Japan tried repeatedly in 1942 and 1943 to get Germany to make peace with the Soviet Union so the Germans could turn all their war might on the United States and Great Britain.
The Japanese made their strongest attempts to move the Germans into separate peace talks with the Russians in 1943, a year after Germany has lost the battle of Stalingrad and was pulling back along the entire Eastern Front. But as early as July 29, 1943, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler told the Japanese ambassador to Germany he would continue to make war with Russia because Germany needed the wheat fields of the Ukraine to feed its army and because Hitler was still convinced he would beat the Russians.
Details of the Japanese attempts to mediate a separate peace between Germany and the Soviet Union are in 30,000 pages of messages from Japanese diplomats around the world whose codes were broken by the Signal Security Service in the fall of 1940. The decoded messages have just been turned over to the National Archives.
The papers also show that Hitler repeated his intent twice more, once in August and again in October, telling Japanese Ambassador Hiroshi Oshima that the German army would wear down the Russians, then conduct a counteroffensive that would win the war in the East.
"When I talked with Hitler," Oshima said after his meeting in October, "he said that if a man has five quarts of blood and it's all spilled, death ensues immediately, and that if one-and-a-half or two quarts are spilled, he must become gradually weaker. That is the strategy which Germany has adopted toward Russia."
Again and again, Hitler explained to Oshima that the Germans needed Ukrainian wheat to fight the Soviets in the East and the Americans and British in the West.
"The Ukraine is essential to us," Hitler said, slapping his hand on a table for emphasis. "And Russia certainly has no intention of making peace with the Germans by sacrificing the Ukraine."
Just before Oshima met Hitler for the third time in 1943, he told Tokyo that Germany might be interested in a separate Russian treaty. Oshima said Finland, Germany's ally on the Russian front, was "worried about constant rumors of a separate peace" and that German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop listened to Oshima's feelers about a separate treaty "without jumping down my throat."
"Von Ribbentrop confessed that the question of peace with the Russians was a serious one," Oshima cabled to Tokyo on Oct. 7, "and that he was going to think about it. For the first time, I got the impression that German officials may be working behind closed doors toward a peace with Russia."
The next day, von Ribbentrop since he had to take 12 divisions out of Russia and send them to Italy to prevent Allied occupation there.
"Whenever we get a chance, we bleed the Russians," Hitler went on. "I had our experts make an investigation and they estimate that the Soviets have had 3.5 million casualties and have lost 7,500 planes and 18,500 tanks" in the last six months. "I want you to pulled the rug out from such talk when he told Oshima:
"The Fuhrer has not changed in the slightest degree his opinion that this war must, and can, be decided by force."
A day later, Hitler himself explained to Oshima that while the Germans were on the defensive for the first time they would still "wear out the enemy." Hitler blamed the collapse of Italy for the turn of events about the way the war is going."
The Japanese made one last attempt at persuading the Germans to make peace with Russia. They attempted to show the Germans that they didn't need Ukrainian wheat, especially if they pulled their troops out of the Ukraine, where they were being fed with Ukrainian grain. The plea fell on deaf ears in Berlin.
"It is fanciful," Oshima told Tokyo early in November 1943, "to speak of any change in German policy toward the Russians."
While the German Military High Command never favored taking on the Russians across the entire Eastern Front, it is clear from the released documents that they did not favor a separate peace either.
According to Oshima, German military spies fed von Ribbentrop a steady diet of stories that Japan was giving the Soviet Union secret assurances that were allowing Russia to "move almost all of her Siberian troops to the German front" and move all "Siberian factory equipment to European Russia" to allow stepped-up-activity against Germany.
"The German army seems to harbor a great deal of suspicion and probably know that I am not worried at all, it is they who pester the foreignminister and the fuhrer with this sort of thing," Oshima told Tokyo. "I made it clear to Ribbentrop that we Japanese positively would not dream of consummating a supplementary understanding to the neutrality pact (with Russia) or of doing anything else to facilitate Russia's fight with Germany."
While they tried to talk a separate Russian peace with the Germans, the Japanese apparently had their hands full attempting to maintain a position of neutrality with the Russians.
On at least four occasions, Japan seized Soviet merchant ships on the high seas because they originally were American ships, handed over to the Russians under the "lend-lease" program. The Japanese claimed they had the legal right as a belligerent in the war against the United States to seize the ships: the Russians claimed they had no such right.
So badly did feelings run between the Soviets and Japanese over the ship seizures that the Russians threatened to begin capturing Japanese ships. Finally, in the summer of 1943, Japan gave back all the seized Russian ships.