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Joseph Grew

Joseph Grew

American diplomat
The basics
Occupations Diplomat
Countries United States of America
Gender male
Birth May 27, 1880 (Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, U.S.A.)
Death May 25, 1965 (Manchester-by-the-Sea, Essex County, Massachusetts, U.S.A.)
Education Harvard University
Authority ISNI id Library of congress id NNDB id VIAF id
The details

Joseph Clark Grew (May 27, 1880 – May 25, 1965) was an American career diplomat and Foreign Service officer. Early in his career, he was the chargé d'affaires at the American Embassy in Vienna when the Austro-Hungarian Empire severed diplomatic relations with the United States on April 9, 1917.

Later, Grew was the Ambassador to Denmark (1920–1921) and Ambassador to Switzerland (1921-1924). In 1924, Grew became the Under Secretary of State, and in this position he oversaw the establishment of the U.S. Foreign Service. Grew was the Ambassador to Turkey (1927–1932) and the Ambassador to Japan beginning in 1932. He was the American ambassador in Tokyo at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) and the opening of war between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

Ambassador Grew was interned for nine months by the Japanese government, but he was released to return to the United States in July 1942.


Grew was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in May 1880, and starting in his early years, he was groomed for public service. At the age of 12 he was sent to Groton School, a boys' preparatory school whose purpose was to "cultivate manly Christian character". Grew was there just two grades ahead of Franklin D. Roosevelt. During his youth, Grew enjoyed the outdoors, sailing, camping, and hunting during his summers away from school. After graduating from Groton, one of only four men in his class to do so, Grew attended Harvard University, graduating in 1902. Following graduation, Grew made a tour of the Far East, and nearly died after being stricken with malaria. While recovering in India, he became friends with an American consul there. This inspired him to abandon his plan of following in his father's career as a banker, and he decided to go into diplomatic service

Grew's first job in diplomacy (in 1904) was as a clerk at the American consulate in Cairo, Egypt. Grew was then promoted to vice-consul in Egypt.

Grew married Alice Perry, a great-granddaughter of famed American naval hero Oliver Hazard Perry. She became Joe Grew's life partner and helper as promotions took him to work in Mexico, Russia, and Germany. As an aide to the American ambassador in Berlin from 1912 to 1917, Grew stayed in Germany until the United States entered World War I in April 1917 and hence broke diplomatic relations with Germany. Grew later found himself in a very similar situation when the United States went to war with the Japanese Empire in 1941.

Grew's book Sport and Travel in the Far East was a favorite one of Roosevelt's. The introduction to the 1910 Houghton Mifflin printing of the book features the following introduction written by Roosevelt:

My dear Grew,- I was greatly interested in your book "Sport and Travel in the Far East" and I think it is a fine thing to have a member of our diplomatic service able both to do what you have done, and to write about it as well and as interestingly as you have written.... Your description, both of the actual hunting and the people and surroundings, is really excellent;...

Alice Perry Grew was the daughter of premier American impressionist painter Lilla Cabot Perry, daughter of Dr. Samuel Cabot (of the New England Cabots) and her husband, noted American scholar Thomas Sergeant Perry.

After the Armistice was signed with Germany in November 1918, Grew worked at the United States Department of State in Washington, D.C. In 1922, he and Richard Child acted as the American observers at the Conference of Lausanne. In 1927, Grew was appointed as the American ambassador to Turkey. He served in Constantinople for five years until he was offered the opportunity to return to the Far East.

Grew's daughter, Lilla Cabot Grew, married Jay Pierrepont Moffat, the American Ambassador to Canada, in 1927.

Ambassador to Japan

Grew was appointed by President Herbert Hoover to succeed William Cameron Forbes as the United States Ambassador to Japan in 1932, where he took up his posting on June 6. Ambassador and Mrs. Grew had been happy in Turkey, and were hesitant about the move, but decided that Grew would have a unique opportunity to make the difference between peace and war between the United States and Japan. The Grews soon became popular in Japanese society, joining clubs and societies there, and adapting to the culture, even as relations between the two countries deteriorated.

On January 27, 1941, Grew secretly cabled the United States with information gathered from Ricardo Rivera Screiber, Peruvian Minister to Japan, that "Japan military forces planned a surprise mass attack at Pearl Harbor in case of 'trouble' with the United States", information that was declassified twelve years later.

Grew's report was provided to Admiral Harold R. Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, and Admiral Husband Kimmel, Commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, but it was discounted by both. Grew continued to serve as U.S. Ambassador until December 7, 1941, when the United States and Japan severed diplomatic relations after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan's naval ministry registered a fallacious protest with Ambassador Grew in Tokyo: "On the night of July 31, 1941, Japanese fleet units at anchor in Sukumo Bay picked up the sound of propellers approaching Bungo Channel from the eastward. Duty destroyers of the Japanese navy investigated and sighted two darkened cruisers that disappeared in a southerly direction behind a smoke screen when they were challenged." The protest concluded: "Japanese naval officers believe the vessels were United States cruisers."

