Tripartite Pact

Photograph of Matsuoka with Hitler

Wikipedia Commons

The Tripartite Pact was the diplomatic alliance between the Axis Powers: Germany, Italy, and Japan. Japan's involvement with the Axis went back to November 25, 1936, when Japan signed a short note with Germany agreeing to cooperate against Communist Russia.  Italy joined this Anti-Comintern Pact on November 6, 1937.

Germany had extended considerable military aid to China during the 1930s, which included arms and military advisors. Considering themselves the friends of both Japan and China, the Germans declared their neutrality in the Sino-Japanese conflict and attempted without success to mediate a settlement. The Japanese in turn pressured Berlin to remove its advisors from China and cancel its arms contracts. Chiang did everything possible to cultivate German friendship, including endorsing the German Anschluss with Austria, but in the end Japan proved too valuable an ally for Germany and, in April 1938, Hitler ceased all military aid to China.

Debate raged in Tokyo throughout 1939 over the terms of a formal alliance to be negotiated with Germany. The Army minister, Itagaki Seishiro, wanted a comprehensive alliance that would automatically go into effect. The Navy minister, Yonai Mitsumasa, wanted the scope of the alliance restricted to Russia and invoked at the discretion of the signatories. The ambassadors to Germany and Italy, Oshima and Shiratori, were in the ultranationalist camp and sometimes exceeded their instructions in an effort to push through a comprehensive alliance. The Cabinet deadlocked after a compromise proposal communicated to Germany and Italy on 3 May 1939 was ignored by both Hitler and Mussolini.

Relations between Japan and Germany suffered a severe blow when Germany signed a non-aggression pact with Russia in August 1939. This was in direct violation of a secret protocol in the 1937 Anti-Comintern Pact that bound the signatories to "conclude no political treaties with the U.S.S.R. contrary to the spirit of this agreement without mutual consent." The interests of the powers were increasingly at odds: Germany wanted a military pact directed specifically at the Western democracies while Japan wanted a pact directed specifically at Russia.

However, the destroyers-for-bases deal between the United States and Britain on 2 September 1940 renewed interest in Germany for a military alliance with Japan. The Japanese Navy demurred, still fearing the likely outcome of a war with the United States, but a compromise was negotiated that left Japan with enough freedom of action to win the support of the Navy.

The Tripartite Pact itself was signed on September 27, 1940.  This pact recognized the German-Italian “new order” in Europe and the Japanese “new order” in greater East Asia.  The three nations pledged themselves to make war on each other’s behalf against any intervening “power at present not involved in the European war or in the Chinese-Japanese conflict”, a clear reference to the United States, since the Pact specifically excluded Russia. Unsurprisingly, Japan's signing of the Tripartite Pact became a major point of contention with the United States leading to the Pacific War.

It seems clear that both Japan and Germany hoped the Tripartite Pact would act as a deterrent to the United States. However, Japan had occupied northern French Indochina just a few days before the pact was signed, and this combination of events was viewed in the United States as a provocation, producing the opposite effect from what was likely intended.

On 13 April 1941 Japan signed a non-aggression pact with Russia, which cleared the way for a move against Southeast Asia. Less than three months later, Germany launched its massive invasion of Russia, on 21 June 1941. Once again Japan found its policy towards Russia at odds with the actions of its principal ally. Japan chose to honor the nonaggression pact throughout the Pacific War, until it was renounced by Russia in August 1945.

Unlike the United Nations, the Tripartite Pact never became an effective alliance.  Though there was considerable cooperation between Italy and Germany in Europe, Japan was too distant for effective military cooperation with the other two nations.  A few German and Italian submarines operated from Japanese bases in Malaya and there was some exchange of technology and strategic raw materials, but the difficulty of running the Allied blockade, even with submarines, prevented this exchange from achieving decisive results.  It also seems likely that the Axis never really trusted each other, and their policy towards Russia was completely uncoordinated in spite of the obvious value of coordinated policy towards the central Eurasian power.

Racism likely played a role. While Italian fascism was not notably racist, both German and Japanese fascism were deeply racist. Although Himmler convinced himself that the Japanese had "Aryan" blood, he could not convince Hitler, who received Oshima twice shortly after Pearl Harbor but then not again for over a year. A Japanese proposal to attack Madagascar in 1942 was strongly opposed by the Germans as an infringement on the German sphere of operations (the dividing line was at 70 degrees east longitude.) Hitler is reported to have stated in March 1942 that he would enjoy lending Britain twenty divisions with which to drive back the Japanese in the Far East. Allied prisoners of war working at the docks at Singapore later reported that a U-boat crew had come to attention and saluted them as they were marched past by their Japanese captors.

Some idea of how artificial the alliance was can be gleaned from a communication on 26 July 1941 from the Thai prime minister to the American minister (Prange 1988):

The primer minister of Thailand advised the American minister that the German military attaché had warned him against "going too far" with Japan because "you cannot trust Japan." The attaché added ominously that Germany would "settle with Japan after she has won the war in Europe."

Curiously, Thailand did not immediately sign the Tripartite Pact even after she was pressured into entering an alliance with Japan and declaring war on Britain and the United States.

It is difficult to disagree with Gaddis Smith (1985) that "Axis diplomacy was one of the greatest assets enjoyed by the Allies."

Text of the Tripartite Pact (Yale Avalon Project; accessed 2010-9-24)


Goldman (2012)

Hastings (2007)
Hsiung and Levine (1992)

Kershaw (2007)
Prange (1981)

Smith (1985)

Thompson (2005)

Watt (1989)

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