12. Japan Begins the March to Disaster

The handwriting had been on the wall for years. An immense sense of racial and cultural superiority and a fierce longing for economic security had led large segments of the Japanese people to dream of a vast empire, if not domination of the world. The collapse of the international trading network in the great depression beginning in 1930 added a sense of urgency to the long-expressed demands of ultranationalists and militarists to seize lands to provide raw materials and markets and no longer to be dependent upon the policies and interests of other nations.1

Throughout much of the 1920s, however, a series of moderate Japanese cabinets representing peaceful interests had controlled the government and kept the demands of the expansionists in check. But behind the façade of a peaceful Japan loomed a more sinister Empire of the Rising Sun. This specter had shown itself in 1928 when the Japanese army had intervened in Shandong and Prime Minister Tanaka Giichi had tried to keep the Nationalists out of Manchuria. It had appeared in newspaper editorials and public protests against "surrendering" control of the sea to the United States and Britain. And it had appeared in violence directed against anyone who opposed expansion. The symbolic turning point toward aggression came in mid-November, 1930, when an ultranationalist shot the moderate Japanese prime minister, Hamaguchi Osachi. Japanese army leaders finally abandoned working through the civilian governments and, unofficially but positively, set Japan upon a course of conquest. The first target: Manchuria.

Since shortly after the close of a high-level Japanese "eastern conference" on policy toward China (June 27-July 7, 1927), reports had appeared of a so-called "Tanaka memorial" supposedly presented by Prime Minister Tanaka to the emperor. This "memorial" supposedly held that "to conquer the world, we must first conquer China," but to conquer China "we must first conquer Manchuria and Mongolia." This document did not exist but some scholars believe Japanese leaders did agree at the conference on some sort of program for Japanese aggression in China.2

The world depression accelerated the drive to seize Manchuria as the first step on the road to dominating China. The depression hit Japan extremely hard. Demand for most Japanese products declined abruptly. The price of rice and of raw silk, Japan's largest export item, fell to half their normal levels. Farmers depended upon rice and silk production was a farmhouse industry. Thus, the economic underpinnings of Japanese agriculture collapsed.

When extreme elements in the army predicted that Japan's economic problems could be solved by military expansion, many Japanese seized on their proposals as salvation. Actually, Japan's situation wasn't hopeless. Many essential industrial raw materials were close at hand in Manchuria and north China and available without conquest. If Japan had dedicated itself to trade it could have surmounted its economic problems and moved on to prosperity. Unfortunately, the militarists pointed out a different path.

In Japan, the ultranationalists were gaining increasing acceptance among the population. In such an atmosphere, practically anything could provide an excuse for action. Two such incidents occurred during the summer of 1931. A group of Korean farmers (nationals of Japan) dug a canal through Manchurian land owned by Chinese. When Chinese attempted to fill up the canal, Japanese police started firing. Riots erupted in Korea in which 148 Chinese residents were killed while police largely did nothing. The massacres led to an anti-Japanese boycott in China. Shortly thereafter, news trickled in from Inner Mongolia that a Japanese intelligence officer and three companions, including a sergeant in the Japanese army reserve, had been killed by Chinese troops. Militarists argued that Manchuria should be occupied, although Chinese authorities showed that the officer was making maps and taking photographs for military purposes.3

The Japanese Kwantung army4 in fact was cooking up an incident as an excuse to take over Manchuria and it's likely the minister of war, Minami Jiro, knew about the plot and approved. The leaders were Lieutenant Colonel Ishiwara Kanji and Colonel Itagaki Seishiro. Emperor Hirohito, however, was concerned about the Kwantung army's behavior and he urged prudence. On September 15, 1931, Minami dispatched General Tatekawa Yoshisugu to Kwantung army headquarters at Mukden to caution the army against rash action, so as to avoid action by the emperor. However, the general staff in Tokyo sent secret advance messages of Tatekawa's mission and Itagaki and Ishiwara resolved to stage an incident before the general could deliver his message.5 When Tatekawa arrived on September 18, Kwantung army officers took him off to a lavish dinner party at which Tatekawa became intoxicated, probably by design, so as to avoid having to deliver the message until the next day.

