More than two years before German tanks blitzed Poland and four years before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, what some historians consider the start of World War II occurred in China in 1937. The country’s eight-year war with Japan sowed the seeds for the attack on Pearl Harbor but ultimately contributed to the Allied victory in the Pacific—at an incredibly high price for the Chinese.
China-Japan Relations Before World War II
For decades after the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894-1895, China and Japan remained uneasy neighbors. With China engulfed in a civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s ruling Chinese Nationalist Party and Mao Zedong’s communist forces, the Imperial Japanese Army invaded the resource-rich region of Manchuria in northeast China in 1931 and installed a puppet government
An imperialistic Japan further encroached into northern China in the ensuing years as the nationalist government continued to view Mao’s communist fighters as a greater threat. Only after communist generals held Chiang captive for two weeks in December 1936 did he reluctantly agreed to an uneasy alliance with the communist forces against Japan.
As tensions with China rose, on July 7, 1937, Japanese soldiers conducted nighttime training exercises 10 miles southwest of Beijing near a stone bridge named for the 13th-century Venetian merchant Marco Polo. After Japanese Private Shimura Kikujiro failed to return to base after becoming lost in the dark following an unscheduled bathroom break, Chinese guards refused the Japanese entry to the adjacent town of Wanping to search for their missing comrade. The standoff turned violent, and what became known as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident proved the spark that ignited the Second Sino-Japanese War.
The Second Sino-Japanese War
Within weeks, the technologically superior Japanese forces seized Beijing. They captured the commercial hub of Shanghai in November 1937, but the fierce battle it required made it clear that China intended to mount a resolute defense.
The Imperial Japanese Army responded to the Chinese resistance with increasingly brutal atrocities, the most notorious of which occurred after it entered the Chinese nationalist capital of Nanjing (or Nanking) in December 1937. Over a six-week span, the Japanese military massacred between 200,000 and 300,000 soldiers and civilians and sexually assaulted tens of thousands of women.
As Japan pressed south and west in 1938, a Chinese defeat seemed inevitable. “They have no allies, they have no arms and they have retreated to the interior of China,” says Rana Mitter, author of Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945. “Both the Chinese nationalists and the communists are on the run.”
The war, however, increasingly turned into a stalemate as Japanese forces made little progress beyond the port cities and urban…
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