Our Western history books tell us that the Second World War began on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. But there are no absolutes in historiography; even this seemingly objective date is a product of our biases as subjective observers. A better date to choose for the beginning of the bloodiest conflict in human history might be July 7, 1937, the day that Japan invaded Inner China. For this date rather than the later one marks the real beginning of more than eight years of continuous warfare between the group of nations that would come to be known as the Allies and those known as the Axis powers.
The parallels between the two invasions are striking. Both Germany and Japan felt compelled to manufacture a casus belli for an otherwise entirely unprovoked attack. The Germans mounted a series of false-flag assaults on their own installations near the border between their country and Poland, while Japan, acting in a more improvisational spirit, took advantage of the suspected kidnapping of one of its soldiers on leave in Beiping to send an army through the wide-open gates of an undefended Great Wall and onward, taking Beiping itself without a fight. (The soldier in question had by then returned to his comrades of his own accord, bleary-eyed but none the worse for wear, having spent the night in a brothel rather than in the hands of any dastardly Chinese kidnappers.)
Predictably enough, Chiang Kai-shek did very little in response to the Japanese seizure of his country’s once and future capital, managing only a tepid statement that he “seeks peace, but not at any cost. We do not want war, but we may be forced to defend ourselves.” At the time, his position as China’s recognized head of state was as precarious as it had ever been. He had narrowly survived an attempted coup by some of the warlords and his own generals at the end of 1936, and Edgar Snow’s glowing portrait of his Communist arch-enemies was selling like hotcakes all over the world, making his own government look hidebound in contrast.
It soon became clear that Japan would not be satisfied with Beiping alone. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers in trucks and tanks continued to pour through the Great Wall even after the city had been secured. In a credible Asian implementation of Germany’s vaunted blitzkrieg warfare, aided and abetted by the near-total lack of organized Chinese resistance, they captured the entire eastern seaboard of Northern Inner China and crossed the Qinling Mountains. Within a scant five weeks, they were approaching Shanghai.
It was only now that the Chinese began to fight back in earnest, as Chiang at long last committed his own army to the fight. No less respected an historian than Barbara Tuchman has claimed that he chose to make a stand near Shanghai because rather than in spite of all of the terrified foreigners in the city. He explicitly wanted to force into being, as she puts it, “the most visible and publicized and important battle the world had seen since the smashing of the Hindenburg Line in 1918. Chiang Kai-shek had no other military plan at Shanghai than that of the death stand, but he was playing for world opinion. He believed [a] battle at Shanghai, the international city with its large foreign investments, would lead to mediation and possibly even intervention by Britain and the United States and other foreign powers.” His army held the line for three months, but the hoped-for intervention didn’t come. His soldiers bore the brunt of their leader’s bid for international attention. The Japanese enjoyed complete control of the air, which let them bomb and strafe soldiers and civilians alike with impunity. Almost 200,000 Chinese died in those three months, compared to no more than 20,000 Japanese.
The Japanese were not oblivious to the game Chiang was playing; they were careful not to bomb or shell the international quarter of Shanghai, and this cautiousness may very well be what caused his plan to rally the West to his side to fall short of expectations. Not wanting war with the West — at least not yet — the Japanese made it clear that, when the city did fall, the foreigners there would be allowed to more or less continue with business as usual. They more or less honored this promise when that inevitability finally did come to pass, but Shanghai’s foreign population was nevertheless living now on borrowed time. When the novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood visited Shanghai in 1938, he found a city “conquered, yet unoccupied by its conquerors,” where “the old life is still ticking, but seems doomed to stop, like a watch dropped in the desert.” Every Westerner and well-heeled Chinese there who had a lick of sense was making contingency plans for getting out of town in a hurry, if not right now then as soon as the axe began to fall for real. Everyone could sense that the glittering, glamorous, multicultural Shanghai that had given birth to the Soong dynasty wasn’t long for this world.