At 10 p.m. on September 18 a bomb exploded on the South Manchuria railway track north of Mukden. The damage was minimal and the southbound express arrived on time soon afterward. A Japanese patrol, however, claimed Chinese soldiers opened fire from nearby fields and the patrol had no choice but to fight back in "self-defense." But it was obviously a well-planned conspiracy, because more than 10,000 Japanese troops swung into action almost simultaneously from Changchun at the northern end of the railway to Port Arthur at the southern, capturing Mukden, Changchun and other Manchurian cities.

In Tokyo Prime Minister Wakatsuki Reijiro, who'd taken Hamaguchi's place, tacitly approved the actions.6 Thereafter the army continued to advance in Manchuria and the government did nothing to stop it. The Japanese government lost all credibility and either was in league with the army or powerless to stop it.7

The response to the rest of the world to Japan's premeditated attack was astonishing. There was little condemnation of Japan. China appealed to the League of Nations but it didn't respond with any firmness and neither did the United States. Though not a league member, the U.S. had been the leader in signing the so-called Kellogg-Briand pact, or pact of Paris, in 1928 in which most countries, including Japan, renounced war "as an instrument of national policy."8

The U.S. secretary of state, Henry L. Stimson, said Tokyo could not be responsible for violation of the Kellogg-Briand pact or the nine-power treaty of 1922 (assuring China against attack by any power) since the Kwantung army had acted without authorization, thereby disregarding the fact that the Japanese government had acquiesced in the attacks. The British government was preoccupied with domestic problems and also took a lenient attitude, while much of the British press was neutral or actually favorable to the Japanese.9

In late November, the Japanese moved into northern Manchuria without provoking a reaction from the Soviet Union.10 On December 10, 1931, the League of Nations at last decided to appoint a commission to investigate.11 On January 7, 1932, Stimson finally declared that the United States would not recognize "any situation, treaty or agreement which may be brought about by means contrary to the convenants and obligations of the pact of Paris."12 This became known as the "Stimson doctrine" but it got little support by Western powers and generated no movement in the U.S. to help China, especially since President Herbert Hoover was not interested in war over Manchuria.13

Much of the Western world was moving toward the same policy of autarky or economic self-sufficiency that had propelled Japan into Manchuria. The economic depression had disillusioned many countries with international trade and the world was rapidly dividing into economic zones which attempted to produce most necessary goods within them and keep out others' products by high tariffs.14 U.S. President Herbert Hoover in 1930 signed the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill which raised the average ad valorem duty on imports to 50 per cent and quickly brought retaliation from other countries. Britain and the Commonwealth were moving toward a preferential empire tariff agreement (reached in 1932). France raised its tariffs and Germany unsuccessfully sought a customs union with Austria and Czechoslovakia. By summer 1932 industrial production in many countries had dropped to half the 1928 level and world trade had fallen by a third. The international approach to solving problems through peaceful negotiation was breaking down rapidly and nations were not as ready to work together as they had been in the 1920s.15

However inadequately the league, Britain and the U.S. reacted to Japan's takeover of Manchuria, the response of Chiang Kai-shek was unbelievable. Chiang ordered the Chinese troops in Manchuria not to resist the Japanese. Violent anti-Japanese demonstrations erupted immediately in China but Chiang refused to respond to pressure for war and did not even break off diplomatic relations.16 If Chiang Kai-shek had stood up to the Japanese, the vast bulk of the population would have rallied behind him and Chiang would have emerged as the champion of Chinese liberty. Yet Chiang backed down and forfeited national leadership.17

As early as his encounter with Japanese troops trying to block his northern advance at Jinan in Shandong in 1928 Chiang had sought to avoid confrontation with Japan. His repetition of this policy in Manchuria gave rise to the theory that Chiang wanted to consolidate his hold on China before challenging the invader. Chiang often repeated the old Chinese saying that invasions by barbarians were only external afflictions of the skin, while internal revolts were afflictions of the heart or body. However, an uncontested invasion by Japan threatened the very existence of a viable Chinese state.18

