When looking back at World War II, the victors see their own military contributions the clearest. Hence the United Kingdom spotlights the Battle of Britain and El Alamein, the Russians Stalingrad and Kursk, and the Americans D-Day and Midway. The contribution of China, whose war was the longest and among the bloodiest, tends to be forgotten in the West, and for years was little commemorated even in China.
A new book, Forgotten Ally: China's World War II, 1937-1945, by Oxford historian Rana Mitter, aims to sharpen this fuzzy picture by presenting the Middle Kingdom’s eight-year war against an invading Japan—a war that had been under way more than two years before the Nazis invaded Poland, which is the usual starting point for histories of World War II. “Essentially,” Mitter explained in an interview with Pacific Standard, “the politics of the Cold War covered over that what is coming to be realized, I think, as one of the great missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of World War II.” Now, however, a combination of archives in China opening up and a new political attitude by its leaders has cracked the historical window.
For an American audience whose knowledge of China in the war might start with the 1937 Rape of Nanking and end with the volunteer American fighter pilots known as the Flying Tigers, the book offers a number of eye-openers:
- The contribution of the Soviet Union to the Chinese Nationalists, who were actively battling the Chinese Communists, was large and sustained. While it might have been ideologically unexpected, it fit in with Josef Stalin’s desire to most effectively check Japanese designs on the USSR. The two countries actually fought a sustained series of battles in Mongolia in 1939 which left thousands dead on both sides.
- While the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and Communist Mao Zedong are usually depicted as the titans of China’s resistance and its on-again, off-again civil war, Mitter details the rise and eclipse of a third figure, Wang Jingwei, whose stature and influence long equaled Chiang and Mao’s—until he made accommodation with the Japanese.
- The scale of China’s involvement in the war was massive. Chiang, for example, fielded four million troops at the Nationalist’s height, while China as a whole lost an estimated 14 million in the war. Had China folded, Japan’s capacity to fight the U.S. or even the Soviets would have been vastly amplified.
Why does any of this matter now? Mitter says the experience of World War II shapes Chinese attitudes today, especially between China and the United States and China and Japan, “two of the legs of a very important set of relationships in the Asiatic region. ... I would argue very strongly that by looking at what happened in terms of a history in those years, you get a great deal of insight into what is important in that region now to people there and what will be important for the next decade to come.”
This has been edited for length and clarity.
The British title of the book is China’s War With Japan. In the U.S. it’s Forgotten Ally. Can you tell me what was the decision-making process in choosing titles?
To some extent it has to do with the way in which some things are marketed. China’s War With Japan is not just the U.K. edition; it’s also the edition that’s being sold in East Asia, India, Australia, and a whole variety of places. And I think it’s fair to say, for instance, that if you were to buy the book in Hong Kong or Singapore, it’s probably not fair to say that China is the forgotten ally, because there, of course, the memory of the Asian war is still strong. So in that sense, it’s more of a descriptive title of what the book is about. The North American market, and the United States in particular, the title Forgotten Ally was chosen in quite an intentional way because obviously you know it’s a history of China and why it matters today in terms of that period.
But it’s also a reminder to the American public that there was this very important historical moment that has been forgotten and which is important for two reasons, one of which has to do with the very contemporary significance of understanding why Sino-American relations and Sino-Japanese relations, which are crucial to the shaping of the world, let alone the region, remain very volatile.
But the second reason actually has to do something with historical justice. Regardless of the many flaws of the Chinese government at the time, Chiang Kai-shek’s government, I think it’s fair to say that they never, neither then nor now, have been given sufficient credit for what has often been regarded as a purely American victory in Asia, and particularly the Pacific.
But the Chinese contribution up to now has generally been mostly dismissed or regarded as very minor, secondary, and not really worth bothering with. I think as we move decades and decades away from the events themselves, it’s no longer tenable to retain that position.
In an image suddenly salient with the civil war in Syria, Japanese artillerymen fire chemical weapons into Chinese positions in 1941. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)
So why did this get lost? China was one of the Big Four at the end of the conflict, and the China lobby was very strong in the U.S. And then 14 million people who died make another fairly compelling argument. What happened?
