2-363 Editorial Note on Far Eastern Strategy, January-February 1941

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Editorial Note on Far Eastern Strategy

January-February 1941

On January 29, 1941, a series of fourteen United States-British Staff Conversations began in Washington, D.C. Major General Stanley D. Embick, Brigadier Generals Leonard T. Gerow and Sherman Miles, and Colonel Joseph T. McNarney represented the United States Army. For two months the staffs discussed the respective military positions of the United States and Great Britain and the division of strategic responsibility and possible operations in the event that America entered the war. The British representatives based their strategy upon three assumptions: first, that the European theater was the decisive one; second, that Germany and Italy should be defeated before Japan; and third, that the Far East was essential to the preservation of the British Empire, and that protection of Singapore was of special importance to Far East strategy. At the sixth meeting, on February 10, the British proposed again the idea Prime Minister Winston Churchill had raised in May and October of 1940; namely, that the United States should send a naval task force to help defend the British base at Singapore. The American representatives agreed with the first two British strategic assumptions, but disagreed with the third. (Maurice Matloff and Edwin M. Snell, Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare, 1941-1942, a volume in the United States Army in World War II [Washington: GPO, 1953], pp. 32-35.)

Miles, the assistant chief of staff for Military Intelligence, thought British assertions of an imminent Japanese attack on Malaya looked “very like concerted British pressure on us to commit ourselves in the Far East—a pressure that has been applied rather consistently during the past three months.” (Miles Memorandum for the Chief of Staff, February 11, 1941, NA/RG 165 [WPD, 4175-18].) On February 12, the United States participants in the talks told Marshall that the Singapore task force proposal “would be a strategic error of incalculable magnitude.” The United States Pacific Fleet “should be limited, pending the defeat of Germany, to such deterrent and containing influence” as could be rendered from Pearl Harbor operations. (Embick, Miles, Gerow, and McNarney Memorandum for the Chief of Staff, February 12, 1941, NA/RG 165 [WPD, 4402-3].)

Determined not to overextend the army in the western Pacific, Marshall declared in a February 6 conference that the United States had two active defense problems: Panama and Hawaii. Summarizing the situation at Pearl Harbor, the chief of staff said that the navy’s nets for defense against submarine or plane-carried torpedoes were insufficient. Furthermore, a Japanese attack there was possible. Miles responded that the Military Intelligence Division had no evidence of a possible attack. Nevertheless, Marshall wanted the obsolete interceptors at Honolulu replaced by new planes superior in performance to any the Japanese could use from their aircraft carriers. Arnold, the deputy chief of staff for air, who was also present at the conference, recommended that thirty-one P-36s be sent immediately, followed by fifty P-40Bs. (Orlando Ward notes on the Conference in the Office of the Chief of Staff, February 6, 1941, NA/ RG 165 [OCS, Chief of Staff Conferences File].)

Responding to Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox’s concern about Oahu’s defense, Stimson, in a letter drafted by Gerow, claimed that the “Hawaiian Department is the best equipped of all our overseas departments, and continues to hold a high priority for the completion of its projected defenses because of the importance of giving full protection to the Fleet.” (For details of the projected Hawaiian defense, see Stimson Memorandum to the Secretary of the Navy, February 7, 1941, NA/RG 165 [WPD, 3583-1].)

Following the conversations, the staffs submitted a report (commonly known as ABC-1) which defined the nature of Allied cooperation in the future. They agreed on the predominant importance of the European theater in the event of global war, the maintenance of British positions in the Mediterranean, and the importance of a strategic defensive in the Far East. The United States Fleet would be employed offensively “to weaken Japanese economic power, and to support the defense of the Malay Barrier by directing Japanese strength away from Malaysia.” (Quoted in Louis Morton, Strategy and Command: The First Two Years, a volume in the United States Army in World War II [Washington: GPO, 1962], p. 88.)

Recommended Citation: The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland, Sharon Ritenour Stevens, and Clarence E. Wunderlin, Jr. (Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 2, “We Cannot Delay,” July 1, 1939-December 6, 1941 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 409-410,

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