Japan Strikes: 1937

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With his penchant for private informants, Roosevelt was receiving news of China from one of the most romantic American observers ever to report from that country—Marine Captain Evans F. Carlson, the assistant naval attaché. Later famous as leader of Carlson’s Raiders, a battalion he formed using methods and the motto Gung ho (“Work together”) learned from the Chinese Communists, Carlson was a sincere man of intense convictions and courageous enterprise. He was an American Candide who was able to believe that “mutual confidence obtained between the Generalissimo and the leaders of China’s Communist Party,” because “both had the welfare of China at heart.” Interpreting everything he met in terms of the ideals he was brought up with, he saw both Chiang and the Communists “aiming for representative government.” He could not present a lily without gilding it. Mme. Chiang radiated not only the “consciousness of being an instrument of destiny” but also “the mature graciousness of an inward peace.”

The son of a Congregationalist minister, Carlson had begun his military career as an enlisted man and had served with the Marines in China under General Smedley Butler in 1927–29 and again at Shanghai and Peiping in 1933–35, when he undertook study of the language. Roosevelt met and formed a warm attachment to him beginning in 1935, when Carlson commanded the Marine guard at the President’s retreat at Warm Springs. He was included on friendly and intimate terms in the Warm Springs circle and, on leaving for China in June, 1937 was urged by the President to write to the White House. Reporting the dramatic and tragic days at Shanghai in weekly letters, Carlson wrote vividly of the Chinese soldiers, whom he observed directly at the front. Never had he known a time “when all prominent Chinese were working together in a common cause,” even the “so-called Communists.” The President was so interested that during a month-long hiatus in the correspondence in October he made inquiries of Carlson’s whereabouts. “My Chief loves your letters,” Missy LeHand wrote, and “asks rne to tell you please keep it up.”

At the end of November, 1937, Carlson took off for Yenan in Shensi to find out how real were the legends of the Communists’ guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. As evidence he sent the President captured Japanese documents, a diary, and a furlined uniform. Later, when he came inevitably to write a book, his point of view appeared in the title he gave to his chapter on Yenan, “China’s Fountainhead of Liberalism.” His views, expressed more floridly in the book than to the President, typified one kind of American approach to China. He had undertaken the journey, he told the governor of Shensi, “from the heart. … in the name of liberty.” In his own country people regarded liberty and equality as “inalienable rights,” and he had observed “this same love of liberty and equality” in China, “the same spirit which had animated our own ancestors at Lexington, Trenton and Valley Forge.” This was China filtered through the rhetoric of the American dream, not necessarily the most appropriate framework for policy in Asia.

Although he had invoked the Neutrality Act prohibiting trade with belligerents in regard to the Civil War in Spain, Roosevelt chose not to apply it in the case of Japan and China because it would have worked to the advantage of the aggressor and disadvantage of the victim. Shipment of arms under the American flag to China or Japan was banned, but not the sale. In exercising the discretion allowed him by the act, Roosevelt had begun to move ahead of prevailing isolationist sentiment. …

In a speech at Chicago on October 5 Roosevelt suggested a collective “quarantine” of the forces breeding “international anarchy,” which he likened to the carriers of a disease. The result was a historic boomerang. Declaring that the President was “pointing” the people down the road to war, six major pacifist organizations launched a joint campaign for twenty-five million signatures to “Keep America Out of War.” The A.F. of L. disapproved the speech, Representative Hamilton Fish proposed the President’s impeachment, and a poll of Congress showed two to one against joining the League of Nations in collective action in the Far East. “It’s a terrible thing,” the President said to a friend, “to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead—and find no one there.”…

In China the government, followed by the diplomatic corps, withdrew from Nanking to Hankow, four hundred miles up the river, where Stilwell came in the first week of December, 1937. With the rail routes from Peiping blocked by the battle front, the journey now took eight days, first by sea around the Shantung Peninsula, then via the Lunghai railway line to Chengchow, then southbound to Hankow. Already “quite fed up with everything and everybody,” as Win wrote to her daughters, Stil well boarded the train at Hsuchow in a swarm of refugees: “13 occupants in 8 seats, didn’t dare get up to go to the toilet. Cold … no food, no water.” After two days and two nights he drank the cold tea from a sleeping passenger’s teapot.