Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Review of Forgotten Ally: China's World War II, 1937-1945 by Rana Mitter (2013, Mariner)

While the West places the start of the Second World War as September 1939, for China their fight with the Japanese started in 1937 with a skirmish that led to a full-scale assault followed by 8 years of continuous battle. Arguably the conflict started earlier with the invasion and occupation of Northern China in 1931, though an uneasy peace followed. Rana Mitter tells the story of China’s war concentrating on the period 1937 to 1945, though bookending the main narrative with the context and lead-up to the war and the civil war between nationalists and communists that immediately followed. At the start of the twentieth century China was a divided nation, with several large states ruled by various warlords and regimes, and weak on the international stage. The Nationalist Party had started to try and create a more unified nation, though forming political alliances among rivals was difficult. When the Japanese launched their assault on Eastern China, these divisions undermined the coordination of armies and the Chinese experienced a succession of defeats, the advance being halted when the Yellow River dykes were breached killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Nationalist China turned to America for help, especially for political support and war supplies, while the communists turned to Russia. The US aid came with the condition that an American general act as the military chief-of-staff; a decision that would have long-term consequences. What followed was a war of attrition, with up to 100 million refugees, famine, between 16-20 million deaths, followed by civil war. By 1949 China was unified under the Communist Party and its geopolitical position on the world stage has been transformed. It had been a major theatre of the war and a key member of the allies, yet its contribution was also largely airbrushed from accounts of the Second World War.

Forgotten Ally seeks to set the record straight and make a case for how the events during those years shaped, and continues to influence, China’s relationship with other post-war powers. While providing an over-arching history, Mitter tells the tale by focusing on four key figures: Chiang Kai-shek, the head of the Nationalist government; Mao Zedong, the head of the Chinese Communist Party; Wang Jingwei, who defected from Nationalist Party to form a puppet government in occupied China; and ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell, the American appointed as Chiang’s chief of staff. In addition, he focuses on a number of key events, such as Rape of Nanking, the bombing of China’s wartime capital, Chongqing, and the ill-fated campaigns in Burma, drawing on a range of archival and personal testimony material. It makes for a fascinating read, providing a synoptic overview of what took place and key actors and decisions. However, because it is covering a number of years and many events it also quite sketchy, sacrificing depth for breadth. This is inevitable, but at times it does feel a little too sketchy. In particular, the Japanese side of the conflict is barely touched upon. Nonetheless, it’s an informative and engaging read, it does a good job of providing a balanced view, and makes a reasonable argument concerning how the war shaped China’s post-war geopolitical relations.  


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