Forgotten Ally - Book Review
Oxford professor Rana Mitter elucidates a chapter of the Second World War that many in the West are not familiar with. His book, Forgotten Ally, is a history of China’s role in the war, which for China began in 1937, four years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Mitter’s history paints a fairly sympathetic portrait of the Chinese Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek, which bore the brunt of the Japanese offenses over the entire eight years of conflict. Mitter’s history also closely examines two other Chinese wartime leaders: Mao Zedong leader of the Chinese Red Army, and Wang Jingwei, the man who led the collaborationist government of Japanese-occupied China during the war, China’s Quisling if you will.
As Mitter points out, Chinese suffering at the hands of Japan began decades before with the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, when Japan took possession of Taiwan and gained political supremacy on the Korean Peninsula. In World War I, the Allied Powers acquiesced in Japan’s takeover of German colonies in the Pacific, which included territories in mainland China. The next war between China and Japan actually began in 1931, when the Japanese Kwantung Army took over the Chinese province of Manchuria, and placed the deposed, Manchu puppet emperor Puyi at the head of the rump state. Most casual historians in the West are familiar with the Soviet role in defeating Nazi Germany, and the immense suffering of the Russian people during the war. China’s role in the Pacific Theater was somewhat analogous to that of the Soviet Union in Europe. Churchill and Roosevelt wanted the Chinese to bleed the Japanese as much as possible. Roosevelt also saw a role for a democratic China in the postwar world and lobbied to include Chiang in Allied discussions in Cairo. The United States supplied China with a number of increasingly exorbitant loans, hoping that Chiang would stay in the war, and keep the one million Japanese troops in China busy. Chiang’s biggest trump card, of course, was his ability to withdraw from the war, and live out the conflict in his remote wartime capital Chungking.
The best part of Mitter’s history is the description of the colorful cast of competing characters among a team of allies supposed to be united in a front against the Japanese. In fact, as Mitter points out, there was as much, if not more, in-fighting among the disparate Chinese factions (and among the Americans supporting them) than between them and the occupying Japanese. Mao’s much-vaunted Eighth Route Army was more interested in marshaling its resources than in fighting set-piece battles against the much-stronger Japanese. Chiang and various Nationalist generals were also more interested in preparing for the civil war they all knew would follow once the Americans had defeated the Japanese (and stealing as much wealth as possible in the process). Wang just hoped to hang on and receive a golden parachute to Japan once the war ended. Britain had no interest in opening a Chinese front; Churchill wanted his Anglo-Indian Army to liberate British colonies, starting with Burma (and hoping to utilize U.S.-led Chinese troops to do so). U.S. leadership was equally divided about China. This dissonance was encapsulated in the wartime rivalry between Generals Joseph Stilwell and Claire Chennault.
Meanwhile, the Chinese people suffered. They suffered at the hands of the Japanese, at the whim of the callous Chinese leadership (on all sides), and at the randomness of the elements and of disease. The greatest example of their suffering, described by Mitter, was the decision by the Nationalist government to blow up the dike system holding back the Yellow River in June 1938. Chiang hoped the subsequent flooding would hold back the invading Japanese troops (which had just sacked Nanjing). Instead the flood left millions of Chinese peasants homeless, killed upwards to one million of them, and literally shifted the mouth of the river hundreds of miles to the south. And unlike the Soviet Red Army which inflicted a crushing defeat on their Nazi occupiers, the Chinese armies were never able to exact revenge on their Japanese overlords. This was left to the Americans. Instead, after enduring perhaps twenty million deaths between 1937 and 1945, the Chinese people were left to four more years of civil war, famine, disease, and destruction. Anyone with an interest in this under-appreciated theater of the war should pick up Mitter’s history.