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1 December 2021updated 12 Oct 2023 11:24am

How China is reclaiming history

America sees the Second World War as its “good war”, when it won the right to world leadership. Now China is writing itself into the story.

By David Reynolds

President Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) called 7 December 1941 “a date which will live in infamy”. For Americans the “infamy” was Pearl Harbor: Japan’s surprise attack by carrier-launched bombers on the main US fleet at anchor in the Hawaiian Islands. Eight battleships were sunk or seriously damaged and more than 2,400 people killed.

“Remember Pearl Harbor” became the refrain of America’s war in the Pacific. Yet war memory has assumed different shapes over subsequent decades in Asia – as it has in Europe. The United States and Japan gradually became global partners after 1945, and this subtly softens their remembrances. The theme for the annual Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade in this 80th anniversary year is “remembering our past while celebrating that once bitter enemies can become friends and allies”.

Even more noteworthy in these dramas of past and present is the emergence of China as a leading actor. Since Xi Jinping became president of the People’s Republic in 2013, he has treated history as an essential tool in China’s reassertion of its global position. Here he emulates and indeed surpasses Vladimir Putin’s inveterate retooling of the “Great Patriotic War” to gain moral authority for Russia. Being on the right side of history is felt to bring huge international dividends in the form of soft power. For decades the US has led the way, depicting 1941-45 as its unquestionably “good war” – springboard and justification for its global leadership. But that pre-eminence is what Xi’s China now contests. In the growing rivalry between Beijing and Washington, history has become one of the prime arenas.

Pearl Harbor was one of eight separate assaults on 7-8 December across the Pacific, timed in close sequence across thousands of miles of ocean from Hawaii and Guam to Thailand and Singapore. As a feat of combined operations – bringing together air, sea and land forces in an era long before satellite navigation – Japan’s oceanic onslaught eclipsed the notorious German Blitzkrieg of May 1940. And over the next six months the Japanese kept expanding across the Asia-Pacific – even bombing the city of Darwin, on the north coast of Australia, and threatening India. The hasty American retreat from the Philippines and the ignominious surrender of Singapore – which Winston Churchill later called “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history” – shredded the myth of Western racial superiority for millions of people across Asia.

[See also: The EU wants to be a global superpower – but it has Russia to contend with]

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In time the tide of war began to turn, as Japan’s leaders knew it must. Their intent was somehow to parley territorial gains into the negotiated settlement of a new order in Asia that recognised Japan as a major imperial power. But the whole idea was intrinsically flawed. The losses sustained by the US at Pearl Harbor, and especially the damage to national pride, fuelled a war of revenge that could only be satisfied by Japan’s utter defeat.

That conflict was characterised on both sides by racist animosity largely absent from the Anglo-American war against Germany (though, of course, all too evident on the Eastern Front and in the Nazis’ “Final Solution”). Japan’s brutal mistreatment of prisoners of war and civilians, especially the “comfort women” forced into sexual slavery, became the subject of war crimes investigations that are still ongoing. On the American side, by 1945 there was no attempt to maintain the fiction of “precision bombing” still at large in the European theatre, as Japan’s largely wooden cities were consumed in enormous firestorms started by systematic incendiary raids. More Japanese died (80,000 to 90,000) in the fire-bombing of Tokyo on the night of 9 March 1945 than in the bombing of Nagasaki five months later.

But at Nagasaki, of course, just a single device was employed, and one of a totally novel type. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August respectively brought America’s war against Japan to an apocalyptic end. The mushroom cloud became the icon of a new age.

From Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima: that has been the arc of US public memory about the war in Asia. Initially, the narrative was infused with righteous anger: Japan’s “sneak attacks” and its victories in 1941-42 were gradually reversed and revenged, at great cost, until the spectacular retribution in August 1945. But from the 1950s Japan became America’s principal ally in Cold War Asia, and so the Pacific conflict was transmuted into a just war with a redemptive ending. By the 1980s and 1990s it had been folded into the prevailing narrative of America’s Second World War in Europe and Asia as a “good war,” waged by men whom the author and TV anchorman Tom Brokaw dubbed “the greatest generation”.

In our own century, as veterans and their loved ones passed from the scene in both countries, the anniversaries have lost some of their sting. On 27 May 2016, Barack Obama became the first incumbent US president to visit the Hiroshima Peace Park, sited at the epicentre of the 1945 explosion, to lay a wreath and meet survivors. He offered no apology but said he came to mourn the dead of war and to pledge anew to build a peaceful world. Accompanying him that day was Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who then made his own gesture of reconciliation (though again without apologising) on 27 December 2016, standing with Obama at Pearl Harbor’s memorial to the battleship USS Arizona, lying in the water below.

