The USS Panay: An Incident Long in the Making


As 1937 came to an end, the bombardment and subsequent destruction of the USS Panay had the potential to at least demolish US-Japanese relations and at most draw the United States into an early engagement with the axis countries, a potentially history altering sequence of events. Less than fifteen minutes after spotting three Japanese bombers overhead,  at 1:38 PM on December 12th the destruction of the first American warship since WWI commenced (Jellison). Initially passed off as a freak accident rectified by the profuse apologies of both the Japanese people and their government, the destruction of the USS Panay and three Standard Oil tanker ships was over fifteen years in the making.

After having tumultuous interactions in 1919 with Woodrow Wilson over a racial equality clause, the Washington Naval Conference of 1921 was the first sign of life for US-Japanese relations (Lafeber 145). After finding themselves as signatories on all three naval agreements conceived at the conference (Dobbs), both nations left with a sense of reforged relations and the hopes of renewed cooperation and positive interaction between the two powers (Herring 467). Improving upon the good relations fostered during the Washington Conference was the United States’ aid of Japan in 1923 after a massive earthquake (Herring 467). The early part of the 1920s looked kindly upon US-Japanese relations, however in the midst of positive relationship building activity, bankers such as Thomas Lamont of J.P. Morgan and friends looked to make a financial killing and began to inadvertently fund a growing Japanese presence in Manchuria (Cohen 31). While these loans appeared fairly innocuous upon initial review, the United States government found itself stuck between regulating the Japanese presence in Manchuria and avoiding any action that could potentially offend the Tokyo government (Cohen 32).

Relations took a grave turn in 1924 with the introduction of the National Origins Act. This  legislation placed quotas on many prominent immigrant groups who had arrived over the past thirty years and effectively banned the immigration of Japanese citizens. A shocking development in light of the recent years of cooperation and positive interaction between the US and Japan, the bill is described by Walter LaFeber as having attracted a great deal of opposition, but unfortunately, none of this support came from within the Senate (LaFeber 145). After the passing of the bill, US-Japanese relations degenerated rapidly. The first palpable instance of the decay came on July 1st that very same year, as the new foreign minister Shidehara came to power, the public showed its discontent with US policy by ripping down American flags adorning the US embassy in Tokyo, and one citizen going as far as committing suicide on the steps leading to the embassy entrance (LaFeber 145-146). While Lamont and the efforts of his fellow bankers continued to launder money into Japan, the United States had become the main importer into China, and this relationship was not to be overlooked when relations between the Chinese and the Japanese started to turn dark. Six years after the Japanese invaded Manchuria, the United States ran aground in its navigation of the tensions between the Japanese and the Chinese. A few short months before the sinking of the Panay, President Roosevelt delivered what would become one of his most memorable speeches as he compared the lawlessness and savagery of the conflicts in China and throughout Europe as a disease in need of quarantining. While FDR spoke in a vague manner about taking action against the abject violence found throughout the world, the speech provided us with eerily accurate predictions of the times to come. Not two months later, the violence FDR had addressed in his Chicago speech reemerged in a much more personal way.

As mentioned earlier, the United States had entered China earlier in the decade. Even in the wake of the 1924 Exclusion Act, a venture down the Yangtze may not have merited a watery grave for US ships in the region. However an important factor in staving off a violent outburst towards the Americans was no longer present, Shidehara who had worked hard to pursue policies of cooperation had been replaced by the policies of the Kwantung Army which were of a violent, imperial nature (LaFeber 146). In 1937 during what would become infamously known as the Rape of Nanking, efforts to evacuate Standard Oil employees located outside of Nanking, the Japanese fired what can be seen now as a warning shot across the nose of the Americans. On the afternoon of December 12th, miles upstream of Nanking, the USS Panay and three tankers belonging to Standard Oil. The bombardment destroyed all four targeted ships, and the oil tankers sustained untold Chinese casualties (Jellison). Aboard the Panay, three had lost their lives in the chaos, two servicemen: Charles Ensminger and Edgar Hulsebus and Italian correspondent Sandro Sandri (Jellison). Given the live footage Eric Mayell and Norman Alley were able to record on that fateful day, there is  little doubt that the attack on the USS Panay was not the honest mistake the Japanese had attempted to portray it as (Jellison), but was something much more malicious.

In the days to come, sentiment reminiscent to “Remember the Maine” and the Lusitania could have created a great deal of outrage stateside, however the incident was all but forgiven. But why was it forgiven and seemingly forgotten in spite of the empirical evidence explained by Norman Alley’s film footage of the attacks? Where was the United States’ desire for retribution? While this could be tidily explained by FDR’s decision to edit the footage to soften the blow to US-Japanese relations (Sparks 9), it seems that subsequent similar US responses to neutral attacks indicated that FDR was truly a man with “determination to pursue a policy of peace”. Even less than two months before the events of Pearl Harbor, in the wake of a German U-Boat attack on the USS Kearny, FDR made a statement that would foreshadow the next four years for the United States “We have wished to avoid shooting. But the shooting has started.” (FDR, USS Kearny).

Sources Consulted

Norman Alley’s Bombing of the USS Panay. China: Universal Studios, 1938. Film.
Cohen, Warren I. Empire without Tears: America’s Foreign Relations, 1921-1933. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1987. Print.
Dobbs, Charles M. “Washington Naval Conference 1921-1922.” Encyclopedia of Chinese-American Relations. N.d. Credo Reference. Web. 14 Nov. 2014. <http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/mcfcham/washington_naval_conference_1921_1922/0?>.
Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Jellison, Charles A. “A Prelude to War.” American History 34.5 (1999): n. pag. Reader’s Guide to Full Text Mega. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.
“President Franklin Delano Roosevelt Address over the Radio on Navy Day concerning the Attack upon the Destroyer U. S. S. Kearny, October 27, 1941.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt Addresses the Attack upon the Destroyer USS Kearny. Radio. 27 Oct. 1941. US Merchant Marine at War. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.
Roosevelt, Franklin D. “Quarantine the Aggressors Speech.” Chicago. 5 Oct. 1937. Points of View Reference Center. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.
Spark, Nick T. “Suddenly and Deliberately Attacked! The Story of the USS Panay Incident.” USS Panay. N.p., 2007. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.

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