1921-1949 Chaos in Asia

Chaos in Asia section


Political and economic chaos threatened the survival of China, Japan, and many Pacific nations in the 1930s. This crisis was caused by the lingering effects of worldwide depression, population explosions, and military aggression. The biggest threat was a militaristic Japan that dreamed of controlling all of China, indeed, all of Asia.

As the Nationalists battled the Communists, the Japanese invaded Chinese coastal cities and began to move inland. Communist Red Army guerillas struck back on both fronts from 1937 to 1941 and gained favor with peasants in the Chinese countryside. When Japan's occupation encroached on Western interests in Asia, the Japanese military decided to risk it all by attacking Pearl Harbor. This arrogance brought the furor of world war to the Pacific, and four long years later, Japanese dreams of Asian conquest were shattered.

Yet the defeat of the Japanese at the end of World War II did not bring peace to China and its neighbors. Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists had been weakened by the war, its army was demoralized, and its government was hopelessly corrupt. The Communists had gained control of 15 million Chinese and had built their guerrilla units into a powerful army. As European authority in the Pacific began its fatal decline, U.S. support to struggling nations would be on the rise … to Southeast Asian countries threatened by Communist takeover.

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exhibit section showing artifacts
Booklet - "Manchuria Daily News Enthronement Supplement" 1934
--Artifacts on loan, courtesy of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, Stanford, California

Propaganda (copy) - distributed by the Japanese after Rape of Nanking, 1938
--Artifacts on loan, courtesy of the Yale Divinity School Library, New Haven, Connecticut

As Japan steadily claimed more land and cities in China, it left a lasting legacy of cruelty and barbarism against the Chinese people. Then on December 7, 1941, Japanese planes bombed U.S. naval and air bases in Hawaii, and gambled that all of Asia would "kowtow" to the Japanese emperor if the U.S. navy could be destroyed.

In the early 1930s, Japan established the "independent state" of Manchoukuo within Manchuria, and placed former Qing emperor PuYi onto its throne. Inner Mongolia was next. As the Japanese advance reached the Great Wall of China, they were not opposed because Chiang Kai-shek had pulled back his army in order to continue war against the Communists. The Red Army guerillas, meanwhile, fought both the Nationalists and the Japanese on two fronts.

The bombing of Shanghai officially started the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. After almost obliterating Shanghai, Japanese troops committed what was called "The Rape of Nanjing." For a period of two months, the Japanese brutally murdered up to 250,000 Chinese civilians and raped up to 80,000 women and girls.

After signing a military alliance with the Axis powers (Germany and Italy), Japan threatened French, British, and U.S. interests throughout the Pacific. Then, in a calculated move to become the only naval power in the Pacific, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the U.S. naval base in Hawaii - as well as U.S. bases on Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines, and British bases on Hong Kong and Malaya. American forces were severely crippled by these attacks.



exhibit section showing photos

There was a clear disparity between Western and Chinese perceptions of China's power elite. America praised "Free China" and viewed Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists as a major ally. But the Chinese people were miserable and hated the Nationalists. What they saw was a poorly run army, a muddling bureaucracy, and flagrant misuse of funds. Before the end of WWII, public support in China had shifted dramatically toward the Communists.

Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists troops were forced to retreat three times by the Communist stronghold in Jiangxsi Province in the 1930s. Finally the Nationalists drove the Communists into a year-long flight known as "The Long March." Chased by Chiang's troops, almost 87,000 men, women, and children began the march. After 6,000 miles across mountain ranges, swampland and deserts, only 7,500 survived. One of the survivors was Mao Zedong.

But the Communist movement was far from dead. In fact, countless Chinese began to listen to the Communists' philosophy. In 1936 when they called for a united front to fight the Japanese, Chiang refused. In response, Nationalist army commanders mutinied, kidnapped Chiang, and forced him to join with the Reds to declare war against the Japanese.

But the alliance was short-lived. By the time the U.S. became embroiled in WWII in 1942, the Nationalists had renewed their attacks on the Red Army. Reports circulated throughout China that army recruits were being driven at gunpoint toward the frontlines of battle against the Red Army. Feeling betrayed, Chinese loyalties turned back to the Communists who symbolized a patriotic front against China's true enemies: Japan and the United States of America.



exhibit section showing artifacts

Letter and Translation (copies) - from Chiang Kai-shek to Harry Truman, 1946
Correspondence and report - exchanged between Eleanor Roosevelt and President Truman regarding the Chinese Nationalists, 1946.
Poster - VJ Day in China, 1945. Shown on horseback are Molotov, Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman, Chiang Kai-Shek, Clement Atlee, and Charles DeGaulle.
--Artifacts on loan, courtesy of the Harry Truman Presidential Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri

Pamphlet (copy) - "Chinese Communists" 1945
--Artifacts on loan, courtesy of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, Yorba Linda, California

Map (copy) - of China showing Nationalist and Communist strongholds, 1949
--Artifacts on loan, courtesy of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, Stanford, California

At war's end, China's internal political problems were compounded by the destruction of roads, railroads, and cities. The Nationalists were mired in corruption and stubbornly refused to see that the Chinese people were embracing the Communist leadership. In 1949 the Communist takeover of China also shocked the U.S., and helped to persuade President Truman, and subsequent U.S. presidents, to lend aid to Asian nations threatened by communism.

Another civil war arose as China struggled with the destruction of war, labor unrest, and the starvation of its people. President Truman sent General George C. Marshall to mediate peace between the Nationalists and the Communists, but Marshall's efforts were undercut by Chiang's refusal to give up any part of his government. The people also witnessed mass shootings of demonstrators by his Nationalist army, and feared his use of gangs to carry out intimidation and beatings.

The Communists, on the other hand, had seized Japanese arms and munitions. They now controlled a powerful army, plus the rich industry and farmland of northern and central China. The Red Army introduced land reform by confiscating property from the landlords and re-distributing it among the peasants. Thousands of prosperous farmers were beaten, arrested, or even killed by the local peasantry. Mao Zedong viewed these assaults as "a tool" to involve all villagers in acts of mob violence, physically and emotionally committing them to revolutionary change.

In January 1949, a victorious Mao and his Red Army entered Beijing on American tanks captured from the Nationalists. By April, Chiang Kai-shek and hundreds of thousands of supporters fled to the island of Taiwan. On October 1, 1949, the People's Republic of China was formally established. Mao Zedong was pronounced President of the Republic as well as Chairman of the Communist Party.


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