Stimson Doctrine Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Following Japanese military activity in Manchuria in 1931, Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson stated that the United States would not recognize any territorial changes accomplished through the use of force. Japan ignored the doctrine.

Summary of Event

In the late 1920’s, Japan and the Soviet Union both clashed with the Chinese government over the construction and operation of the Chinese Eastern Railway, a section of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in Manchuria, the northeast region of China. By 1929, it seemed possible that the Soviet Union could go to war with China in order to control the Chinese Eastern Railway. War did not break out, but the dispute made it clear that the League of Nations and the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 could not prevent military conflict. Even though it did not resort to warfare, the Soviet Union managed to bully China into allowing it to take control of the Chinese Eastern Railway, and the international community did nothing to prevent the Soviet actions. [kw]Stimson Doctrine (Jan. 7, 1932) Stimson Doctrine Hoover-Stimson Doctrine[Hoover Stimson Doctrine] [g]United States;Jan. 7, 1932: Stimson Doctrine[07970] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Jan. 7, 1932: Stimson Doctrine[07970] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 7, 1932: Stimson Doctrine[07970] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 7, 1932: Stimson Doctrine[07970] Stimson, Henry L. Hoover, Herbert Borah, William E. Matsuoka, Yōsuke Lytton, second earl of (Victor Bulwer-Lytton) Puyi Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;Stimson Doctrine Tojo, Hideki

Henry L. Stimson.

(Library of Congress)

Japan took note of the situation and began to exert greater control of the South Manchurian Railroad. South Manchurian Railroad By the late 1920’s, the Japanese military patrolled the railway, and Japan operated several armed military camps in Manchuria. Ostensibly, the Japanese sought to protect the railway they operated, but the Chinese government objected to the foreign military presence. However, the Chinese government was not strong enough to resist Japanese encroachment.

The situation turned into a crisis on September 18, 1931, when an explosion damaged a section of the South Manchurian Railroad operated by Japan. The Japanese leveled blame for the explosion, which became known as the Mukden incident, Mukden incident on Chinese saboteurs and moved greater numbers of soldiers into southern Manchuria. The Chinese put up little resistance, and the Japanese quickly began extending their influence. Although no formal accusations were proven, the speed of the Japanese response to the explosion made it plain to the international community that the Japanese military had planned the entire event.

The League of Nations responded to the incident by sending a commission to investigate; the commission was led by the British diplomat the second earl of Lytton. The Lytton Commission Lytton Commission operated slowly, and several months passed before all of its members were appointed. A number of American officials wanted a more rapid response, but opinion in the United States was divided on how to handle the situation. President Herbert Hoover, however, made it clear that he did not favor imposing economic sanctions against Japan because he believed they would lead to war, which would cause further hardship to those Americans already suffering under the Great Depression. In the absence of any substantive international action opposing their efforts in Manchuria, the Japanese continued to expand their military influence throughout the region, and by the beginning of 1931 they had effectively stopped all Chinese resistance.

Hoover’s secretary of state, Henry L. Stimson, believed that the United States could not sit by and watch Japan conquer Manchuria, and he responded by sending a letter to the Chinese and Japanese governments on January 7, 1932. The letter was sent on behalf of the U.S. government, but Stimson took this action on his own initiative, without President Hoover’s consent. The letter stated that the United States would follow a policy of nonrecognition: It would not acknowledge any territorial changes between Japan and China that developed as the result of Japanese aggression. Stimson’s letter quickly became known as the Hoover-Stimson Doctrine, or more simply as the Stimson Doctrine. However, President Hoover refused to implement the policy officially, because he believed that the doctrine would lead to economic sanctions against Japan that would create a war between Japan and the United States.

