War, Clausewitz wrote, is the continuation of politics by violent means. War also breeds revolution. It is no accident, as Marxists are wont to say, that communism gained power in Russia and China in the midst and the aftermath of world wars and civil wars.
Historians sometimes artificially demarcate events that, in truth, are inextricably related. It is the great merit of Hans van de Ven’s China at War that it treats the Second World War and the Chinese Civil War as a single continuous conflict, and recognizes that the Korean War, which followed soon after, strengthened and consolidated Communist rule on mainland China.
The author, professor of Modern Chinese History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow at the British Academy, has written four previous books on modern Chinese history. In this, his most ambitious to date, he succeeds brilliantly in examining the struggle between the Nationalists and Communists in the context of domestic Chinese politics, regional and international politics, and the cataclysm of the Second World War and Chinese Civil War.
Politics at its essence, as Hans Morgenthau famously noted, is about the struggle for power. China at War is about the struggle for power within China during its war against Japan (1937-45) and its immediate aftermath (1945-53). As van de Ven notes at the outset of the book, “It is simply not possible to separate China’s civil war from China’s war with Japan.”
Though the main antagonists in the struggle for power within China were the Nationalists led by Chiang Kaishek and the Communists led by Mao Zedong, China’s politics were not that simple—warlordism continued to plague efforts to unify the country and there were intra-party struggles among Communists and Nationalists. Japan’s aggressive imperialism unified China only to the extent that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The Communists rhetorically supported the Nationalist government early on in the war, and fought against the Japanese, but their long-term goal, like Chiang’s, was to rule China in the postwar world. The Communists’ strategy during the “united front” stage of the war, van de Ven explains, “focused on seeking to take over the Nationalist Party from within.”
Mao, the author writes, was
committed to the use of violence … not just for the sake of the revolution and the creation of the New China … but to enhance his own personal power.
Chiang, meanwhile, gradually viewed the Communists as a greater threat to his power than the Japanese.
The author recounts the early battles against Japan in Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, Xuzhou, Changsha, and Chiang’s “scorched earth” tactics designed to trade space for time and to ensure the survival of his army. Mao’s tactics, on the other hand, involved waging “guerrilla warfare in the mountainous areas on the flanks or to the rear of the Japanese.”
Japan’s invasion, bombing, and occupation of key cities combined with Chiang’s scorched earth policies wreaked havoc and devastation across portions of China and wrecked the economy. The Communists, van de Ven writes, exploited this situation to grow their movement in the countryside. “The Japanese invasion,” he writes,
proved a godsend for the Chinese Communists. Without it they would not have expanded so quickly or so widely.
The author identifies Japan’s Operation Ichigo, launched against Nationalist forces in February 1944 with a half-million troops, 800 tanks, thousands of mechanized vehicles and significant air power, as one of the military campaigns that greatly affected the postwar world order. “Ichigo,” he writes,
inflicted serious damage not just to the military forces of the Nationalists but also to their domestic and international reputation.
The greatest beneficiaries of Operation Ichigo were the Communists.
Japan took the provinces of Henan, Hunan, and Guangxi by October 1944. A Nationalist collapse appeared imminent. The American General Joseph Stilwell, who hated Chiang, was recalled to the United States over the objection of General George Marshall, but President Franklin D Roosevelt, ever attuned to domestic politics, collaborated in a New York Times story that was highly critical of Chiang’s regime.
“The greatest beneficiaries of Operation Ichigo,” the author writes, “were the Communists.” The massive defeat of Nationalist forces changed the military balance on the ground and “allowed the Communists to mount a political offensive.” These events coincided with US press reports that portrayed the Communists as brave agrarian reformers and Chiang’s government as corrupt and ineffectual.
The Chinese Nationalist government was an Allied power during the war, and FDR initially wanted it to be one of the “big four” powers after the war. Roosevelt and Churchill met with Chiang at a wartime conference in Cairo. But, the China theater of war was never an Allied priority, and after the war, China became even less of a priority.
After the war, the author notes, Truman’s containment policy did not apply to China. The Communists eventually received military assistance, including advisors, from Soviet Russia while the US gradually cut off aid to the Nationalists, despite pleas from Chiang, US Ambassador Leighton Stuart, and General Albert Wedemeyer. Truman compared supplying aid to Chiang to “pouring sand in a rat hole.” Without American aid, the Nationalists were doomed. With American aid, Chiang’s forces may have been able to maintain control of part of the mainland.
In late 1948, Communist forces under General Lin Biao defeated the Nationalists in the Liaoshen Campaign. This, van de Ven writes, was a decisive blow,
starting a communist sweep south that gained momentum like an avalanche rolling down a mountain, eventually pushing the Nationalists out of mainland China.
This was followed by the Huai-Hai Campaign, which involved battles in Shandong, Jiangsu, and Henan and eventually “caused the Nationalists to disintegrate politically.” The Nationalists fled to Taiwan. In October 1949, Mao founded the People’s Republic of China.
A year later, Chinese forces massively intervened against US/UN forces in the Korean War, which North Korean leader Kim Il-sung started after getting the green light from both Stalin and Mao. Stalin later persuaded a hesitant Mao to enter the war against US/UN forces as they neared the Chinese border, and the author suggests that US/UN forces could have decisively defeated North Korean and Chinese forces, but Washington’s leaders suffered from a “collapse of nerve” which eventually resulted in a stalemate.
Van de Ven believes that the outcome of the Korean War “greatly enhanced the young People’s Republic’s international position, stabilized Communist rule in China and strengthened Mao Zedong’s own position in the Communist Party yet further.” There followed the horrors of Communist rule, including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Oddly, van de Ven deemphasizes the “human toll” of the Communists’ victory. He writes:
[W]hile the Communists were undoubtedly tough enforcers of a new order, they were not mindless.
The “new order,” he believes, made possible the economic miracle in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and after 1978 in China itself.
In China today, the Second World War, or the War of Resistance as it is often called, is commemorated as a national effort to defeat the external aggressor, much like the Soviet Union treated the Great Patriotic War. It reflects, van de Ven writes, the regime’s efforts to
move beyond ideology and economic success to promote a common national identity and proclaim its new international stature.
But, as the author shows, that is only half of the story: from 1937 to 1949, China was also at war with itself.