China’s War With Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival, by Rana Mitter

chinas war 2

China’s War with Japan, 1937-1945: the struggle for survival, by Rana Mitter
Penguin (2014)
458 pages
ISBN: 978-0-141-03145-3

Review by Sir Hugh Cortazzi

This is a meticulously researched history of a cruel and tragic war, which in the histories of the Second World War has often been overshadowed by the battles in Europe and the Pacific. As Rana Mitter points out these eight years of fighting caused some 14 million deaths, vast flows of refugees, misery, famine and the destruction of much of China’s embryonic infrastructure. The war enabled the Chinese Communist Party to seize power and destroy the Chinese Nationalists.

As Rana Mitter, who is the Director of Oxford University’s China Centre and a fellow of St Cross College, points out the story of China’s war with Japan is ‘crucial to understanding the rise of China as a global power.’ In his view it must ‘restore China to its place as one of the four principal wartime allies.’

As the title implies Mitter looks at the conflict from a Chinese perspective and his main focus is understandably on China and the impact of events elsewhere on China. He has put together a compelling narrative and has drawn on a wealth of original documents as well as referring extensively to secondary sources.

He sets out clearly the background to the conflict. He notes that Japanese modernization after the Meiji restoration became a model for China. Indeed, many Chinese nationalist leaders including Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Nationalist movement, studied in Japan.

He deals briefly with the ‘Manchurian Incident’ and other developments leading to clashes between Japan and China prior to the so-called Marco Polo bridge incident in 1937, which marks the beginning of the war, although the Japanese did not formally declare war until much later. The Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek had adopted a policy of ‘avoiding public confrontation with Japan’ while preparing for the inevitable conflict. The Japanese took advantage of what they saw as Chinese weakness and inflicted humiliations on the Chinese. In Mitter’s view ‘if the Japanese had stayed content with their already powerful control over north China in 1933, and not sought to advance further into the mainland, the war which would eventually consume much of the continent of Asia might have been averted’ (page 59).

The Chinese were never in a position until the very end to do more than delay the Japanese advances, but the Japanese for their part, although in the end they controlled vast swathes of China, never had the resources to bring China effectively under Japanese rule. The Japanese military were arrogant and greedy but unrealistic about how far they could achieve their objectives.

There are lots of villains but no heroes in this book. All the main leaders emerge as tainted and flawed. Roosevelt was a consummate politician but failed to understand the extent of China’s problems and how best to deal with Chiang Kai-shek. For Churchill, China’s war was a sideshow and Chiang Kai-shek felt that Churchill treated him with disdain. But the most insensitive and arrogant of the westerners with whom the Chinese had to deal was General Stilwell, known as ‘Vinegar Joe’ who clashed constantly with Chiang for whom he was supposed to act as chief of staff and whom he called ‘peanut.’ It is hard to believe that Stilwell, who was selected by General Marshall, was allowed to remain for so long in Chongqing poisoning US–China relations.

While Mitter has some sympathy for Chiang in his perils and difficulties he exposes clearly the mistakes made by Chiang and his coterie and the cruelties inflicted on the Chinese people as a result of Nationalist mistakes and ruthlessness. Not least of these was the decision, in a vain attempt to defend Wuhan, to destroy the dykes on the Yellow River in 1938.

A myth, still believed by some but exposed by Mitter, is that Mao Ze-dong and his communist army in Yan’an contributed much more than the Nationalists to the fight against the Japanese. While the communists were quite effective in guerrilla warfare, Mao preferred to keep his forces in reserve for the post-war battle for supremacy in China.

Wang Jingwei, who had been Chiang’s rival for leadership of the Nationalists and who defected to the Japanese, set up in Nanjing a Vichy style regime. Mitter points out that the Japanese, despite their propaganda about Asia for the Asians, did little to boost Wang’s position.

As Mitter records in telling detail, none of the three rival regimes could claim any kind of democratic legitimacy. All three had their own particularly nasty secret police apparatus.

Mitter’s narrative inevitably contains much about Japanese atrocities in China. The chapter on the Nanjing massacre is particularly searing as it draws extensively on western witnesses. He notes that the Chinese were not faultless. But ‘Their missteps were the result of a war they had never sought. In contrast, the Japanese behaviour was inexcusable’ (page 137). There may be questions over the numbers killed by the rampaging Japanese soldiers but the attempt by Japanese revisionists to deny the facts simply add fuel to the fires of Chinese resentment. But there were many other incidents to arousee Chinese hatred, including the indiscriminate and relentless Japanese air attacks on Chonqing, which led to appalling loss of life and predated the German and later Allied use of saturation bombing.

This book only tells the story from the Chinese angle. I would like to see a study of the conflict, which analyses the views of developments in China recorded in the files of the Far Eastern Department of the Foreign Office. Mittter is generally contemptuous of comments by British diplomats in China, but not all looked at China with an imperial gaze. There were some realistic China experts. While Britain recognized the Chinese Communist Government soon after it had won the civil war, it took the Americans until 1972, when President Nixon visited China, to come to terms with the Chinese Communist victory. I would also be interested in seeing the extent to which Japanese officials recognized the quagmire in China into which they were being drawn by the military. It is never easy to tell politicians what they don’t want to hear and such memos may well have been suppressed or destroyed.

This book should be on the reading list of all students of modern Japanese history and of international relations in the Far East.

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