The Japanese ignored Stimson’s letter. On January 29, they launched a major offensive against Shanghai and continued to expand their influence in Manchuria. Unable to take any action due to constraints placed on him by Hoover, Stimson responded by sending a letter to Senator William E. Borah. That letter, which immediately entered the public domain, outlined the treaties that Japan had violated in Manchuria. It also demonstrated that Stimson favored nonrecognition backed with military force, if necessary, in order to restrain Japan.

By defending his position through the Borah letter, Stimson generated support for his position, and the League of Nations League of Nations;Japanese aggression in Manchuria gave him some vindication by passing a resolution with similar language in March of 1932. Seemingly cowed by the international response, Japan responded by removing most of its troops in May of 1932. The country followed this move by renaming Manchuria as Manchukuo, Manchukuo, creation and it extended official diplomatic recognition to Manchukuo as a new independent nation in September of 1932. In theory, Manchukuo was independent, and the Japanese installed Puyi, the former emperor of China, as the head of state. However, Puyi ruled as a Japanese puppet, and most other nations did not recognize Manchukuo as a legitimate nation.

The Lytton Commission finally issued its findings to the League of Nations in October of 1932. Lytton named Japan as the aggressor in Manchuria, and, in early 1933, the League accepted the commission’s findings and formally admonished Japan. Yōsuke Matsuoka, Japan’s representative in the League of Nations, walked out of the negotiations, and Japan withdrew from the League soon thereafter.


The Stimson Doctrine failed to restrain the Japanese conquest of Manchuria, and Japanese aggression continued when Japan initiated open warfare against China in 1937. The concept of the doctrine in American foreign policy might have disappeared after 1937, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Stimson as his secretary of war in 1940. Roosevelt made the appointment largely for political reasons: Stimson was a prominent Republican and could generate support for Roosevelt’s foreign policies on the eve of American entry into World War II.

After his appointment, Stimson urged Roosevelt to accept his doctrine officially in order to halt the continued Japanese actions against China. As a result, the United States levied economic sanctions against Japan by embargoing the sale of military goods, notably oil, to Japan. The oil embargo, however, did not halt the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)[Second Sinojapanese War] any more than the Stimson Doctrine had halted Japanese aggression in Manchuria. Furthermore, the embargo fulfilled Hoover’s predictions that economic sanctions would lead to war with Japan. Japan had become increasingly militaristic as General Hideki Tojo rose to power, and the oil embargo led directly to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor, Japanese attack

Even though the Stimson Doctrine’s inability to stop Japanese aggression in Manchuria and China meant that it was generally regarded as a failed policy, the philosophy of nonrecognition had an impact on international relations long after 1932. A handful of treaties, such as the 1933 Anti-War Treaty of Nonaggression and Conciliation, incorporated the Stimson Doctrine’s ideas, and the Roosevelt administration followed the doctrine’s philosophy in 1940 when it announced it would not recognize the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Officially, the United States continued to follow this policy toward the Baltic states until their independence in 1991. Stimson Doctrine Hoover-Stimson Doctrine[Hoover Stimson Doctrine]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohen, Warren I. Empire Without Tears: American Foreign Relations, 1921-1933. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987. Overview of American foreign policy from 1921 to 1933. Demonstrates that the 1920’s were not merely a period of American isolationism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schmitz, David L. Henry L. Stimson: The First Wise Man. Wilmington, Del.: SR Books, 2001. Biography of Stimson that shows his importance to American foreign policy from the administration of Theodore Roosevelt through the administration of Harry S. Truman.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tohmatsu, Haruo, and H. P. Willmott. A Gathering Darkness: The Coming of War to the Far East and the Pacific, 1921-1942. Lanham, Md.: SR Books, 2005. An overview of Japanese foreign policy and military actions, such as the Mukden incident, that led to World War II.

Russo-Japanese War

Japanese Annexation of Korea

Japan Withdraws from the League of Nations

Japan Renounces Disarmament Treaties

China Declares War on Japan

Rape of Nanjing

Japan Announces the Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere

Japan Occupies Indochinese Ports

Categories: History