Rules of the Game

The Limits of Foreign Policy: The West, the League, and the Far Eastern Crisis of 1931-1933

by Christopher Thorne
Putnam, 442 pp., $12.95

On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs. Two railway sleepers, half a dozen fish plates, one rifle, and two Chinese soldiers’ caps were displayed as evidence by the Japanese army, which proceeded to take over the whole of Manchuria with alacrity. The Western powers huffed and puffed but did precisely nothing. Neither did Chiang Kai-shek, who was hard at work killing communists in the south. By the middle of 1933 Japan had gained a foothold across the Manchurian border and was threatening the North China plain. Japan had also withdrawn from the League of Nations, leaving that organization prostrate with inactivity. That was the “Manchurian crisis.”

Mr. Thorne is concerned to establish why it happened the way it did. His curiosity was aroused, apparently, “by the frequent assertion that here [in the crisis] lay the true starting point of the Second World War and the moment when the structure of international peace which had been erected after 1918 was overthrown, or betrayed, or both.” These assertions, I suspect, aroused not only curiosity but also some degree of irritation on Mr. Thorne’s part because they are fundamentally opposed to his own conception of how high diplomacy works. But more of that later.

The politics of the Far East in the 1930s are something of a gap in many people’s minds, especially up to the “real” beginning in 1937 (after another rigged incident) of Japanese war against China. Mr. Thorne wraps up this period in the first quarter of his daunting 400-plus pages of diplomatic history. Here are a few less diplomatic fragments of my own.

—On January 1, 1930, the Chinese Nationalist government in Nanking announced the ending of the system of “extra-territoriality” by which foreigners were immune from Chinese law. This was done by prior arrangement with the Western powers on the understanding that the system would not be affected until “detailed negotiations,” at some unspecified date, had led to its “gradual and progressive” abolition. It was not abolished until 1943, after all the foreign concessions had been taken over anyhow by Japan.

—On February 1, 1930, British naval units on the China station included one aircraft carrier, five cruisers, one flotilla leader, eight destroyers, and eighteen gunboats. This strength was not sufficient to take on that of Japan unaided. Its purpose, as stated by the First Lord of the Admiralty, was to be “available for the protection of life in China.”

—In the summer before the Manchurian Crisis, the Yangtze, the Huai, and the Yellow rivers overflowed their banks. Six hundred thousand people perished and fifty-five million were homeless. Emperor Hirohito of Japan made a donation of 100,000 yen to the flood relief fund.

—Foreign investment in Shanghai, the largest in any city in the world, was estimated at…

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