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American Responsibilities in the Far East

ISSUE:  Spring 1940

Although Japan’s attempt to conquer China has now dragged on through nearly three years of suffering and waste, too few Americans have yet seen clearly that the key to the future of China lies neither in Japan nor in Russia, nor even in China itself. It lies right here in America. This vagueness about the immense power which America holds has nothing to do with the state of popular opinion. The average American needs no Gallup poll to tell him how other average Americans feel. He knows that he and most of his neighbors feel that Japan has gone on an utterly unjustified rampage. He knows that the tradition of American policy, supported by popular sympathy today, stands for what the Nine-Power Treaty defined as “the territorial and administrative integrity” of China— a free China, ruled by its own chosen statesmen, unhampered by the public orders or secret control of Japan or of any other foreign country.

The average American also has an uneasy conscience about the amount of help that America has been giving Japan by supplying the raw materials of war. He would like to see that stopped. He is vague about the actual figures, but he is uncomfortably aware that China has been holding out not against Japan alone but against a virtual Japanese-American alliance.

For these reasons, the non-renewal of the trade treaty with Japan has been welcomed by most Americans with relief. We hope that it will enable us to keep our hands clean of a very dirty mess. We are therefore glad to see that our government apparently intends to put pressure on Japan only very slowly and cautiously; for while we want to get rid of the responsibility of helping Japan, we are by no means anxious to assume the responsibility of helping and supporting China. Above all, while we want to get Japan out of China, we do not want to let Russia in. Nor do we want to “drive Japan into the arms of Russia.”

That is where the danger lies, and I think it is a very great danger. Americans, by and large, like the Chinese; we get on with each other and have a surprising number of things in common, considering the differences between our cultures. At the same time we tend always to act on the assumption that the Chinese are a passive people. It is a kind of magnetic deviation. We talk and write about what China is, or about what China will one day be, but when it comes to action we find ourselves unconsciously edging away from speculating on what China will be and discussing instead what Japan or Russia or Great Britain will do.

We thoughtlessly assume that the Chinese are a people who get things done to them. Somebody turns on a tap. If China “goes Bolshevik,” it will be because the Russians turn on the taps of money and propaganda. If China is conquered by Japan, it will be because the Japanese are able to turn on enough power through the tap of militarism. We have got as far as admitting that Japan may not be able to conquer China, but we have by no means got to the point of realizing that the Chinese may actually be capable of defeating the Japanese armies in the field. In the same way, if Russia fails to establish Bolshevism in China it will, we assume, be because somebody like Japan is able to stop Russia; not because the Chinese themselves decide not to be Bolsheviks.

Consequently—and this is of the most significant importance—while our Open Door tradition and our sympathies account for the fact that we continue as a matter of course to use a phraseology that respects “the territorial and administrative integrity of China,” we tend in our actions to work as if it were always a question of balancing Japan against Russia, or Russia against Japan, or somebody else against somebody else; but never China against anybody. China, we assume without stopping to think more closely about it, gets balanced; it does not help to make the balance.

Now the facts demonstrate that this American drift—it could not fairly be called a policy—is mistaken and may turn out to be disastrous. A hundred years from now it will be an axiom of historical analysis and teaching that in the decade of the nineteen-thirties the Chinese, partly in desperation but mainly because of multiple and wide-ranging changes of pace and pressure in the relations between societies and governments and the economic distribution of power, began to act for themselves. In the decade of the nineteen-forties, it will be added, the Chinese vindicated for themselves their claims to territorial and administrative integrity, and China grew to its full stature as a nation. The trouble is that a hundred years from now the problem will be only one of accurate historical statement, while the problem today is one of correctly understanding history in the making. If America today should continue the old complacent practice of merely “looking after” the Chinese, disposing of their interests as mercifully as possible but not treating them as if they were fully competent to act on their own responsibility, and if some other nation were to act boldly on the decision that the Chinese are capable of looking after themselves, and strong enough to be valuable allies, what will be said a hundred years from now of the caliber of American statesmanship in 1940?

