Japan."
Final attempts at peace
On 5 November 1941, Emperor Hirohito approved, in Imperial Conference, the plan for the attack on Pearl Harbor. At the same time, his government made a last effort to arrive at a diplomatic solution of their differences with the United States. Ambassador Kichisaburō Nomura presented two proposals to the American government.
The first, Proposal A, was presented by him on November 6, 1941. It proposed making a final settlement of the Sino-Japanese War with a partial withdrawal of Japanese troops. United States military intelligence had deciphered some of Japan's diplomatic codes so they knew that there was a second proposal in case it failed. The United States government stalled and then rejected it on November 14, 1941.
On November 20, 1941, Nomura presented Proposal B, which offered to withdraw Japanese forces from southern Indochina if the United States agreed to end aid to the Nationalists Chinese, freeze military deployments in Southeast Asia (except for Japan's reinforcement of northern Indochina), provide Japan with "a required quantity of oil," and assist Japan in acquiring materials from the Dutch East Indies. The United States was about to make a counteroffer to this plan, which included a monthly supply of fuel for civilian use. However, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a leak of Japan's war plan and news that Japanese troopships were on their way to Indochina. He then decided that the Japanese were not being sincere in their negotiations and instructed Secretary Hull to drop the counterproposal.
By November 26, top American officials at the White House, State, Navy and War departments knew that Japan was moving invasion forces toward Thailand. They also knew that the Japanese foreign ministry had put an absolute deadline on negotiations of November 29 because "after that things are automatically going to happen." The Americans were convinced that war would start in a matter of days, probably with a surprise Japanese attack. No one knew where the strike would be.
The previous plan, to present Japan with a temporary modus vivendi, was strongly opposed by China and Britain and dropped.
On November 26, 1941, Hull presented the Japanese ambassador with the Hull note, which, as one of its conditions, demanded the complete withdrawal of all Japanese troops from French Indochina and China. Japanese Prime Minister Tojo Hideki said to his cabinet that "this is an ultimatum."
However, the note left Japan an alternative to war, concession to American demands, and it did not express even an intention to cease negotiations. Thus, it cannot be seen as an ultimatum from the perspective of international law. While the Japanese may have felt that they could not accede to such demands and so were provoked into war, the note cannot be considered to be a first act of war, and some may not think it sufficient provocation to relieve Japan of the responsibility for initiating the use of force in this conflict.
Final decision made to attack
The strike force that attacked Pearl Harbor had set sail the day before, on the morning of November 26, 1941, Japan time, which was November 25, Washington time. It could have been recalled along the way, but no further diplomatic progress was made.
On 1 December, Emperor Hirohito approved, in Imperial Conference, attacks against United States, Britain, and the Netherlands. The Japanese began, on December 7/8, attacks against Hawaii, Malaya, and the Philippines.
Historian Charles A. Beard argued, in 1948, that the note was an ultimatum that meant unnecessary war. He suggested it was part of a conspiracy by Roosevelt to get the US into a war in order to help Britain fight Germany. Beard's argument and similar conspiracy theories came under very heavy attack from scholars, and only fringe elements now believe that a war between the United States and Japan could have been avoided. The United States and Japan had totally contrary positions regarding China, and both sides believed the China issue was of the highest importance.
Some modern Japanese commentators say that the note was designed to draw Japan into war in such a way as to allow Japan to be presented as the aggressor nation. Toshio Tamogami, who was the Japan Air Self-Defense Force chief of staff, was forcibly retired by the Japanese government in 2008 for taking this position.
According to Benn Steil, director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, while "no single individual can be said to have triggered" the Pearl Harbor attack, Harry Dexter White "was the author of the key ultimatum demands". Steil also maintains "the Japanese government made the decision to move forward with the Pearl Harbor strike after receiving the ultimatum."