An extract from S Reed Brett, European History 1900-1960 (1967)

S Reed Brett was a textbook writer from the 1930s to the 1960s.




Japanese Aggression, 1931

It was in 1931 that the Japanese again became active in China. They found a pretext for action when a short section of the track of the Southern Manchurian Railway was destroyed by Chinese Nationalist forces. The situation was complicated: although Manchuria was within Chinese territory, the railway was owned by the Japanese who had treaty rights concerning it, including the right to police the line and its immediate vicinity. They chose to interpret this as giving them authority to retaliate when their railway was damaged. They seized the Chinese garrison and arsenal at near-by Mukden, and then proceeded to overrun Manchuria with Japanese troops.

China appealed to the League of Nations of which she was a member, as was also Japan. The League acted promptly, sending out a body of observers, the Lytton Commission, which issued the Lytton Report accusing Japan of violating treaties and the League of Nations' Covenant. Japan had a short answer: she resigned from the League in March 1933 by which time she had achieved most of her objectives. In particular, she had formed a nominally independent State in Manchuria, calling it Manchukuo and setting up the former Manchu Emperor of China, Pu-yi, as its puppet king.

There have always been differing views about how the League ought to have countered Japanese defiance - perhaps a trade boycott, or even military action. Whatever it ought to have done, in fact it did nothing. Before condemning the League outright, we must remember the circumstances of the period. The United States was not a member of the League and was therefore unlikely to support either military action or trading restrictions. The years 1932-33 were those of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party to power in Germany: the western Powers were thus much more acutely aware of the dangers to peace in their midst than of the danger in far away Manchuria. Moreover these were years of the deepest economic depression when every western country needed all its resources to keep its economic life stable: it could not afford either to spend money on military adventures on the other side of the world against so powerful a nation as Japan or to restrict its trade still further.

Nonetheless, whatever reasons the League and its individual members may have had for inaction, the results of it were deplorable. Japan's attack on a friendly Power and a fellow-member of the League, and her open defiance of world opinion, not only enabled her to keep her conquests but encouraged all other would-be aggressors to adopt similar methods. Hence, as we saw in the opening paragraphs of this chapter, this violation of the League's Covenant was the prelude to the long and fatal series culminating in the Second World War of 1939. 


S Reed Brett, European History 1900-1960 (1967)