Why the Treaty of Versailles was not Responsible for the Outbreak of World War 2

“One day, President Roosevelt told me that he was asking publicly for suggestions about what the war should be called. I said at once, ‘The Unnecessary War.’ There never was a war more easy to stop than that which has just wrecked what was left of the world from the previous struggle.”

-Winston Churchill

There is probably no other peace treaty in history that has been as vilified as the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that ended World War 1. While the great political thinker Machiavelli suggested that defeated “people should either be caressed or crushed” the Versailles Treaty seemingly got the worst of both worlds by humiliating Germany but not weakening her enough that she could not rebuild and seek revenge. Certainly a case can be made that the treaty itself had considerable flaws and helped build resentment and anger that contributed to events and policies that led to World War 2, but that does not mean it was directly responsible for, or even mostly responsible, for the outbreak of war in 1939. Between 1919 and 1939 were twenty tumultuous years that saw disastrous events, flawed policies and miscalculations by nations, missed opportunities and countless other factors which ultimately resulted in a Second World War breaking out in 1939. Hitler’s rise to power was not inevitable, Britain, France, America and Russia made mistakes, and had many opportunities to prevent Germany from developing a strong military, and countless decisions and events from 1919 and 1939 influenced the unlikely outbreak of hostilities in 1939 which Winston Churchill referred to as “The Unnecessary War.” The Versailles Treaty led to circumstances that helped lead to war in 1939, but by itself was not among one of the major reasons that started World War 2.

With hindsight it is generally believed that the Treaty of Versailles was unnecessarily harsh to Germany but this is debatable depending if one accepts the view that World War 1 was mostly due to German aggression. There is question as to whether or not Germany deliberately took advantage of the July Crisis in 1914 to launch a preemptive war against France and Russia due to her real or imagined fears of being encircled by hostile powers; or if she stumbled into war due to miscalculations and carelessly promising unconditional support to Austria-Hungary, which started the countdown to war by being inflexible towards Serbia. What is not debatable is that as the war continued German war aims became increasingly grandiose, aggressive and ultimately sought nothing less than the de facto domination of Europe. As was seen by the terms the Germans had in mind for Belgium and France, (reducing the former to a vassal state and effectively neutering the latter), along with the exceedingly harsh treaty she inflicted upon Russia in 1918 there can be no question that a potential German victory in the war would have seen a far less generous settlement for the Entente Powers.

Whereas the Versailles Treaty in 1919 spared German independence and allowed her to keep most of her industry, territory and resources (losing only 25,000 square miles, 7 million people and none of the vital Ruhr industrial region) the German treaty inflicted upon Russia (the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918) stripped the latter of over 1 million square miles including Finland, the Baltic States, Poland, part of Belorussia, the Ukraine, and even much of the Caucasus. This territory included over 55 million people (roughly 1/3rd of the Russian Empire’s population) as well as the majority of Russia’s industry, one third of her arable land, the vast majority of her coal fields and 1/4 of her railroads. Thus, unlike the Treaty of Versailles that weakened Germany but allowed her to remain a great power, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk temporarily reduced Russia to a third rate power. The treaty shocked and humiliated the Russians, but Lenin decided to accept the treaty because of how weak Russian forces were and calculated, correctly, that the Western Entente Powers would win the war against Germany ultimately.

While critics of the Versailles Treaty either downplay or ignore the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk imposed on Russia by Germany, arguable because it was much worse than the former treaty and undermines the narrative that Germany was not overly aggressive and ambitious in her war aims, they usually know next to nothing about the harsh peace treaty Germany inflicted upon France in the aftermath of the “Franco-Prussian War” in 1871. This treaty was no less humiliating and in some ways harsher than the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. It annexed Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, forced the French to pay 5 Billion Francs in war reparations (or 350 billion dollars in 2011 rates) and occupied perhaps a third of France’s territory (including Paris) until the French paid up. By contrast in 1919 France merely regained the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, only a few towns along the Rhine were occupied by Entente forces and the huge sum that the Germans were suppose to pay after Versailles, initially set at 269 billion gold marks was reduced to 112 billion by 1929 and Germany suspended paying the reparations in 1931 after having paid little of the overall sum over the past decade. In fact Britain and America gave more money in loans to Germany by 50% in the interwar years compared to what money Germany paid in reparations during this period. By contrast the French managed to repay the whole sum of her reparations by 1873!

Adding another insult to France the Prussian King William I was crowned the German Emperor in the Palace of Versailles in occupied France in 1871 as well.

However, regardless of Germany’s harsh peace treaties towards France in 1871 and Russia in 1918, or German ambition and aggression in both conflicts, it is necessary to judge the 1919 Treaty against Germany on its own merits. Previous German imposed treaties on enemies did not necessarily justify an exceedingly harsh treaty being inflicted upon Germany, and if the treaty failed to guarantee peace in the long run then it certainly would deserve some censure at least.

Remembering Machiavelli’s quote above it would arguably have made more sense (in hindsight especially) for the major Entente Powers (Britain, France and America) to have either crushed German power decisively or been lenient and hoped a post Kaiser Germany could be convinced to rejoin the international community. Instead they settled upon a far from perfect middle course for various reasons. France, unsurprisingly after having suffered the most of the three powers with 6 million casualties (1/4 of them dead) wanted to severely curb German power. Meanwhile America, which had joined the war late, suffered little, was motivated by the well meaning (though arguably naive) Wilson’s 14 points which suggested to be lenient on Germany as well as producing a more peaceful, liberal and fair post war world. Britain adopted a mid position between both extremes wanting to restrain German power but arguably did not want to cripple it given that it would upset the balance of power in Europe (perhaps cynically assuming it would grant too much power to her traditional enemy France) as well as hurting German finance and trade which the British probably hoped would help rebuild the British and international economics and finance in the postwar era.

Ultimately the peace terms did not secure France against future German power and aggression, usher in Wilson’s unlikely utopian World, or help the German economy rebuild to help world finance and economics. With hindsight a treaty that would have allowed Germany to save face, rebuild her economy but also purge her militarism would have preferable but given the anger and pain felt by the Entente Powers in 1919, as well as their different interests, this was not likely to have occurred.

What of the actual peace terms? Besides the return of Alsace-Lorraine back to France, a limited amount of German territory, with a roughly equivalent portion of population, was given to countries such as Poland, Belgium, and oddly enough Denmark which had been neutral in the war. While such losses were not beneficial to Germany they were not disproportionate and did little to hurt Germany’s population, industry or power over all. Perhaps the most galling aspect for the Germans was the creation of Poland, which was partially carved out of German territory which separated Germany proper from East Prussia and also placed Danzig (a city with a majority German population) under international control. Thus, like the treaty in general, the territorial revisions did not significantly hurt German power, but angered the German people.

Other terms of the treaty included Germany losing her colonies, the aforementioned harsh reparations, as well as military restrictions that dictated Germany could not have tanks, submarines, warplanes or an army above 100,000 soldiers. Regarding the colonies there was generally little anger considering they gave little benefit to Germany and the majority of Germans did not care about them. The military restrictions obviously angered the military establishment in Germany (which had effectively dominated Germany since Hindenburg and Ludendorff took over in 1916) and much of the German population in a society that was heavily militaristic and regimented. While it was understandable from the Entente point of view to disarm Germany which had nearly beaten a considerably numerical and material superior alliance it is obvious with hindsight that declawing Germany completely would not be realistic unless the nation was also divided up and crushed.

