Second Sino-Japanese War: a war of alliance
Allied involvement in the Second Sino-Japanese War
1942 - 1944
author Paul Boșcu, May 2019
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, China finally found some much needed allies as the US and British Empire entered the war against Japan. In 1944 Japan launched a massive offensive in China, code named Operation Ichi-go, during which Henan province fell to Japanese troops. However, despite this massive effort, China still did not surrender.

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.

The years following Pearl Harbor saw a distinct and growing division in the choices of the major political actors. In the early years of the war, both the Nationalists and Communists had stressed the pluralist and cooperative parts of their program. This was a sensible move for parties that had to gain as much leverage as possible both with their own people and with the outside world. But both the Nationalist and Communists ultimately envisaged a modernized China in which only one party would have a dominant role, a goal not compatible with true pluralism.

Japan’s main goal was to conquer Southeast Asia: Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and Burma, as well as the Western Pacific islands. The Japanese conquest of Burma was completed by June 1942, thus severing Chongqing’s main link with its allies and threatening it from the south. Given Britain’s weakness, the defense of Burma had been largely in the hands of Chinese troops under the command of the American General Joseph Stilwell. Chiang, who had basically opposed the campaign from the beginning, was bitterly disappointed and blamed both the British and Stilwell for the defeat. Stilwell, in turn, formed a very low opinion of Chinese army officers up to and including Chiang.

The year 1943 would be one of deepening mistrust between the Allies, as China, Britain and the US circled each other with ever greater wariness. By the end of the year, Chiang would find that the roller-coaster of US-China relations would fling him from triumph to disaster, in locations as far apart as the sands of Egypt and the jungles of Burma.

The Japanese poured men into China in order to prevent the allies from gaining access to airfields there – which would be close enough for them to bomb Japanese cities. But the American advance was inexorable, and Japan faced steady bombardment from 1944. Although the Allies were doing well by 1944-5, Chiang had permanently lost a significant number of quality troops – which would hurt the Nationalists in the coming civil war against the Communists.

By creating a fiction that Chiang had to fight to show his value to the alliance, the Allies allowed the relationship between the US and China to erode. Rather than trying repeatedly to take Burma, a target of dubious value, it would have been perfectly reasonable to let Chiang use his limited resources to defend China, even if, in publicity terms, it appeared that China was not playing an active role in the wider war effort.

Chiang's regime was made complicit in thankless and over-ambitious goals, giving the impression that China's own goals and priorities always had to give way to those of the Western Allies and the USSR. The seeds were sown for mistrust between the US and China that would continue after the eventual Communist victory in 1949. Even today, the state of US-China relations shows that those wounds are far from being healed.

The Nationalists could not prevent a radical decline in the combat effectiveness of most of their forces. Troops living off the land do not easily move to far-away fronts for offensive duties. Nationalist guerrilla forces became indistinguishable from bandit troops and became a liability. Many war zones became independent satrapies of limited allegiance to Chongqing. The Communists accumulated substantial armies.

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.

The International Settlement of Shanghai, for so long an oasis of neutrality in the midst of a war-torn city, was now reunified under Japanese control. In that city thousands of foreigners with Allied nationality were sent to holding camps.

An eleven-year-old British boy, Jim Ballard, became a teenager in Longhua, a holding camp of some 2,000 people. Forty years later, as the novelist J. G. Ballard, he told a semi-autobiographical version of his story in Empire of the Sun, detailing the hunger, cold and disease which were the everyday fate of Longhua's residents.

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 rhetoric was highly positive, of course. On New Year's Day of 1942, Chiang spoke to the nation about the new reality. He declared that the Allies were striving to protect civilization in the face of Axis barbarity. The aim was not just complete victory in the War of Resistance but also Chinese independence from colonialism afterwards.

Chiang laid down his list of demands for the British in exchange for Chinese participation in the war: the return of Kowloon in Hong Kong, and the return of control over Tibet, where the British exercised influence. Chiang also wanted the return of Outer Mongolia and Xinjiang from Soviet control - the region, under warlord Sheng Shicai, was at that point essentially a satellite of the USSR - and the recognition of Manchuria as China's sovereign territory.

As he reflected on the month of December 1941, Chiang recorded details of the conversation that his ambassador to the US, the scholar Hu Shi, had had with Franklin D. Roosevelt: the US president had asked that China should show sympathy, but not celebrate noisily: presumably the American leader was still nervous about how the new alliance would go down at home and might not relish his voters seeing over-jubilant crowds in Chongqing. Of course the Chinese would not celebrate, Chiang wrote. Even this request showed 'the contempt that the Americans and British hold for us. Even Roosevelt can't get out of these old attitudes. Such a pity!'

Although Roosevelt had disappointed Chiang, it was his other ally, the British, who bore the brunt of his criticism. 'The British don't take us seriously,' Chiang wrote, adding, 'The next generation should understand the difficulty of building the country up from its past shame.' It was not just Japan that he considered to be the source of China's troubles, and he had no intention of forgetting Britain's long record of imperialism in China. Just a week after Pearl Harbor, Chiang noted: ‘I can't describe how humble the attitude of the British ambassador [Sir Archibald Clark Kerr] and his military attache was... But their greed, and their search for a small profit while avoiding the big questions is the same as ever. This is the real character of the British; I wouldn't have imagined this in normal times of this bold Saxon race.’ Two days later, he added, with honest ambiguity: 'I despise them, but I also respect them.'

Chiang Kai-shek's great hope was that the US might supply American ground combat troops to fight in China. However, this was never seriously considered by the Allied commanders. The official US Army historians stated clearly that: ‘there were no US ground combat units, for the US effort in China had always been intended by the War Department to help the Chinese defend themselves, to which end the War Department and the Joint Chiefs had been willing to give advice plus technical and air support. Moreover, since every American flown into China meant that .62 of a ton of supplies had to be flown to China every month for his support, Stilwell had kept the number of US ground force and service personnel in China to a minimum, hence there were few indeed in that category.’

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.

The British noted the change in Chinese attitude; their British military attache in Chongqing declared that the Chinese had 'reached a pitch of arrogance and conceit that is unbelievable'. Informed American observers also became more wary about the regime they were supporting. When Secretary of State Cordell Hull asked whether there was any danger that China might abandon the war, Ambassador Clarence Gauss dismissed that particular fear, but noted that 'the Party has for years given lip service to reform and improvement but little of tangible character has been accomplished'.

Chinese requests for a presence on the joint Allied boards and committees, or for a joint ABCD (American-British-Chinese-Dutch) military staff based in Chongqing, were not taken up. This was in part because of justified fears that the Chinese headquarters would leak intelligence, but overall neither the British nor the Americans treated Chiang as a true equal, nor China as a theater of primary significance.

The Western Allies were at odds about the best way to prosecute the war, and within the US military leadership there were calls from the Navy for the Pacific to be the first priority, not Europe. General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, weighed all the options, but ultimately favored a Europe First strategy. Both sides' views contained elements of self-deception: the British and Americans wished to give the impression that China was a serious ally without actually putting much effort into the relationship, while Chiang overestimated what he was worth to the western Allies.

In contrast, the Soviet Union was hardly an entirely trustworthy ally either for the US or Britain, but its bargaining power and importance meant that they were obliged to treat it as a full strategic and intelligence partner on most key issues.

The US knew that if China fell, the more than 600,000 Japanese troops held down there by Nationalist and Communist forces could be redeployed to the Pacific Theater. Therefore, Chiang requested a loan of $500 million from the United States. Despite the misgivings of American officials, the loan was passed by the House of Representatives.

Political power in China was attainable only with the support of bayonets. Chiang exploited his skills as a military organizer to become the most powerful of all warlords, also having pretensions to a revolutionary ideology. ‘Fascism is a stimulant for a declining society,’ he declared in an address to his ‘Blue Shirt’ followers in 1935. ‘Can fascism save China? We answer: “Yes.”’ He described liberal democracy as ‘a poison to be expelled from the country’s body politic.’ Yet his professed Christianity and enthusiasm for the West caused many Americans to overlook the absolutism, brutality and corruption of his regime.

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.

Stilwell had taught at West Point, where his cutting remarks had led to him being nicknamed 'Vinegar Joe', a moniker in which he took great pride. He undertook several tours of duty in China, becoming proficient in Chinese and serving as US military attache from 1935 to 1939, during which he witnessed the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War.

In February 1942 Marshall sent a message to General John Magruder, the head of the American military mission in Chongqing, that made Stilwell's role clear: 'American forces in China and Burma will operate under Stilwell's direction... but General Stilwell himself will always be under the command of the Generalissimo.'

