Japan's defeat in the Second Sino-Japanese War
Unexpected victory for China
author Paul Boșcu, May 2019
Germany was defeated in May 1945. Preparations immediately began for a final assault on Japan that might involve massive numbers of Chinese troops. Instead, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August forced Japan’s sudden surrender, which took most of the world, including China’s leaders, by surprise.

Germany was defeated in May 1945. Preparations immediately began for a final assault on Japan that might involve massive numbers of Chinese troops. Instead, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August forced Japan’s sudden surrender, which took most of the world, including China’s leaders, by surprise.

By the start of 1945 it seemed clear that the Nazi grip on Europe would end within months. Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill turned their attention to concluding the war in Asia as swiftly as possible. At Tehran, in November 1943, Stalin had pledged an eventual Soviet entry into the Pacific War when the European tide had turned, and now Roosevelt wanted to make sure that commitment was acted on.

The idea that war could lead to the rebirth of China proved the great illusion. The Nationalists admitted as much on 3 September 1945, just after the end of the war, when they issued an order that announced ‘this year’s land taxes will be remitted for the whole year in all provinces that fell to the enemy. We depend on the remaining provinces in the rear for military rations and the people’s food needs this year, but their land taxes will be remitted the following year. All military recruitment will be stopped throughout the country from today’. In explaining the measure, the text hailed the defeat of Japan as a great historical achievement. But it also mourned the enormous loss of life and the destruction of property and concluded that ‘although the War of Resistance has now ended, the task of national reconstruction has only just begun’. The hopes expressed at Wuhan in 1938 had not been realized.

The international element of Nationalist strategy never worked out as the Nationalists had hoped. The Nationalists were right in believing that they could not win without outside support. However, while the Soviet Union supported the Nationalists actively until 1939, following the Battle of Nomonhan their involvement was scaled down and ended completely after 1941. Support from the USA and Britain was at best of ambiguous value to the Nationalists, and their interests were consistently subordinated to those of their allies.

The halting of Japanese forces was something Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek could cling to at the start of 1945, and he also found other grounds for cautious optimism. Chiang took General Joseph Stilwell's recall as a sign that America was 'sincere' about helping China: 'This is the greatest comfort for me in the new year.' He was still concerned about American attempts to arm militarist rivals such as Xue Yue and Long Yun, but told himself that the American attitude was 'completely different' from the type of imperialism advocated by the British.

Chiang remained convinced that the US was attempting to arm rival militarists, 'distributing weapons as a bait, so the military will worship foreigners and disobey orders'. After his humiliation at Stilwell's hands, Chiang was now ready to be suspicious at the slightest sign of disrespect from his allies.

Stilwell had left without waiting to brief his successor, General Albert Wedemeyer, nor had he left behind much in the way of paperwork. Wedemeyer was impressed by Chiang Kai-shek, but shocked by the state of the overall military command in China. Chiang also balked at the discovery that Wedemeyer intended to continue Stilwell's policy of controlling Lend-Lease supplies. 'It's clear US policy hasn't changed at all,' he wrote. 'This makes my heart bitter.'

Chiang was still persuaded that the US wanted to raise China's status in the world, whereas the British had no intention of taking the country seriously in any post-war settlement.

Ambassador Clarence Gauss, whose increasingly despairing messages back to Washington showed his lack of confidence about the situation in China, resigned shortly after Stilwell's recall, and Patrick Hurley was promoted from presidential envoy to full ambassador. Hurley's arrival in post ended the policy of warmth toward the Communists and strengthened Chiang's hand. Hurley lacked the analytical abilities of his predecessors, and their experience of China. Whereas Gauss tended to think the worst of Chiang, Hurley thought the best, although not always to Chiang's benefit.

Chiang had never had a clear understanding of the way public opinion worked in a democracy. That was his wife Song Meiling's specialty, hence her assiduous courting of the American press and public. Chiang also failed to understand how damaging the recall of Stilwell had been for his cause in the United States.

Hurley had excessive confidence in Chiang's ability to unite China, and did not understand that the Communists were serious contenders for power. Understanding this immensely complex and delicate political situation was now critical to avoiding a civil war between the Nationalists and Communists.

