However, that was only the beginning of the European war.
The conflict in Asia, however, actually began much earlier. What both the European and Asian theaters have in common is they started with an invasion by a belligerent power which was done under false pretenses.
Learn more about the Mukden Incident, and how it began the road to the second world war, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
To understand what is known as the Mukden Incident you need to understand the background of what was happening with Japan in continental Asia.
As I noted in my episode on the Meiji Restoration, Japan rapidly industrialized and modernized during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As they went down the path of modernization, they also increased in military power and political influence.
The big coming-out party for Japan, if you will, was the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.
Absolutely no one, or at least no one in Europe, thought that an Asian country could beat a European country, but that is exactly what the Japanese did.
In the aftermath of the war in 1905 Korea was declared a protectorate of Japan, and in 1910, it was formally annexed. Japan changed the name of Korea to Ch?sen, which is what it was known as internationally until the end of World War Two.
The Japanese occupation of Korea was a very ugly period of history and is a story for another episode.
Boarding Korea and there was only one Korea at this time, was the Chinese region of Manchuria.
Manchuria is the northeastern part of China. In addition to Korea, it also borders Mongolia and Russia.
Starting in 1912, with the dissolution of the Qing dynasty, Manchuria was nominally part of the Republic of China. In reality, it was mostly controlled by various warlords who did the bidding of the Japanese.
While the Japanese had a sort of control over Manchuria, it wasn’t at a level that satisfied the Japanese imperial government. The Japanese were clearly the dominant military power in the region after the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese war, and they were looking to expand their territory.
The treaty which ended the Russo-Japanese War was the Treaty of Portsmouth, which was actually signed in the state of Maine in the United States.
This agreement ceded to Japan control of the southernmost branch of the Chinese Eastern Railway. This area was about 1,100 kilometer long and only 60 meters wide, stretching from the cities of Changchun to Lushun.
Along the railway, Japan was able to exercise extraterritorial rights. If you remember back to my episode on extraterritoriality, that meant that the railroad had the same legal status as an embassy. This was known as the South Manchuria Railway Zone.
Because the railroad was basically Japanese territory, they would station military units along the route, which they were able to do legally due to the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth.
In 1915, the Japanese government presented to the Republic of China what was known as the Twenty-One Demands. This was list was pretty much an ultimatum given to the Chines government which would vastly expand Japanese influence in China.
It prevented China from giving rights along the coast to other countries, gave Japan mineral rights within China, and a host of other concessions which were pretty much demeaning to China, and expanded Japan’s influence.
It eventually resulted in the Sino-Japanese Treaty that same year which codified most of the Twenty-One Demands.
From 1916 to 1928, Manchuria was unified under a single warlord named Zhang Zuolin, who also briefly ruled all of China for two years from 1927 to 1928.
The Japanese assassinated him by blowing up his train in June 1928 in an event known as the Huanggutun Incident.
The reason for the assassination, which was discovered after the war, was because Zhang didn’t do a sufficiently good job of stopping the nationalist Chinese forces led by Chiang Kai-shek, who was supported by the Soviets.
The assassination backfired on the Japanese, as Zhang’s son took his place, and he reconciled with the Nationalists, and also started a conflict with the Soviets, who brought 150,000 troops to the Manchurian border, which made a Japanese takeover of Manchuria more difficult.
This was the situation in 1931. Japan had a great deal of influence in Manchuria. They controlled a strategic railway. They had troops scattered about the region due to the railroad, and they had bullied China into agreements that were overwhelming to the benefit of Japan. Moreover, they were worried about the Soviets now possibly invading, thwarting their plans.
However, that wasn’t enough for the Japanese. They wanted full control over all of Manchuria.
The assassination of Zhang in 1928 actually delayed this from happening, but by 1931, they were ready to pull the trigger.
They could certainly invade Manchuria, and they would be the overwhelmingly favorites to come out on top.