Although the war with Japan was destined to go on for almost eight more years, the brave but futile attempt to defend Shanghai would prove the firmest stand on an open field of battle that Chiang Kai-shek’s military would ever make against the invaders. With the Japanese now within easy striking distance of his capital of Nanjing, Chiang and his government hightailed it westward, leaving behind the dregs of his army — 90,000 under-trained, under-equipped, and under-nourished soldiers — to buy them some time. The Japanese arrived with only about 50,000 soldiers of their own, but these were seasoned veterans with the latest kit at their disposal. They easily routed Nanjing’s pathetic defenders, then embarked enthusiastically on one of the most concentrated atrocities of the entire Second World War.
The political establishment in Japan hadn’t intended for the war to go on this long; they had merely planned to bite off another chunk of China and then reach another accommodation with Chiang that would allow him to retain power in reduced circumstances until they were ready for their next meal. They certainly hadn’t expected him to continue the fight rhetorically and politically when his actual military was so obviously outclassed and beaten. In an effort to force him to the negotiating table like a reasonable leader, they unleashed their soldiers on Nanjing’s civilian population, with not just permission but orders to burn, rape, torture, and kill until they could no longer muster the strength to swing their machetes. From a Japanese journalist on the scene:
On the wharves there was the dark silhouette of a mountain of dead bodies. About 50 to 100 people were toiling there, dragging bodies from the mountain of corpses and throwing them into the Yangtze River. The bodies dripped blood, some of them still alive, and moaned weakly, their limbs twitching. On the pier was a field of glistening mud under the moon’s dim light. Wow! That’s all blood! After a while, the coolies had done their job of dragging corpses, and the soldiers lined them up along the river. Rat-tat-tat machine-gun fire could be heard. The coolies fell backward into the river and were swallowed by the raging currents. A Japanese officer at the scene estimated that 20,000 people had been executed.
The sadism on display was ghastly, like Dante’s Inferno come to life. The soldiers nailed their victims to lampposts, skinned them alive, fed them alive to starving dogs, put out their eyes and cut off their ears, nailed them to boards and then ran over them in tanks, herded them into the top floors of buildings and then set the buildings on fire, and brought them to “doctors” who used them for gruesome experiments years before Josef Mengele set up residency at Auschwitz. A guilt-ridden Japanese soldier later authored a belated confession.
Soldiers impaled babies on bayonets and tossed them still alive into pots of boiling water. They gang-raped women from the ages of 12 to 80 and killed them when they could no longer satisfy sexual requirements. I beheaded people, starved them to death, burned them, and buried them alive, over 200 in all. It is terrible that I could turn into an animal and do these things.
This Rape of Nanjing, which went on for about six endless weeks from December 13, 1937, and resulted in the deaths of several hundred thousand Chinese civilians, was not only inhuman but thoroughly counterproductive in a political sense. For, as the Japanese ought to have known, Chiang Kai-shek was not a man to be dissuaded from his course by any amount of death and suffering, having already been responsible for plenty of both during his own political career. Indeed, in a ghastly sense the Rape of Nanjing played right into Chiang’s hands. Despite the best efforts of the Japanese, pictures of the horrors made it to the West, further hardening public opinion against them and increasing support for Chiang’s cause. (It didn’t help matters any that Japanese aircraft had bombed and sunk an American gunboat — accidentally, or so they claimed — during the assault on Nanjing.)
While Nanjing was taking the brunt of the invaders’ fury, Chiang and his government set up shop in the city of Wuhan, 285 miles (460 kilometers) west of that hell on earth. The Japanese continued their advance, albeit at a slower pace now, and in October of 1938 took Guangzhou, China’s last unoccupied seaport. With the enemy now dangerously close to his latest capital, Chiang moved it another 450 miles (725 kilometers) westward, to the town of Chongqing. The Japanese took Wuhan without a fight shortly thereafter, thus completing their conquest of the economic and political heart of China.
The landscape around Chongqing, on the other hand, could be most charitably described as China’s agrarian heartland. Here, deep in the country’s interior, life had changed little in hundreds of years; the wheeled vehicles in which Chiang’s entourage arrived were as much a novelty for these peasants as flying cars would be for you or me. The winters here were wet and cold, the summers humid and hot. Perched on a plateau above terraced rice paddies, lacking such niceties as indoor plumbing, Chongqing itself stank to high heaven all year round. Chiang and his wife Mei-ling appropriated the largest house in town, which was conveniently surrounded by a high stone wall for defensive purposes. They would remain there for the next seven years, as much a Chinese government in exile as a government in being.