Stilwell’s reports show one constant theme: puzzlement and anger that the Chinese military preferred to retreat rather than to hold territory. When asked on one occasion when the Chinese might choose to fight back, he replied, 'Not until they lose their inherent distaste for offensive combat.’ Stilwell had no previous direct experience of generalship, but he had a powerful friend in George C. Marshall.

Chiang's initial reaction to Stilwell's appointment was favorable. But he made it clear that he was Commander-in-Chief for the China theater, and that he expected Stilwell to follow orders. Chiang was content to allow the Americans the gesture of appointing Stilwell to show the closeness between the US and China, but he had no intention of actually ceding command to a westerner.

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.

Initially Chiang offered up the Fifth and Sixth Armies to defend Toungoo in central Burma, to provide relief for the British defense of Rangoon, but this gesture was rejected by Archibald Wavell, British Commander-in-Chief for India and Supreme Commander Far East. Wavell's justification was in part logistical, but also owed a great deal to imperial pride. He wrote to Churchill that it was 'obviously better' that Burma should be defended by British troops rather than Chinese, although in this case Churchill disagreed with Wavell's decision.

Toungoo was now under attack, and without fully discussing his plan with either the Chinese or the British, Stilwell ordered the Nationalist troops under his command to hurry south to launch a counter-offensive against the Japanese at Pyinmana and Pyawbwe. The Japanese surrounded Toungoo. Stilwell refused to give the order that would have allowed the 200th Division trapped there to retreat.

Stilwell held meetings with Chiang on the strategy for Burma. Chiang advocated a cautious approach: Chinese troops should be sent into the north of Burma to defend the border with Yunnan province. Chiang believed that there was a chance of defending Mandalay, and wanted Stilwell to pressure the British into supporting a Chinese defense of the city. Stilwell instead spoke out in favor of an offensive strategy, arguing that a push against the Japanese from Toungoo would ensure a great victory. 'Rangoon is the vital point,' he noted in his diary on 9 March 1942. 'Without it, supply stops.' He added: 'I have a hunch the Japs are weak.'

Stilwell's certainty of his own correctness might have been more understandable if his strategy was working. It was not. 'I know that I've sacrificed a great deal for nothing, for the sake of this plan of the Americans and British,' Chiang wrote despairingly in his diary. 'But now I do have to stick it out to the end.' As the Japanese moved ever closer to Toungoo, Chiang finally got a message through allowing the divisional commander to withdraw. This gave Stilwell fuel to accuse Chiang of attempting to interfere and second-guess his command. At noon the next day, Stilwell boarded a plane, and by 2 o'clock the following morning he was back in Chongqing. That morning was 1 April. Stilwell wrote: 'Am I the April Fool? From 3119 to 411 in Burma, struggling with the Chinese, the British, my own people, the supply, the medical service, etc., etc. Incidentally, with the Japs.' Stilwell was not a fool, April or otherwise. But he showed characteristics that suggested severe limitations on his skills as a military commander.

Chiang's desire for a defensive strategy on the border with Burma led to a mocking response from Stilwell. 'In a month, if nothing happens, maybe we can take the offensive. He wants to be sure it will be easy,' scoffed Stilwell in his diary. 'Again told me Fifth and Sixth must not be defeated, so I told him to send someone else who could guarantee that, because I couldn't.' Stilwell interpreted Chiang's objections as excessive caution, or even cowardice. Yet it was hardly surprising that the leader of a country with its back against the wall might have doubts about a bold strategy - proposed by a foreign general with no command experience - which threatened to destroy two of his best remaining armies. However, Chiang did not wish to create a rift with his newly appointed Chief of Staff, so with misgivings he allowed Stilwell to implement his strategy.

The Allied hope of thrusting south hastily gave way to a desperate attempt to withdraw before the Japanese destroyed the Allies' best troops in the region. However, the retreat was hampered by the unwillingness of the British, the Chinese and Stilwell to trust one another's motives or judgements. Meanwhile, the Japanese army struck hard at Lashio in eastern Burma, as Stilwell had feared, seizing it. Now there was a real danger that significant numbers of Allied troops would be trapped in Burma, unable to break through Japanese lines.

Stilwell ordered Du Yuming to lead his Fifth Army troops not back to China, but to India. Chiang reversed the order and instead commanded Du to bring his troops to the northern Burmese town of Myitkyina. Chiang then received the news that Stilwell was leaving Burma for India, along with his closest staff. Once again, Chiang could not believe that Stilwell would abandon the troops supposedly under his control. 'One doesn't expect this of one's military adviser,' he wrote, horrified. 'Could it be that because of the battle, his nerves have given way?' Stilwell made an official statement in New Delhi: 'I claim we got a hell of a beating,' he declared. 'We got run out of Burma and it is as humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back, and retake it.' In a letter to his wife he was franker about assigning blame, and what he intended to do about it. 'I'll be going back to report to the G-mo [Chiang] and I sure have an earful for him. He's going to hear stuff he never heard before and it's going to be interesting to see how he takes it.' In fact, Chiang had already determined that he must from now on sign off on Stilwell's orders, although he did not tell Stilwell this. 'Now I know that the alliance is just empty words,' Chiang wrote, 'and I don't exclude America from this.'

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.

The ending of the Burma supply route also put another opportunity in Stilwell's hands. Some 45,000 tons of Lend-Lease supplies intended for China were now instead assigned to the Nationalist armies that had made it to India. Throughout the war Stilwell would retain control over the Lend-Lease assigned to China, diverting much of it to projects which he favored, and exacerbating tensions that would corrode the alliance with the Nationalists.

The Burma debacle also set the tone, only a few months into the global war, for a shared Western understanding of the Chinese war effort. Western officers were seen as making an ever more futile effort to motivate China to fight - against the wishes of a corrupt and unwilling leader, Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang understood this very well. Stilwell's reports on the Chinese military are 'contemptuous and blacken our name,' wrote Chiang. 'They are lukewarm about helping us. Thinking about this angers and pains me.'

The Allies blamed Chiang for putting China's interests first, but it is hardly surprising that he wished to do exactly that. They also blamed him for not acting as if he commanded a strong and disciplined army of the British or American type, even while they labelled him insignificant precisely because his regime was weak. The circumstances that made the Nationalist armies so weak - in particular the four years of sustained warfare - were not understood as justification for extra assistance to Chiang, but instead were treated as a kind of failing.

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.

The Americans did relatively little damage, but the raids showed that Japan was now vulnerable to attack from the air. On their return the fighters were supposed to land at airfields in the Nationalist-held parts of Zhejiang, in eastern China. In fact, none of them did so; they all crash-landed at various points in eastern China, bar one that landed in Vladivostok on the Russian coast, whose crew was then interned for a year.

Over the next year, the presence of American pilots would continue to cause tension between the two sides. The Americans were justifiably worried that letting the Chinese side know when the raids were taking place would expose their pilots to terrible danger if the enemy got hold of the information. But refusal by the Americans to take senior Chinese officers into their confidence inevitably highlighted the inequity between the two sides.

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.

Although China had gained its longed-for alliance with the Western powers, there were also multiple signs that all was not well with the wartime state. Graham Peck's job for the US government agency, the Office of War Information (OWI), was to accentuate the positive about the American alliance with Chiang, but he swiftly became convinced that the immediate response had been 'cynical gaiety ... and the Kuomintang's [Nationalists'] growing alienation from reality'. The new determination in Chongqing could not hide the fact that the Nationalist grip on power outside the southwest of the country was becoming very precarious.

One person who could give Chiang first-hand information about the degeneration of Nationalist rule was his son Chiang Ching-kuo. He visited a shabby local primary school, one of whose 'students' was actually a thirty-year-old draft-dodger. Ching-kuo fired questions at the students, but got no answer to his query 'Where is the national government?' The question 'Where is Wang Jingwei?' received the answer 'In Japan', but when he asked 'And where is Japan?' a long pause ensued, with one student finally replying 'It's in Japanese imperialism.' Other institutions were equally depressing.

Ching-kuo remained in Ganzhou throughout the war, and the area became well known for the social reforms that he was able to implement there. But even after a couple of years in the area, Ching-kuo was still struck by the desperate poverty of the locals, whether it was a 66-year-old woman who complained that in the three years that she had been using it, the local soup kitchen never gave her enough rice, or the humble house in which he noted a 'strong stench'; this was because the owner had to work by collecting dog excrement, which he stored ('in twelve jars and three toilets') before weighing it out and selling it. National unification was a concept that had little meaning in places as remote as this.

To create the new China he wanted, Chiang had to defeat Japan, and to do that he needed a military alliance. He had finally been able to form one after Pearl Harbor. Yet the immediate consequence of that alliance was that Chiang's regime was now even more cut off from supplies from the outside world. And since supplying the Army was essential to maintaining China's resistance against the Japanese, this made it even harder to keep both society and the economy stable.