It is the sober truth, and a disquieting truth, that while we Americans have a less imperialistic record than any other people in dealing with the Chinese, we have not realized the possibilities of what could be done in association with China. We are disturbed by the thought that Russia might get control of China. We are alarmed by the possibility that Russia and Japan might agree on a partition of China. We are tempted to patch up some kind of a policy that will restrain Japan from a total conquest of China, but not restore completely the territorial and administrative integrity of China.

Yet all the time we overlook three other alternatives that are really important. One is the possibility of a full alliance between China and Russia, which would be something quite different from control of China by Russia. The second is the possibility of a tripartite arrangement between China, Russia, and Japan: a compromise, but something quite different from a partition of China by Russia and Japan. The third is the possibility of strong backing by America of China’s full legitimate claims. Not a formal alliance, because Americans would probably not want an alliance on the other side of the Pacific, and not an expeditionary force sent across the Pacific, because that would not be needed; but a boldly declared policy committing America to the real restoration of China’s integrity, by economic and diplomatic support of China and restraint of Japan.

There certainly is a chance that the Chinese will go Bolshevik; but if they do, it will be because of American stupidity, not because of Russian money and propaganda. The question of Bolshevism in China illustrates perfectly how we think about China with two quite different parts of our brains. On the one hand we take it for granted that there is practically no industrial proletariat in China, that the heavily agrarian structure of society in China makes it necessary for even the Chinese Communists to be “agrarian radicals” rather than “true Communists,” and that the Chinese family system is notably resistant to Marxist ideas. On the other hand, we also take it for granted that the Chinese are incapable of looking after themselves and that it only needs a little “incitement” to turn them all into raging Reds. What is more, the fears associated with the second set of ideas are usually potent enough to stampede the intelligence associated with the first set.

This in turn shows how easily we are victimized by the current mania for going by “ideological” labels, neglecting the real and understandable processes to which these absurdly simplified labels have become attached. Above all, we neglect a primary law of historical change that ought to be reaffirmed over and over again: at certain periods there is a great multiplication of ideas that we usually think of as explosive, though they ought to be called detonative. These ideas are not enough in themselves to create an explosion. They need to work against a heavy pressure from the outside. If there is no compression, the detonative ideas may produce change, and even beneficial change, but not a destructive explosion. Thus the detonative ideas of the late eighteenth century would not have exploded the American and French revolutions had it not been for the stupid, unyielding pressure of the British and French courts.

Even the most highly perfected detonative ideas in history, those of Marx as refined by Lenin and distributed to a really skilled group of trained, “professional” revolutionaries, could not have exploded the vast, inert mass of Russia had it not been for the unyielding repression of the Tsarist court. This was backed by fierce pressure applied at exactly the right time around the whole periphery of Russia—from Europe and from Asia, from the Arctic and from the Black Sea and the Caspian—by the Kolchaks, the Denikins, the Wrangels, and the expeditionary forces, money, and munitions of all the great powers, including America. As for the Chinese, the society of China is neither “peculiarly” immune to Bolshevism nor “peculiarly” susceptible. Every society in the world is compounded of factors which make for evolution, for revolution, and for reaction. The proportions vary, but in no society are they so compounded as to produce either unique resistance or unique susceptibility to revolution.

In the China of today, the overwhelming majority of four hundred and fifty million people are governed in their ideas and behavior by customs, habits, geographical groupings, economic practices, and social units that have been—until now—notably lethargic in being pushed into even evolutionary momentum, let alone revolutionary acceleration. A decisive political revolution there certainly has been, in the sense that China will never return to the inefficient despotism under which it was misruled by the Manchu dynasty. This political revolution has been accompanied by so little social revolution that it is actually a cause of worry to conservative Chinese statesmen. There are not enough people with new ideas up to the level of the new China to run things efficiently. That is why Chiang Kai-shek inculcates political ideas with such vigor both in his New Life Movement for all Chinese and in his cadet schools for officers. Moreover, even the left wing in China has been stimulated far less by the “pull” of Russian ideas than it has by the “push” of actual, undeniable, unpleasant, and urgent imperialistic encroachment.

