Chinese Civil War refugees in Shanghai (refugeesshanghai)

Modern Chinese History IV: Japanese Invasion and World War II 1937-1945



Chinese Army defending Marco Polo Bridge 1937

The Second United Front – that was to fight Japanese expansion in China – worried Japanese militarists who increasingly controlled Japanese domestic and foreign policy. They argued that Japan should strike against China before it became too strong. Conquering China was a first step in their plans to extend Japanese power throughout Asia. On July 7, 1937 the Japanese used a scuffle between Chinese and Japanese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge as a pretext to launch an invasion of northern China. By 1938 Japan had taken control of China’s Eastern Seaboard while the Kuomintang or Nationalist Government (KMT) led by Chiang Kai-shek retreated to the Western city of Chongqing after fighting horrific battles such as that for Nanjing.

International assistance to China was limited. After some initial loans from the Soviet Union and the West, China stood alone against Japanese aggression until the US entered the war after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. China had little heavy industry – much of which was lost by 1938 – and no capacity to build planes or even trucks. Its arsenals were hampered by lack of supplies due to a Japanese naval blockade. The only supplies coming into China were overland, first over the Burma Road, and then via an air route over the Himalayas known as the Hump. Additionally, hyperinflation and the shifting allegiances of Chiang Kai-shek’s warlord allies plagued the KMT, undermining any effort at good governance and fueling corruption. Yet, despite China’s huge military disadvantage, the Chinese turned what the Japanese military had assumed would be a three month campaign into a war of attrition lasting until 1945. The war pinned down 1.2 million of Japan’s 2.3 million overseas troops in the process.

Mao Zedong in Yan’an

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) benefitted from the Sino-Japanese War by expanding its territory and by building the strength of its army and the membership of its party. From their Yan’an Base in Shaanxi province, the communists waged a guerilla war which not only had some success against the Japanese, but also boosted their standing in the eyes of the Chinese people. It was during this time that Mao Zedong consolidated his power and developed and put into practice many of the social policies that were to form the crux of the CCP’s ruling philosophy once it assumed power in 1949. A strict policy of anti-corruption, a fair regime of taxes and an assumption that both cadre and peasants alike would share in the work won great favor with the people in their territory. So did the honesty and efficiency of its governance, particularly when contrasted with the corruption endemic in the KMT. Indeed, the CCP’s growing popularity so alarmed the KMT that, by 1941, the two parties were again fighting each other, and the KMT sent 200,000 of its best troops to blockade the main communist base around Yan’an instead of using them against the Japanese.

Atomic cloud over Hiroshima

The 1937-1945 Sino-Japanese war ended abruptly in 1945 after the Americans dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. Despite its terrible toll, the war had real benefits for China – elevating it to Great Power status, winning it a place on the UN Security Council and ending the imperialists’ hated Policy of Extraterritoriality and the Unequal Treaties that had plagued China since the 19th century. It also allowed the CCP – which had been almost eradicated during the Long March in 1937- to expand its military and membership strength to such an extent that the CCP won the ensuing 1945-1949 Civil War.

The Marco Polo Bridge Incident and the Japanese Invasion of China

Japanese cross the Marco Polo bridge 1937

Between 1932 and 1937, Japanese militarists began projecting themselves into national politics at the expense of the civilian government, breaking with the tradition that the military was to stay out of civilian affairs. The most extreme called for a military dictatorship, military oversight of the national budget, nationalization of war-needed industries, enlargement of the army and navy and territorial expansion in Asia and China. Already, by 1935, the Japanese militarists had encouraged an autonomous movement in the five northern Chinese provinces of Hopeh, Chahar, Suiyan, Shansi and Shantung under the aegis of the Eastern Hopeh Autonomous Council. When Tokyo refused the Kwantung Army’s subsequent request to move further into China, the Army acted independently.  Using a July 7, 1937 scuffle at the Marco Polo Bridge outside of Beijing as a pretext, it launched a full-scale – although undeclared- invasion, beginning with the bombing of Wanping, close to the bridge. Chiang Kai-shek, who had opposed a war of resistance against the Japanese since 1931 in order to first defeat the Chinese communists, finally felt that had no choice but to fight back.