For after 1938, the war descended into a curious stasis. Having now taken Guangzhou and Wuhan to complete its collection of all of China’s biggest cities, Japan thought, reasonably enough, that absolutely everyone ought to be able to see by this point that it had won the war. But, by simply refusing to acknowledge that obvious fact, Chiang kept it from becoming a consensus reality. Japan was an island nation, with an army that had been built for lightning strikes mounted in close coordination with its navy, not for a long, grinding campaign of attrition deep in the interior of Asia. Yet the latter was exactly what it now faced if it ever wanted to bring the war to an official end. By refusing either to actively try to win the war or to accept defeat, Chiang kept Japan infuriated and confounded, and forced it to garrison 1 million troops in that part of China it did own in order to guard its gains against Chiang’s army-in-being of 4 million soldiers. Whatever else one can say about Chiang Kai-shek, there was a slippery sort of genius about the man. In a 1939 speech, he explained his strategy of trading space for time — a strategy, needless to say, that only very large countries such as China have the luxury of indulging in.
From the geographic point of view, our country possesses natural advantages for defense. Our ancestors, 2000 years ago, took advantage of the mountainous terrain in constructing the Great Wall. From east to west, our country extends through more than 65 degrees of longitude. From north to south, it includes the climates of the frigid, temperate, and torrid zones. In any discussion of military success or failure, we have always considered topography and climate of great importance. Rivers, mountains, and deserts abound in our interior and in the west; arctic cold alternates with tropic heat. Invaders in the past have succeeded in holding only a part of our country for a limited time. They have never permanently controlled the whole of our country for a long time. Even in the Yuan and Qing dynasties, when the strongest forces attempted to conquer us, they were able to occupy only certain strategic points, and the spirit of resistance among the people was not crushed. Today a nation of 70 million people thinks it can absorb a nation of six times its population and with a far older history and civilization. What a mad dream! Topography and climate are again combining against China’s invaders. No weapon in the world will be effective against this combination, reinforced by the firm determination and mighty strength of our people. Geographically, our country cannot be conquered.
The Japanese also had to contend with the Communists, who were persisting and, indeed, growing their numbers rapidly in their enclave well west of Beiping. Mao Zedong quickly found that his guerilla tactics were as effective against the Japanese as they had been against Chiang’s armies, and he was a constant thorn in the side of the invaders in Northern Inner China — much more so, it must be said, than China’s “real” armies ever were after the Battle of Shanghai. Their pluck won the Communists more international admirers, much to the chagrin of Chiang. He was doubtless relieved that the Communists lacked the modern weaponry they would need to do more than harass the Japanese.
But just how, then, was China to be rid of the Japanese? Chiang’s plan in a nutshell was to maintain the status quo, to neither try for victory nor accept defeat, until Japan’s ever-growing belligerence all over East Asia and the Pacific angered other nations enough to secure the allies he felt he needed to win the war. “The rest of the world is bound to catch fire from the Asiatic blaze,” said his brother-in-law and finance minister T.V. Soong. “A great war is inevitably coming, and China has only to hold out until that happens.” More than ever before, Chiang was playing for the international public. For all that he loathed and feared the Communists, he couldn’t afford to appear to be giving his feud with them priority over his war against Japan; the Communists, for their part, were also engaged in an international public-relations effort, and thus in much the same situation. Therefore these two groups who had been locked in an existential struggle with one another for a decade prior to July of 1937 felt mutually compelled to make at least an outward show of common cause: Chiang, for example, allowed Communist delegates to participate in an admittedly almost powerless People’s Political Council in Chongqing. Much of the communication between the two factions was mediated by Soong Ching-ling, who had joined her family in Chongqing despite her antipathy for Chiang, hoping thereby to be a patriotic example for everyone. Needless to say, however, the two sides never ceased jockeying for postwar advantage behind the scenes. “The Japanese are a disease of the skin,” said Chiang privately. “The Communists are a disease of the blood.”
