This Day in History: 1931 Mukden Incident

An explosion on this day in 1931 impacted a section of railway track owned by the Japanese in north-eastern China near Mukden. The blast was weak and displaced less than 2m of track.

It was quite different from an explosion three years earlier, set by Japanese intelligence, which had assassinated the warlord of Manchuria. The 1928 explosion, also on Japanese-owned tracks, was intended to instigate a Japanese invasion. Instead it ended up having the reverse effect and received international condemnation. The large explosion and death led to Manchuria moving further from Japanese control instead of under it.

So, in 1931 after a far smaller explosion and with trains still passing over the damaged section of track, militant factions of government in Japan claimed the need for an emergency response. Invasion was launched under the pretense to secure Japan’s railway, their nationals and defend their colony in Korea against Russia. Economic interests were also obvious; a large market and source of resources was highly desireable to the Japanese after Western markets shutdown in 1929 with the start of the Great Depression.

The Chinese, weakened by civil-war, failed to bring forward any coordinated resistance. The Japanese army swiftly took hold of the entire region and declared a new autonomous state of Manchukuo. Western countries, unlike the 1928 incident, no longer were in a position to intervene or respond to Chinese requests for assistance.

Four days after the 1931 Mukden incident the US Minister in China reported by telegram to the US Secretary of State that the Japanese act was planned aggression.

According to all information available to me here, I am driven to the conclusion that the forceful occupation of all strategic points in South Manchuria, including the taking over and operation of public utilities, banks, and in Mukden at least the functions of civil government, is an aggressive act by Japan apparently long planned and when decided upon most carefully and systematically put into effect. I find no evidence that these events were the result of accident nor were they the acts of minor and irresponsible officials.

The US Secretary of State, based on advice from his ambassador in Japan, opposed the use of a formal League Commission of Inquiry due to fear of further emboldening hawks in the Japanese government. Instead he issued a diplomatic non-recognition statement, known as the Stimson Doctrine. This, similar to the League of Nations efforts that the Japanese simply walked away from, had little to no influence on the conflict.

While it was clear Japanese militant leaders had used false-pretense to breach the post-WWI agreements on peace, nonaggression and disarmament they also faced little tangible resistance and they flatly refused to stand down.

Occupation of Manchuria by Japan soon expanded in threat; the stage was set for escalation into the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and destabilization/expansion into the region, which eventually led to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

It’s all food for thought given the debate over premeditation of the recent incident in Libya and the rising territorial resource conflict between China and Japan.

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