It’s a good reason to remember that on its own. I would say that one of the single facts, which is worth remembering if you want to annoy an official in the Chinese Communist Party, is to remind them that the reason, the primary reason, that China today has a seat in the permanent five on the United Nations Security Council, the top table of global diplomacy, is not because of anything that Chairman Mao did. It was because of the wartime efforts of Chiang Kai-shek, and essentially as a direct result of China’s involvement on the Allied side in World War II.
China now finds itself—more than 65, 70 years nearly after the end of World War II—as the only non-European, non-white power to sit at that top table. So these things do have a great deal of significance today.
When were they forgotten? Put very simply, China’s wartime experience, suffering, and contribution to the Allied cause fell into a hole created by the Cold War. Neither side had an interest in recalling what China did.
On the Chinese side, after 1949 when the civil war was over, the Nationalists had been exiled to Taiwan, and Mao was victorious on the mainland, you had essentially a virgin history in the mainland of China—that the only people who had made a contribution to fighting and defeating the Japanese were the Chinese communists.
The contribution that had actually been made by the much larger Nationalist army was essentially either dismissed or wiped out of the official history that was taught in China itself. So there’s sort of an historical black hole there.
But we can’t put any of the responsibility by any means on the Chinese communists on the mainland. You have to remember that in the West, we very quickly forgot about that wartime contribution as well. The reason is that Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese wartime leader, was essentially seen as a sort of embarrassment—this Cold War relic remaining on Taiwan, looking more and more irrelevant year by year, associated with incompetence and corruption, with a whole variety of qualities that the West didn’t find very attractive.
But what was forgotten was the leader, through a whole swath of decisions, many of them very problematic and difficult, had nonetheless kept China in the war against Japan. First of all, on his own for about four and half years, and then of course as part of the very difficult alliance with the West for another four years after that.
One thing that came out in your book that was surprising to me is the idea that China as a geographical construct, at least modern China as a geographical construct, seems to have arisen out of the war. Their west was not considered part of the main area. Is that a correct reading?
I think it’s actually one of the most important elements of the question: Why on Earth does World War II matter for China? And the answer, well one of the answers, is geography.
It happens for a variety of reasons. But at its most basic, there’s a sort of irony that China’s moment of greatest crisis in the 20th century in terms of foreign invasion, the Japanese invasion, actually forces the government, particularly the Nationalist government at the time, to centralize the authority. It has to finally eliminate one of the big problems of the era, which was the warlordism—the different military leaders who control different parts of China at that stage. Some of them have been done away with in a pretty brutal manner.
And as a result, at the end of the war, even though China was smashed beyond recognition in many ways and of course was about to launch into a civil war, the problem that existed between the late 19th century and the outbreak of World War II, which was the splitting up into different warlord regions, was mostly resolved by the fact that the government had had to retreat into the interior and consolidate its rule during that period. So yet again, one of the legacies of Chiang’s period that Mao probably ought to have been grateful for but is unlikely to have mentioned at any encomium.
The West had a blind spot that’s been addressed fairly elaborately in recent years concerning the Soviet contribution to defeating Nazi Germany. Do you see the same dynamic happening here?
Yes, and partly for the same reasons. And I’ll say one word that summarizes what that reason is, and that is archives.
After 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, at least for a while, it became easier for Russian and Western researchers to look for the first time at the massive amounts of documentation that were kept in the old Soviet Union in Russia about Russia’s wartime contribution.
Now we haven’t had the kind of fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall, fall-of-Gorbachev-type moment in China. But what is undeniable is that for the last 20 years or so, is that China’s archives have been opened up more and more. And the big difference is that for the first time, people are allowed to look at the Nationalist, the Guomindang [or Kuomintang] side of the experience. One of the things I’ve always said about that research topic—and this often surprises people—is that it is not a case of brave Western researchers knocking on the door and demanding access to the hidden files. This is a trend that has emerged within China itself.
