Case Study: From The Manchurian Incident to World War II Part 1

Home History Case Study: From The Manchurian Incident to World War II Part 1

Case Study: From The Manchurian Incident to World War II Part 1

Case Study: From The Manchurian Incident to World War II Part 1

The standard “road to war” and Manchurian crisis explain that Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 strained relations with the United States, a situation aggravated by the empire’s invasion of China in 1937, and then brought to a breaking point in 1941 by Japan’s advance into southern Indo­china. The Roosevelt administration froze Japan’s assets and placed a total embargo on oil. Japan’s leaders, unable to find common ground with the United States, launched a surprise attack oil Pearl Harbor. But if Japanese expansion into southern Indochina and the subsequent oil ban provided the initial spark of the Pacific War. Then what was the “gunpowder’ that lay behind the bellige­rency? Why did the Unit­ed States resort to freezing assets and embargoing oil?

‘… in the act of outrageous violence, Chinese soldiers blew up a section of the Mantetsu track located to the northwest of Beitaying [military base] and attacked our railway guards. Our guards immediately returned fire and mobilized artillery to shell Beitaying. Our forces now occupy a section of the base …’ Asahi, Osaka, 19 September 1931.1

This front-page article in the popular daily newspaper Asahi presented the Japanese public with an account of Chinese perfidy that became embedded in Japanese popular perception of who was to blame for the onset of the subsequent Japanese invasion and occupation of the whole northern Chinese province of Manchuria. It was a travesty of the truth. A group of Japanese engineers from the Kwantung Army, stationed in Manchuria to protect the empire’s economic interests in the region, planted the explosives early on the morning of 18 September 1931 as a flimsy excuse to begin a program of military expansion into China that was not to end until 1945. It was a minor incident in global terms, but its ramifications were much more significant. It was the point in the depths of the world economic crisis when the first step was taken to create a new imperial and economic order by violence. The shots at the Beitaying base signaled the onset of what was to become in the 1930s new imperial age.

The mastermind of the Manchurian Incident is usually  accepted to have been Kanji Ishiwara (石原 莞爾,1889 –1949) picture below:

The circumstances of what the Japanese government came to term the ‘Manchurian Incident’ were shaped by the broader global crisis and the desperate efforts in Japan to find some solution to mounting poverty and economic isolation. The Kwantung Army, which took its name from the Japanese concession area on the Chinese Manchurian coast, known as the Kwantung Leased Territory, had been plotting to extend the Japanese Empire into mainland China for some years. Provoked by the scale of the economic crisis and mindful of the persistent threat of Chinese nationalism, the army commanders finally decided to act independently of Tokyo. After Japanese soldiers had themselves blown up the short section of the Japanese-owned South Manchurian Railway (Mantetsu), they stormed the local Chinese garrison in the port of Mukden. They captured the rest of the town and, in a carefully planned assault, fanned out from the Leased Territory, first seizing the areas around the leading rail network, then driving the 330,000 ill-equipped forces of the local Chinese warlord, Zhang Xueliang, out of the southern and central regions of Manchuria, completing the occupation of the province by early 1932. The army deployed 150,000 men, and for the loss of around 3,000 dead, conquered an area almost the size of Europe. Despite the flagrant breach of discipline, the Japanese Showā emperor, Hirohito, approved the action two days later. Almost overnight, the Japanese Empire was transformed in size and wealth.2

The ‘Manchurian Incident’ did not directly cause the world war that broke out eight years later. Still, it inaugurated a decade of imperial expansion from the pre-1914 world and imperial settlement at the end of the Great War. None of the three states that eventually defined the new imperialism began with a definite plan or blueprint for expansion. Each acted opportunistically in established spheres of interest. They observed each other’s achievements closely and drew courage from their successes. Even though leaders in all three states hoped a more general war might be avoided for the moment while their imperial projects were completed, the instabilities provoked by these three separate programs fuelled the drive to the global conflict that opened up between 1939 and 1941. 

Territory control

The critical factor for Japan, Italy, and Germany was a territory. Control over a domain, exercised in various formal and informal ways, lay at the heart of the empire. The model for ‘territoriality’ was the forty years of violent territorial expansion and pacification that preceded the 1930s and were still going on. In this more extended context, the decisions taken in Tokyo, Rome, or Berlin to wage their local wars of aggression make historical sense. The discourses of ‘race and space’ that had supported empire since the late nineteenth century had lost none of their explanatory force for the generation that came to power in the 1930s. Though this form of imperialism appears anachronistic, even delusional, the paradigm of empire seemed familiar and near. The results of the redistribution of territory in 1919–23, or the consequences of the economic catastrophe after 1929, only strengthened rather than weakened the belief that seizing more territory and resources was an indispensable means to save the nation.

Japanese, Italian and German leaders were by no means the only ones to believe that the era of the empire was not yet over, despite all the evidence that nationalist ambitions, rising economic costs, and persistent insecurity marked the gradual decay of the global imperial project. Rather than drawing the obvious lesson that traditional imperialism was a fading enterprise, they argued that what they needed was more of it, marked with their particular character. The other factors usually emphasized in analyzing the origins of the Second World War – the arms race, diplomatic crises, ideological conflict – were effects of the new wave of empire-building, not causes. The major states in the League of Nations might, perhaps with reluctance, have lived with ideological difference or increases in military spending if that was all that divided them; the factor that the major imperial states could not accept was that the new wave of empire-building, in its raw territorial sense, was now incompatible with their view of empire and the new language of internationalism they had woven around it.