The failure of the Hoover administration to respond to Japan's aggression in 1931 is the single greatest cause for the disasters that were to come in the years ahead. The Japanese move was a direct challenge to China and foreshadowed further aggression. The United States by now recognized that Japanese domination of China could destabilize the world and pose dangers to American security and trade. Nevertheless, Hoover exerted no leadership and deferred to isolationist sentiments rampant in the United States since World War I and to the nation's preoccupation with the economic depression. Hoover was unwilling to commit the nation to a militant position (during his administration the U.S. did not build a single warship) and continued to treat the Soviet Union as a pariah. He never explored joint action with Russia, though both countries had a mutual interest in stopping Japan. American inaction allowed the Japanese to believe they could bully China without international repercussions and thus actually encouraged Japanese advances.

* * * * * * * * * *

The thoroughly discredited government of Japanese Prime Minister Wakatsuki collapsed on December 11, 1931, a victim of its own fecklessness in bowing to the militarists.19 Although the emperor appointed as premier the leader of the Seiyukai party, Inukai Tsuyoshi, as premier, the days of civilian government were over in Japan for a long time. Inukai's new cabinet secretary was Mori Kaku, who advocated annexation of Manchuria, and his war minister was General Araki Sadao, an exponent of expansion. The Japanese power structure eagerly surrendered to General Araki and other militarists who seemingly had proved the success of their plans to conquer the lands Japan thought it needed.

* * * * * * * * * *

Chiang Kai-shek's failure to respond to the Japanaese challenge served to consolidate opposing Kuomintang forces long enough to oust him from office. But the barrenness and incompetence of the leadership within the KMT doomed the attempt. Impassioned students raised public awareness of Chiang's inactivity. They and others pressured the Nanjing regime and its Guangzhou competitor to end their squabbling and unite against the common danger. The pressure also forced Chiang to release the rightist, Hu Hanmin, whom he had been holding in "protective custody."

Suspicious of Chiang, the Guangzhou regime leaders refused to discuss reconciliation in Nanjing until they were granted military control of the Nanjing-Shanghai area. Chiang authorized the 19th Route Army, a force from Fujian allied to the Guangzhou regime, to take up positions in the Shanghai area. After exhausting negotiations, the two regimes merged. Chiang, outmaneuvered, had to resign December 15, 1931. Chiang ostentatiously "retired" to his native village in Zhejiang province. Sun Ke, son of Sun Yat-sen, became president of the executive yuan. But the new government was unstable. All three leading KMT figures, Chiang Kai-shek, Wang Jingwei and Hu Hanmin, had been excluded. The Shanghai financiers refused to back it and the central army remained loyal to Chiang. Chiang thus was able to work out an agreement with Wang Jingwei and Sun Ke. On January 25, 1932, Sun Ke resigned. Three days later Wang Jingwei took over as president of the executive yuan and Chiang became head of the newly created military affairs commission. Wang began an on-and-off career as the chief of the civilian branch but real power rested with Chiang.20

* * * * * * * * * *

The Kuomintang seeming unity came at precisely the moment that the Japanese were about to unleash a series of aggressive actions in Shanghai and vicinity that appalled the world and exhibited the wanton villainy of the Japanese army and navy and the refusal of Chiang Kai-shek to confront China's enemy.

The collision was touched off by the damage China's spontaneous boycott of Japanese goods was doing to the Japanese economy. Exports of Japanese goods fell over 95 per cent to central and south China and 72 per cent through Hong Kong.21

The Japanese were angry and resolved to do something about it. On January 18, 1932, at the secret instigation of a Japanese major, workers from a Chinese towel factory in the Japanese sector in Shanghai, beat up five Japanese, one of whom later died. In the early hours of September 20 a Japanese mob set fire to the towel factory, attacked a nearby police post and stabbed a couple of Chinese constables. The Japanese consul in Shanghai demanded from the mayor of the Chinese city a formal apology, compensation, arrest of those involved and the immediate dissolution of anti-Japanese organizations. Soon afterward, the Japanese navy moved a flotilla, including an aircraft carrier, to the Whangpoo river at Shanghai under Rear Admiral Shiozawa Koichi. On board were more than 2,000 Japanese marines.

