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The China-Japan War, 1931-1945

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 70, Number 1, January 2006
pp. 137-182 | 10.1353/jmh.2006.0052

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The Journal of Military History 70.1 (2006) 137-182

David M. Gordon

War, Sun Tzu tells us, "is of vital importance to the state, being the arena in which life or death is decided and the pathway to survival or ruination." The Japanese invasion on 7 July 1937 put the Chinese Republic in mortal danger. In the end, the Republic prevailed. But China was devastated. The war also made possible a successful Communist revolution that destroyed traditional society. By 1945, Japan, too, was almost destroyed. Its empire lost and its political structure remade by its American conquerors, the country would eventually enter a new period of peaceful economic development. Both nations were fundamentally transformed by the conflict. The China-Japan war, the catalyst of these changes, is arguably the most important event in the history of East Asia in the twentieth century. This essay surveys much of the literature on that war, published since the 1970s, from its origins to its end.



The war began in 1937. However, the events leading to it started almost twenty years earlier. Marius Jansen describes how, until the end of the First World War in 1918, Japan had participated with other nations in the division of China into spheres of influence. Unfortunately, the Japanese were unable to adjust to the postwar anti-imperialist policies of the Soviet Union and the United States. Russia and the West were ultimately willing to accept a strong, united China in control of its own destiny. The Japanese, with a greater economic stake in the country, were not. Until 1945, the Japanese would not abandon their belief that China was a disunited collection of provinces that could be manipulated one against the other, and ultimately conquered piecemeal. This was one cause of the war.

William Kirby has described how intelligently the Chinese Republican leadership operated in the post-1918 world. They used obduracy, legalism, and economic boycotts to reduce Western treaty rights, including foreign control of Chinese maritime customs. But, the methods that worked so well against the West would prove useless at best, and counterproductive at worst, against Japan.

Unlike the Western powers, Japan had little reason to change its relations with China. The rise of provincial warlordism after 1916 demonstrated the fundamental disunity of the country. Japan had not been weakened, like Britain and France, by the First World War. The Japanese had also been largely unaffected by Wilsonian ideals about the self-determination of nations. They therefore saw no reason to back down to the demands of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, for treaty revision in the 1920s. When the British, along with the Americans, suddenly adopted a more conciliatory attitude at the end of 1926, Japanese obduracy left the country diplomatically isolated. The Japanese leaders felt doubly betrayed: first, by their erstwhile Western imperialist partners who had formerly presented a united front against Chinese nationalism; and second, by the KMT leaders themselves, who refused to honor treaties imposed on China before 1912. Japanese political and military leaders never got over their bewilderment and their anger, which would inform Japanese diplomacy and military operations until the end of the Second World War.

Masataka Kosaka has described Japan's continued pursuit of economic and political advantages through the 1930s. Essays edited by Richard Burns and Edward Bennett examine these policies, and the Chinese and American reactions to them. The careers of thirteen key American, Chinese and Japanese diplomats and foreign ministers in the decades before the war reveal an American foreign policy establishment divided on East Asian policy, from the sympathy of W. Cameron Forbes and Joseph C. Grew with Japan's economic and security needs, to support of China by Nelson T. Johnson and Stanley K. Hornbeck. Indecision and division led to immobility until the end of the 1930s. Most Japanese diplomats, united in support of increased economic and political control of China, differed only as to the means. Editors Burns and Bennett are sympathetic to the arguments of Japanese Foreign Minister Koki Hirota and U.S. Ambassador Forbes, who believed "the laws of nature still functioned in international affairs—that energy and efficiency were more important than the rights of...



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