The central question is why, given all the evident drawbacks to possessing empire, the substantial security risks involved and the growing strength of nationalist sentiment, did these three states decide on ‘territoriality’ as the principle underlying their challenge to the existing order in the 1930s? These decisions seem all the more remarkable because, unlike the wars before 1914 in which territory could be conquered through large-scale conflict without outside intervention – the South African War or the Italian–Turkish War are good examples – the objects of imperial aggression in the 1930s were all sovereign states and members of the League of Nations, protected, at least on paper, by the principle of collective security. There is no simple answer to this question, and the exact circumstances differed between the three regional zones. Still, there are nonetheless striking similarities in the justifications and explanations given for control over different territories. It might be added that the generation that grew to political and military leadership in the 1930s was a generation that grew up with the world of imperial fantasies, surrounded by a culture that played up the superiority of modernizing and ‘advanced’ states as leaders in the march of civilization against the less developed or primitive peoples they conquered, a generation that was profoundly affected by the experience of wars and the violent assertion of modern nationhood. Empire, claimed the Italian Fascist leader Giuseppe Bottai, briefly, governor in 1936 of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, had ‘worked this desire in me to live war in the depth of my consciousness. Twenty years or more of my life inside the war. 3 

The starting point in explaining the pursuit of territorial empire is, paradoxically, the nation. In all three states, the goal of the empire was bound up to achieve national autonomy, which meant in effect releasing the country from a situation in which its development seemed limited or framed by the existing international order – ‘Great power intervention and oppression’ as one Japanese pamphlet put it.4 Japanese nationalists, a Mantetsu official explained, saw Manchuria as ‘a lifeline…from which it is impossible to retreat if the nation expects to exist’.5 These forms of what has been called ‘catastrophic nationalism’ anticipated the possible extinction of national self-expression and called for the urgent reassertion of the national mission.6 Mussolini regularly invoked the idea that Italy’s development was strangled by the string of British possessions in the Mediterranean that allowed Britain ‘to encircle, to imprison Italy’.7 Asserting national interest was regarded as a necessity to protect the home population by guaranteeing its economic future and its demographic development, as well as supplying a more secure sense of national identity as one of the major nation-empires, rather than a subordinate power. ‘We want an empire,’ Hermann Göring told an English acquaintance in 1937 when discussing what was inhibiting Germany’s national future.8 

In each case, nationalist discourse described the nation as unique, destined to dominate and lead the region around it. ‘One nation in Europe must assert its authority over the others,’ wrote the German political commentator Wilhelm Stapel. ‘Only the German nation can be the agent of that new imperialism.’ 9 In turn, the national population was supposed to prove itself worthy to participate in the nation’s regeneration. ‘We are becoming, and we will become,’ declared Mussolini in 1933, ‘ever more a military nation.’ 10 In Germany, the ‘national reawakening’ in 1933, with the National Socialist revolution, was bound up with the idea that the national body could now assert its true strength, uncorrupted by the alleged internationalist and cosmopolitan threats from Jews, Marxists, and liberals, which might have turned Germany, so Hitler had feared, into a ‘second Switzerland.’ 11 In Japan, where the military leadership came to dominate national politics from 1931 onwards, a widespread campaign to raise national awareness and enthusiasm for territorial expansion was inaugurated – the ‘national defense’ campaign – which played on the themes of national honor and sacrifices for the nation. Criticism of the new direction was stifled, as it was in Italy and Germany, by the secret police and the censor. As in Europe, the pursuit of national autonomy justified the new imperialism, creating a bond between the state and people in constructing a new order.12 Empire was seen as an essential signal of national virility and racial value and an arena where conventional moral norms could be set aside, as they had been in the nineteenth century. 

The second factor was more practical. The new imperialism was bound up with broader economic ambitions. Empire-building was designed to transcend the limitations imposed by the existing global financial and territorial structures by acquiring additional ‘living space’ to cope with population pressure and land shortages, securing access to resources of raw materials and food, and establishing an economic bloc where trade and investment would be controlled by the imperial center rather than the business community. The three states shared a growing commitment to state planning and hostility to the Western model of liberal capitalism and the Western values that sustained it. Capitalism, Hitler told an early party rally, ‘has to become the servant of the state and not its master’; a ‘people’s economy’ served the community rather than international business interests.13 Economic imperialism also had to suit the needs of the people. The lure of economic advantage was evident in all three cases.

For Italy, the conquest of Libya and Ethiopia was supposed to create new agricultural land for between 1.5 and 6.5 million Italian peasants, who could settle in the empire rather than migrate to the New World. Albania, annexed in 1939, was allegedly so underpopulated that it could absorb 2 million Italians.14 Here was lo spazio vitale (living space), a term common in Italy. Ethiopia was presented as a land of golden opportunity, an Eldorado teeming with untapped mineral resources. 15 Japanese aspirations to control Manchuria were rooted in the hope that at least 5 million poverty-stricken Japanese peasants could be settled there by the 1950s. At the same time, Manchuria’s rich industrial and raw material resources were regarded as essential to Japan’s future in a world where the development of trade and access to raw materials seemed dangerously insecure. Between 1926 and 1931, some 90 percent of Japanese overseas investment went into Manchurian projects. Without secure control of these assets, so it was argued, Japan could not continue to modernize.

The German case was no different. Here ideas about securing further Lebensraum, central to Hitler’s view of German development, had wide currency once Germany’s economic setbacks in the 1920s and 1930s were blamed on an absence of adequate resources and secure access to markets. Widespread propaganda about other European empires highlighted the vast disparities between the size of the motherland and the overall area of the empire – France enlarged by a factor of 22, the Netherlands by a factor of 60, Belgium by a factor of 80. The territory of the British Empire was calculated to be 105 times larger than the home islands. On the other hand, after the loss of national and colonial territory in 1919, Germany was smaller than it had once been.17 To create and dominate a Central and Eastern European economic bloc, with controlled trade and self-sufficiency in critical resources and food, became a central plank of the Hitler regime’s economic policy but was a view widely shared in Germany. ‘Economic space [Raum],’ Göring claimed in the same 1937 conversation, ‘must simultaneously be our political space.’ 18 Hitler himself had a crudely economic view of empire. Reflecting on British imperialism in 1928 in his (unpublished) second book, he concluded that for all the rhetoric of exporting culture and civilization, ‘England needed markets and sources of raw materials for its goods. And it secured these markets through power-political means.’ In the end, national prosperity meant conquest, securing ‘the bread of freedom from the hardship of war. ’19

