Secret War in Shanghai: An Untold Story of Espionage, Intrigue, and Treason in World War II, by Bernard Wasserstein, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1999, $26.

An extraordinary reconstruction of conditions in Shanghai under Japanese occupation, this book throws new light on a part of the Pacific War that hitherto has been dealt with in only a piecemeal fashion. Bernard Wasserstein enriches his narrative with much detail about the men, women and institutions involved, including comprehensive research from a variety of published and unpublished sources.

Shanghai just before the war was dominated by a system of foreign concessions. Chief among them were the British, French, Japanese and American. There were also smaller Italian and German populations, as well as a large refugee population of White Russians, German Jews and others. Not subject to Chinese law, the concessionaires, over time, had come to think of themselves as Shanghailanders, a group apart, inhabiting a time and place distinct from the Chinese in whose midst they lived, but also with few ties to the governments and companies who employed them. The graphic portrait of this closed society created by Wasserstein is not a pretty one, and it became even grimmer when the city came under Japanese control in 1937.

Even under the pressure of wartime and with China’s survival at stake, the Shanghailanders could not bring themselves to participate materially in the struggle against the Japanese. Most of the espionage and intrigue that occurred seems to have been directed against each other rather than at the common enemy. While there are a few heroes in the book, their appearance does nothing to mitigate an unrelieved landscape of brutality, treachery and betrayal.

John I. Witmer