However, by far the most insulting term from the German point of view was the war guilt clause which put the responsibility for the war squarely on Germany. Whatever one thinks about German ambition, aggression and war crimes in World War 1 this was not completely accurate, gave no real benefit (besides propaganda value) to the Entente and more than anything else alienated and angered the Germans. Besides attempting to exorcise wounded pride and being vindictive it is hard to see what the Entente Powers hoped to gain from this.

Either way, these were the terms the German delegation was given (or dictated to) when they came to Versailles in 1919: Significant but not ruinous territorial and population losses, a limited occupation of a few cities in the Rhineland, harsh war reparations (though no worse than what they had given to Russia or France), the loss of pointless colonies the Germans did not care about, but admittedly harsh military restrictions and an insulting clause blaming the whole war on Germany. The German delegation was shocked by the terms and wanted to consult with their government in Berlin and hoped to water down some of the terms. This was generally dismissed by the Entente Powers and in a notable verbal protest one of them said “What will history say?” The response by Georges Clemenceau (arguably France’s best leader in the war) was harsh and to the point: “They won’t say Belgium invaded Germany.”

Thereupon the German delegates signed the treaty, its clauses went into effect (though many would later be revised or quashed in Germany’s favor) and according to many historians, armchair generals, and commentators the outbreak of World War 2 was now inevitable. But how realistic is such a line of reasoning? Of course good arguments can be made that the Versailles Treaty had many flaws, and was PARTIALLY responsible for the outbreak of World War 2, but the idea that it made the later war inevitable is absurd. It assumes that the conduct of nations and politicians, their policies and decisions, events, and unseen circumstances had no bearing between 1919 and 1939 on influencing the path to war. The idea that one treaty alone could pull history and humanity by the hair screaming without the latter having any say or chance to influence events is illogical to say the least.

To take a few examples, that would be like suggesting the Franco-Prussian War led to World War 1 simply because of French resentment over the treaty in 1871 whereas in fact arms races, alliances, realpolitik, war plans, ambitious politicians, miscalculations, and a tragic event like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand between 1871-1914 produced what was hardly an inevitable war. Or what if Rome had not taken Sardinia and Corsica after the First Punic War, had not backed Saguntum unconditionally against Hannibal, or the Carthargian military and council been more conciliatory to Rome so as to avoid the Second Punic War? Or look at the Cold War. How many times did it seem as though the Soviets and Americans would start World War 3, and an entire generation assumed they would eventually be nuked, but so many decisions, circumstances and leaders used their initiative to forego such an outcome? As the respected historian Robert Citano once said regarding war and history “What happened happened is not to say what happened had to happen.”

Small acts and quick decisions can have disproportionate effects in history! The ransacking of a French pastry shop in Mexico contributed to the French invasion of that country in the 1838, the search for an AWOL Japanese soldier near the Marco Polo Bridge was the catalyst to the start of World War 2 in Asia. Hezbollah never would have imagined that the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers in the summer of 2006 would lead to a major war against Israel and the massive bombing of Lebanon. A Kuwaiti delegation member to Iraq in the summer of 1990 would never have guessed that his insinuation that Iraqi women were like prostitutes would anger Saddam Hussein into invading Kuwait.

High officials and statesmen can also make quick and/or stupid decisions that lead to war no matter how much they would have preferred to avoid it. General MacArthur ignored clear warnings in the summer of 1950 not to cross the 38th parallel into North Korea by the Chinese while his political superior Harry Truman failed to reign him in. The new Sultan of the Zanzibar Sultanate dismissed a British ultimatum recklessly in 1896 without much thought considering his island was vulnerable to overwhelming British naval power and his country’s surrender after a mere 38 minutes made the war the quickest in history. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s declaration of a blockade of the Straits of Tiran in 1967 was made more as a sop to his people and Arab opponents than to antagonize Israel, but the latter saw it as an act of war and this led to the Six Day War which dramatically changed the Middle East.

The point being that no matter how seemingly important and far ranging certain things in history appear to be that nothing in history and human events is preordained or inevitable. The time period between 1919 and 1939 was no exception. Would any rational person or seasoned historian in 1919 have believed that a bitter, poor, mediocre Austrian artist, and former corporal named Adolf Hitler would come to control Germany and lead his nation to dominate Europe from the English Channel to the Volga? Would they believe that this relatively inexperienced uneducated upstart was capable of fooling the supposedly cultured and brilliant statesmen in Paris, London, and Washington D.C. or could out maneuver such a cynical and weathered politician like Stalin?

Keeping this in mind we should look at the events, decisions and mishaps between 1919 and 1939 with more scrutiny instead of being intellectually lazy by merely suggesting Versailles produced an unalterable timeline to World War 2. Between these two dates there was the Great Depression, Hitler’s rise to power, the Munich Conference, the Spanish Civil War, conflicts in Manchuria, Ethiopia, and China, policies to appease Germany, American commitment to isolationism, the rise of Communism in Russia, and Stalin’s opportunist foreign policy. There were treaties and agreements after 1919 that revised certain harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty, internal and foreign distractions for countries that could have confronted Hitler, countless missed opportunities to check German rearmament and prevent German expansion, and unique personalities such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Chamberlain all of which influenced the march to war.

Regarding events, there were plenty of far ranging, momentous, and decisive moments in history between 1919 and 1939 that did just as much to provoke WW2, if not more so, than the Versailles Treaty. The Great Depression is among the top of the list considering in the decade after Versailles many of its more harsh terms were watered down, Germany was recovering, and things were seemingly pointing towards peace. Yet the Great Depression crushed economies across the world, ruined millions of lives, and led to a rise in political movements and politicians that advocated often drastic methods and ideas such as Fascism, military expansion, racial hatred, etc. While some historians like to point a simple line from Versailles to Hitler his party was marginal and relatively unpopular until the Great Depression hit Germany hard and then suddenly his harsh rhetoric and revolutionary ideals had more appeal. For example, in the 1928 German election the Nazi party won 800,000 votes but in 1930 after the start of the Great Depression it won six and a half million votes in another election! And what if Hitler had been killed in his Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, or executed or imprisoned for decades instead of surviving and serving a short term. What if Hindenburg, who beat Hitler for the presidency of Germany in 1932, had not agreed to the political machinations in 1932-1933 that led to Hitler becoming Chancellor? Or what if Hindenburg had not died suddenly in 1934, allowing Hitler to consolidate power, but instead lived a few more years and kept Hitler mostly in check?

What if Japanese aggression in Manchuria and China, Italian aggression in Abyssinia, as well as the proxy war in the Spanish Civil War had not influenced the League of Nations and western powers like England and France to be distracted from the rise of the Nazis, German rearmament or fostered an increasingly hostile world environment that encouraged Hitler to be more aggressive? What if the French Army had called Hitler’s bluff when he remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936 (German forces had orders to retreat if the French Army attacked)?

