KAWAGUCHI, SAITAMA - “Everyone was scared of the Americans.” Their attitude, formerly altruistic, had changed into one that threatened “domination” of China.
— Madame Chiang Kai-shek on the immediate postwar years
The Pacific War concluded with the unconditional surrender of Japan on Aug. 15, 1945, and was officially brought to an end on Sept. 2 of that same year. The true exchange of suzerainty, however, could more accurately be said to have occurred a little over two weeks later on Sept. 19. On that non-remembered date, the USS Rocky Mount, the flagship of the armada of American naval ships that steamed up the Huangpu River to reclaim the port of Shanghai, moored itself at the No. 1 buoy, the berth that had historically been reserved for the flagship of the British Royal Navy.
In the early 20th century, the American anchorage at Shanghai was a lowly seventh in the hierarchical chain. A request to move up the line to that of recently defeated Germany following World War I was opposed by the British harbor master working for the British-controlled Chinese Maritime Customs Service, before direct pressure on Chinese authorities carried the day. In September 1945, however, there would be no obstructionist thoughts from either Japanese or British alike. Japan may have been the enemy, but China was the prize. Now America was in charge, and China was hers — if she could claim it.
The above is not the prevailing view on the ultimate rationale for the military altercation in the Asian theater of the collective conflict known as World War II. Originally termed the Greater East Asia War by the Japanese, the “Pacific War” designation came into being as a result of U.S. instruction during the Occupation of Japan. The U.S. intent was to portray that conflict as a fight to the finish between an aggressive Japan and isolationist United States, rather than an imperial war between imperial powers for control of imperial possessions. The U.S. has been largely successful in achieving this goal.
U.S. World War II newsreels set the origin of the war at 1931 — the date at which the Imperial Japanese Army asserted its authority over the Chinese province of Manchuria. Other sources have marked the inception back to the Triple Intervention — an act of diplomatic pressure in 1895 — or even to the arrival of Commodore Perry, who famously “opened” Japan in 1853. But we could go back further still. Perry did not stumble upon Japan. He was sent there by his government, and the justifications and rationalizations under which he was dispatched had been formed during the generations that preceded him.
The era of Perry was of “naked imperialism,” of Western exploitation that was largely made possible in its Asian application by Chinese passivity. China is an enormous nation with a long and technologically sophisticated historical legacy dating back as far as records are transcribed. The ingenerate leader of the region, a policy of isolationism, initiated in the mid-1400s, condemned it to a deference toward others.
The principle “other” was Britain. It was joined by the U.S., Japan, and a Who’s Who of established and aspiring imperial nations from the European continent. The peak of penetration was the late 19th century, after which the assemblage was gradually whittled down.
First to go were the Portuguese, Italians, Norwegians, Swedes, Dutch, Spanish, Austrians and Belgians. These secondary states had never been able to establish themselves as serious players in the game. The Portuguese made do with their island colony of Macau while the remainder largely withdrew.
Next in line was Russia. Despite their geographical advantage, the ambitions of the Russians were repressed by domestic concerns. The Germans never recovered from defeat in World War I. Stripped of their base at the port of Qingdao, and with their domestic economy in ruins, their influence could only decline.
The British and French, while present to the end, were victims of the slide in European dominance that characterized the 20th century. While retaining significant presences in China and its surrounds, they had ceased to be expansion-minded players. Following the ruinous World War I, the best for which they could hope was the maintenance of their already considerable holdings.
For America and Japan, however, the future promised more. Both maintained the scope and inclination to expand their imperial presence. This developing showdown between the U.S. and Japan was one of two two-way struggles within which China was immersed during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. The other was the one that gradually evolved between the two social, ideological and military domestic powers that would fight to reunite a China that had fractured under the weight of the prolonged imperial presence: the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong.
The technological and industrial backwardness of 1930s China ensured that Chiang was in need of an anti-communist patron for financial and materiel support. The Japanese initially fulfilled this role before giving up on Chiang and attempted to legitimize a puppet regime in occupied Nanjing. Chiang was then drawn to an increasingly receptive American nation. A proxy war between the U.S. and Japan consequently ensued.
In the failed negotiations between Japan and the U.S. that preceded Pearl Harbor, the key American demand was Japanese recognition of Chiang’s regime. In 1949, when Chiang was bested by Mao, America spoke of having lost China. If Japan had assented in 1941, America would have “won.” Chiang, by then, was squarely within the American camp. Japanese recognition would have culminated in the U.S. assumption of a dominant “advisory” presence in particularly short order.
The proxy war became what could more reasonably be termed the “Asia-Pacific War” with the Pearl Harbor attack, to which Chiang responded with unbridled joy. He then waited for America to defeat the Japanese and formally replace them as his patron of choice. A farcical contingency occurred mid-war, in 1943, when a series of American-administered defeats led the Japanese to offer Chiang genuinely favorable terms. He spurned all advances lest Japanese troop withdrawals leave him exposed to a Communist advance.
Following the ultimate defeat of Japan, Chiang’s desired orderly replacement of patron for patron occurred. The U.S. and Japan began a cozy collaboration in which the Japanese held back the Communist troops from the cities they controlled while America airlifted in the Nationalist force. Several senior Japanese military officials became advisers to Chiang.
The attempts of postwar America to deal with the realities of a fractured China, however, proved no more successful than those of prewar Japan. Mao wore down Chiang and America was left to defend Asia from those very Russian communists it had invited in to help with its “liberation,” and to whom it was obliged to concede the top half of the Korean Peninsula.
“The American experience in China” throughout the 1940s “was a first-class disaster for the American people,” concluded John K. Fairbanks, the legendary American China Hand. The wars in Korea and Vietnam were “part of this disaster — it all goes together.” Indeed it does, and it goes on still today.
Paul de Vries is a writer and educator. His book “Remembering Santayana: the Lessons Unlearnt from the War Against Japan” is available at Amazon.