In 1971, as the Vietnam War reached a critical stage, Barbara Tuchman published a book on the United States and China, “Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45,” which became a bestseller and won the acclaimed historian her second Pulitzer Prize. A vocal opponent of the conflict in Indochina, Tuchman wrote the book in part to instruct Americans on the dangers of backing an Asian tinpot dictator. The United States had made this mistake once before, she contended — during World War II, when it allied itself with the corrupt, incompetent regime of Chiang Kai-shek. It should not do so again.

Tuchman’s book was the most influential piece of a slew of scholarship about the United States and China that emerged in the shadow of the war in Vietnam. Even today, the ideas undergirding this scholarship dominate the generally accepted storyline of America’s interactions with the Middle Kingdom. The outlines of that tale are these: The United States tried to help China fight Japan during World War II. But the government that America chose to support was so corrupt and inept that the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt — led on the ground by the heroic U.S. Army Gen. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell — could do little to get China to fight. Chiang and his commanders avoided battling the Japanese at every turn.

The only ones really interested in saving China were China’s communists, captained by Mao Zedong, who even flirted with the idea of maintaining an equal distance between Washington and Moscow. But America, blind to Mao’s patriotism and obsessed with its fight against the Reds, backed the wrong horse and pushed Mao away. The inevitable result? The emergence of an anti-American communist regime in China.

Over the past decade and more, however, historians in the United States, Britain, Russia, Taiwan and even China have dismantled Tuchman’s tale piece by piece. New books — from Jay Taylor’s magisterial biography of Chiang, to a solidly researched new work on Mao by Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine, to research in Chinese and English by historians Michael Sheng, Chen Jian, Qi Xisheng, Yang Kuisong, Sheng Zhihua, Feng Youcai and the late Gao Hua and Ren Donglai — are telling a very different story. First and foremost, Chiang’s armies fought and bled for China, for four years alone against Japan and then for four more years with their American and British allies. One fact alone sums up the truth of this assertion: 90 percent of the casualties on the Chinese side were nationalist troops.

Second, far from being a strategic visionary, Stilwell committed a string of disastrous military mistakes that resulted in the slaughter of tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers — damaging Chiang’s ability to defend his country first against Japan and later against communist forces backed by the U.S.S.R. Third, it is extremely unclear how much Mao’s forces actually fought the Japanese. Mao’s armies conducted what he called a “sparrow war,” limited to small-scale guerrilla attacks. In fact, the communists lost more troops in attacking their erstwhile nationalist allies than in fighting the Japanese. Finally, there is no ground for believing — as Tuchman did so firmly — that the United States had a chance to pull Mao away from the U.S.S.R.’s embrace. Clearly, this new thesis goes, communism’s rise in China was anything but inevitable; Mao swept to power on the tank treads of the Japanese imperial army.

‘Forgotten Ally: China's World War II, 1937-1945’ by Rana Mitter (HMH)

Rana Mitter’s new book, “Forgotten Ally,” falls neatly into this welcome new trend and deserves to be read by anyone interested in China, World War II and the future of China’s relations with the rest of the world. A professor of history at Oxford University, Mitter argues that China’s experience during World War II — from the suffering it received at the hands of the Japanese, to the dysfunctional relationship it developed with the United States, to the new demands put on the population by both the nationalist and communist authorities — is critically important to understanding many of China’s issues today. China’s anti-Japanese demonstrations and neuralgia over the Senkaku Islands — a group of uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea administered by Japan but claimed by China — along with its love-hate relationship with America are all rooted in the war, Mitter believes.

In “Forgotten Ally,” he concentrates on the lives of three men: Chiang, Mao and Wang Jingwei, the dashingly handsome Benedict Arnold of modern Chinese history, who, believing resistance to Japan was futile, broke with Chiang in 1938 to lead a quisling government set up by the Japanese. Adding Wang to the mix was a brilliant move because it allows Mitter to explore the three paths taken by the Chinese in the early 20th century as they confronted the challenges of Japanese and Western power. Chiang established strong links to the West, first Germany and then the United States. Mao relied on the Soviet Union, albeit with a fanatical independent streak. Wang believed that China should unite with other Asian nations to counter the marauding white man. Elements of each view remain prominent in the psyche of China today.

