Nationalist Chinese Forces Battle Communists as Japan Advances Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Throughout World War II, Americans believed that the Chinese were engaged in a valiant struggle to save their homeland from the aggression of Imperial Japan. The reality, however, was that China was overwhelmed by internal strife, and the Chinese people were preoccupied with a civil war between Nationalists and Communists, which interfered with the defense of the nation.

Summary of Event

By 1941, the Chinese Civil War had been nominally suspended so the Chinese people would be able to repel the Japanese armies invading their homeland. The Nationalists and the Communists had signed a “United Front” agreement, and it was under the aegis of the United Front that China’s national defense was to be conducted. The agreement provided that Zhou Enlai, the Communists’ urbane foreign minister, would be stationed with President Chiang Kai-shek in the Nationalists’ wartime capital in Chongqing, but Zhou Enlai was not influential with Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communists were dissatisfied with the arrangement. Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) China;civil war World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Chinese campaign Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)[Second SinoJapanese War] Civil wars;China Nationalist Party, Chinese Communist Party, Chinese [kw]Nationalist Chinese Forces Battle Communists as Japan Advances (Jan., 1941) [kw]Chinese Forces Battle Communists as Japan Advances, Nationalist (Jan., 1941) [kw]Communists as Japan Advances, Nationalist Chinese Forces Battle (Jan., 1941) [kw]Japan Advances, Nationalist Chinese Forces Battle Communists as (Jan., 1941) Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) China;civil war World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Chinese campaign Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)[Second SinoJapanese War] Civil wars;China Nationalist Party, Chinese Communist Party, Chinese [g]Asia;Jan., 1941: Nationalist Chinese Forces Battle Communists as Japan Advances[00100] [g]China;Jan., 1941: Nationalist Chinese Forces Battle Communists as Japan Advances[00100] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan., 1941: Nationalist Chinese Forces Battle Communists as Japan Advances[00100] [c]World War II;Jan., 1941: Nationalist Chinese Forces Battle Communists as Japan Advances[00100] Hirohito Chiang Kai-shek[Chiang Kaishek] Mao Zedong Zhou Enlai

In January of 1941, Chiang Kai-shek (also known as Jiang Jieshi) ordered a newly organized Communist military force known as the New Fourth Army to move north of the Chang (Yangtze) River by January 31. The commanders of the New Fourth Army were slow to comply perhaps intentionally and negotiated endlessly with the Nationalists for delays. In response, the Nationalist Army ambushed the southern wing of the New Fourth Army and killed about three thousand Communist troops. The Nationalists claimed the attack was necessary to promote discipline, but the Communists and most outside observers found that explanation unpersuasive. The Communists instead believed that Chiang had violated the United Front agreement and demonstrated the bad faith with which he had signed it in the first place.

Since the United States had not yet entered the war, Japan faced no immediate serious threat in the Pacific, and both sides in the Chinese Civil War were therefore vulnerable to Japanese attack. In 1940, the other major Communist force, the Eighth Route Army (also later called the Eighteenth Route Army), under the direction of General Peng Dehuai Peng Dehuai , launched a series of attacks against the Japanese forces known as the Hundred Regiments Offensive. Although 104 regiments of the Communist army were used and the Japanese did suffer some heavy losses, the Japanese were able to respond with vicious counterattacks known as the “three alls” program for “kill all, burn all, destroy all.”

The resulting devastation to the Communists and their peasant allies in the affected areas produced some of the worst atrocities in the twentieth century. In some villages, the peasants sought protection in makeshift tunnels, leading the Japanese to surround the area of the tunnels and fill them with poison gas. While the Japanese emperor Hirohito was not an absolute dictator such as Hitler or Stalin, there is little doubt that he played a larger role in supporting these atrocities than his apologists have been willing to admit.

Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese communist revolutionaries.

(National Archives)

At roughly the same time, the Japanese were also attacking the Nationalist forces, especially in areas where they saw an opportunity to cut off Chiang Kai-shek’s supplies from India. Both the Communists and the Nationalists, then, were under attack from the Japanese. Despite these attacks, both Chinese forces preferred to take a defensive posture against the invaders, while devoting whatever offensive strength they could muster to fighting each other.

