Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 4: The Failure of Diplomacy, September–December 1941

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


A Japanese torpedo bomber over Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941.

A Japanese torpedo bomber over Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Go to the related interactive

America on the Sidelines: The United States and World Affairs, 1931–1941

comprehensive student interactive giving the user a full scope of America's political and diplomatic responses to world events between the two world wars.

Faced with crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United States, the Japanese government decided in September 1941 to prepare for war to seize the raw materials that they were now unable to obtain from America. Japanese diplomats were still instructed to try to reach some settlement, but Tokyo set a deadline of November 29 for negotiations. If no agreement was reached by then, the Japanese would initiate a war in dramatic fashion—with a surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor.

Students in this lesson will put themselves in the shoes of U.S. and Japanese diplomats in the final months of 1941, earnestly trying to reach a settlement that will avoid war. Through the use of primary documents and an interactive map and timeline, they will consider whether there was any reasonable chance of preventing the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific.

Guiding Questions

  • Was war between the United States and Japan inevitable after September 1941?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students should be able to

  • List and explain the issues that divided the United States and Japan in the fall of 1941.
  • Articulate the reasons why Japan chose to go to war against the United States.
  • Assess the overall effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy during this period.


At an Imperial Conference in Tokyo in early September 1941 Japan's military and civilian leaders reached a critical decision. During the previous month President Roosevelt, reacting to the Japanese occupation of southern Indochina, issued an executive order freezing of all Japanese assets in the United States. Similar orders were soon issued by Great Britain and the Netherlands. The most dramatic effect of this order was that Japan would henceforth be unable to purchase oil from any of its primary suppliers. Tokyo's oil reserves were dwindling, and without access to foreign oil the Japanese military effort against China would have to be called off. Therefore the politicians and officers who gathered in the emperor's presence in early September agreed that while a diplomatic settlement should still be pursued, the country had to begin preparations for a war with the United States and Great Britain, to begin no later than December 1941.

A diplomatic solution, however, seemed unlikely, given the four issues that divided the two powers. The first involved China. Japan's war against China had by this time been going on for four years, with no end in sight. Although the Japanese Army controlled the richest and most populous parts of China, the regime in Chungking refused to surrender, and by the end of 1939 the Japanese advance had been bogged down in the Chinese countryside. Tokyo believed that U.S. assistance to China was encouraging Chungking's intransigence; surely, Japan's leaders argued, if the United States stopped sending aid, China would give see that there was no point in continuing the war. The Roosevelt administration, on the other hand, saw the war as a simple matter of Japanese aggression, and believed that the termination of U.S. aid would amount to "appeasement."

The second area of contention was the French colony of Indochina, which Japanese troops had occupied in two stages during 1940 and 1941. By holding Indochina Japan could close one of the routes by which U.S. aid was reaching China. More importantly, it would serve as a useful staging area for what Tokyo called the "southern advance"—in other words, possible military operations against the Dutch East Indies, the British colonies of Burma and Malaya, and, if necessary, the U.S.-controlled Philippines. Washington also recognized the strategic value of Indochina, and therefore was insistent that the Japanese withdraw from the colony.

A third source of tension was the Tripartite Pact, which Japan had concluded with Germany and Italy in September 1940. Each of the three signatories to the pact promised to "assist" any of the others if they were attacked by another power. By late 1941 a war between the United States and Germany appeared to be a definite possibility. What would Tokyo do under those circumstances?

Finally there was the issue of international trade. Japan, of course, was dependent on foreign trade for a number of critical resources, particularly oil. The United States, therefore, had made economic sanctions the cornerstone of its policy toward Tokyo. Indeed, the Roosevelt administration believed that it was the only real leverage that America had in Asia, given that there was little public support for military action. Thus while it was vital for the Japanese that normal trade relations be restored, Washington was unlikely to abandon sanctions without major concessions from Tokyo.

Because these differences ran so deep, the diplomatic maneuverings of the next few months proved fruitless. Finally, on November 20, the Japanese made a final attempt at a "modus vivendi" (Japanese Draft Proposal, November 20, 1941)—in other words, a short-term attempt to settle immediate problems—in which they offered to withdraw all of their forces from Indochina in return for a resumption of oil shipments from the United States. Six days later Secretary of State Hull responded with a counter-offer (Proposed Basis for Agreement, November 26, 1941) that shocked Japan's leaders. The United States would normalize trade with Japan only if Tokyo withdrew its forces not only from Indochina, but from China as well. This was a condition that the Japanese military would never accept. The Japanese quickly concluded that the United States was not interested in serious negotiations, and moved forward with their plans for war.

Why did the United States take such a hard line? Unbeknownst to the Japanese, American code breakers had by this time deciphered Tokyo's diplomatic code. President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, therefore, both knew that Japan had placed a deadline of November 29 on negotiations. While it remained unclear what would happen after that date, it was a safe bet that the Japanese were planning on launching an attack—probably against the Dutch East Indies or the Philippines. Roosevelt concluded from this that it was the Japanese who were no longer serious about finding a peaceful solution to the two countries' differences. Since Tokyo had already decided on war, it was better to take a stand on principle.

Whether or not the Japanese were still genuinely interested in peace in late November remains a subject of debate. Roosevelt was clearly wrong, however, about where the Japanese would strike. On November 26—even before the deadline the government set for negotiations—a large task force, made up of four aircraft carriers and their escorts, sailed from Tokyo Bay. Over the next two weeks Washington sent repeated warnings to all commands to expect a Japanese attack. It came at Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7. Two waves of carrier aircraft struck the U.S. Pacific Fleet as it lay at anchor, and by the time the raid had ended four U.S. battleships had been sunk and three others were damaged. Nearly 200 aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and more than 2,400 people were killed. (More detailed information about the attack is available at National Geographic's "Remembering Pearl Harbor").

