Vichy, France · September 22, 1940

As early as June 1940, after French resistance to the Ger­man con­quest of France crumbled, Japan made over­tures to Vichy French author­ities for per­mis­sion to sta­tion troops in French Indo­china (now Viet­nam, Laos, and Cam­bodia) and for their war­ships to take up naval sta­tions off North­ern Indo­chinese ports. On this date in 1940 Marshal Philippe Pétain’s Vichy govern­ment agreed to allow the Japa­nese access to three air­fields in the colony, as well as to main­tain a 6,000‑man garri­son. Subse­quently, from their new base in Hanoi the Japa­nese crossed the French Indo­china border and moved north 120 miles into China, a coun­try that had suc­ceeded in stale­mating a war imposed on them by the Japanese in mid-1937.

Earlier the Governor-General of French Indochina, Adm. Jean Decoux (in office from 1940 to 1945), had sought Vichy French and even Western help in thwarting Japanese designs on his colony. Great Britain and the U.S., both countries with territorial holdings nearby, declined to consider military action. In a rebuke aimed at Japan, Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt’s admin­is­tra­tion did ban U.S. exports of scrap iron and steel to coun­tries outside the West­ern Hem­i­sphere, with the ex­cep­tion of ex­ports to Britain, effec­tive Octo­ber 16, 1940. The Japa­nese cor­rectly con­strued the ban to be an act of eco­no­mic war­fare and on October 8 declared it an “unfriendly act.”

For the Japa­nese the Septem­ber 22, 1940, agree­ment with Vichy France was the first phy­si­cal chink in the West­ern powers’ pro­tec­tive walls in South­east Asia and the Pacific. In Janu­ary and early May 1941, Japan en­larged the hole using new agree­ments with Pétain. On May 6 Japan and Vichy France signed an agree­ment for eco­no­mic coop­er­a­tion in the French colony, and three days later Japan moved to guaran­tee the in­teg­rity of bor­ders between French Indo­china and its west­ern neigh­bor, Thai­land. Finally, on July 25, 1941, Japan was in a posi­tion to declare Indo­china a Japa­nese pro­tec­torate. Roose­velt retali­ated by freezing $130 mil­lion in Japa­nese assets in the U.S. and banning oil ex­ports to Japan. Other West­ern nations responded with bans and freezes of their own. Roose­velt began rein­forcing mili­tary assets in U.S. Pacific out­posts, un­nerving Tokyo even more, which accused the U.S. of “acting like a cun­ning dra­gon seemingly asleep.” Clearly events portended more dangerous rifts between Japan and the West.

Kickoff to World War II: Japanese-Chinese Collision in China, 1937

Asia Pacific, 1939

Above: Political map of Japanese, European, and U.S. pos­ses­sions in the Asia Pacific region on the eve of the Pacific War. Japanese control in China was tenuous.

Japanese forces at captured Marco Polo Bridge, July 1937Japanese marines land near Shanghai, 1937

Left: Like other Western nations, Japan main­tained a small gar­ri­son of sol­diers in Peking (today’s Bei­jing). On maneu­vers south of the city, the Japa­nese skir­mished with Chi­nese troops on July 8, 1937, in the vicin­ity of the Marco Polo Bridge, 12 miles from Peking. It was an excuse for full-scale war. The Japa­nese quickly seized Peking (July 25–31, 1937) and por­tions of North China, and then advanced rapidly south­ward, placing Shang­hai, South China’s indus­trial and eco­no­mic cen­ter, under siege. Shang­hai was the first of 22 major engage­ments between the Nation­alist Chi­nese under their leader, Chiang Kai-shek, during the Second Sino-Japa­nese War (China’s War of Resistance, 1937–1945).

Right: Japanese marines landed north and south of Shang­hai. This picture may have been taken on the Jiangsu coast, which is north of the city. Approximately 200,000 Chi­nese and 70,000 Japa­nese died during the Battle of Shang­hai (August 13 to Novem­ber 26, 1937). After the Nation­alist Chi­nese defense in and around Shang­hai crumbled, the ranking Japa­nese gene­rals punished the enemy by pursuing him all the way to Nanking, the Nationalist Chinese capital.

Japanese marines with fixed bayonets on Shanghai street, 1937Japanese chemical attack in Shanghai neighborhood, 1937

Left: Shanghai, the world’s sixth largest city, had been a demili­tarized city since 1932. The Chi­nese were for­bidden to gar­ri­son the city, though the Japa­nese were per­mitted to main­tain a few units in the city. On the eve of battle Japa­nese marines were head­quartered near a tex­tile mill, enjoying the com­pany of more than eighty emplace­ments and bun­kers of vari­ous types around them. Addi­tionally, the Japa­nese Third Fleet patrolled the rivers that ran through Shang­hai, and the city was well within the firing range of their guns. The Japa­nese anticipated a short and easy conquest of Shanghai.

Right: Japanese soldiers wearing gas masks and rub­ber gloves during a chemi­cal attack in a Shang­hai neigh­bor­hood. The Japa­nese Army fre­quently used chemi­cal wea­pons during their eight-year war in China. Indeed, sol­diers were autho­rized to use chemi­cal weapons on ex­pli­cit order of their com­mander in chief, Emperor Hiro­hito him­self, transmitted by the Imperial General Headquarters to Japanese commanders in China.

"Bloody Saturday", Shanghai, August 28, 1937Japanese soldiers sift through Shanghai ruins

Left: This terrified baby was one of the few human beings left alive in Shang­hai’s South Rail­way Sta­tion after the Japa­nese bombed it on August 28, 1937. Taken a few minutes after the Japa­nese air attack, this black-and-white photo­graph, titled “Bloody Satur­day,” was pub­lished widely in Septem­ber and Octo­ber 1937 and in less than a month had been seen by more than 136 mil­lion viewers. One of the most memor­able war photo­graphs ever pub­lished, the image stimu­lated an out­pouring of Western anger against Japanese violence in China.

Right: Japanese troops reached the destroyed North Rail­way Sta­tion in down­town Shanghai in Octo­ber 1937. Between 1937 and 1945, the Japa­nese mili­tary fielded 4.1 mil­lion men and en­joyed the ser­vices of 900,000 Chi­nese col­lab­o­rators. Facing the enemy were 5.6 mil­lion Nation­alist and Com­mu­nist Chi­nese soldiers. Of the 1,130,000 Japa­nese sol­diers who died during World War II, 39 per­cent died in China. Over 10 mil­lion Chi­nese died from the effects of the war, with some esti­mates of deaths running twice as high. At least 15 mil­lion were wounded. Millions of civil­ians were the hap­less victims of the Japa­nese Army’s “Three Alls Policy” (Sankō Sakusen), or scorched earth policy: “kill all, loot all, burn all.” Small wonder that the war created some 95 million refugees.

Contemporary Newsreel Footage of the Fall of Shanghai, 1937