China’s Forgotten Traumas in World War Two

Often overlooked in histories of World War Two is China’s brutal experience. Several new books correct that record and show the different course that China might have taken, writes Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

09.18.13 9:45 AM ET

It was June of 1938 when the leader gave a terrible order in a war that had already seen many horrors. He told one of his generals to blow up an important Yellow River dike, knowing this would “inundate central China, turning it into a vast expanse of water and mud.” The leader was aware that the ensuing flood would cost a vast number of Chinese farmers their lives (an estimated half-a-million died) and leave many more homeless (more than 3 million became refugees), but he was convinced that it needed to be done for strategic reasons.

If you think that the leader giving that command must have been Japanese, perhaps the same man responsible for the horrific Rape of Nanjing the previous year, you are wrong. It was Chiang Kai-shek. Often known as simply the “Generalissimo” and head of both the Nationalist Party and China’s Central Government, Chiang had weighed various options and decided that the benefits of this action outweighed its enormous costs.

Chiang simply saw no other way to slow the inexorable advance of Japanese forces into the Chinese heartland that had begun in earnest the previous July, a month often said to mark the start of World War II in Asia. In a sense, though, Oxford don Rana Mitter reminds us in his powerful new book, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II 1937-1945, Chiang was worried by a process that began six years earlier still, with the Manchurian Incident whose 82nd anniversary will be marked in China today (Wednesday) with a great deal of patriotic and sometimes explicitly anti-Japanese rhetoric. On September 18, 1931, in an event as familiar to Chinese schoolchildren as the Pearl Harbor air raid is to American ones, a bomb destroyed a section of Japanese railway track near the city of Shenyang in the northeast corner of China. The Japanese used this action as a pretext to seize control of Manchuria, placing an area “the size of France and Germany combined” and “30 million people” under Tokyo’s control.

Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 By Rana Mitter 464 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $30.

By 1938, keeping the nation from falling completely under Japanese domination had become one of two goals that defined Chiang’s career, the other being preventing Mao Zedong’s Communist Party from taking charge of the country. Chiang felt doing anything to achieve these aims was justified, but this did not stop him from trying to shirk responsibility for the 1938 flood, which he had Nationalist Party spokesmen falsely attribute to Japanese aerial bombardment. This offered an interesting parallel to 1931: Tokyo had blamed the September 18 railway explosion on Chinese saboteurs, when in reality it turned out to be the work of renegade Japanese military figures eager to ratchet up tensions between China and Japan. 

The 1931 and 1938 episodes are just two of the many dramatic ones Mitter handles well in his new book. His chapter on “The Deadly River” is especially gripping, and in it he does not mince his words about Chiang’s culpability. He calls the dam’s destruction “one of the grossest acts of violence against its own people” that any government has ever committed, and notes that “a leader more humane than Chiang might never have considered” the path he took as an option. If you think, though, that he presents Chiang as the sort of one-dimensional villain that the Generalissimo so often became in Chinese Communist Party propaganda during the Cold War, you are wrong again.

Even when grappling with Chiang’s darkest deed, Mitter strives to present an empathetic rather than damning portrait of the Generalissimo. (He sometimes goes a bit too far, in fact, in giving the Nationalist leader the benefit of the doubt.) He is aided in this effort by being able to draw from a diary Chiang kept that has only recently become available to historians. Even when dealing with the flood, Mitter reminds us that Chiang made this call "in the face of the most terrifying assault that the country had ever seen." The Generalissimo’s decision, which has been criticized not just for the high toll in human suffering but also because of how little time it bought Chinese forces, was “the product of desperation,” according to Mitter, during a war that often presented leaders with only unsavory options.

Forgotten Ally focuses largely on the complicated interplay between Chiang’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists, two organizations that both claimed to be the sole rightful inheritor of the revolutionary mission launched by Sun Yat-sen. Shortly before his death in 1925, that revered first provisional President of the Republic of China had brokered an alliance between the two groups. After he died, they alternately allied and sparred with each other. They did this throughout World War II, which not only began earlier in China than in Europe, but in a sense also finished later, morphing into a four-year Civil War as soon as Japan surrendered. That Civil War in turn only concluded when the Generalissimo’s troops were defeated by their Red Army frenemies and Chiang retreated to Taiwan, where he spent the next quarter century, the rest of his life, dreaming of someday retaking the mainland.

