On this day in 1941, the government of Prince Fumimaro Konoye, prime minister of Japan, collapses, leaving little hope for peace in the Pacific.
Konoye, a lawyer by training and well studied in Western philosophy, literature, and economics, entered the Japanese Parliament’s upper house by virtue of his princely status and immediately pursued a program of reform. High on his agenda was a reform of the army general staff in order to prevent its direct interference in foreign policy decisions. He also sought an increase in parliamentary power. An antifascist, Konoye championed an end to the militarism of Japanese political structures, especially in light of the war in Manchuria, which began in 1931.
Appointed prime minister in 1933, Konoye’s first cabinet fell after full-blown war broke out between Japan and China. In 1940, Konoye was asked to form a second cabinet. But as he sought to contain the war with China, relations with the United States deteriorated, to the point where Japan was virtually surrounded by a U.S. military presence and threats of sanctions. On August 27, 1941, Konoye requested a summit with President Roosevelt
in order to diminish heightening tensions. Envoys were exchanged, but no direct meeting with the president took place. (The U.S. government believed it could send the wrong message to China-and that Japan was on the losing end of that war anyway.)
In October, Konoye resigned because of increasing tension with his army minister, Tojo Hideki. Tojo succeeded Konoye as prime minister, holding on to his offices of army minister and war minister. Imperial Japan’s foreign policy was now formally controlled by the military. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Konoye was put under military surveillance, his political career all but over until 1945, when the emperor considered sending him to Moscow to negotiate peace terms. That meeting never came off.
When Saipan fell to the U.S. Marines and Army, Tojo’s government collapsed. Upon Japan’s surrender, Tojo shot himself to prevent being taken prisoner by the United States. He lived and was tried by an international war-crimes tribunal—and hanged on December 22, 1948. As for Konoye, the grand irony of his career came when he was served with an arrest warrant by the U.S. occupying force for suspicion of war crimes. Rather than submit to arrest, he committed suicide by drinking poison.