It was during this period that Soong Mei-ling came fully into her own as a character on the world stage. While her husband spoke no English, Mei-ling spoke it beautifully — literally so; her time at Wesleyan College had endowed her with a lilting Georgia accent, as incongruous as it was beguiling in the setting of war-torn China. Not only did she charm a stream of Western journalists, but the “almond-eyed Cleopatra” wrote articles about her people’s plight for The New York Times, and was invited to speak often on American radio. Her most enthusiastic admirer was the media mogul Henry Luce, the Rupert Murdoch of his era, who had been born in China to American missionaries and had first featured Mei-ling and her husband on the cover of his massively influential Time magazine back in 1931. The same magazine named the two of them “Man and Wife of the Year” for 1937, calling them China’s “one supreme leader and his remarkable wife. No woman in the West holds so great a position as Mme. Chiang Kai-shek holds in China.” Luce filled Time and his even more popular magazine Life with coverage of her exploits: the children’s schools and hospitals she supervised; the wounded soldiers she visited; the time her car was attacked by Japanese airplanes while she was on one of her errands of mercy and she was thrown bodily from the crashing vehicle, only to stand up, dust herself off, climb into the next car in the convoy, and continue on her way.
Although Mei-ling was hardly above enjoying the spotlight for its own sake, she and Chiang did have an ulterior motive every time she opened her mouth or put pen to paper: the procuring of Western aid for their government. Henry Luce surely understood this, but, since he wished for the same thing, he had no problem aiding and abetting her efforts.
The world waits now to see whether China and its Generalissimo have the moral and material stamina to go on fighting Japan. Not many people have the courage to be a “Lost Cause.” And Chiang’s prospects are now worse than were ever those of the American Revolution’s George Washington. Chiang Kai-shek has heretofore shown himself a man of remarkable courage and resolution. He is a converted Methodist who has now for solace the examples of tribulations in the Christian Bible.
(Historian Sterling Seagrave, who is always good for a zinger when it comes to Chiang and the Soongs,chortles over this passage that “Chiang’s only similarity to George Washington was false teeth.”)
T.V. Soong’s prediction about the world’s future proved to be only half correct in the short term. His “great war” did come, but it was initially a product of other tensions than the “Asiatic blaze.” Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, was not at all conducive to Chiang’s campaign for foreign aid, in that it made China’s travails seem of comparatively little importance to nervous Americans. In June of 1940, T.V. Soong himself therefore went to Washington, D.C., where he set up permanent shop as the head of an emerging “China lobby” in the United States. A man with a mind like a slide rule, he was quite un-Chinese, in this English-speaking milieu at least, in the way that he pressed his case without circumlocution or preamble. One Washington functionary said that he “reminds me of [a] star Wisconsin halfback, very quick on the ball and inclined to plow through between guard and tackle rather than waste time going around end.” But his methods were self-evidently effective. He secured his first $25 million “loan” just three months after arriving in Washington, then another $100 million before the year was out.
In these and the many negotiations that would follow, T.V. and his associates didn’t hesitate to play to the personal feelings of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Delano side of the latter’s family had made a fortune in the China trade in the nineteenth century, and his home was still littered with souvenirs of that time. He stated forthrightly that this history made him feel “the deepest sympathy” for the Chinese people. And, especially after Roosevelt was reelected to an unprecedented third term in November of 1940, he had the clout to make his sympathies and those of the United States Congress identical. Their shared interest in China made strange bedfellows of Roosevelt and Henry Luce; the latter was a staunch conservative who had spent the 1930s fighting a dogged rearguard action against Roosevelt’s New Deal. The two men could agree on little, but they could agree on China. “For $100 million,” wrote Luce’s Life magazine, “China promised to keep 1.125 million Japanese troops pinned in the field; to keep Japan’s formidable fleet blockading the China shore; to retard the aggressors’ march in the direction of immediate U.S. interests. The merchandise was fantastically cheap at the price.”
In March of 1941, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, which made military and financial assistance to those nations actively fighting against tyranny — a group which included China — a matter of ongoing government policy. “Thereafter the flow of aid became an investment,” writes Barbara Tuchman, “and the need to protect the investment increased the flow until it became a silver cord attaching America to [China’s] Nationalist Government. There is no more entangling alliance than aid to indigent friends.”