[See also: Can Joe Biden and Xi Jinping work together?]

Yet the war that both countries now commemorate is essentially a bilateral conflict: America versus Japan, framed by those two pillars of fire: Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. The Japanese pay little attention to the other regions of the Asia-Pacific they targeted during a sustained bid, stretching back to the 1890s, for an empire to match those of the Europeans. And most Americans treat the war in Asia as primarily revolving around their epic but ultimately victorious struggle against Japan, seen as part of a dawning “American Century”. Downplayed in both countries is the wartime role of China.

This neglect has been due in part to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). After Mao Zedong and his communist cadres gained power in 1949, following two decades of on-off civil war against the Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek, the “War of Resistance against Japan” tended to be subsumed in that longer struggle. Rather as Bolshevik historio-graphy regarded the war against Germany in 1914-17 as the prelude to the October Revolution, for three decades after 1949 the PRC treated its triumph as the natural consequence of its innate superiority over a regime of big landlords and corrupt capitalists. In other words, to quote the Oxford historian Rana Mitter, “the wartime period appeared as a foil to that inevitable victory rather than being analysed in its own right”.

Whereas the public narrative of the Second World War in the West elevated themes of “freedom” and “democracy”, Maoist historical discourse portrayed the period since the overthrow of the Qing imperial dynasty in 1911 as a protracted search for “order”, including Mao’s violent spasms of class struggle, notably the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62 and the decade-long Cultural Revolution until his death in 1976. Thereafter, official attitudes in China began to change, accelerated by America’s belated recognition under presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter of the PRC as the government of China.

Rewriting the past: Xi Jinping has sought to contextualise China’s rise to global power. Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

It was during the 1980s, when the PRC opened up to the world, that it also began reconsidering its wartime past – as Mitter shows in China’s Good War (2020). Mirroring the path war memory takes in most belligerent countries, anniversaries proved a catalyst for change, and museums acted as crucial markers. In 1985, 40 years after the end of the war, a museum was opened in the city of Nanjing, the scene of notorious Japanese atrocities in the winter of 1937-38, followed two years later by a memorial museum in Beijing. In 1991 a third major museum opened, in the city of Shenyang, to remember Japan’s conquest of Manchuria in 1931-32. The events commemorated at Nanjing and Shenyang are a reminder that for China the war against Japan started much earlier than 7 December 1941 – the day of “infamy” for America and Britain.

From the 1980s Chinese historians were encouraged to investigate the “blank spaces” and former “forbidden zones” of the past. One crucial topic now discussable was the Nationalist war effort. Previously, the war against Japan, when mentioned, had figured largely as a guerrilla conflict waged by the Communists, but now the Nationalist armies earned a mention. Even more striking was the growing attention paid to the role of Chiang Kai-shek, hitherto memorialised mostly in Taiwan, where his ousted Nationalists settled in 1949. In November 1943, Chiang had been photographed conferring with Churchill and Roosevelt – an image that went around the world because it was the first time an Asian leader had been seen in a position of equality with the potentates of the West. And in 1945 Chiang’s China gained a permanent place on the UN Security Council, together with the UK, France, the US and the USSR – a position the Nationalists held until 1971, when the US abandoned its long rearguard against the PRC occupying China’s seat.

Over the past decade, these various strands of “memory work” in China have become tightly packed into a political project by Xi Jinping. He devoted a major speech on 31 July 2015 to the need for much more research into the War of Resistance against Japan. The title was “Let History Speak” (the kind of political injunction that worries historians like me.) Xi issued firm instructions on dating: a 14-year conflict from 1931, with the first six years designated a “partial” or “regional” war of resistance, in contrast to the eight years of “total” war from 1937. He also declared that “we must encourage the mutual sharing across the Taiwan Straits of scholarly materials and jointly written books”. And during the anniversary victory parade that year in Tiananmen Square, he publicly greeted several elderly veterans of the Nationalist armies – aged 90 or above.

Above all, Xi’s speech underlined the political imperatives behind this historical research:

To reconsider the great path of the Chinese people’s War of Resistance, to confirm the great contribution that the war made to the victory in the world antifascist war, and to show our upholding of the results from the victory in the Second World War and determination for international peace and justice.

He also stated that victory in 1945 “once again confirmed China’s position as a great power (daguo) in the world”. It was, as Mitter remarks, a major shift of emphasis, from “Mao’s solo revolutionary triumph at the end of the civil war” in 1949 back to “the moment of Chiang and Mao’s joint victory” in 1945. With these sleights of hand, China was being reinscribed in the global history of the Second World War.