The third factor was the opportunity. The hesitations and frustrations of the 1920s gave way to a new sense that the crisis of the post-war order in the 1930s might make it possible to act autonomously in building a new order, with only a limited risk of provoking a more significant crisis. These calculations were critical in explaining the timing of the new wave of imperialism. The failure of the international community to cope with the effects of the global recession accelerated the drift towards national solutions to the crisis and a breakdown of collaboration, expressed most clearly in the failed World Economic Conference in London in June 1933.20 A consequence of the global crisis was the unwillingness of the major League states to run risks at a time when they could ill afford the cost of international policing. The failure of the League to do more than censure Japan for its occupation of Manchuria was interpreted as a clear message that the system of collective security did not work when dealing with major League members. Japanese leaders later boasted that Japan had been ‘the herald of the downfall of the League of Nations,’ without whose initiative at exposing the ‘incapacity and worthlessness’ of the League, Germany and Italy might not have had the opportunity to pursue their aggressive policies.21 It was confirmed that the invasion of Ethiopia, which followed four years later, was also not opposed forcefully, nor was Germany’s violation of the Versailles settlement when rearmament was publicly announced in 1935 or in March 1936 when the Rhineland frontier zone was remilitarized. Each successful step invited the belief that Britain and France, as the major empires and League states, would not obstruct the path to further empire-building. ‘We think that Geneva’s just a collection of old women,’ an Italian journalist told a British colleague in Addis Ababa in 1936; ‘we all think so, and we have always thought so.’ 22 All three states left the League: Japan in March 1933, Germany in September 1933, and Italy in December 1937. 

The other failure of Britain and France to prevent German and Italian armed support for General Francisco Franco’s nationalist revolt in Spain between 1936 and 1939, or to oppose the German occupation of Austria in 1938, or Germany’s break up of Czechoslovakia in the same year, strengthened this conviction, and, above all, persuaded Hitler that Britain and France would make ‘extremely theatrical gestures’ about a German invasion of Poland, but would once again not intervene militarily.23 For all three states, the critical thing was to act before either the Soviet Union or the United States were able or willing to play a more significant part in world affairs. Japan and Germany were well aware that the Soviet Union, building up an important industrial and military presence in the 1930s under the Five-Year Plans, was a potential danger to any future imperialism. One of the factors governing the occupation of Manchuria, despite the long common frontier with the Soviet Union that resulted, was the need to provide a solid defense against any risk of a Soviet move against the Japanese Empire and safeguard its strategic resources.24 Hitler, in the one major strategic document that he penned during his dictatorship, the so-called Four-Year Plan memorandum, drafted in August 1936, highlighted the Red Army’s threat in fifteen years and the need for Germany to solve problems of living space well before that.25 The United States was something of an unknown quantity. Forced back into relative isolation by the catastrophic effects of the economic depression and reliant chiefly on its navy for hemisphere defense, it was clear that it posed only a future threat – but a threat nonetheless. Throughout, the United States maintained a critical stance towards imperialism of all kinds, even if the American public was not yet willing to embrace the idea of armed intervention to prevent it.26 For the imperial world, both old and new, the shadows of Lenin and Wilson stalked their ambitions: empire had to be built sooner rather than later. 

The sense that building a new order around a renewed wave of territorial imperialism was possible did not make the decisions to do so easy. The background to the seizure of Manchuria, or the invasion of Ethiopia, or the attacks of Czechoslovakia and Poland, reveals a good deal of hesitation and circumspection on the part of the political leadership in all three countries, despite the later post-war view that they formed part of a grand plan to dominate the globe. Whether they liked it or not, there was still an element of ‘permission’ needed from the major League powers. Mussolini finally overcame the anxieties of his military commanders and some of his Fascist colleagues about invading Ethiopia by arguing that he had secured, wrongly as it turned out, a verbal agreement from France and Britain that they would not obstruct him. Before the occupation of Albania, he dithered over what the other powers might do (though, in this case, the League registered Albanian protest for the record and did nothing at all).27 The German occupation of the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia after the Munich Agreement of 30 September 1938 is usually seen as a triumph for Hitler’s bullying diplomacy. Still, it left the German dictator fuming that he had been denied his short war against the Czechs on the insistence of the Western powers. Before the war against Poland a year later, he insisted to his entourage that there would be no second Munich.28

One of the reasons for caution was the much higher visibility of imperial conflicts by the 1930s, including those in the established empires. This was thanks principally to the development of modern media – worldwide newspaper reporting, famous newsreels, and radio – but also to the work of the League of Nations, which, for all its alleged timidity, gave a public platform to debate violations of national sovereignty, including very public discussion of Japan’s illegitimate seizure of Manchuria and Mussolini’s attack on Ethiopia.29 International debate forced the aggressors to justify their actions in all three cases by claiming speciously that invasion was carried out to protect their interests against failed states. In the League debate over Manchuria, the Japanese delegation insisted that China was a’ fiction’ as a ‘single organized state. They also indicated that Manchuria was not a colony in any formal sense but had been set up as an ‘independent state of Manchukuo, under the deposed Manchu Emperor Puyi.30 Mussolini justified the assault on Ethiopia because the country was nothing more than ‘a conglomeration of barbarous tribes’, a ‘non-state. ’31 Hitler justified extending a German protectorate over the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia because the national state had ceased to function effectively, even though Czechoslovakia was in every sense a modern European nation rather than a potential colony. In this case, too, the ‘protectorate,’ a term long associated with European imperialism as a way to disguise actual control, was presented as if it enjoyed some because32 War against Poland was announced by Hitler on the morning of 1 September 1939 with the assertion that the Poles, too, were not a state-building people, and that without German rule ‘the worst barbarism would prevail,’ unconsciously echoing Mussolini’s condemnation of the Ethiopians in 1935.33