By far the most widely ramifying and closely organized political party in China is the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party. Its program is to raise China from mediaeval agra-rianism to modern industrial capitalism. Because this must be done in feverish haste, it is necessary to coordinate individual initiative and private capital under government supervision. Germany in the nineteenth century, Japan a little I later, and Turkey under Kemal Ataturk all faced the same , necessity. The Kuomintang, however, is the political party of every mercantile, industrial, and financial capitalistic interest that already exists and wants to grow stronger in the i China of today and tomorrow. It draws its vigor from economic resources and social classes that are vigorously, even savagely, opposed to Communism.

A number of minorities are also politically important. The Kuangsi group have been called Agrarian Fascists. They control the most highly militarized province in all China; but instead of fighting the Communists they have thrown their best troops, crack division after crack division, against the Japanese, because the Communists are no threat to them, while the Japanese are. Then there are the Catholic Christians, about three million of them according to the official figures. They are widely scattered, but well centralized when it comes to using their influence politically. They represent a great deal of wealth, especially landed wealth. Of the Protestant Christians there are about half a million; but since the Catholics count all baptized individuals while the Protestants count only adult church members, the Protestants probably represent as many people as the Catholics. Both Protestants and Catholics stand well with the Kuomintang, and many influential Kuomintang leaders and members are Protestants. There are also the Moslems, probably not less than ten million of them. They are less progressive politically than the Christians, and socially quite as conservative.

Finally, there are the Communists. When they entered the United Front against Japan, they had about one hundred thousand regular troops. These probably did not represent an organized population as large as that of the Catholic Christians, because the Communists, in the nature of things, recruited largely among men who had already broken away from land and family. Accordingly the Communist soldier frequently no longer has a village background of his own, while with the Catholics the church, the village, and the family are all well integrated. The social influence of the Communists is concentrated at present on organizing resistance against Japan. It is undoubtedly growing, because the Communists gather up and reorganize the fragments when the village and the old society have been shattered by Japanese troops.

That is the reason, and a perfectly simple reason, why the savagery of the Japanese assault is doing more to spread Communism than the teaching of the Chinese Communists themselves or the influences of Russia. It supplies the pressure under which the detonative ideas can work. At the same time it destroys Chinese wealth of every kind-capital, trade, revenue from agricultural rent—thus weakening that side of Chinese society which is most antagonistic to Communism. The smug pseudo-neutrality of the great powers, among which America is the most important, has no weakening effect whatever on the Chinese Communists, but has a very destructive effect on the progressive middle classes who would naturally draw on the ideas and resources of the democracies if they were not shut out in this way. They know that the Chinese middle class has already been expropriated and destroyed by the Japanese conquerors in Manchuria. They have not the slightest reason to expect anything better in the parts of China proper that Japan succeeds in occupying. In proportion as their wealth is destroyed and their social cohesion broken up, while the democracies deny them help and give help to Japan, and Soviet Russia offers them munitions and technical aid, they are forced to compromise more and more with the left.

While Russia in this way gets the benefit of the growth of Communism in China, the spread of Communist influence is obviously not due primarily to Russian efforts. Moreover, two other phenomena must be taken into account. They are closely linked with each other. In the first place, the political importance of the professional Chinese army is probably growing even more rapidly than the influence of the Chinese Communists. Secondly, as a result of this, China may be- come a valuable ally of Russia, thus incalculably altering the balance of power-politics all over the world, without itself becoming Communist. Here again Russian urging is likely to be much less decisive than the brutal pressure of Japan’s attempt at totalitarian conquest and the negative pressure of the combined ignorance and panic of America and the other democracies.

The political development of the Chinese armies is little appreciated here in America. Yet it is an inevitable consequence of the kind of war China is fighting. The Chinese soldier is almost invariably a peasant. Anyone who knew the old warlord armies of China is familiar with the fact that no one can be so cruel to the peasant as the peasant turned soldier. He will do anything to peasants who are still peasants, rather than become a peasant again himself. In the warlord armies, under civil war conditions, control of the countryside and the peasants was the purpose for which men commanded troops. Railways and cities, in a weakly industrialized country like China, were rich prizes of plunder; but the main revenue of the warlords came from levies on the peasants. Warlords fought each other, but all warlords oppressed the peasant. Warlord officers therefore naturally developed their men into tough mercenaries, pitiless toward the peasants and remembering from their peasant origins only the best way to “shake down” a fellow peasant.