General Stilwell complained that China was doing little fighting against Japan in China, but this complaint was misleading for several reasons. To open up a full-scale campaign in China itself would have stretched resources well beyond even the capacities of the US and the British Empire. The only thing preventing Japan from advancing further into central China was the very existence of the Nationalist armies. A decision by the National Government not to defend its territory might well have led to a successful Japanese invasion in 1942 or 1943.

The policy of grain requisitioning did real damage to an already vulnerable economy. The grain-tax policy did reduce inflation, because the army no longer had to purchase so much food on the open market. However, the burden now fell heavily on the most fertile provinces under the control of the National Government, particularly Sichuan. The policy also provided multiple opportunities for corruption and speculation.

In 1942, the nature of the war changed fundamentally. It is true that little changed on the ground: the stalemate persisted. And for the Allies, the importance of the China theater lay in bleeding Japan rather than in its immediate defeat. But US aid to Chiang Kai-shek soon amounted to $630 million in supplies and a $500 million loan. China fulfilled its end of the bargain, preventing a million and a half Japanese soldiers from fighting in Southeast Asia, the South Pacific and Australia over the next three years.

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.

'As I was travelling from Yinjingpu to Yanshi,' journalist Li Shu wrote, 'I saw three corpses by the side of the road. One of them was an old white-haired man, and someone had stripped off all his clothes. His face was down in a field of grain.' Li Shu travelled further into the interior. At one point he asked an old man why so many people had gathered at the banks of the River Luo. The answer came that they were gathering up bird excrement. They would then rinse off the faeces and release the precious morsels that lay embedded in them: undigested, edible grains of wheat. However horrible this story was, it was not the worst experience that Henan's people would endure.

In the summer of 1942 the Chongqing government sent out officials to see the situation in the countryside for themselves, and also to check that the grain tax was being collected. Zhang Zonglu was one of those sent out as an inspector. In Zheng county, county head Lu Yan told Zhang about a family named Li who gave their last grain to the tax collectors, then all killed themselves by jumping in the river. 'Then he began to weep,' Zhang added, 'lost his voice, knelt down and knocked his head on the ground, and begged for exemption from the grain tax.' The more Zhang saw, the worse it was: ‘During our trip, starving people were digging up grass roots, taking leaves, and stripping bark from the trees. Going south from Zhengzhou, an unceasing stream of refugees begging for food was so misery-inducing that you couldn't bear to look’. These scenes took place very early in the famine, just after the main autumn harvest had failed. There was worse yet to come.

Much of the province had been invaded and occupied by the Japanese during the battle of southern Henan in early 1941. In the spring of 1942 there had been no rain, and the harvest that season produced only some 10 to 20 percent of the normal yield. 'After the harvest, people were very uneasy and panicked, so they hoped for the autumn harvest,' recalled Zhang Zhonglu, the president of Henan university. 'But there was no rain all summer, and the early autumn crop all died.' Even places that could escape the drought because they had wells were not immune, because 'locusts came and ate everything'.

Zhang Zonglu mentioned that he had heard that villages beyond his tour of inspection had become so desperate that people had turned to cannibalism. These acts were rarely reported, so great was the taboo on this ultimate transgression, and accounts may have been exaggerated in some cases. Yet over time evidence did emerge of the lengths that people went to during the famine.

'I heard that the Henan famine was serious,' Chiang wrote in his diary in April 1943, 'and that the officials were ignorant of it.' A week later he showed more alarm: 'In the Henan famine area, people are starving, dogs and animals are eating corpses. It's unbearable to hear about this dreadful situation.' He added that if the war dragged on more than a year, then China might not be able to sustain the situation much longer. Yet Chiang took only limited, inadequate measures. His diary reveals how stretched he was by the spring of 1943: 'I really have been feeling dizzy ... The economy is weak, the military and political situation is depressing, and the worst time is now. During the six years of the War of Resistance, my strength has been exhausted and my mind has been dulled.' A few days later he observed: 'Our social reality is covered in scars. We are exhausted after six years of the War of Resistance.' The toxic mixture of dubious internal allies, a stretched economy and the conflict with Stilwell were distracting Chiang from the unfolding disaster in Henan.

The problem was not lack of food, but the lack of a system to bring the food where it was needed. There was grain in the neighboring provinces of Shaanxi and Hubei, but the authorities there refused to transport it to Henan. This was not pure selfishness. Now that the grain tax was being imposed in kind, huge amounts of grain were being levied or confiscated to feed the armies, and a provincial authority had no interest in selling its precious grain for increasingly worthless government currency.

As he journeyed on, Zhang saw desperation at every turn. Just outside Fangcheng, there was a market for people to sell themselves. Zhang saw a married couple whose only hope of survival was to sell off the wife. When they had to part, the wife called out, 'My trousers are better than yours, you take mine.' Hearing this, the husband cried out 'I can't sell you - let's die together.' For many, the only other answer was flight: ‘Wherever I went, there were refugees fleeing south, begging for food and those who couldn't move any more just dropped dead by the side of the road. You could exchange a child for a few steamed rolls. When I went to Luoyang, all around the station there were refugees, groaning and crying - hearing them was unbearable. If a train came, they would fight to get on it, hanging from the roof - they didn't care how dangerous it was. Those who couldn't get on the train ... wept and sold their children - no matter what the price, they just handed them over. When the train went west, when it entered a tunnel, because the people on the roof were piled up, countless numbers of them were crushed against the roof of the tunnel, and fell down dead.’

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’.

Behind the promulgation of the law was the desire to improve bureaucratic efficiency, deal with the economic crisis, strengthen defense industries, and dampen bureaucratic rivalries. To implement it, in June a National Mobilization Committee was established. The purpose of the committee, as its Secretary explained in 1944, was to ‘pressure, investigate, coordinate, and facilitate cooperation’ of various state organs.

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.

Developments in and around Chongqing remained relatively stable due to revenue mostly from foreign donors, together with fear of international criticism, and a genuine sense among at least some of the elites - such as the American-trained technocrats Weng Wenhao and Jiang Tingfu - that the war should be the occasion for a rebirth of the Chinese Nationalist revolution.

The delicate balance of power that underpinned the state prevented cooperation across boundaries. Refugee relief programs in Sichuan were inadequate, but at least they were under development. In Henan, an area where control had passed back and forth between the Nationalists and the Japanese, with the Communists always present in the rear, the relief programs lacked substance. In Zhejiang, where the lines of control were even more blurred, refugee relief existed more in name than in reality.

The Henan famine was an example, albeit one of the most horrific, of a wider phenomenon: the unravelling of the Nationalist state after 1941 following China's entry into the global war. In retrospect, it is surprising that there were not even more famines during the war years, although the massive impoverishment of the countryside was a clear consequence of the conflict.

While the army fell victim to inflation, and scarcity of goods and starvation reigned in the countryside, life in the cities also became pinched and wearying. Graham Peck noted that those with money and black-market connections could obtain luxuries including 'expensive imported clothes, canned goods [and] liquor', but that 'many wandering beggars from the country had begun camping in the official auto-dugouts [shelters] on the edge of town'.

The civil servants who kept Chongqing's government running also found themselves on the wrong side of the growing gap between those privileged few who could use connections and the black market to get hold of quality goods, and the vast majority who could not. Between the start of the war and the end of 1943 the income of teachers had risen only a fifth as much as the cost of living, and that of government officials only a tenth. The middle class had once put its hopes in the Nationalists to bring about a modernized, stable China that would enable them to fulfil their aspirations. Inflation destroyed the savings of many of these Chinese.

Little fighting took place between the Nationalist armies and the Japanese in 1943. What fighting there was came at the end of the year from a Japanese initiative which was produced by changes elsewhere in the Pacific War. The losses of shipping due to United States submarines led the Japanese to develop a plan in November 1943 for military operations that would enable them to have a land link for railway traffic from north to south China and occupied French Indochina. There could then be overland carriage for supplies and troops all the way from Korea to Hanoi and from there a connection to the new Thailand-Burma railway, with the whole route free of dependence on the vulnerable sea lane. While opening this north-south land route in China, the Japanese would crush Chiang and seize the majority of the airfields being built for the United States Air Force to use against the home islands of Japan.

China is larger than the United States, and characterized by extreme variations of climate and topography. During this period, only around 12 percent of its surface was cultivated, because the remainder was too high, dry or steep. Hundreds of millions of Chinese eked out primitive lives in conditions of chronic misery. Zhu De, for instance, commander of Mao Zedong’s Communist armies, was born fourth among thirteen children of his parents. He was the last one to survive, for his younger siblings were drowned at birth in the absence of means to feed them.