Caution was dictated by international circumstances and the problems of developing any consensus among the political and military elites at home about future policy. This was the case in Japan, where domestic politics was shaped by conflict between civilian political parties and the military, between the army and the navy, and between factions within the military itself. When army commanders in the Kwantung peninsula launched the invasion in September 1931, they did so in defiance of the civilian government. The subsequent stand-off between the army and the politicians brought the resignation of the Minseitō cabinet and a virtual end to civilian supervision of the army’s imperialism, but army factionalism persisted until the mid-1930s.34 Arguments between the navy and the army hinged around the competing claims of the northern or southern advance: the navy wanted to prioritize defense in the Pacific and a possible seizure of the resource-rich European colonies in South East Asia, which was to prove a disastrous choice; the army looked north to the Soviet threat and wanted to consolidate its continental strategy in northern China first, by building a strong, self-sufficient industrial and trading bloc to make possible the further expansion of Japanese military power and to defend the empire. These arguments were suspended rather than resolved with the publication on 7 August 1936 of the ‘Fundamentals of National Policy’ that endorsed both a strong empire-defense on the Asian continent and naval preparation for extending the empire southwards.35 

Whatever the arguments for strategic caution, Japanese expansion into mainland China continued remorselessly throughout the 1930s. The Manchurian invasion proved impossible to reverse and, indeed, became the springboard for further Japanese territorial aggression, partly to stabilize the frontier with Nationalist China, partly to secure additional resources and communication hubs, and partly because the Japanese army and its political supporters in Tokyo developed an unanticipated appetite for further empire. The spread of Japanese territorial control never attracted the same international attention in the 1930s as Manchuria had done (or the attention of many modern-day historians). On 17 February 1933, 20,000 troops invaded and occupied Rehe province, south of Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. The invasion brought the Kwantung Army within striking distance of the Chinese capital, Beijing. From March to May 1933, the army fought the ‘Great Wall’ campaign, seizing more territory south as far as the Great Wall and occupying the Chinese city of Tanggu, which subsequently became a major Japanese-controlled port, the largest in China. In 1935 Japanese forces moved on into other Inner Mongolian provinces, and in June, forced an agreement on the local Chinese commander to vacate Hebei province, the area surrounding Beijing. Occupation of more of Inner Mongolia allowed the Japanese to sponsor a second ‘independent’ state of Mengkukuo, a Mongol homeland ruled nominally by Prince Demchugdongrub but dominated, like Manchukuo, by the Japanese army. In January 1936, the Tokyo government finally approved a strategy to establish control over northern China. The army could cut Chinese nationalist forces off entirely from the most prosperous regions of China and be the primary source of Chinese revenues. Within four years of the seizure of Manchuria, Japanese expansion had extended over a vast area of mainland Asia, transforming in the process the nature of Japan’s imperial economy.36 

The acquisition of Manchuria and other regions of northern China made it possible for Japan, at last, to challenge the existing economic order in Asia with some prospect of success. The object was to reduce the contribution of the other major trading powers to the whole region and to redirect resources to support Japanese industry. The key was the economic development of resources in Manchukuo and north China. Manchuria had been the industrial heart of China, supplying 90 percent of China’s oil, 70 percent of its iron, 55 percent of its gold supplies, and so on.37 Between 1932 and 1938, Japan invested 1.9 billion yen in the region. The army and government insisted on state economic planning and direction to ensure that its goals were met. The Manchukuo Economic Construction Plan was published in March 1933, and eventually, twenty-six corporations were set up for individual products. Chinese banks were taken over or co-ordinated with Japanese banks, a yen currency bloc was established, and the railway network doubled in length. In 1937 a North China Development Company was set up to ensure that the region would serve planned Japanese interests. North China, too was incorporated into the yen bloc.38 With the resources now available from the new territory, Japanese steel output rose from 2 million tons in 1930 to 5.6 million tons in 1938; coal increased over the same period from 31 million to 49 million tons.

Military demands swallowed up the economic expansion. In the Outline Plan of 1937, the army raised its sights to a 55-division army by the early 1940s; defense spending was 14 percent of state spending in 1934, but 41 percent by 1938. The new economic bloc was declared in 1934 a zone of special interest only to Japan – the so-called Amau doctrine – and in 1938, the prime minister, Prince Konoe Fumimaro, issued a warning that a new economic order had been born in East Asia from which third parties were excluded. According to the army’s Outline Plan, the industrial boom was to supply all the necessary resources for the empire’s defense by 1941 and ‘strengthen our ability to lead East Asia.’39 Japanese military strategy in China was nevertheless ill-defined. The restless border with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist China and his warlord partners in the north invited further military encroachment. Yet, more territory would be difficult to control with relatively limited forces. It would not solve the problem of establishing a stable context for exploiting the region already acquired. The priority was to control north China politically and militarily rather than embark on a major war against the Nationalist south. No plans were made for the Sino-Japanese war that finally erupted in July and August 1937. The Chinese for once took the initiative. Chiang’s strategy to establish national unity first before confronting Japanese encroachment – which meant, in effect, destroying Chinese communism – faced growing opposition by late 1936. On a visit to the city of Xi’an in the northern province of Shaanxi, Chiang was kidnapped by General Zhang Xueliang, the erstwhile local warlord, who wanted him to lead a national campaign against the Japanese in co-operation with the communists. After widespread national and international pressure for his release, most significantly from Stalin, Chiang returned to his capital, Nanjing, where he claimed to have had a vision during his brief captivity that it was his destiny to save China from Japan.40 

As we have seen earlier, the war transformed institutional Buddhism and its social environment in China, and a new form of Buddhism gradually developed. Inspired by general nationalistic and patriotic ideas throughout China at the time and urged on by the Nationalist government, Chinese clergy transcended the discipline of non-killing and non-association with the military; they reinterpreted the Mahayana doctrines of compassion and skillful means to reinvent the Buddhist tradition of national protection.