What if instead of giving Hitler the Sudetenland during the Munich Conference in 1938 the French and British had backed Czechoslovakia unconditionally in the case of war? The Czech Army was strong, her defenses on the German border were said to be nearly as strong as the Maginot line, the German Army was much less effective in 1938, and Stalin was leaning towards backing the Czechs and Western powers over Germany. There was also the potential of a military coup being organized against Hitler by high officials such as General Halder who feared war at this point and some German representatives of this faction even contacted the French and British. Even had war broken out and Hitler had not backed down, the French, British, Czechoslovakia, and possibly even Russia would have had a much better chance of winning and limiting a conflict to part of Europe instead of the global conflagration that started in 1939.

What about the conduct of the great powers who could have opposed the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, German rearmament, and challenged him anytime from the occupation of the Rhineland to the invasion of Poland? Britain, France, America, and Russia missed many chances to avert war, or at least fighting one against Germany under favorable conditions that would have almost certainly resulted in the latter being defeated much easier than what actually occurred.

Even when war actually came in 1939 the British and French had most of the advantages against Germany such and manpower, troop, tank and artillery levels, more industry and resources, American lend lease, etc. As German rearmament and power peaked between Munich and the invasion of Poland this was the time the Germans had the best chance of starting and winning a war. However, it need not have come to this.

Regarding France, she is usually the most scapegoated for failing to stand up to German aggression due to her proximity to Germany, her supposedly first rate Army when World War 2 began, as well as her quick collapse in 1940. But this is extremely unfair. Soon after 1918 America retreated into isolationism, Russia succumbed to revolution, civil war, and the excesses of Stalinism, while Britain disarmed and focused on her empire. France had suffered the most casualties proportionately among these major powers, had much less population and industry than Germany, and after seeing her former allies lose interest in containing Germany the French were left to carry the bag. The fact that by 1939 the French had more artillery and more and better tanks than Germany, and the impressive Maginot Line is impressive given the population and industrial advantages Germany held.

Despite this, France made her share of mistakes (many mentioned above) which led to war. Relying on unreliable allies and the League of Nations to protect her or stop aggression are mistakes in hindsight, as was France’s missed opportunities to confronted Hitler in 1936 over the Rhineland or in 1938 over the Sudetenland. Meanwhile although the French were more likely to confront Hitler than the British in this period they still went along with appeasement even though the French Premier at the time of Munich questioned the wisdom of it famously saying after the agreement “the fools if only they knew what they are cheering.” On the other hand France deserves more credit than the other major powers because she rearmed most effectively in the late 1930s to confront Germany, and tried to form alliances to contain her, more often than Britain, America, and Russia.

Most of Britain’s mistakes overlap with France’s although the former has less excuses because she had more money, a bigger empire, did less to confront the Germans in the postwar period and did more to appease Germany. Foremost was to abandon France to confronting Germany more or less alone early on after 1918. Britain had by 1918 the biggest Airforce and Navy, and the most effective (if not biggest) Army among the Entente Powers so to leave France alone in this period was selfish and tragic. Besides appeasement which ranks high on the list, Britain also dropped the ball by refusing to close the Suez Canal to Italian supplies and reinforcements during Mussolini’s war against Abyssinia. At the least this would have crippled the war effort, and at the most signaled to Hitler that Britain could potentially oppose his aggression. Another mistake was the British-German naval agreement of 1935 (without consulting France) where the British allowed the Germans to build up to 35% of the Royal Navy’s tonnage. On one hand it seems lopsided in Britain’s favor but on the other it allowed the Germans to build far more naval forces than under the Versailles Treaty, obviously disheartened the French, and allowed Hitler to build submarines and capital ships that did a lot of damage to Britain in WW2.

America did next to nothing between 1919 and 1939 to stop World War 2. After rejecting the Treaty of Versailles and the death of Woodrow Wilson America retreated into isolationism until Pearl Harbor. On one hand history and world opinion is unfair to America because she is either condemned for being neutral or entering wars too late (WW1, WW2, Rwanda, Syria, etc.) while on the other she is accused of aggression and warmongering (rightly or wrongly) in other cases such as Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, etc. Yet objectively, if with hindsight, America’s withdrawal from European affairs, and retreat into isolationism after World War 1 had tragic consequences. If Britain and France made mistakes in Europe between both wars America decided not to get involved at all. American foreign policy showed no real influence or importance in this period regarding treaties, appeasement, actions, policies, etc. This was also the case in Asia where America did nothing after Japan took Manchuria, invaded China in 1937 or bombed the USS Panay.

Again, those who criticize modern day American intervention and supposed militarism should think twice before condemning her anti-war and isolationism in an earlier period, but given that America, even after the Great Depression, was the world’s foremost financial and industrial power and had suffered little in WW1, it is regrettable that she did not back France’s efforts against Germany or chime in regarding Hitler’s successive aggression. It can, to America’s credit, be said that America allowed lend-lease to France and Britain after 1939, and did her best to prop up Britain when she stood alone against Germany from 1940 afterwards, but this was nearly too little too late.

What of Russia? Given her terrible losses during World War 1, the subsequent Russian Civil War, as well as Stalin’s brutal rule which included famine, collectivization, and terror campaigns against the Soviet people it would be an understatement to suggest that Russia was too busy dealing with internal matters to focus on restraining Germany in the inter-war period. This was not helped by the initial foreign backing of the White Russian forces in the Russian Civil war which saw British troops in North West Russia and American and Japanese troops in Siberia fighting Communist forces. This and the subsequent behavior of western states that treated the new Soviet state as a rogue regime unsurprisingly led Stalin to be more wary of Britain and France than a weakened Germany for most of the inter-war era. This resulted in some collaboration between Stalin and the Weimar Republic including German tank commanders and pilots training at Soviet sites such as in Kazan to circumvent German disarmament after the Versailles Treaty.

However, the coming to power of Hitler and the Nazis in 1933, along with their racist and anti-communist rhetoric and actions that were pointed at the Soviet Union (and stated openly in Mein Kampf), should have alerted Stalin to the growing danger of Germany. As Mein Kampf clearly advocated aggression against Russia, and as Hitler began dismissing the Versailles Treaty, and rearming Germany’s armed forces it was clearly in Stalin’s interests to oppose Germany. Stalin did in fact do some measures in the mid to late 1930s in such regards by backing the Republican faction in the Spanish Civil War, telling communist parties across Europe to oppose fascism, and debating backing France and Britain at the time of the Sudetenland crisis had they decided to confront instead of appeasing Hitler.

Yet in the end Stalin did nothing effective to deter or oppose Hitler and changed his focus in the late 1930s to reach an accommodation with him. With the purging of much of his military officers around this time Stalin’s armed forces were not in a great state and as Hitler rearmed, and annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia Stalin foresaw the outbreak of War between Germany and France and Britain over Poland. Thus he responded favorable to Hitler’s overtures in August 1939 and signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which made Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany de facto allies from late 1939 to mid 1941. Stalin gambled that the Western allies and Germany would bleed each other in a long war which Russia could then exploit to overrun Europe. In reality it allowed Hitler to secure his eastern flank after the defeat of Poland (and Russia’s cynical absorption of Eastern Poland) and aided Germany by Russia supplying crucial resources such as oil and wheat which kept Germany’s war effort alive from 1939-1941. Stalin’s folly was clearly seen after the German invasion of Russia in June 1941 which led to the initial destruction of most of the Red Army, the deaths of 27 million Soviet people, the overrunning of most of European Russia, and the most destructive and inhumane front of World War 2.

