Crisis in Manchuria
The authority of the League of Nations collapsed in the 1930s. Japan invaded the north Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931. Japan was criticized by the League but little was done in practice to drive the Japanese out of Manchuria.
Why did the League fail to stop Japan?
The rise of Japan
In 1853, after centuries of isolation, the peace of Japan was disturbed by the arrival of the American navy in Tokyo Bay. The arrival of the wealthy, well-armed Westerners was a great shock to people in Japan. They were both impressed and worried by their American visitors.
In 1868 a group of angry 'samurai' or warrior nobles seized control of the government. They were determined to change Japan so that, unlike many other Asian lands, their country would not be taken over by Westerners. To resist Western armies the Japanese government was determined to make Japan as rich and powerful as Britain or America.
In the late nineteenth century the Japanese government built up a strong economy and established a well-educated workforce. As a result the Japanese were able to build armaments as powerful as those of America and Europe.
Victory over Russia
The push for modernization was so successful that in 1904 Japan was able to wage war against Russia. To the astonishment of the world the Japanese had defeated Russia by 1905. The Russian navy was convincingly beaten and its main fleet was sunk. Japan had arrived as a powerful nation.
Having defeated a great European country the Japanese government expected to be treated as an equal by other powerful states. In particular, the Japanese government wanted an empire in Asia. This empire could supply raw materials for the increasing numbers of Japanese factories. The Western nations were very unhappy at the idea of a Japanese empire. This was a threat to their own interests in Asia. The argument about a possible Japanese empire centered on China.
In the First World War Japan joined forces with Britain and France and declared war on Germany. Japanese forces occupied all the German territories in the Pacific. The Japanese government also used the war to build up an empire in the area of China known as Manchuria. The Japanese were disappointed by the 1919 peace settlement. They were on the winning side and they expected more rewards than they got. This lead to a great sense of resentment to Britain, France and America.
Attack on Manchuria
The army was a very powerful force in Japan. In the 1920s the power of the army grew to a point where politicians could no longer tell soldiers what to do. Army officers wanted to increase Japanese control in Manchuria. The army took the initiative in September 1931 when they organized an armed clash with Chinese forces in Manchuria. War followed. Japan won the war in Manchuria and set up a puppet government.
The invasion of Manchuria was a clear test of the League and collective security. Both China and Japan were members of the League. Would the League use economic sanctions or war to stop the Japanese take-over? In fact the League did virtually nothing. A group known as the Lytton Committee was sent to Manchuria to find out what was happening. It took months to carry out its work by which time Japan was firmly in control. Eventually it criticized both Japan and the government of China.
The League Council accepted the Lytton Committee Report. It criticized Japan but did not recommend a trade ban or the use of force. Even though the League did little, Japan was not prepared to accept any criticism and left the League in 1933.
The missing powers
Two powerful countries with an interest in this part of Asia were not members of the League. These were the USA and the USSR. The USSR was worried about the actions of the Japanese. The move in Manchuria was seen as a challenge to Soviet power in East Asia. However. the government of the USSR was busy at the time, dealing with chaos at home as peasants were forced to live on new collective farms. In addition, the USSR had no allies who might join forces against Japan, and Soviet leaders were not ready to act alone.
Some members of the American government were appalled by the Japanese aggression. However, President Hoover believed in isolationism and did not want to get involved in the conflict between China and Japan. As a result the USA refused to support the idea of economic sanctions against Japan. This greatly weakened the ability of the League to threaten trade sanctions. Members of the League knew that if they refused to trade with Japan the USA might simply carry out the trade instead.
The sympathetic powers
Italy and Germany were important members of the League. They were happy with Japanese aggression. Italy was not interested in the Far East but, like Japan, was keen to build up its own empire. Germany had investments in China, but its main concern was to see if the Japanese would get away with the use of force. As a result, Italy and Germany offered no opposition to Japan.
The worried powers
The French were completely preoccupied with the German threat in Europe. While they disapproved of Japanese actions the French had no wish to get involved in a war in Asia. The use of French and British forces against Japan would weaken defenses against Germany in Europe. In public the French government condemned Japanese action; in private messages were sent to the Japanese to let them know that France sympathized with the difficulties faced by Japan in China.
Members of the British government were in a difficult position. They did not feel that the British navy was in a position to take on the Japanese. The advice from military leaders was that a war with Japan might be disastrous. Vital parts of the British Empire - India, Singapore and Hong Kong -could well be lost if fighting broke out between Britain and Japan. British businesses did considerable trade with Japan and the government was unwilling to lose the trade. Although the British government was worried about Japan it was not prepared to take firm action.