Memorandum by the Ambassador in China (Johnson) of a Conversation With Sir Frederick Leith-Ross64

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Sir Frederick asked me whether I thought there was any likelihood of a war between Japan and China. With regard to Japan and Russia he expressed the opinion that the Japanese had probably decided to lay off, as the Russians were too well prepared. I told Sir Frederick that I found it very difficult to believe that there would be war between Japan and China. I said that of course it was always possible that the Chinese might be forced into some kind of a conflict, but that I thought they would take an awful lot of provocation before this would happen. I said that I had heard a great deal about the possibility of trouble when I was in Nanking in February, but that I did not put much stock in this. I knew that the Chinese were spending a good deal of money upon armaments.

Sir Frederick said that he thought this large expenditure of sums on armaments was very dangerous; that the Chinese were apt to lose the resources which they needed so much for the successful completion of the currency scheme, He stated that the opinion in favor of war [Page 135] between Japan and China increased proportionately with the distance one traveled toward the south; in North China he found little or no interest in war with Japan; when one got to the Yangtze River one found it fairly strong; but when one arrived at Canton and Kwangsi one found a very active and outspoken war psychology. He said that Li Tsung-jen of Kwangsi had stated that they were prepared to cooperate with Chiang Kai-shek if he would fight the Japanese. Sir Frederick stated that he had a certain amount of sympathy with this point of view, but that he could not convince himself that the Chinese really would fight.

I told Sir Frederick that after all some one had to start a fight, and personally I did not think that the Chinese would start one; that as regards the Japanese it seemed to me that they were having too easy a time for them to change their tactics and begin an open conflict. I said that the present tactics here in North China indicated a certain cynical attitude of the Japanese towards the Chinese, and that the continued connivance of the Japanese at the smuggling operations now being conducted on such a large scale in North China would result eventually in the complete breakdown of the Chinese Customs service. I pointed out that this must eventually bring about the financial starvation of the Government; that troops and Government services were unpaid; and that under the circumstances the Japanese would have every reason to station forces here to protect their people and their interests from the chaos which they had created. Under the circumstances it seemed to me that if the Japanese wanted to appropriate territory or desired to take control of the administrative agencies in this area they need only proceed as they were now proceeding and that no war was likely to occur. Sir Frederick expressed the belief that to continue a policy of this kind would be as disastrous for the Japanese as for the Chinese, as they would soon find China a rotting carcass on their hands.

I told Sir Frederick that the whole situation here in North China had been changed somewhat, first by the decision of the Japanese Government to increase its military force here in North China and to appoint a commanding officer of rank sufficiently high to make him independent of control by the Kwantung army so that he would come under the direct control of Tokyo; and secondly, by the events of February 26th of this year. I expressed the opinion that the officers who had been retired as the result of the incidents of February 26th would now doubtless constitute a new body of elder statesmen or Genro who would have to be consulted by every person called upon to form a government in Japan. I said that in my opinion these men who really stood for the Army were on the horns of a dilemma: that they must either agree to a reform of the entire economic structure [Page 136] of Japan upon which the great Japanese industrial and commercial houses were built, or seek to extend the Japanese military adventure in China, in order to take the minds of the people and the army off the problems at home. I said that it was a little early yet to determine which path the army and its superiors would take. I pointed out that the first result, apparently, of the change which occurred on February 26th was the cessation of all expenditures on development work in Manchuria. I said that the best explanation I could get for this stoppage of expenditure in Manchuria appeared to be that the new authorities wished to put all available money into an expansion of Japan’s armed force.

Sir Frederick stated that he thought the present Japanese authorities were quite capable of attempting to reform the economic situation in Japan and to carry on an extension of their interests in China at the same time. He stated that the Japanese were very anxious for him to return home through Japan, but that he had not made up his mind whether he would go that way or not; he thought that there was little use for him to go through merely to drink a cup of sake.

Nelson Trusler Johnson
  1. Extract of memorandum transmitted to the Department by the Ambassador in China in his despatch No. 437, May 8; received June 1. Sir Frederick, chief economic adviser to the British Government, was in China temporarily as financial adviser to the British Embassy.