Therefore, rather than using smart policies to prevent German rearmament, or to contain or confront Hitler, the Great powers failed to collaborate with each other and did not act decisively on their own in such regards either. France refused to use her military when it was still vastly superior to Germany’s during crucial episodes of German aggression. Britain relied on appeasement and did not rearm sufficiently in the inter-war era. America remained committed to isolationism and played no notable role in Europe for twenty years. Russia eventually sided with Hitler only to be backstabbed in 1941. It was a combination of caution, miscalculations, selfishness, and opportunism by policy makers in Paris, London, Washington and Moscow that led to all of this more so than a treaty in 1919 that was subsequently watered down and eventually ignored.

Finally, whatever the flaws of the Versailles Treaty what if it had been enforced? What if instead of watering down terms which allowed Germany to not pay the war reparations and rearm the former Entente Powers stood firm regarding the treaty’s terms? What if Britain and France had threatened or even invaded Germany at the first sign that Germany was breaking the Treaty? What if Europe united in the instance of any clause being breached and instituted a blockade, or trade embargo, that would quickly wreck a German economy that was reliant on imports? It is far easier to strangle aggression in the cradle and the major powers could have easily thwarted German aggression at its earliest manifestation, and could have even avoided a full scale war as late as 1938. In the end it was the discarding of the Treaty of Versailles, rather than the observance of it, that led to war.

The Treaty of Versailles helped create some of the conditions which led to World War 2, but was in no way decisive regarding the outbreak of war in 1939. Hitler was not predestined to come to power and be allowed to flaunt the Treaty at will. Britain, France, America, and Russia could have followed better polices, made smarter decisions, confronted or contained Germany, and exploited several opportunities to stop a major war from starting or at least starting one on terms much more favorable for them. Unforeseen events and trends such as the Great Depression, several wars between 1919 and 1939, and the rise of Fascism created an international atmosphere that was unpredictable, dangerous, and likely to lead to major conflict. The Treaty of Versailles itself was not ideal but many of its terms were later watered down or quashed, Germany was not forced to repay much of the supposedly ruinous war reparations and in the end the treaty was never enforced to any effective degree but abandoned by the former Entente Powers and ignored by Hitler. Perhaps the last word should be given to Margaret MacMillan who authored one of the best books on the Versailles Treaty, Paris 1919, in which she wrote it would be folly “to ignore the actions of everyone – political leaders, diplomats, soldiers, ordinary voters – for twenty years between 1919 and 1939” and that “when war came in 1939, it was the result of twenty years of decisions taken or not taken, not of arrangements made in 1919.” History is not predestined by a few flaps of butterfly wings but the result of countless decisions and factors which combine for the good or ill of humanity.

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Hanson, Victor Davis. The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict was Fought and Won. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

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A Brief History of Modern East Asia

 

East Asia had an eventful and turbulent history over the last century.  With two World Wars, the fallout of imperialism, the rise of communism, and a series of deadly civil wars her historical trajectory has been anything but stable.  Looking at nations such as Japan, China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea we see the impact of these various conflicts and factors, as well as contrasting roads to independence and modernity.  Japan was the first to modernize and became the dominant power in the region until her defeat and ruin in “World War 2” only to be rebuilt as an economic powerhouse in the second half of the 20th Century.  China suffered decades of civil war, western exploitation and Japanese imperialism, the evils of Maoism but then managed to reform economically to the point she is arguably America’s greatest rival.  Taiwan enjoyed a mixed existence under Japanese occupation for 50 years followed by martial law, and “Cold War” angst, but eventually emerged as a much freer and richer society than mainland China.  Korea and Vietnam were subjected to imperialism, civil war and superpower proxy contests yet otherwise suffered two significantly different fates.  However, while East Asia’s major wars seem long ago there is much unfinished business and current issues that make the region potentially volatile. 

Japan

Japan’s last century has been remarkable, impressive and controversial.  When Commodore Perry sailed his modern American warships into Tokyo bay in 1853 Japan was a feudal, technologically backwards state compared to the Western powers.  However, thanks to hard work and brilliant planning Japan’s Meiji leaders managed to more or less catch up to the West in a bit over a generation.  Modern industry, armed might, infrastructure and education quickly sprung up around Japan and eventually produced some unexpected developments.

Japan’s decisive defeat of China in the “First Sino-Japanese War” of 1894-95 surprised the Europeans and Chinese.  Meanwhile Japan’s eventual but still impressive defeat of Russia in the “Russo-Japanese War” of 1904-05 shocked everyone and given that an Asian power had decisively defeated a Western power at the height of European imperialism suggested to all that Japan had joined the club of great nations.  Japan’s annexations of Taiwan, Korea, and various Chinese and Pacific territories from 1895 to Manchuria in 1931 provided further impetus for Japanese expansion.  Meanwhile American and European worries about the Great Depression and German militarism meant Japan’s increasing aggression in the Far East went unchecked.

However, Japan’s continuing arrogant and heavy handed behaviour in China inevitably led to the break out of the “Second Sino-Japanese War” in July 1937.  Japan had not expected war but assumed she could defeat China quickly.  This optimism inevitably faded as Chiang Kai-Shek and the Chinese people refused to admit defeat despite the loss of countless soldiers, the Japanese occupation of the coastal and industrial heartland of China, and the limited prospect of foreign powers coming to China’s aid.  Yet as time went on Germany overran much of Europe, and with Japan doing the same to China, and committing unspeakable crimes like the “Rape of Nanking,” America woke up to the growing threat of Germany and Japan.

Eventually Japan went a nation too far by annexing French Indochina and this led to America’s oil embargo, Pearl Harbor and war.  Unfortunately for Japan her imaginary superior martial qualities and fanaticism did not defeat American industry, technology and nuclear weapons.  By mid-1945 Japan’s navy was sunk, her air force decimated, her people starving and her cities reduced to ash.  After Japan’s surrender American forces occupied Japan and a new saga for the island nation began.  What would become of Japan’s extensive empire which included much of China, Taiwan, all of Vietnam, Korea and great swaths of Asia and the Pacific would be determined by anti-colonialism, communism and super power rivalry.

Yet ironically Japan benefited more from the postwar era than her former imperial possessions.  American occupation brought money, stability, democracy and freedoms, open markets and the encouragement to concentrate on economic potential in lieu of samurai militarism.  This along with traditional Japanese work ethic, and economic booms from the Korean and Vietnamese wars, helped Japan along her path to near economic superpower status (only recently has China overlapped Japan to become the 2nd economic power of the world).

Versus the Meiji period until 1945 which saw the worst vestiges of Japanese militarism and imperialism the postwar period has benefited not only Japan but the region and world via Japanese culture, trade, and stability.  However, despite such success Japan’s role in modern Asia is not without controversy.  Japan’s halfhearted apologies and efforts to compensate for “World War 2” have not brought closure to the legacy of Japanese imperialism or brought harmony regarding relations with her East Asian neighbours.  Certainly the rise of right wing nationalists and educational curriculum that either downplay, or ignore, the horrific nature of Japanese imperialism and war crimes, or even portray Japan as the victim in “World War 2,” has done nothing to help Japan’s diplomatic position in East Asia.  This can be contrasted with Germany’s laudable efforts since 1945 which have done much to sooth Europe and bring her into the fold of the European community while Japan seems destined for some time to be at the periphery of East Asian affairs. 

