50: Background


During the 1930s China would experience a devastating invasion. This invasion was launched by the Japanese who were trying to obtain greater access to the natural resources available in Manchuria and northern China. The result would be the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, a devastating conflict, and perhaps the start of the Second World War.



  • The Place of Chinese Disunity in Japanese Army Strategy During 1931 by Donald A. Jordan
  • Effects of Attrition on National War Effort: The Japanese Army Experience China, 1937-1938 by Alvin d. Coox (1968)
  • Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 by Rana Mitter
  • German Mediation in the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-38 by James T.C. Liu (1949)
  • Japan and the Axis, 1937-38: Recognition of the Franco Regime and Manchukuo by Florentino Rodao
  • Memory on Trial: Constructing and Contesting the ‘Rape of Nanking’ at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, 1946-1948 by James Burnham Sedgwick
  • The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography Edited by Joshua A. Fogel
  • Isolating Knowledge of the Unpleasant: The Rape of Nanking in Japanese High-School Textbooks by Christopher Barnard
  • Convergence or Divergence? Recent Historical Writings on the Rape of Nanjing by Daqing Yang (1999)
  • A Reconsideration of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident by James B. Crowley (1963)
  • Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze by Peter Harmsen
  • Shanghai and Nanjing 1937: Massacre on the Yangtze by Benjamin Lai
  • The Japanese Empire: Grand Strategy from the Meiji Restoration to the Pacific War by S.C.M. Paine
  • The Tokyo Judgment and the Rape of Nanking by Timothy Brook
  • The Tragedy of Wuhan, 1938 by Stephen MacKinnon
  • The 1934 Anglo-Japanese Nonaggression Pact by Chihiro Hosoya
  • Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search for Economic Security, 1919-1941 by Michael A. Barnhart
  • The Rape Of Nanking by Iris Chang
  • The Battle for China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 Edited by Mark Peattie, Edward Drea, and Hans Van De Ven
  • The Nanking Atrocity 1937-38: Complicating the Picture Edited by Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi
  • China’s Wars: Rousing the Dragon 1894-1949 by Philip Jowett


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 50 - The Second Sino-Japanese War Pt. 1 - Background. This week I would like to remind everyone that you can find the podcast on Twitter at WorldWar2Pod and Facebook at historyofthesecondworldwar. The podcast also has a discord server if you would like to come hang out with other listeners just like you, as well as myself, which I hope you see as a positive. If you were to task any person when the Second World War started, or if you were to ask in that discord server, I think it is safe to assume that the answer would be 1939 with the invasion of Poland. That event would bring in many other nations into war against Germany. Obviously, this is a valid view of events, and I am not going to say that a 1939 answer is wrong, but here in the introduction to this new series on the Second Sino-Japanese war I would like to present the case for why another possible answer revolves around events in China. July 1937 is probably the date with the best claim, which is the traditional date applied to the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese war with the Marco Polo Bridge incident near Peking and the Battle of Shanghai which would greatly escalate the fighting. You might even be able to make a case that the date should be earlier, perhaps with the Manchurian Incident which occurred in 1931 and which will be discussed in this episode. However, I am generally inclined to not consider that earlier date, mostly due to the lulls in the fighting which would occur in the intervening years, and the fact that for much of that time China was in what would could far more accurately be described as a Civil War, rather than focusing on fighting with Japan. The reason I find 1937 to be such an intriguing option is not even really rooted just in the fact that a war started that would not end until the end of the Second World War in 1945, that is obviously something to consider, but just because two conflicts are occurring at the same time does not mean they are related, or that later conflicts are related to the first. Instead, I think the most important consideration is why the nations were fighting. When we get to 1941, the Japanese and Chinese will be fighting for the same reasons, with the same goals, as they had when their conflict started in 1937, and those goals, while perhaps shifting in geographic space, were ultimately consistent in all of those years. The Japanese were trying to force the Chinese government under Chiang Kai-Shek to the negotiating table with the goal of greatly expanding their influence in China, the Chinese were mostly just trying to survive. These were the same in 1937 as they were in 1941 as they were in 1945, by which point the Chinese theater was an integral part of the Second World War. Given the amount of resources that the Japanese would pour into China before and after 1937, it would also greatly influence events in the Pacific Theater. it is this continuity of purpose throughout that I think is convincing, otherwise the only other option is to either reject that the Second Sino-Japanese War was part of the Second World War, which should not even be considered, or a line must be drawn somewhere on the timeline where there is little justification to do so. Again, I do not know if I fully endorse the idea that everybody should start saying the Second World War started in 1937, but I do think it is an interesting idea that prompts discussion about how Euro-focused much of 1930s history generally is for English speaking nations. Our purpose here today is not to debate what date should be put on the Second World War’s Wikipedia page, and instead to discuss the Second Sino-Japanese War, a conflict which would definitively begin in July 1937 and which would continue, and only escalate, until the end of the Second World War in 1945. Over that time more than 95 million Chinese civilians would become refugees, somewhere above 15,000,000 Chinese would be killed, the Japanese would suffer around 2.5 million casualties, all very large numbers for what would be a massive conflict. I am going to make a comparison here, and before anybody gets angry, it is a very narrow comparison, but I would compare the fighting in China and European Russia, in both cases, Germany and Japan, who attacked with the belief in a quick victory, found themselves in a situation in which one of their fronts of conflict could absorb almost an infinite amount of military resources, and no matter how many resources they invested, the result was never victory. In both cases this massive investment of time, material, and men into fighting one specific enemy left them completely unable to meet attacks elsewhere. Again, very narrow comparison, they are very different wars, but I think it works. Over the next several weeks we will be chronicling events in China, starting with the Manchurian Incident in 1931 and then through the Battle of Shanghai, and ending with the Nanjing Massacre. That will bring events in China up to the end of 1937, at which point we will leave China for a bit to discuss events elsewhere in the world. If we are going to chronicle these events we have to very briefly rewind to the 1920s.

