Friday, June 28, 2019

China's World War II 1937-1945 Forgotten Ally By Rana Mitter

China's World War II 1937-1945 Forgotten Ally
By Rana Mitter

Rana Mitter Ph.D. was born Shantashil Rajyeswar Mitter in 1969 inside the UK to Bengali parents. Incidentally, his father was a respected historian of Indian art. He attended King's College in Cambridge and when he was 18 made the at the time somewhat whimsical decision to study Chinese. This would expand to studying China over time and today he is Professor of History and Politics of Modern China at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University (Nice!). He's also a regular presenter on BBC radio and has written a number of books, the latest being the subject of our review, published in 2013 by Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a textbook printing company (I speak on behalf of all those who have had to buy textbooks… The guillotine they deserve is of the sort used to cut paper.). Before we dive in, I do want to touch on where this review comes from. Last year around November I did a review of The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. As per usual I did some digging on the author after finishing the book so I could present you, my readers, with as full a picture as possible. This book we're reviewing was one of the books that Ms. Kuang kept bringing up. That stayed with me, so I had to take a look and here we are.

In Forgotten Ally (titled Struggle for Survival in the United Kingdom and elsewhere) Dr. Mitter sets out to give us the broad outlines of China's war of national survival against the Empire of Japan. I term it a war of national survival because the vision that the Japanese outlined for China was one of a China divided into roughly half a dozen client states and the sheer loathing dismissal the Japanese government of the time had for Chinese nationalism. Part of this was that it conflicted with the Japanese pushed version of Pan-Asianism (where Japan sat at the top of course), another part was the view that China wasn't a nation, but a geographic location (Which is ridiculous. Like the rest of Japanese State Ideology at the time and largely continuing to this day.). However, the book makes us clear to us that the dismissal of Chinese nationalism wasn't just a Japanese stance and was fairly common from Tokyo to London (But of course! You can’t systematically dick around and erode the sovereignty of one of the oldest civilizations on the planet without some sort of ethnic and cultural dismissal.). It's easy to see why as Dr. Mitter clearly sets the stage for the brutal 8-year war that occurred between the Chinese and the Imperial Japanese state. The Qing Empire had fallen apart into feuding warlord states with imperial western powers picking choice bits off the corpse. Westerners and the Japanese enjoyed extraterritorial status, where any crimes they committed could not be tried by Chinese courts but special ones set up by the imperial powers (Justice® was done in these courts.). Even parts of China's great cities had been sectioned off and placed outside the rule of any Chinese government in those years. That said, a nationalist movement was occurring as the Chinese were fully aware of what they had suffered and the need to modernize and unify if they were ever to secure a place for themselves in the modern world and face of the predators around them. Dr. Mitter gives us a brief overview of that process of the Chinese trying to pull themselves by hook or crook into the 20th century but the meat of the book takes place, as it should, in World War II.

