Book Review: A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman and the Birth of Modern China, 1949

Book Review: A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman and the Birth of Modern China, 1949 by Kevin Peraino

In 1949, Chen Yong was an idealistic boy in his teens, his military uniform too large for him, cheering in Beijing as Mao Zedong declared that the People’s Republic of China was born.  Now, he is an old man who fondly remembers those early days, even as his memory of the specifics fades.  It was a tumultuous year, not only for China itself, but for its neighbors and the far off United States of America.   The response of America’s government, as led by president Harry Truman, would have a long-lasting effect on world politics.

A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman and the Birth of Modern China, 1949

This book covers that pivotal year, from Madame Chiang’s desperate mission to the States to raise sympathy and funds for the Nationalist cause, to Mao’s solidification of his alliance with the Soviet Union.  It covers the major players, Generalissimo Chang, Dean Acheson, Secretary of Defense Johnson, and a Congressman from Minnesota named Walter Judd, who led the “China bloc” that tried to draw Truman into direct military support of the Nationalists, or at least giving them much more money.

Some of the people involved get much more attention than others–there’s a full description of Madame Chiang’s family life and childhood, but her husband is picked up only when he becomes involved with her.  (The Generalissimo spent much of the year semi-retired before deciding to evacuate to Taiwan and consolidate his forces there.)

There’s also considerable time devoted to what Truman had intended to do with his time as president, as opposed to what reality had in store for him.  Sometimes, universal peace and brotherhood have to be put on hold.

Reading about Chiang’s behavior as he rose to power doesn’t make me think he would have been that much better as China’s leader than Mao–it was an early of example of supporting terrible people in office for the sole reason of being anti-Communist.  Sadly for the Chinese, Mao turned out to be a better general than practical economist or agriculturial planner.  Plus, he let his personality cult overwhelm any real reforms.

The writing is college-level, and the vocabulary sometimes gets a bit pretentious.  All Chinese names use the modern transliteration.  There are copious end notes, with explanations of where sources differ, a small photo insert, bibliography and index.

This book is primarily valuable as a snapshot of one particular issue at a particular time– the serious scholar will want to pair this volume with a more general history of China, or a full biography of one of the major players.   That said, I recommend this book to those interested in the starting point of Red China and how it got that way.

Manga Review: Showa 1944 1953 a History of Japan

Manga Review: Showa 1944 1953 a History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki

Shigeru Mizuki was one of the oldest (born 1922, died 2015) still-working and most respected manga creators in Japan.  Though he is best known for children’s horror comics such as GeGeGe no Kitaro, Mizuki also has written extensively for adults.  This is the third volume of his personal history of Japan.

Showa 1944 1953 a History of Japan

The first half of the volume covers the last bit of World War Two from the Japanese perspective, and Mizuki’s personal experiences as an infantry grunt in Papua New Guinea.  After the failure of Japan’s invasion of India, and the successes of the Allies in the Pacific War, it is clear that the war had gone sour for the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, but Japan’s military leadership still believed they could pull a victory out of these difficult conditions.

On the ground, the military tried to keep up troop morale by emphasizing the idea of a “noble death”, taking as many Allies with you as possible rather than surrender or retreat.  Mizuki survived by mere chance when his unit was ordered into a suicidal charge.  He and the other survivors were considered an embarrassment to the brass, and their ill treatment became fictionalized as Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, which I previously reviewed.  Unlike his fictional counterpart, Mizuki survived even the worst, developing malaria and losing an arm.

Despite his condition, Mizuki was not repatriated to Japan until 1947, now under American occupation.  General Douglas MacArthur and GHQ wanted to reform Japan and get it back on its feet, which among other things meant giving it a new constitution that prevented it from ever again going to war.  New freedoms were the order of the day, until the occupiers realized what people wanted to do with those freedoms and began restricting them again.

Over a decade of war and its privations had ruined Japan’s economy, and all the returning soldiers didn’t help.  As a disabled veteran, Mizuki was worse off than many others.  Personal tragedy struck when his brother was imprisoned; the same deeds that had made him a war hero to the Japanese made him a war criminal to the Americans.

The Red Menace and the Korean War finally were the cause of Japan’s economy beginning to grow again as the Allied forces used it as their staging ground and pumped millions in aid into the area.  Meanwhile, Mizuki had gone back to art school and become a kamishibai artist.  (These were one-man shows where an entertainer would show pictures and tell stories to an audience, selling candy and snacks.)   The advent of regular television was swiftly killing off the old ways, however….

The history is narrated by Nezumi-Otoko (Rat-man), one of Mizuki’s famous creations (joined by cameos of his fellow yokai monsters.)  It’s mostly a visual convention as he does not act in his usual character.  The art varies from cartoony to photo-realistic, sometimes on the same page, depending on the desired effect.

This is powerful stuff, depicting the horrors of war and occupation, and a few brief moments of peace and joy wrested from their  midst.  There’s some nudity, and mentions of rape and prostitution (nothing about Mizuki’s own sex life–it’s possible he simply didn’t have any to speak of in this period.)  I would suggest it to no younger than senior high students, and even then advise caution.

There’s an introduction by manga scholar Frederik L. Shodt, and end notes explaining who many of the historical figures are, and other useful details.

Despite its disturbing nature, this will be a valuable volume for history buffs and those who want more information on the decade or so covered in this book. Highly recommended.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...