Japan vs China in 1937

Heh. I’m thinking of the havoc that would have been wrought by dropping planeloads of Superballs on Tokyo.

By the 1930’s, Japan was under the influence of its military, an inevitability caused by an oversight during the Meiji Restoration. During that same time, US Army officer stationed in Washington DC were discouraged from wearing their uniforms when they went about their business. Throughout the West, “Anything besides another war” was the prevailing philosophy.

The Maoist blamed all of China’s past problems on the US, as do the current regime (not without some justification: FDR’s family fortune was made dealing opium on the Pearl River), but in fact, after the Boxer Rebellion, American missionaries and the connected Soong banking family made a pretty strong lobby in the US. Because the Exclusion Act of 1923, the Chinese-American community at least had a toe-hold on political power before no more Asians could immigrate, but the later-arriving Japanese-Americans had little to none.

Japan was run by a mindset who saw the battlefield as the only place where decisions could be reached, and the US as a nation where they were not respected. The US had embargoed vital supplies, but then had, in Japan’s militaristic eyes, not backed it up with appreciable force: moving the fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor (a true warrior would have moved it to Subic Bay or even Shanghai). It was a case of “what you accept, you encourage.”

The island of Borneo which today is divided between three countries was a significant location of oil refining and production in the 1930s, Royal Dutch Shell had a number of major refineries on the island and there were several significant oil fields. In modern times the three countries that split the island up all have decently significant oil production–Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Brunei’s actually peaked at around 240,000 barrels a day in the 1970s, which is a significant amount for a country that is so small. Indonesia and Malaysia both produce over 500,000 barrels a day in modern times.

Remember that oil exploration and extraction has steadily improved and enhanced over the 20th and 21st centuries. Some of the largest and most productive oil fields in the world were basically either unexplored or untouched in the 1930s–for example the United States was producing something like ten times the oil that the entire Middle East combined was producing in this period.

The “Southern” economic zone as the Japanese referred to all the East Indies (including both Dutch and British) were producing something like 65 million barrels of oil annually. Much of this oil production was deliberately sabotaged in advance of the expected Japanese invasion, but by 1943 the Japanese had gotten around 50 million barrels of production back up online.


Geopolitical hypotheticals are much better suited for Great Debates than for General Questions. Moving.

Only in hindsight, and perhaps not even that can be known.

What should they have done to be less timid? As others have stated, the US pursued diplomatic solutions first, then took increasingly more punishing economic measures, of which some were opposed by some of the cabinet members because they were thought those measures would lead to war.

When Japan launched the invasion of China in 1937, the US public and Congress would not have accepted going to war with Japan over China. FDR didn’t want a war with Japan at this stage, and there wasn’t really a rational reason for sacrifice American lives for China. It just wasn’t in the strategic interests of the US, and America lacked the capacity to beat Japan in Asia in 1937.

The US had a strategic interest in opposing Hitler, but that really be said about Japan in China.

The US actually did respond diplomatically in increasingly stronger measures, but with the Japanese leadership in the hands of irrational players, who really can tell what would have happened had things been done differently.

It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, but much more difficult to know in the moment that the long term consequences will be. Look at all the current events such with Russia, China, North Korea, etc. and ask it the US is being too timid? (Note! This is a rhetorical argument, and let’s not actually get into those debates. It’s just clarity is only really possible when looking back.)

You meant Singapore, of course. They had already invaded Shanghai in 1937, as you know.

They were already a top 3 naval power and had been for many years.

They never were a threat to America, other than raids such as Pearl Harbor, and logistically it would have been difficult for them to invade and hold Australia while fighting in China, but that wasn’t necessarily appreciated at the time. Certainly they were a threat to sever the sea lines of communication between Australia and the US.

I meant the international settlement in Shanghai which the Japanese left alone until 1941. There were other international concessions in China that Japan left alone, perhaps the most interesting being the Italian ones which became an issue in 1943 when Italy switched sides in the war. Mark Felton did a video on it a while ago.

Japan vs. Italy - The Forgotten Pacific War - YouTube

This makes no sense at all. FDR had the fleet moved to Pearl Harbor to increase the pressure on Japan, but a home base requires you control the land, be defensible and have the logistics to support it. How do you base your fleet in a foreign country closer to the enemy and where it’s impossible to protect it?

nickpick: Japan had seized Northern French Indochina in 1940 and then expanded down South in 1941, which indeed led to the US oil embargo.

