A Fortuitous Ally: US Role in Sino-Japanese Conflict


By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

A minor confrontation on July 1, 1937, lit the fuse of war between China and Japan. With the nationalists and the communists still divided, China could not have won the war on its own. Luckily for China, things changed overnight when Japan bombed the Pearl Harbor. The United States could no longer be neutral and thus emerged a Sino-US alliance against the Japanese.

American Bomber planes flying in a formation over a Chinese city
U.S. Air Force fighter planes, nicknamed ‘Flying Tigers’, defended Chongqing against Japanese air attacks. (Image: R. T. Smith/Public domain)

Soviet and American Support

The massive Japanese assault that followed proved disastrous for the Chinese nationalists. As the war progressed, the lack of substantial foreign military assistance became a critical issue. Although the Soviet Union had provided air defense support against Japan from 1937 to 1939, the conclusion of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact of 1939 meant that Russia was now a nominal ally of Japan; consequently, all Soviet assistance to China ceased.

China turned its gaze toward the US. For its part, in Washington, the Roosevelt administration sympathized with China’s plight but American largesse was sharply limited by President Franklin Roosevelt’s policy of neutrality in the Sino-Japanese war.

The first significant boost in U.S. military aid to China as part of the emerging Sino-US alliance came in late 1940, when FDR authorized the informal transfer of 100 U.S. Air Force fighter planes, and their volunteer pilots, to Chongqing. Nicknamed the Flying Tigers, they played an important role in helping to defend Chongqing against Japanese air attacks in 1940 and ’41.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Sino-US Alliance

Things changed decisively when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It came as a godsend to Chiang K’ai-shek. With the sinking of the U.S. fleet in Honolulu, America could no longer remain neutral in the war in Asia.

Suddenly, U.S. financial and military aid began pouring into China. In 1942 alone, as part of the Sino-US alliance, Washington provided Chiang with over a billion dollars worth of lend-lease supplies and unsecured loans. President Roosevelt also named a senior American military officer, General Joseph Stilwell, to be commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in China.

Stilwell-Chiang Stand-off

A photo of a  chit issued by the Chinese to the American soldiers.
A ‘blood chit’ issued to the American pilots by the Chinese. It reads, “This foreign person has come to China to help in the war effort. Soldiers and civilians, one and all, should rescue and protect him.” (Image: Robert Baldwin/Public domain)

Almost immediately upon arriving in China, Stilwell came into conflict with Chiang K’ai-shek. Stilwell wanted to reorganize the nationalist military forces, and introduce proper military training and discipline among conscripts.

At every turn, Chiang resisted Stilwell’s meddling. United States, however, badly needed Chiang’s troops to engage the one million Japanese ground forces stationed in China so that they wouldn’t battle American troops elsewhere in the Pacific. Roosevelt, therefore, not wanting to jeopardize the Sino-US alliance, reluctantly, caved in to Chiang’s demand and pulled Stilwell out of China.

In October 1944 he replaced Stilwell with General Albert C. Wedemeyer who was an unabashed admirer of Chiang K’ai-shek.

Learn more about the ‘normalization’ of U.S.-China relations.

The Chinese Goodwill Ambassador

In order to keep American goodwill and material assistance flowing to Chongqing, Chiang K’ai-shek sought an invitation for his elegant and eloquent wife, Soong Mei-ling, to visit the United States.

With her sophisticated looks, Christian missionary background, American education, and flawless, unaccented English, Soong Mei-ling was the perfect goodwill ambassador for China. 

By the end of her coast-to-coast speaking tour, she had won the hearts of the American people as well as the U.S. Congress. In the process, she raised tens of millions of dollars in private donations for her charitable fund, United China Relief.

The Communists and the Dixie Mission

Meanwhile, soon after Stilwell’s departure, the Communist Party extended an invitation to a U.S. military advisory group to visit their wartime headquarters in Yan’an. In July 1944, against the wishes of a distrustful Generalissimo Chiang, the ‘Dixie Mission’, as the U.S. advisory group was called, set out by airplane from Chongqing.

On reaching Yan’an, the Americans were cordially welcomed by communist leaders, including Mao himself. The American visitors received a favorable (albeit gilded) impression of Chinese communism. The party chieftains took great pains to convey the image to the Americans of the Communist Party as a moderate, progressive, and democratic movement.

Conflicting Observations

After Patrick Hurley was named the U.S. ambassador to China, he displayed a keen interest in participating in direct talks with the Chinese communists. Although he prided himself on his negotiating skills, Hurley, nonetheless, had only the vaguest understanding of the issues that divided the nationalists and the communists; and he made no progress whatever in bridging the vast political and ideological gap that separated them.

As members of the Dixie Mission continued their observations in Yan’an, their findings tended to diverge sharply with those of Hurley and Wedemeyer, who believed that Chiang K’ai-shek and the Guomindang represented the one best hope for China’s democratic salvation.

In a series of internal memos to Washington, members of the Dixie Mission portrayed the leadership of the Guomindang as corrupt, inept, ineffectual, and alarmingly isolated from the common people. By contrast, they found the communists to be well-led, highly disciplined, and uncorrupt.

Learn more about Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

US Helps China Win the War

When the war against Japan ended abruptly in August 1945, it was not due to the military efforts of either the Chinese nationalists or the communists. It was the American air and naval power, under the Sino-US alliance, that proved decisive, culminating, of course, in the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities.

For their part, the Chinese nationalists suffered catastrophic losses of manpower, territory, and material during the war. But their role in defeating Japan was nonetheless minimal.

With the surrender of Japan, Chiang emerged as a proud—if severely weakened—warrior. Though his image may have been tarnished within China, it had an important ace in the hole: the unwavering support of the United States.

Common Questions about US Role in Sino-Japanese Conflict

Q: Why did Soviet assistance to China cease?

The conclusion of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact of 1939 meant that Russia was now a nominal ally of Japan. Therefore, all Soviet assistance to China ceased and later on Sino-US alliance emerged.

Q: How was the bombing of Pearl Harbor significant for China?

President Franklin Roosevelt declared a policy of neutrality in the Sino-Japanese war. However, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, America could no longer remain neutral, and U.S. financial and military aid began pouring into China.

Q: What were the Dixie Mission’s finding about the nationalists and the communists?

The Dixie Mission found the communists to be well-led, highly disciplined, and uncorrupt; whereas, the nationalists were corrupt, inept, ineffectual, and alarmingly isolated from the common people.

Keep Reading
China and the World: How the Equation Changed After 1972
Mao Zedong and the Making of Communist China
Nixon-Mao Meeting: A Major Turning Point in Modern History