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Distorted Ethics: A Review of the China Mirage

The United States imposed an oil embargo in mid-1941 on Japan, then engaged in the military conquest of China and parts of Southeast Asia. As the United States was Japan’s leading oil supplier, this embargo threatened the future of Japan’s expansion, and the Japanese ultimately compensated for the loss by embarking on a comprehensive invasion of Southeast Asia and the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) in order to seize the region’s oil and other resources. To protect their conquests in Asia, Japan also declared war on the United States and attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Had the United States not cut off Japan’s oil, Pearl Harbor would probably never have happened and the United States might not have entered the Second World War in the Pacific — or at least not at the time and way it did. James Bradley, author of The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia, argues that cutting off the Japanese oil supply was a tragic blunder and that American policymakers should have avoided war with Japan in 1941. He lays the blame for the fateful oil embargo on an attachment to China on the part of American policymakers and public and the desire to stop Japan’s conquest of that country. This attachment was based on various false American understandings and expectations of China — the “mirage” of the title.

To argue that the United States should not have entered the Pacific War is a provocative thesis, given both the Second World War’s status in American memory as the heroic “good war” and the degree to which involvement in the war shaped the course of subsequent American foreign policy. For American opponents of war and military intervention abroad, a well-argued critique of United States’ policy in Asia that shows how an alternative to war was possible in 1941 would be extremely valuable. The China Mirage fails in this respect, however.

Bradley does not seriously engage the ethical problems posed by American relations with China and Japan in the lead-up to Pearl Harbor, and he does not provide a clear alternative course of action to the various American policies aimed at aiding China and checking Japanese expansion. Further, The China Mirage’s ethical analysis is not merely inadequate but dangerously distorted, emphasizing ad nauseam the real and significant crimes and failings of Chinese President Chiang Kai-Shek and his American sympathizers while ignoring or explaining away the crimes of both the Japanese and Chiang’s main Chinese rival, Communist leader Mao Zedong.

The China Mirage does not look only at the events leading up to Pearl Harbor — indeed, this is one of the problems with the work, which I address below — but those events are the heart of the book. Around half of Bradley’s narrative is preoccupied with the period from Chiang becoming the preeminent Chinese leader in 1928 to the United States entering the Pacific War in December 1941.

During this period, Bradley argues, Chiang and his in-laws, the wealthy Soong family, waged a highly effective propaganda campaign directed at American policymakers and the American public and designed to encourage support for Chiang’s rule in China. Building on long-standing American perceptions of China fostered by Protestant missionary activity in the Asian country, and aided by publicists such a Henry Luce, the publisher of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines, Chiang and the Soongs led Americans to believe that the Chinese were essentially Americans in the making. China was on its way to becoming a Christian and democratic nation where, as Bradley puts it, “the Chinese would pray to Jesus in white-washed churches and debate Jeffersonian principles in townhall meetings.” Leading this (illusory) transformation of China was the heroic Chiang.

Through this propaganda campaign and cultivation of key American policymakers such as Henry L. Stimson, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, and Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, Chiang’s regime managed to wring hundreds of millions of dollars of aid from the United States, as well as military support against Japan, which had invaded China in 1937. Chiang and the Soong’s activities hid from many Americans such unpleasant realities as the regime’s repressiveness and corruption, comparative military incompetence in fighting Japan, and the existence of a serious rival to Chiang in Mao.

Most significantly, Chiang and his American allies argued that an American embargo on Japan would halt Japanese aggression against China without serious repercussions for the United States. Despite Roosevelt and the State Department’s — justified — fears that an embargo would lead to Japan seizing Southeast Asia and the East Indies and might even draw the United States into war, 75 percent of the American public had come to support an embargo by early 1940. Further, Bradley argues that when Roosevelt finally did impose a limited oil embargo in the summer of 1941, lower-level government officials, led by the hawkish, pro-China State Department official Dean Acheson, enforced the embargo in such a way that it became effectively comprehensive. This provoked Pearl Harbor.

Much of Bradley’s account, including the Chiang regime’s cruelty and incompetence and the influence of a well-funded “China Lobby” that promoted American support for Chiang, is plausible and fairly uncontroversial. To lay most or all of the blame for the outbreak of war between Japan and the United States on Chiang and the China Lobby is overstating the case, however, and to dismiss the case for an embargo altogether, as Bradley does, fails to do justice to the complexity of the situation.

American concerns about Japanese conquest of China were based on more than sentimental attachments to an illusory Americanized China led by Chiang. As Bradley acknowledges, Roosevelt worried about Japan’s action not merely because of China Lobby propaganda but because he saw that Japan could use its position in China to conquer Asian territories to the south that were economically vital to the United States — as indeed, the Japanese eventually did. The Japanese government had already decided in July 1941 to expand to the south of China and had invaded French Indochina when Roosevelt imposed the limited oil embargo.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Cordell Hull — consistently portrayed by Bradley as more cautious than hawks such as Stimson, Morgenthau, and Acheson — nevertheless took a hard line in 1941 diplomatic negotiations with the Japanese, insisting on Japan's withdrawal from China. This suggests Hull was motivated by considerations other than propaganda put out by Chiang and his supporters. Moreover, the failure of Hull’s negotiations owed more to diplomatic misunderstanding than China Lobby activities. By placing so much emphasis on the China Lobby, Bradley may be giving them a more central position of policymaking influence than is warranted.