Admiral Shiozawa presented the Chinese mayor with an ultimatum. The mayor supplied a reply Japanese civil authorities deemed satisfactory but Shiozawa wanted to show that the Japanese navy could be as effective as the army was being in Manchuria and resolved to send marines into the Chinese suburb of Zhabei just north of the International settlement. Shortly before midnight on January 28 four truckloads of Japanese marines, behind a screen of armored cars, moved into Zhabei. Machine guns sprayed the road and adjoining buildings and armed Japanese civilians followed behind, expecting no trouble, since all but a few of the Chinese troops in Manchuria had backed away from Japanese troops.

But waiting for the Japanese was the 19th Route Army, which did not consider itself bound by the no-fight orders of Chiang. Chinese machine guns opened fire and Japanese fell by the dozens. The Japanese were unable to dislodge the 19th Army troops despite close-quarter fighting and at daylight on January 29 Admiral Shiozawa ordered his carrier planes aloft. They began a methodical bombing of Zhabei.

It was ghastly and something new to the world: heavy bombing attacks directly upon unarmed civilians in tightly packed residential areas where a single bomb could destroy dozens or hundreds of lives and set destructive fires. The Chinese soldiers had had little experience with enemy aircraft and had only machine guns and rifles to use against them. The Japanese planes, therefore, met little opposition and made bombing and strafing attacks at low altitudes of 300 feet, which greatly increased the terror they created. Admiral Shiozawa quickly moved in artillery and tanks and turned Zhabei into a burning no-man's land.

Nevertheless, the 19th Route Army refused to budge. It took an additional 50,000 troops, including a large force landed behind the 19th Army, to force its withdrawal on March 2-3.

It had been a brilliant demonstration that Chinese soldiers, if resolutely led, could stop or at least slow Japanese forces, no matter how heavily armed with modern weapons. If Chinese forces had blocked every Japanese advance, the Chinese losses would have been high but the Japanese could never have sustained the casualties they would have faced. In the long run, the Chinese, especially the millions of innocent civilians, suffered far more from Chiang Kai-shek's orders not to fight than they would have if they had contested every inch of the way.

It is one of the ironies of history that, just as Japanese soldiers were attacking and Japanese bombers were killing or maiming thousands of Chinese men, women and children, a world "disarmament conference" opened in Geneva (February 2, 1932) with sixty-one nations in attendance. The bankruptcy of international leadership showed itself immediately. Though the conferees were intensely aware of what was happening in Shanghai, the conference itself became an ignominious arena where each power pressed for its own special interests and demonstrated little regard for working with other nations to bring about disarmament. The conference is important in history because Germany declared in September, 1932, it would no longer participate unless the powers removed the provisions of the Versailles treaty of 1919 denying Germany the right to possess the same armaments as other nations. France and Britain refused. When the conference reconvened in 1933, Adolf Hitler had become German chancellor (January 31, 1933) and Germany subsequently withdrew from the conference and the League of Nations. Thereafter, Germany began rearming and the world picked up the pace on its march to war.22

Although Chiang Kai-shek refused, even after the carnage of Shanghai, to protest to the Japanese or to order his soldiers to fight, at least one Chinese government took action: in April, 1932, the little soviet republic led by Mao Zedong and holed up in the mountains of the Jiangxi-Fujian border declared war on Japan.23

* * * * * * * * * *

Early in 1932, the Japanese carried up into Manchuria on a Japanese destroyer the deposed last emperor of the Manchu dynasty, Puyi, known as Henry Puyi and as a debauched playboy who had lived for the past ten years in the Japanese concession at Tianjin. On March 9 the Japanese installed Puyi as "regent" of a new puppet state which they created, named Manchukuo ("the Manchu state"). Two years later (March 1, 1934), they enthroned Puyi.24 It was a shameful attempt to legitimize Japanese aggression.