However, legally and in the eyes of the rest of the world, they couldn’t just invade. I mean, they could invade, but it wouldn’t look good and could have negative repercussions if they were seen to be engaging in naked aggression.
So, they need some pretense for war. The Japanese kept waiting for some sort of provocation from the Chinese, but nothing ever came.
So, they decided they needed to move things along a little. They needed a false flag operation.
That came on September 18, 1931.
What happened was one of those “won’t someone rid me of this meddlesome priest” moments.
A small group of Japanese officers, taking their own initiative without any orders from higher up, hatched a plan that would give Japan the excuse they needed to start a war.
They planted dynamite near a railroad track at the train station in the town of Mukden, which is now known as Shenyang.
At 10:20 am, the dynamite was detonated.
…and it did pretty much nothing. The plotters had placed the dynamite so far from the tracks that it didn’t do any damage.
In fact, it did so little damage that just 10 minutes after the explosion, a train arrived on the track that was targeted and it managed to pass without incident.
The fact that the attack was so underwhelming didn’t really bother the Japanese.
The next day, they opened fire on a Chinese military garrison near Mukden, in retaliation for the bombing.
Despite being outnumbered 14 to 1, a small Japanese force defeated the nearby Chinese garrison at a cost of only 2 Japanese dead compared to 500 Chinese.
The small number of aircraft controlled by the warlord Zhang were quickly destroyed.
The commander of the Japanese forces in Manchuria was initially furious over what had happened and that he had not given the order. However, he quickly was convinced to take advantage of the situation.
Within hours, they had taken control of all of the cities along the railway.
The reaction back in Japan was very similar to that of the Japanese commander-in-Chief in Manchuria as they were angered by the lack of centralized planning in the operation.
Over the next several months, the Japanese had an easy time rolling over Manchuria. There were some notable stands made by the Chinese, but overall the resistance was pretty weak. The Chinese forces were simply outmatched.
The nationalist Chinese and the communist Chinese forces were too busy fighting each other to put up any organized resistance to the Japanese.
Within six months, the Japanese conquest of Manchuria was complete.
The Japanese renamed it Manchukuo and installed the last Chinese Emperor who had been disposed of in 1912, as its puppet ruler.
The Chinese appealed to the League of Nations, and their inability to do anything showed how ineffective they were as an organization.
In 1932, US Secretary of State Henry Stimson issued the Stimson Doctrine which refused to recognize any Japanese-backed government in Manchuria.
The Japanese occupied Manchuria for the next 14 years. It was the site of some of the worst atrocities of the entire second world war.
The Mukden Incident is still remembered in China today. At 10 am on September 18th every year, air raid sirens sound for several minutes in many cities in China. There is a September 18th memorial in the city of Shenyang.
It was the first of many such invasions by the Imperial Japanese army which would eventually spread across much of Asia.
…and it all started with the destination of a bomb near a railroad track that didn’t actually do any damage.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener nhand1022 over at Apple Podcasts in the United States.
My favorite podcast (except for the 5 cylinder engine hate!)
Everything Everywhere Daily is the ideal podcast for a lover of trivia like me. I regularly learn new things that make my jaw drop – like the Halifax Explosion. Listening first thing in the morning is a great way to kickstart my brain.
But Gary, your blatant disregard for the 5 cylinder engine is breaking my heart! The OM617 engine in my ‘76 Mercedes was produced for 27 years. They’re considered to be “bulletproof” because so many of them reach 1 million miles. German engineering at its finest.
All I ask is a little consideration for the knuckles I’ve shredded while replacing the 5th cylinder glow plug, tucked back by the firewall. ;) If you’re ever in Cincinnati, I’d be happy to take you for a Sunday drive & convert you.
Thank you for keeping our brains engaged during this pandemic.
Thank you, nhand1022! I have to confess, I never would have guessed that five-cylinder engines would have gotten the type of reaction it has gotten. I suppose the number of cylinders a person has is a very, very deeply personal thing.
Remember, if you leave a review or send in a question, you too can have it read on the show.