Mitter argues that China’s war story has never been told properly. The country has always been portrayed, he writes, as “a minor player, a bit-part actor.” Yet China was the war’s first victim, he notes, two years before Britain and France were attacked and four years before the United States. And while France caved immediately, China stuck it out until the end, valiantly pinning down more than half a million Japanese troops — men and materiel that would have otherwise threatened British India and possibly even the mainland United States. The toll on China alone qualifies as a major story, Mitter notes — 14 million dead, 80 million refugees and the pulverizing of the country’s embryonic modernization.

Mitter masterfully constructs these interlocking stories of battles, famines, massacres, diplomacy and intrigue. He sprinkles his narrative with foot soldiers, missionaries, journalists and teachers, showing how the war affected all levels of society throughout China. To detail the famine in Henan in 1942, he uses the powerful reporting of Time magazine’s Theodore H. White, who wrote of “dogs eating human bodies by the roads, peasants seeking human flesh under the cover of darkness.” For Japan’s murderous bombing of China’s wartime capital, Chong­qing, Mitter describes the teams of men who pulled bodies out of the rubble and buried them along the banks of the Yangtze River, often tossing a stray limb into its eastward flow.

As for Chiang’s tragic decision to dismantle the dikes along the Yellow River to stem the Japanese advance — inundating a territory twice the size of Maryland, killing more than 800,000 and displacing between 3 million and 5 million refugees — Mitter takes the reader down to the unit level. Chiang’s soldiers first tried to blow up the dikes, but they were too sturdy. The troops had to content themselves with shovels.

The best part of this excellent book is how Mitter dismantles the myth of Joseph Warren Stilwell, the American lieutenant general whom Roosevelt dispatched to China to help lead Chiang’s forces to victory. In “Forgotten Ally,” we see a Stilwell fundamentally at odds with the man lionized in Tuchman’s biography. In Mitter’s artful telling, Stilwell, who had no command experience before his tour in China, comes off as a petulant, small-minded, strategically limited, diplomatically tone-deaf leader obsessed with one thing only: Burma, which, Mitter notes, was “a target of dubious value.”

Twice, in 1942 and then two years later, Stilwell strong-armed Chiang into devoting China’s most professionally trained soldiers to quixotic attempts to beat back the Japanese in Burma, each time with disastrous results. In 1944, he compelled Chiang to do so when a Japanese assault — the largest ever conducted by the imperial army — was plowing down China’s east coast. “Let them stew,” came Stilwell’s reply when subordinates pleaded with him for a mere 1,000 tons of supplies to reinforce Chiang’s armies in China’s east. To Mitter, Stilwell’s troubled relationship with Chiang was just the most obvious symptom of a diseased liaison with the United States — a tortured history that he believes continues to bedevil ties between the two giants today.

Still, even in a work as groundbreaking as Mitter’s, the misconceptions of the past seem hard to shake. The weakest part of the book is his acceptance of the notion that Mao’s men fought the Japanese. Mitter details only one major communist campaign — the Battle of the Hundred Regiments, which was an absolute failure. Throughout the book, Mitter quotes Mao spouting off about military strategy and even celebrating nationalist defeats. But we never see the communists actually fighting, except for stray claims that they conducted troublesome but unspecified guerrilla campaigns.

Mitter even bolsters the counterargument — that Mao kept his powder dry, grew his army and waited to profit from Chiang’s victory. If the communists hit the Japanese so hard, why then did the imperial army not target their revolutionary capital in Yenan more often? From 1938 until late 1941, Mitter reports, Japanese bombers hit it a mere 17 times for a combined death toll of 214. How can this compare with the suffering visited on Chiang’s capital, Chongqing, where 5,000 died in just two days of air raids on May 3 and 4, 1939?

“In the end,” Mitter writes, “Chiang won the war but lost his country.” And Mao walked off with the prize.

John Pomfret , a longtime Washington Post correspondent, is the author of “Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China.”


China’s World War II, 1937-1945

By Rana Mitter

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 450 pp. $30