Baby survives Shanghai bombing

The Chinese military – crippled by lack of supplies – was to prove no match for the modern mechanized forces of the Japanese which were well equipped with excellent naval and air support. The Japanese advanced swiftly, following the railways southwards. By July 28, Beijing had fallen. Tientsin was lost two days later. On August 13th, the Japanese attacked Shanghai, with the plan to destroy China’s financial center and thus its economic capacity to wage war. Chiang Kai-shek defended the city with his crack 87th and 88th divisions which succeeded in pinning down the Japanese for three months, at a cost of 250,000 Chinese soldiers – almost 60% of Chiang’s best troops – compared to 40,000 Japanese. Despite their heroic fighting, Shanghai was eventually overwhelmed and the Chinese retreated westward.

The Japanese capture of Shanghai facilitated its establishment of a naval blockade, isolating almost the entire of China’s east coast from outside contact. With the Japanese now approaching its doorstep, the KMT government withdrew to the remote western city of Chongqing. Although protected by the rugged terrain and the narrow gorges of the Yangtze River, it was a poor position from which to direct a counterattack. Yet inadequate though it was, the KMT used its new base of resistance to tie the Japanese down in a long war of attrition, ending Japanese hopes to subjugate China within three months.

The Rape of Nanjing or the Nanjing Massacre

Chinese civilians to be buried alive, Nanjing Massacre

In December 1937, the Japanese followed retreating Chinese forces into Nanjing, Chiang Kai-shek’s capital city. For six weeks thereafter, the Japanese committed a spree of mass murder and war rape that ranked among the most violent in modern warfare. During this period, as many as an 300,000 Chinese civilians, armed and disarmed soldiers were killed by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army. Widespread burning and looting occurred and an estimated 20,000 women and girls were raped. The killing and rape was particularly horrific as it continued even after Nanjing was securely taken.

Some have argued that the brutal actions of the Japanese were in retaliation for the large loss of life that they had suffered when fighting for Shanghai; others have said that the Japanese were taught to consider all Chinese the enemy regardless of whether they were wearing a uniform. The Japanese also underwent training to desensitize them to violence before being sent to the front which may have made it easier for them to rape and kill indiscriminately. Several Japanese leaders of the atrocities were later prosecuted, convicted and executed at the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal and at the wide-ranging International Military Tribunal for the Far East. Yet the court findings and the massacre itself have been both denied and downplayed by some in Japan, including by prominent politicians. This continues to cause discord in Sino-Japanese relations today.

Breaking the Dikes of the Yellow River

Japanese advance despite broken Yellow River dikes

From Nanjing, the Japanese moved to take the northern city of Xuzhou in March 1938. The Chinese defended it valiantly at the cost of 30,000 Japanese lives, yet the city ultimately fell in May. In June 1938, in a desperate attempt to stall further Japanese advance, Chiang Kai-shek ordered the dikes of the Yellow River to be broken at Huayuankou, near Zhengzhou. The resulting flood – for which the Chinese civilian population was wholly unprepared – was one of the largest acts of environmental warfare in history.  Waters flooded into Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu. The floods – which permanently changed the course of the Yellow River, shifting the mouth of the Yellow River hundreds of miles to the south- covered and destroyed approximately 21,000 square miles of farmland and swamped an estimated 4,000 Chinese villages. At least 800,000 Chinese civilians were drowned, starved or died of ensuing diseases and several million villagers were forced from their homes and made refugees.

Despite the flooding, the Japanese attack on China continued. The Japanese military captured Canton on 21 October and Wuhan on December 25, 1938 after five months of fighting in the area. Wuhan would have likely fallen sooner if not for assistance of Russian pilots sent by Stalin. By the end of 1938, Japan controlled the entire east coast of China, cutting off KMT access to major industrial centers, to large areas of natural resources, to its most fertile farmland and to the outside world.