For the Chinese (and Japanese) World War II started in 1937 in a confrontation near what the west calls Marco Polo bridge. Tensions in the north of China had been high since Japan overran Manchuria in 1931 and set up the puppet set of Manchukuo. The Nationalist Government under Chiang Kai-Shek was playing for time before another confrontation occurred, believing that they would only get one shot at this, so they best not miss. When things finally broke out into a firefight, things kind of skidded out of control with local Japanese commanders not listening to Tokyo (a reoccurring problem) and Chiang being backed into a corner because if he backed down again, the people of China could lose all faith in his government and turn to rival factions (Like communism. Sarcastic Spoiler alert: this whole thing worked so well for him! {Soo… Should he have not resisted the Japanese then?} No no. He should have. I’m just saying that ultimately he still failed to keep the population from turning to rival factions.), causing more disunity in China when they could least afford it. The picture painted here is a war that no one really wanted, no one really planned to have just yet but a war that they were going to have because it was too late for the pebbles to vote on this avalanche Dr. Mitter takes care to take a look at the effect of the early war on China both on the Nationalist and Communist party. This led to the creation of the common front, as the Nationalist and the Communist agreed to shelve their problems with each other until such date as there weren't Japanese armies running around trying to conquer their nation out from under them. Dr. Mitter also shows us the strange bedfellows that such wars produce. While Chiang and the Nationalist government were deeply anti-communist, at this point the Soviet Union would step forward to become the Nationalist’s only real foreign ally. To enhance the strangeness, the USSR was replacing Nazi Germany as Nationalist China's greatest ally. This is explained as a result of the times. You see Germany lost all its possessions in China after WWI and as such, it was seen as a safe power to ally with in the inter-war years because they had nothing to lose in seeing a modern, industrialized, unified China rising up. Unlike the other Western powers like the French, British, or the United States (the US occupied an odd position here but we'll get to that). The USSR in turn needed to prevent a two-front war where they would be battling Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany at the same time and creating a China that could if not defeat Japan at least pull Japan into a long, grinding war was a step towards avoiding that. So Stalin backed the Nationalist despite them being the foes of the Communist party of China. The latter position of the Western Allies is also covered in depth. Chiang and the Nationalist (Shockingly) never really trusted the British Empire (the communist simply didn't deal with them) but the relationship with the US was vastly more variable. For various reasons the US didn't attract as much bile as the European powers, but that would change over time. Part of this is the constant demands for Chinese troops when there simply weren’t any to spare, another is the fact that the US sent exactly the wrong person to represent their interests to the Chinese. That being General Joseph Stilwell, aka Vinegar Joe. While to his credit General Stilwell preached that the Chinese man could be just as good a soldier as a white man with the proper training and equipment, he also believed he was the only one who could win the war for China and constantly led China's best troops into offensive campaigns that had no chance of victory. On top of this, he would constantly antagonize the leadership of Nationalist China. Which led many of the Nationalist leaders to believe that the US held them in contempt, which wasn't entirely false (Of course it wasn’t entirely false! The Chinese Exclusion Act was still in place at the time and would remain so until 1943. Even then, the quota was 105 immigrants a year. It was the official position of the US that chinese people were not even welcome in the country. General Stillwell, despite evidently being a cantankerous madman, was remarkably less racist than his contemporaries.{And yet he completely undermined Chinese-American relationships and destroyed many of the best Chinese units in a mad quest to conquer Burmanese jungle, insisting he was the only one who could lead China to victory} As I said, cantankerous madman! Just… a less racist one.).

That said, Dr. Mitter also spends time looking at the domestic issues that were plaguing China even as it was engulfed in a war that would kill millions. As many fled Japanese domination, the Nationalist and Communist governments were obliged to expand social services even as they were having to massively increase the resources that went to their militaries. Both governments would use this as an opportunity to attempt to reshape China into a more modern mold even as they fought to create a China that wasn't dominated by foreign interests. The Nationalist programs were less successful and Dr. Mitter carefully shows why they failed. Part of it is because the Communist committed to a program of guerrilla warfare and avoided large scale confrontation with the Japanese forces, this meant that they could get away with spending less of their resources on military commitments. They were also able to push initiatives to make their population more self-sufficient since they weren't under direct attack by the Japanese. The Nationalist who had to field conventional armies and fight the Japanese in large set-piece battles had no such choices. This was also a problem as their areas of China were afflicted with famine and bad harvests, partly due to the Nationalist breaching the dikes of the Yellow River to hold back the Japanese Armies (while killing hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers). That said, the Nationalist government was often riddled with corruption but much of it was the corruption of men who have to turn to such methods or starve to death. For example, soldiers would be issued rifles, ammo and, grain or rice; but any vegetables, meat, medical supplies, and most clothes the soldiers would have to get for themselves while being paid wages that wouldn't even get them the rice they were issued on the open market (And so the predictable happens…). That's when they got their full wages, which were given to commanding officers in lump sums (Oh Dear God!). Most officers weren't well paid either with even Colonels having to take second jobs to make ends meet. So many officers skimmed from their men’s wages to avoid that and being punished for having a second job. Now I will admit that the Communists did engage in military operations against the Japanese but never as often as the Nationalist and never on the same scale. So the Communist strategy seemed to be to let the Japanese punch themselves out on the Nationalist and then dart out to land a quick blow or two and then use the Nationalist as a shield (This is a highly effective strategy…{Sure, but then constantly criticizing the Nationalist and trying to undermine them while using them as a shield… Well that gives the impression this is all about expanding your power base} Hey, I’m not making moral judgments. It was effective at achieving both of Mao’s strategic aims.). The Japanese, in turn, would launch campaigns against the communists but these campaigns tended to be limited in scope and duration compared to the offensives they launched against the Nationalists. Both the Communist and Nationalists, however, did use the war as an opportunity to remove political opponents in their own ranks. The Nationalist secret police under Dai Li created a system of terror to root out opponents to the Nationalist system. Mao would use his security chief Kang Sheng to purge anyone who could rival him in the party and turn the Chinese Communist Party into a personality cult, where the study of Mao's own written works made up the majority of mandated course work and refusal to bend to his will led to punishment, torture, and death. Much like just about every other communist state out there(<Weeps in Communist>).