Korea

Traditionally Korea was a tributary state of China.  Yet after the “First Sino-Japanese War” Japan wrestled Chinese influence away but then had to deal with Tsarist Russian influence permeating there.  When Russia failed to compromise with Japan over Korea and Manchuria the two nations went to war which led to the decisive victory of Japan in 1905.

This knocked Russia out of major influence for East Asia for four decades and gave Japan the dominant role in the region.  A few years after the “Russo-Japanese War” Japan annexed Korea which remained a Japanese possession until 1945.  Japanese rule was harsh, exploitive and cared little about Korean culture, freedoms or livelihood.  Having secured Korea from Russian and Chinese influence Japan exploited her position in Korea to eventually invade Manchuria and then expand war into China in 1931 and 1937 respectively.

Korea’s postwar fate was decided at the Tehran conference when America essentially bribed the Soviet Union into entering the war against Japan a few months after the defeat of Germany by promising territory and perks in East Asia.  Russia’s brief role in the war in the Far East was to invade Manchuria, and Korea, to defeat the considerable Japanese forces stationed there.  This had the desired effects of weakening Japan, and along with the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, convinced Japan to surrender in August 1945.  

The division of Korea in 1945 was not made by statesmen or generals but junior American officials in the field.  On their own initiatives they suggested to the Soviets they should divide the occupation of Korea at the 38th parallel and remarkably the Soviets agreed and stopped there considering they could easily have proceeded south and conquered more of the peninsula before significant American forces arrived.  For the next 5 years abortive attempts were made to unify the nation but the northern communist part and the authoritarian southern one could not agree and thus Korea remained divided.

Within 5 years the Soviets had strongly rearmed North Korea while the Americans neglected the South’s armed forces.  With Stalin and Mao, who had just came to power in China, gambling that America would do nothing North Korea was encouraged to reunify the Korean peninsula by force.  Yet surprisingly, even to American officials and allies, Truman decided to make a stand for South Korea and so the “Korean War” started in June 1950 and lasted three years.

Despite being America’s forgotten war of the 20th Century the Korean conflict was actually more bloody and dirty than the “Vietnam War” and closer to starting superpower conflict and nuclear war once China intervened.  However, in the end, despite the see saw battles that went up and down the peninsula for the first year the war ended in stalemate near the 38th Parallel.  Both sides claimed victory; America for saving South Korea, China for saving North Korea, but at the time it was not really a win for anyone (especially the bombed out, suffering Koreans).

Yet in the long term the war obviously benefitted South Korea and America more than North Korea and China.  Within a few decades the South threw off the yoke of oppression and stagnation and moved towards democracy and economic prosperity while the supposed communist utopia continued onwards to the path of Stalinism, poverty and decline.  America gained credibility by coming to South Korea’s defense while Mao’s China was labelled a rogue state for a generation.

Looking at Korea today no objective person would conclude the Orwellian rogue state with nukes in the North is a better nation, or has a better way of life, than her democratic and prosperous neighbour to the south.  However, the unfinished business and legacy of the “Korean War” and the potential, if unlikely, prospect of nuclear war in East Asia are constant reminders that more than 100 years after the “Russo-Japanese War” Korea is still a major flashpoint for the world’s great powers.  On one hand North Korea with nukes is really no less dangerous than Stalinist Russia or Maoist China but certainly the North Korean armed forces could inflict widespread damage and death on South Korea.  However, the supposedly crazy leaders of North Korea have rarely been true believers of spreading communism and have no death wish to fight America to the death.  Rather they often use their only trump card, nuclear weapons, to gain economic and political concessions from other nations, and provoke the West and their allies to threaten the regime in Pyongyang just enough so that it can justify its cruel military dictatorship over its starving and oppressed people.  Frankly it is the same routine Arab despots and monarchs use rather than attempting democratizing and reform but unlike them North Korea has nukes and thus world opinion usually listens when in reality she is a paper tiger.

Since the war ended in 1953 North Korea has done some missile launches, and made bombastic speeches, but besides shelling a few islands has never really come close to going to war with South Korea and America.  Whatever the cost for the latter, a war would hurt North Korea much more and the regime’s leadership would gain nothing in potential aid, and concessions, and arguably cease to exist at the end of hostilities.  Thus it makes sense for Pyongyang to sabre rattle once in a while to remind the world of her existence but pull back from the brink before warfare which would destroy her.  However, admittedly one poor miscalculation on either side, or the actions of a crazy warmonger in North Korea, could destroy this balance and ignite a devastating war in the Far East.

Vietnam

Perhaps Vietnam’s modern history is the most controversial regarding East Asia.  Vietnam was conquered by France and absorbed into French Indochina in the 19th Century.  Before this, Vietnam had traditionally been a tribute state of China and had often combatted Chinese attempts at dominating the Vietnamese peninsula.  Either way French colonial rule was typically exploitive, cruel and benefited few Vietnamese.  The exception were some Vietnamese that were cultivated to help the French rule and many of these were sent oversees to France for education.  This included Ho Chi Minh and ironically rather than cementing French rule the exposure to French education and the ideas of freedom, equality and liberalism, as well as the exposure to communist ideology, created a small cadres of Vietnamese committed to overthrowing French colonial rule.

Initially these forces had little success and had to operate underground until the Fall of France in 1940 and the subsequent Japanese penetration into, and ultimate annexation of, French Indochina.  Calling themselves the Viet Minh these communist forces used the decline of French power and Japanese oppression to expand their base and mobilize people to their causes.  Much like Mao’s Communists in China they did not do much fighting to hurt the Japanese in “World War 2” but they did gain enough strength to give them a position of strength by the time war ended in 1945.  After Japan surrendered Chinese Nationalist forces occupied the North part of Vietnam, while British forces occupied the South, as the Viet Minh tried to declare Vietnamese independence, and established their own government, before the French returned to reclaim their erstwhile colony.

However, the French returned in force and after futile negotiations war broke out between the French and the Vietminh in late 1946.  What could have remained a limited conflict became a proxy war in the “Cold War” for two reasons.  Firstly, the rise of the PRC in 1949 (a friendly communist neighbour to the north) benefited the Vietminh massively regarding aid, weapons and safe zones which allowed them to not only survive French armed force but eventually produce their own regular army to fight them head on.  Secondly, despite America’s initial wish to destroy colonialism after 1945 the Americans eventually backed the French efforts in Vietnam due to their increasing fears of communism.  Often this is viewed cynically but given that between 1945-1950 there were communist insurgencies in Greece, Malaya, the Philippines, that the CCP triumphed in China and that there was communist backed forces fighting in Korea and Vietnam suggests there were legitimate reasons for America to fear the growth of communism.

