Despite its poor historical reputation, the League of Nations should not be dismissed as a complete failure. Of sixty-six international disputes it had to deal with (four of which had led to open hostilities), it successfully resolved thirty-five and quite legitimately passed back twenty to the channels of traditional diplomacy. It failed to resolve just eleven conflicts. Like its successor the United Nations, it was capable of being effective provided some combination of the great powers – including, it should be emphasized, those, like the United States and the Soviet Union, who were not among its members – had a common interest in its being effective. Remarkably, given Manchuria’s role as an imperial fault line earlier in the century, this was not the case in 1931. So uninterested was Stalin in the Far East at this point that in 1935 he offered to sell the Soviet-owned Chinese Eastern Railway to Japan and to withdraw all Soviet forces to the Amur River. If the Soviets were not interested in Manchuria, it was hard to see why Britain or the United States should be, especially at a time when both were reeling from severe financial crises.
On September 30, 1931, the Council of the League issued a resolution calling for ‘the withdrawal of Japanese troops to the railway zone’ where they had originally and legitimately been stationed. However, it set no deadline for this withdrawal and added the caveat that any reduction in troop numbers should only be ‘in proportion as the safety of the lives and property of Japanese nationals is effectively assured’. Eight days later Japanese planes bombed Jinzhou on Manchuria’s south-western frontier with China proper. On October 24 a new resolution was passed setting November 16 as the date by which the Japanese should withdraw. At the end of that month Japanese ground forces advanced towards Jinzhou. In early December, at the Japanese delegate’s suggestion, the League Council decided to send a commission of inquiry under the chairmanship of the Earl of Lytton, the former Governor of Bengal (and son of the Victorian Viceroy). Without waiting for its report, the us Secretary of State, Henry L. Stimson, warned Japan that the United States would refuse to recognize any separate agreement that Tokyo might reach with China; in his opinion, Japan was acting in breach not only of the Kellogg-Briand Pact signed in Paris in 1928 (under which the signatories had made ‘a frank renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy’) but also of the earlier Nine-Power Agreement to maintain the Open Door system in China.
The Japanese were unimpressed by American ‘non-recognition’. In March 1932 they proclaimed ‘Manchukuo’ as an independent state, with the former Chinese Emperor, Puyi, as its puppet ruler – another initiative by the men on the spot which was ratified by Tokyo only after a six-month delay. A week later Lytton submitted his voluminous report, which dismissed the Japanese claim that Manchukuo was a product of Manchurian self-determination and condemned Japan for ‘forcibly seiz[ing] and occupy[ing] … what was indisputably Chinese territory’. The Japanese pressed on with their policy of conquest. They bombed targets in the province of Rehe in the summer of 1932. In January 1933 there was yet another ‘incident’ at Shanhaiguan, the strategic pass where the Great Wall reaches the sea. After a few days it too was in Japanese hands. A week’s fighting added Rehe to Japan’s domain. In February 1933 the League of Nations Assembly accepted Lytton’s report and endorsed all but unanimously his proposal to give Manchuria a new autonomous status. Once again Japan was politely asked to withdraw her troops. In March the Japanese finally announced their intention to withdraw – from the League. Two months later they concluded a truce with Chinese military representatives that confirmed Japan’s control over Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. It also created a large demilitarized zone running through Hebei province, which the Japanese were soon running on an informal basis.
It is sometimes said that this was a fatal turning point in the history of the 1930s; the beginning of that policy of appeasement which was to culminate in 1939. But that is to misread the Manchurian crisis. It was unquestionably a turning point in Japan’s domestic politics. But internationally all that had happened was that the Japanese had achieved their long-standing objective of being treated as an equal by the other imperial powers.