Japan Strikes: 1937


The times, dominated by the menace of fascism, shaped America’s view of China and the fervent syllogism at its core: democracy was threatened by the aggressor nations; China was under attack by an aggressor nation; therefore China was a democracy, and her battle was the battle of world democracy. To all men of good will convinced of the indivisibility of the world struggle, this appeared self-evident, and help for China therefore obviously in America’s self-interest. Strategically this was valid, if not ideologically. But strategy is more attractive when dressed in ideology, and people on “our side” are considered to be democrats regardless of their political experience. Americans find it difficult to remember that Thomas Jefferson did not operate in Asia. …

Although China’s friends made extraordinary efforts, American isolationism remained stronger than sympathy. Polls showed only 2 per cent of the public pro-Japanese against 74 per cent pro-Chinese, but the sentiment did not include a desire for involvement. At government level a sense of urgency was growing. The President, anxious to keep China on her feet, was abetted on the one hand by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, who, with a desperate sense of the need to resist fascist aggression, believed support for China crucial, and restrained on the other hand by Secretary Hull, who maintained an unbudging resistance to any “unneutral” gesture, including economic aid, that might involve the United States in the Sino-Japanese conflict. His caution was such that he refused to accept T. V. Soong as economic emissary because he was too prominently anti-Japanese.

When the Treasury’s agent in China, J. Lossing Buck, came to see the military attaché on August 30, 1938, to be briefed on the military situation, Stilwell put forward the argument of Li Tsung-jen that America should aid herself by enabling China to buy arms. As reported by Buck to Secretary Morgenthau, “Colonel Stilwell … feels that the policy of our government should be more positive in the present situation and that help to China in the way of financial loans and military equipment is much better defense for us than only the building of our own defense equipment. A very small proportion of the cost of such defense, if given to China, would be much more effective.” Morgenthau agreed. With strong conviction in the larger cause but less knowledge of China, he thought there was “a bare chance we may still keep a democratic form of government in the Pacific” and strenuously urged the loan to China upon the President. In December, 1938, a loan of twenty-five million dollars was ultimately arranged through the Export-Import Bank.

Despite their successes the Japanese could not end the war and in August, 1938, took the decision to drive toward a new objective—Hankow. Stilwell returned there in August from Peiping, where he had decided on his own authority to spend the summer with his family. This decision had more than ever incensed M.I.D., with whom he was already engaged in a continous quarrel over the assignments of his five assistants. Informed by Colonel McCabe that his return to Peiping in June represented “a serious error of judgment … when major military developments are in progress,” he was ordered in a tone more suitable to a cadet than a full colonel to perform no further travel without permission and to submit for approval “reasons, route, destination and estimated cost in each case.” He was told that the department undertook to direct his and his assistants’ movements because the “coverage, quality and quantity of information received was not (repeat not) satisfactory.” Seven thousand miles from the scene McCabe asserted the department’s right to “assign you or any other officer in China to any mission it deems fit.” In further communications Stilwell was informed that his reports compared unfavorably with Carbon’s to the Navy, that the information conveyed did not justify the sums of G-2 confidential funds spent, and that he should explain the “exact nature and value” of the information obtained by these expenditures. McCabe was evidently trying to goad Stilwell from his post in favor of some more intimate associate of the “attaches’ clique”; if so, he almost succeeded. Stilwell at one point made up his mind to ask for relief and drafted in fierce angry pen strokes a demand for an inspector “to determine the manner in which I have performed my duty under the conditions that have existed since June 1937.” China, however, held him back.

Hankow was now cut off from Peiping by land and could only be reached from the north by ship via Shanghai to Hongkong and from there by plane. When Stil well arrived on August 26, the government had withdrawn and a sense of siege was descending. Remembering the great revolutionary days of Hankow in 1925–26, the Communists wanted to conduct a “people’s defense” of the city after the example of Madrid, which was still holding out after two years of siege. They urged the government to organize an army of 150,000 workers, students, and townspeople, to be led by an elite corps of youths with “the highest revolutionary consciousness.” This project had small appeal for Chiang Kai-shek, who had no desire to see workers’ cadres established under Communist control and did not believe in any case that the Wuhan cities could be held against Japanese assault. …