Japan Strikes: 1937


Although China’s leaders exasperated him, Stilwell understood that “their moral standards are totally different from ours, therefore their moral strength is not sapped by what to us would be gross national cowardice. … Where we would fight to the last man over an invasion of our territory, they are concerned with the continuance of the race, and to keep Chinese coming into the world they will accept temporarily any form of government they have to. Under it the main stream flows on.” Even so, Stilwell would become exasperated and allow himself tirades about China’s “oily politicians … treacherous quitters, selfish, conscienceless, unprincipled crooks.” Asked by G-2 after the fall of Paoting when the Chinese would stand and fight, he radioed in reply, “Not until they lose their inherent distaste for offensive combat.”

Yet he had confidence in the Chinese soldier as fighting material and believed that if properly led these men could equal any army in the world. Hardy and uncomplaining, accustomed to long hours, scanty food, hard work, sickness and wounds and no pleasures, yet able to “make a joke of the merest trifle and remain cheerful under the most discouraging circumstances,” the Chinese soldier with leaders in whom he had confidence “will go anywhere.” Regarding Japanese culture as artificial and imitative, Stilwell had more confidence in China, especially in the north Chinese. He discussed his theories with Captain Taylor while out on field excursions to identify Japanese troop units. Once, resting beneath a statue of a Buddha after a long day without finding any clues, they looked up to find that three Japanese soldiers had scratched their names and units on the statue’s behind. They watched endlessly for troop trains. Sitting on a hilltop one day, they saw in the distance a slowly moving, elongated object with legs like a centipede’s. It proved to be a train of freight cars being laboriously pushed from both sides by a company of Chinese soldiers. Contemplating its snail-paced progress in silence for a while, Stilwell said, “That’s the spirit that will conquer Japan in the end.”

For those who saw Western democracy threatened by the rise of fascism, intervention to halt the aggressors was the central problem of the time. The Isaiah of this view was ex-Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, who spoke out against “amoral drift” and tried to persuade the President of the need for more outspoken guidance of public opinion.

President Roosevelt, though starting out as a supporter of Stirhson’s Far Eastern policy, had since then acquiesced in, without actively initiating, the American withdrawal from involvement with China. In March of 1936 at the London Naval Conference convened to discuss renewal of the Washington Treaties, the United States and Great Britain refused to accord parity to Japan, upon which Japan bolted the conference, and the treaties, already moribund, expired for good. Given Japan’s fanatic mood, Ambassador in Tokyo Joseph Clark Grew urged, and Roosevelt and Hull accepted, the necessity of building a navy “so strong that no other country will think, seriously of attacking us.” But accomplishment was far off, and appropriations for a major building program were not voted until 1938.

Privately Roosevelt told Stimson that he had been profoundly impressed by the seizure of Manchuria because of his recollection of a Japanese fellow student at Harvard in 1902 who had told him of Japan’s schedule, drawn up in 1889, for a hundred-year program of expansion in twelve steps. Beginning with a war in China and absorption of Korea, it was to proceed to war with Russia, annexation of Manchuria, then of Jehol, then a protectorate over north China from the Wall to the Yangtze, ultimately acquisition of Australia, New Zealand, and the islands of the Pacific including Hawaii, and to culmination in a protectorate over all the yellow races. In the stages already carried out, the President saw ominous implications.


In the years after Manchuria, Roosevelt became “even more incensed” by Japan’s conduct, according to Sumner Welles, his closest adviser on foreign policy, and by 1937 was “far more preoccupied” with the threat of Japan than with the threat of Germany. He kept trying to think of ways to halt Japan’s advance. After the attack at Marco Polo Bridge he asked the Navy for some large-scale maps of the Pacific, which he placed on a stand in his office, and he discussed with Welles the possibility of placing an embargo on Japanese trade, to be enforced by units of the American and British fleets. Deprived of access to raw materials, Japan would be forced to pull back and would not, he believed, be provoked to war, because she was so heavily committed in China. But in the isolationist state of public opinion the President realized that a measure involving risk of war would not be permitted by Congress.