1940....What if we had simply looked the other way?

(Another installment in my "what if" series on Chinese History.  I realize many of you hate these....sorry.   (Not.)   To date we've looked at this old post Zheng He(what if he had turned left rather than right)....Lushan.... and today America's reaction to the invasion by Japan of China.  Enjoy)

In 1931 Japan invaded China.   And thus the first phase of the first phase of the first phase of WW2 began.   Japan had already grabbed Korea from China, so why would anyone ever think Japan would be content with an apple when it could have the whole tree?

Japan was the last in a whole string of countries that plundered, victimized, and humiliated China at will.  Beginning with England in the 19th century, China was not so much corrupt as out of date.   And once other countries “saw” what England could take, was it not only a matter of time? 

History books are great things, if only they factored in once in awhile human behavior.  Such as the natural tendency of humans to bully the weak.   Or the nasty habit of large companies, countries and peoples to take advantage of the chaotic and unorganized.  The illiterate.  The poorly governed.  The conquering of others is thus often seen as Gods Will.   In the Age before empathy of a people’s plight, sympathy was for sick children, not the country they lived in.

And so it was with the Imperial Japanese Army.  The Japanese thought the Chinese were not only weak, but unworthy of governing themselves.  In my view, they were right on all counts.   This doesn’t mean a nation should thus be invaded though.   Being both weak and incompetent at governing does not justify one’s country being raped and pillaged.   Just change the government!

The closest parallel to what Japan did to China that comes to mind is what the Americans did to the Native Indians.   The Indian population as a whole had no written language, was quite insular and was disorganized to say the least.  Century old rivalries, a technologically unadvanced culture and a willingness of the American Cavalry to kill civilians decimated the American Indian population.  And no one was sorry for it.  To paraphrase a British journalist visiting America at the time, the native population did not seem to understand it could not keep half the country as a “hunting preserve”.

The nation rather was obsessed with its sense of “destiny”.   It wasn’t the 7th Cavalry that did in the Indian, but this sense of holy, angelic entitlement, coupled with the unstoppable flow of pioneers that did.

As with Japan in the 1930’s and 40’s, few people in 19th Century America saw the irony between Manifest Destiny and the stamping out of a race of peoples to achieve what God had bestowed upon it. 
A sense of destiny can be a very dangerous thing.  Still, it took a hundred years to accomplish.
As nothing in China is ever “easy”, or “quick”, so went the slow but steady domination of the Heavenly Kingdom by Japan.

The Japanese came to “liberate” Asia from the West, and as regards China, it nearly succeeded in doing just that.  In the face of Japanese dominance Western exploitation of China ended overnight, albeit while already on the wane.

We already know how this story ends. 

But what if Japan had never left China?

What if Japan and America in fact, had never gone to war?

People claim 1931 was the real start of WW2.  Yet just as forcefully, people may claim the real start of  The War in the Pacific was 1940, with the act of one man.   Not just any man mind you, but The Man.  President Roosevelt.

Somewhat disturbed by Japan’s advance across Asia, and more than a little worried about war in the Philippines, in 1940, Roosevelt banned the export of scrap metal to Japan.   He also banned the export of copper.  Both of these were critical to the Japanese War Machine.  Roosevelt, for all his wisdom, did not seem to realize that with each sliver of punishment he meted out, he in fact only brought war closer. 

China became more vital, not less.  Southeast Asia….the same.

The tipping point was reached in 1941. The Man froze all Japanese assets in America and banned the export of oil to Japan.  This act is what finally pushed Japan over the edge, and eliminated all chance of peace with the United States.  This final decision was based on Japan’s refusal to withdrawal from China.  

Another irony that stands out today, is that the United States, with this final decision, by now consciously understood that these actions would mean war with Japan.   At the end of the day, the United States was thus willing to “go to the mat” over China. (I seriously doubt this is in Chinese history books.)

But what if the United States had not done these things? That is, what if the United States had not been willing to fight Japan?

