- Historic Sites
Japan Strikes: 1937
In Part Two of her new series on General Joseph W. Stilwell, Barbara W. Tuchman describes the brutal beginnings, at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peiping, of a war we would all eventually have to fight
December 1970 | Volume 22, Issue 1
Visiting the scene at Taierhchuang, he talked with the commander, Li Tsung-jen. In one of the few recorded views of Stilwell through Chinese eyes, Li described him as “outspoken” in manner, with sympathy for China’s cause but with “great pessimism over the future of China’s resistance.” This pessimism Li ascribed to the “materialist civilization” in which the American colonel had been educated.
Ironically, the success at Taierhchuang confirmed Chiang Kai-shek in his overall policy of the defensive, because the victory seemed to suggest that the Japanese had exhausted their impetus. Within weeks they returned to the attack, broke through the line, and advanced upon Hsuchow, which fell at the end of May. With another Japanese army coming down from the north to cross the Yellow River above Kaifeng, the whole region between the rivers, including Hankow itself, was in danger. In a desperate expedient Chiang Kai-shek called not on China’s armies but on China’s Sorrow—the Yellow River. He ordered General Shang Chen to blow up the dikes at Chengchow behind the Japanese vanguard. Repeatedly he telephoned in anxiety to learn if his orders had been carried out, while Shang Chen delayed until his army could be moved out of the way. Then the dynamite was exploded. Jack Beiden, who was present, reported how, for moments of agony to the watchers, the silt-filled waters flowed steadily on their old course, swirling and bubbling against the broken dikes, then suddenly with a “terrible roar” ripped through the breach and spread over the low ground on a rampage eastward to the sea. Eleven cities and four thousand villages were flooded, the crops and farms of three provinces ruined, two million people rendered homeless, and in that vast and sodden wasteland another fund of animosity was stored up against the government. The Japanese were bogged down, and perhaps three months’ time bought in the process.
China’s battle was making an impression on America. Out of sympathy with her resistance or investment in her affairs, correspondents, missionaries, and other observers concentrated on the admirable aspects and left unmentioned the flaws and failures. An idealized image came through. Generalissimo and Mme. Chiang Kai-shek as “Man and Wife of the Year” for 1937 gazed at Americans in sad nobility from the cover of Time , sober and steady, brave and true. Time ’s owner, Henry Luce, had been born in China of missionary parents, so the worshipful view of the Chiangs was no accident. The missionaries, and behind them the Foreign Missions Conference of North America, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, the Y.M.C.A., and China Famine Relief, rallied to the cause of their wards with warmth, energy, and all their considerable influence. The Chiangs’ Christianity at the helm of China was gratifying proof of the validity of the missionary effort. If there was an element of expedience in the case of the Generalissimo, at least Madame and the Soong circle∗ represented modern, Westernized, Christianized China. The church groups rallied to them in self-interested loyalty. They overpraised Chiang Kai-shek and, once committed to his perfection, regarded any suggestion of blemish as inadmissible. “China has now the most enlightened, patriotic and able rulers in her history,” stated the Missionary Review of the World . The same journal presented the Communists, too, in acceptable terms as a group trying to bring about “social reform compatible with the aspirations of all progressive people.”
∗Madame Chiang had been Mei-ling Soong; one sister had married the late Dr. Sun Yat-sen and the other H. H. Kung, the Nationalist Finance Minister; her brother T. V. Soong had also been Finance Minister, and two other brothers were prominent in financial and governmental circles.—Ed.
The picture of “determined oneness of purpose” was necessary not only to the church groups heavily engaged in raising money for China relief but also to the envoys and propagandists of the Nationalist Government who were exerting pressure for American loans and intervention. To acknowledge the deep schism in Chinese society was not convenient. Therefore the Communists were not to be considered irreconcilables but respectable social reformers within the fold. Correspondents were asked by the Kuomintang not to refer to the Communists as Communists. “There are no Communists left in China,” Chiang Kai-shek told a German newspaperman in 1939. Everyone assisted in this illusion, including the Communists themselves, because it fitted the party line of the United Front. Although they did not deny their Marxist ideology, they talked in terms of the “New Democracy” as a stage on the way toward their eventual goal.