Before we dive into events though, we need to introduce an individual that will be in our story until the end of the war in 1945, that being Chiang Kai-Shek. In 1925 and with the death of Sun Yat-sen, there was something of a succession crisis in China, and it would only be in June 1926 that Chiang, as the head of the National Revolutionary Army, would begin to assert something similar to control over a wide area of China. However, Chiang’s government would not be fully established until 1928, and only after a short hiatus from his leadership position in 1927 during which he married into a very financially influential family from Shanghai and exiled his first wife to America. This new government would be setup with its capital in Nanjing, and over the next decade it would continue to grow in its control over various areas of China. There is always an important footnote on the Chinese government during this period though, because there were serious limits on the ability of the government in Nanjing to project power, and limits to their ability to influence events in several areas. To start off with there were constant small civil wars happening, some very large civil wars, as well as coup attempts and other internal squabbles. Key to all of these events was the relatively high level of local autonomy experienced in many areas of china but what could best be described as warlords. For example in Manchuria Zhang Xuiliang, known as the Young Marshal in the west, would be able to have relative freedom in his actions with little ability of Chiang and the government in Nanjing to influence those actions. This situation was replicated in other areas as well, especially on the periphery. Even closer to Nanjing, for example in Sichuan, the local military leader, Liu Xiang, was deeply protective of his autonomy, and this would cause serious problems during the coming war with the Japanese. Early in the conflict there would be instances of support not being provided to Chiang specifically because various regional leaders believed that it would weaken them too much, leaving them open to falling completely under the control of the central government in Nanjing.

Chiang’s power would grow, even with these difficulties, and near the end of 1930 he would finally feel secure enough to launch what would be known, quite ominously, as the Extermination or Encirclement campaigns. There would eventually be five such campaigns, and they would all be targeted at the Chinese Communists. We will not be covering each of these campaign in detail, but in general the course of the first four campaigns would follow a template. Chiang and the Nationalists would target a specific area of Communist strength, for example the Kiangsi Soviet based in the Kiangsi and Fuijan provinces would be the primary target, and they would launch an attack on the soviet with a number of troops they felt necessary to guarantee victory, usually above twice as many as would be available to the Communists. Then, when they attacked they would generally fail to achieve their objectives due to the difficulties of coordination and attack into enemy territory and against a highly motivated enemy. Each of these failures would, instead of destroying the Soviets, make them strong due to the captured weapons and supplies. The Fourth campaign would see an attack against Kiangsi with 154,000 men, with an additional 240,000 defending the borders around the area, and even with this large advantage over the 65,000 strong Communist Army, the result would still be failure after 8 months of fighting. With the fifth Campaign, which would begin in September 1933, there would be a change in tactics. Chiang and the Nationalists would have an overwhelming number of troops, 900,000, but instead of marching them into Communist territory, they instead would created a defensive belt around the Communist controlled territory. They then blockaded any supplies from moving into the province, and those trapped within began to starve. This would result in around a million civilians dying, and the Communist military forces slowly wilting away, with up to 60,000 military deaths. Eventually Communist leaders would make the decision that they needed to find a way out of the encirclement, an incredibly dangerous prospect because it meant fleeing without any guarantee of there being a safe harbour nearby, and in fact they would have a long way to go to find one. They would leave behind anyone who was incapable of walking under their own power as well as a 16,000 strong rearguard. They would attempt to break through the Nationalist defenses in the southwest of the province in October 19345 with around 86,000 soldiers, Communist party officials, and civilians. Less than half of that number would be able to actually escape the Nationalist cordon, and those that were left were only at the beginning of what would come to be known as the Long March. Over the next year they would travel 6,000 miles before eventually arriving at the Shaanxi province in northern China, by which point only 10,000 of those that had started the March would reach its end. The legacy of the Long march, and its place in the foundation of what would eventually become the Chinese Communist Party under the leadership of Mao Zedong, is a large topic that we won’t be diving too deep into, at least for now. What is important is that even with all of this animosity, violence, and obvious ideological differences between the Nationalists and the Communists, which would cause the deaths of literally millions of people, in 1937 they would still agree to work together in a United Front again Japan, that is how much they hated the Japanese.