Japanese Puppet Regimes in China and Chinese Collaborators

Wang Jingwei ran Nanjing for the Japanese

The Japanese ran its conquered territory through an interconnected network of puppet regimes headed by Chinese collaborators such as Wang Jingwei, a close follower of Sun Yat-sen’s and a high-ranking member in the KMT. Wang was lured into working with the Japanese by its promotion of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and by Japan’s specific promise to return to China all concessions and leased territories, to abolish extraterritoriality and to fight Chinese communism.

In exchange, Japan asked China for its recognition of Manchukuo, for permission to station Japanese troops in China, preferred access to China’s natural resources, and consent for the Japanese to appoint cultural and educational advisors. Chiang Kai-shek condemned these Japanese proposals as nothing more than a concealed plan to annex China and expelled Wang from the KMT as a traitor.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese who did not wish to live under Japanese occupation migrated to the KMT area around Chongqing, often transporting key machinery and factory parts with them. Chongqing doubled in size during the first three months of KMT occupation. Others joined the Communist pocket in Yan’an.  This migration swelled CCP membership from an estimated 40,000 in 1937 to 800,000 in 1940.

KMT Administrative Challenges during the War

KMT government at Chongqing

Chiang Kai-shek faced many challenges both governing and organizing the war effort from his new Chongqing stronghold. China was again fragmented. While the KMT held a large area in the southwest of China, Japan occupied Manchukuo, the Inner Mongolian Federation, east-central China and Taiwan. The Communists held their Shaanxi base in northwest China while Muslim Xinjiang and Buddhist Tibet both reasserted their independence.

While Chiang Kai-shek was nominally the Chairman of both the Supreme National Defense Counsel and the Military Affairs Commission – confirming his position as head of the Army and Air Force – in reality he presided over a loose alliance of warlords who did not always obey KMT directives. This hampered efforts to coordinate the war effort and to create cohesive policies that could be applied consistently to the local governments under his rule. Incomes and tax revenues shrank while military expenses skyrocketed.

Chongqing civilian casualties during Japanese air raid

To finance its rapidly growing deficit, the KMT printed money, creating a destructive inflationary spiral within its territory. Corruption, extortion and food shortages became endemic. As inflation rose, Chiang Kai-shek was forced to collect its taxes in kind from the farmers either in rice, wheat, beans, maize, millet or cotton. On top of these in-kind taxes, grain “surcharges” were levied. The surcharges were to be paid back at fair market rates, yet delays and abuses were commonplace. KMT farmers were also responsible for the cost of grain transport to specified depots. These exorbitant and often unfair grain collections undermined popular support for the KMT government. As a result, confidence between officers and men and between soldiers and civilians eroded. As dissatisfaction with KMT leadership grew, so did KMT suppression in response.  As suppression increased, liberal-leaning Chinese looked to the Communists for new policies. As a result, KMT repression intensified further, becoming as indiscriminate as it was corrupt.

Complicating further KMT’s efforts at government was the fact that it had no real base of support in Chongqing. Furthermore, while the city’s isolation helped to safeguard it against Japanese invasion, it also meant that Chongqing was backward. It had little modern industry and only rudimentary administrative and financial structures aggravating the difficulties the KMT already faced by being cut off from its industrial, financial and resource-rich eastern regions. Additionally, large floods of refugees put huge strain on the city.

Large military casualties also undermined morale as did the 1939- 1941 Japanese aerial bombing campaign of the city, killing thousands of civilians. The initially high civilian losses were stopped only when the KMT finished a network of underground shelters buried into the rock beneath the city and when it created an early warning system where KMT sympathizers behind Japanese lines alerted the KMT when Japanese planes left their bases.

Limited Access to Aid

Burma Road

Adding to these difficulties was the fact that the Japanese blockade of China’s coast all but isolated China from access to international aid. Between 1937-1939 the Soviets granted to the KMT three loans totaling $450 million, supplied it with 1,000 planes and sent about 50 military advisers to China. During this same time, total Western aid to China amounted to $263 million, $120 million of which came from the Americans for nonmilitary purchases. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 caused Russian aid to China to dry up. To try and avoid the fighting and buy time, Russia signed the August 1939 Non-Aggression Pact with Germany and the 1941 Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact in which the Soviet recognized the territorial integrity of Manchukuo.

