15. Patriots Force Chiang to Resist Japan

While Chiang Kai-shek was chasing a will-o'-the-wisp in western China in pursuit of the Red army, Japan and the two European fascist states were seizing on the willingness of their opponents to appease them and were making dangerous strides toward dominance of their regions. On March 16, 1935, Adolf Hitler announced that Germany was resuming compulsory military service, forbidden by the 1919 treaty of Versailles, and increasing its army to half-a-million men, five times the number permitted in the treaty. Benito Mussolini was charging Ethiopia with aggression, thus blaming the inoffensive Ethiopians for what he was planning against them.

Although President Roosevelt felt he had to maneuver the Japanese into renouncing the London naval treaty (December 29, 1934) so as to show Japan as the aggressive party, Congress and most Americans were willing to create a navy large enough to defend American shores. The broader question was whether the people were able to identify aggressions across the Atlantic and Pacific as American problems which required American participation in their solution.1

Most Americans believed the U.S. had gone into World War I for altruistic reasons and had paid a great cost. They felt the Allies had taken selfish advantage of American help and had shown neither gratitude nor willingness to pay their just debts. As Julius Pratt, a great scholar of American foreign policy expresses it, "this was a partial and distorted view of history."2 Americans seemed to be largely unaware that the defeat of Germany had also safeguarded their future, not just that of the Allies. Holding to their erroneous views, many Americans had concluded that U.S. participation in World War I was a mistake and that foreign ventures should not be repeated. A large number of Americans chose to believe that the challenges arising in Europe and East Asia represented no threat to the United States and that the nation should only defend the western hemisphere. Roosevelt was far more aware of the danger and decided from the outset to stop both Japan and Germany. But he knew he faced an enormous job of educating the people to make decisions in their own self-interest.

* * * * * * * * * *

A group of Japanese officers was insisting that north China had to be taken over if Japan was to establish a viable regional economic entity. "North" China by their definition included the heavily populated provinces of Hebei, Shanxi and Shandong and Inner Mongolia (then divided into Chahar province to the north and Suiyuan south).3 This region in 1935 contained about 90 million people, or 20 million more than Japan itself.4

Chiang Kai-shek agreed on July 9, 1935, to withdraw Chinese military forces from Hebei and eliminate all anti-Japanese organizations and officials in the province.5 At about the same time, the Japanese used the excuse of several confrontations of Chinese and Japanese troops along the Jehol-Chahar border to force withdrawal of Chinese forces from Chahar, a move designed to encourage an "independence" movement of an Inner Mongolian puppet of Japan, Prince Te (Demchukdongrob). This failed, despite covert Japanese aid.6

* * * * * * * * * *

While Japan was moving into north China, the world's attention had been diverted by more overt crises elsewhere. In June, 1935, Britain agreed to allow Germany to build a navy 35 per cent as large as the Royal Navy, including submarines, the boats that had nearly brought Britain to its knees in World War I. This decision, coupled with Japan's renunciation of the London naval treaty, pointed toward a vast armament buildup by the aggressive powers which could only be a preliminary to war.

The United States Congress considered how the U.S. could keep from repeating the "mistake" of entering World War I. Roosevelt, always sensitive to public opinion, offered no significant leadership. Congress passed a bill which would maintain evenhanded U.S. neutrality between both belligerents in an armed conflict. In theory this sounded good but none of the aggressors was going to attack powerful countries first. The victims were all going to be like China or Ethiopia: weak and with inadequate arms. An impartial stance inevitably would mean a position in favor of the more powerful aggressor, who wouldn't need American arms or supplies. Roosevelt reluctantly signed the first neutrality act into law on August 31, 1935.7

On October 3, Mussolini sent troops into Ethiopia after announcing cynically that the poverty-stricken, harmless country had "succeeded in imposing war on Italy." Surprisingly, the passive League of Nations was outraged by the injustice of the attack, denounced Italy and called for sanctions. Unfortunately, the embargoed products didn't include oil, the only substance which could have made any difference.8 Britain bluffed with a show of force in the Mediterranean but fooled nobody. In December, Sir Samuel Hoare and Pierre Laval, the British and French foreign secretaries, agreed on a settlement that would have given Italy vast stretches of Ethiopia. The proposal so enraged the public that Hoare resigned and pro-League Anthony Eden replaced him. Italy meanwhile went on to conquer Ethiopia. But Hoare's and Laval's dishonorable willingness to sacrifice a weak nation to pacify a stronger inaugurated the disastrous British and French policy of appeasement.