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.

Because the Nationalist currency (fabi) was no longer freely available there, the Communists had to issue their own currency for local use, saving the hard-to-obtain Nationalist fabi to import goods that could not be produced locally. The result was massive inflation, higher even than in the Nationalist areas. By 1944 prices that had increased 755 times since 1937 in Chongqing had increased 5,647 times in Yan'an. The economy of Mao's base area was in danger of collapse.

In December 1942 Mao published an important essay on the economic solution for the besieged region. His proposals were notably pragmatic. 'We shall simply be resigning ourselves to extinction,' Mao wrote, 'unless we develop both the private and public sectors of the economy.' Up to that point, there had been few taxes on much of the population in the region. Now heavier taxation was essential, Mao admitted, but in exchange the party must actively support the development of handicrafts, agriculture and commerce so that the farmers can 'gain more than they give'.

The party took great care to avoid the mistakes that had caused such misery in the Nationalist areas. The poorest fifth of the peasantry were still exempted from taxes, although this further increased the burden on the middle-level peasants. Mao contrasted this policy with one that made 'endless demands on the people', stressing military and government priorities to the detriment of the wider population: 'That is a Kuomintang [Nationalist] mode of thinking which we must never adopt.' At a time when the famine in Henan was reaching its height because of the massive demands of the land tax in kind, this was an important point indeed.

The Communist policies in Yan'an saved the region from collapse and also showed that there was an alternative to the increasingly destructive cycle that was corroding the relationship between the Nationalist government and its people. Yet Mao did have one major advantage in stabilizing the region. While there were some 40,000 troops stationed in the Shaan-Gan-Ning region that he controlled, his commitment to guerrilla warfare meant that he was not required to raise the large standing armies that the Nationalists needed in order to participate fully in the wartime alliance.

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.

Mao also took aim at the educated elites who had joined the revolution in Yan'an. 'We all know that there are many intellectuals who fancy themselves very learned and assume airs of erudition,' chided Mao. 'Many so-called intellectuals are, relatively speaking, most ignorant and the workers and peasants sometimes know more than they do.' Mao also warned against 'sectarianism', declaring that party members who wanted 'independence' were actually seeking 'fame and position and want to be in the limelight'. He reminded members that they were, after all, part of a Communist movement, and that the 'Party not only needs democracy but needs centralization even more.'

The Rectification campaign was central to Mao's mission of a thorough reinvention of Chinese society. And it was only the 'arduous war' that allowed Mao to fulfil his goals so successfully. The war experience was crucial to the formation of the modernized Communist state, underpinned by terror in service of the revolution, that Mao sought to build.

No longer just first among equals, Mao saw his status continue to rise as 'Mao Zedong Thought' became synonymous with ideological correctness in the base area. The study of Mao's thought became the basis on which party membership was decided. Of twenty-two important texts that would-be party members had to master in a list issued in April 1942, eighteen were by Mao.

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.

From the very start of the war, there had been light and darkness in the Nationalist program. One side of it was open and modernizing, symbolized by the plans to institute welfare relief, build technologically advanced facilities such as arsenals, and accept political participation from non-party members. The other was darker and more inward-looking, harking back to Chiang's connections to the criminal underworld and the intrigue that had brought him to ultimate power in China.

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.

Each regime had its supreme leader: Chiang, Wang, Mao. But behind each of them was a shadowy figure in charge of a security apparatus empowered to enforce the will of the state through psychological pressure and to use torture on those who refused to obey.

As the war ground on, Dai Li concentrated his power in an organization known blandly as the Military Investigation and Statistics Bureau (MSB). In fact, the MSB was a personalized instrument of enforcement by means both legal and otherwise. Mere mention of the MSB and its headquarters at Wanglongmen in south Chongqing was enough to terrify most ordinary citizens in wartime Chongqing. Torture and kidnapping were an ever-present threat. The atmosphere of menace was heightened by the knowledge that the city was infested with MSB informers.

Dai Li's particular obsession, amply fuelled by his master Chiang Kai-shek, was the Communists. The United Front agreement had permitted the CCP a bureau in the temporary Nationalist capital, at Hongyancun (Red Crag) in Chongqing's western suburbs, as well as the right to publish the Xinhua ribao, the Communist newspaper. But the MSB kept a close eye on Communist activities at all times, with a Nationalist Party office located within the same complex of buildings at Hongyancun. The Communists nonetheless brought off some major coups under Dai Li's nose in Chongqing. In general, though, Communist activity in Chongqing was limited: the city was simply too dominated by the Nationalists to be safe for the opposition.

Under NKVD training, Kang had set up an Office for the Elimination of Counter-Revolutionaries in Moscow, and used it to send out execution orders against CCP members in China who were classed as 'renegades' or 'counter-revolutionaries'. Many of them were guilty of nothing more than knowledge of embarrassing episodes from Kang's past such as his one-time cooperation with the Nationalists.

There were three masters of these techniques. For Chiang, it was Dai Li, the man nicknamed 'China's Himmler'. For Wang, it was Li Shiqun, a burly and deceptively genial former street hoodlum. And for Mao, it was Kang Sheng, trained by one of the world's greatest experts in the abuse of human bodies and minds: the head of the Soviet NKVD (secret police), Genrik Yezhov. The three of them would profoundly shape China's wartime regimes and fuel the zero-sum struggle for power.

From the earliest days of its collaboration with the Japanese in 1938, Wang Jingwei's government in Nanjing had started to develop its own security organization. Zhou Fohai had recruited two Shanghai gangsters named Li Shiqun and Ding Mocun as the face of his operation. Over the next three years, it became clear that their murderous and criminal efforts were working in the short term, giving them control over the streets, but were weakening the legitimacy of Wang's state overall.

Kang's moment would come with Mao's declaration of the Rectification Campaign in Yan'an. The immediate target was clear. Mao wanted to demonstrate his dominance over Wang Ming and the other Communist leaders who had spent time in Moscow, known as the 'Twenty-Eight Bolsheviks'. But there was a wider target too: the individualism and lack of discipline exhibited by so many of the party's prominent intellectuals. Kang used a classic Soviet technique of accusing loyal party members of being Nationalist spies. Once they had confessed under torture, their confessions could then set off an avalanche of accusations and arrests.

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.

For Li Shiqun and Ding Mocun, control of the streets and personal aggrandizement were much more of a priority than any ideological commitment. Dai Li's motive was less venal. While he loved power, he was driven by a loyalty to Chiang Kai-shek, whom he regarded as the keystone preventing China's collapse. Yet Dai's desire to create a corps of agents who would act as the regime's terrifying but incorruptible eyes and ears was crippled by the dishonesty and violence that characterized so many in the MSB. The public saw the agents not as ideological stalwarts, but as weak men given power to exercise for their own benefit.

The Communist terror of Kang Sheng was different. The purpose of Rectification was not to line anyone's pockets. Rather, it envisioned - and achieved - one clear aim: it would bring together radicalized ideology, wartime isolation and fear to create a new system of political power. The war against Japan was giving birth to Mao's China.

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.

Dai Li assumed a new importance to China's American allies after Pearl Harbor because of his role at the top of China's major intelligence organization. The Americans were already cooperating more closely with Chinese intelligence than the British were, thanks in part to an incident in June 1940 when Dai Li, transiting through the Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong, was arrested by the colony's authorities and hustled off to the public jail for a night before being released in a diplomatic flurry the next morning. The incident added to the already strongly anti-British tone of the Chiang regime.

The American presence in China was complicated by the rivalry of generals Stilwell and Chennault. Stilwell was now thoroughly hostile to Chiang, whereas Chennault admired him and was even close to the Generalissimo and his wife Song Meiling. The Americans differed on tactics too: Chennault continued to insist that air power would be crucial to a swift victory in China, whereas Stilwell remained sure that the war would only be won by long, hard campaigns on the ground.

SACO's primary purpose was supposed to be the training of guerrilla forces to harass the Japanese behind enemy lines in tandem with a planned invasion of the Chinese coast by US troops. The training sessions were a mixture of the sinister and the farcical. The American instructors openly admitted that they could not tell one Chinese from another. This suited Dai Li's purposes well, since he preferred that SACO's recruits serve him alone. The recruits were made to subscribe to a personality cult of Chiang Kai-shek, the great leader whose 'eyes and ears' the officers were meant to be.

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.

In late 1942 Dai Li became ever more suspicious that the OSS would become a front for senior American and British officers who would bypass him when gathering intelligence in China. Dai Li also found it unacceptable to have to cooperate with (or worse yet, report to) Stilwell, whose poisonous relationship with Chiang was clear. Instead, an intelligence operation in which Miles (and the US Navy) would be paramount rather than Stilwell (and the Army) was attractive.

