The War Begins? Part Deux

Saying that “World War II began in 1939” leads us to another problem, however:  it ignores what was happening outside of Europe. 

In fact, by the time Hitler’s Panzers rolled into Poland, the world was already in flames, and had been for years.  Africa had seen one of the largest and deadliest colonial wars of all time in 1935-36:  Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia (Abyssinia).  It featured (at least on the Italian side) tanks, poison gas, and the unrestrained bombing of defenseless civilians from the air; in all ways it was a suitable curtain-raiser on the war to come.  In Asia, Japan had been on the march for years, seizing the rich Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931, thumbing its nose at international protests, lopping off Chinese border territories like Rehe (Jehol) in 1933, and, finally, in July 1937, launching a full-scale invasion of China proper.  You can’t accuse the Japanese of thinking small:  this campaign aimed at nothing less than the conquest of the world’s most populous nation.  The Imperial Japanese Army managed to overrun much of north China against the indifferently armed and led Chinese, then linked up with amphibious forces landing at Shanghai in August.  The invasion’s signal moment was the orgy of violence after the capture of the capital city of Nanking in December, where the victorious invaders butchered hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians, apparently just to show that they could.  Japan never formally declared war, however, and so this incredibly brutal campaign went by one of the all time understatements:  it was the “China incident.”

Surprisingly, given that fast start, China would turn into a quagmire for the Japanese.  The regime of Chiang Kai-shek continued to resist the invaders, fleeing to the interior and setting up a new capital at Chungking.  Chiang also suspended his long-running civil war with the Chinese Communists under Mao Tse-tung in favor of a United Front against the Japanese.  Foreign supplies also began to flow into China, with arms from the U.S. and Great Britain arriving via a new “Burma Road” hacked out of the mountains.  American pilots came to China as mercenaries, flying as the American Volunteer Group and helping to contest Japanese control of the air.  As a result, by 1941, the fighting had stalemated.  Large chunks of China were in Japanese hands, but even with a troop commitment of some 1.5 million men, Japan was no closer to ultimate victory.  It couldn’t win in China, nor could it simply cut its losses and go home.  It ultimately decided to solve that problem by dramatically widening the war, conquering an empire in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, regions rich in tin and oil and rubber, so that it could bring its war in China to a successful conclusion.  The “China Incident,” in other words, led directly to Pearl Harbor.

My take:  1937 is as good a date as any to use for the start of World War II. 

7 Responses

  1. Bill

    Another date could be the dictation of terms after WWI. Those terms and the lack of backing for the League of Nations made most of it possible.

  2. Robert M. Citino


    Good point. I guess I woul separate the shorter term causes from the longer term ones (“short fuses” and “long fuses”). But as long as we don’t make the WWII arise INEVITABLY from 1918, I’m with you: the way WWI ended laid the groundwork for the next war.


  3. Andrew Morris

    As much as the Treaty of Versailles was a horrendous piece of diplomacy, it is only with hindsight that we can see how it led to WW2.
    In between Versailles and September 1939 were the more critical events, in my opinion, of the Great Depression and Hitler’s rise to power.
    I would argue that without those two critical events intervening, you cannot argue that the Treaty of Versailles, as signed in 1918-1919, would have inevitably led to the catastrophe of another world war 20 years later.

  4. Mike Hegarty

    1937 is a correct date for the start of the war. Japan’s militarization of Manchuria and subsequent invasion of China is a starting point that doesn’t get recognition because of the media’s Eurocentric view at the time. Few people recognize the fact that the bulk of the Japanese Army was not scattered across the Pacific but rather located in China.

  5. paul penrod

    I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but Japan’s incursion into China came into conflict with the Soviets. What occurred in Mongolia in the summer of 1939 was not only, what I believe to be the start of a world war, but also determined it’s ultimate outcome

  6. Rob Citino

    You’re no broken record, Paul–you’re just someone making a strong argument! Crtialny the 1939 campaign (whether “Khalkin-Gol” or “Nomonhan”) was of crucial importance to the course of the war.

  7. The Forester

    The 1931 invasion of Manchuria marks a better start to the war – it led directly to all of the other incidents in Asia.

    Btw, Chiang did NOT continue resisting the invaders or suspend his war against the Commies. The KMT had far more in common with the Japanese imperialists than they did with the Reds. Per Stilwell, the “G’mo” had no interest in fighting the invaders & only did the minimum necessary to keep US aid flowing, while stockpiling it for future use against Mao’s forces.


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