The final international effort to restrain a naval construction race got under way in London in December, 1935, when the signers of the 1930 London naval treaty tried to agree on limitations. It was hopeless and everyone knew it.9 Britain announced stepped-up plans for naval building and the U.S. Congress approved a tremendous increase in the navy. Pacifists protested but Roosevelt was able to say the ships were for defense and his efforts at disarmament proved it. However, knowledgeable people knew the real purpose was to build a fleet that could defeat Japan.10

The Japanese army and navy soon agreed for the army to get ten additional divisions and two-thousand new warplanes to defend against or attack the Soviet Union or move into north China and the navy to build enough ships to defend all of the western Pacific.11

* * * * * * * * * *

On November 1, 1935, an assailant posing as a press photographer attempted to kill Wang Jingwei, president of the Nationalist executive yuan and a rival of Chiang Kai-shek. The probable perpetrators were leftists angry with the opportunistic Wang because he had pulled away from his left-wing supporters. Chiang Kai-shek, however, directed that the incident be denounced as a Communist plot. Soon thereafter, Wang left for medical care in Europe. Chiang succeeded him as president of the executive yuan and his coalition with Wang ended.

In late 1935, Japan stepped up its efforts to separate north China from the rest of the country. The Kwantung army concentrated forces at Shanhaiguan at the Great Wall to induce the northern warlords to sever their economic relations with Nanjing. The implication was clear: if China did not grant autonomy, the army would march. To appease Japan, Chiang Kai-shek offered to abolish the so-called Beiping branch military council which had been in charge of Nationalist forces in north China. Meanwhile news of what Japan was up to got out and violent popular protests broke out in various cities. Only Yin Rugeng, an underhanded schemer who administered the Tanggu-truce demilitarized zone, stepped forward as a willing Japanese puppet. He announced autonomy for the zone on November 23 and thereafter inaugurated the "east Hebei anti-Communist autonomous council."

The crisis brought forth riotous student demonstrations but Chiang Kai-shek had no intention of leading a popular war against the Japanese. On December 11, 1935, he established the Hebei-Chahar political council, chaired by a Chinese warlord allied to the Japanese, Song Zheyuan, and allowed the creature of Japan, "the east Hebei anti-Communist autonomous council," to continue to rule the demilitarized zone. North China was being fragmented into little puppet states dominated by Japan.

* * * * * * * * * *

Soon thereafter, a strange rebellion occurred in Tokyo. It demonstrated the conviction by many in the army that force and aggrandizement were the only policies for their nation. On February 26, 1936, the Imperial Way faction of young army officers called out four regiments which occupied the governmental area of central Tokyo while death squads attempted to kill government officials. The squads missed most of them but rebels held control of central Tokyo for three days until Emperor Hirohito demanded that army leaders bring in other troops to force surrender. The Imperial Way faction wanted untrammeled power for the army and opposed any restraints in its way, including the civilian government. Ultimately secret military courts condemned fifteen of the conspirators to death and sent some others to prison. But the attitude of the rebels, that the army should have a free hand, remained little affected.12 When Prince Konoe Fumimaro declined the imperial mandate to form a new cabinet, Hirota Koki, the previous foreign minister, became premier. This government, knowing the battle to curtail the military had been lost, made no real effort to do so.

Nevertheless, the focus of Japan's concern changed in 1936 from China to the Soviet Union. The Chinese Communists in northern Shaanxi not only were surviving but were calling for a united front of all parties in China against the Japanese. The turning point came with a united-front manifesto on August 1, 1935, proclaimed for the Chinese Communist party by Chinese Reds in Moscow, not in China, because at the moment most of the Chinese Communist armies were in Sichuan in the midst of their flight from Nationalist pursuers. Mao Zedong didn't even know details of the manifesto until he reached northern Shaanxi in October, 1935.

The manifesto came out of the seventh congress of the Comintern meeting in Moscow and reflected the anxiety of Joseph Stalin that the Soviet Union was likely to be attacked in the west by Germany and in the east by Japan. The manifesto called for to Communists and Nationalists to put aside their differences, suspend the civil war and unite against Japan for the salvation of the nation. The Communists called for a "national defense" government of all parties and an all-China army.13

Japan became preoccupied with the seeming danger of a Soviet attack and this induced its leaders to sign the anti-Comintern pact with Nazi Germany on November 25, 1936. Italy joined in 1937. The pact ostensibly was to combat the Third International but actually, from Germany's point of view, it was to line up allies for future aggressive action. Soviet code breakers deciphered a secret protocol that aimed German and Japanese cooperation directly against the Soviet Union. The Soviets also got reliable reports from their spy, Richard Sorge, in Tokyo. The anti-Comintern pact led to immediate deterioration in Japanese-Soviet relations.14 Yet both Germany and Japan secretly reserved the right to sign nonaggression pacts with the Soviet Union. This was to have enormous importance in the future.15