Tensions came to the surface at a banquet that Dai Li held for Donovan. Donovan told Dai Li that if he would not cooperate with the OSS, then the OSS would proceed without him. Dai Li threatened to kill any OSS agents who operated outside his command; Donovan then shouted that he would kill Chinese generals in return. The temperature cooled the next day when Chiang Kai-shek told Donovan that the Americans must 'remember that this is a sovereign country ... please conduct yourselves accordingly'. But the fundamental quarrel had not been resolved.

In the midst of the war against Japan, there was a covert civil war between SACO and OSS in China, and the activities of Dai Li and the Nationalists contributed to the mess, and even took advantage of it. A large part of the dysfunction lay in the inability of the American intelligence agencies to coordinate with each other and decide what their policies in China actually were.

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.

Ambassador Clarence Gauss would declare at one point that there were at least fifteen Allied intelligence organizations working in China, and that they were 'completely uncoordinated to the delight of the Chinese'. Within a year, the lack of intelligence coordination would have grave consequences for the path of the war.

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.

Chiang looked on the United States and its president with a mixture of respect and anger. In February 1943 he fumed that Roosevelt and Stalin had 'destroyed our war plan of the last three years' after the two leaders made agreements following the Casablanca Conference of 1943 and the improvement in the USSR's position at Stalingrad, that tied the Soviets into the defeat of Germany as their top priority. In Chiang's view this commitment reduced the already very low possibility that Japan might attack the Soviets, 'so the victim is China'.

If Chiang respected the British, it was mostly for what he saw as their cunning, stubbornness and arrogance. He believed that their presence in China had little purpose beyond maintaining their own position. Churchill was a particular bugbear. In March 1943 Chiang seethed that Churchill had talked about the 'Big Three' countries that would shape the postwar order: 'he excludes China completely.' A few months later Chiang followed this up with the observation that 'all ambassadors are spies by nature, but the British more than most.' Britain's political leadership took an equally dim view of China: 'Assistance to China should only be a primary consideration if it is in the interests of strategy', one Foreign Office document declared in July 1943, adding that it was better to let the Chongqing government fall than to disrupt the major effort against Japan.

Despite Churchill's unwillingness to treat China as a key power in the post-war global order, there was a wider understanding in British circles that China would now have to be treated as an actor in its own right. Britain communicated this with one substantial action. Since 1842 the International Settlement, along with the French Concession, were islands of foreign rule in the city of Shanghai, although the Settlement had fallen to the Japanese as soon as the Pacific War had broken out. Now, the Americans and British stated that if China won the war, Shanghai would be a city united, for the first time in a century, under Chinese national sovereignty.

The sense that the 'Big Three' would continue to treat China as a minor player reinforced Chiang's view that he would have to fight to win his country its rightful prominence. 'Previously the US treated China as a decorative object,' Chiang brooded. Now once again, he declared, 'China is clearly being made a sacrificial item.' He resented the fact that the United States, intent on controlling the Pacific after the war, did not want China to have an independent air force. Yet Chiang also realized that power in the Pacific was shifting. In one conversation he observed that 'we're not afraid that America will be the dominant power in East Asia; we're afraid that it won't be'. If there was to be a hegemonic power, he thought, then better the US than Japan, the USSR or Britain.

Churchill found the idea of China as a great power farcical, and made no secret of the fact that he considered the American aspiration to raise China's global status utterly misconceived. Churchill wrote to Sir Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, that it was 'affectation' on the part of the US 'to pretend that China is a power in any way comparable to the other three' . Nor did the British trust American intentions: Churchill made it clear that he had no time for Roosevelt's aspiration that Britain might return Hong Kong to China as a goodwill gesture.

Chiang Kai-shek found much to criticize in his British and American allies, but he reserved his bitterest scorn for his Chief of Staff. Typical was one diary entry in which Chiang declared 'I saw Stilwell today; he disgusts me. I despise him: I've never met anyone like that!' In February 1943 Chiang recorded his version of a conversation between the two of them. Chiang requested 10,000 tons of supplies a month and 500 aircraft; without this, China could not be 'responsible' for prosecuting the war further. 'Are you saying that if we can't do that,' Stilwell replied, 'then you can't fight Japan?' Chiang found Stilwell's response 'evil and disrespectful'. He noted: ‘I swallowed it and didn't attack him - but I just replied that China had been fighting for six years; even before the Pacific War had broken out, when the US and Britain were not helping, China had fought alone.’ Stilwell was equally forthright in his private assessment of Chiang. 'We are maneuvered into the position of having to support this rotten regime and glorify its figurehead, the all-wise great patriot and soldier - Peanut. My God.'

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.

Chennault and Stilwell were called to Washington to report on what needed to be done in China. Stilwell remained adamant that Chinese troops had to be better trained so that they could launch an assault against the Japanese in north Burma to open up a supply road there. Chennault disagreed. He wrote a memo to Marshall which argued that 'the internal situation in China is already critical'. He noted increased recruitment to Wang Jingwei's collaborationist armies, and that 'progressive inflation, progressive starvation and increasing disease have at last begun to tell visibly on the Chinese people'. He doubted that the time remained to prepare for a land war, and suggested air power instead. 'The risks to be run by launching a China air offensive are relatively slight,' he suggested, 'compared to the risks that will be run by continued inaction.' Stilwell was acid about his rival's suggestion: 'Nobody was interested in the humdrum work of building a ground force but me. Chennault promised to drive the Japs right out of China in six months, so why not give him the stuff to do it? It was the short cut to victory.'

At the Quadrant Conference held in Quebec in August 1943, a new Southeast Asia Command (SEAC) was established under Lord Louis Mountbatten that separated the region of Burma from China and India. Burma and Thailand were placed under SEAC, separating them from Chiang's sphere of influence, and placing the relief of China even further down the list of important issues.

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.

Stilwell's self-aggrandizement was causing raised eyebrows in Washington. Chiang's brother-in-law T. V. Soong had been appointed Foreign Minister immediately after Pearl Harbor. In the American capital, Soong used his influence with Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's close friend and political fixer, to complain about Stilwell and press for the American to be relieved of his command. Hopkins, who regarded Stilwell as a malign influence in China, was sympathetic, and encouraged Soong to propose a change of military leadership.

Mountbatten arrived in Chongqing, and met Stilwell, who recorded in gloomy capital letters that 'THE G-MO SAYS I MUST BE RELIEVED.' But Mountbatten pressed Chiang to retain Stilwell. Pressured on all sides, Chiang met Stilwell. The two of them talked intensely. 'Stilwell came and I advised him on his mistaken views,' wrote Chiang. 'He admitted it and agreed to obey me from now on.' Stilwell did not see it quite this way. He had been called over late at night to see Chiang, who told him that he should 'understand the duties of the commander in chief and the chief of staff' and 'avoid any superiority complex'. Stilwell considered this to be 'balderdash', but 'listened politely'. Overall, he felt 'as free as air - no regrets and no self-blame'. The two men had postponed confrontation rather than solving the fundamental problem.

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.

Tokyo declared that its aim was the liberation of its Asian allies from the Western yoke. As a gesture toward this goal, Japan signed a treaty with the Wang regime that was more equal, at least in phrasing, than the existing settlement. The next day, Wang Jingwei and Zhou Fohai flew to Tokyo for a conference to celebrate the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, the pompous term that the Japanese used for their empire.

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.

The weakness of China's position derived from the peculiar contortions of the partnership itself. Crucially, the USSR remained neutral against Japan. This meant that Stalin could not be seen to appear in public at any conference that included Chiang, since it would imply endorsement of China's war aims against Japan. Yet Stalin clearly had a significant interest in the shaping of a post-war Asia. As a result, almost all the major conferences after 1941 excluded Chiang. This situation was worsened by Churchill's clear contempt for the Chinese in general.

Patrick J. Hurley was a personal international emissary for Roosevelt. Before the conference he spoke to Chiang in Chongqing. In Chiang's eyes, Hurley had come to explain Roosevelt's intentions toward Churchill and Stalin so that there would be no misunderstandings about the upcoming conference. Chiang's interpretation was that the American president was 'relying on me to dispute with Churchill over East Asian matters', so that Roosevelt could then intervene as mediator. Chiang also took time to consider the significance of his own role. No non-European leader had ever taken such a personal stake in a major meeting alongside the leaders of the great Western powers: 'When I go to the conference,' reflected Chiang, ‘I want moderation as my only principle. In general, I don't want to bring any great shame upon myself. We should wait for the British and Americans to bring up the treatment of Japan and reparations; we shouldn't do it. This will reassure [them] about us and will make them respect the fact that we don't have any selfish intentions with regard to the global war.’