Initially, because of Japan’s successful naval blockade, China’s only access to foreign military supplies were those shipped overland via the Burma Road – opened in 1938 – and via rail links in Vietnam. In 1940 the British government gave into Japanese diplomatic pressure to close down the 715 mile Burma Road to supplies to China for three months. In June 1941 the rail link to Hanoi was cut after the Japanese put pressure on the French colonial authorities in Vietnam. By 1942 the Japanese invasion of Burma closed the Burma Road completely. At that point, China’s only access to foreign military supplies was those flown in by the Americans from airfields in India, over “the Himalayan Hump”.  While the Hump airlift was key to China remaining in the fight, nevertheless it was only able to provide the Chinese military with a small fraction of its military needs.

Flying Tiger maintenance on an airfield in China

Its aid situation improved significantly when the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 caused the US to enter the war. In 1941, the US began by sending volunteer American pilots to fly in combat against the Japanese and to train Chinese aircraft personnel. These “Flying Tigers” inflicted real damage to Japanese bombing runs on Chongqing. The US Congress also re-opened the aid spigot – passing a $630 million lend-lease supply deal in which military supplies were made available to China without the need for compensation as long as they were employed fighting against Japan. The US government also gave the KMT government a further $500 million loan. Lend-lease aid to China eventually reached $1.54 billion. In 1943, Washington gave China an additional $300 million for currency stabilization. In 1944, the Allies recaptured northern Burma. They built a new Burma Road – the Ledo Road – which was open for transport by January 1945.

The Communists and the Second United Front

Eighth Route Army

The Communists were also facing challenges governing their territory and working with the KMT. Chiang Kai-shek’s 1937 kidnapping forced Chiang into the Second United Front, again partnering with the Communists. Yet, the alliance was troubled from the outset. The Communists- increasingly under Mao Zedong’s leadership- promised to uphold Sun Yat-sen’s Three People’s Principles, to stop acts of sabotage against the KMT, to end the confiscation of rich peasant landholdings, to make its 30,000 man Red Army a unit of the KMT military under the name of “The 8th Route Army” and to organize its 10,000 soldiers located south of the Yangtze into the New Fourth Army. For a time, these reorganized armies received a portion of military supplies and financial support.

Yet, from the beginning, Mao’s viewed the Second Front as a way to protect the CCP from further KMT attacks. It was Mao’s objective to use the war as a vehicle to expand both the Red Army and the CCP to one million members each. Similarly, Chiang Kai-shek never stopped viewing the Communists as a “disease of the heart” – a threat more fatal to China than the Japanese “disease of the skin”; Chiang believed that the Communists would eventually need to be eradicated.

Leaders of the 8th Route Army

That said, at the beginning of the alliance, there were real examples of KMT-Communist cooperation. In September 1937, for instance, the Eighth Route Army supported by the Nationalist 14th Army fought off a Japanese attack on Shanxi province. The KMT gave the CCP 50 of the 200 seats of the newly formed People’s Political Council. It allowed the CCP to set up a bureau of joint communication in Xi’an located in-between the KMT’s base in Chongqing and the Communist strong-hold in Shaanxi, and to publish for a time the Communist New China Daily. The KMT  also permitted the CCP to transform their outlawed soviets into to KMT-approved border governments – one in the Shaanxi, Gansu and Ningxia area and the other in the Shanxi, Charhar and Hebei region.

Mao Zedong and the Yan’an Years

Mao Zedong in Yan’an

Having fought off leadership challenges and enjoying a temporary respite from KMT attack, Mao Zedong used the Yan’an years to adapt Marxist-Lenin principles to the unique conditions of the Chinese experience. In particular, Mao continued to believe that it was the peasant farmers and not the workers who would lead China’s communist revolution, and he worked hard to engage the peasants into fully participating in the political, economic and military organizations of the base areas. The poverty of the Shaanxi province helped these efforts as it made it easier to shift the peasants toward radicalism. Similarly, the Japanese invasion helped foment feelings of revolutionary nationalism. Mao discovered that by involving the peasants directly in the fight against the endemic problems of poverty and oppression, he not only developed their class consciousness, but he also helped the peasants to lose some of their traditional subservience. As there was no capital available for development, Mao increasingly relied on the mass mobilization of labor to achieve his infrastructure and other objectives.