Even in the Nanking armies, under the better discipline of a national force, dislike and distrust of the peasant were perpetuated by the long civil war against the Communists. Many officers, naturally sympathetic to the landlords against whom the Communists were then chiefly fighting, and trained by this time in cadet corps to understand what to do and how to do it, developed a hardened hostility toward all peasants.

While this accounts for the fact that some Chinese officers have not been able to reconcile themselves to a United Front with the Communists, it also accounts for the fact that most officers, together with the troops under their command, are acquiring rapidly a totally new outlook. This is inevitable, because the conditions of a national war against a foreign invader are different from those of a civil war. It is no longer a question of competing for the control of a subject peasant population, but of organizing and turning against the Japanese the immense reserves of strength latent within the peasantry, the main body of the Chinese nation.

The more experience they have in fighting the Japanese, the more both officers and men discover that units which enlist the sympathy and cooperation of the peasants have the best intelligence service, are never caught by surprise, are never left short of supplies and transport, and are always able to fill their ranks with local men who know the country, can move accurately even at night, and are passionately loyal and disciplined. Among such units there spreads rapidly the conviction that it is necessary to mobilize—and to arm, as far as possible—the whole population. It is chiefly among the professional politicians and the uniformed but non-front-line generals who associate with them that there survives a dogged suspicion that such a policy must be wrong because it is also advocated by the Communists.

The front-line army is less and less concerned with political parties and more and more prepared to take up any method that works against the Japanese. As a result of this there is undoubtedly an increased impatience, in the army, with all politicians, which may quite possibly come to the point of throwing out the politicians and appointing army men to carry out army orders in all branches of organization and administration. The result would not be a Chinese version of Japanese militarism (which is quite different in structure), but something much more like the military dictatorship created in Turkey by Kemal Ataturk. It would certainly not be Communist, but it might well lead to a cordial alliance between Russia and a “Kemalist” China. Russia was the first country to come to the aid of Kemal when he was most beset with difficulties in creating a genuinely independent, non-Communist Turkey; and although Russia and Turkey are not now on very good terms, it remains none the less true that the period of close friendship resulted in permanent benefits for both countries.

It is against this background of purely Chinese conditions, which have a validity that goes much deeper than Russian influence or Communist teaching, that we should try to make a rational estimate of the possibility of a Russo-Japanese partition of China, and the peculiar importance of American policy.

Some kind of an arrangement between Russia and Japan might be possible; but nothing so juvenile as an arrangement worked out purely for the sake of making America look foolish. It must be remembered that each country is negotiating with several other countries. America is in touch with Japan, China, Great Britain, France, and Holland (because of Netherlands India), but is losing touch with Russia. Japan, on the other hand, is in touch with Russia, as well as with China, America, Great Britain, France, Holland, Germany, and Italy. China is also on negotiating terms with Russia, and with Japan too, as well as with America and Great Britain. Russia is on increasingly cold terms with both America and Great Britain, but is in a position to bargain very closely with both China and Japan. In such a situation, no one country can emerge in sole command of events. There must be a combination. The country which will be most nearly successful will be the one which knows how to drive a shrewd bargain, without hesitating at the last moment before closing the bargain.

At present, we are so badly bluffed by the idea that Russia and Japan might come to terms that we forget the simplest rule of bargaining: a deal is only a deal when both parties think they see a profit. This alone is enough to preclude a straightforward division of China between Russia and Japan. For what purpose has Russia been supporting China? In order to prevent Japan from commanding strategic positions on the flank of the Siberian frontier. Surely this is elementary enough. Then why should Russia make a deal with Japan, at the expense of China, that would cripple Russia’s most valuable potential ally in Asia and give Russia’s most dangerous potential Asiatic enemy precisely the advantages that Russia has been struggling for years to prevent Japan from winning?

