The Journal of Military History 67.2 (2003) 585-587
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Wilson and China: A Revised History of the Shandong Question. By Bruce Elleman. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2002. ISBN 0-7656-10510-5. Maps. Illustrations. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xviii, 227. $28.95.
Bruce Elleman ably reviews the diplomacy of Shandong, arguing that Woodrow Wilson labored honorably on China's behalf only to be unfairly accused of a sellout. Elleman criticizes inept Chinese diplomacy and the disingenuousness of the Soviets' Karakhan pledge—a phony renunciation of privileges in China. While the diplomatic narrative is useful, and the contrast with Russian chicanery is valid, Elleman's interpretation concentrates rather superficially on "face" while ignoring more concrete factors. While the Shandong controversy is undeniably critical in China's recent history, Elleman overstates the direct connection between Wilson's perceived sellout and China's turn to communism.
This traditional diplomatic history revolves around treaties and memoranda of conversations. Twenty documents appear in facsimile form, perhaps to make the account more engaging to undergraduates. Elleman traces pre-Versailles diplomacy and Japan's 1914 displacement of Germany in Shandong. The author argues unpersuasively that China willingly accepted the Twenty-one Demands. More importantly, a related Japanese note stipulated eventually vacating Shandong. Beijing blundered seriously in September 1918, "gladly" confirming Japan's position. At Versailles, Japan claimed all German rights in Shandong. Little land was involved. Elleman appropriately reminds us that the dispute centered on the concession area around Jiaozhou Bay and Qingdao, and policing, mining, and railroad rights. On paper, at least, no one was giving away "the homeland of Confucius." When pressed, Japan alluded to prior agreements to return some privileges, but refused to commit such intentions to paper or announce a timetable. The Chinese delegation argued strenuously for a direct reversion from Germany to China. "Why take two steps, when one will do?"
Elleman seems too confident that Japan would have quickly departed, and never duly acknowledges Tokyo's expansive appetites. "Face," rather than economics or geopolitics, explains everything—Japan did not want to lose face by retreating from previously won positions or by being forced by suspicious allies to commit to paper what it had verbally pledged: to vacate the concession. This is too generous. Noriko Kawamura and others show that Japanese leaders called World War I a "one-in-a-million chance" to expand. The Shandong railroads constituted an "artery that extends [Japan's] power" [End Page 585] inland. Thus, for the Chinese, an indirect retrocession of German privileges, via Japan, was not merely a loss of their "face" as Elleman argues, but clear evidence that Japan had appetites. If left alone to work out the details with China, Tokyo might well retain its "artery." Elleman passes briefly over Beijing's willingness to accept indirect return, if the Japanese would state a concrete timetable.
And what of Wilson's role? Well, which Wilson? The one who pontificated against secret diplomacy and for self-determination? Or the one who affirmed the sanctity of treaties? Though sympathetic, Wilson saw China trapped by a web of self-serving quid pro quo treaties between Japan and its allies. Nor would Tokyo support the League of Nations—Wilson's darling— before Shandong was settled. Wilson persuaded Japan to surrender overtly political privileges, an important point. But he made little effort to arrange Japanese withdrawal until after the fundamental decisions had been made and Japan could more confidently resist. He dropped a plan to publicize Tokyo's verbal assurances, which he ineptly failed to have an American secretary record. Wilson played a substantial role in blocking Japan's "racial equality" clause in the League of Nations charter, thereby antagonizing the delegates he should have been cultivating. Having lost the battle, the Chinese envoys considered signing the treaty, but expressing reservations. Wilson, of course, opposed reservations, so China did not sign the Versailles Peace Treaty, which simply acknowledged Japan's accession to Germany's former position in Shandong. It was silent on retrocession. Elleman concentrates on Chinese miscalculations, but Wilson, for...