Lesson Plans: Grades

Lesson 2: America and the Sino-Japanese Conflict, 1933–1939

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


Japanese soldiers in combat in China, 1937.

Japanese soldiers in combat in China, 1937.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

The Japanese conquest of Manchuria in 1931 was only the first step in what became a much larger campaign to create a pro-Japanese "buffer state" in North China, a campaign that resulted in full-scale war between Japan and China in 1937. From the beginning the United States considered Japan the aggressor, but refused to take any direct action beyond issuing diplomatic denunciations, sending small amounts of aid to the Chinese government, and imposing very limited economic sanctions against Japan. Nevertheless, China continued to fight even after suffering horrendous losses, and the Japanese offensive bogged down by the end of 1939. Tokyo, therefore, began looking for alternate solutions to what it called the "China Incident."

This lesson will examine the overall principles which underlay both Japanese and American foreign policy in the mid- to late-1930s. Through the use of documents and an interactive timeline, students will be invited to assess the effectiveness of U.S. policy toward East Asia.

Guiding Questions

In its approach to the Sino-Japanese conflict of the 1930s, did the United States place itself on a path to war?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain why Japan went to war against China during the 1930s.
  • Articulate the reasons why the United States believed that its interests were at stake in East Asia.
  • Discuss how the United States responded to developments in the Sino-Japanese War.
  • Assess the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia in the 1930s.


By the end of 1933 Japan had become almost entirely estranged from much of the rest of the world, thanks to the 1931 invasion of Manchuria (and its subsequent re-creation as the puppet state of Manchukuo) and the country's withdrawal from the League of Nations. However, Tokyo's greatest fear was the spread of Soviet influence in East Asia, and therefore in November 1936 Japan joined Germany in signing the Anti-Comintern Pact, in which the two powers pledged to cooperate in fighting international communism. More important, however, were efforts by Japan's government to create a Japanese-dominated "autonomous region" in China north of the Great Wall to serve as a buffer against possible Soviet expansion into East Asia.

Although Tokyo's ambitions caused alarm among the Chinese, for the first few years the Chinese government at Nanking showed little willingness to resist Japan's growing power in the country's northern provinces. Indeed, China's leaders seemed far more interested in fighting Chinese Communists, who were engaged in a continual campaign of subversion. However, this all changed in December 1936, when Nanking abruptly changed course and signed an agreement with the Communists; from now on, both sides pledged, they would cooperate against the common threat of Japanese imperialism.

Alarmed at this turn of events, the government in Tokyo began preparations for war, and after fighting broke out at the Marco Polo Bridge, just outside Peking, in July 1937 the Japanese army launched a full-scale offensive. Within a few weeks the Japanese had captured the Chinese cities of Peking, Tientsin, and Shanghai, and were advancing rapidly toward the capital of Nanking.

Given that the United States had considerable trading and missionary interests in China, the Sino–Japanese War could not help but attract attention from Washington. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wasted no time in branding Japan as an aggressor, yet he did very little in practical terms to hinder Japan's war effort. After all, in 1937 domestic affairs were still very much the president's highest priority, so he settled for a policy that involved sending small amounts of aid to China and imposing very limited economic sanctions against Japan. However, when in December 1937 Japanese aircraft attacked and sank the American gunboat U.S.S. Panay in the Yangtze River, the administration responded more forcefully, demanding (and receiving) a formal apology and indemnity from Tokyo .

Roosevelt's policies in East Asia were not without their critics, the most important of whom was Joseph Grew, the U.S. ambassador to Tokyo. In a letter to the Secretary of State he recommended that the United States either had to threaten to use force against Japan (which, in order to be credible, would require a serious increase in the size of the American armed forces), or to stay out of the Sino-Japanese conflict altogether. The administration's policy of moral denunciation, limited assistance to China and economic pressure on Japan, he warned, would not deter Tokyo-it would only anger the Japanese and drive them toward more extreme measures.

Indeed, the U.S. response did not bring an end to Japanese aggression in China, but it did encourage the Chinese government in holding out against Tokyo's demands. The Japanese army continued its advance, seizing Nanking (followed by an orgy of looting and rape which shocked the world) in December 1937. Tsingtao, Hankow, and the port cities of South China (the most important of which was Canton) fell over the course of 1938. Yet the Chinese government refused to surrender, moving its capital west to Chungking, far in the interior of the country.

All of this posed a serious problem for Japan. While its army had won every battle against the Chinese, it was clear that there were not enough Japanese troops to overrun a country as large as China. Indeed, by late 1938 there were not even enough men to impose an effective occupation over those parts of the country that they had conquered, so that a powerful Communist-led guerrilla movement was able to operate behind Japanese lines. By 1939, therefore, the offensive had run out of steam. Tokyo concluded that it could only win the war by cutting China off from its foreign sources of support, and by seeking new resources to fuel its war effort. This, however, would mean expanding the scope of the war, and potentially escalating U.S.–Japanese tensions into a full-scale crisis.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the various activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
  • Finally, familiarize yourself with the interactive timeline "America on the Sidelines: The United States and World Affairs, 1931–1941 that accompanies this lesson. This timeline will, through text and maps, guide students through the major events in Asia in the 1930s, and will ask students for each event to identify (choosing from among a menu of options) how the United States responded to it.
Analyzing primary sources

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers helpful pages on "Making Sense of Documentary Photography" and "Making Sense of Maps" which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Competing Objectives

For the first activity students will read official statements of policy from both the Japanese and the American governments in the mid-1930s. In doing so they should gain an understanding of what Japan's overall goals were for Asia, as well as how they conflicted with American principles of foreign policy. It should be apparent Tokyo was putting forth a specific vision for a Japanese-dominated East Asia, while the United States focused on broad, universal standards for international behavior.

