Copyright Wall Street Journal
- HOWARD W. FRENCH
‘Who lost China?” is a question that echoes quaintly down from another age. It refers to the victory of the Communists in the Chinese Civil War that followed on the heels of World War II and set the Middle Kingdom up as an adversary of the West in the decades ahead.
The question has always been preposterous on one level: China was never realistically anyone’s to lose in the first place. Indeed, the thrust of several decades of Chinese history before the outbreak of war between Nationalists and Communists in 1927 was a struggle to free the country from domination by outside powers, the U.S. included.
Rana Mitter’s “Forgotten Ally” is an important and compelling history of China’s World War II experience. It makes the who-lost-China question fresh again by closely examining Beijing’s role in the Allied war effort, the heavy and often thankless price paid by the Chinese in their fight against Japan, and the impact of China’s wartime traumas on the country’s postwar development.
“For decades, our understanding of that global conflict has failed to give a proper account of the role of China,” the author writes early on. “If China was considered at all, it was as a minor player, a bit-part actor in a war where the United States, Soviet Union, and Britain played much more significant roles.”
In this way, the scholarly neglect today of China’s World War II contributions mirrors the earlier neglect of Soviet sacrifices. Only toward the end of the Cold War did Western historians begin to accord more generous credit to the Russians and to allow for greater moral complexity in the story of a war that was never strictly one between totalitarianism and freedom.
By Rana Mitter
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 450 pages, $30)
Mr. Mitter’s book gives China its historical due. It chronicles the immense cost that China bore as it absorbed Japan’s 800,000-troop invasion beginning in 1937â€”two years before Britain and four years before the U.S. entered World War IIâ€”and deflected the brunt of the Red Sun’s destructive energies away from other theaters and Western armies. Some 14 million Chinese died as a result of the conflict. In the infamous Nanjing massacre of 1937, the Japanese 10th Army raped women en masse, used male civilians for saber practice, and set tied-together groups of 100 or more detainees afire with gasoline.
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