As we consider history it’s important to remember that enemies of today are often yesterday’s and tomorrow’s friend. China was a vital ally in the war against Communism, combatted the Axis powers, fought bravely, and because of the cruel twists in history, a bitter American general, hostile American press, and victory of the Communists in their civil war, their contributions in World War II are largely forgotten. At the very least, Americans should remember China’s contribution to freedom by bravely fighting Japan during World War II and the millions of civilians that stoically suffered to stop the Japanese war machine.
History often makes strange bedfellows. After Hitler invaded Russia, Churchill said that he would make a favorable comment about the devil if Hitler invaded Hell.
China is a leading geostrategic competitor of the United States, and they are one of the biggest and oldest communist regimes in the world. This and other factors make them a forgotten ally from World War II and overshadows their huge contribution to freedom, and it tends to fog our analysis of the potential friendship of the two nations.
June 6 marked an anniversary that is big in American and Western history. We rightly honor the brave veterans that invaded Hitler’s empire. Yet, there are more anniversaries to consider of even braver actions. 80 years ago on June 7, the Nationalist government deliberately broke the dikes on the Yellow River to slow down the advancing Japanese army. The resulting flood killed 400,0000-800,000 people and displaced millions more.
After the start of the war almost a year earlier, the Japanese army had quickly overrun Nationalist forces in key areas such as Shanghai, their capital at Nanking (committing noteworthy atrocities in the process), and they advanced on the Chinese capital at Wuhan. This was the center of their industry and key rail junctions. Chiang Kai-Shek, president of China at the time, was facing extreme pressure, a divided army command between him and various warlords only nominally loyal to him, and a strained united front with Communists (that would finally break in 1941) when he made the decision to break the dikes on the Yellow River.
The decision had a dubious effect on Japanese strategy as they captured Wuhan later in 1938. But the summer proved to be a critical period in the war when the Chinese resisted a Japanese army designed for quick and decisive thrusts with lots of offensive power but little long-term strategy. As I discussed in Decisive Battles in Chinese History, the Chinese gained crucial victories at Taierzhuang and Pingxingguan during this period that didn’t alter the strategic balance, but provided much-needed evidence that defeat was not inevitable for the Chinese. They relocated their capital to the safety of Chonqing, and tied down a significant amount of Japanese forces for years that weren’t available for key American battles such as Guadalcanal.
That’s why it’s even more important to remember this contribution from a one-time ally. During the war, the Chinese bravely resisted Japanese aggression long before the Western powers joined the war against Japan or Germany. Chiang led a fractured government that was beset with jealousy, mistrust, and competing agendas among warlords, Communists, and Nationalists against one of the best armies in the world, and he had to fight with extremely limited resources and through great suffering such as the flooding victims of June 7, 1938.