This is an interesting question because it’s very possible that FDR couldn’t have convinced Congress to declare war if only the DEI and the British colonies were overrun. While that would have helped them in the short run, it’s not clear that that strategy would be a winner, either.

A big problem is that there was no guaranty that the mood in America would be to keep out of a war in Asia forever (say five years). The actual polls of the public prior to the Pearl Harbor attack shows ambivalence towards war against Japan, with a majority supporting war in certain circumstances, while opposed in others. It’s impossible to tell what would have happened had Japan attacked the DEI and British colonies.

Another downside for the Japan for not going to war with America in December of 1941 was the rapid increase in America’s preparations for war. The Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940

Japan knew that by 1943 or 1944 at the latest, it would not be possible to beat America. They thought it may be possible if done done right in 1941 and 1942, but they didn’t have the luxury of waiting around even a few years.

They were a pretty crazy bunch. I highly recommend Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy, a deep dive into the various factions competing within the military and government, and a detailed explanation of the dysfunctionality of it all.

Because the US was rapidly preparing for the defense of the Philippines, Wake, and other holdings in the Pacific, if Japan didn’t take them in 1941 and early 42, and then war broke out a year later, Japan was going to be at a very strong disadvantage.

From their POV, a now that had boldly sailed/steamed into Tokyo Bay in 1852 but now “advanced” no further than Pearl was only demonstrating weakness (as were the British, who maintained Singapore as a naval base without a navy anywhere in sight). The Panay incident showed the Yangtze Patrol to be a paper tiger, and the fleet at Subic proved to be a pushover too. My point was that the carnage of WWI and the Great Depression caused the Western powers to dial the power down while still expecting the illusion of power would hold. The Japanese saw through the immediate illusion, but were blind to the potential to reinforce the paper tiger with a very real, angry one.

Given how disinclined the European powers were to get involved to combat German aggression happening on their doorstep (and to people who looked like them) it would be unusual if they’d decided to intervene to combat aggression on the other side of the world happening to Asian people.

Yeah, I think it is an interesting question as to whether Roosevelt would have found a way into the war without Pearl Harbor. If so, I think it certainly would have taken longer. It’s kind of interesting how the politics of the day were playing out. In the election of 1940, Roosevelt made a promise to keep the United States out of the ongoing war, in response to attacks from isolationist Democrats and Republicans that he was attempting to get us “entangled” in another European war. At the same time, Willkie was scoring political points against Roosevelt by claiming Roosevelt had left the country “unprepared for war” if war were to arrive. It’s interesting that the same country that was majority opposed to the war, was relatively supportive of a large military buildup and decently supportive of material support to Britain (which most logical people would understand put us on a path to war with Germany.) Somewhat paradoxically, by most accounts Roosevelt scored a major political boost during the 1940 campaign season when he announced the Destroyers for Bases deal with the British, so there was at least a strong American appetite if not for outright war, for “being involved” in the matter.

Looking strictly at the Asian theater though, I think the American public prior to Pearl Harbor had much less sentimental or political concern for the goings on there than in Europe, reporting on the war in Europe dominated the American newspapers. Due to the many ways Roosevelt had ramped up active support for the British, I think without Pearl Harbor it is likely Roosevelt accelerated some of those efforts even more and we eventually end up with a belligerent German declaration of war anyway at some point within a year of when Pearl Harbor actually happened. The actual history of WWII shows that the Germans were prone to such things even when they made no sense, and when they actively were bad tactics. With us then at war in Europe it’s hard to imagine the Japanese not making some sort of move against our Asian possessions like the Philippines etc, which would get the war going for the U.S. in that theater as well.

Long run I do think we end up at war with Japan and Germany without Pearl Harbor occurring, but it certainly would have taken longer for it to break out.

Putting some oil on the fire :wink:
production were in circa 1940:
USA 180 Mt 63%
Venezuela 30 Mt 10,5 %
USSR 27Mt 9%
Iran 10 Mt 3,5%
Dutch east Indies 8 Mt 2,8%
Mexico 6,5 Mt 2,2%
Romania 6 Mt 2,1%
Columbia 3,5 Mt 1,2%
Iraq 3 Mt 1%
Argentina 2,8Mt 1%
Trinidad 2,5 Mt
Peru 1,8 Mt
Burma, Canada, Egypt : 1 Mt each

So not exactly overwhelming, but 3% of the world’s oil production is still impressive for Japan’s navy.