Later that afternoon the Japanese ambassador presented Secretary of State Hull with a statement (Memorandum, December 7, 1941) that placed the blame for the failure of negotiations between the two countries squarely on the shoulders of the United States. After reading it Hull claimed he had "never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions." The following day Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress, calling December 7 a "date which will live in infamy" and asking for a declaration of war against Japan. Congress wasted no time in doing so. The differences between America and Japan would be settled on the battlefield, not at the bargaining table.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the various activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
  • Finally, familiarize yourself with the interactive timeline "America on the Sidelines: The United States and World Affairs, 1931–1941" that accompanies this lesson. This timeline will, through text and maps, guide students through the major events in Asia in late 1941, and will ask students for each event to identify (choosing from among a menu of options) how the United States responded to it.
Analyzing primary sources

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers helpful pages on "Making Sense of Documentary Photography" and "Making Sense of Maps" which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Last Chance for Peace?

Although the Japanese military was already planning an attack against the United States, Tokyo instructed its diplomats in Washington to continue negotiations in the hope that some kind of accommodation could be reached. There were four main issues of concern: the ongoing Japanese war against China, the Japanese occupation of French Indochina, Japan's alliance with Nazi Germany, and the U.S. refusal to sell oil to Japan. In this activity students will take on the role of U.S. and Japanese negotiators trying to find a diplomatic solution to these problems. In the process they will learn just how difficult—perhaps impossible—this was.

To begin, have students pair off. Explain to them that one person of each pair will be a Japanese diplomat and the other a U.S. diplomat. For homework, assign each person the appropriate set of instructions, which are printed in the Text Document that accompanies this lesson. Pages 1-2 are for the Japanese diplomat, and pages 3-4 are for the U.S. official. Students are to read these documents thoroughly to prepare for their conference the next day. They should be cautioned, however, that under no circumstances should Japanese diplomats be allowed to see the U.S. diplomats' instructions, and vice versa. These are to be treated as "Top Secret" materials.

When class reconvenes, give students time in their pairs to work out a diplomatic agreement to the tensions between Japan and the United States. After roughly fifteen minutes, announce that it is now November 29, 1941, and negotiations must come to an end. Reconvene the class and ask students if any of them managed to reach agreements. If so, ask any pairs to share the terms of their agreements. Ask the other students whether, in these instances, the negotiators remained true to their instructions. Most likely, any agreements that are reached in this activity will come about due to a failure by the students to properly follow their diplomatic instructions. Then ask those who were unable to reach a settlement why they found it so difficult. Which issues (if any) were they able to agree on, and which proved intractable?

Also, be sure to ask whether the November 29 deadline played a role. All the students will have known about the deadline, but the Japanese instructions suggest that the Americans are ignorant of it. At this point it may be revealed that, because the United States had broken Japan's diplomatic code, the U.S. negotiators were fully aware of the deadline. Ask what role, if any, this might have played in the discussions.

Go to the related interactive

To conclude, direct students to return to the interactive timeline (Interactive Timeline—America on the Sidelines: The United States and World Affairs, 1931-1941), using it to study the actual events of September through December 1941. For each event, students will choose from a menu of options until they select the correct answer.


As part of the activity, teachers may wish to have students write brief essays in which they explain why they found it so difficult to reach a U.S.–Japanese agreement.

One means of assessing student learning for the unit as a whole is to have them read the Japanese diplomatic message to the United States of December 7, 1941. This document is available in its entirety from "WWII Resources" (linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Digital History), but excerpts are available on pages 5-8 of the Text Document:

Secretary of State Hull claimed that the document was "crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions." Based on what students have learned in this lesson, as well as the previous lessons of this unit, they should be able to write a five-paragraph essay in which they argue the merits of Hull's claim.

Alternatively, students might be asked to write a culminating essay in response to the following question:

  • Some historians argue that, given the historic tensions between the United States and Japan, the two countries were bound to go to war sooner or later. Others believe that war might have been averted had the United States chosen different foreign policy options. Based on what you have learned in these lessons, which interpretation do you believe is closer to the truth?

Extending The Lesson

The details of the attack on Pearl Harbor are well worth exploring further. An excellent tool for doing this is National Geographic's multimedia map and timeline, "Remembering Pearl Harbor, which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site National Geographic Xpeditions. After following the map and timeline, students could be asked to summarize the effects of the attack. The Japanese goal was to neutralize the U.S. Pacific Fleet, but they failed to destroy the American aircraft carriers (which were not present at Pearl Harbor), or the repair facilities or oil storage tanks at Pearl Harbor. To what extent did this attack serve Japan's larger strategy?

President Roosevelt's famous December 8 address to Congress, and Japan's Imperial Rescript on the Declaration of War are both available at the site WWII Resources, which is linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed site Digital History. It might be interesting to have students to compare these documents, which both represent attempts by the two governments to justify the war to their respective publics. Which one do they think is more rhetorically effective? Did the fact that it was Japan that struck first give an advantage to Japan, or to the United States?


Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Asia
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Debate
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Online research
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Vocabulary
  • Writing skills
  • John Moser, Ashland University (Ashland, OH)
  • Lori Hahn, West Branch High School (Morrisdale, PA)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources

Related Lessons