Western Diplomats | Facing History & Ourselves

Western Diplomats

Consider how diplomats from Western countries responded to news of the Nanjing atrocities.  
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English — US


  • History
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • Culture & Identity
  • Resistance

Western, Chinese, and Japanese diplomats and leaders were aware of the Nanjing atrocities. They wrote in private correspondence and issued public statements about the events as they unfolded on the world stage. On February 2, 1938, the first representative of the Chinese republic to the League of Nations, Koo Wei-jun (Wellington Koo), denounced Japan’s military actions, calling for the delegates to condemn the actions of the Imperial Army. Regrettably, the council only adopted a resolution expressing their moral support to China and recommending that no actions be taken by the member states to strengthen the current Chinese resistance.

Several months later, on May 10, 1938, Koo again requested that the league take effective measures to deter Japanese aggression. In stressing the barbarous and cruel acts of the Japanese forces, he said:

The wanton slaughter of noncombatants by the indiscriminate bombing of undefended towns and nonmilitary centers has been continuing unabated. The unprecedented violence to women and ruthlessness to children and the deliberate massacre of hundreds of adult males amongst the civilian population, including those removed from refugee camps under false pretenses, form the subject of many reports by impartial foreign eyewitnesses. The cruel and barbarous conduct of Japanese troops towards the Chinese people in the occupied areas not only shows the want of regard on the part of the Japanese army for the accepted rules of warfare, but also betrays a disgraceful lack of discipline in rank and file. 1

Koo appealed several more times to the league for assistance to the Chinese and for an international public stand against Japanese aggression. Unfortunately, his plea largely fell on deaf ears.

Roger George Howe, the top British diplomat in Nanjing from September 1937 to March 1938, reflected on questions of responsibility. In a letter dated January 10, 1938, Howe wrote:

I should have said from the start that the Chinese armies in an ill-conceived military program burned down many villages and blocks of houses outside of the wall, and did some casual looting of shops and houses for food. Otherwise they caused little trouble, though there was great anxiety over their obvious collapse, their preparations for street fighting that never occurred, and their possible injuring of the civilian population. The Chinese failure was disgraceful in the flight of high offices, and in its lack of military coordination and determination. But comparatively considered, the ordinary soldiers were very decent. 2

  • 1League of Nations, Official Journal 19, 5–6 (May–June 1938): 307, quoted in Takashi Yoshida, “Wartime Accounts of the Nanking Atrocity,” in The Nanjing Atrocity 1937–1938: Complicating the Picture, ed. Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi (New York: Berghahn Books, 2007), 251–52.
  • 2Suping Lu, ed., A Dark Page in History: The Nanjing Massacre and Post-Massacre Social Conditions Recorded in British Diplomatic Dispatches, Admiralty Documents, and U.S. Naval Reports (Lantham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2012), 40–41.

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Facing History & Ourselves, "Western Diplomats," last updated November 30, 2018.

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