Though at war, the United States and Japan negotiated a plan for the repatriation of their diplomats. In July 1942, Grew and 1,450 other American and foreign citizens went via steamship from Tokyo to Lourenço Marques in Portuguese East Africa (now Maputo, Mozambique) aboard the Japanese liner Asama Maru and her backup, the Italian liner Conte Verde. The Japanese Ambassador to the United States, Kichisaburo Nomura, along with 1,096 other Japanese citizens, steamed from New York City to Lourenço Marques on board the Gripsholm, an ocean liner registered in Sweden. On July 22, the exchange of personnel took place, and then the Gripsholm steamed to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and thence to New Jersey.

During World War II

Grew was appointed as an Under Secretary of State upon his return to the United States. In 1943, Grew received an honorary doctorate from Bates College. He served as the Acting Secretary of State for most of the period from January through August 1945 while the Secretaries of State Edward Stettinius and James F. Byrnes were away at conferences. Among high-level officials in the Truman Administration, Grew was the most knowledgeable of Japanese issues, after having spent so many years in Japan. Grew was also the author of a profoundly influential book about Japan, titled Ten Years in Japan.

The atomic bomb dilemma

Grew wrote in 1942 that while he expected Nazi Germany to collapse as the German Empire had in 1918, he did not expect the Japanese Empire to do so:

I know Japan; I lived there for ten years. I know the Japanese intimately. The Japanese will not crack. They will not crack morally or psychologically or economically, even when eventual defeat stares them in the face. They will pull in their belts another notch, reduce their rations from a bowl to a half bowl of rice, and fight to the bitter end. Only by utter physical destruction or utter exhaustion of their men and materials can they be defeated.

Grew became a member of a committee, along with the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, and the Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, that sought to work out an alternative to the use of the atomic bomb as a weapon, in order to bring about Japan's surrender. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy drafted a proposed surrender demand for the Committee of Three, which was incorporated into Article 12 of the Potsdam Declaration. The original language of the Proclamation would have increased the chances for Japanese surrender as it allowed the Japanese government to maintain its emperor as a "constitutional monarchy". President Harry S. Truman, who was influenced by Secretary of State James Byrnes during the trip via warship to Europe for the Potsdam Conference, changed the language of the surrender demand. Grew knew how important the emperor was to the Japanese people and believed that the condition could have led to Japanese surrender without using the atomic bombs.

Forcible return of Soviet POWs

By May 1945, the U.S. held a number of Soviet prisoners-of-war (POWs) who had been captured while serving voluntarily or involuntarily in some capacity in the German Army, mostly as rear area personnel (ammunition bearers, cooks, drivers, sanitation orderlies, or guards).

Unlike the German prisoners, who were looking forward to release at war's end, the Soviet prisoners urgently requested asylum in the United States, or at least repatriation to a country not under Soviet occupation, as they knew they would be shot by Joseph Stalin as traitors for being captured (under Soviet law, one only had to surrender to earn the death penalty).

The question of the Soviet POWs' conduct was difficult to determine, though not their fate if repatriated. Most of the Soviet POWs stated that they had been given a choice by the Germans: volunteer for labor duty with the German army, or be turned over to the Gestapo for execution or service in an arbeitslager (a camp used to work prisoners until they died of starvation or illness). In any case, in Stalin's eyes they were dead men, as they had 1) been captured alive, 2) had been 'contaminated' by contact with those in bourgeois Western nations, and 3) had been found in service with the German army.

Notified of their impending transfer to Soviet authorities, a riot at their POW camp erupted; while no one was killed by the guards, some were wounded while other Soviet prisoners hanged themselves; President Truman granted the men a temporary reprieve. Nevertheless, Grew, as Acting Secretary of State, signed an order on July 11, 1945 forcing the repatriation of the Soviet POWs to the Soviet Union. Soviet cooperation, it was believed, would prove necessary to remake the face of postwar Europe. On August 31, 1945, the 153 survivors were officially returned to the Soviet Union; their ultimate fate is unknown.


Grew left the State Department in 1945 and wrote two volumes of professional memoirs published in 1952. He died two days before his 85th birthday on May 25, 1965.

Screen portrayals

In the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora!, an historical drama about the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the part of US Ambassador Joseph Grew was played by Meredith Weatherby.


  • Sport and Travel in the Far East, 1910
  • Report From Tokyo, 1942
  • Ten Years in Japan, 1944
  • Turbulent Era, Volume I, 1952
  • Turbulent Era, Volume II, 1952
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