The Manchurian Crisis, 1931-33

Key events:

  • Mukden Incident, September 18th, 1931
  • Lytton Commission, December 1931-October 1932

Key issues:

  • Why it happened
  • Reaction of the League
  • Consequences for the League, and for the world

Brief description

  • Causes:
    • Medium term: The Wall Street Crash and the onset of Depression led America to adopt protectionist policies. The Smoot Hawley Tariff was the result. This weighed heavily against Japan which relied upon exports to America to generate enough money to import food for its population. Signatories to Kellogg-Briand, Japan sought to extend its interests into China, beyond the Korean peninsula that was already part of its empire.
    • Immediate causes: The Mukden incident on the Manchurian railway line which straddled the China-Korea border, of September 18th was entirely engineered by the Japanese military which let off an explosion on the railway line in order to attract Chinese troops whom it would later blame for causing the incident. The explosion was not strong enough to attract attention so on the 19th September, the Japanese Kwantung army opened fire on a nearby Chinese Garrison, in ‘retaliation’ for the explosion.
  • The crisis unfolds:
    • Japan claimed it was acting in self-defence against Chinese attempts to take control of the territory it leased from the Chinese Government, and used this as a pretext for invasion which Japan conducted in the following weeks and months.
    • On October 24th, 1931 the League of Nations issued a resolution to the Japanese to withdraw. The latter refused and instead proceeded with negotiations with the Chinese government.
    • On January 14th 1932 the Lytton Commission began its enquiry and its results were published on October 2nd 1932. Whilst recognising that the Japanese had legitimate economic interests in Manchuria, the League rejected the argument that Japan was acting in self-defence, condemned Japanese action and ordered Japan to withdraw.
    • The League failed to apply sanctions, in part because the US were not on board: the Washington Naval Conference (1921) guaranteed a certain degree of Japanese hegemony in the Far East.
    • Britain was worried that if Japan failed to get its way in Manchuria it might look to British colonies and dominions instead.
    • Furthermore, Britain was in crisis, having been recently forced off the gold standard. Although a power in the Far East, Britain was incapable of decisive action.
    • The only response from these powers was “moral condemnation”
    • Japan resigned from the League in March 1933.
  • Consequences:
    • Manchuria damaged the League because one of its permanent Council Members had flagrantly violated the principles on which the League was established and then resigned when the League showed itself to be ineffective.
    • A. J. P. Taylor wrote that “In the face of its first serious challenge”, the League buckled and capitulated.
    • Japan and Manchuria provided a role model for Mussolini in Abyssinia and for Hitler in Austria and Czechoslovakia
    Excerpt from the Road to War series:

    The full episode:


%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close