After someone in my Facebook group raved about Rana Mitter’s Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937–1945 last April I borrowed a copy from my local public library only to return it a few weeks later unread. But after I hearing Mitter as a panelist discussing the Sino-Japanese War on an archived episode of the BBC podcast In Our Time my interest in the book was rekindled. So I bought a copy of his 2013 book and this time around I eagerly dived into Forgotten Ally. I was not disappointed.
Forgotten Ally could be called a history of the Sino-Japanese War in three acts. With the opening act doubling as a prologue, Mitter explores the two drastically different development paths China and Japan beginning in the 1800s that resulted in China becoming easy prey for an ascendant Japan.
By the early 19th century as the Western powers were imposing their dominance across Asia. China, once one of the most advanced civilizations on earth was a declining power. The kingdom’s civil service, once the envy of the world, steadfastly refused to keep up with the times, slavishly valuing knowledge of the Confucian classics over science, technology and modern statecraft. Britain learned it could make money hand over fist selling opium to the Chinese, realizing the Chinese were powerless to stop them, thanks to Britain’s modern army and navy. This led to not one but two Opium Wars, a horrific civil war, the disastrous Boxer Rebellion and eventually the overthrow of the ruling Manchu dynasty and its replacement by a republic.
But the rulers of the young republic had little authority outside the capital city. Much of China was run by provincial warlords with major port cities like Canton and Shanghai little more than foreign-run enclaves. Much like Italy and Germany before the late 19th century China was seen by many as a mere geographical expression not a sovereign, unified nation.
Enter Japan. When confronted by the imperialist powers of the West Japan opted to modernize, beginning by transforming what had been a collection of rival feudal entities into a unified empire. The newly-established kingdom’s forwarding looking leaders then scoured the West in search of best practices they could adopt to create a modern, industrialized nation by modernizing its military and educational system as well as transportation and communication networks. Half-century later these bold measures would pay off huge dividends, making Japan an up and coming nation to be reckoned with. It defeated its two main rivals, China and Russia in two separate wars at the turn of the 20th century. A decade later it entered World War I on the side of the Allies, declaring war on Imperial Germany and taking its colonial holdings in Asia and the Pacific.
Embolden by a half century of military success this would set the stage for the middle act. Japan, much like Britain, saw China as ripe for exploiting. Rich in resources both natural and human, but divided and weak Japan began by conquering Manchuria in 1931 where it set up a puppet regime friendly to its interests. By 1937 Japan unleashed its military on the rest of China with devastating results. Although wide swaths of the country were occupied, including all of its major cities the Japanese were never able to delivery the decisive knock-out blow. China’s leaders, be they Nationalist or Communists refused to surrender but battled on.
Confronted by Japanese aggression, and even with some parts of China under the control of warlords and Chinese collaborationist armies operating in occupied areas, the Chinese were uniting as a people against a common enemy. In addition, the more Chinese civilians suffered from Japanese military aggression (especially aerial bombing raids) the more they looked to the Nationalist government to protect them. In turn, the more desperate things became, the more Nationalist leaders looked to the civilian population to carry the burden of fighting the Japanese. (Like the willingness to allow increased military conscription and higher taxes, in cash or in kind to support the war effort.) These changes in the dynamics between ruler and ruled would forever change the political landscape of modern China, especially under the new Communist regime that emerged after World War II and the Chinese Civil War that followed it
Speaking of profound changes, the third and concluding act is the Sino-Japanese War’s impact on China. After years of fighting the Japanese the Nationalists were bled white. The Communists, on the other hand fighting more as a guerrilla force did not, compared to their rivals the Nationalists take as heavy losses. Secure in their holdout Mao and his inner circle were able to consolidate control over the Party emerged after the Japan’s surrender a unified and stronger force compared to the Nationalists. Once the Chinese Civil War resumed in the wake of Japan’s surrender the Communists would go on to defeat the Nationalists and rule China.
But there’s another lasting legacy that’s overlooked. After Japan attacked American, British and Dutch interests in Asia and the Pacific China, almost by default joined the Allies. Even if in principle alone, America and Britain had to consider China an equal partner in the wartime relationship. This elevated China to a kind of great power status, evident by the victorious allies granting the nation a permanent Security Council Seat at the newly-founded United Nations. (Although it would take decades for the ruling Communists to take official possession of the seat from the Taiwan-based Nationalists.) Even after the Communist victory in 1949 China was seen as major power and not the backwards and impotent country deserved of foreign exploitation as it had been for all of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th.
Forgotten Ally is both well-researched and well-written. Not only do I have no reservations recommending it there’s a good chance it will make my Favorite Nonfiction list come December.