Mao launched many major campaigns during the Yenan period which were to remain important governing themes when Mao won national power. One important theme was ensuring popular support for the military while maximizing its effectiveness and minimizing its bureaucracy. To this effect, Mao reduced the size of the standing army and its administration and increased the relative size of the guerilla forces. The CCP worked hard to make sure that the Red Army remained courteous to local farmers and village leaders, that it compensated locals for food and other supplies, and that it kept its distance from the village women. Thus respected, the local population proved invaluable in providing the communist with intelligence and logistical support that helped Mao coordinate effective guerilla attacks against the Japanese. Mao also augmented the number of its soldiers by forming alliances with the local militia as well as with secret societies such as the Red Spears.

Lei Feng did farm work, soldier of the

Red Army soldier doing farm work

Prevented from pursuing a policy of land transfer due to the stipulations of the Second United Front, the CCP instead instituted a program of rent, interest and tax reductions which made it less profitable for the rich to keep large land holdings and made it more possible for the poor to increase their farms to a profitable size. The CCP also encouraged farmers to join mutual aid cooperatives in which they pooled labor, tools and draft animals and formed producer cooperatives to purchase grain and advance credit.  Party cadres were encouraged to participate in both manual and managerial work. Mao was careful to make sure the peasant benefited from his programs instead of just adding to their work. Mao also made efforts to make all administrative units  and members of those units – whether they be civilian or military – self-sufficient in food and cotton. While self-reliance was never reached, by 1945, most communist units were meeting as much as 40% of their own needs.

As the communist villages within their territory often had poor communication links, party cadres were encouraged to take local initiative instead of relying on orders from above to find their direction. This independence encouraged leaders to be flexible and to study local conditions. Early on Mao realized that the CCP could only increase production if gains in peasant incomes were larger than the rise in their taxes. The peasants needed to feel that it was worth it to invest their surplus labor to better their own lives. The resulting efforts caused close bonds to form between the leaders and the people. This comradely was at the heart of the Yan’an experience, as was the poverty, frugality, and egalitarianism shared by all.

Yanan Shaanxi maoist city Meeting hall (with tourists)

Yan’an Meeting Hall were many self-criticism forums occurred

Mao reinforced these bonds by educational movements designed to teach peasants and party leaders alike about ways to achieve the socialist revolution; as the party had grown, Mao increasingly felt that a common framework of ideological reference was needed. These educational efforts included mass-line campaigns to further developing class-consciousness. The “Rectification Campaigns” celebrated labor heroes and vilified abusive landlords, creditors and corrupt officials. Refugees into Yan’an were categorically reminded of the imperatives of the socialist cause: intellectuals were sent to the villages to learn from the peasants as were some of the too numerous communists bureaucrats, causing them to lose status in the process.

Reluctant converts – or those who challenged Mao’s power- were singled out in mass self-criticism forums. These forums could include intense small-group discussions, criticism, self-criticism, repeated written confessions, brainwashing and physical abuse which at times resulted in death or suicide. Those who were socially unreliable – for example, adulteresses, opium addicts, and those who failed to make party meetings -were also subjected to self-criticism.  Mao also targeted those who had strong Soviet links; Mao increasingly viewed the Soviets as unreliable friends and wished to minimize Russian influence in CCP policy. In this way, a movement that began as an educational policy at times became a purge. As the movement spread, people’s records were increasingly scrutinized.

Mao Zedong at his desk 1938

The impact of Mao’s mass line soon began to curtail intellectual and artistic expression.  In speeches in 1942 Mao argued that the role of art and literature was to serve the revolution by inspiring the masses to transform their social and economic environment. Mao believed that the constraint of intellectual thought was essential to developing a tightly disciplined force which had absolute loyalty to the party. This narrow-mindedness and intolerance to dissent was to result in decisions which were to haunt the party in later decades.