The opportunity to adopt a new course came unexpectedly with a trivial incident near Beijing between Japanese and Chinese soldiers, one of many such frictions but one that Chiang took as the moment to confront Japan’s continued violation of Chinese sovereignty finally. The so-called ‘Marco Polo Bridge incident (the English name for Lugouqiao, an ancient bridge on the outskirts of Beijing) began on 7 July 1937 when a company of the Japanese China Garrison Army undertook night exercises near the bridge. They came briefly under fire, lost contact with one soldier from the unit, and demanded the right to search the small fortress city of Wanping to find him. When access was refused, Japanese troops stormed the city, killing 200 Chinese soldiers in the process. Local commanders on both sides quickly searched for a ceasefire in an incident that scarcely qualified as a casus belli.41 The crisis nevertheless swiftly escalated, reflecting the more profound issues at stake between China and Japan in the 1930s. In Tokyo, the army minister Sugiyama Hajime overrode the more cautious attitude of Konoe’s cabinet to order the transfer of three divisions to seize complete control of the region. On 16 July, Beijing itself was surrounded; Japanese army operations began on 26 July, and within two days, the former capital was captured. The nearby port city of Tianjin fell on 30 July. Japanese plans now broadened out to a final settlement of the ‘North China Incident’ with the destruction of Chiang’s main armies and, if possible, the overthrow of his regime. This did not yet mean a major war, but Chiang chose to ‘nationalize’ the Marco Polo Bridge Incident as a threat to the very survival of the Chinese nation. In his diary, shortly after 7 July, he wrote: ‘This is the time for the determination to fight,’ and a few days later added that the crisis was ‘the turning point for existence or obliteration.’42 Following the fall of Beijing, he summoned on 7 August a ‘Joint National Defence Meeting’ of all the leading political and military figures in Nationalist China to ask for their support in a significant war against the Japanese enemy. The meeting reacted with unanimity. Chiang broadcast the news of war – ‘Japan’s limitless expansion impels China, gives it no choice, but to act in self-defense – and his best army units were sent to Shanghai, where Chiang judged that the first critical confrontation should take place.43

The Japanese armed forces expected a lightning campaign, ‘a quick victory after a short war’, first with the destruction of Chiang’s primary military resources then Japanese occupation of China as far south as the lower Yangtze River. Army leaders hoped to secure Japanese aims within a month; others predicted three months at most. The plans have much in common with the later German Operation ‘Barbarossa,’ where military hubris prevailed against military and geographical reality. The Japanese army was numerically inferior but much better armed, better trained, and more mobile than its Chinese adversary. Yet, the plans for military advance took little account of the enormous space and varied geography of the regions now targeted. The passage soon slowed down; Japanese forces could not inflict decisive victory against an enemy that could retreat and regroup in the vast Chinese hinterland. From a few divisions in summer 1937, the Japanese army had to expand to twenty-one divisions by the end of the year, thirty-four divisions a year later, and fifty-one divisions by 1941.44 The further Japanese forces were drawn into central China, the more complex became logistical supply; the more significant the territory to control, the more fragmented the Japanese army became. Chiang’s stature grew with what he called the ‘war of resistance.’ The brutal nature of much Japanese war-making in China, including poison gas and germ warfare (anthrax, plague, cholera), only inflamed Chinese hatred of the invader and consolidated a sense of national unity that Chiang had tried in vain to create earlier in the 1930s. Chiang’s resolve also hardened, in contrast to Japanese expectations that he would give up faced with military reality. In 1938 alone, eleven efforts were made to get him to accept peace terms, and all were rejected.

Chinese resistance nevertheless proved fragile wherever it was tested. The Japanese armed forces renamed the North China Area Army in August 1937, fanned out from the conquest of Beijing west and south along the main rail routes, whose capture was essential to maintain mobility and supply. Together with a section of the Kwantung Army in Manchuria, Japanese forces advanced towards Chahar and Shanxi provinces to the west and soon captured the vital railroad hub at Nankou from nationalist forces under General Tang Enbo, sent there by Chiang early in August.45 Because the Nationalist regime depended on local warlord allies on the northern front line, including Song Zheyuan, whose forces at Tianjin and Beijing had soon abandoned the battle in July, Chiang decided that it would be a better strategy to attack the Japanese in a more vulnerable area closer to his armed forces, the Guomindang Central Army. His choice of Shanghai as the primary battleground would eliminate the Japanese threat to a significant source of revenue and deliver an adequate response to the seizure of Beijing; it might even involve outside powers in support, but his principal aim, he told army leaders, was to conduct a long war of attrition, the opposite of Japan’s intention. As Chiang’s forces converged on Shanghai, the Japanese army and navy expanded to five divisions and stationed thirty-two naval vessels in the port. On 14 August, the small Chinese air force began the campaign with a disastrous air raid aimed at the Japanese flagship, destroying local hotels and a gaming room, killing and injuring more than 1,300 civilians. The sizeable Chinese ground force initially pressed the Japanese back towards the seafront, but the assault stalled. Japan poured in additional troops, the Japanese navy blockaded the China coast. The Japanese naval air force began on 15 August to become a prolonged bombing offensive against Chinese bases, ports, and cities. 

In the last week of August, the Japanese undertook an ambitious amphibious operation to land divisions near Shanghai, strongly supported by naval gunfire. By 13 September, Japanese forces were ready for a counter-offensive across rugged terrain, crisscrossed with water obstacles and improvised Chinese lines of defense. It took until 12 November to achieve victory, with high casualties on both sides: 40,300 Japanese, 187,000 Chinese (including three-quarters of Chiang’s young officer corps).46 Japan’s imperial headquarters wanted the whole area captured, now including Chiang’s capital at Nanjing, hoping that this would bring a decisive end to the war. The victors at Shanghai scrambled along the route to the capital to pursue a demoralized and disorganized enemy, burning villages and slaughtering their inhabitants. Chiang had already ordered the government to retreat to Chongqing, far to the west, while transferring his military headquarters to Wuhan, further to the south. A token force was left to defend Nanjing, but it was swept aside by a wave of Japanese violence against soldiers and civilians alike. The capital fell on 13 December to the forces of General Matsui Iwane. His deputy, Prince Asaka, and Japanese troops embarked on days of pillage, rape, and murder.47 By the end of 1937, the Japanese occupiers had secured a large area of central and eastern China at a high cost but were still far from securing the quick victory anticipated in July. On 16 January 1938, Prince Konoe announced that Japan would no longer have any contact with Chiang’s regime – in effect a formal, if belated, state of war. 