More important than this over-emphasis on propaganda and misguided beliefs in American-Chinese friendship, however, is the Bradley’s refusal to engage the strongest argument made by embargo proponents: by selling Japan oil, Americans were literally fueling a barbaric and bloody war of conquest.

Comments such as Stimson’s challenge “Does the safety of the American nation…require that we go on helping Japan to exterminate by the methods she is daily employing, the gallant Chinese soldiers with which she is confronted — not to speak of the civilian Chinese population that she is engaged in terrorizing?” or the accusation made by a China Lobby pamphlet that America had a “Share in Japan’s War Guilt” are presented by Bradley as Chiang-sponsored propaganda, but they had more than a little truth to them.

The Japanese occupation of China was one of extraordinary brutality in which perhaps 14 million Chinese perished — more deaths than were suffered by any other nation in the Second World War, apart from the Soviet Union. For the United States to sell Japan the means to engage in such a crime against humanity should appall anyone concerned with justice and basic decency. Not necessarily to go to war with Japan but simply to cut off the resource that powered their war machine could reasonably be seen as a minimal ethical response to Japanese aggression.

As Roosevelt and others feared at the time, and which is even clearer in retrospect, cutting off Japanese oil did not end the occupation of China but helped to escalate the war and pull the United States into it. Americans were thus faced in 1941 with an agonizing choice between helping Japan commit its crimes and provoking a wider conflict. It would be difficult to imagine a harder ethical dilemma. To identify an appropriate response or even to do justice to the stakes involved requires a more careful analysis than Bradley provides.

Indeed, Bradley scarcely even mentions Japanese crimes in China. He makes a single reference to one of the worst Japanese atrocities of the Second World War, the mass torture and slaughter of Chinese civilians in the city of Nanking — in what became known as the Rape of Nanking — and then he mentions the incident mainly to highlight Chiang and his wife’s cowardice in fleeing the city. Otherwise, Japanese atrocities in China are ignored. The villains in The China Mirage are strictly Chiang and his American dupes.

As mentioned, Bradley’s — inadequate — discussion of events leading to the oil embargo and Pearl Harbor is the heart of the book, but he covers other historical events as well. The treatment of these events is even more problematic. He begins his narrative with the first American contacts with China in the 19th century, covering such topics as British and American opium smuggling in China, early missionary activities in China, and the exclusion of Chinese immigrants from the United States in the 1880s. He also has an early chapter devoted to American-Japanese relations in the early 20th century and how President Theodore Roosevelt allowed Japan to annex Korea.

Much of this is interesting, but its relevance to American entry in the Second World War is tenuous at best. Some of this history illustrates themes that are important to the later discussion of Chiang and the China Lobby: illusions of a Christianized, Americanized China; Americans’ limited contact with Chinese people; and the ways educated elites from another country can influence policymakers (as Theodore Roosevelt’s attitude to Japan and Korea was influenced by the Japanese aristocrat Baron Kaneko).

Granting all this, however, most of this early material could be dispensed with or condensed to a few paragraphs without the central part of the book suffering. How important is it to American foreign policy in 1937-41 that Franklin Roosevelt’s maternal grandfather made his fortune selling opium to China? This oft-repeated bit of family history seems to be included just to make Roosevelt look bad; indeed, making Americans look bad seems to be main function of most of the pre-1930s sections of the book.

The final 80 pages or so of the book are a digest history of United States-China relations during the Second World War and in the decades following Mao Zedong’s eventual 1949 triumph over Chiang. A great deal of history, including the Chinese civil war, McCarthyism, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars are hurried through here, to make the point that the United States should have abandoned Chiang Kaishek and embraced Mao Zedong as the better leader of China and American ally.

These final chapters, as well as earlier portions of the book, contain the other disturbing distortion in Bradley’s account: his apologetics for Mao. In The China Mirage, Mao is portrayed as a superior political and military leader to Chiang, the parts of China under Communist control are described in glowing terms, and Mao’s offers to form a partnership with the United States are presented as sincere — and the American failure to respond is presented as a great lost opportunity. Some of these claims have merit, but Bradley leaves out the most salient fact about Mao — that once in power in China, he was a brutal tyrant whose policies killed millions of people. For the most part, Mao’s crimes are either flippantly dismissed (in regard to the Communists’ use of torture, Bradley comments that “After all, this was a Chinese civil war, and Mao was no saint.”) or buried in endnotes.

In one of these endnotes, Bradley says that he ignores Mao’s crimes in The China Mirage because his focus is merely on how Mao was a more effective leader than Chiang. This claim is completely at odds with the highly moralistic stance he takes toward Chiang and the United States, however, who are repeatedly condemned for ethical as well as practical failures. Bradley recounts tales of torture and executions under Chiang, as well as the enormous degree of corruption in his regime, and draws more than one parallel between Chiang and Hitler. Meanwhile, countless lapses by Americans, whether selling opium to China, betraying Korea to Japan, or planning to bomb Japanese civilians in the Second World War, are condemned. Such condemnation is entirely appropriate, but greater consistency would have been welcome.

The China Mirage is a disappointing book. An intellectually and ethically careful critique of American involvement in the Second World War, or in Asian affairs in general, would be of tremendous value. Bradley, however, provides only some interesting history and highly selective ethical criticisms that he does not shape into a coherent argument.


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