During the Yan’an years, Mao devoted much of his time to theorizing and to writing communist and military strategy. It was to be one of the most creative and productive periods of his life. In one two year period, for instance, he wrote 200 pages on strategy, 165 pages on politics and 55 pages on philosophy. Titles of his works included: On the Protracted War, Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War; Problems of Strategy in the Guerrilla War against Japan, On the New Democracy and On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship.

Hundred Regiments Campaign and the Japanese Policy of Three All

Japanese soldiers escorting Chinese farmers from their fields

Having consolidated local support and lacking the artillery to engage the Japanese directly, the CCP fought the Japanese with guerrilla tactics, much as they had the KMT. An exception was what has been called the Hundred Regiments Campaign in which an estimated 400,000 Eighth Route Army soldiers – broken into 105 regiments- fought the Japanese in North China in August 1940. An initial Chinese objective was the Chinese railway network the Japanese were using to transport troops. Although the CCP succeeded in destroying 1000 miles of road, 300 miles of track, 260 railway stations and scores of bridges and tunnels, its victories came at a great cost. The CCP was forced to conclude that it should not engage the Japanese Imperial Army directly.

Its return to guerrilla tactics caused the Japanese to adopt in December 1941 a policy of “The Three All” – “Kill all, Burn all, Destroy all”.  The brutal Three All policy was designed to undermine peasant support for the Communists. Those peasants who cooperated with the Japanese were moved to safe villages where they were given food; Communist or KMT collaborators were killed or starved, their homes demolished and their livestock slaughtered. The Three All campaign succeeded in reducing Communist territory and its population from one containing 45 million people to one containing 25 million. While many peasants were deterred from aiding the CCP as a result of the Three All Policy, for others the Three All only served to stiffen their resolve to resist the Japanese at all cost. The Three All Policy was a significant factor in increasing the Red Army to one million men by the end of the war and was another good example of Japanese brutality.

The New Fourth Army Incident and Renewed KMT-CCP Fighting

New Fourth Army troops on their way to the Northeast

Despite the CCP’s real successes in engaging the Japanese in North China, the KMT remained wary of signs of growing CCP strength. The KMT as particularly concerned that The New Fourth Army allowed the Communists a strategic presence in the Yangtze Delta. KMT generals tried to maneuver the New Fourth Army northward, but the Communists were reluctant to give up their Southern foothold. The two sides began engaging in an escalating series of skirmishes. During one key battle the CCP routed the KMT. By December 1940, Chiang Kai-Shek ordered the New Fourth Army to cross the Yangtze by January 31st, 1941, but then – accusing the New Fourth Army of mutiny – attacked their rearguard before the CCP could comply. Between January 7 and January 13, 1941, a pitched battle ensued, with the KMT killing 3,000 communists in an ambush and later executing and imprisoning many more.

The communists used the New Fourth Army Incident to great propaganda effect. It was also soon able to reestablish a guerrilla base south of the river. After the incident, the KMT begin an economic blockade on the CCP’s Yan’an base. It also ended financial support for the Eighth Route Army. The CCP-controlled areas soon faced serious shortages of both civilian and military supplies. The New Fourth Army Incident did not shatter the Second United Front, but it did caused both parties to increasingly position themselves in the event of civil war.

The Japanese Bombing of Pearl Harbor

USS Oglala after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor thus causing the US to enter WWII. Japan considered the U.S. Navy fleet a threat to its ambition to create a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere under Japanese dominion. Japanese military leaders felt that if the US fleet’s operational mobility was not curtailed, the US Navy could not only threaten Japan’s blockade of China’s coast, but it could also make it difficult for Japan to consolidate its control over Vietnam and Burma. The US declaration of war against Japan improved China’s prospects immensely. Not only did the US send aid, but Roosevelt also appointed Gen. Joseph Stillwell as commander-in-chief of the American forces in the China-Burma-India theatre.

