In the United States, World War II began with the surprise attack of the Imperial Japanese Navy against Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. From the viewpoint of Western Europe, the significant date was September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland.
In China and Asia, the nightmare began years before, on September 18, 1931. That’s when the Kwantung Army of Imperial Japan invaded Manchuria, which resulted in a puppet state and an occupation that would endure through the entire war.
It was the appeasement of the Imperial Japan in the West that crushed the credibility of the League of Nations. This, too, led Hitler, Mussolini and Franco to conclude that aggression could reap rewards.
China, the ‘forgotten ally’
More than 35 million Chinese were killed or injured during the years of anti-Japanese resistance and war. In the 1937 Nanjing Massacre alone, Japanese troops slaughtered an estimated 300,000 Chinese.
It is this triumph of Chinese resistance that, in February 2014, led China’s legislature to pass a resolution creating two new national observances. “Victory Day” on September 3 will commemorate Japan’s surrender in World War II; and December 13, for the Nanjing Massacre. As President Xi Jinping said recently: “The great contributions made by the Chinese people to the world anti-Fascist war should be remembered.”
During the “July 7 Incident” in 1937, Japanese troops attacked the Lugou Bridge, a critical access point to Beijing, marking Imperial Japan’s full-scale invasion and the beginning of the full-scale war of resistance of the Chinese people against the Japanese aggression (1937-45).
However, history is written by the victors. And until recently, conventional wisdom about WWII was based on a Western narrative dictated by the geopolitical exigencies of the Cold War rather than wartime realities. Essentially, that narrative sprang from Washington’s question: “Who lost China (to Communism)?”
However, the real question should be: Why did the West look the other way when Japan invaded China and thus undermined its own peace and future?
It is a sad fact that, in the major advanced nations, the massive Chinese sacrifice is barely known, often ignored and generally downplayed.
In one history of China’s role in the World War II, 1937-1945, Oxford historian Rana Mitter argues that even “those who are aware of China’s involvement often dismiss it as a secondary theater.” Perhaps that’s why he entitled his work Forgotten Ally.
Instead of a decisive response against Japanese aggression, international community opted for the policy of appeasement.
Unresolved legacies and historical revisionism
It was silence that paved the way for many Nazi and Japanese crimes against humanity.
This included biological and chemical warfare Japan undertook through the notorious Unit 731 that experimented with germ warfare attacks, frostbite testing, rape, syphilis and forced pregnancies, weapons testing (flame throwers on humans) and biological warfare. Like their Nazi counterparts, the Japanese “doctors” effectively de-humanized their victims who were subjected to vivisection – removal of organs, including parts of the brain, lungs, and liver – without anesthesia.
Some of the butchers of the Unit 731 and other units were prosecuted by the Soviets, but many were granted immunity by the U.S. They were not the only war criminals to be whitewashed, as documented by Eric Lichtbau’s The Nazis Next Door. In the decades following the end of World War II, the U.S. became safe haven for over 1,000 Nazis who were regarded as “assets.”
It all was only part of the far broader policy reversal in which WWII memories were suspended in the name of the Cold War; China became America’s “forgotten ally” and Japan provided an American foothold in Asia.
The message did not go unnoticed. For decades, Japan’s political leaders have visited the Yasukuni Shrine commemorating those who died in service of the Japanese Empire. In addition to 2.5 million men, women and children, the shrine honors almost 1,100 recognized war criminals, including an A-Class illegitimate elite.
Today these visits are a part of domestic politics, as evidenced by the campaign of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2001, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2013.
In contemporary Europe, such actions would be unthinkable. Imagine how England and France would respond if Chancellor Angela Merkel would court German nationalists by visiting SS and Nazi cemeteries, in the name of patriotism and remembrance?
In the past, historical revisionism in Japan reflected fringe politics. Today, it is about to go mainstream, even though most Japanese do not support it. In July, Prime Minister Abe’s government overrode objections from opposition parties to pass legislation permitting collective self-defense, which is part of efforts to dismantle the postwar settlement.
It reflects the eclipse of Japan’s “Peace Constitution,” an attempt to reverse previous war apologies; and a rebuttal of the forced prostitution of “comfort women” by the Imperial Army.
However, the government’s military revisionism risks undermining Japan’s economic progress and escalating regional tension.
Amnesia not an option
However, what if the Western powers had responded to Japan’s aggression in 1931? What if, instead of appeasement, they had upheld their supposed ideals? What if they had taken steps to punish aggression against China?
Perhaps the world might have avoided at least a part of a global nightmare.
Historical counterfactuals are always wisdom about hindsight. Nevertheless, these “what if” questions can make us more attuned to the missed opportunities of history.
Appeasement should never again be an option.
This article appeared at China.org.cn and is reprinted with permission.