China’s own researchers in the mainland are rediscovering the hidden parts of their own history, including the actually very creditable, very important wartime contribution of the old ideological ally, the Nationalist party, which is one of the reasons even Chiang Kai-shek has been partly rehabilitated in the mainland in a way that was unimaginable 25 or 30 years ago.
In the Eastern bloc, the Great Patriotic War is always an important cultural touchstone. You’re suggesting to me that in China itself in World War II, their version of the "great patriotic war" was not as much a cultural touchstone.
Exactly. And that’s a big difference from the Soviet Union; you’re exactly right there. Basically, although it was distortive propaganda reasons in many ways, Stalin, Khrushchev, and his successors did use the patriotic war where the Soviets fight back against the Nazis as a key patriotic narrative. And the narrative of World War II didn’t disappear exactly in China. It was a relatively minor part of the way in which patriotism was constructed. You’ve got occasional signs of it—for example, the Japanese who turn up as sort of stage villains in some of the model operas in the cultural revolution period in the 1960s. But it’s clear that during most of Mao’s period, the real enemies were these Goumindang nationalists and not really the Japanese.
Why was that? Well, there are a variety reasons, but the Cold War is really the major one. During the Cold War period, Taiwan and Chiang kai-Shek was a clear and present danger to the Communist regime. They had to keep the population whipped up in a fever of fear against the possibility that the invaders might come back from Taiwan and essentially start World War III.
In contrast, Japan was not a near defeated enemy, but one with which the Chinese Communists actually wanted to try and get closer. They realized that for a very poor, agrarian society like post-1947 China, it was important to try and gain technological know-how. With an American boycott, the chances of that coming from the U.S. were not that great [while] the Soviet Union was a rather different sort of partner. And so their answer sort of became Japan. There was a certain amount of non-official contact between China and Japan. This meant that there was a great interest in Chinese official circles in not stressing too much Japanese war crimes, in not making Tokyo feel that there was this great atmosphere of hostility.
So again, rather bizarrely, the atrocities, which have since become better known at the Raid of Nanking and the wartime bombing at the temporary capital in Chongqing is another one.... Things simply weren’t publicized. You had to look very long and hard between the 1950s and the 1980s to find major mentions of anywhere in China of something like the Nanking Massacre of 1937. And this is essentially done to detach the Japanese from the wartime Cold War embrace of the United States in the Asia Pacific by backpedaling a bit on reminding them of what happened in the wartime years itself.
This began to change in the 1980s, but during the Cold War there was a vested interest in Beijing in not stressing Japanese war crimes too much.
Mongolian soldiers, allied with the Soviets, fight against the Japanese during the Nomonhan battles in 1939. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)
Something that isn’t unknown, but was relatively new to me was the Soviet contribution to the Nationalists, particularly the air power. In the U.S., we grow up thinking the Flying Tigers won the war, as opposed to having almost no effect. But it would appear to me that the Russian air power was significantly greater until the 14th U.S. Air Force arrived.
I would say actually that the Flying Tigers, the American Volunteer Group, weren’t irrelevant at all. The contributions in terms of flying over the skies of Chongqing were not that many, but I mean in terms of psychology and in terms of morale boosting, they were important. And Claire Chennault, the leader of the AVG, actually played an important part in advising Chiang Kai-shek. So I wouldn’t underplay their role.
But the fact is, as you said, that rather oddly in ideological terms, the major contribution at the beginning of the war in terms of unofficial, but real, military assistance came from the Soviet Union. And this was essentially one of those strange pieces of ideological cross-dressings that you get during that period. Not only do you get a Nazi-Soviet pact, which is the most astounding ideological reverse of the century. But on a fuller level, the strongly anti-Communist Chiang Kai-shek finds himself essentially taking aid from the Soviet Union, the reason being that Stalin obviously was supportive of the Chinese Communists, but he was much more terrified about losing Chiang Kai-shek as China’s leader.
