Fifty years ago today -- Sept. 18, 1931 -- a sorely tried world, including the civilian Japanese government, was shocked by the news that the Japanese military had commenced large-scale operations against. Manchuria, controlling virtually the whole of it within four days. One can only speculate that, if the League of Nations had done something more than "rap Japan's knuckles" for this adventure, the Italians might not have entered Ethiopia and Albania, and the Germans and Italians might not have entered Spain. The United States and all other countries with the exceptions of Japan, Italy, and -- by a fluke -- El Salvador merely refused to recognize Manchoukou
The league's inability to defuse Japan's aggression in Manchuria revealed a weakness whose implications became increasingly apparent as the tragedy of the 1930s unfolded. Adding irony to the role of the Manchurian episode in the succession of events destined to engulf the world is the indisputable suspicion that the so-called Mukden incident -- the trigger that ignited the Japanese attack -- was as much a hoax, a fabricated pretext, as the Reichstag fire that a few years later became the pretext for the Nazi takeover of Germany.
Manchuria at that time consisted of China's northeastern provinces, controlled principally by local "warlords" rather than by the central Chinese government. On Sept. 18, 1931, the Japanese army in Kwantung province attacked the barracks and arsenal of the Manchurian forces about six miles north of Mukden, a major rail terminal. The announced reason was retaliation for the alleged damage to Japan's South Manchuria Railway by Manchurian troops, who were also accused of attacking the railroad's Japanese guard. The English translation of the Japanese commander's proclamation (handed to me by the Japanese military spokesman) accused Manchuria's army with trying to destroy the railway -- a challenge and an insult requiring "drastic measures" to maintain Japanese rights and interests and "to make secure the prestige of the Imperial Japanese army." There is little doubt that many of the troops and supplies used in the Japanese offensive were on trains headed for Mukden before the Japanese commander made his move.
The Japanese attack came as no surprise to many who had been studying the "Manchurian problem." the Japanese military had long felt that seizing Manchuria would solve several of Japan's major economic and military problems. Many students of Sino-Japanese affairs had expected the Japanese military to find some pretext for taking Manchuria. Some thought this might happen in July 1931, just after chinese soldiers executed Captain Nakamura, a Japanese officer visiting Manchuria on a passport identifying him as an "agricultural expert."
The governor of the province where Mukden was the capital city (Fengtien Province) advised Japan that he had appointed two investigators to look into the matter and report their findings promptly. The investigators completed their assigned task, but the Japanese rejected the findings and insisted on an immediate second investigation. The Chinese overlord of Manchuria, Chang Hsueh-liang, obliged.
The afternoon of Sept. 18, Chinese authorities conferred with the Japanese consular officers in Mukden; admitted Chinese responsibility for the killing of Nakamura; and said that the guilty parties would be tried by court-martial within a week. It appeared that the Nakamura case was about to be settled amicably despite repeated accusations by the Japanese military that the Chinese were insincere and merely procrastinating. That evening however, the Mukden "incident" made clear that the Japanese military did not intend to resolve their differences with China by peaceful means.
It was not until Sept. 23 that the Japanese allowed outsiders to see the section of the railway that allegedly had been damaged. I was invited, along with a group of newspaper correspondents, to visit the scene and was given a photograph showing the repairedm track as well as the allegedly damaged, yard-long section of rail that had been replaced. We were also given pictures of several bodies of Chinese soldiers whom the Japanese claimed to have shot in the encounter. Only two wooden sleepers appeared to have been replaced, but it was not clear when this was done or whether the replacements were in fact necessary. Even if the damage had occurred as the Japanese claimed, it was a very minor damage that could have been repaired in an hour or so. No significant interruption of rail service would have occurred. The train from Chanchun that evening actually arrived on time at 10:30, the time the Japanese said the rail line was attacked. An acquintance of mine who was on that train said that there was no interruption in the train's progress at that juncture, nor was any rifle fire heard by those aboard the train.
No one I know of with any knowledge of the "evidence" offered by the Japanese felt the Mukden "incident" was plausible. How could so many Japanese troops and their supplies have arrived in Mukden from so many different places as early s they did if they were not already on the way before or even shortly after the alleged explosion at about 10:30 p.m.? Why did not the Japanese military allow outsiders to see or be supplied with photographs of the railroad in its allegedly damaged condition? Also, if the Chinese were intent on severely damaging the railway, why would they have been content with merely blowing out a very short section or rail when they could instead have set off dozens of explosions at many different places, or even blown up an entire train? Even if the Chinese had inflicted the damage claimed by the Japanese, would this have justified seizing the whole of Manchuria and converting it into a Japanese-controlled "indepedent" state called Manchoukou?
There is no proof that the Japanese military fabricated the whole affair. Nor is there proof that the Nazis fabricated the Reichstag fire as the pretext for their rise to power.
The League of Nations Commission that investigated the Manchurian "incident" did not deny that an explosion of some kind had occurred between 10:00 and 10:30 on the night of Sept. 18. A giant but harmless firecracker could conceivably have been ignited by someone. but the commission, chaired by the internationally respected Lord Lytton, was not convinced that the Mukden "incident," as described by the Japanese military in detail whose obvious fabrication they themselves at times found embarrassing, ever occurred.
In an address by Lord Lytton at Chatham House on Oct. 19, 1932, directly after he had returned from Manchuria, he stated: ". . . I would point out . . . that throughout the Report, so far as I am aware, we have never referred to the "Incident" of the 18th of September, and we have not referred to it because in our opinion it is very doubtful whether it ever occurred. . . . We have referred to the events of the 18th of September, about which there is no doubt."