The meeting in Cairo came at a time of continued tension between the United States and Britain. The two sides had gone back and forth during the winter and spring of 1943 on the question of the best timing for Overlord, the invasion of western Europe. The Americans insisted on defining strategic priorities, whereas the British wanted to keep their options open. The decision on Overlord would inevitably have a knock-on effect on the other theaters of war, including the Mediterranean, the Pacific and ultimately China.

Chiang and Song Meiling landed at Cairo in conditions of strict security, but caused something of a sensation when they appeared in public. For the first time, Chiang met the figure who had loomed so unpleasantly in his mind for the past three years: Winston Churchill. They talked for around half an hour, with Song Meiling interpreting, and it 'went quite smoothly; better than I had expected'. The next day they spoke for a full hour, with Meiling and Churchill laughing as the latter declared 'You think I'm a terrible old man, don't you?' The senior British Foreign Office civil servant Alexander Cadogan also noted that 'Winston fell for Madame Chiang Kai-shek.'

Chiang met Roosevelt, who 'looked old', already showing signs of the strain that would kill him. Meiling continued to provide a lively presence, in contrast to the withdrawn Chiang. 'During the tea party, my wife worked to entertain everyone,' Chiang wrote. 'I talked very little and after an hour I withdrew.' He was discomfited to note that the British and the Americans appeared to have already set the conference agenda, and that China's proposals and the question of its status had not yet been discussed. 'This is very strange,' he noted.

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.

Chiang's conversations with Roosevelt gave the Chinese leader reason to believe that his goals for a post-war China with major status in Asia would be fulfilled. In private talks, with Churchill absent, Chiang spoke to the president both about the future of Japan and about the fight against communism and imperialism in the postwar world. 'I praised Roosevelt's policy with regard to Soviet communism,' he wrote, 'but I hope that his policy toward British imperialism can also be successful, to liberate those in the world who are oppressed. Only then can we return the contribution made by the US to this world war.'

Chiang's concern about the British was shared by many Americans, who were also worried that the US war effort was being used to shore up the British Empire. By the time of the Cairo conference, it was clear to Churchill that his war aims in Asia were substantially different from Roosevelt's. Beyond Churchill's rhetoric, the reality was that the Empire was overstretched and moving into the shadow of its American ally, particularly as Britain's wartime debts continued to mount.

Chiang and Song Meiling snatched a quick visit to the pyramids, then departed. In the aftermath of Cairo, Chiang reflected further on what he had learned. It was ‘my first appearance on the diplomatic stage,’ he observed, also predicting that he would probably be more confident on future outings. If he managed to achieve the territorial gains that he sought, then 'it would likely be the greatest foreign policy success in Chinese history'. At one level, this was an grandiose statement, even for his personal diary. It did, however, focus attention on a startling fact: few countries as diplomatically weak as China had ever forced an alliance of much stronger countries to treat it, at least nominally, as an equal. Chiang also reflected, not for the last time, on British influence: 'Britain has a power that extends to the furthest part of the world... in two continents, Asia and Africa, even the untameable Muslim peoples obey their orders. You can't help admiring their magic powers.'

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.

Operation Buccaneer would have demanded a huge proportion of all the landing craft that the Royal Navy possessed, and the American command had never been convinced that it was a viable strategy. Concerned that he would be isolated and left without support, Chiang refused to deploy his Yunnan-based troops (Y Force) into Burma: 'You can see that the British don't want to use their strength in the Far East,' he complained. Churchill gave Mountbatten permission to use some 20,000 Empire troops to support the Chinese forces in a smaller amphibious operation on the Arakan coast, but Chiang rejected the idea. With that decision, Buccaneer was dead.

Chiang had been reminded of the precariousness of his command when he stopped over in India on the way back from Cairo, where he spoke to General Zheng Dongguo and inspected the 33,000 men of the Chinese Army in India (X Force), based at Ramgarh in Bihar province. 'Stilwell was treating Zheng as a puppet,' Chiang lamented, 'and would not give him any real command power, or allow him to command the frontline at Ledo. There are many incidents like that - it's truly painful.' Yet Chiang was not blind to the problems of developing officers of high quality. 'My commanders' spirit, body, and scholarship, to be fair, cannot compete with that of the Americans,' he admitted. 'How can we nurture such a backward people, feel proud of the country, and seek a true national liberation?'

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.

Once the Allies had decided at the second Cairo meeting that they would not launch Operation Buccaneer, only a small land offensive began in northern Burma in November 1943. The Chinese troops Stilwell had trained fought well, and together with small American forces began to push the Japanese back slowly but effectively, eventually enabling a road to be built connecting to the Old Burma Road in the spring of 1945.

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.

A scorching article appeared in Time magazine, discussing the opening of a supply road from India to Burma: ‘For 17 months Lieut. General Joseph W. Stilwell has been under fire in Washington, London and New Delhi. Critics said the new Ledo Road from India to China was not worth the effort ... In India's capital last week, 'Vinegar Joe' Stilwell sat rigidly in his rattan-cane armchair, long fingers playing with his favorite cigaret holder, eyes almost shut. Curtly he replied to his critics: the Ledo Road fulfills two US objectives: 1) to get at least some supplies to blockaded China; 2) to set up a situation in which Japs are killed ... Admiral the Lord Louis Mountbatten differs with Stilwell … The US commander admitted that a southern China port must be opened before the armies of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek can be rearmed. But 'Vinegar Joe', who probably knows China better than any brasshat in New Delhi, stoutly held that the 'Hump' air route and the Ledo Road can fill the immediate gap in China's desperate needs, thus fit into the general Asia strategy.’ It was an article meant to provoke, and it did just that, infuriating Mountbatten, who tried unsuccessfully to have Stilwell recalled. It also reflected the particular viewpoint of Stilwell and his supporters in the press.

Chiang Kai-shek was still concerned that a major Japanese assault was imminent. But his words did little to convince his Western Allies. Chiang suggested that transferring Y Force, the Chinese Nationalist troops from India, and the American fighter planes to India for the Burma campaign would leave central China vulnerable. Roosevelt replied that further aid to China would be 'unjustified' unless Chiang agreed to send the troops. Under further pressure from Stilwell, Chiang was forced to give in.

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.

The intelligence was hardly reassuring. The Japanese were taking advantage of their experience in jungle warfare to place machine-gun nests in trees. On some parts of the road, with dense jungle on one side and a sheer cliff on the other, soldiers had to use vines to climb up. The lush, monsoon-nourished jungle of Burma was very different from the plains or forests of China: the territory felt as alien to the Chinese soldiers fighting there as it did to their American and British counterparts. Soon enough, Huang and his comrades were sent into the jungle themselves. They rapidly developed ways to avoid attracting the attention of the Japanese, using a system of 'monkey cries' to keep in contact with one another.

Stilwell's diaries show concern at the pounding his men were taking, and he had generous words for the Chinese soldiers (the 'pings' he called them, using the normal - and perfectly respectful - Chinese word for 'soldier') who had tracked down and liquidated Japanese soldiers attempting to enter the town. But he also found time to complain about an edition of the Saturday Evening Post that had been flown in. 'The one man of genius in Asia is Chennault,' he fumed ironically, referring to the paper's judgement on his great rival; Stilwell was 'just a dumb bastard' (Stilwell's words, not those of the Post). Even in the midst of a hellish siege, Stilwell was concerned about his press. He also found time to vent his scorn at Mountbatten, writing that 'he had the nerve to make a speech at our headquarters but he don't fool our GIs much. They are getting a look at the British Empah with its pants down and the aspect is not so pretty.' Yet in that same week it was the British troops so despised by Stilwell who turned the tide in Burma with a hard-won victory at Imphal.

There were advantages to being in Burma. Stilwell's control of Lend-Lease supplies meant that the troops were well resourced. The siege of Myitkyina in northeast Burma showed no signs of ending. Stilwell might have used British troops to relieve the siege, but his mind was still on public relations and he insisted that American troops must retake the city. Stilwell's troops included the crack unit known as Merrill's Marauders, which had been supplemented with Chinese and native Burmese troops, but they had already been seriously reduced in number as they fought their way across the mountains. By the time they reached Myitkyina, many of them were extremely ill, and the siege cut them off from supplies.

Lieutenant-General Slim's armies were known for their pitiless treatment of any Japanese they might find in their advance: the enemy was to be killed, not captured. Stilwell's troops, American, Chinese and Kachin, advanced from the north, inflicting further destruction on the Japanese. The monsoon was coming, and the Japanese retreated, leaving Myitkyina to Stilwell's men. Of those troops who had started out with Stilwell, four out of every five had been wounded or died during the three months of the siege.

