The Second World War Before Pearl Harbor: China, 1937

On my recent vacation spent driving from small Minnesota town to slightly smaller Minnesota town looking at war and veterans memorials, I listened to The War, Geoffrey Ward’s book based on Ken Burns’ PBS miniseries of the same title. I’d picked it simply because it was one of the few WWII histories available as a talking book from my public library, but came away impressed by Ward’s ability to weave a compelling narrative out of divergent experiences of World War II.

But while Ward includes numerous quotations from Winston Churchill and touches on Russian, German, Japanese, and other nations’ experiences of the war, his version of The War is decidedly American. The book (at least in this format) starts on the morning of December 7, 1941, with the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on the American naval base and air fields at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. And on my tour, that’s where every memorial that explicitly mentioned WWII began its version of that war’s story.

WWII memorial in Winona, Minnesota
The WWII section of the Veterans Memorial in Winona, Minnesota. Above this base is a stone American flag with the words of John 15:13 (“no greater love hath any man than he who lays down his life for his friend”).

It’s an understandable periodization, but hugely misleading. America’s war lasted less than four years, but by the end of 1941 war had been waged around the world — from China to England, Syria to Poland — for anywhere from two to four years. In short, the Second World War that Americans tend to remember is half the length of the actual conflict.

Today I’ll start a series visiting some chapters in the history of WWII of which most Americans know nothing.

The Japanese Invasion of China (1937)

For this series I’ll draw heavily on the other book I was reading on my trip, British journalist-historian Max Hastings’ Inferno, a world-spanning retelling of the story. But even that book starts the war in 1939 with events in Europe and spends only a few paragraphs on the less-familiar opening salvo of WWII: Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. By the time Japanese occupation finally ended eight years later, at least 15 million Chinese men, women, and children were dead. (That’s Hastings’ estimate; I’ve also seen 10 million as the “at least” number. “Countless” is probably the most honest estimate. In any case, far more Chinese civilians died than soldiers, which is true of most nations’ experience of WWII — another difference that sets apart the American experience.)

This periodization is not without controversy, but I think there are strong arguments to be made in favor of starting the story of WWII two years before the German (and Soviet) invasion of Poland that will be the subject of next post in this series.

If (as I’ll be arguing in a later post) one of the most important legacies of the war is the demise of formal empire, then Japan’s activities in Asia and the Pacific are of great importance, and what happened in China starting in 1937 is of a piece with later events in the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, Burma, New Guinea, etc. First, this phase of the war diminished the strength and legitimacy (in Asian, European, and American eyes) of white rule over non-whites; but second, it demonstrated that imperialism was not a uniquely Western evil. Shaped “by a widespread belief in the cultural, even racial superiority of Japanese to other Asians” (Sean Kennedy, The Shock of War, p. 66), Japanese soldiers, politicians, scientists, scholars, merchants, and others built an Asian empire that was at least as offensive in its intellectual underpinnings as that of the British, French, Dutch, or Americans (read John Dower on the paradox of Japanese racism) — and arguably even more vicious in its application.

It had started in China in 1931-1932, when the Japanese Kwantung Army manufactured a crisis in the region of Manchuria (on the border of Korea, already a Japanese colony for decades) and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo. Canadian historian Sean Kennedy, in his fine, brief survey of civilian experiences of WWII, The Shock of War, summarizes the significance of this action:

Japanese troops in Mukden, Manchura - Sept. 1931
Japanese troops march into Mukden (now Shenyang) in September 1931 – Wikimedia

Though not yet engaging in a full-scale mobilization of the Japanese people, the government and much of Japan’s media promoted the conquest enthusiastically. They encouraged mass migration to Manchukuo, presenting it as an example of how Asian societies with the fraternal support of Japan could be modernized and freed from the evils of Soviet Communism and Western imperialism. In reality Manchukuo was in all but name a Japanese colony, where the local population experienced subjugation. The conquest turned out to be a key step in an empire-building campaign that the Japanese people were increasingly required to support. (p. 5)

To make room for the 300,000 Japanese who ended up moving to Manchukuo between 1932 and 1945 (the target was 1 million households), over 5 million Manchurians were resettled to overcrowded, disease-ridden “collective hamlets.”

When Japan went on an offensive against China in July 1937, its government again “characterized this act of aggression as a major step in Japan’s mission of leading Asia away from Western domination” (Kennedy, p. 14). But the Chinese soon became the first of many peoples in East and Southeast Asia to learn that Japanese rule was far from beneficent.