Despite exceptional military losses and a severe shortage of adequate armament, Chiang and his generals, now supported by forces loyal to the independent Guangxi Clique from the far south, prepared for other major campaigns. The first, and one of the largest of the war, took place around the major rail junction at Xuzhou to the north of Nanjing, involving more than 600,000 troops. Japanese forces approached in a pincer movement from the north and south. The victorious armies at Shanghai were now organized into the Central China Expeditionary Force and, together with the North China Area Army, they captured Xuzhou in May 1938 but failed to spring the trap on forty Chinese divisions, whose soldiers retreated in small groups under cover of a dust storm and fog. In early April, during the approach to Xuzhou, Chinese armies had inflicted one of the few tactical defeats on the Japanese when troops drove out an outnumbered force at the town of Taierzhuang north of Xuzhou under the command of the Guangxi leaders, generals Li Zongren and Bai Chongxi. Still, it was not enough to halt the tide. The fall of Xuzhou was a significant defeat, and it opened the way to Wuhan and controlled the whole central Chinese plain along the Yangtze River. Japanese planners hoped that the seizure of Wuhan and consolidation of Japanese control over north-central China would ‘bring the war to an end,’ produce a new pro-Japanese government and make it possible for Japan ‘to control China.’ Victory would also free Japan from facing what was regarded as the more severe threat in the far north from the Soviet Union, now supplying Chiang’s armies and air force with their only modern weapons.48 Chiang reacted to the threat by an act of extraordinary callousness. He ordered the dykes of the Yellow River to be opened to create a vast flooded area to keep the Japanese away from Wuhan and the south. His motives were crudely strategic, ‘to use water as a substitute for soldiers.’ Still, the cost to the local Chinese population was disastrous, as was the general Nationalist scorched-earth policy to deny the Japanese resources. No warning was given, and 54,000 square kilometers of low-lying farmland were inundated; post-war estimates claimed 800–900,000 died (recent research suggests the figure was closer to half a million). More than 4 million became refugees from the flooded plain.49

As seen above and in the next parts, the conventional chronology of WWII as from 1939–45 is no longer useful and that the war must be understood as a global event since the Asian and Pacific theatres were as important as the European one, and possibly more so in their consequences.

It is not clear when Hitler decided that living space in the East could be found more usefully in Poland. Until 1938, the Poles were regarded as potential allies in a German-dominated anti-Soviet bloc. They would hand back the German lands they were granted at Versailles and voluntarily became a German satellite. Only when the Polish government repeatedly refused the German request for an extra-territorial rail and road link across the Polish Corridor and the incorporation of the League-run Free City of Danzig back into Germany did Hitler decide to launch against the Poles the small war he had been denied in 1938, and to take Polish resources by force. Poland now contained the vast former German coal and steel region in Silesia and promised vast areas for German settlement and an agricultural surplus to feed the German population. At the meeting on 23 May 1939, when Hitler presented to the military leadership his intentions against Poland, he claimed that ‘Danzig is not the object in this case. For us, it involves rounding off our living space in the East and securing our food supplies.’ Food supply could only come from the East because it was sparsely populated, continued Hitler. German agricultural proficiency would raise the productivity of the region many times over. From the Manchurian Incident to Word War II, part two.

The calculation that Hitler would be deterred by the sight of the rapidly rearming British and French empires or by the wave of anti-fascist sentiment washing across the democracies was not entirely misplaced. A weaker hand had forced Hitler to climb down from war in 1938. Intelligence sources suggested a severe economic crisis in Germany, even the possibility of an anti-Hitler coup. Even after the German invasion of Poland on 1 September, Chamberlain allowed him to withdraw his forces rather than face a world war. The idea of a conference was briefly mooted by the Italian leadership on 2 September, echoing Mussolini’s intervention in September 1938. Still, the foreign secretary Lord Halifax told his Italian counterpart Ciano that the British condition was ‘the withdrawal of German troops from Polish soil,’ which ended any prospect of peace.60 Historians have searched for convincing evidence that Chamberlain wanted to wriggle out of his commitment even at this late stage, but there is none. Only a complete German capitulation to British and French demands for an end to the violence would have averted world war, and by 1 September, that was the least likely outcome. Neither containment nor deterrence had in this case worked. Chamberlain announced a state of war on the radio at 11.15 on the morning of 3 September; Daladier announced a state of war at 5 p.m. that afternoon. A temporary alliance of imperial elites and democratic anti-fascists had made possible a new world war. ‘We can’t lose,’ observed the British army chief of staff in his diary. When the war of empires started in Manchuria not included Western Europe.

While the collapse of resistance on the northeast front continued in late May, the significant Allies began to consider the awful capitulation scenario unthinkable two weeks before. Weygand, despite his apparent resilience and energy, told the French Cabinet on 25 May to think about abandoning the fight, and Reynaud was the first to pronounce the word ‘armistice,’ though it was an ambiguous term, as the Germans had discovered in November 1918. According to a commitment made on 25 March 1940, this had to be agreed with the British that neither ally would create a separate peace. On 26 May, Reynaud flew to London to explain to Churchill that France might consider giving up. Unknown to him, the British War Cabinet had begun to discuss a proposal from the foreign secretary, Halifax, presented to him by the Italian ambassador, for a possible conference convened by Mussolini. Italian motives remain unclear since, by now, Mussolini was also preparing to declare war to profit from what seemed to the Italian leadership a ripe opportunity for exploiting the imminent conquest of France. After three days of debate, the British decided against any initiative. Though often seen as a turning point at which the appeasers might nearly have triumphed, some discussion of the consequences of a comprehensive defeat was inevitable, and not even Halifax had favored any settlement that compromised Britain’s primary interests. Eventually winning support from Chamberlain, who kept a seat in the War Cabinet, Churchill carried the debate to reject any approach to Mussolini. British leaders were already contemplating war without France. ‘If France could not defend herself,’ Churchill told his colleagues, ‘it was better that she should get out of the war. The war in the West deepens while at the same time it spread further into the western colonies.