Roosevelt supported Hurley's views on Chiang, although he cautioned him not to say anything in public that might make the job of reconciliation between the Nationalists and the Communists harder. But Hurley held a press conference in Washington at which he declared that the United States would recognize only the National Government and have no further dealing with the Communists.

The Nationalists did not see themselves as a bankrupt and hollow regime. Chiang's government was still determined to rule over a post-war China very different from the one that had gone to war with Japan in 1937. Many of the party's planners saw the need to create a state where the obligations that government and the people had to one another were greater and more clearly defined. In this they were not alone. Roosevelt's administration passed the G.I. Bill in 1944, providing training and education for returning veterans. In July 1945 the British people voted out the deeply admired wartime leader, Churchill, in favor of a Labour government under Clement Attlee with a program of extensive social welfare.

In the spring of 1945, once the tide had turned in Europe and in Burma, and Operation Ichi-go had run its course, Chiang again argued for an offensive in China during a meeting with Admiral Louis Mountbatten in Chongqing. Chiang requested Mountbatten’s agreement to the withdrawal of Chinese forces from Burma for this purpose. Mountbatten refused, arguing that China’s Expeditionary Army in Burma was needed to keep pressure on the Japanese flank. He further explained that no amphibious landings would take place and no US forces would be deployed.

Chiang Kai-shek argued that China could not ‘afford to let the Hunan and Kwangsi Provinces remain in Japanese hands much longer and from both the economic and political points of view they must be reconquered’, but the Nationalists again had to confront the reality that their best troops were deployed in Burma while their position in China disintegrated.

Albert Wedemeyer, after succeeding Stilwell, was more than a little angry with Mountbatten. He wrote on 14 May 1945 that ‘last winter and this spring when I was so urgently in need of air-planes, the British were using them for clandestine operations in great numbers within French Indo-China. Representations were made by Mountbatten to the British Chiefs of Staff that if one airplane were removed from India-Burma by me that his operations against Rangoon would be jeopardised…. When the Japanese were driving westward last winter against Kweiyang, we had definitive evidence of the fact that Kunming was their objective. They had the capability of driving on, and the Generalissimo – in fact, even Mountbatten’s representative here, Lieutenant General Carton de Wiart – urged me to withdraw all five CAI [Chinese Army in India] divisions from Burma. I took more than a calculated decision and only withdrew two, which I carefully interposed to block the Jap advance.’ Yet, Wedemeyer himself also prevented a Chinese counter-offensive, not because he did not want to fight in China but because he had to fit in with US strategy against Japan, and in conformity with US operational doctrine believed that overwhelming force had to be concentrated on a single point before taking action.

The Burma campaign led to the withdrawal of much of Chennault’s 14th Air force from China as well as many of the best Nationalist divisions. Mountbatten’s insistence that three be kept there through the spring of 1945, the sharp reduction of hump tonnage in May 1945, the breakdown of the Stilwell road during the monsoon season, the refusal to deploy more airpower in China and dispatch ground forces, and the decision to rely on the Soviet Union to take on the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuria, all had serious repercussions on the military position of the Nationalists at the end of the war.

Chiang was worried about the intentions of the CCP, and with good reason. The waning of his power had been matched by a steady growth in Mao's. With party membership of over a million people, and some 900,000 regular troops supplemented by a similar number of militia troops, the Communists would clearly be a major force in the post-war order.

At this point, all Chinese parties assumed that the war against Japan would continue for at least one or two more years. This created a dilemma for Mao as to how best to orient his party toward the new world. The Communists had to be seen to support the war effort against Japan. To move openly against Chiang would rob them of the moral high ground from which they could accuse him of emphasizing the fight against the Communists over the war against Japan. On the other hand, Mao was determined that 'this time, we must take over China'.

At least one group within the US wartime intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), also advocated the establishment of 'a major intelligence organization in North China based at ... Yenan, and operating through four main forward bases in 8th Route Army or guerrilla areas in Shansi, Hopei, Shantung, and Jehol, with seventeen advanced teams, and a large number of native agents'. This level of recognition from the Americans would have raised the status of the Communists to an even higher level. In March 1945 John Service reported on a conversation with Mao in which the Communist leader made it clear that he thought America was making a foolish move by backing Chiang. The CCP, Mao claimed, was the only party that truly represented the interests of the peasantry, the largest section of the country's population.

