Road to the Day of Infamy…The toothless League Lion and the growth of Japan

Posted by Rebekah
Nov 07 2011

So back to Japan and Manchuria and what’s happening there.

Following the original invasion of Manchuria in September 1931, China applied to the League of Nations to stop them and force a withdrawal.  That was, after all, what the League had been founded for, to stop wars through interaction and diplomacy.

Of course, there were major problems.  One was the sheer time delay for messages to get to the League headquarters in Europe.  Another was the severe anti-war sentiment in both the USA and Europe. The horror of WWI and the mark it left on the soldiers destroyed both physically and mentally from the new weapons like tanks and poison gas made a lot of people strongly against fighting war for any reason.  Nothing could possibly be worth asking our boys to go through something like this again-or worse.

The League of Nations issued a verbal reprimand to Japan. Some sources say that the Japanese government agreed and said they’d withdraw from the conquered areas of Manchuria back to the rail zones, but the military ignored the government. Other sources say that Japan rejected the proposal out of hand, saying that they were simply protecting their own people from violence done to them by the few communities of Chinese that inhabited the area, and were now strengthening their position to make sure there were no repetitions.  In any case, in six months, Japan had firm control of the whole region, installing a Japanese friendly government and renaming it Manchuko.

The League decided the only fair thing to do was send a delegation to Manchuko and listen to both Chinese and Japanese sides of the story and see if they could mediate a solution. Months passed again, as the delegation transported to Manchuko and began their investigation.

The story the Japanese originally circulated about Chinese dissidents blowing up the rail line had quickly fallen apart.  There was strong evidence that some low-level lieutenants had done the damage themselves to try and instigate an incident with the local Chinese forces (you remember, the one with dummy rifles?) Whether this was to vent steam or part of a full plot to purposely invade and hold Manchria/Manchuko again depends on the source one finds.

In the end, the League delegates issued the Lytton Report, stating that though China had goo d complaints, it also had ambiguous ownership of Manchuria to begin with. It also stated, as gently as it could, that Japan, had acted in an aggressive measure and needed to withdraw from Manchuria. In light of the issues with China’s apparent ambiguity to Manchuria, the Lytton Report also suggested that Manchuria establish itself as an independent nation.  (Sounds a bit like my parents presiding over my siblings and me…”If you can’t play nicely and treat things properly, I’ll take it away from both of you!”)

At this point, the delegates expected Japan to respect the findings of the report and f0llow the recommendations if they wanted to maintain their position in the League. Japan left…the League.  It kept Manchuko.

The League wasn’t out of options yet.  According to their pact they could attack Japan itself and force it to obey the League ruling, or they could cut Japan off from the economic trade of all League members and starve it into submission.

And that’s when the real problems began.  Because it’s 1933. In the middle of the global Great Depression. What trade is going on in the world, all countries are eager to continue, if not increase any trade they have going to strengthen their respective economies. There were enough members in the League to make things problematic for Japan, but not for long. There were enough other countries with the goods and services that Japan was looking for who would happily increase trade in a heartbeat, especially with Japan consuming about as much as it could get its hands on.

The League nations knew it too, and were not about to cut their trade down for a country that would be hurt only temporarily.  So that left war.

Being the Great Depression, most League nations had a fully staffed military.  After all, it was a steady, if small, paycheck  and at least you had three square meals, clothes and shelter every day, which was more than many folks had.

But there was that anti-war sentiment. And the League nations knew that no matter what had happened in Manchuria/Manchuko, it was not outrageous enough, nor close enough to home, to get their citizens willing to go to war.

So it turned out, that the League was a toothless lion. Japan kept Manchuko. And soon realized that there was potential for much, much more.


(As an end note, seven months after Japan left, Germany also walked out. Barred from having a military after WWI, it sought to increase its military under the League’s rules, but realized that the other European powers were not going to let it have a military on par with the rest of Europe. So it walked too, and started building what would become one of the most feared militaries in history. Once again, the League’s hands were tied, verbally, economically, and certainly, militarily.  Germany began her growth and Europe looked on, hoping it wouldn’t come to the worst…again.)

British website about the Manchuria incident and the League response

Timeline of the development and dissolution of League of Nations

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