On April 21, 1932, the Lytton commission, the League of Nations inquiry group, arrived in Manchuria and began its investigations. Though spied upon and given false evidence, it traveled many miles to investigate.25 The league's response was too little and too late. The Lytton commission established a pattern for democratic leaders in this sad and shameful decade when militarists and dictators cynically took advantage of the hesitation and timidity of Western leaders and seized what they wanted without fear of repercussions.

Meanwhile, on May 15, 1932, a group of dissatisfied Japanese farmers teamed with with some radical young naval officers to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Inukai and bring about a military regime. Their plot failed but set the stage for predominance of the military in government. Japan's senior statesman, Saionji Komochi, sought a non-controversial figure around whom national unity could be restored and found one in retired Admiral Saito Makoto. But the new government divided between expansionists led by War Minister Araki Sadao and a residual group of civilians who tried to curb the military.26

* * * * * * * * * *

While Chiang Kai-shek would not fight the Japanese, he still sought to destroy the Communists. In the summer of 1932 he finally achieved his first successes. Chiang concentrated a large force against the so-called O-yü-wan soviet in the Dabie mountains along the Anhui-Henan-Hubei border some 100 miles northeast of Wuhan. Chiang's forces pressed the Reds, under Zhang Guotao and Xu Xiangqian. Though the soviet remained intact, Zhang decided to move westward in October to the mountains of northeastern Sichuan and establish a new soviet in the vicinity of Tongjiang.27 KMT forces also attacked the small Xiangxi soviet under He Long on the border of western Hubei around Hefeng. He Long abandoned the region and began creating another small soviet in northwestern Hunan.28

Other Nationalists were grouping to attack the central soviet along the Jiangxi-Fujian border. In this desperate situation, the Communist leadership held a conference in August, 1932, at Ningdu in southern Jiangxi. There Zhou Enlai and other politburo leaders criticized Mao for his conservative and defensive military views and demanded a "forward and offensive line" against the impending attack on the central soviet. The conference marked the nadir of Mao Zedong's power. The leadership confirmed Zhou Enlai as leader of the Red army's political commissars and Mao lost most of his influence in the army.29

Chapter 13: The Japanese Move South, the Reds West >>

1. The narrative on the initial Japanese actions in Manchuria and Shanghai and China's and the world's response is drawn from Borton, pp. 331-36; Hsü, pp. 546-53; Ienaga, pp. 59-65; Cambridge, vol. 13, chapter 2, "China's International Relations 1911-1931," by Shinkichi Eto, professor of international relations, Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo, pp. 114-5; chapter 10, "Japanese Aggression and China's International Position 1931-1949," by Akira Iriye, professor of history, University of Chicago, pp. 492-504; FRUS, 1931, vol. 3, pp. 1-715; Pratt, pp. 576-90; Thorne, pp. 131-201; Meng, pp. 3-104; Ekins, pp. 94-119; Morley, Erupts, "The Manchurian Incident," introduction by Marius B. Jansen, essay by Seki Hiroharu, pp. 119-230; "The Extension of Hostilities, 1931-1932," introduction by Akira Iriye, essay by Shimada Toshihiko, pp. 231-335.

2. Morton, pp. 96-97, 109-110, 205-14; Hsü, p. 546; Hoyt, pp. 60-61.

3. Meng, pp. 70-72; Borton, p. 327; Morton, pp. 165-6.

4. Morton, p. 167. The Kwantung army was named for the Kwantung leased territory, the Japanese name for the Liaodong peninsula, containing Lüshun (Port Arthur) and Lüda (Dairen), taken over from Russia in 1905.

5. Morley, Erupts, pp. 205, 225-30; Morton, pp. 169-73.

6. Meng, pp. 84-85; Morley, Erupts, p. 251.

7. Borton, p. 331.

8. FRUS, 1928, vol. 1, pp. 153-57. For an exposition on the Kellogg-Briand (Paris) treaty see Pratt, pp. 535-39. Also, the FRUS volume above contains full documentation on development of the treaty in pp. 1-235.