Mao advocated caution, noting that 'our party is not yet sufficiently strong, not yet sufficiently united or consolidated', a warning that the party should not try and occupy areas where its power was not completely assured. It still expanded cautiously into areas where the Nationalists had retreated, although implementation of its social policies was patchy.

There is intriguing though still incomplete evidence that the Communists were engaged in talks with the Japanese at a small village in Jiangsu province, in anticipation of a land campaign in eastern China in the coming year. The Japanese proposed that they would not stand in the way of the Communist New Fourth Army or the 700,000-odd troops still under the control of the Nanjing regime, instead concentrating their fire on the Nationalists. It is hard to know how far these talks would have gone.

The relationship between the CCP and the Americans become more strained in July, when Wedemeyer wrote to Mao to enquire about the fate of four American soldiers and their Chinese interpreters who had accidentally parachuted into Communist territory in May and been placed in 'protective custody'. The American went on, 'In view of our common desire to defeat the Japanese, it is my hope that incidents of this kind will not arise in future', but it was clear that the warmth which had been developing between the two sides had decidedly cooled.

Far off in the New Mexico desert, an extraordinary experiment was taking place to develop an atomic bomb. But in early 1945 it was still unclear whether it would work, and the Allies had to make plans for a campaign to conquer Japan that might involve a long and extremely bloody struggle. The fate of much of Europe and Asia was to be decided at a conference that began at Yalta, on the Black Sea, in the Crimea region of the USSR. Here it was decided that Japan would have to be invaded. Stalin committed the USSR to war against Japan in exchange for territorial concessions in China’s detriment. When he heard even the public terms of the agreement, Chiang was plunged into gloom, thinking that the world would be thrown back into the same race for dominance that had marked the aftermath of the Great War. 'This meeting of the three leaders has already carved the seeds of the Third World War,' he wrote. 'Roosevelt is still calling this a diplomatic victory - this is really laughable.'

Much of the conversation at Yalta was about the fate of post-war Europe, with the division of the continent into zones under Western and Soviet influence. But Asia was also a major topic of discussion. The Combined Chiefs of Staff were convinced that victory would not come until mid-1947, and told Roosevelt and Churchill so, increasing the pressure on them to make sure that Stalin would participate in the war in Asia.

Stalin's participation in the war against Japan came with conditions. He demanded control of the Kuril islands, an archipelago stretching from the north coast of Japan to Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, and the southern part of Sakhalin Island, just off Russia's coast. He also asked for a variety of military and transport concessions in Manchuria, as well as the maintenance of Outer Mongolia under de facto Soviet control. While Chinese sovereignty in Manchuria would be fully acknowledged, Soviet influence in the region would also be confirmed. Stalin wanted the other leaders to agree to these demands without any prior consultation with China. The deal was made in a series of secret agreements that supplemented the official record of the conference.

Chiang Kai-shek was not privy to any of the Yalta discussions about China's future, but he had his suspicions. 'The influence of this conference on China will be great,' he acknowledged. 'I hope Roosevelt isn't plotting with Churchill and Stalin against me.' Chiang's suspicions were fuelled by rumors that there were secret clauses attached to the Yalta agreement. Finally, Roosevelt met the Chinese ambassador to the US, Wei Daoming, and admitted that there were indeed hidden agreements relating to Manchuria; on learning this, Chiang was furious.

The ailing American president used the last reserves of his energy in fighting the global war, and on 12 April 1945 died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia. As the nation mourned, Harry S. Truman was sworn in as president. Among the problems the shrewd but under-briefed new Commander-in-Chief had to deal with was the growing crisis in China. Differing voices continued to emerge from the State Department. Hurley clung to a position of absolute support for Chiang. Others continued to speak out in favor of alternatives in case Chiang balked. In turn Mao accused the US of fueling civil war in China.