One of the great strengths of Mitter’s book is that he looks not only at Chiang and Mao, but also explores the complex motivations of leaders, including some former high-ranking Nationalist officials, who decided to collaborate with Tokyo. (Yes, China had its counterparts to Norway’s Vidkun Quisling and France’s Vichy leaders, even if few in the West now know their names.) Another area in which Mitter excels is in placing China’s wartime experience in a robustly international framework. We get not just expected discussions of Stalin and Roosevelt, but also good cameos of figures like Nehru.

Mitter shows resourcefulness as well in weaving ordinary people into his tale. In “The Deadly River,” his chapter on the flood, he makes wonderful use of the diary kept by a soldier, who early on jotted down how “exciting” from a military engineering point of view it was to work out how to destroy the dam [seem], but later referred to how much his “heart ached” watching “fierce” floodwaters speed “like 10,000 horses” downstream. A chapter on displacement is enlivened by a detailed account of Mrs. Yang, a Chinese Christian we first meet as she is preparing “for evacuation” from the “prosperous city of Wuxi,” with “only a few essentials, including two big turnips with two hundred banknotes hidden inside.”

General readers curious to learn more about Chinese history should welcome any new book by Mitter, but they are spoiled for choice just now, thanks to the appearance of two other lucidly written and accessible works by authors with strong track records. June saw the publication of Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century by Orville Schell and John Delury, which braids together the lives of leading intellectuals and officials of multiple generations. And next week, Frank Dikotter’s The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 comes out, a prequel to Mao’s Great Famine, which won the BBC’s coveted Samuel Johnson Prize.

If you have time for just one of these books, which should it be? If you prefer historical works that mix top-down and bottom-up perspectives, Dikotter’s book, like Mitter’s, does this well. If you like books that cover long sweeps of time, turn to Schell and Delury, who move from the 1830s to the present. It largely comes down, in short, to taste. This won’t stop me, however, from picking a favorite. Due to how adroitly Mitter handles two themes—the parallels between the Nationalists and the Communists and the role of contingency in history—I hope Forgotten Ally finds the largest readership. 

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It was routine in Cold War times to see Chiang and Mao and the parties they led as opposites in every way. Forgotten Ally, however, is part of a trend among scholars to focus largely on how much the two parties had in common, including authoritarian tendencies and leaders ready at times to place their own survival above all other concerns. Schell and Delury handle this topic astutely, too, but it trips up Dikotter. As fascinating as the materials he finds in memoirs and in the archives can be, he seems at times here, as in his last book, less like a truth-seeking historian than someone eager to make the strongest possible case for the prosecution in a crimes-against-humanity trial.

It is in his handling of contingency that Mitter’s account is more satisfying than Schell's and Delury’s. Wealth and Power is not a completely deterministic account, but the authors sometimes give readers the impression that Confucian proclivities, unfortunately likened on occasion to elements of an enduring “cultural DNA,” locked China into recurring traps that were not broken until the horrific developments of the iconoclastic Mao’s final years inadvertently made Deng Xiaoping’s new way forward possible. Mitter reminds us that China’s post-war path was not predetermined. If domestic actors had made different choices or external pressures varied, alternative routes could have been followed.

These two themes converge in Mitter’s claim that wartime exacerbated dark tendencies within both major parties. Voices in each organization that had lobbied for tolerance and openness, and might have continued to do so after 1945, were largely silenced in a toxic atmosphere that encouraged people to think of a nation divided between patriots and puppets. 

If there is a hero in Mitter’s book, it is probably Chiang. He is presented as having “played an appallingly bad hand better than might have been expected,” and helped the Allies win the war, in a way that is often underappreciated in the West, simply by distracting and locking down Japanese forces as long as he did. In contrast to how the Generalissimo was presented in Taiwan propaganda of the 1950s-1970s and some contemporaneous partisan tracts by American Cold Warriors, though, Chiang is no paragon of virtue. And thanks to that compelling chapter on the flooding of the Yellow River, one important take away of Forgotten Ally for some readers will likely be a novel appreciation for a simple fact. The Communist Party has done many despicable things, but it is not the only modern Chinese ruling group to sometimes view large losses of life as an acceptable cost for pushing toward a goal, nor the only that has had leaders ready on occasion to concoct lies and spread misinformation to avoid taking the blame for terrible tragedies.