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Japanese Attack on China 1937

Marco Polo Bridge Incident

ON JULY 7, 1937 a clash occurred between Chinese and Japanese troops near Peiping in North China. When this clash was followed by indications of intensified military activity on the part of Japan, Secretary of State Hull urged upon the Japanese Government a policy of self-restraint. In a conversation of July 12 with Japanese Ambassador Saito, Secretary Hull elaborated upon the futility of war and its awful consequences, emphasizing the great injury to the victor as well as to the vanquished in case of war. He said that a first-class power like Japan not only could afford to exercise general self-restraint but that in the long run it was far better that this should characterize the attitude and policy of the Japanese Government; that he had been looking forward to an early period when Japan and the United States would have opportunity for world leadership with a constructive program like that proclaimed by the American republics at Buenos Aires in December 1936 for the purpose of restoring and preserving stable conditions of business and of peace. (85)

Secretary Hull's Statement of Principles

On July 16, 1937, a few days after the beginning of Japan's undeclared war on China, Secretary Hull issued a statement of fundamental principles of international policy. The Secretary stated that any situation in which armed hostilities were in progress or were threatened was a situation wherein rights and interests of all nations either were or might be seriously affected. Therefore, he felt it a duty to make a statement of this Government's position in regard to international problems and situations with respect to which this country felt deep concern. He said that the following principles were advocated by the United States: maintenance of peace; national and international self-restraint; abstinence from use of force in pursuit of policy; abstinence from interference in the internal affairs of other nations; adjustment of problems in international relations by processes of peaceful negotiation and agreement; faithful observance of international agreements; modification of provisions of treaties, when need therefor arises, by orderly processes carried out in a spirit of mutual helpfulness and accommodation; respect by all nations for the rights of others and performance by all nations of


established obligations; revitalization and strengthening of international law; promotion of economic security and stability the world over; lowering or removing of excessive barriers of international trade; effective equality of commercial opportunity and application of the principle of equality of treatment; and limitation and reduction of armament. The Secretary stated that the United States avoided entering into alliances or entangling commitments but believed in cooperative effort by peaceful and practical means in support of the above-stated principles. (86)

This statement of fundamental principles of international policy was sent to the other governments of the world for comment. The reply from Germany was that the Reich Government had taken note with due interest of Secretary Hull's statement; that the Reich Government's "basic principle is, as is generally known, directed toward the regulation of international relations by pacific agreement and hence coincides with the ideas developed by the Secretary of State". The reply from Italy was that the Fascist Government "appreciates at their high value the principles enunciated by Secretary of State Hull"; that it favored everything which conduced to the pacification and to the political and economic reconstruction of the world; and that, therefore, it regarded with sympathy every initiative which tended to achieve that end by means of the limitation of armaments, by means of economic understanding among nations, non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries, and any other means which might then or in the future appear responsive to this objective. The Japanese Government replied that it expressed concurrence with the principles contained in the statement by Secretary Hull; that it believed that the objectives of those principles would only be attained, in their application to the Far Eastern situation, by a full recognition and practical consideration of the actual particular circumstances of that region.

Offer of Good Offices

Secretary Hull called in Chinese Ambassador Wang and Japanese Ambassador Saito on July 21, 1937 and in separate conversations with them emphasized that the United States Government was ready and would gladly do anything short of mediation which would require the agreement of both parties in advance to contribute in a fair and impartial way toward composing the matters of controversy between China and Japan. The Secretary said that when two nations comprising 500,000,000 people were engaged in a controversy


in which general hostilities appeared imminent the United States could not help feeling great concern. He said that it was in the light of this situation and of the "intense desire" of the United States for peace everywhere that he conferred with them; that he thus approached each Government in a spirit of friendliness and impartiality in an earnest effort to contribute something to the cause of peace. He expressed the opinion that a war would result in irreparable harm to all countries involved and would prove "utterly disastrous" to human welfare and progress. (87)

On August 10, 1937 the United States Ambassador to Japan, under instructions from the Secretary of State, offered informally to the Japanese Government the good offices of the United States toward the settlement of the controversy between Japan and China. This offer contemplated the providing of neutral ground where Japanese and Chinese representatives might meet to negotiate and the giving of assistance in adjusting difficulties that might develop during negotiations. Japan did not respond to this offer; consequently the United States Government felt that there would be no useful purpose in making a similar approach to the Chinese Government. (88)

Meanwhile, the China "incident" had developed into large-scale military operations as Japan poured men and engines of war into China. On August 23, 1937 the Department of State issued a statement declaring that the issues and problems which were of concern to the United States in the existing situation in the Pacific area went "far beyond merely the immediate question of protection of the nationals and interests of the United States"; that the conditions prevailing in that area were intimately connected with and had a direct and fundamental relationship to the general principles of policy made public on July 16. In this statement it was declared further that the existence of serious hostilities anywhere was a matter of concern to all nations; that without attempting to pass judgment on the merits of the controversy, the United States appealed to the parties to refrain from war; that the United States considered applicable throughout the world, in the Pacific area as elsewhere, the principles set forth in the statement of July 16; and that that statement embraced the principles embodied in the Washington Conference treaties and the Kellogg-Briand Pact.

