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FAR EAST: Porcupine Nest

12 minute read
TIME

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Abandoning his tour of Western Austral ia and summoning his Cabinet, Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies hurried back to Melbourne this week. The chips were down in the Far East ; the next thing to be seen was Japan’s hand. Bob Menzies said that the people of Australia were standing with a catch in their throats in the most vital hour of their history. “In the mercy of God bombs have not yet fallen in this country. But they may.”

Watching to see whether the Japanese would go north or south, or both, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden said: “Any action that would threaten the integrity or independence of Thailand would be a matter of concern to this country, particularly as a threat to the security of Singapore. I hope these words will be heeded.”

The Thailand radio instructed the people to leave any invader only burned-out villages.

The Chinese Army talked of moving into the Japanese path at Canton.

Whimpering tensely like a nervous dog before a field trial, the Japanese spoke of being encircled, even complained because the British would not step out of the way of their march toward “Greater East Asia.”

Cordell Hull in Washington growled that Japan was encircling herself farther, the farther she strayed from where she belonged.

In Peking, North China gate to Manchukuo, it was freely predicted that Japan would move against Siberia first.

Waiting for Japan’s expected Thailand-Singapore-Netherlands East Indies-Australasia play, which might come first or second, last week everybody concerned gave anxious tongue. Everybody, that is, except No. 3 on the list, the Indies.

The Dutch stood pat. They had made their preparations. They expected major help from their neighbors, who shared their interests. But none of the world’s weaker lands save heroic Greece had been ready to do so much defending of themselves by themselves.

Busy Year. Without the Indies, Japan will never have all the oil, rubber and tin she needs, nor the power and prestige she thinks she needs to be a great empire. All Japan’s plans are made with an eye on the Indies, and the Indies in one short year have become bristling porcupines of resistance.

Before the fall of France the N.E.I. were no more cognizant of the Nazis’ might than any other land on the hither side of the Rhine. When the Indies woke up they woke up with a bang and got to work immediately without any ifs, ands or buts. Their alarm clock was Hubertus J. van Mook, Director of the Department of Economic Affairs. In the summer of 1940 the U.S. woke up to the fact that available stocks of tin and rubber would not last a full normal year. Mr. van Mook had the tin and rubber, and the U.S. had the guns and airplanes that he needed. They traded.

From a strength of 175 old planes in March 1940 the Indies’ Air Force grew to 700 planes by last November, to “over 1,000” by now. Present rate of shipment is 45 to 50 planes a month. Small arms and machine guns were, and are still, purchased in the U.S. The U.S. sends the Indies chassis for armored trucks and the Indies build the bodies. The Indies also are buying fn the U.S. machine tools, mining and factory machinery, shipbuilding equipment, steel for the four 10,000-ton warships the Indies plan to build.

These tropical islands in the South Seas motorized their artillery, partly motorized their infantry, improved their coastal batteries, equipped and trained a parachute corps, created fire-fighting brigades, barbed-wired their airfields, built air-raid shelters. They have two cruisers, four (possibly six) destroyers, twelve submarines, other small vessels, plus what Netherlands Navy ships escaped from the home country.

Timetables and Two-timers. To get his islands aroused and armed before the eastern end of the Axis got busy on them, Hubertus van Mook needed time. He made time—and he did not waste the time he made.

The Japanese were working on a timetable set by Adolf Hitler and against one set by his foes. When Japanese Premier Prince Konoye first sent a mission to the Indies, he timed its arrival for September 1940, when German air raids were expected to have softened up the British and their Dutch allies for surrender.

Head of the Japanese mission was Minister of Commerce & Industry Ichizo Kobayashi. The wily Japanese hoped to force the Dutch to pick as chief negotiator someone equal in rank to a Cabinet Minister, i.e., Governor General Jonkheer A. W. L. Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer, who is not the tough customer Hubertus van Mook is. The Dutch did no such thing. Twelve days after the Japanese delegation arrived, while small Minister Kobayashi was being escorted around by a guard of honor picked for stature and bulk, Queen Wilhelmina cabled Batavia the appointment of Van Mook as Cabinet Min’s er for the duration of the negotiations. Minister van Mook and Minister Kobayashi thereupon set out to two-time each other out of their timetables.

No Bluffer, however, was Hubertus J. van Mook. A big, burly, blond Dutchman, only 46 years of age, with big, strong hands and a sharp, broad mind and a sense of humor besides, he was everything the traditional negotiator is not. He opened every discussion with: “This is our last word,” and every time he stuck to it.

Minister van Mook was a scholar raised to the rank of statesman. He came of sturdy stock (a great-grandfather marched to Moscow and back with Napoleon), was the son of two schoolteachers. Born in Semarang, Java, he was educated in Amsterdam, Delft, Leiden (and for a few months later on attended California’s Stanford University). He is still proud of his American slang and of being a cover-to-cover reader of TIME. Back in the Indies, he became a civil servant, served a hitch as adviser to the Sultan of Jokyakarta. By 1931, when he decided to take a flyer in politics, he had become—for a Dutch colonial—a man of very liberal ideas. He edited what was known in the Indies as a “radical” weekly.

As a member of the Volksraad (People’s Council), Hubertus van Mook advocated more influence for the Indies in Empire affairs. He even talked of the day when the natives must be given more power in the colonies. He studied economics, began thinking in broad terms of Pacific, not simply Indies, economics. He found his right niche in 1934 when he entered the Department of Economic Affairs. In 1936 he represented the Indies at the Pan-Pacific Conference in California, and there he met that veteran diplomat, Kenkichi Yoshizawa, who was to succeed Ichizo Kobayashi as negotiator for Japan with the Indies.

