World History 2 212 - 12.5.2 Democratic Yearnings

The dismantling of empires at the end of the war was clearly a boon for democracy, but it was not always easy for fledgling countries to adopt new political systems. The tense situation in Ireland of the 1920s was just one example.

In 1922, the Irish Free State was created through the Anglo-Irish Treaty. This 1921 pact ended the Irish War of Independence that had begun in 1918 when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Irish Nationalist Party fought British rule. Groups such as Sinn Féin (“We Ourselves”), organized in 1905 to fight for an independent Ireland, were often associated with the IRA and sometimes adopted more violent measures than the more moderate Irish Nationalist Party. They had the same goal but very different methods.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty initiated a vote on the future of Ireland. The six northern counties, largely Protestant, voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, but the other twenty-six formed the Irish Free State and received dominion status in the British Empire. As a dominion, the Irish Free State could make and enforce its own laws, make treaties, appoint ambassadors, and send its own representatives to international organizations. A sizable number of Catholics remained in the northern counties, however, which ultimately led to long-term violence. And while the new arrangement was a significant improvement over the past, it did not fully satisfy many Irish republicans, who wanted complete independence for Ireland. Sinn Féin itself was split; some members wanted greater sovereignty for Ireland and for the entire island to be rid of the British presence. A brief civil war broke out between the IRA and the Free State, but the Free State emerged victorious. In 1937, it was reorganized under a new government headed by Éamon de Valera, an anti-treaty leader, and took the name “Ireland.”

Japan also took steps toward becoming more democratic for a brief period after World War I. In 1912, a new emperor, Taisho, had ushered in a period of liberalism with democratic and progressive politics. For example, labor strikes, such as the rice riots in 1918 in which tens of thousands of people protested the government’s failure to pay market prices for rice, became increasingly common as workers fought for better wages and working conditions. Women became active in labor unions and politics for the first time, and the number of unions more than tripled in the 1910s. During this period, Japan was viewed as a triumph of constitutional government.

However, the progressive period did not last long. In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, destroyed two major cities, Yokohama and Tokyo. Nearly 150,000 people died in the earthquake and the resulting fires and tsunamis (Figure 12.18). Rumors quickly spread that Koreans in the area were taking advantage of the chaos, were plotting political insurrection, and had already poisoned wells to contaminate the drinking water. Several thousand Koreans were targeted and killed in response. The devastation also provided an opportunity for the conservative and pro-military forces in the Japanese government to exercise increased control over society. Martial law was declared, and the repression of radicals was stepped up. Political activists who questioned government policies disappeared.

The photograph of the city shows the rubble of many buildings that have collapsed.
Figure 12.18 This 1923 photograph shows the extent of destruction in Tokyo caused by the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. (credit: modification of work “The Great Kanto Earthquake” by “urbz”/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

When the emperor died in 1926, his son Hirohito ascended to power, and the Shöwa period began. Japan’s political system now became increasingly dominated by the military, and the emperor’s role was shrouded in secrecy and worship. The country’s military leaders believed more aggressive actions were needed for Japan to control the Pacific as they wanted to.

Operating with a heightened sense of duty and honor, Japan’s military establishment and certain factions of its army became increasingly contemptuous of civilian leaders. By the late 1920s, they saw these politicians as incapable of solving domestic issues or addressing challenges from China and the Soviet Union. Some disaffected Japanese field commanders in China and the Japanese colony of Korea began to engage in direct actions, forming criminal conspiracies and cover-ups to secure the future of Japan as they saw it, even as they served the emperor.

Nationalistic secret societies such as the Cherry Blossom Association and the Blood-Pledge Corps blossomed within the Japanese armed forces, particularly in the prestigious Kwantung Army stationed in Korea. The Japanese chafed at perceived unequal treatment in world affairs, such as at the Washington Naval Conference. Anxiety rose about the growth of Chinese nationalism under Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalist Guomindang government, and what it might mean for Japanese interests in China.