The world is so different now.  So much more multilateral.  Constant debates and threats and warnings from North Korea to Iran, with the personal involvement of several countries.    When the USA took the actions it did in 1940, there really wasn’t much discussion.  If there had been, would the attack on Pearl Harbor really had been such a surprise? (Actually it wasn’t.  Many people high in government were expecting Japan to “do something”, somewhere)


Within the context of our time, it is something that could have been seen a “mile away”.   But there was no CNN in 1940, and the local farmer in Oklahoma did not have cable TV. 

Within the context of today’s political environment within the United States, such action would be not only beyond belief, but downright irresponsible.  Congress would call hearings.  Talking heads would have a field day.   Thus, in retrospect it is fair to call such a provocative decision foolhardy.  And as such, it cost America much treasure and countless lives.

Still, if America had not done these things there is no question Japan would have had free reign in Asia, and all of Asia would have come under Japanese domination.  This is without question. What Japan desired to have is very similar(if unspoken, and equally unattainable) to what China aspires to today.  
Not going to War with Japan would have given Japan free reign.  Japan’s famous admiral Yamamoto prophetically said, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor(something else nary a Chinese knows anything about…which I wouldn’t have any expectations for, except it did open the door to eventual Chinese Liberation…that’s all) that Japan would “run wild over Asia for 6 months, perhaps longer” before the American War Machine would be able to respond. 

Well, if America had never put trade restrictions on Japan, and signaled it “didn’t give a damn” about China, would there have even been an attack on Pearl Harbor? Probably not.

So Japan would have not only deepened its influence in China, but would possibly still be there today.  Indeed, China would have become something of a Japanese vassal.   In my view it is a myth that the Communist Party would have eventually defeated the Japanese in China.  Nonsense really.    As I’ve mentioned earlier, uneducated peasant armies in Asia have many advantages, all unrecognized and unappreciated:

First of all these are almost always commanded by dictatorships.  No Free Press.  No one to write about losses and casualties and suffering and deprivation of a People during wartime.    All of which has led to the oft quoted “Asians have no appreciation of life” belief.  (Westmoreland, grasping for straws, liked to comment that General Giap of North Vietnam would have quickly been fired as an American commander with the losses he was willing to take.) This is most important as the 
Dictatorship controls and manipulates the War Narrative.

Peasant armies are by definition uneducated and possibly even illiterate.  They know nothing of the World.   Their leaders are inevitably, however, well traveled and focused, with a more nuanced global view of the world.  Ho Chi Minh lived all over the place. Zhou En Lai and Deng Xiaoping both traveled Europe.   For them, manipulating the minds of a peasant must have been child’s play.

As such, they always looked at it as a Nationalist War, with a penchant for blaming foreigners for everything.  Talking in such black and white terms was something the peasant not only understood but saw and experienced on a daily basis.   That is, the effects of being “ruled” by foreigners.  It fit neatly into their world view.   Still, these soldiers never wondered of their officers “what can you do for me”?  Chairman Mao never held a “Townhall” meeting.  

And of course, the peasant armies had numbers.  There were no Conscientious Objectors in Asian Peasant Armies.

However, while an uneducated peasant army could have easily defeated any democracy, the Japanese were different.  

There was only one way to defeat such a powerful force.

The Imperial Japanese Army was a brutal killing machine, neither unrepentant nor reflective.  They were fueled by their own sense of destiny and sense of superiority.  One of the few countries in Asia never colonized by a European country. 

Alas, the overwhelming ingredient in Japan’s success in China was its willingness to inflict unsurpassing cruelty on the local population.   

What of the Communists’ ability to conduct guerilla warfare?  See above.

American Marines burned villages that were caught, or suspected of collaboration with the enemy.  This only instilled hatred of the Americans amongst the local populace.   More so than Fear.   The Vietnamese knew the Americans weren’t butchers(My Lai aside)   The Japanese Army had no such nuance.  They simply killed the villagers.  (And there were no Japanese reporters there to witness it.  There were no interviews of Chinese Peasants broadcast on NHK asking “how do you feel?”)

 Did the Chinese Peasants hate the Japanese.  Of course.  But they were feared as well.  The Chinese Peasant well understood the Japanese had neither remorse nor hesitation when killing a peasant.

Alas, in China sheer brutality would not be enough.  Was not Chiang Kai Shek equally violent towards his own people?   What CKS lacked however was competence.    The Japanese Army, like that of its Western Counterpart, the Germans, was extremely competent, and organized.  

