By injecting itself into restive China, Japan unwittingly became an antagonist at all three levels of the conflict by becoming a participant in the Chinese civil war, a counterbalance to Russian influence within the region, and as a force that threatened, along with Nazi Germany, to undermine an international system that Western states were indisposed to abandoning.
With masterful succinctness, Paine manages to distil the leadership battles within Japan, the impact of the Great Recession and the Western refusals to (in Tokyo’s eyes) give it the autonomy it deserved and in doing so weaves a narrative that remains captivating throughout, something that cannot be said of all history books. One of the book’s strengths is its short length — 487 pages, but of those, 170 are for a chronology, endnotes and a bibliography — which makes her treatment of the subject as concise as it is rewarding. Those who seek a blow-by-blow account of all the battles will need to look elsewhere.
Paine’s ultimate objective, and one that she achieves with brio, is to depict the interactions between the three levels of the conflict. Although there is nothing novel in using a multi-layered approach to analyzing conflict, Paine does so in a way that is very helpful, especially in her treatment of Tokyo’s inability, which ultimately proved disastrous, to adjust its strategies in ways that reflected all three levels. In doing so, Japan managed to antagonize every one of the main protagonists in the region, which meant that instead of fighting enemies sequentially as it wanted, it ended up facing enemies on a number of fronts (Moscow did much better in that regard). With Japanese imperial forces already overstretched in an unwinnable war on the Chinese mainland, Tokyo not only succeeded in bringing Russia and the US into the conflict, but allowed Moscow to strike what Paine calls “the most successful act of Soviet diplomacy between 1917 and 1991” by convincing Chiang’s Nationalist forces to cease their campaign of annihilation against the communists and make common cause, if only briefly, against Japan.
Following Japan’s inevitable defeat — hit by US naval successes, the nuclear detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the threat of 1.5 million Russian troops — Paine turns, or returns, that is, to the Chinese Civil War, which runs through the entire narrative like a long thread. One of the many achievements of the book is the author’s ability to demonstrate how the shadow of the Civil War always hung over everything else, with Nationalist and communist leaders adjusting their strategy for fighting the Japanese with the eventual resumption of the Civil War clearly in their minds. Chiang rarely sent his best troops to fight the Japanese, while Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) communists — official communist propaganda notwithstanding — only played a minor role in the mobilization against Japan, instead conserving its forces to fight the Nationalists.
Paine concludes her book with an analysis of the factors that led to the Nationalist’s sudden demise in 1949, prompted in part by a highly successful propaganda campaign by Mao and the inability of Chiang’s government to make the necessary reforms. Not unlike Jay Taylor in his seminal The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, Paine’s portrayal of Chiang is more generous than other recent accounts of his failings and makes a convincing case about the immensity of the challenges that he and other ROC leaders faced in modernizing their country amid civil war and foreign invasion.