The flying Tigers were reorganized as a regular part of the 14th Air Force. China was also recognized, along with the Soviet Union and Britain, as one of the four great powers in the Allied war effort. Roosevelt justified this recognition by pointing out that China was pinning down almost half of Japanese military forces. In 1943 Roosevelt also got the Unequal Treaties repudiated. The Unequal Treaties were forced on China by Western powers after military defeats that took place during the Qing Dynasty. The treaties encroached on China’s sovereign rights, diminishing it to a semi-colonial status. Roosevelt also helped end the Western practice of extraterritoriality in China; China could now prosecute foreigners according to Chinese law.

Chiangs and General Joseph Stilwell

Initial enthusiasm regarding the US’s increased involvement in China’s war effort was hampered to some extent by the fact that Gen. Joseph “Vinager” Stillwell did not often see eye to eye with Chiang Kai-shek, and expressed his disagreement in an undiplomatic manner. Despite Stillwell’s good command of Chinese and his real affection for the Chinese people, he did not respect Chiang Kai-shek as a leader nor did he have much tolerance for Chiang Kai-shek’s commanding officers whom he found both corrupt and reluctant to fight.

He also abhorred the campaigns of conscription that the KMT were forced to employ in order to raise troops for its army. These campaigns necessitated on many occasions the need to manacle half-starved and maltreated men in order to get them to the front. Indeed, it is estimated that 1 in 10 Chinese soldiers died from disease and starvation before seeing any fighting. Stillwell also severely criticized Chiang Kai-shek’s policy of using large numbers of KMT troops to blockade the communists instead of using them to fight the Japanese.

Japanese soldiers with gas masks, Battle of Changsha, 1941

To the extent that the Chinese did fight – as they did when they launched training bombing raids on Thailand from their newly expanded network of airfields east of Chongqing in June 1944 – it was often against Stillwell’s advice. In retaliation, the Japanese launched operation Ichigo during which they successfully attacked first the railway line in Henan province, then the city of Changsha, then the newly expanded airbases. Despite Stillwell having been proven correct and despite the significant damage that Ichigo inflicted on both Chiang Kai-shek’s remaining forces  and the credibility of his leadership, by October 1944, Chiang Kai-shek succeeded in getting Stillwell removed from his Chinese command. He was replaced by Gen. Albert Wedemeyer.

Western Journalists in China during the War

Mao Zedong with foreign journalists in Yan’an

America’s involvement in the war and the existence of a communist China in Yan’an with its own territory, government, social policies and army attracted the attention of both foreign journalists and American military leaders. Journalists such as Edgar Snow, T.A. Bisson and Gunther Stein all drew sharp contrast between the corrupt KMT officials and their poorly managed territory, and the honesty and frugality of the communist leaders and their evident concern for the welfare of their people. Linking communists efforts to better the lives of its people with Western ideals of democratic progress, many reporters found Chinese communism to be in many respects a new form of agrarian democracy and began to distinguish it from Russian communism. Chaing Kai-shek unsurprisingly dismissed their findings as biased. Mao himself took umbrage with some of their reports, insisting that the Chinese communists were genuine Marxists just like the Russians.

The Dixie Mission

Dixie Mission commander Colonel David D. Barrett and Mao Zedong in Yan’an, 1944

After much lobbying with both the US State Department and a very reluctant Chiang Kai-shek, it was agreed to send an American military contingents to Yan’an in July and August 1944. Led by Col. David Barrett and named the Dixie Mission, Barrett’s objective was to evaluate ways that the communists could most effectively assist in the war effort. The Mission’s reconnaissance concluded that while the communists were excellent guerrilla fighters, they had no ability to fight the Japanese head on. The Mission also recognized efficiency and honesty with which the communists ruled.

During the Mission, Mao argued that the Americans must intervene to prevent a Chinese civil war between the KMT and the communists. Mao argued that Chiang Kai-shek would be dependent on American military support in order to wage war against the communists. Mao also argued that only the Americans could liberate China from Japan.