The Department stated that from the beginning of the controversy in the Far East the United States had urged upon both Japan and China the importance of refraining from hostilities and of maintaining peace; that the United States had been participating constantly in


consultation with interested governments, directed toward peaceful adjustment; that this Government did not believe in political alliances or entanglements, nor in extreme isolation; that this Government did believe in international cooperation for the purpose of seeking through pacific means the achievement of the objectives set forth in the statement of July 16. (89)

On September 2, 1937 the Secretary of State sent a telegram to Ambassador Grew in Japan summarizing the attitude of the United States toward the conflict between China and Japan. The Secretary stated that the course of the United States as pursued during recent years in regard to the Far East had been animated partly by the thought of encouraging Japanese and Chinese efforts at developing toward each other and toward the world attitudes of real cooperativeness. The situation produced by the hostilities going on between China and Japan permitted, he said, little hope of any such attitude being reciprocally developed by those two countries in the near future. He doubted that those in control of Japanese policies valued appreciably the friendship of other nations or efforts made by the United States and other nations to cultivate good-will, confidence, and stability. Public opinion in the United States, he said, had been outraged by the methods and strategy employed by the combatants, particularly by the Japanese military, and had become gradually more critical of Japan; in addressing authorities of either side he did not intend to call names or make threats; however, he wished the Japanese Government to understand fully that the United States looked with thorough disapproval upon the current manifestation of Japanese foreign policy and upon the methods employed by the Japanese military in pursuit of that policy. He asked the Ambassador to suggest to Japanese officials that Japan, by the course it was pursuing, was destroying the good-will of the world and was laying up for itself among the people of the world a liability of "distrust, suspicion, popular antipathy, and potential ostracism", the liquidation of which would take many, many years of benevolent endeavor by Japan. (90)

A year later, in a conversation with the Canadian Minister, Secretary Hull said that since August 1937 he had proceeded on the theory that "Japan definitely contemplates securing domination over as many hundreds of millions of people as possible in eastern Asia and gradually extending her control through the Pacific islands to the Dutch East Indies and elsewhere, thereby dominating in practical effect that one-half of the world". (111)


On September 14, 1937 the President issued a statement to the effect that the question of applying the Neutrality Act remained in status quo; that merchant vessels owned by the Government of the United States would not be permitted to transport to China or Japan any arms, ammunition, or implements of war; and that any other merchant vessel flying the American flag which attempted to transport such articles to China or Japan would do so at its own risk. (91)

On September 28, 1937 the Secretary of State sent instructions to Minister Harrison in Switzerland for the Minister's background information in connection with the activities of the League of Nations in the dispute between China and Japan. The Secretary said that the United States had been approached on several occasions by other governments with suggestions for joint action; that while, the United States believed in and wished to practice cooperation it was not prepared to take part in joint action, though it would consider the possibility of taking parallel action. In general, the Secretary felt that spontaneous and separate action on parallel lines was more likely to serve effectively the attainment of the objectives sought. The Secretary said that the Japanese military operations had increased in intensity; that China had affirmed a willingness to resort to conciliation; that the Japanese had announced, however, their intention to destroy the Chinese will and capacity to resist and to overthrow the existing Chinese Government. He said that the Sino-Japanese situation definitely concerned the world as a whole; that no longer did the questions involved relate merely to specific provisions of particular treaties being violated; that they were questions of international law, of humanity, of war and of peace. The Secretary said that the United States in action taken thus far had gone further than any other nation or group of nations in making efforts calculated to strengthen general principles of world peace and world security. Therefore, he felt that other nations might well direct their efforts toward going as far as or farther than the United States had gone. (92)

President Roosevelt's "Quarantine" Address

In a significant address delivered at Chicago on October 5, 1937, President Roosevelt dwelt at length on the tense condition of international affairs. He declared that the political situation in the world was one to cause grave concern and anxiety; that the existing reign of terror and international lawlessness had reached the stage where the very foundations of civilization were seriously threatened.


He warned that no one should imagine that America would escape from this or that the Western Hemisphere would not be attacked. He called for a concerted effort by the peace-loving nations in opposition to the actions that were creating international anarchy and instability.

The President declared that isolation or neutrality afforded no escape and that international anarchy jeopardized the security of every nation, large or small. He cited the spreading of the "epidemic of world lawlessness", and drew the parallel that in case of an epidemic of physical disease the community joins in a "quarantine" of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease. War, he said, is a "contagion" and can engulf states remote from the original scene of hostilities. We were determined, he continued, to keep out of war, we were adopting measures to minimize the risk, yet we could not insure ourselves against war's disastrous effects and the dangers of involvement. The President called upon the peace-loving nations to express their will for peace to the end that nations tempted to violate their agreements and the rights of others would desist. He concluded with: "America hates war. America hopes for peace. Therefore, America actively engages in the search for peace." (93)

On October 6, 1937 the Assembly of the League of Nations adopted a report stating that the Japanese action in China was a violation of Japan's treaty obligations. On the same day the Department of State issued a statement that the action of Japan in China was inconsistent with the principles which should govern the relations between nations and was contrary to the Nine-Power Treaty of February 6, 1922 regarding the principles and policies to be followed in matters concerning China, and contrary to the Kellogg-Briand Pact. (94)

Brussels Conference

In November 1937 the United States participated with 18 other nations in a Conference held at Brussels to consider "peaceable means" for hastening the end of the conflict between China and Japan. This Conference was held in accordance with a provision of the Nine-Power Treaty of 1922.