A Russo-Chinese-Japanese deal, however, would be something quite different. China has been stubbornly refusing any “negotiated” peace with Japan that “friendly” intermediaries might arrange. For what reason? For the very good reason that any “breathing space,” like the wary temporizing that followed the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the fighting between Chinese and Japanese at Shanghai in 1932, has until now meant nothing but an interval in which Japan could consolidate what it had won and prepare for fresh encroachment. A Chinese compromise with Japan could undoubtedly be arranged, however, if it meant a breathing space for China, not for Japan; if it meant that Japan were on the way out, not on the way in.

It would be Japan that could not agree to such a compromise—unless compensation in some other direction were provided. In other words, a Russo-Chinese-Japanese deal would be possible if it met the following requirements: Japanese pressure withdrawn from Siberia; Japanese pressure withdrawn from China; Japanese pressure turned against American, British, French, and Dutch interests in the South Pacific. Since a Japanese thrust in this direction would help Germany to break the ring of Anglo-French “encirclement,” Germany could be counted on to support Russia in urging such a move on Japan, and helping Japan to carry out the move. Since it would give China time in which to recuperate, China could be persuaded to grant Japan economic concessions in exchange for a total withdrawal of Japanese troops and a clear abandonment of Japanese claims to political control. In return for such an unmistakable advantage, China would undoubtedly agree even to let the question of Manchuria rest—for the present.

Obviously, such a complicated maneuver would be difficult to bring off and would depend on a very delicate balance and timing of each move. Here again a great deal would turn on American policy. The combination would break down unless the Chinese felt that America had no concern for anything but its own rights, interests, and advantages, and had no intention of vindicating the territorial and administrative integrity of China, guaranteed by both America and Japan under the Nine-Power Treaty.

Everything that I have here said is necessarily simplified, even oversimplified. I have just sketched one set of combined maneuvers that could be carried out. Others are also possible. My main point, however, I think is sound: everything turns on American policy. Moreover, American policy must work on the understanding that China is not simply a ward to be protected, but already an adult nation strong enough to contribute to a stable balance of power. China is, in short, a more valuable friend than Japan.

We must realize, on the other hand, that America, panicky with the fear of “forcing Japan into Russia’s arms,” might actually force China into Bolshevism, thus bringing both Russia and China out on top. It is, unfortunately, quite conceivable that we might try to combine appeasement of Japan with protection of our own interests. This would be equivalent to asking Japan please to rape China only a little bit, not entirely, and it would certainly convince the Chinese, most of them, that they had no friend but Russia.

Not all of them. Some of the Chinese would do what Wang Ching-wei has already done, and beg Japan for peace, hoping that America would soften their subjection for them. This would lead to an appalling combination of civil war in China and national war for survival against Japan. Since Russia would then grant open and full support to the Chinese—led by the Communists—who continued to resist, America would be all too likely to drift into open, official support of Japan with munitions and money, though not, probably, with men. Since this would mean support of nothing more reliable than Kolchaks in kimonos—Doiharas masquerading as champions of democracy—America would in fact be applying the deadly outside pressure necessary to make revolution really explosive in China, and the Russo-Chinese side would in the end be the winners, as Lenin and his minority party of Bolsheviks were the winners in Russia.

To avoid both this possibility and the possibility of a Russo-Chinese-Japanese deal at the expense of the democracies, there is only one safe American policy: full and bold support of the full legitimate Chinese claim to territorial and administrative integrity. This would give the Chinese regular army and the Kuomintang the degree of help they need to maintain their ascendancy under Chiang Kai-shek. It would guarantee that the Chinese Communists remain in a secondary position, because it would strengthen those Chinese who are opposed to Communism—the very Chinese whom we are now helping Japan destroy. To carry out this policy the American navy would not need to fire a gun nor the American army a rifle, because the economic balance held by America is such that every tank which Japan is unable to build with American steel and drive with American oil is not only a tank less for Japan but equivalent at the same time to a light artillery piece presented to China.

Nor need such a policy be aimed at the destruction of Japan. On the contrary, Japan should certainly not be destroyed. Its industrial plant and social stability, both made healthier by the humbling of the profession of aggrandizement, will be needed to help maintain the balance of power in the Pacific. To this balance of power, and to the economic prosperity of 450 million people in China, 70 million in Japan, and our own 130 million, America could contribute by investing its money and technological skill in the reorientation of Japan as well as in the creation of a democratic and progressive China.


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