* * * * * * * * * *

The Communist leader Zhang Guotao, who had challenged Mao Zedong for leadership of the Red movement, at last departed his isolated defensive aerie in the western mountains of Sichuan and moved his forces northward. Rather than join Mao in northern Shaanxi, he intended to establish a base either in Gansu or Ningxia west of Shaanxi or even drive all the way up the oasis-dotted Gansu corridor to the far northwestern province of Xinjiang. His ideas were foolish. Even if successful, bases in the northwest would exile Zhang's army to a largely desolate, isolated region.16

By August, 1936, Zhang's forces were east of Lanzhou in Gansu. He got about 20,000 troops west of the Yellow river before strong KMT forces blocked passage and began a methodical slaughter of the isolated Red soldiers, only a few of whom survived. With his remaining 15,000 troops and He Long's small Second Army, he finally reached the soviet in northern Shaanxi on December 2, 1936. Although Zhang Guotao remained on the politburo, his influence was shattered and he took the opportunity in 1938 to defect to Chiang Kai-shek.

* * * * * * * * * *

Meanwhile, the former "young marshal" of Manchuria, Zhang Xueliang, whom Chiang Kai-shek had ousted in 1933 after the Japanese occupation of Jehol, had returned from a European trip in early 1934 and had served since as one of Chiang's most reliable generals. In the autumn of 1935 Chiang sent Zhang with about 130,000 soldiers of his old Manchurian army to Xi'an with orders to wipe out the Communist forces in northern Shaanxi. Instead, Zhang formed an unofficial alliance with the Reds and sought a coalition to fight the Japanese.

When Chiang came to Xi'an in December, 1936, to talk Zhang out of his ideas or relieve him, Zhang ordered a detachment of his troops to capture the Generalissimo. After killing half of Chiang's bodyguard, the troops succeeded and Zhang tried to convince his captive to agree to lead a war against Japan.17

Chiang proved a recalcitrant prisoner and many of Zhang's adherents wanted to kill him and promote Zhang as China's leader. However, the Communists received instructions December 13 from Moscow, probably drafted by Joseph Stalin himself, which stated unequivocably that China needed a united front and Zhang Xueliang could never lead it. Stalin felt Chiang was the only leader who could unite China against Japan and the Chinese Communists were to do their utmost to obtain Chiang's release.

Zhou Enlai, through adroit negotiation with Zhang, in fact brought about Chiang's freedom upon his verbal promise to end the war with the Reds, form a united front and resist Japan. Once free, however, Chiang proved extremely vague about his promises and had no intention of honoring them unless it was in his interest to do so.

First to suffer was the trusting Zhang Xueliang, who had quixotically insisted upon returning to Nanjing with Chiang to show his loyalty. Chiang repaid it by having him sentenced to ten years imprisonment. In fact, Chiang never freed him, keeping him under house arrest from his conviction forward.

In Nanjing, opposition to the united front by right-wing Nationalists became heated. Chiang himself remained out of the limelight but others took up the torch. The KMT scattered the Manchurian army to points in Jiangsu and Anhui provinces, where it lost its identity. Chiang faced a more formidable problem with the Chinese Communists. Though he had not announced his verbal pledge to end the war against the Reds, it had been well publicized and he would have lost prestige if he had actually renewed his campaign. On February 10, 1937, the CCP asked the Nationalists to suspend the civil war and convoke a conference of all factions to develop a common cause for national salvation. If the KMT agreed, the Communists pledged to stop armed uprisings, rename the Red army as the "national revolutionary army" and place it directly under the KMT central government, rename the soviet as a "special area government" of the republic and cease confiscating farmland.

A KMT party meeting February 15-22, 1937, rejected all of the Red proposals and, in effect, demanded total surrender of the Communists. Nevertheless, Chiang did suspend the civil war for the time being and the Xi'an incident in that respect halted nearly ten years of armed conflict between the two sides. Chiang himself gained from the incident: he became the symbol of Chinese unity in the face of Japanese aggression. Thus an undivided nation faced the next move of the Japanese and Chiang no longer had an excuse to avoid fighting them.

Chapter 16: War Comes to China >>

1. Pratt, pp. 510-21, 596-7.

2. Ibid., p. 597.

3. The province of Ningxia, west of Suiyuan, was historically a part of Inner Mongolia but by the mid-1930s was occupied largely by ethnic Chinese, many of them Moslems.

