July 7, 1937. A Japanese soldier goes temporarily AWOL from his unit in Beijing, which wouldn’t be much of an issue normally. On this day, however, the Japanese Army starts a scrap with the Chinese military – on purpose. The 7/7 Incident, or the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, triggers the brutal conflict known as the Sino-Japanese War - and neither China nor Japan will come out the other side the same.
The Second Sino-Japanese War (the first had been in 1894) is the forgotten front of World War II to Westerners. We all know the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, but few people – myself included – honestly know enough about the war Japan had been waging in China since 1937. It was a war of genocidal conquest and imperialism in the same mold as Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, but Japan’s involvement in East Asia had a long, long precedent.
China had been ruled three centuries by the Qing Dynasty, which was established by the Manchu conquerors that overran the old Ming in the 1640s. The Qing had been one of the most ambitious, organized and powerful nations in the world around the early 1700s, but by the industrial age their decline was evident. Repeated humiliation at the hands of Western powers in the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion, and an even more demoralizing defeat by Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894, put the Qing Dynasty on shaky ground.
In 1911, a Western-educated revolutionary named Sun Yat-sen launched a mass movement that finally overthrew the rotting Qing and in 1912 established a Republic of China. Sun’s new government briefly held an assembly and elected Sun president, and his political party – the Kuomintang, or KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) gained precedence.
Sadly for China – sadly for the world – this movement was extremely short-lived. The military leaders of the Chinese Army, including Yuan Shikai, quickly asserted their own power within the Middle Kingdom, starting a sharp decline into warlordism and civil war.
The Chinese Revolution had resulted in utter chaos and a major split between the revolutionary factions. Sun’s KMT reestablished its base in Guangzhou on the southern coast, and was soon forced to ally with a completely different group. The Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, took its inspiration from the success of the Bolsheviks in Russia. Sun was the only one who could have held this brittle alliance together, but his death in 1925 left the KMT in the hands of a rather different figure – the Commander of the National Revolutionary Army, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.
Chiang’s reconquest of northern China and subsequent betrayal of the Communists are a long story. What’s important is that the Communists, under their new leader Mao Zedong, fled into the mountainous country of North China. By 1927, the Chinese Civil War was in full swing – and for a long time it looked like Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists would win.
While Americans particularly tend to feel sympathy for Chiang Kai-shek, since he was “our man” in China and a Christian, neither Chiang nor Mao was a particularly admirable figure. Chiang’s regime was corrupt to the bone, enjoying little support from the population it callously ruled; Mao’s own clique was, of course, murderous and autocratic, but it was more closely tied to the Chinese peasantry and countryside. Many reading this will sympathize more with Chiang, simply because we now know about Mao’s horrific policies when he gained power in 1949 after winning the Chinese Civil War. This ignores the fact that those crimes were in the future, and that the Chinese people were suffering under Chiang at the time.
Either way, it was a divided, weakened, and corrupt China that Japan started looking at in 1937. If China was a lesson of the perils of division and strife, Japan was a lesson in the brutality of a centralized government.
Japan had emerged from its long isolation and quickly industrialized, reformed, and modernized. By 1894 they had defeated China in a major war, and in 1905 they beat Russia so badly that it shocked virtually the entire Western world – how, after all, could a backwards Asian nation defeat a European power? Japan was obviously on the upswing, but this held within it the seeds of destruction. The Japanese had narrowly avoided being exploited and conquered themselves, and they only had to look to China to see what would happen if they were weak against the West. The West had gotten rich and powerful by conquering, colonizing and exploiting the “inferior races” – so that’s what Japan would have to do.
An impulse that started from insecurity metastasized into a hunger for resources and a quasi-spiritual mission to expel the Westerners and united all of Asia into a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” The Japanese, of course, would be at the top of this sphere, exploiting the “lesser” Asian races below them. The first testing ground for this imperialism was Taiwan, which the Japanese conquered from China in 1894; next on the list was Korea, which was formally incorporated into the Japanese Empire in 1910. These acquisitions only whetted the Japanese appetite for more.
Japanese insecurity, too, continued to feed their concerns about expansion. Japan perceived enemies around the world – most importantly the United States and Russia, later the Soviet Union. Japanese expansion could be justified as a means of defense against either of these threats, and the different services had different worries for obvious reasons. The Army, having faced down the Russians before, believed in the need to gain control over China and its resources before someone – probably Russia – did it first. The Navy, on the other hand, was fearful of American and British naval power, and was worried about the effect an attack on China would have on U.S.-Japanese relations.
The Japanese Army, though, had long acquired an outsized influence in the politics of their home country. This was unequivocally a Bad Thing, since the Army aggressively courted war and advanced its own interests at the expense of Japan’s interests. The Army was primarily in the hands of the Kodo-ha “Imperial Way” faction, which emphasized the superiority of Japanese culture, spiritual over material cultures and a quasi-fascist deification of the Japanese race. The young officers of the Kodo-ha, and its equivalent faction in the Navy, began to terrorize and assert extreme power in the Japanese state system.
Japan had a Prime Minister, a Parliament, and a court system like many European countries, but the young officers began to terrorize them into compliance with their wishes. The 1930s were marked by multiple outbursts of violence by young officers and fellow nationalists. In 1931, secret societies of the Imperial Way faction launched two coup attempts against the civilian government. On May 15, 1932, a group of young naval officers assassinated the Prime Minister, and in 1935 General Nagata of the moderate faction was murdered in his office by Lieutenant Colonel Saburo Aizawa. Aizawa’s 1936 trial was a farce, which he and his ultranationalist supporters used as a soapbox for their extremist views, and he was praised in the mass media for his “morality and patriotism.”
