Manchuria, a region in northeastern China that incorporated the provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin (Kirin or Chi-lin), and Liaoning, had long been attractive to other nations. (See Far Eastern map.)
The Russians, China`s neighbor to the north, had occupied the area for several years at the beginning of the 20th century, then in 1929 became embroiled in a dispute with China over control of the Chinese Eastern Railway that crossed Manchuria on its way to Vladivostok. This incident did not erupt into a major conflict, but it did bring to light the shortcomings of the Kellogg-Briand Pact as a means to prevent armed conflict among signatories. U.S. Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson was embarrassingly unsuccessful in restraining the actions of the Soviets, who pointedly noted that they had little interest in following the suggestions of a nation that had denied them diplomatic recognition.
The Chinese also contended with an active Japanese presence in Manchuria that was sanctioned by international agreements. The Japanese controlled the South Manchurian Railroad, had soldiers in place to patrol its tracks and had established a large community of business people on Chinese soil. China was understandably unhappy with the foreign presence, but was too weak and fragmented to resist. By the 1920s, however, nationalist movements were underway.
In September 1931, an explosion damaged a section of the South Manchurian Railroad track an event sometimes labeled the Mukden Incident. The Japanese military immediately seized the opportunity to move soldiers from a base already established on the Liaodong Peninsula into other areas of South Manchuria. They encountered little Chinese resistance and the highly orchestrated nature of the Japanese move made it evident that it had been planned in advance.
Protests from Secretary Stimson did nothing to halt Japanese expansion. In October, the United States broke with recent policy and accepted an invitation from the League of Nations to sit with the Council in its deliberations on the evolving Manchurian crisis. Prentiss B. Gilbert, already stationed in Geneva, attended the sessions. The Japanese failed to respond to warnings from the international organization and the possibility of imposing economic sanctions was discussed by the delegates. The League hoped to exhaust all avenues of resolution and appointed a commission to travel to China to gather information. In December 1931, the League of Nations called for the creation of a fact-finding commission to travel to the Far East and report on its findings. Japan was supportive of this plan, but China knew that such a delay freed Japanese troops to continue their conquest of additional territory.
Members of the Lytton Commission, named for British diplomat Lord Lytton, were not appointed until January 1932 and did not arrive in Manchuria until April. American General Frank R. McCoy served on the commission.
Meanwhile, in the United States, opinion was divided. The Hoover administration made it clear that economic sanctions were a likely road to war and opposed them, which put the government at odds with a growing number of newspaper editorialists. At the end of December, the president reassured Congress and the public by informing them that U.S. was not bound to take any action in the Far East.
The Japanese continued to expand their military occupation of Manchuria; by early January 1932, effective Chinese resistance was ended. Secretary Stimson used this opportunity to send a note to China and Japan, which stated that the United States would not recognize any agreements made regarding Manchuria that impaired U.S. rights under existing treaties. This policy of non-recognition became known as the Stimson Doctrine.
On January 29, a major Japanese offensive was launched against the city of Shanghai. Thousands of men, women and children were killed in the bombing and subsequent fires. There was widespread international revulsion over the Japanese action, but few were willing to press matters to the brink of war.
Stimson held strong feelings about this situation, but had to heed the presidents warning about pressing the Japanese too hard. In the end, the secretary found an appropriate means to make his point. He sent an open letter to Senator William E. Borah, architect of the earlier Washington Conference, in which he provided a lengthy examination of recent treaties pertaining to the Far East and the development of the Open Door Policy. This summary of U.S. positions was intended not for the Senators benefit, but for a broader audience Japan, Britain, China, the League of Nations and the American public.
In March, Stimsons shirtsleeves diplomacy was rewarded when the Assembly of the League of Nations adopted a resolution containing language similar to that of the Stimson Doctrine. Faced with a united international community that had endorsed non-recognition of Japanese advances, Tokyo backed down commenced a withdrawal of troops from Shanghai that was complete in late May. The immediate war crisis had passed.
Japanese desires to dominate neighboring areas in the Far East remained undiminished, however. On September 15, 1932, Tokyo extended official recognition to Manchukuo, the supposedly independent state that had been created in Manchuria. In truth, Manchukuo was nothing more than a Japanese puppet-state that remained closed to the rest of the world. Only Germany and Italy joined Japan in granting diplomatic recognition. Pu Yi, the sole Manchu dynasty survivor, was installed as the ruler; he was named emperor in 1934.
In October 1932, the Lytton Commission issued its report labeling Japan as the aggressor, but acknowledging that the Japanese had historic special interests in Manchuria. In early 1933, the League of Nations backed the commission`s findings and the United States indicated that it was in substantial accord with the League. The Japanese were stung by this rebuke and on March 27 they informed the League of their intention to withdraw from the international body.
Relations between Japan and China remained strained in the following years, then finally erupted into full-scale war in 1937. In the minds of a number of authorities, the road to World War II began in Manchuria in 1931, when it became apparent to all that treaties and the efforts of the League of Nations were not sufficient to halt a nation bent on aggression. Nathaniel Peffer wrote in Harper`s issue of February 1933:
For, despite the concurrent ceremonials of League of Nations meetings, international commissions, invocations of peace pacts and the "technic of peace by conference," Japan has acted as it would have acted before 1914. It wanted Manchuria and has taken it. The League of Nations and the Kellogg Pact might as well not have been.