Last week I wrote about Frank Capra and his incomparable Why We Fight series of wartime propaganda films. From our own perspective, it’s easy to pick apart the details of Capra’s vision. Some of the argumentation is simplistic, sure, the narration is just this side of lurid, and the films also admit to containing “staged recreations.” For all these reasons, historians should handle them with care.
What struck me the most about this viewing, however, was how sophisticated Capra’s approach was. This is the umpteenth time I’ve sat through Why We Fight, and I’ve got most of the voice-over memorized. But it wasn’t until this time around that I took note of how advanced Capra’s argumentation was on the question of the war’s origins. For the director, World War II didn’t start at Pearl Harbor (which is certainly how most Americans of his day would have seen it), nor did it begin with the German invasion of Poland in 1939, still the consensus starting date for the conflict.
Instead, Capra takes us back many years to a galaxy far, far away: the Japanese seizure of Manchuria in 1931. Already supervising the Southern Manchurian Railroad (and thus allowed a small garrison inside the province), the Japanese made the big grab in September 1931. After a small “incident” on the railway—an explosion that did minimal injury to the line (the narrator informs us that it damaged “one rail and two fish plates”)—the Japanese launched a full-scale invasion. Within days they overran the gigantic, mineral-rich province with an illegally and secretly beefed-up garrison, along with troops arrayed across the border in Japanese-occupied Korea. So smoothly did the operation go that it was certainly not an improvised response to an unexpected hostile act. Japanese forces in Manchuria almost certainly carried out the small act of “sabotage” themselves, as an excuse to trigger the occupation.
When the League of Nations condemned the aggression (in the “Lytton report,” issued in October 1932), the Japanese left the League, thumbing their nose at the international community, and daring someone to do something about it. No one did, of course. “Knowing there were no guns behind this condemnation,” the narrator tell us, the Japanese delegation “smiled, took up their briefcases, and marched out of the League.” And from that small act, much evil flowed, as Capra tells us.
The issue was bigger than Manchuria, or Japan, or even Germany. What was at stake in World War II was not merely the fate of the dictators, as bad as they all were. At stake was the rule of law in the international community. If anyone can invade anyone else at any time without fear of reprisal, we no longer have a “world community,” we have a kind of global jungle. And that was the message that “Prelude to War,” the first installment, tried to impart to a “farm boy in Iowa, a “driver of a London bus,” and a “waiter in a Paris café.” It might have looked like these men were going to war over what the film famously calls “a mud hut in Manchuria.” But that mud hut stood for something far more precious: the basic human right to security.
Frank Capra: philosopher. Who knew?