Speaking of the Japanese, before we jump into events we need to talk about why the Japanese were even in China in the first place. The core of the disagreements between the two nations was the fact that the Japanese considered themselves to be the dominant regional power, while the Chinese did not recognize that power in the way that the Japanese wanted. This tension had been ongoing for decades before the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and had only been growing as Japanese control and influence in Northern China and Manchuria had continued to grow during the 1920s and 30s. This influence was increased and nurtured due to the economic realities of Japan’s position on the world stage. It wanted to be a great power, and it wanted to be able to military match the other great powers, especially the Western nations. However, within the Japanese home islands and their overseas possessions in the Pacific, the raw materials to make that happen simply did not exist. They were heavily dependent on imports from the United States, which would create a painful moment after the Stock Market Crash of 1929 when the United States and other nations suddenly erected strong tariff barriers, which greatly reduced international trade, including trade with Japan. This economic dependence on other nations increased the support within Japan, in the military, government, and populace, to pursue a more autarkic approach to economic policy, or a push to an economy where Japan enjoyed much greater overall control, but this shift towards self sufficiency did not result in a reduction in the goals for a large and powerful military. Japan at the time simply did not have access to the raw materials to make those military goals a reality, they simply did not have access to enough vital elements like coal, iron, and most painfully oil. So they looked around them to find ways to secure those supplies. In Northern China, and more specifically in Manchuria, they found an opportunity. During the 1920s they would invest heavily in Manchuria, with Japanese businesses and investment skyrocketing as a way of trying to utilize the resources available in the region. In many ways they began to treat Manchuria as a colony, in the grand Western Imperialist tradition, they expected that their investments and their control of the region would grow and they would see the appropriate payoff. When third did not occur, they increased military pressure in Manchuria, and this increased tensions with local leaders. This then came into collision with a growing belief among Chinese leaders that they had to start pushing back harder against foreign intervention and control in China, a foreign intervention that had been quite harmful to China for over a century. An important moment in this conflict was when the Chinese government in the south attempted to nationalize all silver in China, silver being the basis for exchange in China, but the northern banks, under Japanese influence, refused to send their silver south. These kinds of disagreements between the Japanese controlled north and the Chinese officials in the south would increase tensions. Beyond the economic sphere, there was also serious influence by Japanese military officers in Japanese actions on the mainland. The Japanese military, and specifically the Army when it came to China, favored a very aggressive policy. They felt that there position as a great power justified the use of force to assert their position within China, and they used the actions of Western great powers as justification. Other nations with Imperial holdings had been waging wars against those holdings to maintain control for basically the entire span of human history, and the Japanese claimed they were simply doing the same thing. But instead of giving into the demands, when the Japanese pushed, the Chinese pushed back, and so the Japanese would push harder. This created an environment where the only option that the Japanese military could see was one of escalation. More men, more fighting, capturing more territory, these would be the constant factors in Japanese strategy which would culminate in their largest offensive in the war in 1944. Throughout this entire series and for all of our discussions of the war in the china, the theme is one of constant escalation. What began as economic expansion as a way of financing and supporting Japanese rearmament and military expansion became a military campaign that seemed to have an almost infinite ability to absorb and destroy those same military resources.