Manchuria, which bordered Korea, was a semiautonomous province of China. In 1931, to precipitate a political crisis that would enable Japan to intervene, hyper-patriots in the Japanese army conspired to blow up a portion of the South Manchurian Railway near the Manchurian city of Mukden (Shenyang) and blamed the incident on Chinese nationalists. The local Japanese commander took the opportunity to occupy Mukden, and field commanders in Korea dispatched reinforcements without any orders from Tokyo to do so. Japanese public opinion supported the army’s action.

As the Japanese army fanned out in Manchuria, the Kwantung Army approached the former Chinese Emperor, Pu Yi, who had been living in the Japanese concession (an area of the city granted to Japan) in Tianjin since 1925 (Figure 12.19). The Japanese convinced Pu Yi they had acted in the interests of the Manchurian people to preserve law and order in his homeland. They then smuggled him back to Manchuria, and by March 1932, he had been persuaded to accept the position of “chief executive” of the newly born state of Manchukuo, otherwise known as Manchuria. As the Chinese government called for the League of Nations to intervene and pledged to accept its rulings, a British diplomat in Japan warned of “an atmosphere of gun-grease” in Japan.

A man wears a military style uniform and holds a sword. He stares directly into the camera.
Figure 12.19 This photograph shows Pu Yi, China’s last emperor and Manchukuo’s first and only “chief executive,” in the 1930s or 1940s. (credit: “Pu Yi, Qing dynasty, China, Last emperor” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In the fall of 1931, the League established the Lytton Commission to look into the situation. In January 1932, U.S. secretary of state Henry Stimson announced the Stimson Doctrine, which refused to recognize Manchukuo as an independent state.

Chinese public opinion was aroused, and in January 1932, clashes erupted between Japanese marines and Chinese troops in the outskirts of Shanghai. In Manchuria, the Lytton Commission found that the Guomindang government of China “was no longer exercising any political or administrative ‘authority in any part of Manchuria.’” Japan formally recognized the establishment of Manchukuo, its client state (a subordinate and dependent area), as a theoretically free, completely sovereign, and independent nation (Figure 12.20). The Lytton Report, published in October 1932, found fault on both sides but did not recommend full autonomy for Manchukuo. Japan responded by withdrawing from the League in March 1933. Japan ran the government in Manchukuo as a puppet state, controlling the native Chinese officials. Pu Yi continued as “head” of the government there until the end of the war, after which China took back control.

This map shows Asia and the Pacific region. Manchukuo is highlighted and borders Russia, Mongolia, China, and North Korea.
Figure 12.20 Manchukuo (Manchuria) was a client state in Japan’s imperialistic sphere of influence from the 1930s to the end of World War II. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The Japanese secret societies within the military were animated by an exaggerated sense of Japan’s destiny. They began a campaign of violence against the Japanese civilian government. Elements of the Imperial Navy launched a coup in March 1932 by executing Japan’s former finance minister, Junnosuke Inoue, and Baron Dan, the head of Mitsui Corporation, as traitors to the Japanese people. On May 15, Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi was shot to death by eleven young naval officers. Between 1930 and 1935, the Japanese witnessed twenty terrorist incidents, the assassination of four political leaders, the attempted murders of five others, and four coup attempts.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the dominant political party in Japan was a fusion of Meiji oligarchs, government bureaucrats, and recruits from other political parties. The Seiyukai, as it was named, consistently supported a march toward authoritarian government. Beginning in 1932, “national unity” governments dominated by high-ranking military officers increasingly assumed power and repressed threats and enemies. Authoritarian government took hold from the top down in the mid-1930s, as the military intimidated and overpowered civilian governance and created a military dictatorship.

The situation in China was quite fluid through the 1920s and 1930s. Revolutionary activity grew but splintered, and the opposing views of Communists and Nationalists led to civil war. The Guomindang was led by Sun Yat-sen from 1912 until his death in 1925. Sun Yat-sen developed a more inclusive party and made an alliance with those who followed the communist path. After his death, Chiang Kai-shek arose as the leader of the Nationalists. Chiang focused on more traditional positions, and in the late 1920s, he chose to formally oust the communist members of the Guomindang.

