- - Wednesday, January 1, 2014

By Rana Mitter
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30, 450 pages, illustrated

For most Europeans, World War II began with Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. Many Asians, however, date the war from May 1937, when Japanese forces in China created an “incident” that metastasized into all-out war.

It was a war that China was ill-equipped to fight. The country had scarcely been truly unified. A schism between Mao Zedong’s communists and the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-shek was already in evidence.

The complex story of China in World War II is now told by Rana Mitter, a professor of history and politics at Oxford, and the author of several books on modern China. He writes with rare objectivity on subjects that remain controversial today, and his illustrations are both poignant and pertinent.

China — unified only at the turn of the century — had long attracted the attention of the expansion-minded militarists who controlled Japanese politics in the late 1930s. However, a coherent strategy was lacking. The army viewed China as low-hanging fruit, to be had for the taking. The navy was more interested in a drive to the south, where oil in the Dutch East Indies promised to meet its most pressing need. In the end, Tokyo attempted to achieve both objectives, and its drive to the south would lead, fatally, to war with the United States.

Initially, the Nationalists and the communists agreed to fight the Japanese rather than each other. However, this arrangement was a fragile one, and in any case the communists were more interested in allowing Chiang’s forces to exhaust themselves against the Japanese than in helping them to victory.

Mao’s base was in the northwestern province of Yanan, which had long been beyond the effective reach of the central government. In Yanan, the communists were largely free to train their forces and to indoctrinate the peasantry. Areas controlled by the Nationalists, in contrast, were under constant pressure from the Japanese invaders. Popular support for Chiang eroded as areas under his control were ravaged by inflation, conscription drives, corruption and Chiang’s dependence on regional warlords.

There was also human error. Seeking to slow the Japanese advance, the Nationalists breached dikes that controlled the Yellow River. According to journalist Theodore White, about 500,000 peasants were driven from 2,000 communities “to await rescue or death on whatever dry ground they could find.”

The Japanese required little time to occupy China’s coastal cities. Brutality was commonplace, as most Japanese regarded Chinese as racial inferiors. The occupation of Nanjing in December 1937 triggered a display of barbarism remarkable even by standards of the China war. In Mr. Mitter’s words, “the Japanese troops seem to have abandoned all constraints. … The soldiers of the Japanese Central China Area embarked on an uninterrupted spree of murder, rape and robbery.”

By 1941, Nationalist forces had been driven to China’s deep south, some 500 miles from Yanan. In the years that followed, the United States sent advisers but comparatively little material aid, much of which had to be flown “over the Hump” from India. Chiang reluctantly accepted Roosevelt’s offer of Lt. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell as his chief of staff, but their relationship soon deteriorated. Stilwell’s postwar diary would document his toxic relations with Chiang, but it was a two-way street. In a diary of his own, Chiang wrote in 1943, “I saw Stilwell today; he disgusts me. I despise him.”

It was the Japanese who ensured that China would play a key role in ending World War II. Even as their position in the Pacific deteriorated, the Japanese maintained forces in China that might otherwise have been deployed against the U.S Marines.

When the end came in 1945, China was, in Mr. Mitter’s words, “simultaneously in the strongest global position it had ever occupied and weaker than it had been for nearly a century.” It was a member of the Big Four, but was edging toward civil war. The author estimates that between 14 million and 20 million Chinese perished in China’s eight-year war from 1937 to 1945.

“Forgotten Ally” is must reading for anyone seeking a full perspective on the Pacific war.

Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean.

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