This brings us to the start of that military escalation, and the Manchurian incident. After the Russo-Japanese war the Japanese had been provided with a controlling interest in the South Manchurian Railway company, with this controlling interest used as an excuse to base Japanese military units in Manchuria to protect the railway, units that would greatly expand in size over the years, eventually becoming known as the Kwantung Army. The basis for the Japanese position in Manchuria was expanded in treaties that had been signed with Zhang Zoulin, the warlord of Manchuria for most of the 1920s. These treaties provided the Japanese with many privileges and dictated some of the ways in which the Japanese could control local actions. Because of these privileges the Japanese continued to pour money into Manchuria, and after 1926 70% of all Japanese foreign investment found its way to Manchuria. This investment was already seeing a huge return by 1930, with 2/3 of Japanese coal and half of Japanese cast iron imports coming from Manchuria. Along with this there was always some disagreements between what the Japanese thought they controlled and what the local Chinese leaders believed their controlled. For example the Chinese railway companies were unwilling to link up with the South Manchurian railway, when the Japanese believed that they were entitled to that link up. There was also a growing tide of Japanese immigration into the area, which increased Japanese control in what was seen as a very dangerous way. These tensions would boil over in 1931 with the Manchurian incident, an incident in no small part instigated by the Japanese themselves. Local Japanese military leaders, and the leaders back in Tokyo, never really agreed on the best course of action in Manchuria. The local military wanted to take a far more firm hand with the local Chinese, while leaders in Tokyo were concerned that such an actions would result in a Western response. To try and create the scenario where military force was warranted the Kwantung Army, during June 1931, would begin a series of provocations with the explicit intention of escalating relations with the Chinese to the point of open conflict. These escalations included actions like using police violence against Chinese peasants who were squabbling with Korean peasants in the area over irrigation rights. At this same time in China, a growing resentment towards the Japanese control resulted in several boycotts of Japanese goods. At this time the threat posed by the Japanese was not the unifying factor that it would later become, instead during 1931 the inability of Chiang and the KMT to deal with Japanese aggression would serve to fracture support, which would only encourage further Japanese incidents. All of these problems, provocations, and disagreements would result in the full scale invasion of Manchuria by the Japanese Army in September 1931. This was an action controlled by the Kwantung Army, and was not fully controlled by the Japanese government in Tokyo. In fact, months later the Japanese cabinet would fall over the fact that it could not get the army to conform with its wishes for china. After the invasion the Chinese government would officially appeal to the League of Nations for help. You may remember this event from our earlier episodes on the League of Nations, but the most that the League would do was to set up a commission to investigate. This would be the first of many examples of the powerlessness of the League during the 1930s, a problem that would accelerate its demise. The invasion would also cause political havoc among the Chinese leadership, and China itself would be left without a government for a month during the height of the crisis due to disagreements on how to proceed. The reason for this lack of a government was because Chiang would use this moment to stage a bit of a powerplay, and in mid-December he would resign to prove the point that nobody else could act as a unifying figure in Chinese politics, and after a month of disagreements Chiang would be proven correct before he came back in January 1932. On March 1st the Japanese declared the creation of Manchukuo, a nation outside of China and led by the former Chinese emperor Puyi, which would then go on to function as a Japanese puppet state. The already high level of Japanese investment would only increase, with massive spending on infrastructure, rail, road, telegraph, electricity generation, and many other areas would see massive expansion. This was followed by investments in industry and mining, with the hopes of using Manchukuo as the base for the continuing growth of the Japanese military. Eventually it would become the most industrialized area in all of Eastern Asia, outside of the Japanese home islands. The loss of Manchuria caused the Chinese government to further harden its resolve to stand up to the Japanese, although it would be some time before that resolve would result in open conflict. This would be the point where a National Defense Planning Council was established to first determine the state of the Chinese military and then to put in place programs that would eventually result in the Chinese troops which would be so important to the fighting in 1937.

Before we end today, let’s take a brief moment to look at the international response to the events in China, outside of the League. Much of the Japanese government’s hesitancy to commit to expansion in China were based on concerns of an international response, a response that would not really end up happening. both the League of Nations and then other interested Western nations did not really do anything after the invasion and the establishment of Manchukuo. In fact relations with some nations, like Great Britain, would only become better in the early 1930s. The British would start discussions of proposing a non-aggression pact with Japan, essentially ceding all territory north of the Great Wall to Japan in exchange for guarantees of Chinese territory to the south. This agreement would not happen due to various political developments, but it was seriously discussed at a time after the establishment of Manchukuo. The failure of other nations to respond to the Manchurian Incident would embolden the Japanese military, who seemed to now have a free hand in China, at least for the time being. This also further undermined the ability of the civilian government in Tokyo to control events in China, with their previously cautious approach proving to be unnecessary and their concerns unwarranted. This would lay the groundwork for the constant expansion in the years that would fallow, expansion constantly and consistently justified by military necessity.