- - Sunday, December 14, 2014


World War II began and ended in China. The United States entered the war in 1941, by which time China had been resisting Japan for nearly four years. China’s wartime losses were staggering: somewhere between 14 million and 20 million Chinese are believed to have died in the eight years of conflict.

Who was to rule China after Japan’s surrender? The ruling Nationalists were led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, but their writ did not run to many parts of the country. The Communists had controlled China’s northern provinces for most of the war, and the alliance between the Communists and the Nationalists had been fragile.

China was a difficult wartime ally, demanding Allied aid while accomplishing relatively little against the Japanese invaders. By 1945, the Chiang government enjoyed little popular support. What was to be the role of the Communists, who espoused democratic principles and practiced an austere lifestyle much at variance with that of Chiang’s minions?

In Chungking, the government’s shortcomings were highly visible: There was corruption, starvation, censorship of the press and a uniform fear of Chiang’s secret police. In the words of historian Barbara Tuchman, China’s charm was counterbalanced by “the filth, the cruelty, the indifference to misery and disregard for human life.”

The KMT sponsored marches, songs and meetings to raise morale, but there were signs of rot. Skinny, sweaty rickshaw men provided transportation for the rich, while nearly naked coolies towed barges up canals, “leaning so far against their harnesses as to be almost horizontal to the ground.” As Richard Bernstein’s writes, “The lines of conscripts roped together and marched off without proper clothing, arms, training, and food, the inability of the government to put a stop to Japanese atrocities — all of these things wore down [Chiang‘s] standing.”

Six hundred miles north of Chungking was the headquarters of Communist forces led by the charismatic Mao Zedong. The Communists had benefited from the war with Japan, which had obliged Chiang to suspend anti-Communist operations and to accept the Communists as partners in an uneasy alliance. Now the Communists sought American neutrality while they took care of Chiang. In Mr. Bernstein’s words, “Chiang broke a fundamental rule of civil conflict, which is never to allow an armed force that you do not control into your camp.”

For visiting diplomats and journalists the Communists downplayed their ideology and connections with the Soviet Union. They wore plain, medal-free tunics to underscore their austere lifestyle. The Communists “were friendly, relaxed, and good-humored with their American guests, dining with them, talking late into the night, drinking what they called tiger bone wine.”

The Communists were emboldened by support from the Soviets, who had occupied three of China’s northeastern provinces. In Washington, the Truman administration was preoccupied with popular demands for U.S. troops to be brought home. China was a nuisance but one that could not be ignored.

The administration relied heavily on analysis from its embassy. America’s ambassador at this crucial time was Patrick Hurley, an Oklahoma oil millionaire disposed to issuing Indian-like war whoops when excited. Ever an optimist, Hurley was an admirer of Chiang Kai-shek, and took seriously Washington’s commitment to one China.

Two of the State Department’s leading Sinologists were at odds with Hurley’s rosy view. John Service and John Davies, both of whom had been brought up in China, made repeated visits to Mao’s capital at Yenan. In Mr. Bernstein’s view, they and other visitors were deceived by the hospitality they found there. Given Hurley’s view, the atmosphere within the American mission was toxic. Davies and Service argued that the United States should reach out to the Communists. The Communists were going to win, and there was no point in alienating the winners.

The United States’ close relations with Chiang’s government remained a complicating factor. Not only did U.S. aid continue, spurred by a vigorous China lobby in Washington, but Chiang sought to entangle the United States in the civil war that was clearly in prospect.

In August 1945, Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered that Japanese troops in China were to surrender only to Nationalist forces. In response, the U.S. Army airlifted thousands of Chiang’s soldiers to key northern cities where, unsurprisingly, there were clashes with Mao’s forces. In December, Gen. George Marshall arrived in China to facilitate a compromise between the Nationalists and the Communists. For months, the two sides exchanged unacceptable demands.

Ultimately, war came, and over the next four years Chiang’s troops were forced off the mainland. For the reader today, the events of 1945 are like a slow-motion train wreck: One knows the outcome, but can see no way to avoid it.

The Nationalists were not the only losers. Service was dismissed by the State Department in 1952. Davies was fired two years later on grounds that his reporting from China had reflected poor judgment.

In “China 1945,” Mr. Bernstein has provided a lucid, attractively written account of one of the most fateful years in China’s history. If you read only one book on this crucial period, Mr. Bernstein’s work should be it.

Historian and biographer John M. Taylor lives in McLean, Virginia.

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