While Chiang Kai-shek is credited with the most memorable phrasing, “the Japanese are a disease of the skin, while the Communists are a disease of the heart,” there is little doubt that the Communists nurtured similar sentiments. Communist Party leader Mao Zedong was believed to have ordered his party cadres to follow a set of priorities directing 70 percent of their efforts toward party expansion, 20 percent toward dealing with the Nationalists, and 10 percent toward fighting Japan.

In line with this attitude, both of the Chinese combatants were relieved when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, because they recognized that the attack would bring the might of the United States to bear against Japan and would limit the forces the Japanese could use against the Chinese. There is even some reason to believe that the Communists and Nationalists both thought that the Japanese had recklessly attacked a country much more powerful perhaps seven times more powerful than the Japanese were. Believing that the Americans would eventually defeat Japan, both Mao and Chiang reduced their offensive actions against the Japanese even more.

While Chinese resistance to Japan may have helped America by tying up about 40 percent of the Japanese land forces, this was the only real help the Chinese ever contributed to the war effort. It is true that American aid to the Chinese before Pearl Harbor was limited by the need to help the British in Europe, but American aid was disproportionately generous after 1941 and far outstripped the help America received in return.

Chiang Kai-shek, president of the Republic of China.

(Library of Congress)

Initially, the United States did not even attempt to aid the Communists. By 1944, however, the Americans had become so frustrated with the inefficiency and corruption of the Nationalist forces that they finally considered some aid to Mao’s forces in the north. The famous Dixie Mission, headed by General Patrick Hurley, was sent to Mao’s headquarters in Yan’an, and plans were made to give the Communists some older military equipment. These efforts were made so late in the war that they did little good, however. The Communists’ main access to American arms came principally because Nationalist forces frequently abandoned or even sold such material to Mao’s forces.

The importance of the ongoing Chinese Civil War was so great that neither of the combatants ever gave the war against the Japanese their full attention, and both counted on the Americans to defeat Japan for them. Given this fact, the civil war became even more violent as soon as the war with Japan was over. Eventually, Mao’s Communist forces overcame the inefficient and corrupt Nationalist forces, driving them out of the country.

Significance

The infighting between the two sides of the Chinese United Front demonstrated America’s almost total ignorance of the real historical, sociological, political, and cultural forces operating in Asia during most of the twentieth century. While the United States believed that the new “progressive” government of Chiang Kai-shek diligently fighting alongside Mao Zedong’s progressive agrarian (Communist) reformers would be grateful for U.S. aid to help expel the nearly invincible Japanese from their homeland, the reality was that the Japanese were merely an unpleasant sideshow for the real war to the death carried out by the two parties to the Chinese Civil War. Most U.S. aid given to the Chinese was wasted or sold to the Japanese to be used against the United States. Once the United States entered the war against Japan, both Chinese parties engaged in purely defensive activities, convinced that the Untied States would easily defeat the Japanese, who had recklessly attacked a country seven times larger than their own. Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) China;civil war World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Chinese campaign Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)[Second SinoJapanese War] Civil wars;China Nationalist Party, Chinese Communist Party, Chinese

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fairbank, John King. China: A New History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. The last history written by the most prominent twentieth century historian of China; well indexed, with a good bibliography and containing numerous illustrations and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faust, John R., and Judith F. Kornberg. China in World Politics. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1995. An excellent analytic work on China’s propensity for moralism in international politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hsu, Immanuel. The Rise of Modern China. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. An excellent comprehensive history of the rise of modern China from the 1700’s to the present; well indexed with a good bibliography and containing numerous illustrations and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lu, Ning. The Dynamics of Foreign-Policy Decision-Making in China. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000. Demonstrates the long-term factors that determine the underlying dynamics of Chinese foreign politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pye, Lucian. China: An Introduction. 4th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Short, outstanding analysis of Chinese culture and politics by one of America’s best known China experts and a former president of the American Political Science Association.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spence, Jonathan. Mao Zedong. New York: Viking Penguin, 1999. This insightful account by one of the greatest living China scholars provides a concise, readable biography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Search for Modern China. New York: Norton, 2001. Rapidly becoming a classic history of modern China by one of the best-known current historians of Chinese politics; well indexed with a good bibliography and containing numerous illustrations and maps.

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