The British Empire did not collapse or accept defeat in 1940, but the year was a turning point in the long history of European imperialism. Failure and occupation in Europe undermined the claims of the other metropolitan powers, France, Belgium fatally, and the Netherlands. Fatally undermined For the British Empire, the crisis raised awkward questions about the future. Nevertheless, the British government refused to confront the paradox of emphasizing the value of the empire to Britain’s war effort while at the same time using force to stifle demands for greater political autonomy in India and running Egypt under virtual martial law. The priority was the survival of the home islands. Neither side, German nor British, could find a strategy capable of undermining the other’s war willingness or achieving a decisive military result. Still, it seems almost certain that with an army of 180 divisions and the spoils of much of continental Europe, Germany would have found a way in 1941 of bringing the war in the West to an end if Hitler had not turned to the East. Britain, by contrast, had no way of achieving victory over Germany. Expelled from Europe twice in Norway and France, facing a crisis in Africa, economically weakened, desperately defending its access to the broader world economy, Britain faced strategic bankruptcy. The war Britain waged for a year after the fall of France was the one prepared for in the 1930s – air defense, a powerful navy, and lesser imperial conflicts. This was the war Chamberlain had prepared for, but Churchill was the one forced to wage it. War almost lost.

The two major campaigns against British Malaya and the American Philippines protectorate began on 8 December. Pilots with specialized training for extended overseas flights attacked the Philippines, flying from Japanese Empire bases on Taiwan; as in Oahu, they found American aircraft lined up on the tarmac at Clark Field and destroyed half the B-17s and one-third of the fighters. Amphibious landings began on the 10th on the main island of Luzon and made rapid progress towards the capital, Manila, which surrendered on 3 January. The United States commander, General Douglas MacArthur, appointed earlier in the year, withdrew his mixed American–Filipino force south to the Bataan peninsula. The staff was doomed with no air cover and only 1,000 tons of supplies shipped by an American submarine. MacArthur was evacuated to Australia on 12 March to fight another day. Bataan was surrendered on 9 April. On 6 May, after a grueling and tenacious defense of the island fortress of Corregidor, the surviving American commander, General Jonathan Wainwright, gave up the fight.

The Japanese Fourteenth Army captured almost 70,000 soldiers, 10,000 of them American. They were marched along the Bataan Peninsula to an improvised camp; ill, exhausted, and hungry, they suffered beatings, killings, and humiliation from Japanese Empire forces. The geopolitical transformation of Asia and the Pacific.

In 1942 the new Fair Employment agency was absorbed by the War Manpower Commission, limiting the prospects for using the agency to combat racial inequality. In the South, the administration offered subsidies and training programs to help raise the productivity of white farms while turning a blind eye to the increased control over black workers that wartime reforms made possible. The president remained largely silent on the paradox presented by his rhetoric of freedom and the survival of racial segregation and discrimination at home. The same held for Roosevelt’s view of racism in the British Empire, which was prudently cautious about undermining the wartime alliance, despite his private view that the colonial empires were morally bankrupt and ought to be brought under international trusteeship or granted independence. When the British authorities arrested Gandhi in August 1942 and thousands of other Indian supporters of his ‘Quit India’ campaign, Roosevelt made no public statement condemning the decision or the violence. Walter White, secretary of the NAACP, canceled a speech he was to make on behalf of the Office of War Information in protest and sent a telegram to Roosevelt linking the civil rights movement to the broader world struggle for emancipation from Western imperialism: ‘One billion brown and yellow people in the Pacific will without question consider ruthless treatment of Indian leaders and peoples typical of what white people will do to colored people if United Nations win. How the various countries justified WWII.


1. Cited in Louise Young, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (Berkeley, Calif., 1998), 57–8.

2. Ibid., 39–41; Sarah Paine, The Wars for Asia, 1911–1949 (Cambridge, 2012), 13–15; Edward Drea, Japan’s Imperial Army: Its Rise and Fall, 1853–1945 (Lawrence, Kans, 2009), 167–9. 

3. A. de Grand, ‘Mussolini’s follies: fascism and its imperial and racist phase’, Contemporary European History, 13 (2004), 137.

4. Young, Japan’s Total Empire, 146–7. 

5. Nicholas Tarling, A Sudden Rampage: The Japanese Occupation of Southeast Asia, 1941–1945 (London, 2001), 28. 

6. See Michael Geyer, ‘“There is a land where everything is pure: its name is land of death”: some observations on catastrophic nationalism’, in Greg Eghigian and Matthew Berg (eds.), Sacrifice and National Belonging in Twentieth-Century Germany (College Station, Tex., 2002), 120–41.

7. Steven Morewood, The British Defence of Egypt 1935–1940: Conflict and Crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean (London, 2005), 25–6. 

8. CCAC, Christie Papers, 180/1/4, ‘Notes of a conversation with Göring’ by Malcolm Christie (former British air attaché, Berlin): ‘Wir wollen ein Reich’ [Christie’s emphasis]. 

9. Aurel Kolnai, The War against the West (London, 1938), 609. 

10. De Grand, ‘Mussolini’s follies’, 136; Davide Rodogno, Fascism’s European Empire: Italian Occupation during the Second World War (Cambridge, 2006), 44–6. 

11. Gerhard Weinberg (ed.), Hitler’s Second Book (New York, 2003), 174. 

12. Young, Japan’s Total Empire, 101–6, 116–32. 

13. Rainer Zitelmann, Hitler: The Politics of Seduction (London, 1999), 206–7; on anti-Westernism see Heinrich Winkler, The Age of Catastrophe: A History of the West, 1914–1945 (New Haven, Conn., 2015), 909–12. 

14. Patrick Bernhard, ‘Borrowing from Mussolini: Nazi Germany’s colonial aspirations in the shadow of Italian expansionism’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 41 (2013), 617–18; Ray Moseley, Mussolini’s Shadow: The Double Life of Count Galeazzo Ciano (New Haven, Conn., 1999), 52. 