Yet there were worrisome signs almost from the start that the recipients of all that cash weren’t entirely on the square. Within weeks of the first payments going out, a Washington gossip columnist was reporting that some of the aid “had stuck to the fingers of some Far East lovers of the democratic way of life.” The suspicion and reality of graft would haunt the United States’s relationship with Chiang’s regime for the rest of the latter’s existence. One name turns up constantly in this context: that of Soong Ai-ling, who kept a much lower profile than her two younger sisters, but whose husband H.H. Kung had replaced her brother T.V. as China’s latest finance minister. Although ironclad proof of malfeasance has never been publicly disclosed by any of the interested parties, even many friends of Chiang’s government were certain she engaged in flagrant currency manipulation, insider trading, and the outright theft of a substantial portion of the money that was sent to China as foreign aid. The impression of a Lady Macbeth emerges from their reports, spinning her webs of intrigue behind the scenes, using her pliable, not especially imaginative husband for her own ends. “She is the shrewdest, most capable, and absolutely unscrupulous character I have ever known,” said no less a luminary than the mayor of Chongqing. Ai-ling’s own sister Ching-ling tacitly agreed: “She’s very clever, Ai-ling. She never gambles. She buys and sells only when she gets advance information from confederates in the ministry of finance about changes in government fiscal policy.” Tellingly, while the rest of her family toughed it out in Chongqing, Ai-ling and her husband took up more comfortable residence in a mansion in British Hong Kong.
At the same time, though, it must be recognized that it wasn’t completely clear to what legitimate purpose the American largess could actually be put. What industrial base China had once possessed was now occupied in its entirety by the Japanese. Ditto the ports through which purchases of foreign-made arms would normally be expected to arrive. That left only long treks overland as the only delivery routes — treks which were scarcely less daunting in this time of global war than they had been during the time of Marco Polo.
Confronted with these difficulties, Chiang fell even more under the sway of an American advisor who had been at his side since a month before the Japanese invaded. Claire Lee Chennault was a hard-bitten Texan who had gone from high-school teacher to aviator after his country had entered the First World War. He never got a chance to fly in combat, but after the war he was embroiled in a charged debate that took place inside the Army Air Corps about the future of warfare in the air. At issue was whether the latest strategic bombers would be able to protect themselves from enemy interceptors as they bombed cities into oblivion, or whether they would still require fighter escorts. Chennault was in the latter camp — the one that would eventually be proven right by the reality of war, but that lost the debate in the peacetime military. Frustrated at not being listened to, grounded by bronchitis caused by too many cigarettes and deafness caused by too many screaming power dives at the head of an aerobatics squadron, he retired from the military in 1937 at age 46. Within six weeks, he arrived in China, having been hired to conduct a survey of the Chinese air force.
Incredibly, Soong Mei-ling, who barely knew which end of an airplane was which, was officially in charge of this organization, which Chiang had purchased kit and caboodle from Italy earlier in the decade, when his flirtation with fascism was at its peak. Chennault’s assessment was scathing. The pilots, who were selected on the basis of family connections rather than talent, could barely get into the air and back onto the ground in one piece, much less do anything productive in between — which was just as well, given that their Fiat biplanes were deathtraps by any standard, slow and fragile and chronically unreliable. Chennault learned that, of the 500 airplanes Chiang had bought about five years earlier, less than 100 of them could still fly. The Japanese barely even realized they existed after their invasion began, just as Chennault had predicted.
Yet Chennault’s contempt didn’t extend to the ostensible head of this rattletrap outfit. On the contrary, he and Mei-ling took to one another immediately, beginning a committed if platonic long-term romance. “She will always be a princess to me,” he said. Mei-ling, for her part, readily resigned her post to Chennault, who saw it as a chance to do in China what he had not been allowed to do in his native country: to build an air force his way.
