FDR’s Reaction to the USS Panay Incident

The sinking of the USS Panay in the Yangtze upstream of Nanjing, by Japanese air attack, could have caused or accelerated US involvement in the Pacific war, but didn’t. Why not?

Why did FDR not use the outrage to draw “a line in the sand” with respect to Japan’s increasingly ominous belligerence?

Why was this not connected by politicians with the outrage Americans were feeling about the unfolding Rape of Nanking stories in the media?

USS Panay sinking after Japanese air attack. Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USS_Panay_sinking_after_Japanese_air_attack.jpg#/media/File:USS_Panay_sinking_after_Japanese_air_attack.jpg

Odyssey Edge views on the question:

It looks like FDR tried using it as a line in the sand. He proposed to Ronald Lindsay (UK Ambassador in Washington) a blockade of Japan using British and American ships from the Aleutian Islands to Hong Kong – crucially he proposed this blockade be implemented after “the next grave outrage” by the Japanese.

Lindsay reported back to PM Chamberlain that Roosevelt’s ideas were “the utterances of a hare-brained statesman or an amateur strategist“.

NB this paragraph from a bio of Roosevelt by Frank Freidel:

 [Roosevelt] had gone as far as American opinion would permit, he explained to the cabinet on January 1, 1938, but wanted to be ready if there were a new crisis. He continued to be zealous in his efforts to ban Japanese salmon fishing along the Alaskan coast. Accounts of Japanese atrocities in China so upset him that while he did not want to read them at cabinet meetings, he asked Hull to devise some way to leak them ‘so that the American people might get the real Chinese background for the sake of the future.’

It’s also worth pointing out that the Secretary of War at the time was Harry Woodring, a strict non-interventionist and the Assistant Secretary of War, Louis Johnson, was a strong interventionist (they were so at odds they didn’t speak to each other). Woodring resigned the day France fell to the Nazis and Roosevelt nominated Stimson as his successor.

It is intriguing to speculate what effects a blockade could have had at this time…

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