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Review of James Bradley’s “The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia”

In James Bradley’s “The China Mirage” he asks why his father found himself fighting the Japanese on Iwo Jima. Here he traces the roots of that war to ill-advised U.S. policies, its economic and paternalistic interest in China and its fear that Japan also had a serious and competing interest in China and East Asia. He ends up concluding that his father wound up on that godforsaken island so China could be freed from Japanese control and exploitation, thus allowing the U.S. and its British, Dutch and French imperial friends free access to its markets, resources and geographical position.

I recently watched “Sand Pebbles,” a mesmerizing 1966 film about an American gunboat navigating the Yangtze River deep into the Chinese interior during the Nationalist-warlord-Communist civil wars of the mid-1920s. What the film never explains is that the ship was there to protect commercial rights and extraterritorial privileges that European and American imperialists had seized over many decades of one-sided accords.

In 1784 the “Empress of China,” an American ship funded in part by businessmen eager to profit from the China trade, arrived in Canton. And well into the 19th Century a few more Americans, one of whom was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather, made their fortunes from the opium trade. Long before the U.S. became a debtor nation to China many American businessmen dreamed about vast treasures to be made in the lucrative China trade. “Imagine,” I once heard my CCNY political science professor say in class, “if every Chinese man and woman wore a white shirt every day what it would mean to American manufacturers of white shirts.”

It is Bradley’s contention that Americans have misunderstood and misjudged China, wedded as they were to the fantasy that China’s vast population was yearning to be Westernized and Americanized while ignoring that it had national interests of its own. This was never more obvious than after 1931, when the Japanese – eager to control China – invaded Manchuria, which the U.S. promptly denounced as an act of aggression. For both nations the great prize was China. Japan and U.S. were on the road to war.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor virtually every American believed, then and now, that it was a sneak, unwarranted attack on an innocent America. Far less concerned about Nazi conquests in Europe, most Americans were furious at what the “Japs” did on December 7th, FDR’s “Day of Infamy.” It then became morally and legally justifiable to incarcerate America’s Nisei and Issei in western desert camps (for different reasons, Norman Thomas, Robert Taft and J. Edgar Hoover were among the few public figures to object) and fight a savage Pacific war, ending with nuclear bombs directed at Japanese civilians.

Over the years writers like Bradley have challenged the dominant consensus that Japan, not the U.S., had alone provoked the war and was an expansionist, militarist state, unwilling to compromise—that is, accept American demands that it surrender its leading role in China. Bruce M. Russet’s largely forgotten 1971 book, “No Clear and Present Danger: A Skeptical View of the U.S. Entry into WWII” argued, instead, that the U.S. contributed mightily to the coming of war by its embargos (in concert with Britain and the Dutch) of oil and raw materials on a Japan which had none of these vital resources. While “the threat to Japan of a raw material scarcity was obvious,” the policy of “gradually tightening economic measures,” Russett concluded, “was an escalation that was to drive Japan not to capitulation, as it was intended to do, but to war with the United States.”

Bradley’s view is that if the Japanese had submitted to U.S. demands it would have meant abandoning China in favor of an updated imperial and pro-western Open Door Policy. But Japan saw U.S. intervention in China as no different from the Monroe Doctrine, which demanded absolute American control of the Western Hemisphere. Once its oil pipeline was shut down, Japan, writes Bradley, was stranded like “an industrialized beached whale.” Neither Tokyo nor Washington would budge, leading Dean Acheso, Henry Stimson and Henry Morgenthau, among other White House hawks, to “set the war clock ticking in Tokyo.” Surprisingly, Bradley reveals that neither FDR nor Cordell Hull, his Secretary of State, knew that Acheson & Company had unilaterally cut off oil shipments which, the Japanese historian Akira Iriye concluded in 1981, “had a tremendous psychological impact upon the Japanese” and led directly to Tokyo’s suicidal decision to go to war.

“The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia,” is a vivid, bracing and careful study, sure to be dismissed by some as revisionist history. Echoing Russett’s argument about the embargos and sanctions against Japan, but going far beyond it, Bradley charges that long before Pearl Harbor, U.S. policymakers were willing to go to war if Japan ever conquered British and French Southeast Asia and Dutch Indonesia since that would mean the loss of rubber, tin and tungsten that helped fuel American industry. Some of Bradley’s arguments were already accepted in part by George Herring (“From Colony to Superpower”): “[we] backed a proud nation into a position where its only choices were war or surrender. John Toland’s verdict was that “a grave diplomatic blunder” was enabled “by allowing an issue not vital to basic American national interests—the welfare of China— to become, at the last moment, the keystone of her foreign policy.” (Think of the U.S’s deepening involvement with Ukraine today.) Indeed, Jonathan Marshall’s “To Have and Have Not” wrote that FDR – who inherited his grandfather’s passion for China – and his pro-Chiang Kai-shek, anti- Communist aides – agreed with the “fundamental proposition that the U.S. could not afford to lose the raw materials and sea lanes of Southeast Asia,” never saying out loud that such a policy might lead to war – a warning for Americans today that should China ever move on those disputed rocky, uninhabited islets in the South China Sea claimed by Japan, the Philippines and China, our mutual defense treaties would oblige us to go to war.