Had Chiang fallen and had China become pro-Japanese, then Japan would have had a perfect launch pad to attack the Soviet Union in the late 1930s, early 1940s. And he was much more worried about that. So it was a very practical, non-altruistic reason for Stalin to essentially give assistance to the Chinese nationalists during that period.
But the fact is that it was very helpful during the early campaign from battles including central China, in the Yangtze delta around Shanghai, and so forth. Although it was not able to prevent the Nationalists from having to withdraw to the interior of China, Soviet air force support and military assistance and material was important in making sure that the Nationalists at least managed to stand up against the Japanese.
One thing you mention in the book that is almost never written about were the clashes between the Japanese and the Soviets. That doesn’t ever get mentioned, and yet those were not mere border clashes.
Oh no, they were very real and very major. And they happened over many weeks and months.
This is one of the lesser known elements of the wider World War II experience, and I think the fact that we’re paying attention to it [as in Anthony Beevor’s new history of World War II] does suggest that we’re beginning to realize that the whole Asian front is a lot more important than we’ve realized. Because in a sense what we’re talking about here is the event that doesn’t happen, the fact that the Soviet Union and Japan are not in conflict with each other, are not at war, for most of the period that we think of as World War. The reason being that at Nomonhan essentially you had this confrontation between the Russians and the Japanese. The Japanese think that the Russians are weak because, of course, the purges of the Red Army are things that are going to completely eviscerate this particular army, only to find, in fact, that they are pushed back pretty steadily by the Soviets and hastily have to reach a compromise.
And this was, of course, very bad news for the Chinese who have been fighting for the better part of a year before that. Chiang Kai-shek’s desperate hope was indeed that that the Soviets and the Japanese would go to war with each other and that he would get full-blooded, full-throated Soviet assistance for the Chinese cause.
When Chiang blew up the Yellow River dikes to slow down the advancing Japanese army—that ranks among the great atrocities of the war, yet I have never heard of it.
No, that’s absolutely fair enough. And I mean this is one of the astounding things because, of course, it is also a sign of the moral ambiguities that went on in this war. At one level, as with all of the Allied and the Axis elements of World War II, we know exactly who to root for. We’re on the side of the Allies; we’re against the Axis. That’s very obvious.
But what we’ve often had to cover over is that the Allies in some cases, whether through force or choice, made some choices that were absolutely devastating and meant death for their own people. And in this case, we’re talking about Chiang Kai-shek making this particular choice for his own two tragic and appalling decisions: either to let the Japanese invade and occupy central China in the summer of 1938, or take what he regarded as the ultimate last move and breach this massive hole in the dikes, which had held back this huge force of nature, the Yellow River, for decades and decades before at that point, and in doing so, stop the Japanese from advancing.
And one has to say that in the short term it was successful in doing that. It’s a terrible thing to say, but it worked in strategic terms. The results: drowning or allowing to starve to death, and/or die of disease, some hundreds of thousands of Chinese farmers, who were given absolutely no warning of what was going to happen.
The person who did notice and this at the time and was one of the things that set him on the path of opposition, was Time magazine’s correspondent, Theodore White. And by the end of the war, he was one of the strongest critics and opponents of Chiang Kai-shek. And the breaching of the dams, if you read back into some of his sort of disillusionment with China was in retrospect I think the first moment where he began to think that Chiang Kai-shek was not a leader who he or his reports could support.
Chiang Kai-shek. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)
You seem to paint an almost likeable portrait of Chiang.
It’s interesting you say that. People will read it and make up their own minds. But it is nonetheless important to understand him not as either a monster or a failure, but as a flawed human being like many of the other flawed human beings of the time.
I think one of the important ways to understand is as a wartime leader who was forced to make a series of choices between one bad and another appalling choice over and over again. I tend to think that the whole China war story and Chiang’s part in it is written as a sort of melodrama or a sort of black versus white. I think it’s more like a Greek tragedy. There’s a sort of inexorability but with awful choices being made along the way. So it’s interesting you found him likeable, but I think more what I want to say is that he needs to be understood and come over as a human and flawed leader, but one who makes decisions that were rational and were able to be justified at the time.