Although Hurley's declaration of faith in the Nationalists had been made in public, he still failed to understand that power had shifted within China, and that he might have done better to advise Chiang to form a coalition government that would allow him room to regroup. Mao denounced the American's move angrily. 'For all its high-sounding language,' he fumed, 'the Hurley-Chiang racket is designed to sacrifice the interests of the Chinese people, further wreck their unity, and ... lay a mine to set off large-scale civil war in China.' Throughout the speech Mao denounced Chiang as 'His Majesty', and poured scorn on his ideas for constitutional renewal through a National Assembly as no better than the paper-thin parliaments that had been convened during the warlord era of the 1920s. He added, a couple of days later, that 'the policy of the United States towards China as represented by its ambassador Patrick J. Hurley is creating a civil war crisis in China.'

Mao's confidence was fuelled, in part, by a conviction that the entry of the Soviet Union into the war would tilt the balance of power toward the CCP. But the Communist leader underestimated the ever-changing pragmatism of Joseph Stalin. During the Yalta discussions, Roosevelt had ceded to Stalin a restoration of the rights in East Asia that Russia had lost after the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War. But Roosevelt secured an assurance that the USSR would not actively support the Communists against the Nationalists. Roosevelt told Chiang about this condition, but Stalin did not tell Mao. The Communist leader was unaware of Stalin's betrayal.

After the war in Europe ended, Asia would be at the center of the conflict, and the USSR would be part of that effort. In early July Chiang sent T. V. Soong, along with his Russian-speaking son Ching-kuo, to Moscow to negotiate terms with Stalin. Stalin agreed to recognize only Chiang as the ruler of China, but made extensive demands in return, including China's recognition of Outer Mongolia's independence and the granting of a privileged status for the USSR in Manchuria. The question of what China would cede to the Soviets was still unresolved when Stalin left for the Allied conference at Potsdam.

Chiang was angered at Truman's refusal to intervene in the Sino-Soviet negotiations. 'This is an insult,' he fumed. 'I didn't acknowledge Yalta. I didn't take part, I don't have responsibility for it, so why should I carry it out? They really do think that China is their vassal.' Echoing his thoughts at the deepest moment of the Stilwell crisis, Chiang brooded: 'American diplomacy really has no center, no policy, no morals.'

The war had been just as destructive to Chinese society as it had to its military, creating yet more deprivation and destruction in China's most fertile areas. The efforts in the early war years to create a more integrated system of welfare provision had always become weaker the further one travelled from Chongqing, but by the last year of the war, they seemed a hollow mockery in the face of massive need. To tackle the problem, China engaged with a remarkable new organization: the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA). Although some forty-four countries signed UNRRA's founding document at the White House, it was always heavily bankrolled by the US and run primarily by American administrators. The China office was headed by the American Benjamin H. Kizer.

Roosevelt had realized that in the areas liberated from the Axis powers, there would be immense misery, and a formally coordinated effort was needed to make provision to feed starving people and enable countries to rebuild their societies.

The crossed wires between the Chinese government and the UNRRA were evident in declarations made just a few months after the two sides began working with each other. Jiang Tingfu was a distinguished Nationalist figure who had been made head of CNRRA (Chinese National Relief and Rehabilitation Agency), the partner organization that was supposed to coordinate with UNRRA within China's territory. Jiang declared that the success of relief and rehabilitation efforts in Guizhou and Guangxi provinces showed that 'China is demonstrating a determination to help herself before aid can reach her from outside.' Jiang detailed the way in which the Chinese government agencies were working alongside major NGOs such as the American Red Cross, the Chinese Red Cross and the Associated Christian Colleges. Overall, Jiang declared, the joint effort was paying 'enormous' dividends in 'experience and "know-how" gained'. Yet despite the geniality of tone, Jiang was signalling an expectation of much greater provision by UNRRA. He expressed a widely held belief in official Chinese circles that if the US wanted a progressive government to emerge, they should also help pay the price.

The Nationalists had good reason to fear that the relief effort might be seen purely as largesse from the US. The blame for the failures of Nationalist provision (most notably the Henan famine) had fallen almost exclusively on the shoulders of Chiang Kai-shek's regime, and corruption and incompetence had played a serious part in causing the disaster. Yet this explanation did not acknowledge that the wider constraints of the war had forced the government to make a series of deeply unappetizing choices. If food relief was now portrayed purely as a piece of American generosity that had no connection with sacrifices made by the ruling party, then Chiang's government might well lose all of its legitimacy, be blamed for what went wrong and given no credit for any successes.

Concerns over health care were linked to a concern to create a modern, rational state in Nationalist China, even in the last desperate year of the war against Japan. Visible, if patchy, programs of vaccination and education for rural women on health-care issues continued all the way up to 1945.

The Nationalists had always had an interest in projecting the image of a progressive, active state. However, the issue of social welfare had a particular resonance because it was a response to the Communist challenge. To millions of Chinese, the Communist system appeared to offer an egalitarian vision in which provision would be made for all. The Nationalists had to make at least some effort to compete. Yet stark reality blocked these good intentions. The basic reason for lack of progress was simple: there was no money.

By 1945 the Nationalist government was undeniably riddled with corruption. But the total financial commitment of the Allies to the reconstruction of China was tiny, compared to the actual costs involved. In a private letter James Johnson, American legal counsel to UNRRA, acknowledged the roadblocks standing in the way of the Allies' vision for post-war China: ‘There is ... the fundamental problem of China's difficult financial circumstances, which has all the government bureaus operating far below their potential efficiency. The picture of a fully equipped, fully staffed public hospital with virtually no patients is not uncommon, the reason being that there isn't enough money available for the hospital to feed its patients after paying its staff even on a thoroughly inadequate basis. This difficulty has come up over and over again in connection with every conceivable aspect of CNRRA operations and preparatory work.’ The investigations of UNRRA also found the war-torn zones of China blighted by famine.

The Nationalist aspirations toward social reform were matched by gestures that seemed to indicate political reform. In April 1945 Chiang called the Sixth Party Congress, the first since 1938. The proposed reforms had a liberal gloss, including a move toward the formalizing of multiple parties in the National Assembly, and for multi-party elections (though at the regional and local rather than national level). Yet there were signs of something darker in the declaration, too - notably, Chiang's intention to set up committees to oversee (and limit) the democratization process.

Allied plans developed for the push against the Japanese. In Potsdam, the leaders concentrated on the settlement for peace in Europe. But the US, Britain and China also issued a declaration that called for 'the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces', warning that 'the alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction'. In China itself, Wedemeyer was drawing on Stilwell's plans to train thirty-nine new divisions of Chinese troops for the recapture of eastern China. Both the Chinese and the Japanese armies were exhausted beyond measure. By the middle of 1945, the Japanese had been driven back from their most important Pacific conquests. But on the Chinese side, the Nationalist armies were also in a state of near collapse after Operation Ichi-go, the massive Japanese offensive in China of the previous year.

At Marshall's suggestion General Claire Chennault was recalled to the US at the end of July. There was anticipation in the air but also a sense of weariness. With peace now settled in Europe, the prospect of a war in Asia that might stretch into 1946 or 1947 was deeply depressing.

The long stalemate weakened the Nationalist armies in several ways. First, ongoing fighting eliminated many competent men, especially the junior and noncommissioned officers that form an army’s backbone. Second, Chiang promoted second-rate military men. Senior officers were more noted for their factional infighting than their military prowess. Third, officer training, inadequate to begin with, did not keep up with wartime needs. And fourth, enlisted men faced horrifying conditions.

From November 1944, American bombers used the recaptured island of Saipan as their base for increasingly ferocious attacks on the Japanese home islands. From spring 1945, their payload included incendiary bombs that unleashed devastation on major cities including Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. Between April and June, the Americans captured Okinawa in fighting of immense savagery, which ended with the suicide of the Japanese commander, General Ushijima Mitsuru. Japan's war economy stood close to collapse. Its shipping was decimated, meaning that the precious supplies that kept its war economy going became ever scarcer.

The lives of Nationalist soldiers were relentlessly harsh. Bugles summoned them to advance, to retreat, to die. Their weapons were an erratic miscellany: old German or locally made pistols and rifles; a few machine guns, artillery pieces and mortars, invariably short of ammunition, often rusting. They had no tanks and few vehicles. Commanders might have horses, but their men walked. Only officers had boots or leather shoes. Fortunate soldiers possessed cotton or straw sandals, but were often barefoot beneath the long cotton puttees which covered their legs.