To begin, review with students the critical material from the first lesson of this curriculum unit. They should recall the tension between Japan's ambitions in China and the American policy of the "open door." They should also be reminded about Japan's grievances toward the United States concerning trade and immigration. Finally, teachers should review the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the U.S. policy of nonrecognition—that is, refusal to recognize changes in the status quo brought about by force.

Next, put students in pairs and have them read (in class) the following document, found in its excerpted form on pages 2-4 of the Text Document, and in its complete form at the site "WWII Resources," which is linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Digital History

To help guide their reading, students should answer (in their pairs) the following questions, available in worksheet form on page 1 of the Text Document:

  • According to this document, which foreign country poses the greatest threat to Japan's national interests, and why?
  • What do the Japanese hope to accomplish in China? How do they plan to go about doing so?
  • How, according to the document, is the United States likely to react to Japanese efforts in China? What should Japan do to allay U.S. concerns?
  • What measures does this document recommend for Japan's dealings with Great Britain and Germany?
  • Why is the "Southern Region" so important for Japan?

Students should be given the remainder of class to complete this part of the activity. When they have finished, hand out the following document, also available at "WWII Resources," but reproduced on page 5 of the Text Document

Students should read this document for homework. As a written assignment, students should put themselves in the role of Japanese diplomats and write a brief (4-5 paragraph) response to Hull's statement. In what way might the principles Hull advocates be seen as standing in the way of Japan's goals for East Asia? Is there anything that Hull says that Tokyo might appreciate (i.e., the emphasis on the importance of international trade)? Students should be sure to make specific references to the documents in their responses.

Activity 2. Competing Policies

Now that the students have a basic understanding of each side's goals, the second activity will introduce them to Japan's actions in East Asia, and how the United States reacted to them. In so doing they should notice how the Roosevelt administration gradually moved away from a policy of simple non-recognition to one of limited economic sanctions against Japan and aid for China.

This activity will require use of the interactive timeline "America on the Sidelines: The United States and World Affairs, 1931-1941". If students do not have access to computers in the classroom, teachers should arrange to hold one class session in the school's computer lab. At the beginning of class provide each student with a blank map of East Asia and the Pacific region (if they have completed the first lesson in this unit, they should use the same map that they started in Activity 3 of that lesson).

Direct students to use the interactive to study the events of 1931 through 1939. As students go through the events of those years, ask them to consider the various options available to the United States—listed along the left-hand side—and for each event select what they think the actual response was. If they choose the wrong response, they should continue to make selections until they have found find the right one. As they use the interactive they should make a list of the events (with dates), and the U.S. responses. In addition, they should make note of the locations indicated in the interactive by marking them on their blank maps.

When students have finished using the interactive, hand out the following documents. They may be found in their excerpted form on pages 6-8 of the Text Document, or in their entirety at "WWII Resources" and at the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Teaching American History:

Once students have read these two documents, ask students to imagine that they members of the U.S. Congress. They are to use the information garnered from both the interactive and the two documents to write a 4-5 paragraph memo to the President either defending or criticizing his administration's policy toward East Asia. They should be reminded to make specific references to the documents in their memos.

If time permits, teachers might wish to conclude this activity by having students read their memos in class the following day.


The written assignments used in the first and second activities may be used as formal assessment tools.

Upon completion of this lesson, students should be able to use the documents they read for this lesson to write a five-paragraph essay in response to the following question:

  • Did U.S. policy toward East Asia in the 1930s forestall or hasten war with Japan?

In addition, students should be able to locate the following on a blank map of East Asia:

  • Peking
  • Shanghai
  • Nanking
  • Chungking
  • Canton
  • Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
  • Mongolia

Finally, students should be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:

  • Anti-Comintern Pact
  • Panay Incident
  • Nanking Massacre

Extending The Lesson

The attack by Japanese aircraft on the U.S.S. Panay caused a momentary crisis in U.S.–Japanese relations; some in the administration even spoke of going to war. However, a speedy apology by the Japanese government, and a promise to pay for damages, smoothed over the matter. The vast majority of Americans were unwilling to fight; indeed, many asked what a U.S. Navy vessel was doing in China in the first place. Teachers might wish to have students read more about the Panay Incident; the relevant diplomatic correspondence is available at "World War II Resources", which is linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed site Digital History. Students might be asked to consider whether the Japanese response was sufficient.

The Nanking Massacre, in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese were killed during the six weeks after the Japanese captured the city, outraged world opinion, and quickly became a symbol of Japan's aggression against China. A newspaper account of the massacre is available at the Internet East Asian History Sourcebook, accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Medieval Sourcebook. An extended treatment of this event —as well as of other Japanese war crimes in China—is accessible via the site "Documents of the Interwar Period," which is in turn linked from the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library. Students might be asked to write brief essays on this event, based on the above sources.

Perhaps no group in the United States followed the developments of the Sino-Japanese War more closely than Chinese-Americans. There were substantial Chinese communities in a number of American cities, and during the 1930s they launched a "Save China" campaign, organizing boycotts against Japanese products and calling upon the U.S. government to step up its support of China. Examples of the campaign's literature may be found at the EDSITEment-reviewed site History Matters. Students might be asked to consider how effective this campaign might have been.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • John Moser, Ashland University (Ashland, OH)
  • Lori Hahn, West Branch High School (Morrisdale, PA)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources

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