The U.S. managed to avoid a shooting war during the Chinese civil wars but from late 1927 on placed its bet on Chiang. As WWII drew to a close and the UN was being established FDR insisted that Chiang’s China be made a member of the UN’s Big Four, which the ever quotable and opinionated Churchill mocked. “In Washington,” he wrote in the fourth volume of his wartime memoirs, “I had found the extraordinary significance of China in American minds, even at the top. Strangely out of proportion.” But FDR could not be persuaded.

For years, Washington’s foreign policy elite and compliant mass media helped shaped popular support for Chiang and his glamorous Americanized wife, whom Henry Luce, the son of missionaries, repeatedly praised in his influential “Time.” Meanwhile, millions of American dollars were lavished on Chiang and his wife’s powerful Soong family, fostering the illusion that the Kuomintang was actually fighting the Japanese. The money often disappeared (think of all those unaccountable billions sent to our Iraqi and Afghan war “allies”). As Bradley puts it, “Chiang handled the foreign loot,” a sentiment with which Truman later agreed when he called Chiang and his allies thieves. Finally, in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang, America’s favorites, were defeated by Mao’s communists and the U.S. refuse to recognize the change until Nixon and Kissinger took their secret trip to Beijing.

The truth is that there never would have been a Korean War (or a Vietnam War) had there not been a Cold War between Moscow and Washington. So in June 1950 it was easy for American policymakers to misread an “an incident in a small Asian civil war as a challenge to their global containment policy, incorrectly concluding that Moscow—working through Beijing and Pyongyang—had ordered the crossing [of the 38th Parallel] when it was only a North Korean action.” To call off the dogs, Acheson recommended Truman send in the military without a congressional authorization. Once the shooting began and after Chinese “volunteers” entered the war, the China Lobby and its allies in Congress began denouncing Truman as an appeaser for losing China. General MacArthur and the China Lobby repeatedly urged Truman to “unleash” Chiang’s exiled and defeated army against the Chinese and North Korean forces. After Truman fired MacArthur for insubordination, the China Lobby went berserk. “The son of a bitch [Truman] should be impeached,” growled Joe McCarthy. If that weren’t enough, Bradley writes that Acheson, incredibly, advised Truman “to send covert military aid to the French in Indochina for their war against Ho Chi Minh. With no debate-- and none was sought—a Wise Man, rattled by events in Asia he little understood, committed the U.S. to current and future wars.” As David Halberstam, in “The Coldest Winter,” his revealing book about the Korean War, commented, correctly, “The issue of China itself hovered over every decision.”

“Who Lost China” became the deceitful and inflammatory slogan of demagogic politicians, private and religious interests, wealthy businessmen and Joe Mc Carthy and his minions. They pounced on an intimidated and frightened State Department and White House. Veteran China specialists were fired, persecuted and prosecuted for reporting that Mao was not Stalin’s stooge and Chiang and his cohorts were corrupt and ineffective. (See, for example, John Paton Davies, Jr.’s “China Hand: An Autobiography.”)

In retrospect, a fearful and angry nation had gone mad. Blacklists, jail terms, a few, but very few, Soviet spies (we had our spies too in Russia), and a shamefully conformist mass media helped scare and silence potential critics. Bradley mentions that Acheson’s infamous and secret NCS-68 policy was adopted in April 1950 and transformed the nation into the militarized global avenger of “evil” nations and also into an enduring national security state, which Dwight Eisenhower later but unsuccessfully, warned us against. Bradley makes it easier to understand LBJ’s plunge into Vietnam, George Bush’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq and Obama’s immersion into the Middle East’s tangle of complex religious and political rivalries.

Now, as if in a repeat of past history, Obama’s baffling “pivot to Asia” is clearly aimed at a powerful China, no longer an American or Japanese supplicant. There are lessons to be learned about war and peace and Bradley’s valuable book offers a warning about past and future unnecessary entanglements.