One of the people who had joined the communist ranks was a young member from Hunan Province, Mao Zedong (Figure 12.21). Mao had had intermittent schooling but was drawn to the revolutionary fervor of the Russian Revolution of 1917. He had supported both the communist cause and the Guomindang, but after Chiang ousted the communists, Mao took up arms against him.

A man wears a military style uniform. A coffee cup and coffee can sit on the table in front of him.
Figure 12.21 This photo of Mao, who was born in 1893, was taken before World War II. (credit: “Mao Zedong in Yan’an” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Mao viewed communism and Marxism in a rather unorthodox way. Generally, Marxism relied on the proletariat, the industrial workers in the factories, gaining class consciousness. However, this model did not exist in China, a land of mostly agricultural peasants and little industrialization. So Mao came to believe that a Marxist state could be built on the peasantry rather than on industrial workers. Chinese communists would seek to overthrow not the capitalists but the landlords who controlled the land. This was a powerful tonic for the mass of Chinese peasants, who hungered for land reform. Such reform would oust the landlords and return all the land to the hands of the peasants who worked on it.

The Nationalists themselves had encouraged assistance from the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, and the Soviet Union had responded with aid and training. Once Chiang became head of the Nationalists, however, he decided to break with the Communists and planned an extermination of the Communist forces. This forced many into hiding, but in 1935, Mao was able to lead them on the Long March to a safe retreat in northern China. Many flocked to Mao and his oratory about a new government in China that reflected the will of the people. In 1937, however, the Japanese Empire invaded mainland China. Chiang offered Mao a truce, setting aside the civil war in favor of fighting against the invading forces. Still, the internal battles between these two sides weakened the war effort against the Japanese.

In Southeast Asia, themes of nationalism were also growing in popularity. Following his inability to be heard at negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles, Ho Chi Minh had returned home to the northern part of French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) and organized guerrilla fighters to begin ousting the French. Championing Vietnamese nationalism, Ho had received training from the Soviet Union and hoped communism would provide a path for his country to achieve independence.

Turkey welcomed the spread of democratic institutions in the 1920s. After the triumph of his nationalist party in the early 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established a republic with a constitution and regular elections. The Republic of Turkey disassociated itself from the old Ottoman rule by adopting many Westernized elements. Women had the right to vote, the Arabic alphabet was no longer used, and traditional dress (veils for women and the fez for men) was outlawed. European fashion became the norm. Another major shift in Turkey was its adoption of a fully secular society. The legal system was overhauled to focus on a civil code like those of other European countries rather than on Islamic law.

Latin American countries, too, had some success expanding democracy in the 1920s. In 1910, revolution broke out in Mexico. A struggle over leadership followed in which Mexico was governed by a succession of revolutionary generals without any established way for the next president to come to power. The creation of a political party was meant to fix this, and by the 1920s, the PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party) had been formed. Though subject to name changes through the decades, this party dominated Mexican politics until the twenty-first century. There were regular elections and an expansion of voting, reflecting at least the outward acceptance of democratic institutions. However, the PRI effectively ran a one-party state, and all presidents and nearly all the members of the legislature were members of the party. In 1938, a new president, Lázaro Cárdenas, focused on the plight of ordinary workers in Mexico. He supported labor unions, nationalized the oil industry, promoted land reform, and attempted to bring more socialist policies to Mexico.

Other countries throughout Latin America extended voting rights in the early 1900s. Chile suffered its share of chaos as reformers tried to seize political power there. Ultimately, Chile was able to build a series of coalition governments in the 1930s that brought stability for many years. By the 1920s, political instability was increasingly common in other places like Argentina. In September 1930, General José Félix Uriburu seized power in the capital, Buenos Aires. Uriburu had been heavily influenced by the Italian version of fascism. He banned political parties and suspended the constitution. His was the first of several military coups that occurred in Argentina in the ensuing decades.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax