After the US and the British Empire entered the war against Japan, China suddenly found itself in a coalition she had long hoped for. However, in the years that followed, coalition warfare proved a difficult challenge for China as tensions between her and the US increased. Chinese troops were sent into combat in Burma, a move that the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek was forced to make under pressure from his allies. In 1944 a new major Japanese offensive in central China was launched, but again, the Chinese managed to avoid capitulating.
Until Pearl Harbor, the war in China had been a distant concern for the Americans and the British, distracted at home by the Depression and then the war in Europe. For the many westerners who remained in China after 1937, the war was an everyday reality, but their protected status as foreign neutrals always gave them some measure of distance as well as protection, particularly for those who remained in the zones controlled by the Japanese. Now, though, they were enemy aliens. All across eastern China, Americans and Britons were rounded up and interned. For some, this harsh environment would be home until the end of the war, if they survived at all.
From the very earliest days, it was clear that the new allies were wary of one another. China's hope, during its years of desperate resistance, had been that another great power would enter the conflict on its side. Now there were two: the United States and the British Empire. The Chinese Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, knew that he must use this opportunity to correct the wrongs that had been done to China over the past century, not just by Japan, but by the very countries that had now come to China's aid. Chiang was diplomatic as he set down his goals in public. In his diary he was more frank and ambivalent about the new alliance.
The problem was that the Chinese and the westerners looked at China's role through almost entirely different lenses. To the Western Allies, China was a supplicant, a battered nation on its knees, waiting for the Americans and British to save it from certain destruction at the hands of the Japanese. In Chiang's view and that of many Chinese, their country was the first and most consistent foe of Axis aggression. The United States maintained a more openly friendly attitude toward its Chinese allies than the British.
While General Marshall had decided to concentrate forces in Europe, he recognized that it was still important to show that the Americans were fighting in Asia. Yet he did not want to assign US ground troops to China. The solution seemed to be to persuade Chiang to allow an American Chief of Staff for the Chinese armies, which would show that the Americans stood side by side with the Chinese, but did not require the assignment of significant troop numbers. Joseph Stilwell was Marshall's choice to take the role. Yet he was, as expected by the Chinese, under the direct command of Chiang.
One of the first decisions made by the Allied commanders was to repel Japanese advances not in China but in Burma. Even before Pearl Harbor, the British and the Chinese had concerns that the fall of Burma could allow the Japanese to take northeast India and Calcutta, and make the whole of eastern India vulnerable. Then, in February 1942, the Japanese launched their assault on Burma and took the capital, Rangoon. General Stilwell convinced Chiang to send troops in order to relieve pressure on the British. The failure of the expedition led to the closure of the Burma road, the main Allied supply route into China.
Stilwell's highly risky gamble was much more likely to fail than succeed. It led to the death or injury of some 25,000 Chinese troops. By the spring of 1942 there was no further possibility of Nationalist China being supplied through Burma. The political and financial consequences of Stilwell's choice would rebound on Chiang's government for years to come. Chiang's troops in Burma had done little to raise China's military prestige - although, with the British in retreat all around the region, it was not as if China's performance was exceptionally poor in comparison.
Another incident took place which showed the low status that China held in the minds of the western Allies. Sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, and raided military and industrial targets in cities including Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. The sortie became known as the 'Doolittle Raids', after their commander, Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle. The news of the attack was a huge propaganda boost for the American war effort. But it appalled Chiang. The Japanese attacked and destroyed all the airfields in Zhejiang and committed atrocities against the local population in the surrounding areas. What went down very well with the American public had a hugely negative effect on the Chinese war effort.
After Pearl Harbor, Chiang's time was filled with ever more negotiations with Stilwell, Roosevelt, Wavell and Churchill. Meanwhile, Chiang's eyes were not always fixed on the rapidly changing situation much closer to home. In China's provinces, far from the influence of the capital, the hastily implemented system of bureaucracy, relief provision, education and military administration was vulnerable to pressure - not only from the ever-present Japanese threat, but also from the growing social tensions within Chinese society as the government and its allies asked the people to endure more and more despite dwindling resources.
Henan province has a particularly important place in Chinese history, for the Yellow River that flows through it nurtured China's earliest civilizations. The fertile soil of the region produced grain that fed millions of Chinese every year, and its huge population swelled the ranks of China's military. But in 1942-43 a terrible famine occurred that killed up to 3 million people. The famine occurred due to a combination of natural factors as well as bad administration.
In March 1942 the Nationalists promulgated the General State Mobilization Law. The law gave the state far-ranging powers in all areas of life, ranging from the economic and financial to the social and cultural. It also gave the state the power to assign people to tasks and places as it saw fit. It could procure and commandeer material resources without making payments, settle labor disputes, determine prices and wages, and allocate land and stipulate its use. Violations were punishable by military law. The slogan advanced to justify the new law was ‘Military First; Victory First’.
Chiang's sympathy for the victims of the famine, at least in the abstract, was not in doubt. However, the ramshackle system which held Nationalist China together was now under intolerable strain. In Chongqing and in Sichuan province the structures of the modern warfare state had been established, and continued to operate, albeit in the most stretched of circumstances. But the further east one travelled from Chongqing, the harder it became to believe that the Nationalist state had real authority beyond words on paper or devalued banknotes.
Many foreign observers threw the Nationalists' failures into starker relief by comparing them with Communist successes. Yet all was far from well in Yan'an. The Nationalist subsidy to the region had ended in 1939, and the blockade that replaced it made the economic situation much more difficult. The bad harvests in 1940 and 1941 which caused the disastrous famine in Henan also affected the Shaan-Gan-Ning area. Mao's response was to stress the importance of self-sufficiency. If goods could not be imported or exported successfully, and there was a lack of convertible currency, then the region would have to supply itself.
The first day of February 1942 marked a turning point in the history of China's Communist Party. On that day, at the opening of the Party School in Yan'an, Mao addressed over a thousand party cadres and laid down a stinging critique. 'There is something in the minds of a number of our comrades,' he declared, 'which strikes one as not quite right, not quite proper.' The speech marked the formal opening of the Rectification Movement. It marked a thorough ideological shake-out for the party. It included intense devotion to the study of Mao's works, and a thoroughgoing, almost religious commitment to the goals of the CCP. Those who declined to take part could expect pressure: psychological at first, but then political indoctrination and even torture.
It was not only the Communists who used the heightened circumstances of war to remodel their states. So too did the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek in Chongqing. As the economic climate worsened, Chiang's government began to lose the precarious pluralism that had marked its earliest wartime phase.
As China's physical isolation deepened and its military and economic crisis worsened after Pearl Harbor, the Nationalists tried to shore up their bureaucratic and social infrastructure. In turn, the Communists and the Nanjing regime led by Japanese collaborator Wang Jingwei tried to create rival states in response to the weakening of the government in Chongqing. The essential element of that infrastructure in all three governments was state terror. China's wartime existential crisis provided a perfect excuse for the rival states to use similar techniques, from blackmail to bombing, to achieve their ends and mute the criticism of their opponents.
Neither the Nationalists nor Communists believed that a modern state was the same thing as a liberal state. In fact, the reverse was true. The disaster of war, and the growing social crisis within China, began to chip away at the technocratic and tolerant side of both regimes and to solidify the power of those elements which favored violence and coercion. At the same time, each of the three regimes operating in wartime China had its own interpretation of what terror meant and how it should be implemented.
US Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and Chinese Foreign Minister T. V. Soong formally signed the Sino-American Cooperative Agreement. The US-China alliance now allowed cooperation between Dai Li and US Rear Admiral Milton Miles. SACO was one of the most powerful agencies in China, overseeing intelligence activities there, including those of the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Miles and Dai Li would both use their joint command of SACO (technically, Dai as head and Miles as deputy) to carve out their own power bases: in Miles's case, solidifying the predominance of US Navy intelligence (the Naval Group China) over the OSS, and in Dai Li's, emphasizing his own power and autonomy within the Nationalist regime.
Milton Miles's arrival added yet another complication to a relationship already fraught with misunderstandings. The China branch of the OSS, headed by 'Wild Bill' Donovan, had come to a temporary agreement with Miles and Dai Li that it would coordinate intelligence activities with them, but the agreement began to strain at the edges as Donovan moved toward establishing his own separate operation in China.
British intelligence, in the form of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) and the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service), had some successes in China, including making contact with the Communists in north China, but overall, it was equally unable to create a coordinated and effective structure.
Relations between the American and Chinese political and military leaders continued to worsen, slowly but perceptibly. Criticism was repeatedly heaped on China as a weak and corrupt dictatorship unworthy of alliance with the democracies. Yet the critics included the US, which maintained legal racial segregation across a third of its territory, and Britain, which held colonies across the world. The indictments of Nationalist China did of course reflect its often ugly domestic politics, but were also a product of the country's weak geostrategic position.
When it was put to him, Chiang agreed to a Burma campaign, but only if there was to be substantial air, naval, and infantry support from the US. Chiang's wariness about the commitment of the Western Allies to a new venture in Burma was well-founded, for the plan did not materialize. By mid-1943 the American and British commanders were concentrating on Operation Overlord, the D-Day landing in Europe that would eventually lead to the defeat of Nazi Germany. China, once again, sat very low on the list of priorities.
During the summer of 1943 Stilwell fantasized about taking command of all Chinese troops, including the Communists, with Chiang and the Nationalist military leadership left as simple figureheads. His relationship with Chiang became even more sulphurous. Stilwell gloated that Chiang 'had thought that by making me his joint chief of staff I would accept without question any order he chose to give me. He is that dumb.' By this stage Stilwell was incapable of taking any of Chiang's suggestions or priorities seriously.
By autumn 1943, the Allies and Axis stood at different positions in that chess game. The advantage now seemed to be with the Allies, and the Japanese had to demonstrate that Chiang would do better to negotiate with them than to remain tied to the Americans and British. The conference at the Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo took the view that Japan's war economy was under great pressure and the country had to adjust its strategy to prioritize defense of the home islands and the oil-rich conquered areas of Southeast Asia. The conference also stressed the need to avoid escalating the conflict in China.
For Chiang, the international pressures increased the importance of the Cairo Conference, the only major conference of the war that attempted to make a comprehensive settlement of the Sino-Japanese conflict. Significant time would also be taken at Cairo to decide on strategy for the Pacific War. Yet the conference was hampered by the fact that neither the US nor Britain had a clear idea of exactly how the war in the Pacific would be brought to a conclusion. Even while the role of the Pacific was upgraded by both Washington and London during 1943, the precise significance of China was not defined.
There were two major pieces of Asia-related business at Cairo. One was the shape of post-war Asia. The other was the immediate strategy for China and the Southeast Asia Command (SEAC). Chiang recorded his own most important post-war goals for the conference: the return of Manchuria, Taiwan and the Penghu (Pescadores) islands to China; the establishment of an independent state of Korea; and the handing over of all Japanese factories and shipping in occupied China as part of reparations for China. But discussions did not go smoothly: Roosevelt and Churchill did not make their intentions clear regarding China’s post-war status.
As his aircraft bore Chiang back to Chongqing, events taking place in the Persian capital of Tehran would change the picture significantly. Stalin had refused to join the others at Cairo, but at Tehran, meeting only Roosevelt and Churchill, he made his views clear. Europe must be the absolute priority, and he promised to strengthen operations on the Eastern Front once Operation Overlord was under way. He did pledge that the USSR would join the fight against Japan, but only after the surrender of Germany. Operation Buccaneer, which was to have seen a significant amphibious operation across the Bay of Bengal, was cancelled. This was yet another indication that promises to China could be made and broken with seemingly little consequence.
Chiang’s position, which he had thought so strong in Cairo, had been undermined within a matter of days. It was now clear that Europe, and the plans for Overlord, would dominate the global theater of war in 1944. As the new year dawned, Chiang did not realize that he would soon be fighting for the very survival of his regime. The decision to concentrate troops on the liberation of France and the push towards Berlin would have unexpected, direct and very dangerous consequences for China within just a few weeks.
By the spring, there were signals that something was brewing in east China. The American ambassador to China, Clarence Gauss, informed Secretary of State Cordell Hull that credible intelligence indicated that 'Japan is preparing for new drive in Honan'. But General Stilwell's attention had turned in a different direction. Ever since being forced to walk out of the jungle in May 1942, Stilwell had set as his goal the recovery of Burma. British and Chinese troops had already been moved in preparation for an assault on Burma. Chiang Kai-shek was still concerned that a major Japanese assault was imminent. But his words did little to convince his Western Allies.
Despite his deep misgivings, Chiang sent 40,000 Chinese troops under General Huang Weili to the Burma front. Stilwell sent his troops, Chinese and American, in a bold dash for Myitkyina in northeast Burma. The troops captured the airfield there, but within a short time history repeated itself. Once again, as in 1942, Stilwell found himself besieged in the city by the Japanese. This time, however, there was more support coming to Stilwell's rescue. General William Slim’s troops relieved the siege and helped win a hard-earned victory at Myitkyina.
Yet the Allies could not know that the Japanese had their own plans: their leaders had made the extraordinary decision to launch a major assault into the Chinese mainland at the same time as a major campaign in Burma. They resolved to launch one last, massive thrust against the Asian mainland. Operation U-go was to send 85,000 troops from northern Burma into British India. Another major campaign was to knock China out of the war for good: Operation Ichi-go. The Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo approved a military operation that would create a clear corridor of operations in central China.
Chiang’s suspicions proved devastatingly correct. A mighty assault by the Imperial Japanese Army thrust into Henan. Half a million men and 200 bombers were mobilized. Jiang Dingwen and Tang Enbo were the two generals placed in charge of the First War Zone in northern China, defending the city of Luoyang, on the Yellow River in Henan, the province that had suffered so much from flood and famine. When the northern part of Henan fell to the Japanese, the invaders seized much of the grain that had been left in the official government granaries.
The fall of Luoyang was rapidly followed by another disaster. General Xue Yue prepared, once again, to defend Changsha, the city that had suffered so grievously after Chiang's retreat from Wuhan in October 1938. Although Xue Yue had previously held the city with great bravery, this time he was hampered by inferior numbers, and by the fact that the Japanese were already familiar with his plan to encircle them: he had used it at Taierzhuang. Xue and the general in charge of the defense of the city itself, Zhang Deneng, were unable to hold the line and the city fell to the Japanese, after six years of resistance.
The city of Hengyang was the next probable Japanese target. Eventually, the assault through central China was likely to be accompanied by separate Japanese thrusts north of Guangzhou and south of Wuhan, cutting a line right across the country's heartland and leaving Free China even more isolated than before.
Chiang did allow a general whom he trusted, Fang Xianjue, to take part in the defense of Hengyang, supported by Chennault's air force, and the Japanese were at first driven back from the city. But soon the Chinese supplies ran out. Chiang did not resupply the defenders, and Chennault went directly to Stilwell, begging him to send a tiny amount of support, some 1,000 tons, to the Chinese frontline troops. Stilwell vetoed the plea with three words: 'Let them stew.' The city was defended bravely but unsuccessfully, and it fell.
Early in the war the Nationalists had been defeated over and over again. Yet their performance gave the necessary impression that the government was serious about resistance. Now, the sorry defeats at Luoyang and Changsha were causing hostile murmuring in Chongqing and in Washington. General George Marshall told Roosevelt that the time had come to entrust the remaining military resources of China to an 'individual capable of directing that effort in a fruitful way against the Japanese'. In Marshall's view, only Stilwell fitted the bill. Roosevelt requested that the American be appointed as commander for all forces in China. Chiang had no option but to agree.
In January 1944 John Paton Davies, Jr, a US Foreign Service officer, had made the case that the US would be wise to make formal contacts with the Communist headquarters at Yan'an. The Communists had indicated they would be willing to receive American visitors. Stilwell was also convinced that the Communists must be brought more fully into the conflict, and that they had an understanding of Chinese society that the Nationalists lacked. Chiang had to give way to American pressure to make contact with the CCP. The visiting American party would become known as the 'Dixie Mission', a joking reference to Union missions behind Confederate lines during the American Civil War.
By October 1944 Chiang insisted that Stilwell must go. His official request for the general's recall was transmitted to Washington. Stilwell himself knew that his recall was in the air. By now his comments on Chiang Kai-shek seemed to imply that there was almost no chance of the two of them cooperating. Faced with choice between Stilwell and Chiang, the American administration chose Chiang.
The Japanese Ichi-go advance continued to drive onward through south-central China. The atmosphere in the Nationalist zone became feverish as the prospect of a Japanese victory suddenly seemed more likely. The city of Guilin fell and the Japanese onslaught moved yet another step closer to Chongqing. The war that had turned into stalemate might suddenly be resolved with violent swiftness.
Unexpectedly, relations between Chongqing and Washington got a boost. Most important of all in changing the temperature was the sudden halt in December of the Ichi-go advance. Ichi-go marked the furthest penetration of Japanese troops into Chinese territory during the entire war, putting the enemy in control of even more territory than they had held in the summer of 1938, when Japan had thrust so deep into central China. Nonetheless, the campaign failed to achieve most of its long-term aims.