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Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II 1937–1945

By Rana Mitter. 464 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. $30.

China’s “War of Resistance” against Japan has lingered as a haunting gap in our understanding of World War II. After the deaths of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek in 1975 and Communist leader Mao Zedong a year later, archival materials began emerging from both sides of the Taiwan Strait. From them, a select band of scholars assembled a body of work that has fundamentally reshaped our understanding of China’s horrendous war. Now, historian Rana Mitter has merged an astute synthesis of this prior scholarship with his own careful scrutiny of the original materials. The result is a hugely important and brilliantly executed work, clearly the best single volume on the topic.

Forgotten Ally seamlessly fuses the military, political, diplomatic, and social elements of a titanic struggle. Mitter portrays the conflict on the ground as involving four main antagonists: the Japanese, Chinese collaborators, the coalition of factions led by Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang Party, and Mao and the Communists. Another key perspective is China’s role in the global war: Mitter is particularly strong on the relationship of Chiang and later Mao with the United States.

Given the contentious nature of the previous Western accounts, Mitter displays a rare even-handedness. For example, he offers a sympathetic rendering of Wang Jingwei, a former Nationalist leader and rival of Chiang, who defected to set up a client government under the Japanese. Mitter likewise contrasts the achievements of Mao’s Communists in bringing more economic and social equality in the areas they controlled with the failures in the areas Chiang controlled. But he also points out that Chiang’s failures rested more in execution than concept: Chiang instituted many unprecedented national efforts to address China’s desperate social needs that foreshadowed those of the Communist era. Mitter also makes it clear that Wang, Chiang, and Mao all ultimately depended on what he calls states of terror to enforce their rule.

For those steeped in the old black-and-white narrative of the relationship between American General Joseph Stilwell and Chiang, which depicts Chiang as the head of a corrupt, ineffectual state that left fighting the Japanese to the Communists, Mitter’s volume will hit like a wave of arctic water. He unsparingly describes the faults of Chiang and his coalition, but emphasizes that the wartime problems they faced were gigantic, dwarfing those faced by Mao. Mitter’s summary judgment is that Chiang “played an appallingly bad hand much better that might have been expected.” He also gives Stilwell his due, but ultimately unsheathes a devastating indictment of the acerbic American proconsul.

Two other themes of this superb work demand attention. The first demonstrates that the Japanese inflicted catastrophic damage on China, destroying the fragile fruits of decades of modernization and economic advancement. But this tragedy was ultimately overshadowed by the human cost. Mitter surveys a number of different estimates of Chinese deaths, ranging from 14 to 20 million. He couples this with calculations that from 80 to 100 million Chinese—about 15 to 20 percent of the population—were refugees at one time or another.

The second theme demonstrates that China’s role in the global struggle was of first importance. Given the nation’s previous century, when Western colonial powers rode roughshod over Chinese sovereignty, China’s refusal to truckle to Japan, even during the time from 1939 to Pearl Harbor when the Chinese stood almost alone, was an amazing achievement. (Mitter points to France’s quick capitulation as a revealing contrast.) Moreover, China, thanks mainly to Chiang, tied down enormous Japanese forces that could not be deployed against the Soviet Union, Britain, and the United States. The much-reduced Nationalist war effort after early 1942 stemmed largely from the effects of earlier Japanese campaigns, which deprived the government of its revenue and industrial base, as well as the pathetically insignificant amount of aid China received from its allies.

While Mitter captures the key military aspects of the war, he makes no attempt at a comprehensive operational or tactical account. His greater emphasis—quite rightly—is on political, diplomatic, and economic elements, especially in the latter half of the book. He includes only a relative few but very pointed “bottom-up” perspectives on this vast tragedy.

Forgotten Ally ends with his justified call to recognize the full importance of China’s role in the war, and its right to be acknowledged as a peer with the major anti-Axis allies.


Originally published in the December 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.