Stilwell had got his road, and his revenge. Yet it would be December before the legacy of his obsessive project finally came to fruition. The Ledo Road from Assam was connected to the Burma Road at Lashio, allowing supplies to move overland again from India to China.

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.

In the autumn of 1943 the Imperial General Headquarters had looked at the increasingly perilous position in Asia. As the Americans advanced in the Pacific, it became clear that the initial Japanese gains of early 1942 were vulnerable. By the spring of 1944 Allied assaults had forced Tokyo to regroup its forces to protect at least some of its empire in the Central Pacific. The loss of the Marshall Islands in February 1944 led General Tojo to dismiss the head of the Navy and install himself as Chief of Staff for the Army. Now the Japanese decided, as in 1941, to double their bets and hope that a bold and unexpected move would once again give them the advantage.

The key military aims were to destroy the American air bases in central China, and to open up a route between central China and French Indochina using the railway network. Though Prime Minister Tojo endorsed only the destruction of the air bases, the plan was officially approved and put into action.

Ichi-go was the largest operation ever undertaken by the Japanese Army. Some half a million troops were mobilized across central China to the border with French Indochina. But Ichi-go was about much more than named strategic objectives. For both the Japanese and the Nationalists, the campaign was a last-ditch attempt to remain in the war. The attempt to neutralize China completely became an urgent, even desperate priority. If the Japanese could gain the initiative in Asia, they just might be able to negotiate a settlement with the Americans, who were concentrating on Europe at that time.

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.

Now the Chinese army felt the effects of years of attrition from Japanese assault and governmental corruption and incompetence. Recruitment had been falling since 1941, and press-ganging of new soldiers had become much more common. Conscripts were often marched in gangs tied together with ropes to an area far from home; if they were too close to their own villages, they might simply flee. Inflation had eaten away at military salaries and made service far less attractive. At the same time some of the best Chinese armies that remained, including the Yunnan-based Y Force, were thousands of kilometres away in Burma.

Jiang Dingwen's account also blamed collaborators with the enemy, who were in the 'lower-level administration and police stations', enabling them to harass the army and 'mislead' the people. His report shows the breakdown in trust between the state and its population. The locals did not obey the Nationalist army orders to destroy local highways to prevent the Japanese advancing. Sometimes they even went back at night and mended roads which the army had torn up by day. The Nationalists were reaping the results of the dyke-breaking in 1938 and the subsequent famine in Henan in 1942.

The most chilling aspect of Jiang's account was his description of the reaction of the local civilian population: ‘During this campaign, the unexpected phenomenon was that the people of the mountains in western Henan attacked our troops, taking guns, bullets, and explosives, and even high-powered mortars and radio equipment … They surrounded our troops and killed our officers. We heard this pretty often. The heads of the villages and baojia (village mutual-responsibility groups) just ran away. At the same time, they took away our stored grain, leaving their houses and fields empty, which meant that our officers and soldiers had no food for many days’. Jiang grudgingly admitted that the army's own behavior may have played a role. 'There were certainly a minority of soldiers who did not keep discipline and harassed the villagers,' he conceded, 'but it was the lack of civilian administration that meant that they could not compete with the military.' However, Jiang did see how damaging the breakdown of trust had been. 'Actually this is truly painful for me to say: in the end the damages we suffered from the attack by the people were more serious than the losses from battles with the enemy.'

While Jiang Dingwen was nominally in command, most observers believed that Tang Enbo was the real authority, and his accusers aimed their fire squarely at him. Heroics at Taierzhuang six years previously now carried no weight. Tang's troops, supposedly among the elite of the Nationalist forces, were used alongside civilians to carry the baggage of officials who wanted to escape the combat zone. Tang himself fled.

Jiang gave his account of what happened in northern Henan, an area still suffering grievously from the breach of the dyke at Huayuankou in 1938. 'I'd already thought that there were not enough troops,' he wrote, but when he asked for reinforcements he was not granted them. Other Nationalist troops had been moved away to block off the Communists, he said, and 'we faced the enemy on three sides. The area to defend was huge and the troops very few.' The Japanese, in contrast, had motorized troops who could operate to full advantage in the flat terrain.

Everett F. Drumright, one of the US embassy staff based in Xi'an, had sent an account of the battle to Gauss, who in turn forwarded it to the State Department. Some 60,000-70,000 Japanese troops had been met with only 'token resistance', and the First War Zone was now 'shattered', along with the reputations of Jiang Dingwen and Tang Enbo. 'Chinese suffered heavy losses in men, material, and crops. Loss of wheat crop, best in years, most serious loss.' Shaanxi, the next province to the west, now lay open.

Theodore White also observed all the features that had made the defeat in Henan such a rout - commanders absent from the field, officers using military facilities to evacuate their private property, and the seizure of oxen from the peasants - as well as the result: soldiers being disarmed by their fellow Chinese. 'Within three weeks the Japanese had seized all their objectives; the railway to the south lay in their hands, and a Chinese army of 300,000 men had ceased to exist.'

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.

Chiang Kai-shek placed his own judgement in serious question by refusing to send supplies to Xue Yue in Changsha, fearing that Xue was disloyal to him.

American confidence was now as low as Chinese. It became all the more imperative that the Nationalists should be seen to fight back. Gauss wrote of the 'general gloom ... and somewhat defeatist attitude [that] is becoming prevalent at Chungking', adding that the fact that the Henan peasants had turned against their own troops, 'due to their own deplorable condition', had particularly harmed official morale. Chiang gave a downbeat speech at the Central Military Training Academy. 'Everybody has adopted the mentality that the Japanese are too strong and we are too weak,' he declared. 'Our current age is an age of science,' he continued, 'and we must develop a spirit in accordance with it.' Yet the reality was a long way from the technological modernity implicit in Chiang's words. In a later address, he also focused on the attack by the people of Henan on their own army and admitted that the retreating army had robbed, raped and murdered. 'Of course,' he mourned, 'this sort of army will lose.'

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.

Xue Yue now moved to Hengyang, but again Chiang refused to offer him direct assistance because of his suspicions about Xue's loyalties.

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.

Chiang and Stilwell both acted irresponsibly. Their pique and personal prejudices led to decisions that caused the deaths of thousands of the Chinese soldiers whom both claimed to hold in such high regard. In the end, though, it was Chiang's efforts and not Stilwell's that proved decisive, as Chiang realized how important it was that the Chinese be seen to fight. Rather than flying in new supplies, he sent other armies located nearby to help defend Hengyang.

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.

Chiang was not oblivious to American attempts to encroach on his command and even his right to rule. He became convinced that Sun Fo (also known as Sun Ke) was being groomed by the Americans as a possible head of the Nationalist Party. But while American confidence in the Nationalists was fast dissipating as the Japanese smashed into central China, it was not Sun Fo to whom most of their eyes turned. Vice-President Henry Wallace, on meeting Sun in China, judged that he 'does not impress one as having strength of character needed for leadership'.

The American ambassador Clarence Gauss met him to discuss the need for compromise between the Nationalists and the Communists. Chiang 'did not seem to realize that time is on the side of the Chinese Communists,' Gauss wrote later, nor that the 'Government's influence and control in free China is deteriorating if not yet disintegrating.' Gauss suggested that the solution might be some kind of cross-party war council, but Chiang gave the idea no more than polite acknowledgement. Actually, Chiang understood the agenda very well. All of this drove him into an even greater rage: ‘Pressure has become greater every day, both internally and from abroad. The psychological pressure from the Americans is especially great. They're hoping to force me to cooperate unconditionally with the Communists, hoping I'll accept Stilwell ... This is imperialism fully-exposed.’ Stilwell was unquestionably winning the war for Washington's ear. He made it clear that he regarded the critical situation in Burma as having been caused by Chiang's unwillingness to offer him further support.

After the fall of Hengyang, Chiang was in the depths of despair. The current disastrous situation, he wrote, was caused 'not by Japan but by our Allies'. By now, he was convinced that 'Roosevelt has already determined that he has to overthrow me.' In private, Chiang contemplated taking a very bold step. 'If it's necessary at last,' he wrote, 'I should prepare to resign my military and political positions.' To do so would force the Americans' hand. 'Roosevelt thinks I can't and don't want to resign, so he oppresses me without any concern ... He wants to use Chinese troops to make war, otherwise he'd have to send over a million American troops to East Asia to sacrifice themselves.' Chiang mulled over the possible responses to the pressure he felt Roosevelt was placing on him. Roosevelt might take the opportunity to brush Chiang aside. On the other hand, it was possible that his 'resignation might be a disadvantage to the US war effort against Japan, so they would have to change their attitude toward me', and cease to insult Chiang and China. Or the US might sit by while a 'puppet' such as Sun Fo was placed in office. Then, as the military and political situation worsened, the Americans would call on Chiang again, as 'they would have no choice but me', and would deal with him with a new sincerity. Two days later, Chiang decided that resignation was not an option: 'it's too dangerous for the country'. He reflected on the many problems that might flow from his departure, from Sun Fo's supposed closeness to the USSR to the threat of provincial militarists uniting with the CCP and the Japanese against the National Government, and the CCP contaminating the nation's youth and education system with their thinking. This appeared a self-serving (albeit private) decision, but Chiang's threat was not an idle one.

