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 Japan had also withdrawn from the League of Nations, leaving that organization prostrate with inactivity.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 more than six hundred million pounds. More than 200,000 workers in Shanghai’s silk filatures, cotton mills, etc., were paid an average wage of less than a shilling a day.

—In the fiscal year 1933-1934, the Chinese Ministry of Finance reported that payments for foreign loan services, indemnities, and military expenses represented a total of about 90 percent of all public income.

Perhaps the basic reason the Western powers made no effort to stop Japan in 1931 is not so hard to find after all. China was, as both Sun Yat-sen and Mao Tse-tung described it, a “semi-colonial country,” while Japan was one of the colonial powers. In the last analysis Japan belonged to the same club as the Western powers, in spite of the mixed feelings aroused by the color of Japanese skins and the ferocious productivity of Japanese looms. As a new member in 1895 after the Sino-Japanese War, Tokyo had been rapped over the knuckles for trying to grab the Liaotung peninsula. But a lot had happened since then, including the war with Russia, the relative decline of Western strength during the First World War, and the rise of Japanese business and investment in China to match that of the British. Japan was now on the committee of management, and it was generally recognized in the club that (to quote the British Foreign Secretary in November, 1928) “Japan and Great Britain have much larger interests in China than have the other…powers.”

Japan was taught the rules of the imperialist game, as Mr. Thorne points out, in the heady days of the Battle for Concessions and the Struggle for Spheres of Influence. It was not its fault if the rules had been changed at the 1922 Washington Conference, where the powers adopted what Thorne euphemistically calls a policy of “enlightened cooperation that would put an end to imperialist diplomacy.” There were to be no more battles and struggles, which were nasty old-fashioned imperialism. There were instead to be loan consortiums and equal opportunity in China for (other people’s) commerce and industry, which was nice enlightened cooperation. (This had been the American goal ever since the Open Door notes of 1900 declared it a primary aim of us policy “to safeguard for the world the principle of equal and impartial trade with all parts of the Chinese empire.”)


When Japan carved out its maxisphere of influence in Manchuria, soon to become proud little “independent” Manchukuo, it flagrantly broke the club rules but yet there were extenuating circumstances. Mr. Thorne explains that the policy of “enlightened cooperation” had broken down because of “the continuing fissiparity of Chinese politics, together with aggressive Nationalist demands and independent Soviet manoeuvrings.” This is a very loaded description of the anti-imperialist struggle of the 1920s in China (as on other occasions, the author seems to have absorbed too well the glib jargon of the diplomats who are his source material), but it is a fact that this struggle of Nationalists, communists, and others did offend and alarm the Western powers, the more so because they were obliged to make some concessions to it. When Japan claimed “provocation,” in the shape of the Chinese boycott of her goods and other “extremist” incidents, there was considerable sympathy, or at least a widespread willingness to accept the view that there were two sides to the question of Japanese aggression.

The moment it was conceded that Japan might have some sort of case, China’s cause was lost. And it was on this falsely equitable basis that the powers consulted and the League deliberated, that the Lytton Commission came to its “conclusions” and various parties attempted “conciliation.” These were not just the normal evasions of international diplomacy but, more specifically, of an international system dominated by the imperialist powers to which Japan belonged and China did not. There were many other complicating factors in the Far Eastern crisis of 1931-1933, but the character of the system in which it was set is surely the most crucial factor of all of them.

Mr. Thorne is a very thorough diplomatic historian, and he would certainly regard this sort of single-cause explanation as “crude” and “rash.” As is the habit in his profession he is fascinated by the diversity of motives in international affairs to the point where no single motive can ever claim priority over the others. We should not be tempted, he tells us, to cast into one stereotyped mold those who encouraged Western expansion into Asia. Materialism was not everything in us policy toward China. It would be a crude simplification to depict British policy during the Manchurian crisis as shaped to a large degree by “dynamic concepts of empire.” Inaccurate, too, to describe American policy as mainly motivated by outward-looking visions of foreign markets and (in Stimson’s words) “policing the world.” Japan’s steady expansion into China was not the product of a single conspiracy, but rather it arose “from the lack of a coherent structure of decision-making and executive responsibility” in default of which the army and navy could impose their own will upon policy “in directions that suited their own sectional interests.”

In style as well as in analytical content, Mr. Thorne’s preference for the all-inclusive generalization has a deadening effect upon the variety of information which his exhaustive researches has turned up. One is impressed—yet at the same time slightly depressed—by this beginning to an early chapter on the pre-crisis international setting:

The situation in China; the presence of the Soviet Union in the area; the interests and experiences of Japan; all these, when filtered through the perceptions of observers on the spot and in the capitals of the West, would be among the factors affecting the formulation and conduct of policy during the crisis of 1931-33. So, too, would the perceived interests, the immediate goals and the ultimate aspirations of the Western powers themselves.

Diplomacy is often said to be the art of the possible. It is perhaps less that than it is the art of asserting that one’s country has done all that is possible when it has done nothing at all. Students of diplomatic documents also become unduly fascinated by the complexities of decision-making, to the point where they cannot conceive of any alternative course of action to what was actually done or left undone. Mr. Thorne, whose interest in the Manchurian crisis was first aroused by the assertions of those who accused the Western powers of a culpable failure to act, never questions the diplomatic alibi for inaction. “To various unofficial commentators,” he writes in discussing the passivity of the Western powers after the crisis erupted, “the choices might appear simple, but to those at the main intersections in the web of international relations, the situation was rather the one that has been described in terms of domestic decision-making by Vickers.” (The reader is often hit over the head like this with an authority from the theory of political science or international relations. Vickers, apparently, says that all political problems are “multivalued” in their nature and effects.)