In terms of his own primary goal, which was at all costs—it was a huge and massive cost as you see in the book—to keep China fighting in the war. Winston Churchill is praised for his speech about “never surrender” in terms of Britain—regardless of whatever else might happen, it was important to keep fighting the Nazis the whole time. It’s often that [same] sort of determination against any logic that kept Chiang going. But Chiang has never really been given any credit for that all, whereas Churchill of course lives on in legend in terms of his resistance.
One of the ironies is not only have the up-to-now unsympathetic American portraits of Chiang been revised significantly, the more heinous picture of him that you got in Mao’s China is now being reversed in his own homeland such that, as I have done, if you go to his birthplace, which is in a place called Xikou, in Zhejiang province, it’s like a shrine to the man. Even though it’s on the mainland, you would never know that he’d actually lost the civil war because as a hometown boy, he’s able to be celebrated by the locals in a way that would’ve gotten them all carted off to prison just 20 or 30 years ago.
You talk about Theodore White’s disenchantment, which brings up the larger question: Could there have been a re-enchantment between the United States and Mao at some point, even in 1949?
That’s actually called the “last chance” in China. And there are still people who speak strongly in favor of it. My inclination is to say that I don’t think so—not in the terms of actually having a genuinely friendly and cordial engagement between the two sides.
Mao and his followers did claim that they wanted this, but we also know a lot more from archives and other sources about Mao’s own motivations. And it’s very clear that his ideology was such that he had to be oriented toward Chinese indigenous revolution and toward Moscow. He did not have a genuine affinity toward the United States. So I think in terms of a genuine alliance, there is actually very little chance that actually could have happened. What I would say, and should have happened and didn’t though, was something rather different, which was a way for China and the United States to at least engage with each other diplomatically, rather unlike the way the Americans and the Soviets did.
The Cold War became very, very cold during much of that period. But there was never a period when Moscow and Washington weren’t talking to each other.
But I think the fact that for the better part of a quarter century or more, down until Nixon and Kissinger come along, the Chinese and the Americans do not have a regular, proper, and open channel of discussion, was one of the great diplomatic missed opportunities of that period—one of many messy pieces of inheritance from that whole wartime alliance.
Speaking of alliances, it seems like China/Burma/India was where the "special relationship" between the U.S. and Great Britain showed its seams most clearly.
[Laughing] Yes, if you mean a special relationship of mistrust and lack of understanding. Winston Churchill was probably one of the people who felt most strongly during that period that the war in Asia showed that the British and the Americans essentially had rather different aims in terms of what they wanted from World War II.
What the Americans wanted was a re-worked world order in which imperialism in the British and French sense would be ended and some of the non-European powers would be raised to a rather higher level. What the British wanted was the restoration of the empire. And these proved to be fundamentally incompatible goals.
And that’s why to me that was one of the most interesting things in terms of writing the book—looking at the war through Chiang Kai-shek’s eyes, through his diaries, was to see quite how strongly British imperialism, in particular, became a target for his anger. And his conversations with Nehru and to some extent with Mahatma Gandhi were an important element of that sort of anti-imperialism. But it’s one of those things that sort of meant that while he had a huge number of problems with the Americans, ultimately his orientation was toward the United States as being a dominant power in the region, rather than allowing the British any chance to come back.
And I think actually that the British realized this very well. They realized that the British and American aims in China were related but not identical. It helped create even more confusion and, I think, lack of trust between the various sides, leading to things like the tragedy in Burma, which is an example of all sides essentially doing very badly. By the time you get to 1944, although ultimately the Japanese are defeated, in some ways the fighting was even more vicious and brutal than it might have been because all of the major Allies—the Chinese, the British, and the Americans—still didn’t really trust each other.
Shanghai is such an interesting story with its international community and the international communities that were in the other coastal Chinese cities. And this was the death knell of that imperial system, clearly.