9. FRUS, Japan, vol. 1, pp. 4-8; Meng, pp. 84-87; Hsü, pp. 550-1; Borton, p. 330; Thorne, pp. 133-4, 137, 139, 141-2, 152-3.

10. Morely, Erupts, pp. 282-3; Morton, pp. 171-3.

11. FRUS, Japan, vol. 1, p. 59-60.

12. FRUS, Japan, vol. 1, p. 76.

13. Tsou, pp. 18-19; Road, pp. 5-6.

14. Kase, p. 2.

15. Cambridge, vol. 13, pp. 504-05; Road, pp. 3-4; Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, New York: Random House, 1987, pp. 282, 328-30. Kennedy points out that the U.S. gross national product fell from 98.4 billion dollars in 1929 to less than half that figure in 1932. The value of manufactured goods in 1933 was less than a quarter what it had been in 1929. The American share of world manufacturing output dropped from 43.3 per cent in 1929 to 31.8 per cent in 1932 (and to 28.7 per cent in the recession year of 1938). The American decision to vote for protectionism under the Smoot-Hawley tariff shattered the flourishing U.S. export trade. Between 1929 and 1933 U.S. exports fell from 5.24 billion dollars to 1.61 billion. However, the huge American domestic market meant that U.S. economic survival did not depend upon foreign trade to the extent that other industrial countries did. In 1929 U.S. manufacturers exported just under 8 per cent of their products, selling the rest domestically. Except for the import of certain special metals (like chrome), some raw materials and tropical products like rubber, the U.S. did not depend upon the outside world.

16. Thorne, pp. 133-4; Hsü, pp. 550-1; Clubb, pp. 166-7.

17. Ekins p. 100; Cambridge, vol. 13, p. 502; Morton, pp. 181, 183.

18. Thorne, p. 301; FRUS, 1932, vol. 3, pp. 643, 668-9, 680-1; vol. 4, pp. 55-58, 165-8.

19. Borton, p. 332; Morton, p. 173.

20. Cambridge, vol. 13, pp. 129-30; Clubb, pp. 182-3.

21. Thorne, pp. 203, 206-10; Ekins, pp. 110-16; Meng, pp. 97-103; Morton, pp. 177-8.

22. Zebel, pp. 626-28; Thorne, pp. 119-24, 231, 304-07, 321-7, 336, 377-8, 388, 405-06.

23. Cambridge, vol. 13, pp. 176, 835.

24. Hsü, p. 551; Thorne, p. 203; Meng, pp. 103-04.

25. Thorne, pp. 277-83. British member of the commission and chairman was Victor Alexander George Robert Bulwer-Lytton, the second earl, son of the viceroy of India and himself a former governor of Bengal. The other members were France, General Henri Claudel, member of the Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre, recently inspector-general of colonial troops (and under orders, as members of the party believed, to see that no trouble was created for France by any provocative condemnation of Japan); Germany, Dr. Heinrich Schnee, former governor of German East Africa; Italy, Count Luigi Aldrovandi, former Italian ambassador to Berlin; United States, army Major General Frank Ross McCoy, who had supervised a presidential election in Nicaragua and had worked in the Philippines. The Japanese assessor was Yoshida Isaburo, ambassador to Turkey, and the Chinese assessor was V.K. Wellington Koo, a diplomat of much experience.

26. Borton, pp. 333-4; Jansen, pp. 325, 342, 387; Hoyt, pp. 106, 108.

27. Kataoka, pp. 13-14.

28. Kuo, book 2, pp. 429-30; Griffith, pp. 42-43; Cambridge, vol. 13, chapter 4, "The Communist Movement 1927-1937," by Jerome Ch'en, professor of history, York University, Toronto, pp. 205-06.

29. Harrison, pp. 229-30; Kuo, book 2, pp. 440-50; Schram, p. 141.