Very Short Reviews: Mitter’s Forgotten Ally

Forgotten Ally

Rana Mitter is currently a Fellow of St. Cross College at Oxford and a member of the faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University. He has written extensively on modern Chinese history with a special focus on the period before, during, and after World War II. His latest work, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945, was named a book of the year by the Economist, Financial Times, Observers, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, and New Statesman.

Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 (Boston: Mariner Books, 2013).

  1. Mitter argues that the true story of the war, never well understood in the West (partly due to the influence of subsequent Cold War politics) and largely obscured until recently in China by the ruling Communist Party, played an enormously significant role in shaping Chinese attitudes and making China what it is today.
  2. An extremely important theme running throughout this book is the way the experience intersected with the modernization of China.
  3. The conflict interrupted an earnest Kuomintang initiative to bring China into the 20th century China, halting modernization in some areas (e.g. economic development), pushing it forward in desultory fashion in others (e.g. social welfare provisions), and accelerating it dramatically in still others (e.g. political mobilization).
  4. As Mitter points out, the war helped determine who among the following would guide China’s modernization and therefore how it would unfold: Chiang Kai-Shek (leader of the Kuomintang government), Mao Zedong (who seized the opportunity presented by the war to become the unquestioned leader of the Communists), and Wang Jingwei (a member of the Kuomintang who advocated cooperation with the Japanese and eventually defected to them to found a collaborationist government in Nanjing).
  5. China’s future course, however, would not be determined exclusively by these leaders or even the Chinese people; it was contingent on the events of the war and the Japanese, the Soviets, the British, and the Americans who helped influence those events.
  6. Mitter recognizes Chiang’s weaknesses as well as those of the Kuomintang government (some readers, however, may think that he does not lay enough stress on these weaknesses, including widespread corruption and incompetence), but he also emphasizes the enormously difficult position in which this government found itself throughout the war.
  7. Much of that difficulty had to do with the Western imperialist powers: for over four years, until December 1941, they left the Chinese to their own devices in dealing with a militarily superior Japan; although China did enormous service to the Allied cause by refusing to surrender and holding down 500,000 Japanese troops, the Allies never made a priority of assisting Chiang; and when assistance did come, it was accompanied by very difficult conditions (e.g. General Joseph Stilwell was imposed on Chiang as chief of staff and commander of the China Burma India Theater which gave the American control of all Lend-Lease supplies to China, an unfortunate situation, for as Stilwell exercised enormous leverage over Chiang, the two grew to hate each other).
  8. Of course, the Nationalists discredited themselves with repeated defeats in 1937 and 1938 (that led to widespread loss of territory), the breaching of the Yellow River dikes to halt the Japanese advance in 1938 (that caused the deaths of 500,000 Chinese civilians), the failure of the campaign in Burma in 1942 (yet another disaster for Chinese arms), the Henan famine of 1942 and 1943 (which killed some 3 million more civilians), catastrophic losses during Japan’s Ichi-Go campaign in 1944, as well as the unraveling of the Chinese government and economy.
  9. Although they also faced a number of difficulties, the Communists emerged from the war with a better reputation at home and even abroad—in part because they did not have to bear the logistical and administrative burden of supporting a conventional army the way the Nationalists did.
  10. This book is not a military history, and Mitter does not seem particularly comfortable discussing military subjects in any kind of detail; this story is  cetered on Chiang, Mao, and Wang with occasionally forays into the lives of everyday people or a bird’s eye view of great events.
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