Xi’s keenness to rewrite the past was intertwined with his vision for China’s future. To grasp this fully, we need to probe that clichéd phrase “the Second World War” – in order to understand the American-led globalism that the war generated and also the challenges to it in our own day. This means returning to 7 December 1941.

When President Roosevelt went to Capitol Hill on 8 December, he briskly summarised the bare facts of Japan’s “surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area” and asked the US Congress to recognise that “a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire”. Only one member of Congress voted against: Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a pacifist who had also opposed going to war in 1917.

In themselves, however, the events of 7-8 December 1941 simply meant that the US was now engaged in its own “war of resistance against Japan”. London and Moscow both feared that this would imperil essential supplies of American Lend-Lease aid for their war efforts against Germany. On the 9th, Churchill cabled Roosevelt inviting himself to Washington to dissuade the US from pivoting towards the Pacific. And on the 10th, he was shocked to hear that HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse had been sunk by Japanese aircraft off the coast of Malaya. There were now no British capital ships in the whole of the Pacific; by Christmas none was operational in the Mediterranean.

On Thursday 11 December, however, the global situation was transformed anew. At 3pm Adolf Hitler addressed members of the Reichstag, chronicling FDR’s acts of “hatred” against the Third Reich since 1937 as part of an escalating policy bent on “unrestricted world domination and dictatorship”, which he had pursued in cahoots with Churchill’s England. As a result, Hitler declared, the signatories of the Tripartite Pact – Germany, Italy and Japan – had “finally been compelled” to carry out the struggle against America and England jointly, “for the maintenance of the liberty and independence of their nations and empires”.

[See also: Is Vladimir Putin preparing for war?]

The Führer’s speech did not come out of the blue. For months, as FDR increased aid to Britain, the US had been engaged in an undeclared naval war in the Atlantic against German U-boats. Privately, the president assured Churchill that he was only waiting for “an incident” to justify a declaration of war. But no such incident occurred and Roosevelt was in no hurry to take such a message to the strongly isolationist Congress. Within the Roosevelt administration, many shared Churchill’s fear that the panic generated by 7 December could marginalise the war against Germany. One of them, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, never forgot his astonished relief when Hitler did the “totally irrational” and declared war on the US, remarking: “I think it saved Europe.”

In their crisp and pacey analysis of that week, Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbor and the German March to Global War (2021), the historians Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman suggest that 11 December 1941 was “arguably the most important 24 hours in history”. That’s a touch too breathless for me, but they are surely justified in asserting that “the global significance currently attached to 7 December should really be attributed to 11 December, 1941”. Hitler did not live to see his war’s catastrophic denouement, taking his own life in the rubble of his supposedly thousand-year Reich. Nor did FDR witness the day of Allied victory, felled by a massive stroke a month before. Yet it was Roosevelt’s America that led the march to global peace.

Before entering the conflict, the president had been thinking globally for years, alert to the implications of airpower for his country’s historic sense of sea-bound security. Now, America’s sudden plunge into war pushed him into a truly global strategy. He saw Germany as the crucial enemy, so his goal was to hold the line against rampaging Japan in order to deal with Hitler. Once Nazi Germany had been defeated, he believed that Italy and Japan would soon follow. But many Americans did not share his priorities, being desperate for revenge on Japan after the humiliation of Pearl Harbor.

FDR worked intensely to educate them, as he saw it, in international realities – his radio fireside chat “On the Progress of the War” on 23 February 1942 being a classic example. Speaking on the national holiday for George Washington’s birthday, he said that the country faced “a new kind of war” different from anything in the past because it was “warfare in terms of every continent, every island, every sea, every air lane in the world”. At the request of the White House, newspapers had printed global maps, and FDR conducted what he privately called a geography lesson as he took his listeners to “strange places that many of them never heard of” in an effort to explain “what our problem is and what the overall strategy of the war has to be”. More than 61 million Americans tuned in – almost the figure for his fireside chat on 9 December about Pearl Harbor.

FDR wove ideology in with geopolitics. Speaking in January 1941, 11 months before Pearl Harbor, he presented the war as a transformative moment in world history: an opportunity to establish what he called the “four freedoms” (of speech and worship, and from want and fear) as the basis of a world “attainable in our own time” and the “very antithesis” of the “new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb”. And, unlike Churchill, he viewed colonialism as a pernicious legacy from the past, which also should be swept away. After debacles such as the fall of France and Britain’s surrender of Singapore, he believed the United States had both the might and the right to shape the peace.