Thus Chinese aid allowed the Vietminh to survive and then build up their forces to successfully fight the French while American aid allowed the French to continue their doomed empire in Vietnam for another decade.  In the end the French killed more Vietnamese but never won over the populace or defeated the Vietminh politically, or militarily, and after the Vietminh won the unexpected victory at “Dien Bien Phu” France’s political will to continue the war collapsed and she sued for peace.

Yet rather than securing all of Vietnam due to their victory, the Viet Minh had to accept the division of the country (like Korea) between the communist dominated North and a more pro-west, American leaning, but still authoritarian southern regime.  In all the drama, and poison of the battle of history regarding the ensuing “Vietnam War” it is often forgotten that while North Vietnam being more rural, agrarian, and pro-communist the South was more urban, cosmopolitan and leaned towards the West.  Communist sympathizers and others suggest the South was just as pro-communist as the North, but numbers and events do not bear this out.

For instance, during the “French Indochina War” the vast majority of the Viet Minh bases, recruits and sympathy were in the North while few of these, and none of the main battles, were in the South.  Additionally, after the 1954 agreement at least a million inhabitants fled from the North versus perhaps a tenth of this number from the South who emigrated the other way.  Then there is the fact that when well led, equipped and motivated the South Vietnamese army did well and resisted the communist forces against her.  In 1968 it helped American forces fight off the “Tet Offensive,” in 1972 it fought off the Easter Offensive and even in 1975 it fought well despite America abandoning her.  After 1975 two million Southern Vietnamese refugees fled the country and many experts believe that near the end of the war less than 30% of the South’s population welcomed communism.  All of this illustrates that Vietnam was more than a proxy war between America on one hand and Russia with China on the other; it was also a bitter civil war.

Either way after the division of Vietnam in 1954 the promised elections and attempts to unify the nation (again like Korea) never happened and thus both sides inevitably drew closer towards war.  With France gone America continued to support South Vietnam and her corrupt, authoritarian regime, hoping it would improve while the North Vietnamese grew tired of waiting and eventually supported communist insurgents in Southern Vietnam (the Viet Cong).  Unfortunately, while the South Vietnamese generally did not support communism their government in Saigon was admittedly more corrupt, less motivated and not as determined to prosecute a do or die struggle compared to the Communist North.  

During the next decade the North would continue to support the Vietcong with arms, supplies, recruits and even NVA Army units (always violating Cambodian and Laotian neutrality) and by the mid-1960s the South was clearly losing the battle against communism.  Much ink had been spilt about American objectives, methods and failures in Vietnam but the war was not an aggressive war against Vietnam or even North Vietnam.  Rather, much like Korea and Taiwan, America was invited by a government with a mostly anti-communist population to save her from communist aggression.  Whatever rights and wrongs of the conflict, America’s objectives were strategically defensive to prop up an ally and never to rollback communism in North Vietnam.

Yet if American goals were mostly noble her execution of the war was less so.  While North Vietnamese excesses were generally worse than that of America (not to mention grossly forgotten by many histories of the conflict) there is no doubt that American reliance of firepower, strategic bombing, head counts and conventional military sweeps did result in disproportionate collateral damage, civilian losses and frankly war crimes.  It is a myth that America lost the military struggle in the war; America never lost a battle of any consequence.  However, by failing to cut off North Vietnamese aid to the Vietcong, the lack of focus on protecting the South Vietnamese population and increasing their standard of living, and the ultimate failure to support South Vietnam after America left in 1973 meant that all America’s efforts were vain in the end.  

The political, and therefore ultimate, goal of America’s war in Vietnam was to keep South Vietnam independent and non-communist.  Any way you look at it, America failed to accomplish this so she lost the war.

However, America’s loss has been overstated.  America suffered a political and diplomatic defeat by the “Vietnam War” but besides the “credibility gap” in America the effects were eventually limited.  In reality, the war hurt worldwide communism more.  During the conflict Russia and China competed more and more and even got into a brief border war which accelerated the Sino-Soviet split which Nixon used to get China into the Western camp (by far worth the loss of South Vietnam in a cold realpolitik sense).  More ironic was the war between Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1970s, and the war between Vietnam and China in 1979 (all between communist states who had supported each other during the war).  Thus the “Vietnam War” not only corrected relations between America and China but helped divide world communism.

The long term effects are harder to articulate but it is interesting that in modern times Vietnam is not growing closer to China but to America which again suggests that whatever the latter’s flaws she is often seen as more benign, or less intrusive, than strong powers in Asia like Russia, Japan, and China.  It should be remembered that while Vietnam’s conflict with America occurred over a few decades the Vietnamese determination to resist Chinese hegemony has been an ongoing theme for centuries.

As for Vietnam herself it has to be admitted that unlike Stalinism, Maoism, the killing fields of Cambodia and other Red unpleasantries that Vietnam’s form of communism has been less bloody and oppressive (in the long run at least) in comparison.  There are similarities to China like more openness to economic reforms and capitalism and while democracy is not seen on the horizon the people enjoy relative happiness and cohesion comparable to Tito’s former Communist Yugoslavia.  That said, the Vietnamese people do not benefit from the relative freedom, prosperity and standard of living compared to those in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan which begs the question of how South Vietnam would have turned out if America had not abandoned her but stood by her like these other nations.  

China

In a bit over a century China has gone from a divided, backwards and foreign dominated nation into perhaps the second strongest country in the world.  Meanwhile her economic growth rates and influence are growing while fears about American decline seem more and more credible given the vicissitudes of the Trump administration and the apparent moral, and cultural, decay of American society.  If the 20th Century was America’s the 21st Century may still belong to China.

With Japan’s unexpected victory in the “First Sino-Japanese War” China’s Qing Dynasty attempted some reforms to modernize its increasingly backwards nation.  However, these were often halfhearted, late in the day, and given the poor communications and divided state of China these had little positive effects by the time of the Chinese Revolution in 1911.  Ostensibly China became a republic under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen at this time but given that China was in reality divided into many small pieces controlled via warlords his power was limited and eventually he and his Kuomintang party (the Chinese Nationalists) were forced from power.  

The Warlord period followed as Sun Yat-sen and his acolytes attempted to gain power via alliances, force, or machinations over the next 15 years to little avail.  However, they were aided by the new communist regime in Moscow and the Chinese Communist Party who both felt they could initially ally with Sun’s Nationalist Party to first gain power in China and then expend the Nationalists later.  With Sun Yat-sen’s death in 1925 his loyal, stern, and incorruptible subordinate Chiang Kai-shek won the power struggle to be his successor.  He soon convinced the Nationalists, and their CCP allies, to expand across China to defeat the warlords and unify the nation against foreign and domestic enemies via the “Northern Expedition.”

In a few years the Nationalists advanced to Wuhan, Nanking, Shanghai, and Peking, defeated or co-opted warlord factions and unified China in principle.  However, despite becoming the strongest force in China the Nationalists were beset by many problems.  Many warlord forces refused to collaborate with them, the Japanese fought Chiang in Northern China, the country was still broke and backwards, and the united front with the CCP broke down.  Admittedly, Chiang Kai-shek initiated this break with the CCP with a bloody purge in Shanghai and elsewhere but the evidence is clear that the CCP, with Moscow’s backing, were planning to betray the Nationalists eventually.

