“When you have to kill a man…”

by Richard Langworth on 14 March 2009

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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