The relationship between America and China had now become poisoned almost beyond recognition. In the eyes of many Americans, Chiang's government was an ungrateful, corrupt state of secondary importance. Yet at the same time the Chinese leadership had begun to regard the Americans as a burdensome presence, an ever-increasing number of troops who were not fighting within China, but who also refused to adapt to the reality that China was a state under siege. The US had begun to build up its military presence within China, as it was anticipated that at some stage, when the Nazis had been defeated, American ground troops would be needed there.

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.

The Communists had a major base near important Japanese military and industrial centers, and they possessed valuable intelligence on Japan. If the USSR were to enter the war, it would have to attack through areas held by the CCP. Davies declared that they were 'the greatest single challenge in China to the Chiang Kai-shek government'. More contentiously, he suggested that they ran the 'most cohesive, disciplined, and aggressively anti-Japanese regime in China' (with the implication that more active fighting was being done by the CCP than by the Nationalists), and that they might form the 'foundation for a rapprochement between a new China and the Soviet Union'.

At first, Chiang fiercely resisted any suggestion that there should be formal contact between the US and the CCP. 'It's only reasonable that I should strongly refuse,' he wrote. However, the visit of US Vice President Henry Wallace in June 1944 helped to sway him. Wallace sent a deeply gloomy report to Roosevelt about the state of Chinese resistance, condemning Chiang as surrounded by 'reactionary' figures, and judging that he 'showed himself so prejudiced against the Communists that there seemed little prospect of satisfactory or enduring settlement as a result of the negotiations now underway'.

The events of the long summer of 1944 began to induce paranoia in Chiang: 'For twenty years, the Communist bandits and the Russians have been plotting against me,' he wrote. 'But now the British and Americans are plotting with the Communists - this is like world imperialism ambushing me!' From Chiang's point of view, his fear of his own allies was perfectly rational. He was seeking to resist a major Japanese incursion with reduced troops at the same time that he had been pressured to support a campaign in Burma of which he did not approve. Simultaneously, his rule was also being undermined by American attempts to find other bases of power.

Douglas DC-3 aircraft came in to land on the yellow loess soil of Yan'an, bearing the United States Army Observation Group. Mao and Zhu De went to the airfield to meet them. The group of nine, supplemented a month later by another ten, was led by John Service, who undertook political analysis, and Colonel David Barrett, in charge of military information-gathering. Service observed that he was at pains not to be taken in by the 'spell of the Chinese Communists'. Nonetheless the first impressions of the Observer Group were immensely positive, with a universal sense that they had 'come into a different country and are meeting a different people'. The differences between Yan'an and the Nationalist areas were obvious at every level. 'Bodyguards, gendarmes and the clap-trap of Chungking officialdom are ... completely lacking,' Service wrote. 'Mao and the other leaders are universally spoken of with respect ... but these men are approachable and subservience toward them is completely lacking.' Also impressive were the simplicity of life and clothing, and the lack of beggars and desperate poverty. Service also noticed the similarity in clothes and manners, at least ostensibly, between men and women. He even remarked on the absence of the 'spooning couples seen in parks or quiet streets in Chungking', echoing the activist who had commented that 'Yan'an was really not a sexy town.'

The Communist leader asked Service whether there was any prospect of an American consulate being set up at Yan'an. Service spoke diplomatically of the obstacles to such a plan, but Mao stressed that if the Americans left immediately on cessation of the war with Japan, then it would be at 'just the time of greatest danger of a Kuomintang attack and civil war'.

Gauss, who was much less starry-eyed about the CCP than Stilwell and Service were, passed on Service's enthusiastic accounts faithfully to Washington, but added a rider in which he cautioned against taking the CCP's assessment of its own contributions too literally. 'Recent Chinese Communist claims of military achievements against Japan seem to have been exaggerated,' Gauss cautioned. He acknowledged that the Communists had 'unquestionably' set up valuable sites of resistance in north China, and also contained 'some' Japanese troops in north and central China: ‘They appear to have avoided meeting the Japanese in frontal clashes, confining themselves in the main to occasional attacks against small elements of the enemy. In reviewing the battles of the past seven years in China, it would seem safe to say that Communist participation has been on a relatively minor scale. The Communist[s] have fought no battles comparable in scope and intensity to those of the Shanghai, Hsuchow [Xuzhou], Hankow [Wuhan], and Changsha campaigns; and their claims to the contrary notwithstanding, they appear to have contained but a minor proportion of the Japanese military forces operating in China.’ Gauss was no admirer of Chiang, but he could see that the CCP was not the magic key that could transform the worsening war situation in China.

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.

Chiang was still willing to give command to an American officer, but it had to be 'one in whom I can repose confidence, and must be capable of frank and sincere cooperation'. Chiang was unequivocal: 'General Stilwell has shown himself conspicuously lacking in those all-important qualifications.' He concluded by making his request crystal clear: Chiang wanted Stilwell recalled.

Chiang's most pointed accusation was that Stilwell had refused to release Lend-Lease supplies even when they were readily available in Yunnan. Chiang argued that only a minuscule number of arms had been released for China's use: '60 mountain guns, 320 anti-tank rifles, and 506 bazookas'. As a result, he declared, 'we have taken Myitkyina, but we have lost almost all of east China, and in this, General Stilwell cannot be absolved of grave responsibility.'

Stilwell had one final meeting with Chiang. Both sides mouthed the necessary hypocrisies: Chiang claimed that he regretted everything that had happened, and Stilwell asked him to remember that he had only ever acted for 'China's good'. Chiang offered Stilwell the Grand Cordon of the Blue Sky and White Sun, the highest honour that China could offer a foreigner: Stilwell declined it. ('Told him to stick it up his __ !') After that Stilwell took off for Delhi. He would never again set foot in China.

The bad blood between Chiang Kai-shek and Joseph Stilwell was the most colorful and ultimately the most public face of Sino-American discord during the wartime alliance. But it was only part of a series of misunderstandings that dogged the war in China, from turf wars over intelligence to arguments over financial assistance and troop commitments. The personal clash between Stilwell and Chiang was important, but it should not distract attention from the wider strategic decision that Marshall and the other Allied leaders had made at the start of the war: China was not going to be a major theater of war in the Allied Effort. This was perfectly understandable, but it could hardly be expected that the Chinese should consider themselves expendable.

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.

In Guilin in November 1944 Graham Peck sensed a shrill hysteria. The city was like 'a floating amusement park, adrift in a stormy sea', populated by swarms of refugees. The railway station was full to bursting with people fleeing the city, running from the oncoming Japanese assault as fast they could be transported further west.

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.

Although it did place the US air bases near Guilin out of use, these were simply relocated further inland. More importantly, the American capture of Saipan in the Pacific meant that there was another site outside China from which the US could bomb the Japanese home islands, a campaign which included the fierce firebombing of Tokyo in 1944-5. And while Ichi-go did open up the link between French Indochina and central and north China, the ragged state of the Japanese army on the Chinese mainland by early 1945 made the connection of little use. Some 23,000 Japanese troops were lost during the campaign. Yet while Ichi-go failed to help the Japanese gain outright victory, it did succeed in crippling the Nationalists. The great breadbasket and recruitment provinces of Henan and Hunan were lost, and the campaign cost the Nationalists a further 750,000 casualties.

In the latter stages of the fighting, the Japanese army suffered substantial casualties, but the losses of the Chinese were staggering in numbers and nature. At least 300,000 men were lost, but even more significant was the fact that the Chinese Nationalist armies suffered a blow from which they never recovered.

The collapse of the Chinese Nationalist forces in the summer of 1944 greatly reduced American interest in the China theater; the approach to Japan clearly would not be able to depend on a major base in China. Other approaches and bases looked far more attractive, and this shift helps explain American strategy in the latter part of the Pacific War.

Many Japanese politicians and soldiers learned to regret their entanglement in China as they struggled to stem the American tide in the Pacific. Occupation delivered nothing like the economic benefits which the invaders had expected. Had the huge Japanese forces committed in China been available for service elsewhere, they might have had a significant impact on Japan’s objectives.