The instructions given by President Roosevelt and Secretary Hull to United States delegate Norman H. Davis stated that the first objective of the foreign policy of the United States was national security, and that consequently we sought to keep peace and promote the maintenance of peace; that we believed in cooperative effort for the


preservation of peace by pacific and practicable means; that this country as a signatory to the Kellogg-Briand Pact had renounced war as an instrument of national policy; and that "public opinion in the United States has expressed its emphatic determination that the United States keep out of war". Mr. Davis was instructed to keep in mind the interest of the United States in peace in the Pacific and in the Far East as evidenced by the Washington Conference treaties, the statements relating to foreign policy made by the President in his Chicago address of October 5, and this Government's statement of October 6 on the controversy between China and Japan. In the view of this Government the primary function of the Conference was "to provide a forum for constructive discussion, to formulate and suggest possible bases of settlement, and to endeavor to bring the parties together through peaceful negotiation".

It was emphasized to the United States delegate that if we were to avoid an ultimate serious clash with Japan, some practical means must be found to check Japanese conquest and to make effective the collective will of the powers which desired the settlement of international controversies by peaceful means; that the Conference might be an agency for bringing to bear upon Japan every moral pressure directed toward bringing about a change in Japanese attitude and policy. Finally, the delegate was to "observe closely the trend of public opinion in the United States and take full account thereof". (95)

Japan refused to participate in the Conference, maintaining that its dispute with China was outside the purview of the Nine-Power Treaty. On November 15 the Conference adopted a declaration affirming that the representatives of 15 states considered the conflict between China and Japan to be of concern to all countries party to the Nine-Power Treaty and the Kellogg-Briand Pact. In the presence of this difference between the views of the Conference and the Japanese Government, the Conference considered that there was no opportunity at the time for carrying out its terms of reference so far as they related to bringing about peace by agreement. (96)

In a declaration, dated November 24, 1937, the Conference stated that it strongly reaffirmed the principles of the Nine-Power Treaty; that it believed that a satisfactory settlement between China and Japan could not be achieved by direct negotiation between the parties to the conflict alone and that an acceptable agreement could be achieved only by consultation with other powers principally concerned; that it strongly urged that hostilities be suspended and resort


be had to peaceful processes; that the Conference deemed it advisable temporarily to suspend its sittings; that the conflict remained, however, a matter of concern to all the powers assembled at Brussels; and that the Conference would be called together again when it was considered that deliberations could be advantageously resumed. (97)

The United States delegate reported at the conclusion of the Conference that it had demonstrated the "unwillingness of Japan to resort to methods of conciliation" and that the Japanese continued to insist that the issues between Japan and China were exclusive to those two countries whereas the Conference powers, with the exception of Italy, affirmed that the situation was of concern to all members of the family of nations. (100)

Panay Incident

See also USS Panay for additional history and documents. [HyperWar]

On December 12, 1937 the Government and people of the United States were deeply shocked by the news of the bombing and destruction by Japanese aircraft of the United States gunboat Panay and three United States merchant vessels on the Yangtze River in China. The bombing and machine-gunning of the crews and passengers resulted in loss of life to citizens of the United States. This Government immediately sent a note to the Japanese Government stating that the United States vessels involved were on the Yangtze River "by uncontested and incontestable right", that they were flying the American flag, and that they were engaged in legitimate and appropriate business. The Government of the United States requested and expected of the Japanese Government "a formally recorded expression of regret, an undertaking to make complete and comprehensive indemnifications; and an assurance that definite and specific steps have been taken which will insure that hereafter American nationals, interests and property in China will not be subjected to attack by Japanese armed forces or unlawful interference by any Japanese authorities or forces". (98)

This note was sent to Japan on the evening of December 13. On December 14 the United States Ambassador to Japan received a note from the Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs stating that the Japanese Government regretted "most profoundly" the damage to these vessels and the casualties among the personnel; that it desired to present "sincere apologies"; that it would make indemnifications for all the losses; that it would deal "appropriately" with those responsible for the incident; and that it had already issued "strict


orders to the authorities on the spot with a view to preventing the recurrence of a similar incident". Finally, the Japanese Government expressed the "fervent hope" that the friendly relations between Japan and the United States would not be affected by this "unfortunate affair". The Japanese Government later made full indemnification in accordance with the request of the United States. (99)

The overwhelming endorsement given by the people of the United States to the manner in which the Panay incident was settled attested to their earnest desire to keep the United States out of war.


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