The War Nobody Knew

Eugene Lyons, The War Nobody Knew. September 1929


During most of that year of 1929, the Red Army fought a war against the Chinese in Manchuria in defense of the Soviet Union’s half-interest in the Chinese-Eastern railroad. The provocations on both sides were more than ample, and the fighting was real enough, but the hostilities were never dignified by the official designation of war. Like the Japanese invasion of Manchuria several years later, and the Italian attack on Ethiopia later still, the Soviet punitive operations in China were conducted without a formal declaration of war.

It began early in spring with Chinese charges that Russia was using the railroad personnel and railroad funds for communist propaganda in Manchuria. Toward the end of May, the Manchurians raided the Soviet consulate at Harbin in search of documentary proof of what everyone in Moscow assumed to be true: that an insurrectionary movement under Feng Yu-Siang, the so-called “Christian General,” had Soviet encouragement. Soviet officials and citizens were arrested. In a few thrusts in the following months the Chinese ousted Russians from the railroad and other strategic economic positions, arresting thousands in the process.

Red Army units were mobilized; one after another classes of reserves were called to the colors; and a Special Far Eastern Army was created. That army remained on a permanent footing, vastly strengthened with every year and perhaps destined ultimately to test Soviet strength against Japan. General Bliukher, the tall, soldierly fighter whose prowess was a by-word in his country, was placed in command. Several years before, the same Bliukher, under the nom de guerre of General Galen, had been the mysterious Russian genius behind the victorious northward march of the Kuomintang revolutionary armies in China. He had guided the hand of a young half-literate peasant soldier who was now virtual dictator of Nationalist China, the same Chiang Kai-shek who now protested to the world against Soviet entry into Manchuria. General Bliukher-Galen’s place at the head of the invading Red troops was a startling measure of the changes wrought by a few years. The Chinese had a healthy respect for this Russian’s skill and strength when he started. That respect was deepened by the end of the year.

At first the Soviet citizenry was kept apprised of developments and in a state of half-hearted resentment against “Chinese and White Russian bandits.” Then the war was all but forgotten, both in Russia and in the rest of the world. Serious enough in terms of casualties and political consequences, it remains to this day the war nobody knew.

In July, Moscow sent an ultimatum to China. Millions of Russians responded quickly and noisily to the Party’s order for mass demonstrations against the violation of Soviet rights in China. In Moscow at least half a million men and women paraded past the Chinese Legation building, shouting insults against the Chinese bandits and their White Russian hirelings. After the parades the public all but forgot the whole business. By the time the war was actually under way, only faint echoes reached the people, busy with more pressing matters like shock brigading, rations, and class war in the peasant regions.

On the night when China’s answer to the ultimatum was due, at the end of July, a great many of Moscow’s resident Americans, including all the correspondents, were at a gay party in the palatial home of the Hammers in honor of some members of the delegation of so-called American business-men. The house was loud and gay this night, a long table sagged under its weight of rich foods, and the vodka flowed generously.

But through the noise the correspondents listened for the ring of the telephone that would call us to the Press Department for news of China’s answer. We did not get it until 2:30 A.M. and learned to our distress that TASS, the official news agency, had transmitted the Chinese reply to the whole world by wire three hours before it was released to us in Moscow. The chain of agencies allied with TASS-the Associated Press in America, Wolf from Germany, Reuters in England, etc.-were well content with their scoop, but the rest of the foreign press corps were indignant. To make things worse for myself and others who were “beaten,” Negley Farson wrote for his paper a fulsome description of the Hammer party which we attended. Unintentionally he created the false impression that we had neglected our duty in order to attend this lively gathering. I heard from my home office on the matter, as did others.

I obtained the first and only interview on the Manchurian situation with the Assistant Commissar of Foreign Affairs, Karakhan, by way of smoothing my own ruffled feathers. But the bureaucratic news policy dominated by TASS remained unaltered. A hundred times I tried to make the Press Department officials see the wisdom of establishing a second news channel through which those correspondents not in the ring of the world’s official agencies might get their information. TASS would thereby carry out its contractual obligations to its official news allies, while the rest of us competed on equal terms. The Press Department agreed, talked of the reforms to come, but, Russian-fashion, nothing happened.