Even if the powers had agreed, for example, to withdraw their ambassadors from Tokyo by way of protest, there were “imponderables” which made the outcome of such a joint démarche doubtful. There are always imponderables, which by definition cannot be weighed in advance and therefore can always be invoked to discourage a particular course of action. (Though in view of the lengths to which Japan went anyhow in China, the argument in this case—that joint action by the powers would only provoke the Japanese further—now seems a shade frivolous.)

Mr. Thorne has read impressively in the diplomatic archives of the League, of France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States. He has sifted through a variety of private papers from those of Stanley Baldwin to those of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, us Section. There are all the published official documents, too (aptly called “Tomes” in the French series), and a wide range of secondary sources, especially on Japan. It is only the Chinese who seem to be poorly served in his bibliography. Eyewitness accounts of the crisis by sympathetic observers of China like Edgar Snow are not listed. The fairly abundant literature (in English translation) from Chinese sources of the 1920s and 1930s, analyzing the characteristics and extent of imperialist domination of their country, does not appear to have been consulted either. Not surprisingly, therefore, in a situation which was dominated by a fundamental imbalance of power and propaganda between the imperialist club and China, Mr. Thorne’s deliberately “balanced” view of the situation often tends to reflect the biases of his mainly Western sources and his failure to study the country the Japanese invaded.

By 1931, we are told, “the diplomacy of imperialism had been succeeded by confusion.” This view that after the ending of the First World War imperialism gave way to something else in the Far East is a commonplace among diplomatic historians of the period, and the standard work on the subject by Professor Akira Iriye is entitled appropriately After Imperialism.* There seems to be almost a willful blurring of reality here, confusing the undoubted decline in relative strength of some imperialist powers and their need to make some concession to the forces of nationalism in Asia (though few enough in the vast areas under outright colonial control) with some absolute change in their definition of self-interest. The effect of this ambiguity is, very frequently, to shift most of the responsibility for the one piece of imperialist expansion which cannot be gainsaid—that of Japan—either on to the forces of Chinese nationalism (which are made to seem somehow anachronistically obsessed with their anti-imperialist burden) or on to the “confused” character of the new international order.

“This assault by Chinese nationalists,” writes Mr. Thorne, “upon both the political assumptions and gradualist temper of the 1921-22 agreements owed much (though by no means everything) to the encouragement of the Soviet Union. Signs were not lacking elsewhere of a communist-inspired threat to the position of the imperial powers….” And more explicitly echoing Japan’s justification for the Shanghai offensive in January, 1932, “Tension in the city had been mounting for some time, as the Chinese refused to touch Japan’s goods, demanded total resistance to her in Manchuria, and made abusive remarks in the press against her Emperor.” Later on in the year, the view that Chiang Kai-shek was reacting too feebly to Japan’s attacks is attributed by Mr. Thorne to the “violent dissatisfaction” of “nationalist extremists.” Meanwhile in discussing the formulation of China policy in Tokyo, it is more usually the features of “confusion and fissiparity” that impress Mr. Thorne than the over-all Japanese drive toward continuing and never reversible expansion, which impressed so forcibly those at its receiving end in China.

But what seemed very simple in China was, according to Mr. Thorne’s researches, perceived only dimly if at all in the chancelleries of the West. There was, he writes, a “widespread failure in the West to grasp either the extent of the political changes that were taking place in Japan, or the essential nature of the political culture involved.” Yet no one was really to blame:

…the error was not dissimilar to that of believing in 1939 that Hitler could be placated with loans and large tracts of Africa, or, in 1969, that a high “body-count,” regardless of age, sex and intention, would help save South Vietnam for God, free enterprise and the Founding Fathers. Fundamentally, it arose from a failure of imagination.

This is one of those rare passages where the diplomatic historian allows the fundamental assumptions on which he operates to become explicit, too often illustrating his essential subservience to the myth-making of the official diplomats. Theirs must be the only profession which disclaims the pursuit of clearly articulated policies, which actually likes to cultivate the impression of being passive and unprepared for events. How hard life is for those who exist, in Mr. Thorne’s memorable phrase, “at the main intersections in the web of international relations.” No one on the outside can imagine how many factors have to be taken into account, how “multivalued” are the problems which they face, and what efforts of imagination they are required to make.

But it is not really like that at all. Japan was allowed to go so far because the Western powers believed it would keep its imperialist appetite (which they shared) within bounds. All the other constraining factors on Western action which Mr. Thorne chronicles so fully have to be seen in a convincing political setting, not allowed to float freely as coextensive and equally important. And the United States was allowed, two and a half decades later, to go on slaughtering the South Vietnamese because American leaders and their allies shared the same belief that this was the way to suppress the Vietnamese revolution. No one “imagined” for a moment that Japan did not want all it could grab of China; or that it was not us strategy to kill and make homeless as many uncooperative Vietnamese civilians as it could. It was not a case of too little imagination but of too much imperialism.

This Issue

May 17, 1973