Very much so. Shanghai then was one of the most cosmopolitan cities anywhere in the world. And even though Shanghai is a great city today, and you know, lively in a whole variety of ways, it still hasn’t captured that absolute cosmopolitanism it had during imperialism back in the 1930s and ’40s. Again, of course, the war was the death knell, as you say, of that particular system, for reasons both good and bad.
The good is that, indirectly but genuinely, the war forced the end of the old imperial Shanghai—the Shanghai where the white British customers could beat Chinese rickshaw drivers around the ears if they didn’t like the fare they were being charged, the kind of brutal, everyday racism of imperialism that you certainly saw frequently in the city. That had come to an end with China’s ultimate victory in 1945. But the downside was that it led to a much narrower, much grayer vision of Shanghai for the next 40 or 50 years.
The idea that this was one of the few cities in the world where people could come, whether they were artists or refugees, or Nationalists or Communists, people from all sorts of backgrounds, and create this immense melting pot in which literature, culture, food, all these things, were coming together in a way that astounded the Chinese who lived there in the country as much as it did foreigners. All that was lost for a very long time.
The Japanese seem to have been particularly egregious violators of human rights. Is that generally accurate?
I mean, the ideas and concept and understanding of human rights we have now have been very much shaped by the experience of that war and that period around the world. But I don’t think it’s necessarily true that there is something immensely distinctive about the Japanese. What made the Japanese war effort against China so brutal were things that we saw elsewhere. For instance a very strong sense of racial superiority, which we also saw, of course, among fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and so forth.
At the same time, there is one very important, and I think it a very significant difference between the Japanese atrocities in China and the Nazi experience in Europe: The Japanese never had any program of organized genocide. That is a very significant difference than in the European case. The Japanese were brutal; they carried out all sorts of horrific acts, you know the Rape of Nanking, the bombing of Chongqing, and others, but to some extent, you can see similarities with other brutal campaigns, which took place elsewhere. And the Japanese themselves often said in terms of their tactics as imperialists and invaders that they had learned a very great deal of what they knew from Western mentors. So we have to look at what the competition was as well.
Japanese troops prepare to behead a Chinese POW during the orgy of violence that followed taking the city of Nanking. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)
I realize you’re a historian of China and not of Japan, but every once in a while, I read pieces about textbooks in Japan that gloss over certain inconvenient facts. Is that widespread?
Some of them possibly written by me, in fact. I think the important thing to understand about Japanese public attitudes in textbooks, television, and so forth toward the wartime period is that is very ambivalent. There is a significant and very loud-mouthed right wing that essentially denies or downplays the wartime atrocities. But although this voice is loud, it is by no means the only one or the most important one in Japan.
It’s important to note that, for instance, the very first group of people who brought the Rape of Nanking to the world’s attention in the postwar period were not the Americans and not the Chinese themselves, but in fact the Japanese left wing.
Japanese school teaching unions are often pretty left wing and certainly they have agitated pretty strongly in terms of not using textbooks that deny or downplay the wartime period. You’ll find that although these textbooks are published, and many of them are very offensive in terms of trying to downplay the China war, the mainstream ones that are used in most Japanese schools in fact have a great deal more about the war than the popular newspapers sometimes let on.
So I think it’s important to remember that Japan is a pluralist democracy. There are plenty of people, not the least of which are professional historians, who spend a great deal of time working in great detail on Japan’s wartime atrocities and their significance in history. And in that sense, there is no great conspiracy of silence.
Was there ever a formal intent in Japan to attempt to take over China? It seems like in Manchuria, yes there was absolute intent. [Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and by 1933 had consolidated its hold via the puppet state of Manchukuo.] But was the whole Chinese misadventure beyond that something that was stumbled upon or pushed upon by militarists?
That’s a pretty sharp assessment; I think you put your finger on it. I would say this: Manchuria was planned. But oddly enough, some of the top Chinese officers who planned the Manchuria coup were furious at the thought that is was going to expand further into the mainland of China. They thought that was a very bad idea; they thought the Japanese should actually stick to Manchuria.
