Saturday, April 19, 2014

How WWII Began in China

Review by Bill Doughty

The Second World War in the Pacific did not begin on December 7, 1941 and it did not begin at Pearl Harbor.

Of course, that's when and where the United States entered the war after that Day of Infamy, but infamous acts of aggression had already been launched against America's key Pacific ally -- China -- in the ten years leading up to the attack on U.S. military installations on Oahu.

"Forgotten Ally: China's World War II 1937-1945" by Rana Mitter presents the history of China in  those volatile years. The book outlines Chinese resistance against Imperial Japan's military colonization and dominance, internal struggles between Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek and Communists led by Mao Zedong, and how China perceived treatment by other key Allies -- Great Britain, United States and Soviet Union, especially at the end of the war.

Mitter contends the Second World War began at the Marco Polo Bridge, in the summer of 1937. On December 12 of that year Japanese military aircraft bombed and sank the American gunboat USS Panay on the Yangtze outside Nanjing, killing tree Sailors and wounding forty-eight people. War was averted with the United States, but "the Panay affair was a clear warning that the West could not rely on neutrality to shut itself off from the ever-spreading war."

Chiang, Song and Stilwell in happier days. Photo from
In an era of industrial competition and resource control -- rather than global cooperation and interdependent trade -- Japan saw its survival dependent on access, by force, to natural resources, especially petroleum.  As early as 1938, Japan was dedicating 70 percent of its budget to military spending. And the homeland was being primed for war through nationalism, xenophobia and paranoia. (A companion book to read with Mitter's that shows how these changes came about in Japan is Eri Hotta's "Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy.")

Mitter explores the contentious relationship between China's Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and the appointed U.S. military alliance leader in the region, Lt. Gen. Joseph Warren "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell. Despite the efforts by Chiang's popular and outgoing wife, Song Meiling, for everyone among the Allies to get along, Chiang and Stilwell didn't trust each other or agree on strategies for defending Burma and British India, not to mention key strategic areas in eastern China.

In Part IV of "Forgotten Ally," titled "The Poisoned Alliance," Mitter writes of the "duel" between the two military generals. "That encounter would last only four years, but the aftermath of his tenure would shape Chinese-American relations for more than half a century." FDR firmly demanded Stilwell have unrestricted command of all of Chiang's forces, and the Chinese were made to feel expendable, according to the author.

The author describes the bombing of Chonqing, the dissipation of power with the rise of the Communists, the horrors of the occupation of Nanjing (Nanking), and the unintended aftermath of the Doolittle Raid 72 years ago this weekend and less than five months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
"As the Burma campaign ground on, another incident took place which showed the low status that China held in the minds of the Western Allies. On April 18, 1942, sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and raided military and industrial targets in cities including Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. They did relatively little damage, but the raids showed that Japan was now vulnerable to attack from the air ... The news of the attack was a huge propaganda boost for the American war effort. But it appalled Chiang ... they all crash-landed at various points in eastern china, bar one that landed in Vladivostok on the Russian coast and was interned for a year. However, the Japanese reacted with fury. They attacked and committed atrocities agains the local population in the surrounding areas. What went down very well with the American public had a hugely negative effect on the Chinese war effort."
Historian E.B. Potter writes in "Bull Halsey," his biography of the great admiral who led the escort of Doolittle's Raiders and USS Hornet, that the Japanese launched "a campaign that thrust 200 miles into the interior of eastern China. The Japanese plowed up the landing fields and tortured and killed anyone even remotely suspected of having aided the Doolittle crews." Two hundred and fifty thousand men, women, children and babies were killed in the three month campaign.

Resistance in China against the Imperial Japanese over more than a decade gave the Allies time to fight both in Europe against Hitler and the Nazis and develop strategies to lead across the Pacific from 1942 through most of 1945. Mitter writes:
"Without Chinese resistance, China would have become a Japanese colony as early as 1938. This would have allowed Japan dominance over the mainland, and would have allowed Tokyo to turn its attention to expansion in Southeast Asia even more swiftly, and with less distraction. A pacified China would also have made the invasion of British India much more plausible. Without the 'China Quagmire' -- a quagmire caused by the refusal of the Chinese to stop fighting -- Japan's imperial ambitions would have been much easier to fulfill."
By 1943, Imperial Japan had to prioritize its strategy. After a summit in Tokyo, the military government moved to defend the home islands and their conquered Southeast Asia areas rich in petroleum. "Japan's war economy was under great pressure, with iron ore, steel, coal, and oil all in short supply."

Meanwhile, the Allies held their own summits around that time in Cairo and Teheran.

Commander in Chief Franklin D. Roosevelt's idea during World War II for a balance of power in the world after the war was "The Four Policemen" -- United States, Great Britain, Russia and China.  Allies who would cooperate and collaborate.

Churchill, FDR and Stalin seated. (Adm. King and Adm. Leahy behind FDR)
Yet, when a critical final conference was held on February 4, 1945 and the future of Asia was discussed, one of the Four Policemen was not represented: China. "When he heard even the public terms of the agreement, Chiang was plunged into gloom, thinking that the world would be thrown back into the same race for dominance that had marked the aftermath of the Great War,"  Mitter writes. Of course, the former fascist Axis powers of Germany and Japan turned away from imperialism and colonialism and toward freedom and democracy, but the same could not be said for the Soviet Union.

The final conference with FDR, Stalin and Churchill was held at Yalta -- in Crimea.

"Forgotten Ally's" author, Rana Mitter, is Professor of History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford and a fellow of St. Cross College. The book was published in 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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