Among Nationalist soldiers, leave was unknown, desertion endemic. Eight hundred recruits once set off from Gansu to join a US Army training program in Yunnan. Two hundred died en route, and a further three hundred deserted. Tuberculosis was commonplace. Wounded men often had to pay comrades to carry their stretchers, or otherwise they were left to perish. In battle or out of it communications, mail, tidings of the outside world, were almost nonexistent.

Throughout the spring and summer, Wedemeyer worked to build up ‘approximately 20 divisions of the standard of the five CAI divisions’, for an offensive, named variously Iceman and Pagoda, in the fall, not along the Yangtze, but towards Canton. This operation fitted overall US strategy against Japan. It wanted the Soviet Union to take on the Kwantung Army in the northeast. If the counter-offensive in China could cut off lines of Japanese retreat from south-east Asia, a US offensive against Japan by the Pacific Fleet would be made easier, and it would be impossible for the Japanese government to relocate to the Asian mainland. Had such a relocation happened, US infantry operations would have had to fight on the Asian mainland after all.

Serious planning for a counter-offensive in China began in late 1944. In December, a General Command of the Chinese Army was established under He Yingqin in Kunming. This followed the USA’s agreement to supply thirty-six divisions with US weapons for the counter-offensive. At Guilin, various training facilities were established. US aid began to flow in significant amounts in the spring.

To be in a position to carry out this offensive, Wedemeyer prohibited the Nationalists from following up their defeat of a Japanese offensive in western Hunan with 70,000 troops. On 14 May, he wrote to George Lincoln, the Chief of the Strategy and Operations Section of the Operations Division of the US Army, that the ‘successes we have enjoyed have greatly heartened both Americans and Chinese. The Japs suffered approximately 11,000 casualties. Spirit was so high that the Supreme Field Commander, General Ho Ying-chin [He Yingqin]… and the Chinese commanders at the front all wanted to undertake an offensive drive eastward to sever enemy lines of communication’. But to preserve forces for the later campaign, Wedemeyer wrote, ‘I… have forbidden large scale offensive action’.

When in June and July the Nationalists recovered Guilin, Nanning, and Liuzhou in Guangxi Province, Wedemeyer became more optimistic. On 1 August he wrote to General Marshall that ‘we now look forward confidently toward a successful drive to the Coast’. But he also stated that ‘instructions have been issued to follow up and press enemy withdrawals but to avoid large-scale commitment, air or ground’ before the US had secured Manila and operations could be supported by air forces operating from there. No real counter-offensive, in short, ever took place before the Japanese surrender.

When that Japanese surrender came, Wedemeyer appealed for the deployment of US forces to occupy key positions, but when this was refused, he was left pleading for the retention of fifty C-54 transport planes, which had been ordered to be removed, because ‘Chinese troops are being alerted for move to secure the most critical areas; however, their arrival will be matter of weeks or months if airlift is not employed’. The Nationalists were left in a disadvantageous position to re-establish their rule throughout China.

On the 6th of August, a large US Air Force aircraft named Enola Gay flew over the Japanese city of Hiroshima and released a 4,400-kilogram bomb nicknamed 'Little Boy'. The first atomic bomb to be used against a human population instantly burned some 66,000 people to death. On the 9th of August, the Soviet Union launched its troops into Manchuria. On the same day a second atomic bomb, 'Fat Man', was dropped on Nagasaki. The Japanese government was now in a state of utter panic. On 14 August, at 10.50 a.m., the emperor declared, in a pre-recorded statement, that it was time to 'endure the unendurable and suffer the insufferable'. The meaning was unequivocal: Japan would accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and surrender without conditions.

Truman promised a 'rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth', if Japan did not surrender unconditionally. While Japan started to come to terms with the destruction of a city by a force greater than any that science had previously created, events were also moving fast in Moscow. The Japanese ambassador, Sato Naotake, had been trying to discuss a negotiated agreement with the US using Soviet good offices. But at 5 p.m. on 8 August Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov called Sato in and asked him to have a seat. Molotov then delivered an uncompromising message. 'Taking into account the refusal of Japan to capitulate, the Allies approached the Soviet government with a proposal to join the war against Japanese aggression,' he read. 'The Soviet Government has accepted the proposal of the Allies ... from August 9, the Soviet Union will consider herself in a state of war against Japan.'

