Even When China and the US Were Allies, Chinese and Americans Struggled to Get Along

The following is a guest blog post by Zach Fredman, author of The Tormented Alliance: American Servicemen and the Occupation of China, 1941–1949, available now wherever books and e-books are sold.

Ties between China and the United States have deteriorated to their lowest point since the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1979. But Sino-U.S. relations have always been fraught. Even when their two countries were allies, Chinese and Americans struggled to get along with one another. In The Tormented Alliance: American Servicemen and the Occupation of China, I examine the rise and fall of the U.S. alliance with Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China during World War II and the Chinese Civil War, when more than 121,000 American military personnel deployed to China. Even before Mao Zedong defeated Chiang’s forces in 1949 and established the People’s Republic of China, anti-American resentment became a powerful force in domestic Chinese politics. 

Chinese and Americans had high hopes for their alliance against Japan. With little to offer the Americans militarily after four years of war, Chiang’s government launched massive programs in 1941 to house, feed, and provide interpreters for the U.S. military. Chiang did not devote scarce resources solely to prove his commitment to the alliance. Though signaling the government’s commitment was an important goal, Chiang saw these programs as solutions to a fundamental question of China’s search for national rejuvenation: How could China convince Americans to treat Chinese as equals? The Americans, for their part, wanted to reform the Chinese military along U.S. Army lines and provide other models for the Chinese government to emulate—efforts welcomed by Chinese military and civilian elites.

Rather than convincing Americans to treat Chinese as equals, Chiang’s programs produced relations of hierarchy and fueled tensions in the alliance. American servicemen found Chinese interpreters wanting in linguistic proficiency and Chinese government-run hostels deficient in terms of food, hygiene, and comfort. Many GIs also treated interpreters and hostel staff as second-class citizens in their own country. Shortcomings in the Chinese government’s administration of these programs helped convince U.S. military commanders that Chiang’s government was incapable of managing its own affairs. By spring 1945, Chinese interpreters and hostel workers were walking off their jobs to protest alleged mistreatment at the hands of American servicemen across the country. 

The U.S. Army’s efforts to increase the fighting efficiency of Chinese armed forces also came up short. General Joseph Stilwell, who served as commander of U.S. forces in China and Chiang’s chief of staff, devoted his tenure to wresting control of China’s armies away from Chiang. U.S. Army advisers complained endlessly about the poor condition of Chinese recruits, while more senior American commanders blamed nearly every problem they encountered on corruption in Chiang’s government and officer corps. Meanwhile, as Chinese troops gained combat experience in the jungles of Burma, they grew tired of playing second fiddle to U.S. Army logistical and support troops. Violent confrontations between Chinese and U.S. forces occurred almost daily during the last few months of the war. 

Chinese and Americans each brought to the alliance expectations that the other side was simply unable to meet. For the Americans, these frustrations created conditions in which racist abuse and violent misconduct against Chinese civilians flourished. When American servicemen first arrived, Chinese civilians lined the streets to welcome them. But in early 1947, hundreds of thousands of Chinese demonstrators took to the streets across the country to demand that U.S. forces go home. 

The U.S. military presence in China in the 1940s left a complicated legacy. The Americans helped to end the Japanese terror-bombing of Chinese cities and keep Chiang’s government in the war. The U.S. military also played the largest role in Japan’s defeat, which Chinese themselves recognized. The alliance, meanwhile, paved the way for the end of America’s Chinese Exclusion policy and extraterritorial legal regime in China. But from Chinese perspectives, the alliance eventually became a widely loathed occupation. Americans came to China to help put an end to foreign imperialism, but by the time they left, they were identified not as advocates of independence, but as sponsors of bigotry and obstacles to consigning foreign imperialism in China irrevocably to the past. 

Zach Fredman is assistant professor of history at Duke Kunshan University.