The Stimson Doctrine of 1932

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

In the early 1930s, the Japanese government began an aggressive policy of expansion in Asia. After the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the U.S. knew it had to take action. This lesson explains the background and main tenets of the Stimson Doctrine of 1932.

The U.S. and Asia

Have you ever traded your lunch with a friend at school? Maybe your parent packs you chips, but you'd rather have your friend's pudding pack instead. You both agree to swap your snack every day. One day, another kid decides to sit at your table. This person upsets the ecosystem at your table. The daily snack swap is interrupted, and you no longer get what you're promised. Sounds pretty awful, right?

In 1931, the United States was concerned about a similar problem, but on a much greater scale. Beginning in the early 1900s, the U.S. formed lucrative trade partnerships in Asia. Through the open door policy, the U.S. trade opened up overseas markets in China. In addition to trade, the U.S. also had a number of territorial interests in the region. In September of 1931, an explosion in China threatened to upset U.S. interests in the area.

Japanese Expansion and the Mukden Incident

As you may know, Japan is a tiny island nation with limited resources. To resolve this problem, the Japanese government put into motion a plan to expand aggressively throughout the Pacific, in particular, into China. At the time, the Japanese already owned a variety of businesses in an area of China called Manchuria.

Map of Manchuria
Manchuria Map

On September 18, 1931, a bomb destroyed part of the Japanese railroad line located near a city called Mukden (located in Manchuria). The Japanese government accused the Chinese for the explosion and quickly responded by invading the region. The Japanese government created a separate state called Manchukuo and setup their own puppet government. From the outside, it appeared like Manchukuo was governed by the Chinese, while, in reality, the Japanese military was pulling the strings.

To the outside world, the Mukden incident was very suspicious. Many suspected that the bomb was not actually planted by the Chinese, but by the Japanese government instead. Such a horrific incident gave the Japanese an excuse to expand into Manchuria and take the territory for their own.

The Options

As you can imagine, Japan's actions did not sit well with the international community. After the creation of Manchukuo, the U.S. government was particularly disturbed. What would happen to trade relations with both Japan and China? What could be done to check Japanese aggression?

Unfortunately, there was no simple answer to that last question. The U.S. had a comparatively small stake in Manchuria and Japan's presence in the area didn't pose any immediate threats. Based on that fact alone, the U.S. government couldn't justify sending its military to restore order.

The next option was to impose economic sanctions on Japan, in other words restrict trade or create some sort of penalty that would hurt Japan financially. In 1931, however, the U.S. and countries around the world were still in the grips of the Great Depression. U.S. allies had very little interest in taking any action that might hurt their own economy or trade with Japan.

A third course of action emerged for the United States, but it proved as ineffective as the first two. After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson helped create an international peace-keeping organization called the League of Nations (similar to the United Nations today). For a number of reasons, the U.S. was not a part of the League of Nations. Despite this fact, U.S. leaders attended League meetings in 1931 to encourage member nations to enforce the Kellogg-Briand Pact. Post World War I, both China and Japan (along with other nations) signed the pact and agreed not to use military force to resolve conflicts. Ultimately, the League of Nations was unable to force Japan to follow the agreement it had signed.

The Stimson Doctrine

Seemingly out of options to curb Japanese aggression in Manchukuo, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson made one last effort. On January 7, 1932, Stimson penned two letters to China and Japan. Both letters communicated the same message. The U.S. would not, ''...recognize any treaty or agreement entered into between those Governments (Japan and China)...'' The U.S. advised that 'they would not recognize the territorial changes that were produced by force.' The U.S. was especially concerned about treaties and agreements that:

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