Led Astray by Published Documents

By David Langbart

Scholars and others use the series Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), the official documentary publication of American foreign policy, and other printed primary sources, as sources of easily-accessible documentation.  Strict reliance upon published documents, however, can lead one astray if the point you are trying to draw is not the same as that intended by the compilers of the publication.  Thus, it can be important to go back to the original sources.

A case in point relates to the timing of the U.S. public statement on the Japanese bombing of Chinese cities in 1937.  Japan’s indiscriminate bombing of Chinese cities in 1937 shocked the world.  The United States, through its embassy in Tokyo, made a government-to-government protest and subsequently made a public statement.  The League of Nations publicly condemned Japanese actions, too.

Following the documentation published in the special FRUS-like volumes on U.S.-Japan relations for the period 1931 to 1941 published in 1943, some writers have left out the government-to-government contact and set the chronology as follows:  a League of Nations committee publicly adopts a condemnatory resolution on September 27 and the next day, the United States, through the Department of State, publicly supports the League.  Former Secretary of State Cordell Hull (Secretary of State at the time of the events in question) followed this line in his 1948 book The Memoirs of Cordell Hull.  After noting the September 27 League adoption he wrote “In a statement the following day we at the State Department supported this finding . . . ” (p. 559).  John Dower, in his seminal book War Without Mercy, put it this way: “On September 28, 1937, one day after a resolution on the subject was unanimously adopted by an advisory committee to the League, the Department of State denounced Japan . . . ” (p. 38).

Unfortunately, Hull, Dower, and others who follow the printed documentation, have the chronology wrong.  While the U.S. did issue a public statement on September 28, and that statement did include a censure of Japanese actions, that was not the first U.S. public issuance with such criticism.  On September 22, 1937, even before the League of Nations took action, the U.S., through the Department of State, issued the following press release reproducing the text of the government-to-government note delivered by Ambassador Joseph C. Grew to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs that same day (from Press Releases, 1912-1990, NAID 602158).  (Grew’s report on the delivery of the note is published in the special volumes on Japan.)  The September 28 statement merely repeated one sentence from the earlier release.

3 thoughts on “Led Astray by Published Documents

  1. Events like those at Nanking that presaged by so much time our entry into war with Japan (in hindsight at least) show an almost inevitable course to that war. We in America know so little of the war before the Pearl Harbor attack and we teach our young even less of it. I applaud the effort that brings out information such as this. Thank you.

  2. As someone who compiles primary sources and sees the errors in secondary sources firsthand 😉 , I think the importance of this blog post cannot be understated.

  3. Harold Ickes wrote in his Secret Diary that after the Panay attack, Secretary of the Navy Claude Swanson urged in a Cabinet meeting that we should declare war on Japan. As I recall, Ickes surmised that the admirals were similarly in favor of war. Whether more on this has appeared in print, I don’t know.

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