The Chinese-Eastern matter had earlier precipitated me into an acrimonious passage at arms with the censors. I had received an urgent inquiry from New York about the Soviet “reaction” to the raid of its Harbin consulate. It was the first I had heard about the event: news is too closely guarded in the USSR I wrote a dispatch indicating that the affair was still unknown to Moscow outside of official circles. I took it to the Foreign Office for the needed censor’s signature. Arriving at the Press Department, however, I was informed that Mr. Rothstein, the only censor on hand, was “in conference.” I waited. Waiting in the outer room of the censorship division was the correspondents’ principal and most exasperating job in Moscow. We resented the lackadaisical disregard of time and general inefficiency of the process even more than the censorship itself. A hundred times I heard American, French, German newspapermen with world-wide reputations threaten that they wouldn’t stand being kept waiting like office boys while the censors finished their tea-drinking. But they continued to stand it; there was nothing intentional about the insulting procedure, just routine procrastination. In any case, there 1 was waiting for Mr. Rothstein while the world waited for some word on the Harbin developments out of Russia.

At quarter-hour intervals I tried to break into Mr. Rothstein’s sanctum, to be informed with a shrug that he was still in conference. At the end of an hour I wrote out a cable reading approximately as follows (I quote from memory):

An embargo on all outgoing news was instituted in Russia today. Correspondents arriving at the Press Department of the Foreign Office found that the censorship facilities, without which news cannot possibly be sent, were mysteriously shut down. There was no indication whether or when the embargo might be lifted, as no official comment on the sensational action could be obtained. Well-informed quarters assume that only some internal or foreign crisis of great seriousness could have prompted the Foreign Office to isolate the nation in this fashion without warning.

I took the dispatch-which 1 had no intention of sending, of course-to the secretary outside Mr. Rothstein’s door.

“Please place this message before Mr. Rothstein, conference or no conference,” I said grimly.


“There are no buts. This is most urgent, just do what you’re told.”

Fifteen seconds later I was in Mr. Rothstein’s office. He had apparently been conferring with himself. No one else was present or had come out of his office. His temper, having read my make-believe message, was a match for my own. The first hostilities in the Sino-Russian war occurred there and then. My relations with the Press Department were strained for a while-every correspondent went through these “mad” spells periodically, then submitted helplessly to the pervading inefficiency and delay which neither his indignation nor anything else could change in the slightest.

Diplomatic relations with China were broken. By September, large Red forces, supported by war planes and tanks, were pushing into Manchuria. By the end of November, the Chinese had been completely routed, many Manchurian towns were demolished and Russia was in control of northern Manchuria. just when the Chinese capitulated and, the fighting ceased, Secretary of State Stimson in Washington decided to invoke the Kellogg Pact to prevent the war that had already been fought to a finish. This fiasco in itself indicated how little the world knew about what was happening in Manchuria. The Soviet press jeered at “Stimson’s belated and uncalled-for intervention.” Litvinov sent a stinging reply which American public opinion considered insulting and there was a general feeling even among communists that Litvinov’s genius for offensive satire for once had outweighed his diplomatic shrewdness. What might have been an opening wedge for Soviet-American understanding, Litvinov angrily converted into another barrier.

Suddenly the world was excited by the war it had ignored. The Moscow reporters were driven to the edge of apoplexy by the futile effort to obtain news of the peace negotiations started in Khabarovsk. Secrecy bred sensational rumors. Refusal to disclose the extent or cost of operations or the terms of settlement kept us hopping. But little as we knew, the general public knew less. The peace, like the war, did not touch a population on the eve of a much greater and more terrible war: the policy of “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” had just been promulgated by Stalin.

“The masses and the communist rank and file have been kept in far greater ignorance than even the foreign press,” a New York Times dispatch out of Moscow declared. Then the correspondent added: “Yet there was no grumbling or demands for news. Well may the communists boast of the discipline which stood such a test.”

Since that correspondent is not wholly naive, it may be assumed that he had his tongue in his cheek in putting this curious interpretation upon the apathy and meekness of the communists and the masses. No one boasted of this discipline except the New York Times. Silent acceptance of accomplished facts without “grumbling or demands for news” by this time seemed to me no longer novel enough to be worth cabling as news.

Source: Eugene Lyons, Assignment in Utopia (London: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1937), pp. 250-254.

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