The Magazine

How China Was 'Lost'

And could it have been saved?

Jan 28, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 19 • By ARTHUR WALDRON
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True, Chiang had managed by 1928 to impose a fragile unity on the country. But in 1931 hostilities with Tokyo began when Japanese troops annexed Manchuria (today the three provinces of Northeast China). That struggle became total in 1937, when the Japanese invaded the heart of China to the south, including Shanghai, into the battle for which Chiang threw his best German-trained divisions. When that was lost, a long, bloody fighting retreat ensued—through Nanking (now Nanjing, where the terrible massacre occurred), up the vast Yangtze River to Wuhan (where Davies had been consul), and finally to Chungking in the distant southwest. This city was chosen as last refuge because it lay above the precipitous three gorges of the Yangtze, which were impassable to land forces, and was thus one of the few places in China the Japanese could not reach—except by air: They bombed it regularly.

Such was the dire situation when the United States entered World War II in December 1941. Strategically, China was a spent force, though fighting continued all over the map. It was incapable of a war effort remotely comparable to what the British, Soviets, and Americans were mounting. Not only that: Its government, never strong throughout the country, had been greatly weakened, while the Communists, who favored low-casualty guerrilla tactics, were growing in strength.

Nor was the United States in a position to offer much help. Washington judged Europe to be the primary theater, which meant that material aid to the embattled Chinese was “only a trickle” during 1942-43, years when aid poured into Europe and the Soviet Union. In 1944, an all-out Japanese offensive came very close to toppling Chiang’s government, and Washington briefly panicked. Yet none of this struck home: FDR’s “geopolitical assumption” remained that China, under Chiang’s leadership, would become a great power after the war. Such an outcome would have been possible only if America had designated China the primary theater in the war against Japan: if they had landed hundreds of thousands of troops there, systematically built up Nationalist forces, and moved deliberately from south to north, retaking the vast continent of China, mile by mile and battle by battle, as was done in Europe. That approach was discarded, however, in favor of the far less casualty-intensive strategy of island-hopping and bombing Japan.

Instead of joining the war in China, the best the administration could do, as Davies observes, was “to present Chiang Kai-shek with a high-ranking military officer as adviser .  .  . an earnest of large-scale support to come.” Rather than grappling with the inescapable issues that Davies and others were already pressing—e.g., how to work with a faction-ridden Chinese government whose armies were being bled white; whether to adopt a China-based or Pacific-based strategy against Japan; how to deal with the inevitable territorial demands Stalin would make, certainly extending to Manchuria—

The President put great store by getting along with the Generalissimo. His vision of the Big Four gaining victory and dispensing a just peace depended on, he thought, avoiding unpleasantness with Chiang.

To make matters worse, Roosevelt was “a politician not an executive,” and was accustomed to undercutting and bypassing his formal officialdom, treating even his secretaries of state as “greeters” while he and Harry Hopkins ran foreign policy.

Not surprisingly, the most compelling reading in this memoir is Davies’s description of how, exactly, this was done. Particularly delicious is his rendering of the remarkable procession of personal envoys—one of Roosevelt’s favorite expedients—who regularly arrived in Chungking with utterly vague remits, while keeping the American premise of China’s great-powerdom inflated, creating unrealistic Chinese expectations, and utterly confusing lines of responsibility and command.

The first was Lauchlin Currie, “a brisk, little, rimless-bespectacled Harvard economist who had been acquired by Roosevelt as a special assistant.” When Davies came to know him in Washington, Currie was developing “an interest in Chinese affairs .  .  . and took to phoning me .  .  . to ask for information or my comments on Chinese events. I thought it odd that he should occupy himself with matters so evidently outside his expertise. But then this spontaneous straying into other jurisdictions to dabble therein was characteristic of the helter-skelter Roosevelt administration.”

Currie was eventually sent to Chungking as a “special adviser” to Roosevelt. On the basis of the most superficial inspection, he recommended “the recall of Stilwell and [Ambassador Clarence E.] Gauss.” Not only that, he “considered himself to be the most suitable replacement for Gauss, a dream that was not to be realized.”