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few diehards tried to make the case for fighting on, issuing a chilling statement in the name of the minister of war, General Anami, that 'even though we may have to eat grass, swallow dirt, and lie in the fields, we shall fight on to the bitter end.' But the conclusion was inevitable.

The end had come, suddenly and unexpectedly. The war had broken out almost by accident in July 1937, escalating within weeks from a local skirmish to an exile from eastern China that would last eight years. China had changed immensely. In August 1945 China was simultaneously in the strongest global position it had ever occupied and weaker than it had been for nearly a century. When the war began, it had still been subject to extraterritoriality and imperialism. Now, not only had the much-hated system of legal immunity for foreigners ended, but China was about to make its mark on the post-war world.

The morning after the Japanese announcement of surrender, Chiang Kai-shek rose at his usual early hour. 'I thanked God that the mercy he gave me was so great,' he wrote. 'Every word in Psalm 9 is true, in my experience.' Psalm 9 contains the lines ‘Thou hast destroyed the wicked, thou hast put out their name for ever and ever.' Chiang continued with his prayer and, while meditating, heard the recording of the Japanese surrender broadcast. He headed to the radio studios to make his own victory broadcast at 10 a.m. 'Our faith in justice through black and hopeless days and eight long years of struggle has today been rewarded,' he declared. Solemnly he continued, 'the historical mission of our National Revolution has at last been fulfilled.'

Chiang had plenty of tasks to attend to on the first day of peace. At noon he drafted a version of the surrender document that would go to General Okamura Yasuji, Commander-in-Chief of Japan's China Expeditionary Army. He also started to put together a list of the officials who would receive the Japanese surrender in each province. By early the next morning he had also signed off on the Chinese-Soviet mutual assistance agreement, although it still left the exact nature of Soviet support for Chiang's government ominously murky.

For the first time since 1842, when the Qing Empire had signed the Treaty of Nanjing, the country was fully sovereign once again. Furthermore, China was now one of the 'Big Four', one of the powers that would play a permanent and central role in the formation of the new United Nations Organization, and the only non-European country represented. In Asia the decades of power enjoyed by Britain and by Japan were at an end. While the US and USSR would take their place at the center of the new international order, China would now have an autonomous role that had eluded it throughout the Republican era.

The War of Resistance mattered profoundly. Far too little attention has been paid to the enormous scale of suffering in China itself. Politically, the Nationalists were debilitated. They were left with countless armies with little utility or loyalty. Vital bureaucracies that should have shouldered the task of rebuilding the country were destroyed. Fiscal systems, without which no state can survive, ceased to function. Local society was in disarray. Institutions and routines that oriented the population to a center of legitimate power lost their meaning. Analyses that focus on Nationalist incompetence, corruption, or militarism, or on the Nationalist-Communist rivalry, do not begin to come to terms with the war’s utterly destructive effects on the Chinese economy, social relations, and culture – of humanity itself.

China paid a terrible price for victory. The war with Japan had hollowed China out. Even now, at the moment of victory, the country was split. It was divided between parties, Nationalist and Communist, who talked about compromise but seemed set for civil war, a civil war that would eventually be won by Mao and his communists.

The war had forced the Nationalists to redefine their mission in the unfamiliar territory of the far southwest. And as he tasted the moment of victory, Chiang Kai-shek looked out over ruin both foreign and domestic. So many people had died: bombed, slaughtered in Japanese war crimes, drowned, starved, or killed in combat. Even now, the numbers are not clear, but some 14 to 20 million Chinese seem to have perished during the eight years of conflict.

The nation had grand visions, but the reality was mass hunger, official corruption, and a brutal security state that tried in vain to suppress the aspirations of a people who had been exhorted to develop a sense of national identity and now demanded a state that matched their new sense of themselves. There was a widespread feeling within the country of change abroad. China could not avoid it. And what seemed deeply ironical was that a triumphant Mao Zedong might now reap the fruits of Chiang Kai-shek's victory.