Unrelenting brutality towards a people it looked down upon not enough?  Unsurpassed organizational skills unconvincing?

What of its weaponry?  The CCP did not have airplanes.  It did not have tanks.  And it didn’t have poisonous gas.  These are all things the Japanese did have, and used in abundance.  Without remorse.  Without the burden of a free press poking around.  Without the burden of a guilty conscience.  

So in my view there is no way the PLA could have EVER defeated the Japanese Army in China.  The Japanese Army was at war for 14 years.   Unscathed!   All the while fighting a vicious, slow war of attrition against an overwhelmingly superior foe in the Pacific.   

Great chess players often resign in as little as twenty moves.  Japan’s crushing defeat at Midway was more like the tenth move.  There was no way Japan could win the war against the Americans, and both nations knew it as early as June 1942.   Is this an un-nuanced view?  Of course!  Yet, for all practical purposes, Japan was finished.    Regrettably, war is not chess.   The American, the Australian and New Zealand War Machines had not even begun to fight.   And yet Japan should’ve resigned.  Still, it had the wherewithal to not only make this a 50 move match, but to continue to have its way in China during this whole time.   

Imagine if the United States had simply gone the less troublesome route and said “fuck it”?  

Japan’s concentration of force in China would’ve been all that greater. 

Wouldn’t the USSR eventually stepped in?   Not at all.  Not with a strong Japan fully armed with no fear of an American army on its flank.  We forget that Stalin initially favored CKS over Mao.  With good reason.

What were the odds of Mao surviving BOTH CKS and Japan? 

Like the American Revolutionaries in 1776, the Communists in China were a distinct minority.  It would have only been a matter of time before Japan had been able to successfully find someone to assassinate him.   Meanwhile, the Chinese Emperor would still be head of the puppet government today.

America did not know it at the time, but the “fuck it” approach would have saved many, many American lives.

 With an occupied China, there would have been no Korean War.  Why is that? Because Korea at the time was just as brutally governed by Japan.

Think about it.

No Communist China.  No North Korea.  No Korean War. 

And who occupied Vietnam?  Thus there would not have been a Vietnam War, either. 
Does one think Japan, so resource poor, would have over time softened its grip on China even a bit?  Does one think the American Public in 1940 would have been so willing to go to war with Japan over China?  It appears Roosevelt was willing to do just that.  No, if not for Pearl Harbor, it is hard for me to imagine such a country bereft of natural wealth such as Japan loosening its grip on China for even one second. 

Like I said earlier, the above may be oversimplified.  The irony of ironies is that the only way a Democracy can defeat a ruthless foe is to be more ruthless than he is.  (I bring you America and the Atomic Bomb…twice.) But more thinking was put into writing this piece than that which China expended hosting a parade celebrating its defeat of the Japanese.  Let history be clear; if not for Pearl Harbor there is a good chance Japan would still be in China today.


  1. Prior to Pearl Harbor the Japanese had offered to withdraw from China in exchange for recognition of an independent Manchuria (Japanese-dominated). However, Roosevelt was hell bent on getting into the war in Europe on the side of the British, and he could only do it through the backdoor by getting a war in the Pacific with Japan. The Japanese wanted Manchuria more than anything. There was also a faction in Tokyo who wanted to make peace in China and invade the USSR instead since there were seen as the greater threat. CKS probably would have them made peace with the Japan and actually been in a better position in China since the other foreign powers had already been kicked of out by 1941. This was actually close to coming to fruition and would have changed the future of not only China but also SE Asia, where colonialism would have continued without the Japanese invasion.

  2. But you forget the role of Tojo!
    A peace deal indeed was made whereas Japan would leave China. Tojo vetoed the deal.
    It is interesting to note....Hirohito had been told when China was first invaded that the invasion would only last a year.
    As for the Soviet Union....what if Japan had indeed invaded Russia in 1940?
    Finally....Germany in 1941. Roosevelt would have been hard pressed convincing the American Public of war with Germany. Was not one war enough? Hitler's declaration of war against America was a gift to both Roosevelt and Churchill. And Stalin.


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