The Postwar period is covered as well, as the crippled, hollowed out Nationalist party found itself unable to defeat a Communist Party whose strength was only increased by the war. Much as been made of the west forgetting such atrocities as the Rape of Nanking but interestingly they were all but forgotten in China as the Communist government didn't discuss or teach these events from 1950 to 1981, focusing instead on the actions of the Nationalist Government and accusing them of collaborating with the Japanese. It wasn't until the late 1980s and 1990s that the actions of the Japanese themselves were seriously considered, and that Chiang was admitted to the pantheon of men who fought to keep China from becoming a colony. Part of this is the fact that Mao and Chiang were both dead and while throughout the cold war it was more convenient to focus attention on Nationalist misdeeds (apparently there were also Chinese efforts to woo Japan away from alliance from the US to create a 3rd power block in the cold war but the book gives no details there). Now that the Cold War is over and the PRC is more interested in promoting the idea of reconciliation the sacrifices of the Nationalists and the actions of Imperial Japanese forces are recognized. Dr. Mitter takes this part of the book to link all of this to the present day and show how the events from 1937 to 1945 have had a profound effect on how the Chinese see themselves, the world and what to expect from their governments. Which makes it a useful book on many levels.

Forgotten Ally provides a good overview of China's situation throughout World War II. Capturing the desperation that the competing governments of China felt as they fought against common enemies and dealt with the fact that their common allies considered them a lesser priority. Dr. Mitter works to present us work as free of bias as possible while admitting to the flaws and bad actions of everyone involved and to be fair, there are plenty of bad actions and decisions to go around. Personally, while I'm no fan of the government of the People's Republic of China, I've never been sympathetic to the Nationalist government either, seeing them as hopelessly corrupt and wondering at times just how close they were to being a fascist state themselves. I complete this book with a great deal more sympathy for the Nationalist government while at the same time having to point out that their behavior wasn't all that different from the Communist party when it came to governing China. If you're wondering about this front in World War II, this is a great book to start with and get a good idea of the issues involved, the personalities and general events. If you're looking for details about specific battles or campaigns, you will be frustrated as there simply isn't space in the book for such things. That said I would encourage anyone who hasn't made a study of China in World War II to take a look at this book. There is also a good notes section in the back and even more exciting a section where Dr. Mitter suggests books for further reading (And Frigid has to get a bigger apartment with more shelf space.{nonsense, I just need to build more shelves!}  All of this adds up to me giving China's World War II 1937-1945 Forgotten Ally By Rana Mitter an A. Dr. Mitter has done good work with this book.

Red text is your editor Dr. Ben Allen
Black text your reviewer Garvin Anders

Thank you for joining us! If you enjoyed this consider joining us at where for a 1$ a month you can vote on what gets reviewed in the next month. 3$ a month lets you see all the glories of your editor and reviewer 'discussing' the book. Next week we start America Month, opening up with the Patron selected GI Joe Vol 2. We'll follow that up with Ratification the People Debate the Constitution 1787 -1788 by Pauline Maier, so stay with us, stay cool and above all keep reading!


  1. You two really enjoy this point/counterpoint thing you've got going in the editor's notes, don't you?

  2. We do enjoy it a bit to be honest we've been friends for nearly 15 years now so it's also second nature to us at this point. The more important question is how do y'all the readers feel about it?