In the meantime, the civilian government had realized just how little control they had over the Japanese Army. On September 18, 1931, a Japanese officer planted a bomb on a Japanese railway near Mukden, in the giant north Chinese province of Manchuria. Despite the weakness of the explosion, the Imperial Japanese Army accused Chinese troops of the attack. The “Mukden Incident,” a deliberately manufactured false-flag action arranged by the Army, allowed the Japanese to invade and occupy Manchuria with its vast resources of iron ore and coal. Six months later, they established a puppet state named Manchukuo, with the last surviving Qing Dynasty heir – Puyi – as its Emperor.
The Army was very obviously out of control. It had engineered a territorial expansion that the civilian government did not approve and could not prevent. The invasion of Manchuria isolated Japan diplomatically, severely damaging relations with the Western Powers; the League of Nations’ condemnation of the act caused Japan to withdraw from the League in 1933.
The civilian government did not stop the Japanese Army because they were terrified. Why wouldn’t they be? Any minister who tried to stand up to the Army would be assassinated, and his killers would be shielded, if not acquitted. The tail was wagging the dog: unlike in countries such as the United States or Britain, where the civilian leaders controlled the military, here was the military controlling the state.
The era of “government by assassination” came to its head in the 2-26 Incident on February 26, 1936, when a large coup attempt almost overthrew the government altogether. The rebels failed to secure the center of Tokyo or the civilian leaders, though they did assassinate two former Prime Ministers. This coup actually had consequences, with the military “cleaning house” of its most radical elements and multiple officers being executed. In a perverse way, however, the 2-26 coup backers achieved their goals. The military’s influence grew even larger, since the new Ministers of War and the Navy refused to take their seats unless they could choose the other Cabinet members. Since these were the *moderates,* the civilian government officials were terrified of what would happen if they refused, so they complied with every request. The Japanese Army now completely controlled the levers of government.
The Japanese Army had slowly expanded its hold over northern China and manufactured multiple false-flag “incidents,” much like the previous Mukden Incident, but without sparking a major war. There was not enough support from the civilian government at the time to risk escalating things to full-out war. In the aftermath of the 2-26 Incident and the Japanese Army’s virtual takeover of government, however, events were soon in motion.
The Japanese Army desired full-scale conflict in China for several reasons. In the global economic turmoil of the Great Depression, Japan had looked to China as a source of raw materials, food, and labor; this was much the same economic logic of Hitler’s “autarky” that sought to establish a colonial empire in Eastern Europe to shield the German people from the whims of the market. The militant nationalism built on this economic logic to promote Japan’s place in the world. With Japan primed and ready for a war with China, all it would take was another “incident.”
Ever since 1901 and the end of the Boxer Rebellion, Japan – and many other Western nations – had garrisoned troops in the Chinese city of Beijing. By July 1937, the Army had quietly expanded this garrison until it was 15,000 strong – far beyond the limits imposed by treaty. The Army had thus virtually surrounded Beijing before the “Incident” even happened.
At night on July 7, 1937, a Japanese unit crossed the border near Beijing and exchanged fire with a Chinese unit garrisoned in the town of Wanping. The cause of this action remains unknown to this day, but events like this were not uncommon. One Japanese soldier, though, failed to return to his post. The Japanese demanded permission to search Wanping for the missing soldier, and the Chinese commander refused. Even though the private returned to his unit later that night, tempers had already flared out of control, and both sides were mobilizing, with the Japanese preparing to surround Wanping.
Based on these events, there is no reason that the “Incident” should have escalated. Shots had been fired, but no harm had been done; the missing soldier had been returned. Subsequent Japanese actions can only prove that they were determined to start a war.
In the predawn hours of July 8, the Chinese attempted again to negotiate, but the Japanese refused even as reinforcements for both sides began to arrive. With the Japanese clearly crossing into Chinese territory, the Chinese Army opened fire on the Japanese at a modern railway bridge known to Westerners as the “Marco Polo Bridge.” By 04:50 on July 8, the Second Sino-Japanese War was in full swing.
Even though a truce was declared only a few hours later, this began breaking down almost immediately. The Chinese Communists within Beijing continued to ambush Japanese patrols, and the Japanese Army continued to violate the truce and shelled Wanping with artillery. Soon tanks and large infantry units were clashing throughout Beijing.
The Marco Polo Bridge incident, very obviously a minor scuffle purposely fanned into a battle by the Japanese, led directly to full-scale war. The Sino-Japanese War would prove a bitter pill for Japan; they would seize almost all the coastal regions of China, win enormous military victories, and draw on numerous resources. This came at a price. The Japanese invasion of China permanently crippled American-Japanese relations, and would lead directly to Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. The commitment of the vast majority of Japan’s Army to China would leave them drastically shorthanded when that war finally did come, and entire armies that could have resisted the United States on Guadalcanal or in the Philippines were stuck in the vast Chinese landmass.
The bigger consequences were for China. Chiang Kai-shek was well on his way to defeating the Communists for good when the Japanese attacked China in 1937. Chiang and Mao joined in an alliance of convenience – the “United Front” – to resist Japanese invasion.
It was understood that the Civil War would resume when the Japanese were gone. The consequences for Chiang and the KMT, though, were devastating. The brunt of Japan’s attack was aimed at the KMT, severely damaging its military and weakening its position in China. The Communists, both careful and calculating, skillfully avoided engaging the Japanese in order to build up their strength against the KMT once the Japanese inevitably left. The Japanese did not kill China – but they dealt the mortal blow to Chiang’s Nationalists.
As Chiang’s prestige and small support in China dwindled, Mao’s Communists waited. Someday the Japanese would leave. Someday the Soviets, or the British, or the Americans would defeat the invaders and force them to leave China. When that day came, Mao knew, China would be his.