For the next decade, the “Nanking Decade,” Chiang and the Nationalists fought warlords and the CCP, appeased and sometimes fought the Japanese, sought foreign aid and recognition, and attempted to initiate widespread reforms, modernization, and industrialization in a divided nation with little stability, money, and military power.  The surprise is not that they failed often, but that they survived at all!  There were some successes such as the near destruction of the CCP by 1936, the German aid that led to some Chinese rearmament, and trappings of modernization in Chinese urban areas, but given the many domestic and foreign enemies of the Nationalists, among other issues, the circumstances were hardly ideal to modernize China, build a strong state, or improve most Chinese lives.

Perhaps Chiang’s worst foes were the CCP and the Japanese.  However, while Japan’s army was by far the strongest threat Chiang was convinced the CCP was the main enemy.  As he once remarked “the Japanese are a disease of the skin, the Communists are a disease of the heart.”  This statement would appear to be as laughable in 1936 as it would be prophetic in 1949.  

The turning point for the Nationalists and CCP was the “Second Sino-Japanese War,” often seen as the beginning of “World War 2,” which began out of mistakes, miscalculations and overreactions.  The war was long, brutal, and ultimately hurt the Nationalists as much as it saved the CCP.  China’s coastal, industrial, and urban heartland were occupied by the Japanese, millions of Chinese were killed, maimed or became refugees, and the Japanese committed unspeakable war crimes which Japan often denies to this day.

Chiang and the Nationalists until recently have received generally poor treatment by history for their conduct of the war but much of this is unfair.  It is true that the Nationalists often made poor military decisions, that their officers and soldiers were of mixed quality, and that there was plenty of corruption, nepotism, and incompetence among their war effort.  However, considering China was a divided, backwards, and poor nation without the benefit of significant foreign aid, fighting a major power this should not be surprising.

What is not true are the accusations that the Nationalists usually refused to fight the Japanese, that the CCP fought the Japanese more than the Nationalists, that America and the allies gave sufficient aid to the Nationalists, and that Chiang was not a team player in the allied war effort.  In reality, the Nationalists fought hopeless battles all the way from Shanghai to Chungking, killed the majority of Japanese soldiers in China, suffered over 90% of all militarily casualties (while the CCP generally stayed on the defensive), and even conducted campaigns to help the allies in Burma despite the latter failing to honour their commitments to Chiang via weapons, lend lease, and promised military operations.  Many histories of the war mock Chiang Kai-Shek as a parasite for lend lease, but China got less of it than all major allied powers (even the Free French) and most of what it got was not to help the Chinese but to support American forces stationed in China.  

While admittedly it was the American advance across the pacific, along with her submarines, bombers, and nukes that defeated Japan the Chinese deserve credit for never surrendering, keeping the majority of Japanese divisions in China, and holding out for more than 8 years of war (China fought in “World War 2” two years longer than Britain and four more years than Russia and America).

With the Japanese surrender in 1945 Chiang Kai-Shek had survived, and China was recognized as a great power, but the Nationalists had been severely weakened by years of warfare.  Meanwhile the CCPs, although admittedly still behind the Nationalists regarding soldiers, population, and territory, had ended the war in a much stronger position than they had enjoyed in 1937.  In the postwar race between the Nationalists and CCP to retake China’s cities from Japanese occupation the Nationalists generally won thanks to major help from American ships and airlifts.  The exception was Manchuria which the Russians had occupied in the summer of 1945 and who collaborated with the communists to take over once the former’s forces left.  Indeed the fight over Manchuria between the CCP and Nationalists would determine the outcome of the final part of the “Chinese Civil War.”

In lieu of Japan’s surrender Chiang invited Mao to Chungking for talks to potentially make peace and create a coalition government, but due to irreconcilable differences and deep rooted hostility, this failed and civil war quickly ensued.  Chiang’s forces had significant numerical and material advantages and at first his army routed the CCP and was seemingly on the brink of winning a decisive victory in Manchuria.  Unfortunately George Marshall had been sent by Truman to arrange a cease fire and American pressure halted the Nationalist’s offensive in mid-1946.  Whether or not Chiang could have beaten the CCP by solely military means is questionable but this was his best chance to do so with hindsight.

After this, the Nationalists committed themselves to occupying as much of Manchuria as possible and given the sheer distances, logistical issues, and the guerrilla tactics of the CCP, it slowly wore down Chiang’s forces until late 1948 the CCP was strong enough to begin routing the Nationalist forces and eventually overrun mainland China.  Committing to an all-out strategy to contest Manchuria would prove to be Chiang’s biggest mistake, would cost him mainland China, and is strange considering how in the past he had always known how to play a poor hand against strong opponents.  Although given the insurmountable postwar issues facing the Nationalists including rampant inflation and the cutting off of American aid in 1946, along with considerable Russian support enjoyed by the CCP, perhaps the Nationalists were doomed once war broke out anyways.

In October 1949, Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in Beijing and was committed to invading Taiwan (where the Nationalists had fled) the next year to finish the civil war comprehensively.  Unfortunately for Mao in the summer of 1950 Truman ordered American naval forces to defend Taiwan in lieu of the “Korean War” which saved the Nationalist regime and to this day Taiwan is independent from the mainland’s rule.

With the triumph of communism in China in 1949 Mao had fulfilled the Chinese dream that for decades hoped to unify the country and end foreign imperialism and humiliation of China.  The fact the KMT had accomplished most of this prior to their defeat in the civil war was conveniently forgotten.  Either way with indisputable power, backing from the Soviet Union, and a Chinese population eager to follow him Mao sought to modernize China, create a communist state, and reach utopia.

To his credit Mao improved infrastructure, healthcare and education, and initially enacted widespread land reform to redistribute land to China’s massive peasant population.  Had Mao been a more moderate and humane communist like Tito his legacy would probably be more positive.  However, being vindictive, zealous, and paranoid he inevitably turned what he hoped would be paradise into hell on earth.

In a series of anti-rightist campaigns Mao killed, or ruined, countless people.  The CCP’s occupation of Tibet and Xinjiang were also exceedingly bloody and repressive and to this day the Tibetans and Chinese Wiguars generally resent Beijing’s rule.  Worse of all, Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” and establishments of communes (which took back the land the CCP had given to the masses) not only failed to increase agriculture and industry but resulted in the deaths of 10s of millions via famine and other causes.  Estimates are controversial but up to 70 million people died from the “Great Leap Forward” but even if the number was half, or a third, as much it is still ridiculously more than either the Nationalists or Japanese inflicted on China directly or indirectly.  

After this, Mao lost some power and credibility for a few years but in a bid to comeback he initiated the “Cultural Revolution” which destroyed much of the progress that had been remade since the end of the “Great Leap Forward.”  Using his Red Guards Mao persecuted teachers, parents, intellectuals, among others and brought progress and modernization in China to a halt once more.  While the death toll was not nearly as high as during the “Great Leap Forward” Mao’s campaign was clearly not a receipt for progress or the path to becoming a great power.

Most cynically of all Mao made a de facto alliance with America in the 1970s against the Soviet Union (her communist brother).  When Mao died in 1975 he was respected as a great politician and strategist, but given his butcher bill and policies that stagnated Chinese progress, economic growth, and industrialization for a generation, he cannot be considered a great man of history.  Certainly Taiwan did much better under Chiang than mainland China did under Mao.  Had Mao’s backwards and bloody-minded policies been continued after his death, instead of the necessary reforms by Deng Xiaoping, it is clear that China would have continued to decline instead of rising to near superpower status.

