“When you have to kill a man…”

“When you have to kill a man…”

Churchill was crit­i­cized for his extreme­ly respect­ful let­ter to the Japan­ese Ambas­sador to Britain in Decem­ber 1941, when inform­ing him that their coun­tries were at war. Churchill’s response to crit­ics was, “After all, when you have to kill a man it costs noth­ing to be polite.” Did he actu­al­ly have the man killed?  —W.H., New York

Shigemitsu (with cane) on USS Missouri, Tokyo Bay, 2 September 1945 (Wikipedia Commons)
Shigemit­su (with cane) on USS Mis­souri, Tokyo Bay, 2 Sep­tem­ber 1945 (Wikipedia Commons)

No. Churchill was writ­ing in the abstract, and did not actu­al­ly pro­pose to slay the Ambas­sador. Fol­low­ing the usu­al diplo­mat­ic pro­to­col, Mamoru Shigemit­su (Ambas­sador to the Sovi­et Union 1936–38 and to Britain 1938–41) was hand­ed his pass­port and giv­en unim­ped­ed pas­sage back to Japan. As Japan’s Min­is­ter of For­eign Affairs at the end of World War II, he signed the instru­ment of sur­ren­der on USS Mis­souri in Tokyo Bay on 2 Sep­tem­ber 1945. Con­vict­ed of war crimes, he was sen­tenced to sev­en years’ impris­on­ment, but was paroled in 1950 and again served as For­eign Min­is­ter in 1954–56. He died a year lat­er at the age of 70.

Churchill’s let­ter, which was crit­i­cized in Par­lia­ment and pro­voked the response you quote, is record­ed in his mem­oirs, The Sec­ond World War, vol­ume III, The Grand Alliance, pages 542-43:


On the evening of Decem­ber 7th His Majesty’s Gov­ern­ment in the Unit­ed King­dom learned that Japan­ese forces with­out pre­vi­ous warn­ing either in the form of a dec­la­ra­tion of war or of an ulti­ma­tum with a con­di­tion­al dec­la­ra­tion of war had attempt­ed a land­ing on the coast of Malaya and bombed Sin­ga­pore and Hong Kong.

In view of these wan­ton acts of unpro­voked aggres­sion com­mit­ted in fla­grant vio­la­tion of Inter­na­tion­al Law and par­tic­u­lar­ly of Arti­cle 1 of the Third Hague Con­ven­tion rel­a­tive to the open­ing of hos­til­i­ties, to which both Japan and the Unit­ed King­dom are par­ties, His Majesty’s Ambas­sador at Tokyo has been instruct­ed to inform the Impe­r­i­al Japan­ese Gov­ern­ment in the name of His Majesty’s Gov­ern­ment in the Unit­ed King­dom that a state of war exists between our two countries.

I have the hon­our to be, with high consideration,


Your obe­di­ent servant,


See Churchill by Him­self, Chap­ter 20, “Nations…Japan,” page 172.

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