Washington, D.C. · October 7, 1940

In the 1930s Japan’s statesmen and military leaders in China were acutely aware that their eco­nomy and armed forces were depend­ent on im­ports from the United States and its colo­nial friends who had holdings in the Asia Pacific region: the Amer­i­cans in the Philip­pines, the Brit­ish in Malaya (now Malay­sia), the French in Indo­china (now Viet­nam, Laos, and Cam­bo­dia), and the Dutch in the East Indies (now Indo­ne­sia). The Japa­nese im­ported prac­ti­cally every basic material they used in processing or manu­facturing items for domestic con­sump­tion, much of it from a geo­graphi­cal area in which they felt they should domi­nate. Imports included most metals, rubber, and food, including the house­hold staple rice. The U.S. supplied roughly 80 per­cent of Japan’s oil needs; the rest came from the oil-rich islands around the Java Sea—Bor­neo, Suma­tra, and the Dutch East Indies. Wash­ing­ton clearly under­stood Japan’s utter depen­dence on oil and other over­seas resources for its economic security.

On this date in 1940 in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Japan’s am­bas­sador pro­tested the U.S. em­bar­go on avi­a­tion fuel and ma­chine tools and the ban on the ex­port of iron and steel scraps as an “un­friendly act.” The object of the em­bar­goes (these and suc­ceeding ones) served two pur­poses: to encourage Japan’s war machine to halt military action in China, begun in 1937 (or 1931 if one includes Man­churia), and to assist the Chi­nese Nation­alist forces under Gene­ralis­simo Chiang Kai-shek in fighting the ag­gres­sor. The next day, Octo­ber 8, 1940, the State Depart­ment advised U.S. citi­zens to leave the Far East “in view of ab­nor­mal con­ditions in those areas.”

The State Depart­ment arranged for three pas­sen­ger liners to sail to Yo­ko­ha­ma and Kobe, Japan, as well as to the Chinese ports of Shang­hai and Chin­wang­tao (Qin­huang­dao, 160 miles east of Beijing) to repa­tri­ate Amer­icans. A State Depart­ment em­ployee wrote in his diary following the news that Japan had joined with Ger­many and Italy in the Tri­par­tite Pact, which was a ten-year mili­tary and eco­no­mic agree­ment signed on Septem­ber 27, 1940, that Japan hoped to use it as a bar­gaining chip with America: “And so we go—more and more—farther and farther along the road to war. But we are not ready to fight any war now—to say nothing of a war on two oceans at once.” Ready or not, war came to America on Decem­ber 7, 1941, with the most “un­friendly act” of all—the Japa­nese sur­prise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

“Incidents” on the Chinese Road to World War II in the Pacific

Map of Japanese Occupation in China, 1940

Above: Map of China, 1940, showing the extent of Japa­nese expan­sionism (in bur­gundy). Japan seized Taiwan in 1895, declared Korea an imperial protec­torate in 1905, and invaded Manchuria (Manchukuo) in 1931.

Japanese cavalry enter Mukden (Shenyang), Manchuria, September 1931Japanese soldiers on captured Marco Polo Bridge

Left: Japanese cavalry entering Mukden (Shenyang), Man­churia, Septem­ber 18, 1931. Japan’s Kwan­tung Army on the Chi­nese main­land fabri­cated a bombing inci­dent on a tiny por­tion of the Japa­nese-owned South Man­chu­ria Rail­way as a pre­text to occupy Man­chu­ria, a pro­vince semi-inde­pendent of China, and other areas in North­eastern China. Both locations were rich in mine­ral and agricul­tural resources. Most West­erners believed the “Muk­den Inci­dent” (aka “Manchurian Incident”), although coming on top of other Sino-Japa­nese inci­dents, was way over­blown and should not have led to Japan’s take­over of Man­chu­ria, where the Japa­nese installed a puppet government in a “state” they named Manchukuo.

Right: Manchukuo became the spring­board for further Japa­nese aggres­sion in China. Out­lying pro­vinces were annexed into Man­chu­kuo or turned into buffer zones, effec­tively under Japa­nese occu­pa­tion. By the start of 1937 all the areas north, east, and west of the large Chin­ese city of Bei­jing were con­trolled by Japan. On July 7–8, 1937, the Japa­nese pro­voked an­other “inci­dent” at the eleven-arch granite Marco Polo Bridge south­west Beijing, as well as at a railroad bridge to the southeast of the city.

Japanese soldiers enter Beijing’s Forbidden City, August 1937Japanese marines celebrate their landing near Shanghai, August 1937

Above: The heightened tensions of the Marco Polo bridge inci­dent led directly to Japan’s full-scale inva­sion of China in the Second Sino-Japa­nese War (1937–1945), begin­ning with the Battle of Bei­jing-Tianjin (early July to early August 1937) and the Battle of Shang­hai (August 13 to Novem­ber 26, 1937). In the photo on the left Japa­nese troops are shown passing from Bei­jing into the Tar­tar City through Chen-men, the main gate leading to the palaces in the For­bidden City, some­time in mid-August 1937. In the photo on the right Japa­nese marines cele­brate their success­ful landing near Shang­hai that same month. Approx­i­mately 200,000 Chi­nese and 70,000 Japa­nese died during Japan’s three-month attempt to take Shanghai.

Japanese Aggression in China During the 1930s