The only problems were a lack of money, equipment, and personnel. Therefore Chennault was as eager for American aid as anyone in Chiang’s government. He claimed that, if he was given 500 of the new Boeing B-17 heavy bombers, he could win the war with them all by himself. This was pure fantasia on multiple levels. It was, first of all, a head-snapping reversal of the position that Chennault had argued so stridently — and, as it would transpire, correctly — while still in the American military, that bombers alone couldn’t protect themselves against enemy interceptors. (The Chinese air force had no fighters capable of defending themselves in the air, much less of defending bombers.) Then, too, building an airfield able to accommodate the huge bombers in China’s hardscrabble outback would require many, many months of backbreaking labor by thousands of coolies. The most obvious objection of all, however, was that there simply were no B-17s to be had. The United States was scrambling to rearm itself after two decades of intense isolationism, and wasn’t about to give away 500 of its newest, most desirable aircraft before they had even been built, no matter how hard the China lobby worked the press or what text the Lend-Lease Act contained.
But Claire Chennault had a trump card with which to counter all of these objections in Chongqing if not in Washington: his pipe dream was exactly what Chiang Kei-shek most wished to hear. Chennault was telling him that he could defeat the Japanese without leaving the safety of his Chongqing bolthole, and without risking what remained of his army after the Battle of Shanghai, which he was anxious to preserve in preparation for the civil war with the Communists that he knew would resume as soon as the foreign invaders were driven away. Indeed, he must have been licking his lips at the prospect of unleashing his super-bombers against these, his most dangerous enemies. An unusually perceptive journalist named Martha Gellhorn, who visited Chiang and his wife, sensed as much: “They were not fools. The Japanese would disappear someday. The true threat to the Chiangs’ power lay in the people of China and therefore in the Communists. I didn’t need political expertise to decide, in a few hours, that these two stony rulers could care nothing for the miserable hordes of their people, and in turn their people had no reason to love them.”
Chennault never did get his 500 bombers, but he did get a vastly less impressive consolation prize. The United States had been planning to give 100 Curtiss P-40 fighter planes to Britain for use in the Middle East. But, despite being of recent vintage, the P-40 had not proved overly popular with British pilots, thanks to its fragile landing gear, its lack of armor protection around the cockpit, and its temperamental engine which performed especially poorly at high altitudes. Britain was prepared to see the P-40s given to China instead, especially if it would help to lessen the threat of Japanese aggression that loomed over British Singapore, Hong Kong, Burma, and even India while the mother country had its hands full with Nazi Germany.
It was far less than Chennault had asked for, but the China lobby did manage to satisfy one final request he made. The American government made it possible for existing American pilots in any branch of military service to resign and go to China to fly the P-40s as mercenaries, with a salary of up to $750 per month and a bounty of $500 for every Japanese plane they shot down, plus a guarantee of reinstatement in the American military once their Far Eastern “tour of duty” was up. Thus the P-40s that reached East Asia by ship in April of 1941 were followed over the next several months by a steady trickle of pilots to fly them, a motley crew of adventurers, idealists, and malcontents.
Among their number was one Gregory Boyington. In his memoir, he depicts a process that many earnest Westerners who came to China to aid Chiang Kai-shek in his fight for freedom passed through: that of fulsome admiration gradually giving way to bitter cynicism. Even Mei-ling’s charm didn’t work on everybody, as is testified by the reports of Martha Gellhorn and now Gregory Boyington.
It was so obvious that the Generalissimo was nothing but a front who never said anything on his own or even thought for himself. The Madame did everything. Chiang Kai-shek just seemed to be led around where she wanted him to be led, and, right or wrong, I was positive that the Madame was a number-one con artist if I had ever seen one. I had doped out that the male’s having to be the power for Oriental prestige was the only reason for Chiang being around at all.
This analysis of what was really going on in the Chinese government and the Chiang household isn’t accurate in most of the specifics, but it is nonetheless worth recording here, in that many other Western visitors came away with the same impression, a product of the contrast between Chiang’s withdrawn, taciturn personality and that of his gracious, loquacious wife, who, unlike him, could communicate with them directly in English.
The First American Volunteer Group, soon to be better known as the “Flying Tigers,” was still practicing tactics at a borrowed British Royal Air Force base in Burma on December 7, 1941. “Everyone had been sound asleep in our grass-covered barracks,” writes Boyington. “Now lanterns were moving about in the darkness. Then I heard Harvey’s excited shouting, and he said, ‘Pearl Harbor has been attacked! Pearl Harbor has been blown up!'” The “great war” between the democratic West and Japan that had been predicted by T.V. Soong years before had come at last.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)