4. Cambridge, vol. 13, chapter 10, "Japanese Aggression and China's International Position 1931-1949," by Akira Iriye, professor of history, University of Chicago, pp. 513-9; Morley, Quagmire, pp. 91-127.

5. This was the so-called Ho-Umezu agreement, negotiated in June, 1935, between He Yingqin, chairman of the Nationalist Beiping branch military council, and representatives of General Umezu Yoshijiro, commander of Japanese forces in Tianjin. See Morley, Quagmire, pp. 102-14.

6. This was the Qin-Doihara agreement June 27, 1935, between Qin Dechun, acting governor of Chahar, and General Doihara Kenji, chief of the Mukden (Shenyang) special-service agency. See Morley, Quagmire, pp. 114-22.

7. Pratt, p. 598.

8. Zebel, pp. 638-9; Pratt, pp. 598-9.

9. FRUS, Japan, vol. 1, pp. 277-97.

10. Dallek, p. 90; FRUS, Japan, vol. 1, pp. 298-306; Barnes, chapter 4, "How American Policy toward Japan Contributed to War in the Pacific," by William L. Neumann, pp. 251-4.

11. The policy, adopted in June, 1936, authorized the Japanese navy force levels at twelve battleships, twelve carriers, twenty-eight cruisers, ninety-six destroyers, seventy submarines and sixty-five air groups (approximately two-thousand aircraft). The policy authorized two new battleships to outclass any ship afloat, two new first-line carriers and five smaller carriers converted from merchant ships, and a number of destroyers and submarines. The navy hoped to maintain a 7:10 ratio in tonnage with the U.S. Navy and build individual ships of higher quality and greater power. See Pelz, pp. 172-3.

12. Grew, vol. 2, pp. 987-94; FRUS, 1936, vol. 4, pp. 719-41, 747-66; Hsü, pp. 580-1; Hoyt, pp. 121-30. See also introduction by David Lu to essay by Hata Ikuhiko in Morley, Quagmire, pp. 239.

13. Wu, pp. 17-35; Hsü, pp. 563-5; Kataoka, pp. 21-25, 27-29, 33-34, 40-41. Mao Zedong at first was opposed to a cease-fire proposal to the Nationalists because it indicated the Red army was too weak to continue the war. The Communist forces in Shaanxi in the autumn of 1935 amounted to only about 15,000 effectives and Mao feared an offer to stop fighting would encourage Chiang in an all-out offensive. Moscow was serious about reaching a rapprochement with Chiang, however, and a united front was the device it used, although evidence later indicated that Moscow would have been willing to disavow any connection with the Chinese Reds to get Chiang's support. See FRUS, China, 1944, pp. 254-5. In the fall of 1936 the Soviets and Nationalists discussed secretly the possibilities of an anti-Japanese alliance, though the only outcome was an innocuous nonaggression pact. In the pact, however, were clauses in which Moscow promised to aid Nanjing but not the Chinese Communists. Irrespective of Comintern pressure, Mao Zedong never permitted anything to threaten the existence of the Red army or the Communist territorial bases and agreed to a united front only when he and the KMT found a scheme to grant these preconditions. The two points became later the main objects of contention between Chiang Kai-shek and the Reds.

14. Morley, Choice, "The Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact," by Hosoya Chihiro (translated by Peter A. Berton), pp. 11-12, 16; Road, pp. 25-26; Britannica, Micropaedia, vol. IX, p. 358. Richard Sorge (1895-1944) fronted from 1933 to October, 1941, as a German press correspondent, Nazi and political advisor to the German ambassador in Tokyo, Major General Eugen Ott, but in fact operated a highly successful spy ring with his confederate Ozaki Hotsumi, a member of Prince Konoe's brain trust. Sorge provided Moscow with extremely accurate information, including warning on May 12, 1941, that Germany would attack the Soviet Union on June 20 (it actually came on June 22), 1941, and that Japan was going to move to the south seas instead of northward against Siberia. Japanese police arrested Sorge and Ozaki on October 18, 1941, and later executed both.

15. Morley, Quagmire, pp. 3-10, 199-201.

16. Salisbury, pp. 298-323; Harrison, pp. 252-6; Kuo, book 3, pp. 84-87, 98-102; March, pp. 236-43.

17. The narrative on the Xi'an incident is drawn from Wu, pp. 75-191; Snow, pp. 373-90; Guillermaz, pp. 278-85; Cambridge, vol. 13, pp. 162-3; Morley, Quagmire, pp. 224-30; Hsü, pp. 564-5; Wales, pp. 11-15; Eastman, pp. 267-9; Davies, pp. 185-7; Kataoka, pp. 43-44.