15. Nicola Labanca, Oltremare: Storia dell’espansione coloniale Italiana (Bologna, 2002), 328–9; De Grand, ‘Mussolini’s follies’, 133–4. By 1935 Italy’s empire provided only 4.8 per cent of Italy’s imports. On Albania see Bernd Fischer, Albania at War, 1939–1945 (London, 1999), 5–6. 

16. Ramon Myers, ‘Creating a modern enclave economy: the economic integration of Japan, Manchuria and North China, 1932–1945’, in Peter Duus, Ramon Myers and Mark Peattie (eds.), The Japanese Wartime Empire, 1931–1945 (Princeton, NJ, 1996), 148; Paine, Wars for Asia, 13–15, 23; Tarling, A Sudden Rampage, 27–8. 

17. Karsten Linne, Deutschland jenseits des Äquators? Die NS-Kolonialplanungen für Afrika (Berlin, 2008), 39. 

18. CCAC, Christie Papers, 180/1/5, ‘Notes from a conversation with Göring’, 3 Feb. 1937, p. 51. 

19. Weinberg (ed.), Hitler’s Second Book, 16–18, 162. On the change in German economic thinking see Horst Kahrs, ‘Von der “Grossraumwirtschaft” zur “Neuen Ordnung”’, in Kahrs et al., Modelle für ein deutsches Europa: Ökonomie und Herrschaft im Grosswirtschaftsraum (Berlin, 1992), 9–10, 12–14; E. Teichert, Autarkie und Grossraumwirtschaft in Deutschland, 1930–1939 (Munich, 1984), 261–8. On Hitler’s economic thinking see Rainer Zitelmann, Hitler: Selbstverständnis eines Revolutionärs (Hamburg, 1989), 195–215. 

20. On this see Patricia Clavin, The Failure of Economic Diplomacy: Britain, Germany, France and the United States, 1931–1936 (London, 1996), chs. 6–7. 

21. Otto Tolischus, Tokyo Record (London, 1943), 32. 

22. George Steer, Caesar in Abyssinia (London, 1936), 401. 

23. Malcolm Muggeridge (ed.), Ciano’s Diplomatic Papers (London, 1948), 301–2. 

24. Drea, Japan’s Imperial Army, 182–6. 

25. Wilhelm Treue, ‘Denkschrift Hitlers über die Aufgaben eines Vierjarhresplan’, Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte, 3 (1954), 204–6.

26. Kathleen Burke, ‘The lineaments of foreign policy: the United States and a “New World Order”, 1919–1939’, Journal of American Studies, 26 (1992), 377–91. 

27. G. Bruce Strang, ‘Imperial dreams: the Mussolini–Laval Accords of January 1935’, The Historical Journal, 44 (2001), 807–9. 

28. Richard Overy, ‘Germany and the Munich Crisis: a mutilated victory?’, Diplomacy & Statecraft, 10 (1999), 208–11. 

29. Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford, 2015), 289–90, 291–2. 

30. Paine, Wars for Asia, 25. 

31. Benito Mussolini, ‘Politica di vita’ [Il popolo d’Italia, 11 Oct. 1935] in Opera Omnia di Benito Mussolini: vol. XXVII (Florence, 1959), 163–4. 

32. Chad Bryant, Prague in Black: Nazi Rule and Czech Nationalism (Cambridge, Mass., 2007), 41–4. 

33. Kristin Kopp, ‘Arguing the case for a colonial Poland’, in Volker Langbehn and Mohammad Salama (eds.), German Colonialism: Race, the Holocaust and Postwar Germany (New York, 2011), 150–51; David Furber, ‘Near as far in the colonies: the Nazi occupation of Poland’, International History Review, 26 (2004), 541–51. 

34. James Crowley, ‘Japanese army factionalism in the early 1930s’, Journal of Asian Studies, 21 (1962), 309–26. 

35. Drea, Japan’s Imperial Army, 183–6; Tarling, A Sudden Rampage, 40–43. 

36. Details from Paine, Wars for Asia, 34–40; Takafusa Nakamura, ‘The yen bloc, 1931–1941’, in Duus, Myers and Peattie (eds.), Japanese Wartime Empire, 1789. 

37. Paine, Wars for Asia, 15. 

38. Takafusa Nakamura and Kōnosuke Odaka (eds.), Economic History of Japan 1914–1945 (Oxford, 1999), 49–51; Paine, Wars for Asia, 24–30; Myers, ‘Creating a modern enclave economy’, 160. 

39. Yoshiro Miwa, Japan’s Economic Planning and Mobilization in Wartime, 1930s–1940s (Cambridge, 2015), 62–4; Nakamura and Odaka (eds.), Economic History of Japan, 47–51; Akira Hari, ‘Japan: guns before rice’, in Mark Harrison (ed.), The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison (Cambridge, 1998), 283–7. 

40. Hans van de Ven, China at War: Triumph and Tragedy in the Emergence of the New China 1937–1952 (London, 2017), 58–64.

41. Ibid., 66–70; Paine, Wars for Asia, 128–9. 

42. Rana Mitter, China’s War with Japan 1937–1945: The Struggle for Survival (London, 2013), 73–4. 

43. Van de Ven, China at War, 68–76; Odd Arne Westad, Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750 (London, 2012), 256–7. 

44. Paine, Wars for Asia, 128–9.

45. Hans van de Ven, War and Nationalism in China, 1925–1945 (New York, 2003), 194–5. 

46. Paine, Wars for Asia, 181–2. 

47. Mitter, China’s War with Japan, 128–35; on the massacres see Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II (New York, 1997), chs. 3–4. 

48. Van de Ven, War and Nationalism, 221–6. 

49. Diana Lary, The Chinese People at War: Human Suffering and Social Transformation, 1937–1945 (Cambridge, 2010), 60–62; Mitter, China’s War with Japan, 158–61. 

Leave a Reply