With Negotiator Kobayashi, Hubertus van Mook had an easy time. When Kobayashi opened the negotiations by asking for oil, Minister van Mook explained that he was a member of a Government, not a merchant ; Mr. Kobayashi had better negotiate directly with the oil companies. The companies having been tipped off, Kobayashi managed to get 1,800,000 tons of crude and refined oil, but no aviation gasoline. Then it was revealed that the British had contracted for the Indies’ entire high-octane output. Kobayashi discovered that it was necessary for him to return home for the 2,600th anniversary of the Empire’s founding. Two months later Yoshizawa replaced him.

“Old Fox” Yoshizawa was calculated to be more than a match for Amateur Diplomat van Mook. Muttered Admiral Nobumasa Suetsugu, longtime policymaker for the Japanese Navy, as the negotiations opened: “We have a right to ask the East Indies to cooperate with us … and to ask them for the materials needed for our common prosperity and existence. . . . There is no cause for hesitation. It all depends on Japan’s own determination.” Minister van Mook was also determined.

The Dutchman was in a tight spot. The Government was in the rubber and tin business, and so the answer that had worked with oil would not do this time. Minister van Mook, tongue in cheek, took refuge in “reasonableness.” He announced that his Government would treat Japan as well as it treated Great Britain and the U.S., but could not treat it better because, after all, Britain was an ally and Japan was not. It was also reasonable to refuse to sell Japan more products than Japan could reasonably use for home consumption, since Germany, Japan’s ally, was at war with The Netherlands. Furthermore, it was reasonable to subtract from Japan’s usable quota the tin and rubber which Japan was getting from French Indo-China. It was reasonable, before accepting Japan’s demands for increased immigration quotas, to ask Japan to fill the existing quota (which Japan had so far failed to do by 300 immigrants annually). Finally, it was reasonable to grant the Japanese permission to establish an airline from Tokyo to Batavia if Japan granted the Dutch permission to fly the identical route.

Japan had asked for huge concessions hoping for protracted negotiations, during which Ally Hitler would blitz Britain and the Netherlands Government in London out of existence. If the Japanese had been reasonable they might have won a great deal, for the Indies were in no position to fight. But while the Japanese played for time, Minister van Mook was the one who got it — and used it. When the negotiations ended in a complete Japanese defeat last June, thanks to Hubertus van Mook the Dutch had had time to get ready. Admiral Nobumasa Suetsugu felt that Japan’s fail ure to grab the Indies was unforgivable.

Tough Miles. Looking south last week Japan’s soldiers and sailors saw an Anglo-Dutch line of defense running for nearly one-seventh of the earth’s circumference: down 400 miles of treacherous Malay coastline to the forbidding hinge at Singapore, then 3,000 miles out into the southeast until it reached the barbarous fringes of the Netherlands domain. The Japanese generals and admirals might even decide to by-pass Singapore for the time being, to take a fling directly at the Indies. If it succeeded, Japan would be safe; if it failed, Japan was through. It would be as desperate a gamble as the Spanish Armada, and just as pregnant with destiny.

The Dutch, though now armed, could not defend New Guinea or Celebes; the Japanese might also take some smaller island such as Bali with its classically breasted maidens. But the three key islands, Borneo, Sumatra and Java, were tough porcupines to grab. Granted Japan’s estimated 2,000,000 tons of available shipping could transport between 100,000 and 200,000 men, with their equipment, across 2.800 miles of the China Sea, a landing on Borneo might be successful. But the oil wells of Borneo were prepared for instant destruction, and the Dutch have sworn to destroy them if need be. Java, citadel of the Indies defense, held the bulk of an Army of 100,000 (native and European), the bulk of the new Air Force, old but fixed coastal defenses, an arsenal. And Sumatra was just as tough, with one half sheltered by Malaya, the other half lying in the strategic domain of the mighty fortress of Singapore.

Though the Japanese would be superior in men, material and ships, they would be matched in air power and underwater strength. Yet time urged them on. By October monsoon winds would blow into action, lashing the east coast of Malaya and the Indies with turbulent waters. Landing under such difficulties would double the risk. The monsoon for the admirals was a time limit almost as compelling as the Siberian winter for the generals. In another six months, by April., when the monsoons are over, the Netherlands Indies might be almost impregnable.

American Dutchman. The most important Netherlander save Queen Wilhelmina, the man who got for his colonial homestead the time to prepare its defense, is more like an American than a Dutchman. Not only does he speak English, with an American accent, he plays golf and smokes Camels. He has a town house in Batavia and a country house not far away, where he and his charming Dutch wife often entertain visiting diplomats and journalists. Among their close friends are U.S. Consul General Walter A. Foote and his wife.

In outlook, too, Mr. van Mook is American. He has strong convictions on the part the U.S. must play in the ultimate Pacific settlement. He believes in broadening the base of government, eventually to admit the natives to suffrage. Says he of the world of the future, raising a finger at the colonial conservatives who had so heartily disapproved of him during his political period:

“Neither the speculator who by playing the markets can endanger the existence of thousands of producers, nor the leaders of these economic enterprises about whom, neither the shareholders nor the authorities can make inquiries, will be able to find this form of irresponsible freedom in the new society.

“A cure will also have to be found for that cancer, the large and permanent unemployment problem. From the colorful picture of the Indies, the false system of separate valuation according to race will also have to fade. . . .

“We consider ourselves fortunate that in the heterogeneous population of the Netherlands Indies, those elements of individuality and communal sense—though often not fully developed—are present, which have endowed Indonesian, Chinese and Hollander alike with the blessed gift of humor, the will for mutual appreciation and tolerance, and the power to stand united should—God forbid—we too be overcome by the catastrophes of war.”

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