Saturday, December 19, 2015

Forgotten Ally

Forgotten Ally: China's World War II
© 2013 Rana Mitter
467 pages

Two years before a mad painter's schemes plunged the world into war, China was fighting for its life.  It began the 20th century at a crossroads; the old imperial order had faded away, and in the vacuum that followed, the great land was fair play to a variety of ambitious men from both within and without. Idealists dreaming of building a better future for themselves struggled against opposing visionaries, petty warlords and would-be-colonizers.  Scarcely had the young Republic of China begun establishing itself than it became an object of proprietary interest to the rising Empire of Japan, and after a near-decade long struggle for survival that merged with World War 2, the republic finally fell prey to internal enemies. Postwar politics made forgetting the Chinese trial against Japan easy, but in the eyes of Rana Mitter, China's experience of World War 2 was uniquely formative. The bloodletting wasn't just a tragic episode to be endured, but destroyed what progress had been made in the 20th century and led to a completely new economic and political order. Forgotten Ally is a mostly-political history of the war which views it was nothing less than the birth of modern China, born of a decade of frustration and sorrow.

The odds were against the Republic of China from the start. China is a vast land, and the Republic's command of it was never perfect; the ascendant west pockmarked China's coast with colonies, and internal division reigned, from brigands to communist rebels. Japan, increasing in both wealth and power after its own successful leap into industrialization,  took advantage of that internal weakness to announce itself as Asia's new leader. Positioning itself as a big brother, it promised to chase off Occidental intruders and establish a new order, of Asia for the Asians.  Beginning in the late 19th century, Japan began asserting itself on the Asian mainland, and as its armies grew closer to China, the celestial kingdom stood alone.  Between world wars and depression, the United States and Britain were hardly in a place to stop them. The Russians had made noise before and gotten a bloody nose and a sunken fleet for it, and as another crisis in Europe loomed no one wanted to provoke a Japanese attack on their Asian colonies.  Relations with potential allies were tense to begin with;  Britain had opened a drug market in China and waged war against those who protested it, and Russia frequently flirted with supporting the Republic's armed in-house opposition,  Cooperation did happen, however;  before the United States was ever attacked, American volunteers trained Chinese pilots and helped wage guerrilla aviation, and even after the Japanese had secured much of southeast Asia, the Allies sent what resources they could by air.

In addition to the ordinary destruction of war, made worse by particularly vicious invasion tactics ("Kill All, Loot All, Burn All"), China's chronically stressed government became its own enemy. Its attempt to keep soldiers in the field caused famine, and another strategic move (destroying dikes that checked the Yellow River) slowed down the Japanese advance but led to the deaths of a half-million Chinese civilians.  Both the Nationalist government and the Communist splinter in the north developed brutal police-state agencies throughout the war, attempting to consolidate their power and expunge dissent, but the Nationalists controlled and thus disaffected more people.  Between this and Chiang Kai-Shek's increasingly poor relations with the American commander on the ground (controlling lend-lease supplies), the Republic lost legitimacy both in China and abroad with every passing year.   Throughout the chaos of war, the Communist state grew in strength, its ranks filling with bombed-out and ordered-about peasants who considered Mao a less brutal choice than Chiang;  no sooner had the guns of World War 2 fallen silent than did a civil war erupt in China, one which saw the Nationalists exiled to Taiwan, and China overtaken by the Communists.

Forgotten Ally is largely political history, one in which the war is an essential backdrop but not the express subject.  Mitter is primarily concerned with how the war damaged the prospects of Chiang and allowed Mao's to blossom. Mao began the war as an exiled rebel, forced to retreat to the hinterland, but he would end it as China's new master. That is an accomplishment cut with opportunism, for while the Nationalists were taking the brunt of Japanese assault, having to move entire factories into the interior to keep the war going, the Communists were able to sit pretty, making the occasional raid against Japan but never engaging it in open battle.  Despite the inhumanity of Chiang's regime, considering what followed after, it seems a tragedy that his China fought World War 2 through the end, only to succumb to its wounds afterwards.   Their role in resisting Japan should not be forgotten, although a little more military meat might have served this book well -- demonstrating, for instance, how much of Japan's resources were consumed in fighting the Nationalists that would have otherwise been deployed fighting the United States and the Commonwealth nations across the pacific.  Aside from this quibble,  this is a history well worth considering.

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