The actual outbreak of war, and again I hope I brought this out in the book, was not so much in 1939, Hitler invades Poland, but more 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand gets shot in Sarajevo. In other words, a small set of events in the Chinese case, the shootings outside in the little village of Wanping in Beijing at the Marco Polo bridge [on July 7, 1937], would trigger off in the next few days and weeks, the sequence of events that eventually bring the two countries to war with each other.
And the Japanese were not expecting the Marco Polo bridge incident would in fact trigger an all out continental war. Once it had then, they did certainly make the decision that they were going to teach China a lesson that they were really going to actually push their troops in and take over the whole thing. But the expectation in the summer of 1937 in July was not on Tokyo’s part that they were going to invade there and now.
On the other hand, I think that there is a significant amount of evidence, and this is one of the things that Chiang Kai-shek weighed when he was making the decision whether or not to expand the campaign, was that Japan would be trying, slice by slice, to get more and more of China. So first Manchuria, then the sort of part just below the Great Wall, then much of North China; then within five, 10, 15 years after that point, it would have seemed very plausible scenario by which they were lapping at the gates of central China, and then finally the south. So in terms of intent or method, you’re probably not talking about a kind of intentional all-out invasion in 1937. In terms of the end goal of domination of China, I think there was very little doubt that that was the intent of Tokyo.
It’s almost a Napoleonic mistake or as Hitlerian mistake, the idea of trying to invade this geographically gigantic place and having space destroy you.
I think that’s true. But again one of the things that must be considered is ideological conviction. The Japanese army—bizarrely, delusionally—were rational in their own minds. They genuinely thought first of all that they had this leadership role, that they were going to be able to act as the brother that was going to lead the fellow Asian countries including China to some sort of anti-Western, post-imperialist future.
And they also believed very strongly that it was their destiny to expand onto the mainland. This was, of course, a period when empires were competing against each other. They saw the British empire; they saw the French empire; they saw this sort of American domination in parts of the Pacific as well. It was supposed to be this sort of social Darwinist world, where you couldn’t stand still. Either you had to expand, or you would be conquered.
This seems like a pretty irrational way of thinking from the point of view of our own minds in the early 21st century, but in the 1930s the world the Japanese saw around them was one in which this seemed to make perfect sense to them.
If I could ask you to speculate: Did Japan have the wherewithal to defeat China? Or was it a doomed experiment from the beginning, independent of any U.S. or Soviet intervention?
I think the Japanese knew from a very early phase that this was a very, very big proposition they were taking on, and their chances of success were a very long way from being guaranteed.
Speculation: I think the answer is, had the Japanese managed to essentially conquer and tame China very early in the war, let’s say within the first year or year and a half, and bring it to surrender, then they would’ve had a chance of getting some sort of settlement that would’ve lasted for a while.
That was one of the reasons why even when they continued to push into China over and over again in the 1937-38 period, they were also sending out feelers to Chiang Kai-shek, desperately trying to get him to negotiate.
So if I flipped the question: Could China at any point have defeated imperial Japan?
I think that would have been tough because Japan was the most technologically able society in Asia. It had hugely superior industrialization. You know by the eve of war, something like 70 percent of Japan’s GDP was going toward the military state in one sense or another.
Japan was much richer than China, and it had this extremely well-trained, conscripted, and, frankly, brutalized conscript army, which was of extremely high quality. Compared to that, China had more people, but was an internally split, very poor agrarian society, with only a very partially trained army. And it had huge amounts of territory, a quagmire that’s very hard for the Japanese to conquer and hard for the Chinese government to control. The size issue went both ways.
If you ask the same question, of course, and compare it to that of the British Empire, I think it’s fair to say that Winston Churchill and the British could not have defeated Hitler without American assistance, either. But people do not, on those grounds, give Britain a hard time for continuing to resist the Germans.
So an all-out defeat of the Japanese by the Chinese would have been near impossible to manage. It’s the feat of resistance that really needs to be looked at.