The “rape” of Nanking (now Nanjing), the besieged capital of the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi), after it was finally taken by the Japanese in December 1937 is but the most infamous example. Kennedy goes out of his way to tell a balanced, restrained version of that story:

Japanese troops, having fought hard, and faced with having to forage for supplies amongst a population whom many of them despised, engaged in a wave of killings. Some of these were “justified” on the grounds that the invading troops faced potential resistance from Chinese soldiers now disguising themselves as civilians, but it appears that many of those men no longer had any taste for battle and simply wished to survive. In addition, thousands of POWs were executed, and troops engaged in plunder, rape, and murder of civilians on a scale that soon gave their commanders cause for concern.

The Nanjing Massacre remains a subject of great controversy. Contemporary Japanese nationalists downplay the figures, and some even deny that a massacre took place. Conversely, some Chinese accounts imply that the Imperial Army intended genocide…. Some estimates are as high as over 300,000 people, though it has been argued that this figure more accurately reflects total Chinese military and civilian deaths from the time of the initial Japanese attack until the taking of the city. More conservative reckonings of Chinese deaths at Nanjing fall between 100,000 and 200,000, and some are even lower than that. What is beyond dispute is that tens of thousands of Chinese civilians lost their lives, and many experienced ridicule, torture, and repeated sexual assault before being killed. (pp. 82-83)

Nanjing was just the beginning — e.g., another 150,000 Chinese civilians died over the five years it took the Japanese to conquer the city of Changsha. Chinese women were among the 100,000 or more from around the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” forced to serve as prostitutes for the Japanese military in “comfort stations,” first set up in China in 1937 and eventually numbering almost 300 in that country (with another 120 elsewhere).

Shiro Ishii
Dr. Shiro Ishii, the biologist who commanded Unit 731. He avoided a war crimes trial, allegedly by cooperating with American authorities – Wikimedia

And the Japanese army’s infamous Unit 731 (officially, “The Kwantung Army Epidemic Protection and Water Supply Unit,” a euphemism as cynical as anything invented by the Third Reich) used Chinese civilians and POWs for live testing (including vivisection) of biological warfare; cholera, dysentery, typhus, and even bubonic plague were later employed in the Japanese assault on China’s populace. To what effect is less clear. Hastings acknowledges that it’s unknown just how many of, for example, Yunnan’s 200,000 cholera deaths in 1942 were caused by Unit 731’s germs rather than the overcrowding, malnutrition, and other problems that caused epidemics throughout war-ravaged China.

“Yet,” concludes Hastings, “even if Japan’s genocidal accomplishments fell short of their sponsors’ hopes, the nation’s moral responsibility is manifest” (Inferno, p. 416). Reflecting on the work of Unit 731, the conscription of “comfort women” and other types of forced labor, the retribution visited on Chekiang and Kiangsi provinces in May 1942 after Chinese villagers helped downed American pilots who took part in the Doolittle raid on Tokyo (death toll: one-quarter million people), and other atrocities, Hastings comes away with little sympathy for the Japanese nationalists who still justify their nation’s conduct — or for the Western historians who join them in arguing that Japan was provoked by the United States government into going to war in December 1941:

Japanese soldiers using chemical weapons against Changsha, 1941
Japanese chemical weapon attack on Changsha, 1941 – Wikimedia

They suggest that conflict between the two nations was avoidable, and propound a theory of moral equivalence, whereby Japanese wartime conduct was no worse than that of the Allies. [And we’ll see in a later post that Hastings is harshly critical of his own country’s behavior in its empire.] But the Japanese waged an expansionist war in China, massacring countless civilians, for years before President Roosevelt imposed economic sanctions. A contemporary Japanese nationalist later sought to justify his nation’s policies by asserting: “America and Britain had been colonising China for many years. China was a backward nation… we felt Japan should go there and use Japanese technology and leadership to make China a better country.” The record shows that Japanese conduct was both wholly self-interested and shamelessly barbaric. But sufficient numbers of Japanese remained convinced of their nation’s “civilising mission” [to repurpose a common slogan of Western imperialism] and of the legitimacy of their claims upon an overseas empire to render their government implacably opposed to withdrawal from China, even when Japan began to lose the war and to ponder negotiating positions. While European imperialism was indisputably exploitative, the Japanese claimed rights to pillage Asian societies on a scale and in a fashion no colonial regime had matched. (pp. 418-19)

Update: on the ongoing significance of this chapter of history for international relations the East Asia and the Pacific Rim, see this post.

Read the next post in this series>>

One thought on “The Second World War Before Pearl Harbor: China, 1937

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.