As a result of the Dixie Mission, high-ranking Americans  including Vice President Wallace, Chinese Ambassador Clarence Gauss and special emissary Patrick Hurley began arguing that the Communists were a permanent force in China. They also argued that the US might ultimately be backing the wrong horse by unilaterally supporting Chiang Kai-shek. Despite these arguments, the US government concluded from the Dixie Mission that it would continue to sustain Chiang Kai-shek as legal head of the Chinese government.

The Yalta Conference

Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill at Yalta 1945

Chiang Kai-shek’s mismanagement of the Ichigo battles as well as the management of his regime generally caused his influence to diminish with its allies. In February 1945 Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met at Yalta where they decided that Russia would enter the war in Asia three months after Germany’s defeat. Russia would be given back all territory lost to the Japanese including the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin. It would have access to the warm water ports of Dairen and Port Arthur, and would lease again the naval base at Lushun.

The city of Dalian would be “internationalized” and thus accessible to the Russians. Russia would also be given a stake in this Sino-Russian Railways in Manchuria. Finally the allies would lend their support to the newly formed Outer Mongolia as an independent country. The Yalta concessions came as a great blow to Chiang Kai-shek. Russia argued that without such concessions, it would be hard to justify war against Japan to the Soviet people.


Hiroshima after the bomb

In May 1945, Germany surrendered. On August 8, 1945 Russian forces moved into Manchukuo to attack the Japanese. On August 6 and August 9, the Americans dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By August 14, the Japanese surrendered. In the end, Russia achieved significant rights in Manchuria with very little effort. A Sino-Soviet  30 Year Treaty of Friendship and Alliance ensued in which Stalin offered China aid against future Japanese aggression and recognition of Chinese sovereignty in Manchuria in exchange for many of the concessions he had negotiated at Yalta.

The Consequences of the War

China, Britain and Japan sign documents of surrender 1945

The Sino-Japanese War and World War II caused far-reaching changes for China. The Unequal Treaties and the Policy of Extraterritoriality had been abolished as had China’s semi-colonial status. China replaced Japan as Asia’s leading power and it was given a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. European colonialism and influence in Asia was rapidly coming to an end as India, Burma, Indochina and Indonesia all began to call for independence. America, in contrast, was to become a rising force in Asia.

The KMT was exhausted by the war effort. By 1945 China had succeeded in pinning down over 1.2 million Japanese troops and consuming 35% of Japan’s total war expenditure. It had enlisted over 14 million Chinese soldiers, over 3 million of which were wounded and 1 million were killed. Its war debt exceeded $1.4 billion. Chiang Kai-shek’s government was in tatters. Deficit spending and money printing had led to devastating inflation which encouraged corruption, theft and extortion. Inflation, poor management, harsh conscription policies and battle fatigue had seriously undermined army morale.

The KMT’s excessive money printing led to high inflation

Inflation and war had also reduced much of the middle class to poverty and had destroyed countless civilian lives, embittering many. When rumblings of civil war began to be heard, few had heart left to meet the call.

The communists by contrast came out of the war stronger than before. By 1945, the communists in Yan’an had control over 1 million square kilometers of land populated by nearly 100,000,000 people. It had almost 1 million party members and members of its armed forces. As importantly, the communists had developed a reputation for honesty, for showing real concern for the Chinese people, and for efficient governance. Also, although the KMT bore the brunt of the Japanese invasion, the communists had won the public relations war. Their bravery in the face of Japanese aggression was held in high regard by the Chinese people. Indeed Mao later said that without the Japanese Invasion of China and the ensuing Second United Front, the communists would never have been able to gain the strength necessary to win the ensuing civil war.    

What happened next

Japanese surrender to Chinese troops 1945

After WWII ended, the US tried to shore up KMT strength by air-lifting KMT troops into position to accept Japanese surrender. The idea was to prevent the communists from taking command in as many areas as possible. The US also continued to provide Chiang Kai-Shek’s government with military and financial aid. Subsequently, US envoys such as General George Marshall worked to negotiate a power-sharing truce between the KMT and communists in the form of a democratic-oriented government with an elective assembly. Yet by January 1947, US mediation efforts proved futile, and the US withdrew from involvement in China. China rapidly descended into Civil War.