Civil war between the Nationalists and Communists and the Nationalists and warlords had been raging intermittently in China since 1927. Following the Japanese takeover of Manchuria and incursions into north China, these two factions arranged an uneasy truce, but underlying the Chinese military effort during the war was the realization of the prominent role played by the military in Chinese politics. Then too, by the end of 1942, Chinese leaders, including Nationalist leader Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) and Communist leader Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), believed that the United States and its allies would defeat Japan. Given this belief and their own ardent conviction that a powerful military establishment would be essential in winning the postwar political struggle for power that was bound to follow, they planned (or rather, did not plan) their military moves accordingly. This approach meant, for the most part, avoiding contact with powerful Japanese forces, much to the exasperation of such individuals as Jiang's army commander, U.S. Army Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell.
The Nationalist Army
The army had always been central to the power of the Nationalist Party—the Guomindang, or GMD (Kuomintang, or KMT). The National Military Council (NMC) controlled the military establishment; Jiang was its chairman, with complete power over the NMC, and as such, he directed all Nationalist military forces. At the beginning of the war, these numbered about 1.5 million men.
In the 1930s, the German government had sent military advisers to China to help train the Nationalist Army. In consequence, the Nationalist Central Armies were patterned more or less along German lines. Throughout the period, these were the best trained of the Nationalist forces, although still inferior to Japanese or Western forces. At the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Central Armies numbered about 300,000 men. Included in this body was "the Generalissimo's Own," a force of some 80,000 men: armed with German weapons, it was the elite force of Jiang's military establishment. In addition to these relatively well-trained formations, there were some 1.2 million men in other units of indifferent training and capability. Though Nationalist senior leaders were often corrupt and not well educated, the middle ranks—trained at the Huangpu (Whampoa) Military Academy in Guangzhou (Canton), Guangdong (Kwangtung) Province—were capable. Most Nationalist soldiers, however, were conscripts, dragooned into service, and of low quality.
In the summer of 1941, the United States extended Lend-Lease aid to the Nationalist government, although the bulk of the early assistance went toward improving transport to China over the Burma Road from India. This route was cut off when the Japanese invaded Burma in force in early 1942, and it was not reopened until 1945. In the meantime, much of the U.S. military aid to China was flown in over the Himalayas ("the Hump"). Tonnages by air gradually increased, but heated arguments occurred over the allocation of these still inadequate resources. Not until January 1945 was the Ledo Road (later known as the Stilwell Road) opened to China.
Chinese Communist Army
According to the agreement whereby the Nationalists and Communists would make common cause against the Japanese, Chinese Communist forces in north China came to be designated the Eighth Route Army, authorized to a strength of three divisions. In 1938, the Nationalists also authorized formation of the smaller New Fourth Army in the lower Changjiang (Yangtze) River region.
The Chinese Communists refused to allow any Nationalist political authority in areas they controlled and denied the Nationalist side their military resources. Communist military forces were controlled by the Military Affairs Committee, which was responsible to the Communist Party Central Committee. Through the war, Mao chaired this committee.
Although the Communists' equipment was not on a par with that available to the Nationalists, their military leadership and training were both superior, and their morale was significantly higher. Unlike the Nationalist forces, in which many of the men taken into the service were removed to other areas and forcibly kept there, Communist forces remained in their own areas and were seen by the people as a positive force, even helping them with crops and looking after their welfare.
Meanwhile, Communist forces grew far beyond the numbers authorized by the Nationalists, although little expansion occurred after midwar, both because the Communists endeavored to improve the quality of their forces and because of Japanese "pacification" campaigns and Nationalist military actions. Nonetheless, at the end of the war, Mao could claim an army of about 1 million men, with reserves and local-level militia forces numbering an additional 2 million.
Collaborationist Armed Forces
The Japanese also organized collaborationist armed forces in the areas of China occupied by their troops. These highly unreliable forces were drawn from a variety of sources under a wide range of motivations. Some local commanders obeyed whichever side seemed ascendant at the moment. Nominally at least, many of these forces belonged to the Nationalist side. In the early 1940s, collaborationist forces might have numbered some 900,000 men.
Nationalist forces suffered most heavily in the first year of fighting the Japanese, especially in three months of struggle for Shanghai and the subsequent effort to defend Nanjing (Nanking) in Jiangsu (Kiangsu) Province. The Chinese lost perhaps a million dead, wounded, or missing in the first year of the war alone. The Nationalists then withdrew into the interior, relocating the capital to Chongqing (Chungking) in Sichuan (Szechwan). The Chinese then transformed the war into a struggle of attrition, which Japanese forces, despite their superior mobility, could not win.
Although the Communist forces conducted operations against the Japanese rear areas and some large-scale conventional offensives, the brunt of the fighting that then occurred was borne by the Nationalist Army and warlord forces loyal to Jiang. In the eight years of fighting through 1945, the Nationalists suffered more than 3 million casualties, while inflicting up to 2 million casualties on the Japanese. They were never able to gain a decisive victory over their antagonist, but the Chinese tied down significant numbers of Japanese forces until the end of the war.
In January 1941, the Chinese united front was severely damaged when the Nationalists attacked the Communist New Fourth Army. Open war now broke out between the Nationalists and the Communists. The fighting in China was henceforth a three-way contest. The Nationalists were no longer able to launch major offensives against the Japanese, but they were in a relatively secure position in central China. The Communists had also been weakened in fighting against the Nationalists and the Japanese, but they maintained control of large areas in north-central China. The Japanese, with a great expenditure of troops and material, were only in control of the line of communications and were dangerously overextended in China even as they widened the war by attacking the United States.
Aside from grudgingly providing a small portion of their troops to General Stilwell to assist in the Allied recapture of Burma, Nationalist forces did not conduct any major actions from 1942 until forced to defend against Japan's August 1944 ichi-go Offensive. That offensive was precipitated by the establishment of U.S. air bases from which the United States could conduct strategic bombing raids on the Japanese home islands. The real battles for the Nationalist and Communist forces came in 1945 over Manchuria and marked the beginning of the Chinese Civil War. J. G. D. Babb and Spencer C. Tucker
Eastman, Lloyd E. Seeds of Destruction: Nationalist China in War and Revolution, 1937–1949. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1984.; Harries, Meirion, and Susie Harries. Soldiers of the Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army. New York: Random House, 1991.; Wilson, Dick. When Tigers Fight: The Story of the Sino-Japanese War, 1937–1945. New York: Penguin, 1982.
J. G. D. Babb and Spencer C. Tucker