World War II was the deadliest war in human history, and the seeds of the conflict had been planted decades before the fighting started. But the incident that took it from simmering tensions to open conflict was a false flag attack by a Japanese officer hoping that a war would give his empire greater control of Asia.
We in the west have a tendency to focus on the European tensions that led to World War II. And while the rise of Mussolini and Hitler caused a massive conflict that rocked Europe and Russia, open fighting was going on in Asia for years before Germany's encroachment into Sudetenland. And Japanese officers triggered a round of fighting in 1931 by attacking their own railroad.
Japanese troops enter Tsitsihar, a city in northeast China.
(Japanese war camerman, public domain)
The Mukden Incident took place in 1931. Japan had ambitions on the Asian continent, but the Japanese political establishment was, shall we say, less aggressive about it than the Japanese military would have preferred.
There was a railroad running through the Liaodong Peninsula near Korea. It connected key cities in the peninsula to the rest of the continent. Japan acquired the railroad and peninsula after the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, giving it a much larger foothold on the continent. The railroad became one of Japan's most economically important assets on the continent.
But that wasn't enough for the nation of Japan, and the troops stationed there were especially hawkish. They wanted Japan to take much more of China (Korea, too, for that matter). But the government kept focusing on increasing political and economic power over the surrounding area. But economic and political expansion takes time and doesn't include artillery.
And, worse, China was politically unifying at the time. It created a real risk that China may become resilient to further expansion. There was even a possibility that Japan would eventually be kicked off the continent.
The site of the 1931 railway sabotage that became known as the Mukden Incident and kicked off the fighting in Asia that would become World War II.
So, in the middle of all this tension, someone blew up a short section of the railroad on Sept. 18, 1931. An under-powered bomb did little lasting damage, and the railway was operating again almost immediately.
But even more immediate was the counter-attack. In just a day, Japanese artillery was sending rounds into Chinese-held territory. In just a few months, Japan had conquered the most resource-rich areas bordering the peninsula. The limited damage, the quick Japanese retaliation, and the brutal invasion has led some historians to believe that mid-level Japanese Army officers conducted the bombing to give themselves a pretext for invasion.
Japan occupied the area for the next 14 years, and its troops continued to conquer China. It attacked Shanghai in 1932, threatening European and American interests as well as, obviously, Chinese security and sovereignty.
The American and European navies stepped up their game in the Pacific, reinforcing Pacific outposts and building new ships. Meanwhile, Japan remained on the march, continuously expanding until 1942. It would conquer vast portions of China and all of Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Burma, and more.
And it all started with a shady as hell attack against its own railroad in 1931.