Fortunately after Mao’s death, his wife and other Maoist acolytes, were expended as Deng Xiaoping came to power and sensibly opened up China’s markets and initiated economic and limited political reforms. The result being that after a generation of these changes, supported by succeeding rulers in Beijing, has not resulted in a liberal democratic, China but has at least made her the world’s second biggest economy, improved the lot of many Chinese, and made China into a great power. 

In modern times China’s economy continues to grow and the CCP still has a monopoly on power despite the Chinese being more willing to show dissent but the future remains an “undiscovered country.”  On one hand America, with a slowing economy, as well as political, social, and cultural malaise seems destined to decline unless some moral rejuvenation occurs.  On the other hand pollution, corruption, political upheaval, separatist sentiment, and demographic issues are much worse in China than America while the latter stills has advantages in immigration, innovation and freedom and it is not a given that China will eclipse America as the world’s strongest nation.  Certainly most of China’s neighbours generally still prefer American protection to Chinese hegemony and given the considerable contradictions of CCP rule it is hard to see a politically communist, but economically capitalist regime stealing the mantle of world leadership.

It is hard to predict the future but this author at least thinks China’s police state will implode before America’s very imperfect democracy.

Taiwan

Taiwan is an interesting case study.  Unlike Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and China her history has been relatively bloodless (with notable exceptions) during the past century.  Becoming a de facto Japanese possession after the “First Sino-Japanese War” Taiwan admittedly received some modernization and industrialization under their Japanese overlords (much like Manchuria after 1931).  Many Taiwanese after 1945 contrasted this with the initial heavy handed conduct of the Nationalists, especially given the “February 28th Incident,” and unsurprisingly were unhappy with the massive influx of Chinese from the mainland after Chiang’s loss in the civil war in 1949.

This, along with the Nationalists’ imposition of martial law which lasted for decades and the “White Terror” certainly warrants some pause regarding the praise of Chiang Kai-shek versus Mao.  However, it is beyond dispute that modernization, industrialization, standard of living and general freedoms were much better in Taiwan under Chiang than Maoist China.  The “White Terror,” though ultimately unforgivable, was peanuts compared to what Mao did to the mainland Chinese.

Fast forwarding to today it might be charitable to suggest that Chiang envisaged the sort of liberal prosperous democracy that is now Taiwan, but at the same time his actions paved the way towards this, especially given the later stewardship of his son, and unlike Mao there were few comparable terrible bloodbaths, famines, or pointless excesses in Taiwan versus China.

However, there is unfinished business over Taiwan due to the fact Beijing has never accepted Taiwan’s independence, the significant military and strategic boost Beijing would get via absorbing the island nation, the fact that Taiwan’s success provides an alternate model to Chinese Communism, and the American alliance with Taiwan which, real or imagined, restricts Chinese influence in East Asia.

There seems no reason given the freedom and prosperity of the Taiwanese people, along with the decline of the Nationalist party in Taiwan, to believe there will ever be a reunification with the mainland and it is just as unlikely that China will try to conquer Taiwan by force so the status quo will probably continue indefinitely.  However, mistakes, miscalculations, or the actions of a firebrand aggressive leader in Beijing could upset this and arguably result in a cross strait war that involves the United States.  

Results 

What were the ultimate results of imperialism, communism, “Cold War” rivalry, the attempts at modernization, and independence for these nations in East Asia?  

European and American imperialism initially created the colonial states of East Asia but also inadvertently pushed Japan onto her own path towards modernization and imperialism.  This, along with the rise of Soviet Russia helped create communist underground movements that gained in numbers, and power, in many Asian nations after Japan’s conquests from 1937-1942.  The costs of “World War 2” which weakened western colonial empires such as the British, French and Dutch, combined with the anti-colonial agenda of America after “World War 2,” resulted in the de facto fall of imperialism in East Asia between 1945-54.

With a power vacuum opened by the departing Europeans it became a contest between America and the Soviet Union to gain these nations for their side.  Unsurprisingly Russia, backed communist groups including Mao’s CCP in Northern China, the communist regime in North Korea, and with the fall of China to communism in 1949 the PRC and Stalin backed the Vietminh against the French and later North Vietnam against South Vietnam.  Meanwhile America effectively dominated Japan, backed the French and later indigenous regime in South Vietnam, gave mixed aid to Chiang Kai-Shek in China, but eventually saved him in Taiwan and came to South Korea’s aid after having failed to arm her effectively against her northern neighbour.  

Eventually the result were prosperous, democratic and pro-American nations in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan on one hand, and an united Communist Vietnam, Orwellian nightmare in North Korea, and politically repressive but increasing prosperous China.  At the risk of sounding ethnocentric, and western biased, a case could be made that the American backed nations have done better in terms of freedom, economic progress, and most other indicators of good governance like healthcare, happiness, and accountability.  Communism has already shown itself to be a failure compared to democracy, or even capitalism, everywhere else in the world so why would it be better in East Asia?  The life expectancy, standard of living, pollution, corruption and police state nature of the communist states compared to their democratic counterparts does not exactly promise a long term recipe for winning the battle of history. 

Against this can be mentioned the collapse of American allies like the Nationalists in China as well as South Vietnam.  The charge that the communists were more efficient, less corrupt, and more dedicated in China and Vietnam than their enemies is ultimately correct.  However, foreign aid is often a crucial difference and while American aid at least saved Taiwan, South Korea and Japan it is notable that America prematurely (or perhaps foolishly) cut all significant aid to South Vietnam after 1973 and gave little to Chiang Kai-Shek in the last years of the “Chinese Civil War.”  It goes without saying that in these cases Mao and Stalin did not hold back crucial aid for their allies.   Additionally, the usual diatribes against corruption, motivation, and supposed incompetence has not only been directed against South Vietnam, and the Nationalists in China, but also regarding the formerly authoritarian regimes in South Korea and Taiwan.  Yet with long term American backing, and the chance to rebuild and reform, these latter nations are now democratic and economical models.  It is futile to debate what could have been, but South Vietnam and Nationalist China never got the best chance to go down this road because American policy makers, along with an American public tired of war, decided to cut off aid and abandon them.

As of 2018 there are no shortages of problems plaguing East Asia:  Japan’s refusal to come clean about “World War 2,” China’s rivalry with America and her longstanding issue regarding potential Taiwanese independence, North Korean nukes and the lack of peace with South Korea, and Vietnam’s uneasy relationship with China, remain stumbling points towards more peace and collaboration in the region.  Meanwhile the unpredictable, unreasonable, and maladjusted Trump administration in America throws another complication into this potentially volatile mix.  On one hand East Asia, in modern times at least, is more peaceful and better off politically and economically since before the “Opium Wars.”  On the other hand, it could take only one crisis along with miscalculations (such as the summer of 1914 in Europe), or one firebrand and crazy leader (like Hitler in 1939), to upset the balance of power or plunge the region into war.  None of this is likely, nor would it benefit any of East Asia’s nations.  But it happened in 1914, as well as 1945, and it could happen again.

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