[See also: How the war on terror led to the forever wars]

Equally importantly, Roosevelt and his successor Harry Truman, though Democrats, were able to draw the Republican Party along with them during the 1940s. One crucial supporter, now largely forgotten, was Wendell Willkie – FDR’s challenger in the election of 1940, who then caught the public imagination at home and abroad with his 31,000-mile airborne world tour in 1942, touching down in 13 countries on five continents over 49 days, followed up with a 1943 bestseller about the adventure entitled One World. As historian Samuel Zipp has shown in The Idealist (2020), Willkie – with his rumpled charisma and eloquent prose – challenged Americans to ensure that the four freedoms were enshrined in the East as well as the West by eliminating colonialism and racism. In 1945, President Truman urged the Senate to ratify the UN Charter, declaring that “the world is no longer county-size, no longer state-size, no longer nation-size. It is one world, as Willkie said.”

Willkie was a political maverick, but his new sense of interconnectedness was shared by many mainstream Republicans. Arthur Vandenberg, a veteran senator from Michigan, had been a hard-line isolationist in the 1930s. But in his view, “Pearl Harbor ended isolationism for any realist.” In 1948-49, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Vandenberg helped the Truman administration to secure ratification of the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 – creating the alliance that has been the bedrock of US foreign policy ever since. FDR didn’t envisage such permanent commitments overseas but they were the logical outcome of his air-age globalism, guided by America’s power and principles. And their realisation depended on that brief moment of bipartisanship.

It is this Rooseveltian legacy that is now under attack in our time: domestically from the Trumpist agenda, which has taken such a grip on the Republican Party; and from abroad by the determination of Putin and Xi to craft a “post-West world order” unchained from American-led ideals of liberal democracy. By himself, Putin would not be a potent challenger, but Xi’s China is a different matter. And the rewriting of history is an important element in Xi’s arsenal because he believes, just as Roosevelt did, that globalism requires justification.

From China’s perspective, the United States is an upstart and usurper on the world stage. The Chinese history of the world, to quote the American author Michael Schuman, is a story of a Superpower Interrupted (2020). For Beijing, “China has been a superpower for almost all of its history, and it wants to be a superpower again.” The era of European hegemony in Asia – a century or so from the mid-19th century – is considered a blip, an interruption, in the broad sweep of time stretching back to the Zhou and Shang dynasties, more than a millennium before Christ.

Xi Jinping has moved away from the low-profile foreign policy of Deng Xiaoping and is explicitly conducting “major country diplomacy”. Rewriting the narrative of the Second World War is an essential part of that process. Instead of featuring China’s victimisation – exemplified in the Nanjing Massacre – the discourse is now dominated by words such as “victory” and “greatness”. And by acknowledging Chiang Kai-shek (at least until 1949), China can depict itself as “present at the creation” of the postwar world – to borrow the title given by Dean Acheson, Truman’s secretary of state, to his memoirs. In February 2020, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi stated that, “as the first founding member of the UN to sign its Charter, China has stayed true to the UN’s founding aspirations and firmly defended the purposes of the Charter and international law”.

The phrase “China has stayed true” implicitly points the finger at the US, deemed to have abused the principles of the United Nations for its hegemonic ends. Indeed, the UN has now become the PRC’s “venue of choice”, to quote Professor Rosemary Foot. Being one of the five permanent members of the Security Council (courtesy of Chiang and FDR), it can use the UN as the prime international arena in which to act as a “responsible Great Power”, as befits a country with the world’s second largest economy and an ever-increasing military arsenal. Within the UN General Assembly, however, the PRC usually sides with large developing countries such as Brazil and India: a reminder that on the Human Development Index (measuring health, education and income) it ranks 85th out of 189 countries – just below North Macedonia.

At the United Nations the PRC can therefore exhibit both status and solidarity and articulate what it sees as the key principles of 1945: respect for each state’s sovereignty and “core interests”, complemented by mutually beneficial cooperation conducted in a “win-win” spirit – rather than what Xi has called “outdated thinking from the age of [the] Cold War and zero-sum games”. The PRC’s grandiose Belt and Road initiative is presented as the prime example of its new diplomacy, seeking to build “a community of common destiny”.

Of course, the PRC’s self-description is controversial. But it shows how rewriting China’s war has become a vital instrument of Xi’s diplomacy. Similar “memory work” is evident in the US and Japan, as well as in Putin’s Russia, and no less in Brexit Britain. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” said William Faulkner in Requiem for a Nun. In East as well as West, the 80th anniversary of global war in 1941 underlines the enduring truth of Faulkner’s dictum.

David Reynolds is an NS contributing writer. His books on historical memory include “The Long Shadow” (Simon & Schuster) and “Island Stories” (William Collins)

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This article appears in the 01 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The virus strikes back